The First Casualty

Children are born with one overriding drive. They seek to grow up and to gain mastery over their own lives.

Any child who grows up in a wider culture that values freedom is naturally jealous of what s/he feels to be her/his right to pursue happiness. Any parent in the modern world, on the other hand, is bombarded with messages that children need constant supervision and “guidance”. Even in places where lip service is given to allowing children freedom, the “wise, thoughtful adult” is expected to offer a “gentle, guiding hand”. Which is to say that adults feel pressured to constantly “help” “guide” “mentor” and “monitor” children, on penalty of being declared negligent. The children are left feeling just as any person would feel; uncomfortable at being constantly observed and policed.

In our wider culture there is a war being waged between adults and children, fought in many homes and virtually all schools, over questions of control and power. As the parent or teacher is quick to state, “who has experience here?” As the child is quick to reply, “whose life is it anyway?” It may not be a hot war, but it is certainly a cold war. At least when it is a hot war, the cards are more often on the table, while when it is a cold war each has a tendency to deceive the other side.

At Sudbury Valley, we start from the presumption that in this conflict children are right to seek independence and personal control. But Sudbury Valley is an oasis, in the midst of a wider culture, and that culture sides with the adults who would have every child constantly watched, observed, and haunted.

But my aim is not to focus on the nature of conflict between children who seek to grow up and expand their power, and those adults who are limiting the independence and maturation of those children. My aim is not even to reflect on the serious costs of such conflict to the relationship between children and the adults who would control them. My aim is to draw attention to one particular value which is likely to be lost to a child who has had to wage a war for his/her independence.

The idea that the first casualty of war is the truth applies to any conflict in which the stakes are high, and in which each party is certain that her or his position is justified. Sudbury Valley is a place in which children have nothing against which to rebel. Without cause to rebel, a child has no automatic cause to lie.

What does this mean? It means that exerting control over children invites children to lie and to become liars, and to embrace and inhabit a world in which there is no truth but only “spin”.

It also means that attending Sudbury Valley, and having parents who want their children to be independent, leaves children the freedom to be honest. Fortunately children are robust, and moving out of an environment in which the child is at war can allow her/him to heal and to rediscover and embrace truth as a value.

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