Do you trust adults? Do you trust children?
Show them respect and trust them to distill knowledge, discern what matters most, and make decisions.
This week, I studied a book about helping children exercise agency. And I listened to a podcast about how to lay off direct reports. As I pondered the words of the author and speakers, I realized they were both talking about the same thing: trusting others to make decisions in light of information and understanding. And I wondered whether I have unwittingly conveyed lower expectations of adults or children by not letting them make a choice.
The purpose of education, according to Dave Stuart Jr., is "the long-term flourishing of young people." In his recent book, Agency, Ian Rowe defines agency as "a power . . . that allows [young people or adults] to shape their individual response to a challenging environment or circumstance.” Rowe's book is focused on cultivating the sense in children that they have the capacity to shape their futures. Rowe advocates for this while recognizing that there are powerful systems and forces that present obstacles to individuals.
In a recent podcast, Kate Braun and Sarah Sentes, Managing Partners of Manager Tools, talked about How to Lay off a Direct. They said it was unethical for companies to lay off employees because the companies had chosen to grow faster than they could realistically afford to. Braun and Sentes lamented the practice of investors pushing startup leaders to grow by hiring a lot of staff, only to have to lay those staff off when the market didn't materialize as the investors hoped or promised it would.
In his book, Rowe describes research published in 2009 by Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins. They found that "only 2 percent of adults who graduated from high school, maintained a full-time job (or had a partner who did), and delayed having children until after they were twenty-one and married lived below the poverty line." In other words, by taking specific steps, in order, young people had "a 98 percent chance of avoiding poverty." This pattern is often referred to as the "Success Sequence."
Some adults argue against teaching the Success Sequence to young people. These adults express concern that, at least for children whose parents may not have followed that pattern, teaching may be perceived as judgment. But, when 9th graders are asked if they'd like to know about a pattern that will drastically increase their chances of avoiding poverty--and are told that some adults fear the youth will feel insulted if told--the students want to know about it. They want the adults to trust them to decide what they think about it and what they will do with that information.
As I listened to the Manager Tools podcast, I wondered if there were similar forces at play. Maybe the unethical behavior isn't growing at a risky rate and hiring people to fuel that growth. Instead, maybe the unethical behavior is hiring people without them knowing how risky the choice may be. An applicant should be told that a junior engineer position in a startup may be eliminated within a year. An applicant should be told what the compensation and other benefits of working even for that short time may be. Then, an applicant can knowingly decide whether or not to take the risk.
As a father of three young children and the sole financial provider for our family, I applied for and took a job that was funded by a grant. The grant was competitive, ended in two years, and was not guaranteed to be available again--let alone won again by my employer. I knew that when I applied. So, when I took the job, I knew that I would need to secure the grant again, advocate for and secure other sources of funding, or find another job within two years. (We did not win the grant again. Thankfully, however, I did get another job).
The next time you are inclined to narrow options or remove a difficult choice from a team member or a child--even if you believe you're acting with their best interests in mind--pause. Consider whether you're doing them a service or a disservice. You're exercising your agency to make choices, based on the information available to you. Why don't you let them exercise their agency too?