Parents, Staff, And Kids At Sudbury Valley School
There is a question which I dread and which I am invariably always asked. It is: “If you say that the children at SVS are supposed to be in charge of their lives at the school and do and learn what they want when and how they want, what then is that you as staff do all day at the school?”
Sometimes they also ask: “And what is our job as parents? Is it just to feed them and drive them, pay their tuition and give them money for snacks? Is that all we are supposed to be doing?”
“Of course not!” I answer with assurance, only to hem and haw about what it is I think that we, parents and staff, really do for children in addition to taking care of their physical needs. It is so clear to me deep in my soul and yet I can’t articulate it at all. A quote I just read helped me to understand what I always felt, and now I think that I know better what I am talking about. Here it is:
We can give two things to our children—one is a sense of roots and the other is a sense of wings. I now know my roots, my history. Now I am ready to fly towards the sun.1
I think that we at SVS have talked a lot about giving the children a sense of wings, but hardly at all about the sense of roots and history. The reason is that in our culture the idea of giving children the sense of wings is not an accepted notion but is contrary to the pedagogical theories which child rearing and schooling follow. Parents and teachers are expected to get their children to learn the things which they supposedly will need to know as grown ups. The children are viewed as empty vessels which it is the duty of their elders to fill with the appropriate knowledge. Often it is assumed that the evil side of human nature is dominant in the young and unless it is squashed early it will overtake the good. It is easy to see how those assumptions led people to start training their babies from the day of their birth. They were put in a crib and fed on a four hour schedule and left to cry themselves to sleep in between. Tiny babies were viewed like little manipulative demons who had to be trained early not to be spoiled, self indulgent and dependent. Adult vigilance had to be maintained throughout childhood because according to this paradigm children could not be trusted to do what is right and healthy without adult guidance. If left to their own devices, children would do bad things and learn nothing.
Maybe nowadays parents are more lenient about training their babies and children but the basic assumptions about the role of adults in molding their children’s characters is the same. Many believe that giving children free choice about acquiring their skills is negligent and dangerous.
At Sudbury Valley we assume that children are by nature curious and eager to understand the world around them. They are biologically programmed to want to learn the skills which will enable them to survive on their own. Additionally we believe that stuffing their minds with teachings is counter-productive. It distracts the children from their investigations and learning. It also teaches them to rely on other people’s judgment rather than on themselves. Learning which isn’t self motivated usually is not well integrated or retained. Since our approach to education isn’t widely accepted, we at SVS talk and talk and talk about leaving the kids to run their lives and letting them fly freely—giving them a “sense of wings”.
There are, however, other aspects of what we do at SVS that we don’t talk about enough, because it is so personal in many ways and hard to describe. It is the sum of numerous interactions and deeds, all of which add up to a full day’s work. Maybe it can best be said that the staff at school, and parents at home, make themselves available to the children when they want us. By showing the kids that the grown ups in their lives take them seriously, listen to them, and are willing to do things for them or with them when they ask for it, we are nurturing them. We enjoy being with them, and that is probably the most important single thing that happens to them here at SVS. They understand that they are unique, interesting, important persons. No one talks about this, but it is something that permeates the air at SVS. As the children grow they become aware of it and it makes them feel confident and hopeful. They come to believe in themselves and allow themselves to dream big dreams which they dare to set about to actualize.
The grown ups in their lives are an important part of the world into which they have to enter. Children know this instinctively and even tiny babies study us and, by watching us go about the tasks of living, learn what they need to learn for themselves. They imitate us, criticize us, laugh at us and often take care of us. Kids learn so much by interacting with adults and figuring out how and why they do what they do. I see it all the time and it never fails to delight me. Here is a lovely example. We were downhill skiing at Wachusett Mountain the other day and just as we got off the lift an eleven year old boy said: “Look at the beautiful view it would make a wonderful picture and it’s too bad my Mom isn’t here to see it!”
I asked him if she skis. He said, “No, but she is learning photography and I know that she would love the trees and the sky here.”
I don’t think that his mother was teaching him at home to look for the beauty in the scenery while he was skiing. I think that he was just reminded of her love of nature when he stumbled onto a beautiful scene. What she taught him is to be sensitive to her needs and by doing so he also was given open eyes to see beauty on his own.
Children observe everything about us: our culture, our philosophy, our religious thinking and practices, our way of doing things and learning things, our interpersonal interactions, our style of handling fear and anguish and conflict, the way we love and the way we express anger, our personality, the way we dress and talk and argue. As they grow they learn what we and our society are about and then they make their own choices about how they want to live their lives. No matter how independent they are they have learned their history from us. We help give them “a sense of roots”.
Students at Sudbury Valley feel connected to the world because they are cared for and nurtured by their parents at home and by the staff at school. Together, we try to give them faith in themselves, striving always to make them “ready to fly towards the sun.”
1. Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal (Harper & Row), p. 373.
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