W hen our philosophy necessitates a change in the way we view the world, we call it a paradigm shift. Our view of children is undergoing such a shift. Historically in American culture, (and currently in many American households), we have looked at children as innocents to be protected and owned by their parents who are responsible for them.
However, at The Highland School, we hold two fundamental principles as critical to everything we do: 1) School members make the decisions which govern their daily lives and 2) Each school member has individual rights equal to every other member. The “school members” in our school are largely children under the age of 18. Thus, at Highland we view children in the democratic school culture as capable of being responsible for themselves – not as innocents needing protection or as their parents’ belongings. This is a huge paradigm shift; one many parents have an extremely difficult time making – even if they want to educate their children democratically.
At our school we are asking parents to have faith in their children’s ability to learn to be responsible adults through making their own choices and mistakes. We are also asking parents to let go of the idea that their children are their possessions to be protected and instead see them as unique individuals on their own journeys through life. When children come to democratic schools, they create their own adventures. They may choose to tell their parents about some of these adventures or they may not. Each child’s participation in the life of a democratic school is a unique experience that parents cannot share on a moment by moment basis.
For many parents the loss of control is frightening. Others worry about losing the close relationship they have had with their children from infancy. However, children are growing and changing and the relationship must change too. As the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “Your children are not your children…. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.”
Democratic schools are asking parents to be brave – to have faith that their children are basically good people – to let their children have freedom to grow in their own unique ways – to trust them to make their own decisions. Most of all, democratic schools are asking parents to let their children go where parents cannot go themselves. As parents raised in traditional schools and the prevailing American culture, we may want to experience what our children are experiencing. We may want to hold on, protect, and cocoon them in our love. Letting go means admitting that an important part of our lives as parents is over. We are no longer the caregivers of helpless, dependent beings. The relationship is changing and our children are leaving us.
In addition, the paradigm shift from a traditional view of adults and children to a democratic paradigm can leave parents without a clear role to play. The role of authority, of answer giver, is shifting to a role of listener, of modeling respect. Life itself forces this change, even without a change in paradigms. One of our staff members remembers her shock and dismay when her toddler son learned a word that she and her husband didn’t teach him. She realized then that her son was going on a journey beyond her. She describes the feeling as “earth shattering.”
Adopting the democratic values of individual choice and responsibility requires a leap of faith for parents. However, the positive growth, evident happiness, and self-confidence of their children is enough for many parents to trust the new paradigm. For others, doubts creep in – especially when confronted by older family members or common cultural assumptions.
From TV sitcoms to interactions with the society at large, messages about children’s inability to make intelligent decisions abound. The record of successful lives created by graduates of democratic schools can help dispel these doubts, but parents must look to their own children’s experiences at democratic schools to counter the fears engendered by such messages.
After parents have made the paradigm shift, how can they work with a democratic school and understand the shift in relationships it entails? In some democratic schools, parents are given a limited role (along with school members) in making decisions outside of the daily interactions governed by the School Meeting. For example, some schools permit parents to help make broad policy decisions, serve on some committees, set tuition, and/or vote on awarding diplomas. In most democratic schools, parents do not participate in daily school decisions which are made by School Meeting members (students and staff). Yet parents’ support of their children’s life at school takes trust in the students and understanding of the processes of the school. Reading school literature can help parents understand the philosophy and structure of democratic school life. Interactions with other parents and staff can also clarify questions about why these schools are good for children’s growth and development.
In some democratic schools, parents have regular meetings to better understand how the democratic paradigm with its emphasis on children’s rights operates on a practical every day basis. Parents Meetings can help if they function as an opportunity to discuss the paradigm shift and deal with parents’ confusions and doubts. However, the focus at Parents Meetings must not simply reinforce parents’ worst fear scenarios. Most parents were not trusted themselves as children – making it even harder to break the patterns of their own youth. They may want to retreat into the traditional paradigm when issues of safety arise. At this point, experienced parents can share their willingness to allow their children to make choices with new parents. All parents can share the differences they see in the happiness and sense of personal power their children have developed.
The two central values of democratic process and individual rights for all school members are the foundation of democratic schools. The paradigm shift underlying these values is a new way of understanding and interacting with children. Parents need to make this paradigm shift – both to help their children create fulfilling lives and to enable them to successfully function as equal members of a democratic school.
Photo by Walter Cross. Aboriginal family near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada. 1919.