An antidote to peer pressure Age mixing makes it okay for kids to be themselves

One of the major fears parents have when sending their children off to school is “peer pressure”. This frightening force is what makes otherwise good kids do bad things, like trying drugs or committing crimes. And beyond this obviously dark side of peer pressure there is a broader risk of young people losing themselves, and their unique personalities and interests, into the abyss of conformity as they grow from children into teens.

Of course, peer pressure and conformity are not all bad. Those impulses are what allow groups of people to adopt a common set of rules and norms and to work together harmoniously.

At Sudbury schools like The Open School, you’ll find plenty of the good kind of peer pressure with hardly any of the bad. A 12-year-old boy swings on the swingset every day, and his age-mates have never made fun of him for it. A 10-year-old girl brings her stuffed animals to school some days and plays with her 7-year-old friend. Other days she hangs out with the teen girls, who accept her as one of their own. Students here are allowed to be their quirky selves, as long as they aren’t breaking rules or disrupting the activities of others.

At Sudbury schools, we have a different kind of peer pressure. Everyone at the school, from 5-year-old children to adult staff, makes up a single peer group. Everyone is expected to abide by the rules of the school, respect each others’ rights, and fulfill responsibilities like chores and participation in the justice system. Likewise, when people choose to play games, they have to follow the agreed-upon rules of the game. This kind of conformity is what allows the school to function.

When a new student comes to our school, it’s like a breath of fresh air. They don’t have to hide themselves. They can be nerdy and pursue their interests. An 11-year-old boy, who seemed like a typical “cool kid” when he arrived here, eventually started collecting and trading Pokemon cards and playing Pokemon video games at school. Everyone still thinks he’s one of the coolest kids.

How does this happen at Sudbury schools? The main factor is the age-mixed environment. Whereas at a traditional school students are segregated into same-aged classes, at The Open School everyone is free to interact with anyone in the school, anywhere, anytime, of all ages. One of the strongest friendships at The Open School is between two boys aged 8 and 5. They get along well because they happen to have a lot of interests in common despite their age difference.

While at a traditional school students are pressured to act their grade, at The Open School most students don’t even know each other’s exact ages. There is no need for students to take part in rituals to gain acceptance into their same-aged peer group. Students are accepted just for being themselves. As a result they are less likely to be pressured into doing dangerous things, like drugs or law-breaking.

Also, the democratic structure of the school means that everyone of every age is an equal. There is no age-based hierarchy. The lack of grade divisions means nobody assumes that older students are better or smarter than younger students. We all have our unique strengths, abilities, and talents, and we can all learn from each other.

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