Doubts about the Sudbury Education Model

Written By Michell

Twenty years ago when I first learned about the Sudbury philosophy, I was absolutely fascinated. Sudbury Valley School (SVS) has no compulsory curriculum and students direct their own learning. Students in this school have equal rights with the staff members, and they are involved in running the school. And, instead of using rewards and punishment to manipulate students, the staff members support them to live out their true selves.

I thought everyone who knows about SVS will fall in love with its ideas just like I do. Who doesn’t want to be trusted, respected, and treated equally?

But in fact, most people question it. I have pondered for many years and wondered, “What are their doubts about the Sudbury education model?”

Then I realized that most people misunderstand Sudbury education as spoiling kids with unlimited play and depriving them of the rights to learn. They think the Sudbury parents are negligent and establish no boundaries. I didn’t know how this misunderstanding happened, until I read about the parenting history from Robin Grille’s “Parenting for a Peaceful World”.

How did we treat children in the past?

In ancient times, children were not seen as humans in many parts of the world. A lot of children suffered from ritualized mutilation, abused, treated as slaves and sexual objects. Infanticide was common. Whenever children did not serve their parents’ needs, they could be killed. Only until the Middle Ages period and the French Revolution, the church began to prohibit parents from killing their children. However, infanticide still happened in many other parts of the world.

Between the 4th and the 14th centuries in Western cultures, infanticide was frowned upon and replaced by abandonment of children. At that time, though fewer children were killed, they were still commonly used as slaves and sexual objects.

Starting from the 14th century, parents agreed to not abandon their children unless the children were under strict control. The new parenting style was to severely beat children and mold their behavior because they believed children were born evil.

During the industrial revolution, child labor was very common. Children as young as four years of age were forced to work in the most inhumane conditions resulting in severe body deformities. At that period of time, schools control children by severe corporal punishment, such as using whips and canes to beat children. Children were forced to sit and tied with iron bodices or steel collars, so that they could not move. The education philosophy was “A child cannot quickly forget what he has learned in fear.”

In the mid 18th century, the idea of children being allowed to play was first introduced. Parents started to have empathy towards their children, and people began to oppose to corporal punishment. Nevertheless, emotional intimacy between parents and children was still strictly restrained.

In mid 19th century, schools in France were forbidden to whip children, but corporal punishment still happened in England and the United States. Most countries in the world controlled children by disciplining them in a strict way, suppressing their emotions, and threatening them with terrifying stories. And the issue of child labor has never been eradicated but it was prohibited by law in England in 1874, and in the United States in 1938.

Around the late 19th century, the idea of children having the right to have fun and to free schooling became available. The first urban playgrounds in the world appeared in 1885.

From the late 19th to 20th century, there were more positive changes on how people treat children, and the main parenting style was the “socializing mode”. Socializing parents focuses on training and molding children to fit the social norms. The socializing parents dichotomize behavior into “good” and “bad”, with a strict moral standard. Their goal is to produce a productive, well behaved “good” child. The more the children fulfill the social expectations and obey the authorities, the more successful the parents think they are. Under this goal, adults will not encourage children to express their emotions. Socializing parents believe that no emotions is good and too much empathy will spoil children.

Nowadays, there are laws protecting children from abuse in the developed countries, and most societies oppose corporal punishment. Gentle parenting and progressive education gradually becomes the trend. This is indeed a big step in the parenting history. Nevertheless, it seems that the supporting mindset behind this progress is still based on the socializing mode, that is, parents, schools, religions actively promote “good” values and “normal” behaviors. For instance, children should be polite, honest, generous as well as brave and independent. They should also be helpful and be good persons. In the 21st century, more and more positive virtues are added to the list. For example, other than being good, we should learn environmental protection, organic lifestyle, mindfulness, natural living, cultural inheritance, spiritual growth, etc.

The limitation of the Socializing Mode

These values indeed are pointing us to a better life and a better future. However, if we see children from a socializing mindset, it is easy to fall into the following limitations.

1. The pitfall of false dichotomy

The socializing mode mindset dichotomizes things into “good” and “bad”. A not-so-strict parenting style is spoiling. If we do not control children, their “bad” qualities will appear. If we do not coerce children to be good, they will definitely become bad.

This is in fact a false dichotomy, assuming either this or that. It assumes that no compulsory curriculum results in no learning and bad behaviors. It also assumes that children who have freedom will do evil things, children who make decisions for themselves will make poor decisions, and children who have equal rights with adults will abuse the power and destroy the system. This mindset is limiting us from truly understanding and connecting with children.

2. Assuming children are bad(or not good enough) in various ways

The socializing mode parenting evolves from infanticide, abandoning, and severe physical punishment, and becomes a more gentle way of control. Underneath this gentleness, the belief that children are evil somehow still exists. Even though people start to believe children have some good nature, they believe that they are not good enough in many ways which need to be corrected by adults.

Education in socializing mode does have good intention, and the teaching style has evolved from punishment to rewards, active guidance and influence. However, under the goal of shaping “good” children, whether children are their authentic self, whether they are intrinsically motivated and self actualizing, or whether they have examined the “good” values are not important, because the authentic self has a chance to be “bad” so it is not encouraged.

Coercive education is based on the socializing mode mindset. First, knowledge and skills are departmentalized into subjects. Then, adults decide what subjects are“ good” and “useful” for children, then make them the curriculum, and expect children to learn. This must be directed by adults. Though children have begun to have the right to choose what to learn, they can only choose within the adults-approved framework. And the adults will make sure the contents and pace of learning are within the approved standards.

Children who rely on external guidance are less likely to trust their own internal mechanisms. They will gradually believe they are not good enough and their inner power diminishes.

3. Unable to see what’s more behind the behavior

Socializing mode parenting places emphasis on the children’s behavior. Children who share, obey their parents and teachers, and who get good grades and trophies are considered to be good. Most people pay little attention to their psychological state behind the behavior.

Many times, those who don’t show good behavior are miserably yelling for help inside, while those who behave well may have in fact compromised their instinctive drive and suppressed their emotions, causing physical and psychological problems. We need to be non judgmental in order to understand children deeply and connect with their hearts. It is difficult to do so with a set of moral standards of good or bad and right or wrong.

I am not saying all children who behave well are not genuinely good. What I mean is that many children distort their true selves unconsciously to behave well in order to please their parents. They only become aware of it after many years of alienating from their hearts, and living for others. Nowadays, many of the unhappy high achieving adults are the products of such socializing mode of parenting. They don’t know themselves, and they are not able to live out their passion and find their lives meaningless.

A complete different mindset: The Sudbury Model

This explains why most people have doubts about the Sudbury philosophy. Since the Sudbury model not only abandons coercion, strict control, and punishment, it also abandons rewards, implicit manipulation, active guidance and influence. Without all these means to control children, it falls right into the opposite of “good”: spoiled, lazy, doing nothing, not learning, selfish, weak, impolite, no achievement……

This is a misunderstanding in the socializing mode mindset.

When we view the degree of freedom and autonomy in the Sudbury model with the eyes of socializing mode mindset, it is indeed frightening. So, what is Sudbury philosophy based on?

The Helping Mode

Only until 1959, The United Nations announced the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. This is the first time children were seen as “persons”, instead of the property of their parents. In the mid 20th century, helping mode parenting began to arise. Helping mode parents look beyond the moral standard of “good”, “bad”, “right”, “wrong”,they rather focus on understanding children’s needs underneath their behavior.

Helping mode parents pay much attention to the connection with their children. They attend to their children’s emotional development by listening with empathy to their children’s expressions of need. Children are accepted to be who they are. They are encouraged to follow their inner authority for decision making, while respecting other people’s boundaries. Rather than imposing “good” values on children, they foster children’s autonomy and self-regulation. Helping mode parents always reflect on themselves, and are open-minded to new values and willing to change themselves. Helping mode education emphasizes respect, trust, communication, and embracing children’s uniqueness. It supports each child to live out his/her passion, in order to attain a diverse, abundant, and happy society.

The Sudbury education model matches with the helping mode mindset. The Sudbury model is a paradigm shift on the education evolution, just the same as helping mode on the parenting evolution. It means there is a complete change on the mindsets, beliefs, values, and methods.

1. Other possibilities

The helping mode is not an “either-or” mindset.

The opposite of not beating, not yelling, not using reward to manipulate, and not actively influencing children is not necessarily spoiling and neglecting. One possibility is to empathize with children’s needs, and establish a trusting and equal relationship with them, at the same time showing them how our behavior affects others. Empathy and healthy boundaries go hand in hand. Children who feel respected, understood and accepted will learn to respect others and understand other people’s difficulties, so that they are willing to be cooperative.

No compulsory curriculum does not mean children’s opportunity to learn is exploited. One possibility is that it is truly a child-centered approach that provides a safe and nurturing environment for children to explore. Children learn by following their interests and adults are there to help when requested. This is real individualization.

When children do not need to follow a specific external path, they may direct their own learning more thoroughly, experience a wider and deeper scope of learning than the predetermined curriculum. The point is, children do not need to satisfy the expectation of adults, and have more time and space to find their own paths.

For instance, without any pre-determined curriculum, a six-year-old boy may learn reading through exploring his passion for insects, and learn maths through daily shopping. A 12-year-old girl who has ample time to focus on drama as she doesn’t need to follow a mandatory curriculum, may already accumulate plenty of stage experience by the age of 16, and know her career goal and feel satisfied. The point is not about what the young people do, but it’s about how they decide for themselves and feel empowered inside.

I can go on with the list of examples and possibilities, but it is still difficult for people to believe that these possibilities exist. Most people think Sudbury education is like gambling on children’s life, because to them, rewards and implicit influence are already the most civilized way, and they have not experienced any other ways. They don’t know how to practice the Sudbury approach, and it is a minority in the society. Just like two hundred years ago, if someone suggested we should not beat children, people would also feel it is a bet in parenting.

A win-win community

In the Sudbury community, when children have conflicts, we deal with it in the Judicial Committee. We talk about which rule is transgressed and people take responsibility by fulfilling the sanction. In all those cases, there are only rules broken, but it’s not about right or wrong. No one has to be “wrong”. People have different needs and thoughts and what we need to do is to go beyond the “either-or” mindset and together with the children, resolve issues by adopting a win-win solution.

2. Children are full of wisdom

The helping mode mindset believes that children have many good qualities. When parents see some behavior which seems “bad”, they either see it as a developmental need, a distorted behavior resulting from the wounded hearts, or understand that it is “bad” only to the traditional world. They won’t conclude that the children are bad in nature. Instead of judging and correcting them, they focus more on understanding the children, and honest discussion on how their behavior affects others and how to take responsibility.

Sudbury education believes that children are complete and full of wisdom. Children are born curious and eager to learn. They want to grow to be independent. They are altruistic, close to their hearts and full of wisdom. Adults are children’s helpers instead of evaluators. Adults respect children and support them to self-actualize. Adults will share their experience and thoughts, but they don’t have a hidden agenda of expecting children to meet their standards. On the contrary, adults let children experience and to learn from trial and error.

In the Sudbury community, children feel respected and trusted, they will then naturally live out the good qualities. What Sudbury staff need to bear in mind is NOT to do so much that is hindering children’s natural development. Instead of imposing their own limiting beliefs on children, they let children have the chance to examine different values. They let them take responsibilities for themselves, which is more important than whether the behavior is good or bad.

In a Sudbury modeled school, everyone is responsible for her/his behavior. When children’s behavior is affecting others, there is a system that deals with it. But the system does not limit children’s personal matters that have nothing to do with others. The staff members do not intentionally impose certain values on children, because they humbly believe that no one in the world does know what is truly good for a child’s life. What parents and other adults can do, is only to respect children as independent individuals, and support them grow.

3. What’s underneath the behavior?

Helping mode adults do not judge children simply by their behavior. Children have different basic needs at different stages. Once these needs are met, they will continue to develop into healthy adults. For instance, toddlers learn to strengthen their will power, self-esteem and their boundaries by saying no to adults and by opposing authorities. When a child refuses to share her toy, socializing mode parents will judge her as selfish, while helping mode parents will understand that it’s the child’s development need, and the child may be learning to establish her own boundary which is an important life lesson.

In the Sudbury education model, adults also do not judge children simply by their behavior. Use gaming as an example. When socializing mode parents see their children with an iPad, they immediately jump to the conclusion of “it’s bad for their health” and “they are addicted to it, it won’t be good”. When helping mode parents face the same situation, the first thing they want to know is “What games are they playing? What makes them so interested? How do they feel when they are gaming? Why do they like gaming more than other activities? Have I ever felt passionate about gaming? Am I able to understand how they feel?” Later on, the parents may also discuss with their children about the effect of gaming on our health, but it’s obvious that the two types of parents have totally different attitudes and beliefs towards children.

4. Self-healing and self growth of adults

In socializing mode parenting and the previous period , the main way to treat children is to shape them into what the adults want them to be. Whenever children don’t meet the standards, it is seen as their problem. However, helping mode parents work on their own issues rather than fixing their children. They reflect on their old beliefs, and avoid projecting their own issues on the children. In this process, the beliefs and values of the adults may be challenged, and sometimes their old wounds may be triggered too.

Helping mode and the Sudbury approach is a paradigm shift because the adults pay attention to personal growth and change themselves, rather than expecting the children to change. This self-healing element was missing in all the previous parenting modes.

The process of the paradigm shift

After reading the history of parenting and knowing how children were treated, I have more compassion for people who don’t understand the Sudbury education model yet. We came from a place where children were not treated as human. I can’t imagine how much pain our ancestors have suffered. What does it take for those who were killed, abandoned, and severely beaten to stop passing on the tragedy? It took more than a hundred year to evolve from one parenting mode to the next one. And nowadays, though the parenting style in the world has progressed a lot, there are still people who treat children horribly. The way the Sudbury approach treating children — treating them as equal individuals, respecting their uniqueness, connecting with them — is just too different from history.

The helping mode parenting was suggested by the American social thinker Lloyd deMause in 1970, while the first Sudbury school, the Sudbury Valley School, was established in the United States around the same time. In 2021, helping mode parenting and Sudbury education are more common in the western societies, but they are still not the mainstream. In the Chinese community, they are only at the early stage.

How the paradigm shifts depends on how fast the human consciousness evolves, how the old belief system collapses, and how many people have paid the price for the socializing mode, and many more factors. What I personally can do, is to continue to reflect on myself, respect children, and practice the Sudbury model. Other than that, I probably need to be prepared that this shift takes a hundred year to become the norm, so apart from committing myself to this mission, I might as well take it easy and enjoy the process.

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