340. The Politics of Permission

As adults, some of us develop a pretty good idea of the politics of permission. Once, for example, a fellow teacher asked for my advice about whether to ask a supervisor for permission to take a day off. I said no. I said calling in sick would be both more expedient and more polite. It would be a little dishonest – all right, thoroughly dishonest. But this teacher had no personal days left, and asking for permission to take the day off would be asking someone else to bear the burden of that dishonesty, or to petition the hierarchy for a waiver. And since the day off was necessary anyway, it could eventually end up in either dishonesty or docked pay. So I recommended that this teacher bypass the bureaucracy and lie.
Children don’t take long to start learning about the politics of permission. At first, they may make some mistakes, asking Mom when they’d be better off asking Dad, or asking the teacher when they’re more likely to get a good response from the student teacher. And sometimes, if they ask the wrong one, they try again, incurring some wrath, maybe causing adults to argue. Adults who communicate well are harder to trick; they’ve already come to some basic agreements about policy. But there are no fail safe systems, and so children do sometimes get what they want by knowing which adult is a better bet.
And sometimes asking anyone at all isn’t a good idea. Sometimes figures of authority are going to say no, either because they have to or because they want to, and it’s better not to ask. Some people in charge want to know everything that happens, and have the final say about everything. Others would rather only know what they have to know. We want our elected leaders to be responsible for all decisions made during their administrations, but sometimes that means knowing how to hire people who will make good decisions. The leaders are still ultimately responsible; the buck stops on the elected leader’s desk. But the buck has been elsewhere.
I remember being criticized for what I “let” children do. From my point of view, I wasn’t letting them do all that they did, but from children’s point of view, if they could find ways to do things that were worth whatever consequences I’d arranged, I was giving implicit permission. I was in charge of making sure that anything that happened was at least acceptable to me. If not, I was “allowing” it.
I’m not recommending that we set up police states for either children or adults. Some things that we may not officially sanction are going to happen, and some of them should happen. Not all of our rules are necessarily well-conceived. But it’s good to know which of our limits are flexible and which are absolute. And knowing that, it’s good to make sure that adults who share power with us and children over whom we have power also know.

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