Stages of independence

2009 December 7
by Evan Lenz

How does the Sudbury school approach relate to different stages of child development? One assumption I realized I had was that children should be gradually given more and more independence as they get older. But there seems to be no such progression in the Sudbury approach. The same methodology applies to all students, ages 5 to 18. How should I adjust my thinking? Should I change my working theory of child development? Or are there components to the Sudbury approach that I’m missing?

This article seems to address my question (in an unexpected way!): “Ages Four and Up” by Daniel Greenberg, from Child Rearing. In the first paragraph, he writes:

By age four or thereabouts, human beings have a fully developed communication system which, for all intents and purposes, makes them mature persons. They are capable of expressing themselves, of understanding what’s said to them, and of structuring continuous thought; and they are capable of doing things with their environment. You could ask whether a person age four and up belongs at all in a book on child rearing, because I don’t consider someone over that age to be a child.

I probably wouldn’t go that far, but Greenberg’s assertion is worth considering. Especially when you consider how many people can go through life without seeming to mature. People don’t always act more mature the older they get. How wise and/or useful is it to declare exactly at what age a child becomes an adult? Reality doesn’t fit so nicely into such categories, whether you draw the line at 4 or 18.

On reflection, I realized that independence isn’t something we give children. It’s something they learn, regardless of what school they do or don’t attend. At a Sudbury school, kids are given the chance to develop that independence on their own schedule. The “methodology” in effect is to give them freedom externally (within a safe and caring environment), but the outcome is that they gradually develop their own internal sense of independence. So the progression is gradual, but the methodology doesn’t presume or attempt to control that progression. It just removes as many roadblocks as possible.

In contrast, the traditional schooling approach seems to encourage dependence, by filling students’ lives with activities coming from external sources (assignments, grades, schedules, etc.). Only when students are finally done with that mountain of assigned work (around age 18) do they get the freedom to start developing their own sense of independence, figuring out what they want to do with their lives, etc. Sudbury students, on the other hand, have been figuring this out all along. If their lives are full, it’s because they’ve been filling them.

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  1. December 8, 2009

    Thanks for linking to the Daniel Greenberg excerpt from Child Rearing. I haven’t read any of his work before, and I’m VERY interested in child development right now. Thanks!

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