How It Feels To Send Your Kid To a “Free” School

(edited from a presentation to the Cascade Valley School Assembly)

Over the years, we found that the parents who choose to send their children to Sudbury Valley School very few things in common. They don’t seem to come from the same socio-economic class. In fact, most of them seem to be impossible to “class”ify at all; certainly it is impossible from the cursory amount of information we collect from them. Clearly, however, there are always more parents who struggle to pay our modest tuition than parents who find it easy.

They also have widely different standards for all sorts of categories of behavior in their homes, or at least so they and their children tell us.

Very often they turn out to be parents who would not ordinarily be sending their children to private schools; that is to say, they are the kind of people who generally feel that private schools have an odor of elitism about them, and they find that odor unpleasant.

However, what our parents do share is an overwhelming desire to do the best they possibly can for their children. Even though they might be people who only questioned the process of public schooling because their children forced the issue, they are not people who accept the status quo in child rearing or in education.

We have written extensively about what happens to kids who have had all or part of their education at Sudbury Valley. It is also pretty obvious that their parents examine their own lives in many of the ways that we feel any Sudbury Valley student must do over time. That in itself is enough to scare away many parents who are not willing to accept this challenge. I think this willingness to undergo intense re-examination of their own lives is one of the few generalizations we can make about our highly individualistic parents.

So, let us say that someone has examined the philosophy of Sudbury Valley, feels confidence in their child’s curiosity and judgment, and decides to enroll that child. One might hope that the enrollment would signify the end of anxiety; that the decision to put full trust in the child’s judgment would be a relief to parents.

And it is a relief. But it also isn’t. This is a quote from the text (printed in the November Newsletter) of Will Twombly’s presentation to an informal Assembly meeting. Will is the parent of a teenager in his second year:

For Alex, the philosophy of this school made so much sense that coming here seemed like second nature. For us, however, slow learners that we are, the decision was much more an act of faith than one of reason. Molded by our parent’s values, our own educational experiences, and the predominate thinking of today, it was clear that in order to be “good” SVS parents we would to let go of many deep-rooted expectations of what education should be. We needed to get in touch with what we felt really mattered about school, and disregard the rest. This reorientation process hasn’t been easy, and has offered a number of terrifying moments, as well as some extremely happy ones. I realize that in many ways hope is merely the flip side of fear. We hope that something good will happen, while fearing that it won’t. Some days one face of the coin is up, other days the opposite side is showing. This contributes to a pretty exciting ride on an emotional roller coaster, especially where SVS is concerned.

None of us lives in a vacuum. Everyone has friends, relatives, parents, sometimes other children, who feel that allowing a student so much freedom is tantamount to telling that child that no one cares what happens to him/her. Most everyone is in a workplace or a neighborhood in which such a brave decision is treated as a sign of abdication of the responsibilities of parenthood. And the very same people who might hesitate to tell us if they thought our child had been nursed for too long, or put in day care too early, or not forced to sleep through the night, have no trouble spending a great deal of time denigrating the educational philosophy with which we, as parents, are trying so hard to align ourselves.

Partly that is comforting. It opens up many forums for discussion. But partly it isn’t, because a lot of the people one has these discussions with are working from a very small amount of information—mostly from the tops of their heads or from what you have haplessly told them—or from a position in which many of their beliefs are threatened. A lot of the people each parent knows are sure, totally positive, that the structure of education that is most familiar to them—and it will almost always be a variation of the structure that most children are in today—is the only possible one that guarantees that we will not produce a generation of savages, ignorant savages at that. They feel threatened by the idea of the loss of adult power and control that such a “free” school as ours is predicated on.

But of course we too feel threatened. There we are, open for attack from all of those other people who already thought we were crazy, as well as from our own anxieties. It is very well to say in the abstract: “Sure, I know that my kids will grow up constantly busy learning things. I understand that to be the human condition.” But then when the things your kid spends time doing—perhaps Nintendo, or playing games in a tree, or poring over Magic Cards for months on end—don’t look at all like the things you did in school at that age, and don’t require that they learn the capitals of the states, or how to diagram a sentence, then it is not so easy.

In fact, sending a child to such a school is a courageous and still an almost unique choice. We all want our children to have even better lives than we had, no matter how good ours was. When we think of a better life these days, we don’t usually mean materially better, because most of us have had quite adequate material lives. We mean intellectually, emotionally and spiritually better. And it is hard to keep your “eyes on the prize” of the excellent, well-examined life when the life your children are leading is one in which they can play Nintendo as long as they want, or work with clay for months on end, or read a million science fiction books, or talk to their friends on the phone for hours and hours and hours—after talking to them all day at school.

Most of us went to traditional schools. They became the tradition because society was oh-so-heavily into educating for uniformity. Now that we are adults, we have noticed that uniformity is not much of a selling point when we want to get interesting jobs, or create a work or art, or create a new idea, or create a new product, or create a new way to market a product. In fact most of us are either in creative jobs, or at least totally excited about the creative activities that fill our leisure hours, and we realize that we don’t have to know exactly the same things as everyone else. Of course there needs to be some overlap between our knowledge and other people’s; being alive in the world makes us crave for that overlap, so we go after it. Often, we look for commonality with others even in areas that are of limited interest, because we want to have things in common with people who are not just like us. That is one of the social imperatives of life.

If you are now a parent , odds are that in your childhood you were educated mostly for a world that was going out of style at the time and is becoming a distant memory now, a world where uniformity was vital to the workplace. Since my childhood the possible ways of earning a living have changed from many, to incredibly many, to no-one-can-count-how-many, because new ideas of how to spend time are invented every minute. Your kids need to be educated for a world that changes even faster than today’s world. A hard thing even to imagine. But that is why we have to allow them to use their minds in their own ways—because that will guarantee the most complete possible development for them, which will maximize their chances of succeeding in a wide-open world.

It used to bother me—actually it still does—that I had no one to turn to for help with problems once the computers we were using at school had a certain number of programs on them. The configuration became totally unique, and there were so many possibilities that no one who had not studied our system could possibly be on top of them all, and be able to help us; and maybe not even then. The kind of anxiety computer problems raise in me are the same kinds of anxieties we have about our kids. These are control issues. They are already in a world that is out of our control, all day every day, bombarded with information we hardly have a clue about. We are raising them for a world where there are less and less secure answers, and more and more possible paths, and that means such a total and necessary abdication of authority over them on our part that it is terrifying. I think every one of us who has chosen to send a child to a school such as ours has contemplated that abdication of authority, that releasing of “power”, and everyone, no matter how secure, also has some residual worries about making a mistake.

So, now that we have taken a look at some of the things that are guaranteed to make one anxious if one is the parent of a child in such a school, let’s look at the other side of the coin.

What do kids learn at Sudbury Valley? Are there any guaranties? I actually think that there are, and I think the things that can be (almost) guaranteed are the most important things of all in an explosively changing world. A student learns to concentrate. A student gets constant opportunities to make ethical judgments. A student learns to be treated with total respect. A student learns to appreciate the outdoors. A student learns to be self-reliant. A student learns to be self-confident. A student learns what it means to set a goal and reach for it, to re-assess, to reach again, to achieve the goal, or to fail miserably, and to pick him or herself up and do it all over again, with the same or a different goal. A kid learns life skills. Real life skills. The skills that it takes to be successful at marriage, at child rearing, at friendship, as well as at work.

What does it mean when I say that a child learns to concentrate? It means that the person focusses in on the interest of the moment, or the hour, or the year, and pursues that passion until it is a passion no more. Which of course also means that the tremendous let-down of losing a passion and having to go out and find a new one is a frequent companion. I see this focus mirrored in students in our school every day. I see it in the student who at 17 has suddenly developed a passion for math, and spends hours a day grinding away at it. I see it in the determination of a kid to get up into the heights of the beech tree, a goal that can take years to reach—not that the goal will be pursued, of course, every minute of every day, but more as a theme of life—constantly working on climbing skills, and constantly working on what it means to look down 15 or 25 or 50 feet and know only your skills keep you safe. I see it in the kids who constantly design and re-design Lego planes, airports, and space stations; and play elaborate games with the structures they have made. I see it in the drive to learn everything a person has to know in order to be allowed to work in the photolab alone. Or on the wheel. And I know, because I have children of my own, and because I have seen 28 years worth of Sudbury Valley students, that I see only a fraction of a percentage of what is going on, of the concentration that is happening.

One of the hardest things for all of us to see and to understand is the work necessary for a teenager who comes to our school to do what s/he has to do first; to come to grips with who s/he is. To many people, a lot of teenagers look like they are wasting their time. They just seem to spend so much time hanging out, talking, drinking coffee, sometimes even smoking cigarettes unfortunately, talking some more, driving around. Yes, they read. Yes, they are wonderful resources and usually extraordinarily kind to younger kids. But what are they doing? Part of what they are doing is forgetting. They have to forget that they spent years hearing that other people had an agenda for them that was the “best” thing for them to pursue. They have to get in touch with the idea that the person who really knows what is best for them is themselves; that they can become responsible for their own intellectual , moral, spiritual, and even physical development. That is no small trick. And, yes, a lot of the time they are squirming, suffering, struggling to shoulder these burdens or to escape from them. The adults around them believe that, in the atmosphere the school provides, the likelihood of them deciding to shoulder the burdens is as high as you can get. So we let them struggle. We let them suffer. They offer each other a tremendous amount of support. All the adults in the school can do is tell them we understand how hard it is. But what every parent must understand is that support offered from the parent must, first and foremost, take the form of confidence that the struggle will be fruitful. This also maximizes the chances for it being fruitful.

We feel that the student who grows up learning that the most productive motivations is self-motivation, that s/he can in fact learn how to fail and how to succeed has the best chance for a life that is rich. We also notice over many years of history that children given the gift of trust by their parents become closer and closer to their parents, and often the kids provide the insights and strength to work to solve family problems that have developed over time.

And students at a school like ours will surely be practiced in ethical judgments. Moral questions are the bread and butter issues of Sudbury Valley and the schools like it. This community has very high standards for ethical behavior. Standards that have forced me, over time, to raise my own. The school is run democratically. That doesn’t mean that every kid has something to say on every issue. No one polls every person in the school every time something comes up. It does mean that for every issue that comes up, the School Meeting is a forum in which each person is treated respectfully and equally, and has an equal vote in decisions. But there is much more than that. The system for solving problems that have to do with behavior involve a changing sub-group of the entire population, a sub-group with total age variation in it, that investigates, reports on, and comes to grip with dealing with, problems of a social nature. This means littering, this means irritating noisiness, this means taking another child’s cookie, this means not doing the trash when it is your turn. It also can mean more serious violations of the community norms. Each community’s members spend a great deal of time informally and formally defining these norms, to themselves and to others, till they have worked out definitions that will serve them, at least till the issue comes up again.

I would like to end with more of the hopes and fears of Alex’s father, and then with the retrospective glance of a former Sudbury Valley student:

I hope that SVS will offer some opportunities to cultivate and practice these skills. Letting my imagination run wild, I hope that when Alex is ready to leave SVS, he will move on with an empowering sense of purpose and direction. I realize that this is asking a lot. It’s certainly not something I could have done when I was his age.

Most of all, I hope that SVS will help each one of its students to find happiness deep down inside, to feel loved and appreciated, and to pass that love along to others. I don’t have too many fears about this, because it seems that this is what a whole lot of people around here are hoping for.

My very first impression when I enrolled was, “This is cool!” It was almost too good to be true. I was responsible for my own actions! That was very clear. It was clear in a lot of my upbringing too, so it wasn’t a big shock. I think my parents recognized that when they read the school literature. They knew the philosophy, but there was still some doubt. But for me, discovering how much time there was to waste or use constructively, and that I was in charge of that, was the key issue.

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