How do you parent a child who is having a school experience totally different from your own?1
I can't really refer to William as a child anymore, now that he is sixteen. We actually went test driving pickup trucks over this past weekend. He has pictured himself in a red Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Laramie for a long time now, and I have no doubt that if that dream persists, he will make it happen. When we moved to a lake, he wanted a boat, so he made it happen. At school, he thought there should be new backboards and basketball equipment, so he made it happen. I'm told he was also a driving force in getting new kitchen equipment. He knew it would be good for the school and he also had a passion for cooking at the time. Now he is more drawn to computers, so he went to several auctions until he found a laptop that was the best value for the money he had to spend.
That kind of internal motivation, that knowing what you want, not only in material things, but in knowing what you want to do in your life, what you want to get out of living, what you want to give back to others, that is what I had hoped Will could retain and build on from the preschooler that he was before he came to Sudbury Valley. He started here at five years old instead of going to kindergarten. My hope for him was that his school experience would be very different from my own, and it certainly has been.
My first years of schooling through the sixth grade were spent in parochial schools. Yes, they were authoritarian, some might say rigid, and they reflected the parenting that I was receiving at home. But I found that public junior high and high school were not very different. I had no trouble, though. I learned to color inside the lines. My penmanship was exemplary. I could figure out what the teachers wanted and I gave it to them. But I am still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up. I often have a very hard time deciding what I want from almost any menu.
Will's early years at SVS were what I had hoped for, for him. He got to just be a kid, to play, to explore. When he was five, his favorite place was the woodworking shop. He gained in confidence as he was able to use more of the tools and equipment. For him, I think, being able to use the equipment was more important than any of the projects he produced. Later, fishing in the pond was a major activity, mastering the art, science, and sportsmanship of it. He played four-square, spent hours with legos, did a little pottery, and had friends of various ages to be with.
And of course there was Callahan. I have to admit that it was difficult to sign the off-campus policy every year. But I really wanted him to have the opportunity and the freedom to roam in the woods and across the fields, to play at the creeks and the ponds in all kinds of weather. I remember doing those things out behind my house at first, later in woods in the neighborhood (after school of course) and usually by myself (when I could get away from my younger siblings). It seemed safer then for a kid to wander alone. So my solution to my safety dilemma was to have an agreement with him to only go to Callahan with at least two others, never on the road, and never anywhere else off campus. Times change. Now he goes off campus with other kids in cars!
The relatives have had a few things to say about that policy. They had more than a few things to say about how much he wasn't learning like all the other kids his age. It felt fairly easy for the first several years to patiently explain the philosophy of the school and then agree to disagree. But as Will became eight and nine years old, and then ten years old, and he was still not reading beyond a few words here and there, it was impossible not to worry that maybe there was a problem here. Hanna and Denise were very helpful in their reassurance that reading would come when he was ready, but the growing worry was often nagging. I'm sure that he felt some pressure from his parents as much as we tried to keep it in check.
To illustrate a point, let me tell you a little about Will's experiences with Cub Scouts. He had the choice to join the local Pack and he stayed with it for almost three years. He enjoyed the activities, the camping, and I think just to experience some of what other kids do outside of Sudbury Valley. But one thing that other kids of that age do is to read their Cub Scout handbooks, fill out forms, and make holiday cards with writing on them for their mothers. He has subsequently admitted to some embarrassment over his lack of skill in those areas in various situations. But the tremendous thing is that it didn't keep him from participating and it didn't bring down his self esteem. His social skills, greatly aided by his years at SVS, carried him through. But he also had a firm sense of confidence in all of his other strengths, a great backlog of accomplishments, large and small, that he had accumulated doing the things that he had set out for himself to do.
I think how differently I would have felt and reacted if I had been that age and lacked those academic skills in a similar situation. My embarrassment would have been enormous. The conformist and competitive culture of "school" was all I knew. I think that I always needed to be looking around me at how I was doing in comparison to others, not to put them down or to think less of them, but just to be sure that I was as good as or better at most things in order to maintain a sense of being alright, having to wonder whether I was measuring up and, of course, fearing the inevitable wounds. My great task during that time with Will was to curb my own fears for him. Not wanting him to feel what I had felt, I needed to trust that his experience could be different than mine and be alright for him. It was very hard to resist pressuring him to follow my timetable or one that others thought was "typical and to be expected."
Although Will did feel some embarrassment at his lack of academic skills and did feel some external pressures to "get on with it," he still didn't really start reading "near an age appropriate level" until he was around twelve. Neither embarrassment nor pressure drove his learning to read. It was his own need to read that made it happen. He learned through playing in Magic card games at school and in tournaments outside, through playing board games and other role playing games at school, and through his use of Nintendo and then computers. His reading was aided by the vocabulary he picked up from home and from the rich verbal environment of Sudbury Valley. He is still learning to write, but he has little present need, although keeping up with his E-mail and visiting chat rooms is changing that. He now reads mostly technical material and an occasional article in a newspaper or magazine; never a novel (despite the fact, or is it in spite of the fact, that I have bought him quite a few).
I have found that the early fears of the relatives about how Will would turn out going to such a school as SVS have completely dissolved as they have seen him grow to be the person that he is. For me, it has been a process of learning to trust the process that is Sudbury Valley, to trust "my child" to find his own path, and to trust myself in having made the right decision.
1. This is one of three presentations given by parents before an Informal Assembly Discussion Group meeting on November 10, 1998. The author has asked that his name be omitted and that his child's name be a pseudonym.
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