What is it to be free? As adults we might say that we have freedom when we can make decisions for ourselves, when we can choose our actions, as long as we are prepared to accept the consequences, good or bad.
Being free is living in a place where you can speak about what you believe without the threat of retribution or incarceration, as long as what you say does not deliberately harm someone else.
Being free is having the opportunity to be yourself and carve out a path in life that you want to travel along and, changing directions when you choose, or when circumstance demands.
When we consider some societies that don’t offer this freedom, we either reflect on how lucky we are not to live in them, or we feel the need to oppose them and try to facilitate change within them.
Some people reading this might not agree with my definition of freedom or they might want to re-word or change parts of what I said and add more; but I think most would agree that freedom is about personal choice and the ability to take actions based on personal choice.
I would ask you to contemplate what you consider to be the conditions needed to be free. Now answer this: At what age do you think a person should be free?
Children generally aren’t given freedom as defined above. Some people say that children need to earn their freedom; or that they need to be surrounded by examples of others living responsibly before they have the capability to take on their own freedom. Should, for example, a four-year-old be given the freedom to choose when they go to bed?
As adults and parents we have the duty to help our children to navigate life based on our own experiences and how we choose to interpret them. We don’t always adopt the same approach our parents used with us, but we do learn and adapt and decide what will keep our children safe and healthy. A mama bear tries to keep her cubs safe, but also lets them explore and take risks in order to be prepared for the world around them.
We know from (sometimes) painful experience what we think is the most beneficial for the well being of our children. But we shouldn’t dictate the way they learn. Learning is something that every one of all ages has the capability to do in his or her own unique way. If we dictate the way that children learn they come to understand that we also dictate what they learn.
Most schools don’t give children enough freedom. I believe that most teachers and administrators in public schools passionately want kids to have freedom, but that desire is impossible to see through in the standardized system that is prevalent in most schools. Schools dictate what kids should learn and how they learn – they don’t offer freedom.
Our school, and many others across the United States and the world, believe that an individual child has the right to decide on how, what, when, where and with whom they learn. We also believe that they must have an equal say in the running of the schools they are in. That way, they learn that they control their own lives and contribute to a true democracy.
Some parents reading this might wonder if this works. “I didn’t have that amount of freedom and autonomy and look at me now,” is a common thought in our society. Research from the United States’ most established school, Sudbury Valley in Massachusetts (founded in 1968) shows that 80% of their graduates go to the college of their choice including Ivy League Schools; and the other 20% got involved in their first choice of numerous other jobs, apprenticeships, start up businesses, travelling and so on.
The system works. Evidence shows we can trust it. The question now is – How much do you trust your child?
Ben Kestner, April 2016