by Shawna Lee, co-founder, staff member, and parent

Reprinted from the April 2002 issue of “The School Bull,” the newsletter of The Clearwater School.

“On Children”
And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children.”
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
–from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

The Clearwater School is coming to the end of its sixth year and my son is almost eleven years old. As my son and his fellow students grow and become more capable, I find myself musing more and more often on the truth of the above passage from The Prophet. Clearwater and other Sudbury schools insist that children deserve and require trust and freedom to fully develop their talents and abilities. This means adults must trust children to navigate the world, to make mistakes and gather their own lessons, to figure out how to handle painful, exhilarating and boring experiences, to decide what is important to them and how to spend their time, to take risks, and to learn everything in ways that work best for them.

We adults resist trusting children. We fear for their emotional and physical safety. We fear for their future. We fear they are not capable of taking on the complexities, pitfalls and downright scary things life offers. We get weak in the knees when we really look at what fully trusting our children means. It means recognizing that we often don’t know what is best for them. It means realizing they are creating a life we cannot experience or fully understand. It means knowing that from the moment they are born they are already moving beyond us. It means understanding that they will perceive many things differently from us and will choose to act accordingly, in ways that may be uncomfortable to us.

A case in point is electronic technology. Many parents who investigate Clearwater are uncomfortable with the freedom students have to play computer and video games and to watch movies. There are many voices in our culture – including experts—who believe these technologies are harmful to children. Their opinions run the gamut from mild uneasiness to full–fledged panic. Yet, in the years I have observed children who have chosen to spend small or significant amounts of their time using these technologies, I have yet to see any cause for alarm. Instead of unhealthy influences, I believe games and movies are some of their generation’s art and tools – means to help them learn about and make sense of the world. History is full of examples of the parent generation demonizing the art and tools of the upcoming generation. Our own parents were frightened of the influence of rock music and television on our lives.

Each generation adopts and creates what is needed to figure out the world. While our tools and experiences may be helpful, ultimately our children must be able to choose and make their own. If we insist that our children see the world through our eyes, we will ultimately cripple their ability to create a life that reflects their experiences and nurtures them. Our tools are inadequate for them. Children must be able to manipulate their own tools and analyze how well they work. They must learn how to create their own limits. If they are allowed to learn these skills while they are young, when the consequences are less dire, they will be able to make choices that are usually wise and humane for themselves and others as they mature.

We adults are responsible for loving our children and making sure they know it. We are responsible for respecting them as people separate from us. We are responsible for clearly stating our opinions, advocating for our beliefs and carefully listening to theirs. We are responsible for communicating our rules and boundaries and acknowledging their feelings. We are responsible for engaging with them as complete human beings. As much as possible we are responsible for providing an environment where our children can explore safely and live their lives to the fullest.

When children receive trust and respect as unique and whole individuals they learn early on to trust themselves. They develop the self-confidence to pick and choose from a multitude of ideas and tools as they create and shape the lives and relationships they desire. In turn, they offer trust and respect to their children and other people in their lives. Humans are capable of great good, great harm and everything in between – and sometimes all of those things at once. We cannot know what impact any single act or series of events will have, nor can we even begin to guess what information will ultimately be of value to our children. Our children have the best chance of success when they are able to trust themselves and depend on their innate strength, intelligence and curiosity. It is our privilege as adults to observe, honor and celebrate the brilliance of their lives.