This was published in our Janury 1998 Journal; a note from Jean and Rick Leif about what their daughter is up to now has been added.
Quite a lot has been written about what it is like to be a student at Sudbury Valley School, but I would like to share some thoughts on what it feels like to be a parent of a student at SVS. While I endorse the philosophy that children can and should be responsible for their own education, to actually give over that responsibility to my own child was not an easy thing to do, especially in a society that seems to hold parents directly responsible for every facet of their child’s life.
We first came to Sudbury Valley three years ago when my daughter was 14 and looking for an alternative to the pressures of public high school. Erin immediately found the philosophy of the school intriguing, but I really wasn’t sure just how this would work with my kid, who was shy and quiet, and not extremely self-motivated. My husband and I decided to let her make the final decision, since we felt it was time for her to take more control over her life. We probably didn’t realize at the time just how much control we were giving her (as far as her education was concerned) by sending her to SVS.
Erin’s first year was definitely an adjustment period for both of us. It takes a lot of courage for a teenager to voluntarily leave her friends and go to a new school where she not only doesn’t know anybody, but has to find her niche in a very unstructured environment. She spent a lot of time reading that first year; a good thing to do, but maybe it was easier to read than to become involved in what was going on at school. She said she liked school, but we had constant arguments about what time I was going to pick her up, because she didn’t want to spend more than the mandatory 5 hours there. (She’s now in her third year, drives herself, and spends as much time as possible at school.)
I can deal with giving up control of how my child spends her time at school (how many of us with kids in public school have any control there either). I’m learning to trust my child enough to feel comfortable giving that control to her rather than a teacher. The really hard part for me is not knowing how she spends her time. Although I’m interested, Erin’s not interested in telling me. A typical conversation goes something like this: “Did you do anything interesting in school today?” “Nope.” “Did anybody do anything interesting in school today?” “Nope.” “So all of the kids sat for 5 hours staring blankly into space?” “Yes.” End of conversation. I think this is Erin’s way of making sure I don’t meddle.
The other hard part is the occasional knowing, but not approving. Erin once came home from school and told me she has spent most of the day at the mall. I’ve given my daughter responsibility for her education, and this is how she chooses to educate herself?
I guess I had an idea about the school that the kids would each find something that really interested them which they would spend a lot of time doing or learning about. I’ve seen this in fits and starts with Erin, but for the most part I think she spends her time socializing (or engaging in meaningful dialogue, depending on your perspective). I once said I hoped she was taking advantage of the opportunities at school to learn different things, and not just hanging out with her friends all day. She answered me, rather indignantly, “Hanging out, as you call it, is probably the most beneficial use of my time; that’s where I’m forming my ideas and developing my self-confidence.” I am learning that this is very true, but something inside me still wishes she would someday choose to learn geometry (fat chance!).
I also sometimes wonder if the school doesn’t work better for kids who have been there since they were very young, than it does for kids who come as disgruntled teenagers. It seems like the younger kids in the car pool enthusiastically sign up for everything that comes along.
On the other hand, listening to Erin and her friends, it’s apparent that they can all think for themselves, and they come up with some exceptionally creative ideas. I am impressed by the compassion and understanding the kids have for each other. They are protective of each other and the school, because these are the things that are important to them. They are becoming thoughtful, caring adults.
At one of the school discussion groups I attended, Alan White commented that the hardest part about being a parent is staying out of our kids’ way. I’m trying to learn to do that, and at the same time provide support and guidance, as well as trying to figure out how to rein them back in when they push the limits. Erin once said about SVS, “It’s a school for non-conformists, and I fit right in.” These past couple of years have been an education for me too, and I’m continuing to learn to be a parent of one of these non-conformists.
An Update from Jean and Rick Leif
Erin relocated to Australia in September of 2014, when her two-year stint with the New England Center for Children in their Abu Dhabi operation ended. She had been in communication with a company called Lizard Autism Services, in Adelaide, Australia. They were looking for a clinical director in their autism program. She had the educational background and work experience that they were looking for, and the job was a great career advancement opportunity.
Since then, things have worked out well for her. The use of Applied Behavior Analysis for autism treatment is just beginning to catch on in Australia, so Erin is one of the few experts over there. She is involved with training the therapists who provide the treatment to the autistic children serviced by Lizard, and managing the supervisors for the therapists, as well as speaking at pubic forums about the benefits of the ABA method and working with a couple of universities to develop Masters and PhD level programs in the field. They recently promoted her to National Assistant Director!
As you would expect, we are very proud of what she has accomplished, and although we wish she was closer to us, we’re happy that she’s on a great career path. We appreciate very much the great impact that Sudbury Valley School had on her life. You all should also feel really satisfied about the job you did preparing her to head out into the “real world”.