Life is hard, so is The Open School

Your child’s education at The Open School is a long game. It is not a panacea. There will be challenges. Boredom, frustration, and conflict will arise. This is good; this is actually what we want. Even though it might seem counter-intuitive at first, embracing these aspects of life is what makes children grow up into mature, self-directed, independent men and women.

I want you to imagine what your life would look like today if you couldn’t solve your own problems, if you had to ask your parents for help whenever something was difficult. This may be hard to believe, but I know a lot of adults who fit this description. I know adults who call their mom to figure out how to do laundry. I know adults who only know how to entertain themselves by watching television. I know adults who don’t know how to make friends because they never learned how to come out of their shell. I have met these people, and it’s not a good life. It’s a life of few choices and great frustration. I don’t want that kind of a life for the children who come to The Open School.

Parents whose children choose to attend a free democratic school have a very difficult job because they are aware that their children are not being coddled, which is often, perhaps subconsciously, what they really want. As adults, we tend to romanticize childhood as a time without problems, a time of carefree fun and endless smiles. This is an illusion that must be thoroughly dispelled before we can even begin this conversation. Childhood is a developmental growth spurt that will impact every aspect of a child’s life in the future. Each child goes through different struggles, but each struggle is extremely important in their growth.

Challenges are not bad. I repeat, challenges are not bad. Challenges are opportunities for growth. If you thought that The Open School was not a challenging place, you were wrong; it is perhaps the most challenging school in the county. We are all about challenges and giving young people space to conquer them. These are the things that matter most, more than any content or subject learning. If these challenges are not conquered, they are internalized as core elements of the child’s personality. As a child passes into young adulthood, they tend to accept the failure to conquer a challenge as an existential truth that cannot be denied. This is why you see adults who think they are stupid, or ugly, or socially inept. These characterizations of the self begin in childhood and remain unless addressed in a compassionate and patient manner. There is always enough time for curricular learning; these issues must be solved first.

There are no quick fixes in human development. Conquering these challenges takes a long time, but there are great rewards when it happens. If your child is easily bored, then he needs to figure out how to solve that. If your child has a hard time asserting herself, then she needs to figure out how to solve that. These are important matters for children. These are not trivial things. And when they do solve them, they will be establishing a solid foundation on which they can build an entire life. Most adults repress these issues until they erupt in mid life crises; this is not healthy development.

So let’s put philosophy aside and talk about practical solutions that you, as a parent, can utilize. The first is to ask yourself, “Is this what I really want?” If you cannot bear to see your child struggle through challenges, then you will inevitably undermine your child’s learning at The Open School. If you want your child to be distracted from these issues by curricula and constant supervision, then by all means, send them to the local public school. That is what they are providing. What we are providing is a space for children to find themselves, and to struggle with the challenges of life so that they are prepared for the real world. If you answered ‘no’ to the above question, you should stop reading this immediately and take your child out of this school.

If you answered ‘yes’ to the above question, I have some practical tips for you:

1. Be aware of the culture of productivity in our society. Be aware that all around them, children are being sent messages that unless they are accomplishing something, they are wasting their time. If you reflect back to them that they are wasting their time, then they will believe it. It is difficult for most adults to even begin to consider that enjoying life on a daily basis is rational because we are so entrenched in this culture of productivity. Let them be unproductive now and they will come to their own passionate productivity when they are ready.

2. Be aware that children cannot articulate everything that they are learning. This is a level of thinking that most adults don’t achieve until college. Some never get there. Whether they think it or not, they are learning. They are just used to thinking about learning as curricular, and not as personal development. Things like learning to trust, or learning to stand up for yourself, or learning to eat a balanced diet are not things that happen in a lesson; they happen over the course of time, through practice and focus. But you will never hear a child say, ‘today I learned how to believe in myself.’ It will just happen naturally. Not all educational results are easily measured.

3. Don’t ask them what they did at school. That question is, in fact, a rhetorical one, and pernicious at best. Instead, ask them how they are doing, and simply listen compassionately. If you ask them what they did, they will try to satisfy you with an answer you like, irrespective of the truth. I often notice children want validation from their parents (do you remember feeling like this as a child?) and so they will construct a truth that preserves their parents’ adoration. The child will try to shift the blame to others, to their peers, or to the staff, or to the model itself, before they will take responsibility for their choice to attend the school. If your child is saying they want to learn how to read, but then they spend every moment of the day playing dress up, then they obviously don’t want to learn how to read. But they know that you would rather hear them say they want to learn and that there is an obstacle to that end than to admit that they really enjoy playing dress up to you. Lying to you in this way is an attempt to manipulate you into fixing their problems. Self-directed learning is hard work! They will resist because they are used to things being made easy for them, and they will try to enlist your help to make things easier in order to shirk responsibility. This form of parental manipulation has serious consequences in the long run. Remind them that going to The Open School was their choice, and that learning is their responsibility. No one is going to force them. The staff has plenty of time in the day to help them learn, but we are not going to force them to learn.

This is not meant to scare you; this is meant to inspire. We all understand that parenting is a tremendously difficult task. It can often seem that life is easier when children are happy all the time, and so that becomes the implicit directive that parents take. Maybe your child didn’t like his or her old school and was chronically unhappy, and maybe you thought that switching to another school would be like a magic wand and solve all their problems. But let’s be very clear, there is no magic wand. Happiness is not about external things, it is a state of mind that must be cultivated. No amount of money, prestige, or adoration makes someone happy. We become happy when we take responsibility for it, when we choose happiness in each moment. And in order to take responsibility for it, we must struggle to claim it.

If being happy were easy, everyone would be happy. Finding the ability within ourselves to be happy is what The Open School is all about.

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