The educational value of transgression

To jump right in and lay the cards on the table, I would say that today, especially for Italian girls and boys, transgression is a luxury they cannot afford.

When I was 6-7 years old, a slightly older cousin convinced me that it was necessary for a man to try smoking.
And my first cigarette was a dried vine leaf shredded and wrapped in yellow butcher paper. I don’t remember the effect it had on me, certain it is, however, that I smoked my first cigarettes around the age of 30 and stopped less than 10 years later when I noticed that my older son was secretly smoking. Given the beneficial effect on my life of that strange childhood experience, may I suggest that parents prepare similar cigarettes for their children?

Evidently not, because that was a transgression, a violation of all family rules and recommendations, done in secret.

Instead, what I would recommend to parents is to allow their children the opportunity to transgress, and that is, enough autonomy to be able to choose their own behaviors and experiences and then take responsibility for them and the consequences.

Another childhood memory. Every day, after lunch and finished homework, people would leave the house to play. It was not a liberal attitude of our mother: it was a necessity, because four sons could not have stayed in a very small house, together with her, who on the one table had to sew, iron and cook. Our mother, too, was afraid of traffic and gypsies who could steal children (even eighty years ago this was believed, although not a single certain case has been proven so far, as the Ministry of the Interior claims); however, these fears did not question our autonomy, but placed it within a
framework of rules: rules of space, behavior and time. One had to be home by 7 o’clock; if one returned at 7:30 the next day, one did not go out. Then you would try to go back to 7.05 and if nothing happened that would become the new limit and when that was consolidated you would force it again.

What does “free time” mean?

First of all free from other commitments such as homework or other afternoon activities. But also free from direct adult control, because this is the condition for children to “engage” in play.

And “play is enjoying wish fulfillment through risks,” said
Françoise Dolto
. Through risks, through potential transgressions. And with an adult accompanying and supervising, risks cannot be encountered.
One of our childhood games between males and females was the doctor’s game, with obvious exploratory interests to get closer to the mysteries of our differences, a game that was certainly transgressive but important for getting to know each other and for getting to know each other. And with an adult accompanying and supervising, you cannot play doctor.

Readers will remember the famous page in Gianni Rodari’s book Grammar of Fantasy where a 5-year-old boy invents the story of Parolina Ciao that begins, “A child had lost all the good words and was left with the bad ones: shit, poop, asshole.” Another case of transgression, this time verbal, possible in a school, such as the Reggio Emilia preschool, in which children felt free to transgress.

Transgression and education

I think the most important professional discovery in my life was one related to a mistake made by my eldest son when he was about three years old. One day he said, “Santa, I found out.”

When I tried to figure out where this strange error could have come from, I had to acknowledge with amazement and almost concern that the only possible explanation was that my son, along with all children his age, at age 3 could conjugate verbs, and because uncover was of the third conjugation, it made “correctly” uncovered.

This transgression of my son opened my mind, made me realize that the whole educational project on learning to read and write was absurd and humiliating. And from there began a long journey in which I continue to be engaged.

Mistakes are always valuable transgressions in the hands of a curious and willing educator. But transgression is one of the most interesting and most important channels of knowledge because it is driven by curiosity, the desire to try new, possibly unexplored paths. And of course it is related to risk, an essential component of the game.

When Celestin Freinet listed “Free Text” among his techniques, he was suggesting it as a window open to children’s experiences, those freely lived outside of school and home, in their free time.

It was a chance to bring to school in a short written story, something they had experienced or observed that had particularly affected them. It was a school that wished to be open to the lives of pupils, to the adventurous and often transgressive lives that could provide rich accounts of their discoveries, emotions, and feelings.

And here we have to get to the most important part about the value and meaning of transgression, the part that is up to adults, educators, both parents and teachers.

I am talking about the necessary surrender on their part of their plans, their expectations, their agendas so that their children and pupils can be themselves, what they were born to be and what no one can know,
neither children, nor parents, nor teachers, except by respectful and passionate research work.

Why: “The child is not the property of the parents, the school or the state. When it is born it has the right to happiness“. With these words Mario Lodi began his speech at Alma Ata in the Soviet Union in 1976.

Why do I call this attitude a transgression?

Because it forces the family to disobey their own expectations, giving up wanting their son or daughter to engage in their parent’s favorite sport, to choose first the school and then the job they think are more suitable for a trouble-free life, to want them to think as they do about politics, religion, the way they dress, and even with respect to which team to root for. It forces civil disobedience at school: to give up the security that school curricula, textbooks, and goals give in order to approve or reject.

But, teachers will contend with me, laws, regulations, compel compliance with these rules.

It is not true. And I feel I can serenely support it because in front of regulations, educational reforms, school curricula I do not put my own pedagogical ideas or those of other authors who share them, but the law of highest legal value to which we can refer, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since it is an international treaty, it binds all states that ratify it to abide by it, and if necessary to amend their ordinary laws, should they advocate behavior different from that stated therein.

It also has another great value to refer to this law because it is the most recognized international treaty ever and therefore gives binding directions to all states in the world.

I am referring not so much to Article 28, which deals with the right to schooling and guarantees “compulsory and free primary education for all, to ensure equality of opportunity for everyone,” but to Article 29.

Because this article deals more generally with the right to education and thus involves the family and school in the same obligations. It states, “The States Parties agree that the education of the child shall have as its purpose:

(a) to foster the development of the child’s personality as well as the development of his mental and physical faculties and aptitudes to their full potential.”

It seems absolutely clear to me: the purpose of education is not to bring children and pupils to achieve the expected results, but first of all to help each of them discover their mental and physical aptitudes and then to offer them the appropriate tools to develop them in all their

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