Sudbury Valley is an incredible place. Literally so, in that many people just don’t believe that any school could be so pleasant and well-functioning. At least not until they have seen us in action.
The aspect of our culture that surprises and astonishes so many people is how thoughtful and respectful everyone in the school is. One hears gracious words like “thank you” and honest inquiries about others, more often at Sudbury Valley than just about anywhere else. One sees people offering heartfelt support to every person they encounter in the school.
In September each year, when the school year starts, I become especially conscious of how kind the community is. Every year, the first day seems even better than the first day the year before. The returning students are excited and enthusiastic to see old friends, catch up with one another, and rekindle common interests. But they are also (and especially) excited and enthusiastic about the new faces; not only welcoming and kind, but proactive in getting to know new students.
How is this? What generates such thoughtfulness in our students? I’d like to suggest three key and related factors that contribute to the kindness and consideration which are hallmarks of the school.
Students at Sudbury Valley don’t have to hurry through life. Unlike children in so many other places, they can relax and explore within their community without fear that their time will come to an abrupt end. Bells will not sound, telling them that it’s time to sit down and listen passively to a particular adult. They have time in a community of their peers.
When one looks at the day-to-day lives of most children in traditional schools, one sees people ruled by time. A great deal of rudeness and even bullying seems to stem from having little time for oneself. Even that is budgeted among activities identified by others as significant, and in order to maximize time on those activities, the bully acts brusque and engages in behavior likely to make anyone distracting him/her go away.
With time, comes time for other people.
That time with other people leads to a genuine interest in other people. With sufficient time, that interest is not lessened but intensified when meeting people who have very different interests and ways of understanding the world. Communication in such an environment blossoms into its full potential.
Communicating with others makes people aware of their surroundings, and makes understanding of others deeper and fuller; and not only those particular others that they have spent a lot of time with. It gives some real depth to the golden rule, expanding it from a semi-narcissistic “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” into something broader and nicer, closer to “do unto others as is reasonable for them to want you to do unto them.”
Serious communication is key to respecting other people.
Rights and personal power
Respect towards other people goes hand-in-hand with trust of other people. Trust, of course, means trusting others to have power, at least vis-a-vis themselves. It means that you accept that those other people are just as able to make decisions for themselves as you are to make decisions for yourself.
Respect means agreeing that the other person -- by virtue of being human, not because you have been magnanimous -- has rights which you may not compromise. The Sudbury Valley School culture recognizes people in the school as having certain rights simply by virtue of being people. The school does not see itself as having granted those rights, and there is an understanding that the school cannot (ethically) infringe on those rights.
When people are trusted with power and respect, they have incentives to live up to that trust. They do not face frustration from having been denied what they know is rightfully theirs. When people’s own rights are recognized, they can recognize others’ rights without jealousy. There is even a self-serving desire to respect others’ rights, to make sure that nobody else ever has an excuse to infringe on their own rights. That respect for personal rights, and personal sovereignty, stops others from deciding for others what would be right for those others to do.
A Culture of Kindness
I believe these three elements are key to a culture of kindness. People at Sudbury Valley have the time to be kind, they have enough experience communicating to be able to have true empathy, and they have enough respect for others that they do not become bossy.
What other elements contribute to the culture of kindness and respect at Sudbury Valley?