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  • Writer's pictureChristen Parker-Yarnal

"It's harder than it looks"

Updated: Feb 18

As parents we sometimes hear, "Just let me do what I want!" There's often a valid frustration there for autonomy and agency that's also often in direct conflict with our agenda as parents for safety, expediency, or a hundred other factors. But, really, as parents, we do want our children to learn how to balance their own wants with the very real needs of their situation and/or those around them. How can they learn this?

I often joke that I helped open a Sudbury model school in Miami because, even though I was providing a lot of freedom of choice by unschooling our children, I simply couldn't authentically replicate a democracy in which they have both real autonomy and real responsibility - try as I might. 

A Sudbury model school provides for lots of space to choose what a young person might want to do, but in the unique context of a community they help maintain and run. There are few other places like this available for young people under 18. I think because there's so little experience with this balance, young people are more accustomed to the extremes of feeling confined and yelling for freedom or sneaking around the rules they find confining. 

So what happens when they are allowed to be in a space like a Sudbury model school? Glad you asked...

Often only knowing the extremes, we sometimes get prospective students who have the extreme notion, "I can do whatever I want here!" Our current Sudbury students usually quickly correct that strange notion for them, sometimes even saying: "You can only do whatever you want on a deserted island. This is a Community."

Our seasoned Sudbury students help the new folks see that a Community only functions if everyone respects each other and the rules/policies set by the Community. As one student recently said, "This place is about learning boundaries and respecting those boundaries."

There IS of course a lot of choice around what to do - very purposefully. The only way to learn how to make good decisions is by having the regular opportunity to make decisions: big and small, high stakes and (mostly) low stakes, succeeding and (sometimes more importantly) failing and trying again.

Decision making is also much harder than it may first appear. In many ways, it's actually easier to have someone else tell us what to do, where to go, when to do things. Even as adults, we know sometimes we're just exhausted from making decisions all day and would love someone to just make dinner and tell us when it's time to eat and what to do next. But if that happens all the time for any of us, we never actually grow the "decision making muscles" we need. This is very true for young people.  

Sudbury Schools take away the artificial stressors of homework and tests - those are not authentic things a young person needs to grow. In their place, the real life challenges of collaboration, self-direction, and daily decision making are where they put their energies. These are real challenges that can feel awkward or even scary at first. What we typically find here, though, is that overall it's so fun and personally rewarding to be in a community that prioritizes respect and individuality that it's worth the effort to learn boundaries and self-direction.

But don't be fooled... it's harder than it looks!

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