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Finding the Middle

21 Oct

“All I am saying … can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” ~John Holt

It’s been my experience over the past seven years of speaking with parents about our school that they either think it is too permissive, with all the freedom students are given, or they think it is too strict, with all of its rules and responsibilities. It seems that half the parents lean towards telling their kids what to do all the time and half lean towards being completely hands-off and letting their kids run wild. I know that all of these parents are well-meaning and just want what’s best for their children. After all, why else would they be seeking an alternative education model? But I often think to myself, “Where’s the middle?”

JC

Supporting a new student in JC.

I tried to address the first of these extremes in my blog post Freedom Revisited, where I explained how letting kids do what they want all day doesn’t necessarily produce entitled, little slackers. This time I’d like to address the other extreme – the parent who thinks our school is too harsh with its huge law book and its big, mean judicial system that metes out sentences.

I get it. My husband and I have always practiced positive discipline at home. Although we set high standards of behavior, we have never punished our kids. When my daughters act out at home, something that happens less and less as they get older, we seek to connect with them first and then talk it out. They usually just need some quiet time alone with with one of us, help communicating with each other, or something to eat.

At school, on the other hand, things are different. They’re practicing being independent and learning to live within a diverse community. This means understanding and respecting other peoples’ boundaries and learning to express their own without Mom or Dad being there to ease the way. Of course, they will make mistakes and that’s when they might encounter the school’s judicial system, which may involve some form of a sentence, called a “consequence” at our school.

Now, given many people’s own experiences of being sent to the principal’s office or being punished by their parents, I can see how they might imagine our judicial system to be a shameful, heartless process. Punishment in an authoritarian model, which is often arbitrary, can indeed be quite damaging. Consequences determined by peers in an egalitarian environment, on the other hand, is a completely different ballgame.

First of all, students are an active part of the rule-making. Each of them has the power to create, abolish, or modify any existing rule at the weekly school meeting. Second, although there is always an adult on the judicial committee (JC) panel, the students themselves run it and have the most input. And they do so with incredibly sweet amounts of compassion, patience, and support. Third, all school members, students AND staff, are expected to follow the same rules. That right there says to the child, “No one is above you. We are all equal.”

All of this makes JC one of the most fair, respectful, and empowering ways to deal with discipline and conflict that I have ever encountered. So why do some parents still find JC so uncomfortable? I think it all comes down to the fact that they still view children as authoritarian adults do. Yes, they are kinder and gentler, but they still don’t really trust kids. It’s hard to let go completely. And it’s even harder to trust kids when we ourselves were never trusted. But trust is at the heart of everything that happens at our school and maybe that’s why some things feel uncomfortable.

Children are trusted at our school because everyone believes they are competent. Imagine what it feels like for a child to be trusted in this way? To feel so competent? They are competent in knowing the rules. They are competent in weighing the risks when choosing to break them. And they are competent in dealing with the consequences of their actions and learning from them. They are also competent at gathering information, determining whether a rule was broken, and then handing out a fair consequence based on the experience and age of the rule-breaker.

A child who is treated as competent eventually becomes so. They also become incredibly responsible and mature. I love seeing the five and six-year-olds confidently skipping about the school and unhesitatingly speaking their mind even among older students. I know that they feel competent, they feel safe, and they feel powerful. And I’m willing to trust that feeling.