I’m grooving on agency.
When words are your jam, it’s satisfying to have the right word. And agency is the right word for what matters to me in one… ok, two… of my spaces. Not the “insurance agency” definition, but the third one down: action or intervention, especially such as to produce a particular effect. I have been raising some girl-children. And I have been volunteering with Girl Scouts, for longer than I’ve been raising children. Conclusion: I am invested in building young women into leaders. True! But I’m interested in the part that comes before that.
I observe that people who are accustomed to agency step into leadership easily. Whoa with the jargon, right? I’ll come at it again. Here’s what I see:
Children learn by practicing, by attempting things multiple times—walking being the easy one to notice, and bicycle-riding coming in second, noticing-wise. But this is true for more than physical skills. The more times a behavior happens, the easier — more fluent — it gets. Whatever that behavior is. So what’s the behavior for agency? Being the person to make things happen.
Making things happen is an activity that adults do quite a bit of. One could argue that making things happen is the hallmark of adulthood; witness how I made myself get out of bed this morning. But making things happen is not necessarily an activity that children experience regularly, especially making things happen from one end (idea, concept) to the other (completed result). Now that I mention it, I bet that unstructured play includes agency practice… but that’s a research question for another time and place.
Kids, especially ones whose time is full of structures like school and sports, aren’t practicing agency. Not their ideas. Not their plans. Not their timing, nor roadblocks of their own making. Not their satisfaction of standing at the end, thinking, “Hey! I did that!” Or dissatisfaction when standing at the end, thinking, “Well, that was a waste. I won’t do that again!”
Agency is at the core of a great Girl Scout experience. “Girl led” is girl agency, over and over and over again. Starting in small ways with quick payoffs for the five-year-olds, but growing larger and longer as the practice stacks up over the years. Girl Scouts end up being leaders in their communities because they have agency practice. They say to themselves, “I can make this happen,” not “I am in charge.”
Well, that’s all snazzy. How does it happen? How does that work?
The long answer is enfolded in the thirteen years I spent leading a single Girl Scout troop. Six of the troop’s girls began with us in kindergarten or first grade…a heck of a lot of time to practice. Time matters when one’s developing a skill. But I think I can distill it into something more blog-sized:
Give plenty of room for failing.
I mean this in a particular way, though. I’m not advocating the cruelty of dropping a young person in a situation they don’t have resources for, then saying, “Sucks to be you!” metaphorically or literally. I want their resources to be at hand—if they ask for them.
I also want enough room for the kid with the Really Big Idea! to describe the vision, begin the plan, and—scaffolded by a few judicious adult questions (“Wow. How do you think you’d get the materials for that?” “Is there anyone we might need to check with before we begin?”)—figure out for herself whether the plan is something she can proceed with at this moment in her life.
Why should I be the one to say, “No, that won’t work,” when with a little time on my part she can see it for herself? And then she has the practice in *having the idea *beginning the plan *thinking through the possible problems *delivering the envisioned or adjusted outcome. Besides, I might be wrong.
Really, there is far less risk in this kind of failure than adults reflexively think. Very seldom, if one thinks carefully to the end, are there long-term injuries involved. A missed breakfast? Most of us are well-enough fed to live through that. Unexpected occurrences that have to be handled? Outcomes that don’t match the misty vision? Those are common enough in the rest of life, and they don’t stop us in our tracks.
It is this plan-to-finish experience, repeated many times, that transforms a young person into a builder in her community. When you have many memories of turning an idea into a reality, the world is a much less daunting place. You stop shrugging and saying, “Nothing can be done!” You know something can be done. You ask yourself, “Is this something I want to tackle?” You think, “How shall we begin?” You roll up your sleeves, and exercise your agency.
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