Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Parents, Children, and Staff

by Hanna Greenberg, founder and staff member at Sudbury Valley School
This article can also be found here.

Usually I like to focus on the positive aspects of being at Sudbury Valley. I enjoy thinking about the many facets of life in our little community which is so rich with wondrous encounters and experiences. Every single student is like a whole world and in the course of time each one of them shows me something new that I never knew before. That is what keeps me wanting to work at SVS all these many years and why it is never boring to be there.

Of course, life is never perfect and neither is Sudbury Valley. Disagreements and misunderstandings often occur, as they would in any group of people who share space, time, resources and responsibilities. Students and staff alike have to learn to live with these problems and overcome the discomfort or anger that they may feel from time to time. I am no exception and I admit to having made my share of mistakes by doing or saying things which were hurtful to others. Sometimes I have been insensitive, neglectful or forgetful. I have done many things at SVS, and I have been seen by students at times when I was less than wise or intelligent. Usually they point out my inadequacies and I can accept their laughter at my expense and even their anger, because it is clear and above-board. They tell me to my face what bothers them and give me a chance to explain or apologize. Most of the time I am astounded by the kindness and tolerance that the students exhibit and it has taught me to be more understanding of others than I had been before coming to SVS.

Occasionally, I am angry or hurt by others’ mistakes or insensitivities and then it falls on me to discuss the matter openly with the persons involved to give them a chance to explain or apologize. By and large people at the school get along quite well because of this ability to air grievances and work things through face to face. In cases where communication between people is impossible they can choose to avoid and ignore each other.

Unfortunately, this mode of interpersonal interactions is thrown out of balance when it is interfered with by others who are important to the individuals in the school but who are not a part of the daily life of the school. What I am going to describe has happened every year since our inception in 1968, and uncannily is enacted as if according to a script which is always the same. I would find it bizarre and amusing but for the pain that it causes to all the participants in this drama, including myself.

This is how it unfolds. Students are led to understand by their parents directly or by subtle suggestion that it would be good for them to take some sort of class. The kids agree in principle but can’t bring themselves to do it. What we see is kids who ask for a lesson, and then behave in a manner which isn’t congruent with wanting to take the lesson. Thus they forget their appointments, or their homework. They may come to the lesson with an attitude of “tell me what I need to know so I can get this boring stuff done with as fast as possible and be free to do what I enjoy doing”. Time and again we see bright kids learning very little and hating every minute of it. They often ask the staff for instruction just before they leave for the day, or while the staff person is in the middle of another activity which makes it clear that no lesson can be given. These modes of behavior are in marked contrast to the way they behave when they want us to help them do something that they really want to do. Then they hound us with questions, wait for us to have time to attend to them, retain what we teach them and avidly do work on their own. They are purposeful and focused and it is evident in their whole demeanor that nothing will stop them from pursuing their interest. The contrast with the behavior of the same students when there is an externally imposed push to take classes is remark- able.

When children are questioned by their parents about classes which they really are not interested in taking but which they engage in to please their parents or allay their anxieties, they are in a quandary. How are they to explain their non-performance? They hem and haw and under enough pressure they begin to project their own behavior on the staff. They say, almost with no variation, that Hanna, or Denise, or Danny, or Joan, or Mikel, or Mimsy, or Carol were too busy to help them, or didn’t show up for class, or were too late to do it, or were uninterested in teaching. Sometimes we are accused of going shopping instead of attending to the students! At first when I heard these complaints say about Joan, or Mimsy I thought to myself, “It’s possible that it’s true, but it is strange that they are both attributed the exact same behavior when I know them both to be so different. Mimsy is so well organized that it is unlikely that she forgot an appointment, and Joan is usually in the Art room and easy to locate. When she goes shopping it is for art supplies with a student and all the other kids in the room know where she went.” I wondered: could it be that the whole staff at SVS talks a good line but refuses to be attentive to the students needs? Could it be that all of us are identically forgetful, uninterested in attending to the students needs and dedicated to shopping during school hours? It didn’t make sense.

It was only after numerous repeats of these accusations, leveled at all of us at one time or another, that the pattern began to show itself clearly. The formulaic nature of these criticisms belied their truth and revealed their origins. The students want to do what their parents think is good for them. However, they find this difficult to do at the school. They are too busy doing what they think is interesting and important. Only at the end of the day do they remember what they “ought” to have done. They need an explanation for their parents and for themselves, which will not reflect badly on them, and so they attribute their own forgetfulness, or lack of interest, or preoccupation, to the staff. The trouble is that what they say doesn’t fit the characters of the particular staff involved. It does, however, fit the stereotypical reaction of kids to parental pressure to learn things which the parents think are important to learn but which the students don’t.

Neither I nor other staff members hold a grudge against the kids. We know that both they and their parents are doing what they think is best and that we have to cope with these complaints as part of our job. But it does upset me that often the parents involved don’t want to hear what we have to say on the matter. They usually are offended when we imply that the child lied to them because the child did not want to disappoint his or her parents. They also often don’t agree with us that “suggesting” things to learn to their children constitutes pressuring their children, and that it is not in harmony with the school’s approach to education.

It looks to me that when things get to this stage the children are better off in a different kind of school, where there is a curriculum which the children are obliged to learn and where the teachers coerce them to learn it. I believe that it would be better for the family, and the children in particular, not to attend a school where they are daily put into a situation of conflict between following their own idea of what is important to learn and listening to their parents’ advice. It causes the kids to be depressed, guilty and anxious and worse, insecure about their future.

Yes, SVS is an all or nothing approach to children. Parents either do or don’t trust their children to acquire the skills needed to survive in America according to their own judgment. If the latter is the case, it would be better to transfer the children to one of the many humane and kind schools available which believe that children need more help and guidance than we provide at SVS.

Copyright The Sudbury Valley School Press, Inc.

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