The Interplay of Freedom, Responsibility, and Trust
by Anthony Burik
A Sudbury school like Diablo Valley School is a challenging place for a child of any age because she or he has to strike the balance between freedom and responsibility by her or himself on a daily basis. Each student is expected to be in charge of her or his time and daily agenda whether she or he is eight or eighteen — that is the freedom part. At the same time, each child is expected to be responsible for her or his behavior while in attendance at the school. For many students, however, taking advantage of freedom at the school is far easier than exhibiting responsibility that protects the freedom everyone enjoys.
Invariably, conflicts arise between students and other members of the community who are trying to do the things that they are interested in doing while at school. Some people interfere with other people’s activities. Some people say some less than kind things to other people. Some people tease or taunt others. The challenge for all is learning how to deal with and resolve the conflicts that come up in daily life at the school. It is no different than dealing with the trials that life presents us with on a daily basis.
Parents often hear about the problems that their children are having with other members of the community, and this is what makes the school a challenging place for parents as well. Students’ parents struggle with how to support their children in the school when academic, social, or emotional challenges arise for their kids. Sometimes in Sudbury schools, some adults, both parents and staff members, get too involved in children’s lives and try to solve problems for them. The danger here, however, is that an individual child’s development towards becoming a responsible member of the community will be hampered by the adult(s) stepping in to solve the child’s problem.
Trust is what supports freedom and responsibility at Diablo Valley School. If people in the community do not trust that the students are going to utilize the freedom they have in a responsible manner or give the kids a chance to be responsible when problems arise, then the structure at the school is endangered. When times get tough, the adults (parents and staff members) need to show the children that they trust the students to try to solve the problems within the school community. Ideally, perhaps, the adults should know about what is happening in a kid’s life, support the child as much as possible, maybe offer the child some advice, but ultimately step back and let the child find her or his own way.
A DVS parent told me about the difficulties their child encountered in their first year at the school. The child was having so much trouble to the point of not even finishing the first year and leaving the school. What the parent realized was that at home, the parent needed to be open to their child sharing information about life at the school, and actively listen to their child and hear about the challenges, and even the pain the child faced at the school. The parent also figured out that the parent always has to take the child’s side (at home) and support them unconditionally.
However, at that critical juncture of discussion and action, the parent also determined that it is the child that needs to step up and work to solve the problem for her- or himself. Children have to work through the difficulties they face, because when the adults get in the middle of solving the problem, it hinders the development of the children involved. Parents never want to see their loved ones in pain, but parents and other adults cannot fix everything for their children. Kids need to learn how to advocate for themselves and not have their parents or other adults do it for them. The adults need to step back and trust in the process of the children learning to take care of themselves and deal with the challenges that come their way.
In the end, what children and all human beings need is both a protected, nurturing environment where people are accepted and loved, but also a challenging environment as well that pushes human beings to grow and gain wisdom and fulfillment. It definitely takes some practice for children and adults to get the balance right, but when it happens, everyone succeeds.