Unstopping and Sudbury Schools

I have always been an unschooler but I helped found the Maui Sudbury School which, I think you will agree, is basically unschooling in a group setting.  Here is the list of beliefs about education that we came up with over 20 years ago.  I think they stand the test of time pretty darned well.

0.  That people and Life are basically good, that the universe is guided by an all-pervading Love and Intelligence.

1.  That children can be trusted to make their own decisions about such things as how to spend their time and with whom to associate.

2.  That the right time for a child to learn something is when s/he initiates it, even if this is much earlier or much later than most children learn that thing.

3.  That character traits such as integrity, love, compassion, kindness, friendliness, humility, sense of humor, appreciation of beauty, and cooperation are at least as important to education, if not more important than intellectual skills such as reading, writing and math.

4.  That play and joy are two of the characteristics of learning, even if we are unable to see for ourselves what is being learned.

5.  That there are no failures, there are only unexpected and perhaps previously unwanted outcomes from which we can learn, and that children should not be protected from these learning opportunities.

6.  That each child is unique and has his/her own purpose in life and that our greatest gift to that child is to allow him/her to discover his/her inner guides and goals.

7.  That no purpose or path of life is any better than any other, so long as it comes from the Higher Self within.  Thus my child may be a “butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker” or anything else and I will support and love him/her unconditionally.

8.  That there is no hierarchy among individuals and their gifts — each is precious and appreciated and is his/her own authority.

9.  That some of my most cherished beliefs may turn out to be untrue.

10.  That Truth is more important than who is right; and that others can help me to see beyond my own view of things.

11.  That my family will carry its own weight and then some in making school thrive.

(Our son and I participated as unschoolers — showing up when we wanted and leaving when we wanted.  The school eventually closed because it was difficult to find parents here who could or would pay for a “school” where kids did whatever they wanted to do.)

Mother Asks What to Do About Her “Dreamer” Son

A mother once asked me for advice on what to do about her son Randy, who has very big dreams, plans, and expectations.  (One of his plans was to build a raft.)  This is my response to those who have children that are very big dreamers:

Hm, what to do about your big dreamer whose ideas seem so impractical. Yes, I do have an idea. Don’t you be the one to show him his impracticality. Let natural consequences work for you. Let him come to the problems and solve them with your help or realize they can’t be solved. You will relieve yourself of a great deal of pressure. Both of you, actually. I’d recommend the books, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk and Between Parent and Child. The gist of those books is that the parent is the child’s advocate. Let him learn his hard knocks in the world and you be his safe place to fall. No idea is impossible. He might end up with a very primitive raft or he may come up with some way to make it happen that you couldn’t see or he may realize it can’t be done. But it won’t be you standing in his way. It’ll be you doing your best to help him find a way, without protecting him from reality. I don’t mean you’d pay for materials, for example. But maybe he wants to try to sell something at school to earn the money. Jordan and I made lollipops and he sold them in his dad’s retail store for extra money. But I had his first deduct the cost of materials and of my labor so he’d know his true profit.

I would focus on looking for opportunities for him to help in grown up ways and to dream with him on his big ideas.

Maybe you worry that you will have to make it happen in the end — like how you were willing to go along on the raft as long as you thought he wasn’t serious. And then it was when YOU saw the barriers. Of course you will see these sooner than he does. But if you let him find them out for himself, you are no longer the bringer of the bad news. Life will teach him those lessons and in a more real way. And who knows? he might surprise you with clever ideas of how to make his ideas happen. Maybe that’s his gift. Only by letting him try will you (both) know.

A little while later, I got a response from the child in question’s mother:
I am so glad you gave me that advice on how to handle Randy’s big dreams. He recently abandoned his previous raft idea and decided he wanted to build a raft out of styrofoam scraps he got at a friend’s house. I withheld my “reasons why that won’t work” and instead found myself saying, “How can I help?” Well, he managed to fasten some wood to the styrofoam, lash it together with string and straps (that’s the part I helped with – he did almost the whole thing himself and was still in charge of my part.) When it was all ready we packed it in the van and took it to a stream about 15 minutes away. Randy wore his swimsuit just in case, even though it was only 50 degrees out, and of course a life vest since the water was a little deep in parts – and went down the stream on that raft! He taped on cookies for a snack (I didn’t tell him they’d get all wet, which they did, but he was OK with that because I let him try.) He was so proud, and we took his picture. Surprisingly, the raft held up until he stepped on it to climb out, and it broke in half. But he did get his rafting trip on his own raft, and his thoughts weren’t “Oh no, my raft broke,” but “What can I do different next time.” So I thank you for that wonderful experience. His current project is trying to make his Yerf dog (kind of like a “bigwheel” for big kids) fly. He’s rigged up a chain of sorts between the front and back wheels with the intention that if he pedals fast enough, this chain will transfer energy into 2 arrows he’s taped together like helicopter blades, and it will lift him up. Now if that works, I’ll be sure to call the newspaper! But we are having fun working on it together. He wants to go on-line next to see if there is any info on making bikes fly…..

Same mother a season later: It’s a snow day today, and Randy built an “ice rink” in our back yard – George was discouraging him but I remembered the incident with the raft so decided just to let it go where it would. He dug out the surface in the snow, put a tarp down and banked the sides. Then there it sat for about a week until yesterday when we noticed it was filling with rain water. We knew it would be freezing over night so we (Randy and I) went out a filled tubs with water to dump in the area. As we were doing this (and I was feeling it in my back, although honestly having fun with it) Randy asked if it brought back childhood memories, since Dad built us an ice rink every year when I was little. I replied, yes, but he used the hose. Then we just looked at each other and laughed – of course – the hose! So we hooked it up and it was much easier. It will be another fond memory and I’m so glad you gave me that advice those years ago about letting kids find their own limits, not set them for them.

Same mother very recently, whose son is now 18:  Randy  is working on designing a t-shirt and hopes to become an overnight millionaire with it. I’ve brought up having a business plan, maybe taking a “how to start a business” class at the community college, but he’s hoping to have a couple famous people wear his shirt and have business take off from there. I’m available if he needs help (which he hasn’t asked for, but I let him know to ask if he needed it) but I’m not being a naysayer or putting up roadblocks. Who knows – Randy does seem to have that good luck streak. You’ve given me lots of good advice over the years, and the one that has really hit home was to let the kids run with it and not be their obstacle – I keep a picture of Randy on his homemade raft with that silly grin on his face up in my room and look at it every day as a reminder.


“An Empty sort of mind is valuable for finding pearls and tails and things because it can see what’s in front of it. An Overstuffed mind is unable to. While the Clear mind listens to a bird singing, the Stuffed-Full-of Knowledge-and Cleverness mind wonders what kind of bird is singing. The more Stuffed Up it is, the less it can hear through its own ears and see through its own eyes. Knowledge and Cleverness tend to concern themselves with the wrong sorts of things, and a mind confused by Knowledge, Cleverness, and Abstract Ideas tends to go chasing off after things that don’t matter, or that don’t even exist, instead of seeing, appreciating, and making use of what is right in front of it….In the forty-eighth chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Lao-tse wrote, ‘To attain knowledge, add things every day.
To attain wisdom, remove things every day.’”
— from The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff