Supporting Your Child in a Sudbury School

This presentation took place at Jerusalem Sudbury School, on April 18, 2013.

Every infant is, at birth, a complete person. An inexperienced person, yes; but complete. Each has wants and needs and desires peculiar to him. Some are more comfortable around strangers than others; some are more interested in watching peoples' behavior; some are more interested in the behavior of objects; some are quieter than others; one's favorite toy is not another's favorite toy; and the list goes on. The child's mind is emphatically not, as some have held, a blank slate.

But most child rearing in the modern world rests on the assumption that children are all the same. Traditional schools are designed around the idea that the child's mind is a blank slate. If children did come into the world knowing nothing, then perhaps it would be possible for intelligent experienced people to design the perfect curriculum that will make any child into an ideal human being. That is exactly what traditional schools try to do.

Once one accepts the evidence of her own eyes, that each child is born with a personal individualized set of interests, talents, wants aand needs, the idea of a single one-size-fits-all curriculum becomes ludicrous. When we accept that there are differences between people, it becomes absurd to think that a shirt collar which fits me will fit you--and far more absurd to think that a particular course of study could fit any two of us just as easily.

Once we recognize that each child is different, it becomes clear that a parent must work to figure out how to relate fairly and respectfully to the new person living in his home. And then, on seeing that a healthy child has a strong desire to understand and master the world, it becomes clear that each child knows better for herself what will be valuable in her quest to understand and navigate the world, than any outside person could. Effective parents work to provide a loving home--a supportive place where the child's efforts to educate himself are allowed to proceed unencumbered, even (or especially) when those efforts don't look like they are educational.

When allowed to use their own time as they wish, children eventually start seeking to widen their experience and understanding of the world, of places and especially people outside of the home. Sometime between the ages of three to six--with somewhat different timing and patterns based on the character of the specific child--healthy children start to seek the company of their peers, away from their home, for greater and greater parts of each day. Some modern parents fear that this desire by their young children is a rejection of them, but it is not; it is a desire by the child to understand those parts of the world outside of his home, and to begin to grapple with questions of personal power and responsibility.

It is important to understand what home is, to a child. First and foremost, it is a loving and nurturing place; just as it is for the child's parents. It is a place where each member of the family can expect support. A child's home is, hopefully, a peaceful and restful place in his life. But the experience of the home is different for parents and children. Parents have a special responsibility for the home--it is generally their work which formed it.

Because of their special responsibility, and the fact that they were members of the family before the child was even born, parents cannot help but to be the ones who set the tone and feel of the household. I don't care how old you are; when you live in your parents' home it is always the parents' culture which pervades, organizes and informs the household. The fact that the home belongs to the parents is a key part of why it is a safe place for the child. It is never possible to be anything but a guest in your parents' home.

When children start seeking communities outside of the home, it is at least in part because they need to experience what it is to build and own a culture themselves. Remember that building and maintaining a healthy home and household culture is key to adult happiness and survival. So of course children build their own mini "households" with friends, when away from their parents--they develop and practice all sorts of ways to keep the peace with their friends and work together with those friends for their collective benefit.

So now we come to Sudbury schooling. When your child is enrolled in a Sudbury school, the first thing that you have to realize is that the school belongs to him. It is his culture. Your sons and daughters are the builders and protectors of that culture.

Do staff build and protect that culture, too? Of course they do. But remember that the students vastly outnumber the staff. And remember that the students select their staff just as a town might select its civil servants--the School Meeting is perfectly willing to stop contracting a staff member who does not serve the common good of the school, and to take on the task of seeking and recruiting new staff. This means that the building and maintenance of the culture rests squarely on the students' shoulders.

I will not pretend that it is easy. Just as adults struggle to pay their bills, the whole School Meeting struggles to see that the school can pay its bills. In a home, the adults form and maintain a culture about how disagreements are resolved; in a Sudbury school the School Meeting has to form and maintain a culture about how disagreements are resolved. How people address one another, how awkward situations are handled, what jokes are not OK to tell--these are all aspects of culture, with countless others, that are negotiated by living in a community and working to build and maintain understandings between one another.

When the child comes home, she comes back into the family culture--built and maintained primarily by the efforts of her parents. But when she is at school, she has the hard task of keeping her place pleasant and safe. When you visit the school, you are the guest, and your son or daughter is the host. This suggests at least two things about the role of parents in a Sudbury school.

First, when your child comes home, you must realize that he is coming home from a hard day at work. It may be fun and fulfilling work, involving a lot of sport, in a supportive community, but it is still work. Your child comes home expecting to unwind from the work, and enjoy the support of his parents, just as they come home from their respective jobs hoping to have peace at home. When your child complains about this-or-that from school it does not mean that she is ready to quit school, any more than the fact that you complain at work about this-or-that means that you are ready to quit work. Although sometimes advice is sought, when someone is relating a problem at work he usually wants a sympathetic ear rather than advice about how to handle his co-workers. And when your child answers the "what did you do at school today" question with "nothing," what he is expressing is akin to your frustration at describing your day at work today to someone who doesn't know all of the personalities, the complicated details or the culture of your workplace.

Second, when you are a guest at school, be careful not to overstay your welcome. Your child loves you, but it is difficult to retain ownership of the school when parents stay too long. Remember that your son has many other children as his partners in keeping the school; if you can understand why you or your spouse get upset when your parents (with whom your relationship is usually good) overstay their welcome, you can understand why your child hopes you don't overstay your welcome. Besides, not every parent has the luxury of time to stay at the school--and particularly where very young children are concerned, they can quickly become jealous and upset that "your mom visited for a long time and read you a whole book, but mine can't." When your child sends you packing it is not because she is embarrassed by you (well, not always because she is embarrassed), but because she needs to keep peace with the other children in the community who share the school with her.

If Sudbury schooling was more widely accepted in the culture at large, I might leave it at those two points. But, unfortunately, the wider culture is not so accepting. And this makes the parents' job harder. Your child is very conscious of the fact that he is not in what most of society considers a "normal" school. If he came to the school older, he may have the feeling that he came because he failed somehow in traditional school. Despite all of the advantages your child gets from being in a place where he can truly gain power and control over his own life, he lives in a wider world which continually suggests that he is "wasting his time" or "at recess all day." You have to be sensitive to your child's natural worries, which stem from living such a different life. I'll suggest two more points, which are vital to supporting your child in such a unique school.

First, your child must know that you truly believe this is the right school for her. Your daughter looks to you to affirm that she is capable of the huge task before her--educating herself. If you show lack of confidence in her ability to educate herself, by bringing in tutors or otherwise attempting to cajole her into something (academic or otherwise) "for her own good," then she will be torn. If she has cause to think that her parents don't really believe she can educate herself, she will lose heart and can easily stop trying. Your attitude has incredible power over her confidence in her struggle to become autonomous.

Second, and related to the first point, you must put yourself in the direct firing line when adults (especially family and friends) show a lack of faith in your child's ability to educate himself. You know the type--the family friend who always announces that your son is "too smart to be wasting his time in that school." Make no mistake--an attack on the school's philosophy is an attack on the competence of children, and by extension it is an insult to your child. You have to be the grown-up, and make it clear that you will not let an insult to your child stand. Your son expects you to try and defend him against any harm; and so if another adult slanders him by suggesting that he can't possibly educate himself, and you do nothing, it suggests that you are tolerant of the slander. Which means either that you think it's true--which would be devastating--or that you are unwilling to defend him from attack--which is devastating in a very different way. Exactly how you defend your child's honor depends on the circumstance--but a quiet "it's the right school for our son, and we will not discuss this any further" can go a very long way.

In addition to all of the other tasks that fall to any parent, you must be supportive of your children in very special ways while they are enrolled in a Sudbury school. You must accept that your information about your child's day will always be sketchy or incomplete. You must trust not only your own child but all of the children and staff at the school to maintain a safe and pleasant environment for all. You must communicate your trust and faith in your children. And you must be ready to defend your child and your child's school against nay-sayers. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.

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