Why Sudbury Philosophy Fascinates Me: Trust

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(by Michell Huang)

A few months ago I went shopping with my 3-year-old son. In front of the shop door, there were six staircases, leading to the ground. While I was paying the bill, he ran toward the shop door. The staff, some customers and I were all worried that he was going to run away or fall down the stairs. But just before we could stop him, I saw him sitting down on the top of the stairs and he said, “Mommy, I wait for you here.” We were surprised and we all burst out laughing!

When my child was 2.7 years old, he naturally learned to use the potty. I heard that children need a transition period to totally quit the night nappy, so I tried to put on a nappy for him whenever he went to bed. But he refused and said to me firmly, “I don’t have pee. If I want to pee, I’ll wake up and use the potty.” At that time, I didn’t trust that he would be able to do that. I kept persuading him to wear a nappy, but I never succeeded. It turned out that he did wake up in the middle of the night to use the potty, once in a while. It has been almost a year now, and he only wet his bed two or three times. This is how he became dry at night.

What often happens, like in the situations above, is that I don’t trust my child due to my own fear or some deep-rooted negative beliefs. I didn’t trust that he was able to take safety into account, and I didn’t trust that he was able to use the potty in the middle of the night. But in fact, my child knows himself better than I expected. He always follows his inner voice that allows him to develop in a healthy way.

Fifteen years ago I learned about Sudbury Valley School. The founders of the school suggest that children are born curious and strive to become capable and effective adults. At Sudbury Valley School, students spend their days following their own interests rather than a fixed curriculum. When I first encountered this philosophy, I was absolutely amazed. But it wasn’t until I had my own child that I gained a deeper understanding of the Sudbury philosophy.

Parenting has brought me to reflect on some important topics, such as, what is human nature?

The Sudbury philosophy shows a deep trust toward human beings:

It trusts that humans are born curious and are equipped with an immense learning ability.

It trusts that humans are benevolent in nature.

It trusts that humans strive to become capable people, who function well within their communities.

It trusts that every one is a unique individual, who has her/her own life path.

Though children are not fully developed physically and cognitively, they are definitely much more aligned with their soul than are adults.

To me, it just doesn’t make sense that humans are bad in nature or they are born lazy and do not want to learn anything. If this were true, humans would have become extinct a long time ago. Any so-called negative traits must be acquired, just like the original state of a normal body is intact and workable, rather than bleeding from a wound. So from a medical perspective, the purpose to heal is to bring the body back to its original state. And from an educational perspective, the purpose of education is not to “do” anything to change children, but to recognize the good nature in children, and provide conditions under which they can develop naturally. What we need to do is to stay out of their way, in order not to kill their inborn good traits, and let them develop into unique individuals.

Now here’s the problem: let’s say we agree that we should trust children, but why is it so difficult to put it into practice?

It’s all about our fear.

In Sudbury Valley School, if the adults do not trust the students, they do not set a rule to limit them. They face their fear, reflect how they have projected the negative beliefs to the students, or they observe more closely the students’ behavior so as to understand them better, or they let the students express their views. They discuss the issues in the school meeting. They listen, understand each other, vote, and make decisions together. This process includes intense self-reflection and the breakdown of old belief systems.

In my view this explains why the number of Sudbury schools is increasing only slowly although Sudbury Valley School has been established for 46 years. We still can’t find such schools in many countries.

You just can’t learn how to treat children the way Sudbury people do, like learning times tables. It’s more about the inner work of a person. If you have not faced your fear, or have not gone through the challenges of tearing down some or all of your deep-rooted beliefs, or if you can’t see the world from a child’s angle, there is no way that you can put Sudbury ideas into practice. In Sudbury schools, there are no teaching methods for you to hold on to. You can’t control students by learning specific skills, nor can you find some model answers about child development to make you feel secure. The lives of Sudbury students are full of possibilities. This includes the possibility of living a life, in which they can be who they really are and which could be entirely different from their parents’ expectation. This is scary to the majority of people.

As a parent, I surely have my own fears and sometimes I’m just unable to trust my kid, nor life. Inspired by Sudbury philosophy, I learned to see the world from a child’s perspective, and face my fear and connect with my inner wisdom. I also learned to let go of my limiting beliefs and live out my life first, before I can trust my child to live out his. To me, the Sudbury philosophy is not merely about education. It is a life attitude. It is an approach that encourages human beings to live consciously, and to connect with their inner selves. It is always a choice whether we want to continue to live in the fear, or live out our lives freely.

One time, I wanted my child to do something the way I did it, so I said to him, “Look, this is how I do it”, hoping that he would copy me. However, he looked at me and said, “I’m different from you!” He was right and that reply served as an astonishing reminder to me that he is a unique individual and that I should trust him!