Sarah R. Callender


In General, Parenting on April 14, 2011 at 2:42 pm

I might have also titled this post, “When Democracy Goes Terribly Awry,” or “You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!” But as you know, I like to go with one-word titles. One-word titles make me feel chic and mysterious instead of what I really am: someone who has worn an inside-out shirt TWICE this week. I know!

So I like to go with one word blog titles.

Not to mention, there is a certain amount of judgement in the title, “You Have GOT to be Kidding Me!” and as I age, I am trying, often unsuccessfully, to be less judgmental.

But this post’s topic is, actually, about freedom. And how much kids have. And how much kids should have. The seed of this post comes from Public Radio’s This American Life, on January 14, one segment of which was based on The Brooklyn Free School, a delightful little intellectual utopia where, yes, democracy trumps all. A place where kids, age 5-18, have as much say and as much power as grown-up teachers who, presumably, have at least a little academic and professional experience regarding how to best educate children. And who, lest we forget, are GROWN-UPS. Did you catch a whiff of my judgement just then?

A bit of background: This American Life, if you are not a fan, chooses a theme each week. Ira Glass, the charming and affectedly nonchalant host, then moderates and/or narrates three to five “Acts” based on that theme. On January 14, 2011, the theme was “Kid Politics.”

ENTER The Brooklyn Free School, a paragon of democracy, a place that (according to the school’s mission statement on their website), is

. . . a true democratic school for children of all ages. Each child and staff member will have an equal voice in major decisions (and minor ones) affecting the day-to-day running of the school. BFS believes that all children are natural learners and they are fully supported to pursue any interest they have, in the manner they choose, at their own pace, and for as long as they want to, as long as they do not restrict any other person’s right to do the same.

BFS also believes the following:

There is no set curriculum except the establishment of an all-inclusive democratic system that runs the school, and the communication of that system to all members of the school . . . students are free to pursue their individual interests for however long they want and in whatever manner they choose . . . [t]here are no compulsory grades, assessments or homework. The students are in charge of their own learning and progress and are able to adequately assess themselves . . .

While certain parts of those paragraphs totally freak me out (I know; more judgement), I am intrigued by the concept. I taught public high school English before the arrival of Buddy and Sweetie, and I happen to believe that teenagers are about infinity times more capable and amazing than most adults assume. I believe that a largely democratic school, one where students feel valued and heard and empowered, is a neat idea. I, like the crunchy folks at BFS, believe that “all children are natural learners” and that kids learn more and learn better when they have a bit of intellectual freedom. I believe traditional classrooms are the absolute wrong place for certain kids.

But a place where students have “an equal” voice in all major and minor decisions that affect the school? That seems a little irritating, not to mention, inefficient. A few too many cooks in that educational kitchen. I know. Judgement.

Because, as This American Life went on to document a day in the life of a BFS student, it seems to be a place for kids who love meetings, sometimes up to six a day. Calling meetings, attending meetings, voting at meetings. There are meetings about screen time, meetings about classes kids would like to see offered, meetings about whether it’s acceptable to nap in class, meetings to decide whether This American Life should be allowed to do story, meetings with a fox in a box about socks. And yes, meetings about meetings:

So my very judgmental yet very sincere question is this: when do the kids, you know, actually learn stuff? Do some kids graduate from BFS without ever writing an essay? Without ever learning the quadratic equation? Without reading any Shakespeare or doing Chemistry or studying Picasso or running the mile?

And if they never do any of this stuff, does it matter? Is my life any better for having read a whole bunch of Shakespeare plays? Yes. But maybe that’s because I am weird.

OK, and what about a school that allows kids to learn at their own pace? That’s fine for someone like, I don’t know, Einstein. Or wee Elise Tan-Roberts who at age two years, four months, was reciting world capitals, hot on Einstein’s heels in the realm of Mensa. But when I picture my very own Buddy in a school like this, where his teacher might say, “What would you like to learn today, Buddy? Whatever it is, you can just take it at your own pace.” You know what Buddy would say? He’d say: “Farts. I’d like to learn about farts. And recess. How about this: I’ll learn about farts, but only when I’m NOT out at recess, except that I WILL be out at recess, all day, every day, because now I’ve decided I ONLY want to study RECESS, you sucka teacher-lady!”

I will not be coughing up the 15K annual tuition to send Buddy to such a school.

Yet one of the things I find most fascinating is the kids’ right to assess their own progress and skill. We are, after all, raising kids who are part of the Me Generation, a group of tots who are seen (by older generations) as narcissistic and entitled.  Here’s the sad thing: this Me Generation, AKA The Entitlement Generation, AKA the Trophy Generation (I know, there I go again), includes everyone born since 1970. AKA me, DOB 11/28/71.

In 2007 The Boston Globe published an article titled “The New Me Generation,” addressing this very topic:

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, says that this includes virtually everyone born after 1970. According to Twenge, these young people were raised on a daily regimen of praise and flattery from their baby boomer parents and from teachers who embraced a self-esteem-boosting curriculum that included activities like the Magic Circle game. Never heard of it? In this game, one child a day is given a badge that says “I’m great.” The other children then take turns praising the “great” child, and eventually these compliments are written up and given to the child for posterity. This constant reinforcement, argues Twenge, is largely responsible for those young co-workers who drive you nuts. At the University of South Alabama, psychology professor Joshua Foster has done a great deal of research using a standardized test called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). The NPI asks subjects to rate the accuracy of various narcissistic statements, such as “I can live my life any way I want to” and “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.” Foster has given this personality test to a range of demographic groups around the world, and no group has scored higher than the American teenager. Narcissism also appears to be reaching new highs, even within the Entitlement Generation, among American college students. Another national study involving the NPI, conducted by Twenge, shows that 24 percent of college students in 2006 showed elevated levels of narcissism compared to just 15 percent in the early 1990s.

So back to The Brooklyn Free School: it is these Gen Me’er kiddos who will asses and evaluate their own skills and progress? In a land where every kid gets a trophy for just showing up, in a society where kids are taught they are really fantastically wonderful just for breathing and blinking, I’m pretty sure that the BFS is going to be graduating a whole lot of Valedictorians (or, as Husbandio calls them, “Valevictorians”–the irony being that he WAS one).

This whole deal makes me assess how Husbandio and I are raising Buddy and Sweetie. We try to let them be who they are, within reason. They wanted to learn violin, rather than piano (my preference) so there I am, learning the proper bow hold and what one does with rosin and yes, there is ONE RIGHT ANSWER when the violin rental store lady asks, “And would you like to buy insurance?”

Any of you who have seen Sweetie knows that she tends to wear “bright” and “unique” outfits and lopsided, mixed-media hairstyles: one side pigtail, one “loopy thing” atop her head, and one braid. After I dutifully construct such a hair masterpiece, I watch her gaze at herself in the mirror. “I love it,” she says. “It’s perfect.”

Buddy, for his part, has decided he wants to attend a different Seattle Public School in the fall. So? Even though it means two kids in two schools, even though I have parents criticizing me for the fact that a different school means putting Buddy on the bus (the horror!), even though it means if there’s an earthquake or a nutball with a gun picking off students on campus, I am a 20 minute drive from Buddy, we’ve allowed him to make that decision.

But Husbandio and I get to make the call on what’s for dinner and how long the kids can play Wii each week and what they wear to church. When they shower. That they need to write thank you notes. That sometimes you have to say sorry even if you don’t feel very sorry. And you have to make it sound sincere.

Maybe if we had only had one kid, we’d feel comfortable giving that kid the chance to vote, but with two kids (and often only one parent present) a pure democracy would result in unlimited ice cream, no vegetables, no chores. Probably a coup as well.

It’s true that the idea of democracy is a little scary when you’re running a dictatorship. (Right, Hosni? Am I feeling you, Gbagbo?) But I don’t know; I kind of think a parent, a teacher, a coach sometimes just needs to play the role of dictator.

This, however, conflicts with the fact that Americans are crazy for freedom. We want the freedom to carry guns. We want the freedom to end a pregnancy. Me? I’d just like the freedom to take a shower without some small person coming in to give me the play-by-play of his recent Mario Kart race on the Wii.

But in my mind, there’s a limit to freedom. And, there’s a fine line between empowering kids and creating a whole nation of whiny dictators who have no respect for authority. Who don’t even acknowledge an authority exists.

What think you? Would our kids perform better in school if they had more choice, more freedom? Are there appropriate times to stifle a kid’s personality and creative freedom? Is it healthy or dangerous to teach kids that they have a voice, that their opinion is as important as that of an adult?

I really would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. You have no idea how much your comments mean to me.

Finally, on an unrelated note, I sincerely apologize for my lengthy blog silence. At the end of 2010, I was fortunate to get a fantastic agent who wants to try to sell my novel. So, for the past 3.5 months, I have forced myself to keep focused on her suggested revisions. I just sent the revised manuscript off yesterday so while she’s seeing if it’s ready to be put in front of publishers, I’ll be returning to the world of blogging, AKA, doing my duties as a Gen Me’er, one of a billion bloggers who assumes her ideas and thoughts are worth sharing with the entire world. How narcissistic of me! Finally, please excuse any and all type-os. My eyes are so bleary and SO SICK AND TIRED of editing my own writing that I’m tempted to sneak into the older generation, just so I can stop thinking of something other than ME and my own writing.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read.

  1. You rock! Will you braid half my hair at the next little league game? I promise to save some quinoa for you. 🙂

  2. Hilarious. Reposting. Quoting. Missed you dearly. I am reading Bossypants and Fey reminds me of you. Reminds me of YOU! Like you were first! Well, in the written word, you were! Fav quote: “I’d just like the freedom to take a shower without some small person coming in to give me the play-by-play of his recent Mario Kart race on the Wii.” You mean that’s not just me?

  3. These days, I’m not even sure we “adults” deserve democracy. But that’s another subject. What struck me first about this is all the meetings they have. It’s good prep for the cubicle life–yet another topic. But I’m with you– participation of the masses around here would lead to naked rugby matches with scissors in hands and tootsie pops (dinner) in the pie hole. And the Wii would be school/religion/social interaction in one.

  4. This is such a tangled web for me: police officers keep shooting people, and tasering 11-year-olds around here but 11-year-olds keep disrespecting police officers and treating them like poop and classrooms seem a lot like Lord of the Flies but with parents in the background whispering “Go Billy! You’re right!” (too bad I didn’t actually read the book and know the real protagonist’s name – my mother let me choose what I would read) and my daughter really, truly prefers a princess costume Every. Damned. Day. and I’m okay with that but my MIL may be right that that same costume is the reason she keeps trying to exert her will all time about every thing else but then don’t I want a daughter with a will and the skill to exert it because what if she bumps into a jerky police officer with a taser…? Maybe she’d be better off if I forced her into matching outfits afterall. Sh*t.

    See, it’s a mess.

    How’s that for a silly comment?

    • LOVE this comment, AC. Thanks also for reposting on FB. I am thinking of you and the Moms in your life. I have missed your posts . . . no pressure though. As one who was forced to take a blog break, I know I just sometimes have to be patient. 🙂

  5. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to explain to my older child how lucky he is to have any choices. I believe it’s good to give them some control but ultimately I’m the boss. It’s not always fun to be boss (although sometimes the power makes me a bit giddy) but it’s the best way to keep the kids safe. At least for now.
    Good luck with your book. Writing is fun but rewriting is the pits. I’ve enjoyed your blog (sorry to indulge your narcissism)and would love to read your book some day.

  6. This topic has always fascinated me. When I think about how I would have felt in a school like that, I think I would have gone insane. I love rules, regulations, and I want to know exactly what I need to do to acheive the best results. I like routine and have a hard time dealing with suprises. (wow, I sound like a crazy person) Anyway – maybe if I had been in a school like the “the Brooklyn free school” I would have been a different person today. Makes one want to have a go(been hanging round the Brits too long) at being a kid all over again and see how it would all turn out. Glad you’re back Sarah. No doubt all will go well with your novel.

    • You are SO not a crazy person, Shannon. I loved this comment because I can completely relate . . . can you imagine Mrs. Deluca or Mr. Shortenhaus (sp?) saying, “Kids? This year, just learn whatever you’re in the mood to learn. Or not!” Thanks for the comment and the kind novel-related words. 🙂

  7. My thoughts on this sort of make me feel like I’m echoing my dad. Which is disturbing, because my dad likes to think I’m an intellectual commie peacenik, and I like to think that he’s a conservative but lovable goon. But I think that deep down kids actually like some rules and guidance from authority at a young age. That it provides a certain degree of comfort and stability in an uncertain world. Lord knows democracy is paramount to our great nation, but how are you going to ever learn that if you’re deciding the curriculum at age 12? I also believe a certain degree of respect for authority is healthy. Granted, I also believe that respect needs to be earned and should be open to being respectfully questioned. Unless you’re talking about my 2-year old, in which case my word is law. As for the Me Generation, my greatest goal is that I can raise my kids to be kind, and my hope is that my neighbors are trying to do the same.

    • I love your Dad. I love that you still use the word “goon.” I love that little Johnny (and Magnolia) have such a great mama. Amen to all that you said in your comment!

  8. Sarah,
    All I can say, is if you’re raising a daughter that is inventing the above hairstyle, you are doing something right! You and your family are so lovely. Thanks for the blog – we all look forward to reading it!! And, yes, I too, would enjoy a new hairstyle at the next baseball game. Can we work in pipecleaner antennae or silk butterflies somehow? That would be great.

  9. “Are there appropriate times to stifle a kid’s personality and creative freedom?” I say yes! I have a friend (not you Sarah) who doesn’t believe you should tell children “no” because she believes it will stifle their creativity. I think I am fairly creative (let it be known that I am also a Gen Me’er) and I can assure you that I heard the word “no” ALL THE TIME! Being told no didn’t stifle anything as far as I can tell. Only time will tell with my daughter. My sweet little girl’s idea of creative freedom, at 15 months old, is to hold the handle down on the Arrowhead water cooler and watch water spill all over everything. She finds great joy in that. I, however, do not. Unless she intends to be a water artist of some sort, me telling her not to spill water all over the house for the millionth time today, isn’t going to stifle her. Its going to teach her that she doesn’t get to watch water spill just because she thinks its fun. I believe kids need to know the difference between right and wrong. If they don’t learn it from their parents, who are they going to learn it from?
    PS – I miss you!

  10. Sarah Callender for President!

  11. The thing is Free from what? Tryanny, religous freedom, freedom of speech- ABSOLUTELY! But Freedom from responsibility? Freedom from hard work? Freedom from the reality that sometimes in life you have do things that aren’t fun? While I do think that individuals can get lost in the current education system and that creativity isn’t always rewarded there is such a thing as taking it too far! I am starting to sound like an old geezer :)!

  12. Hey all . . . another reader just emailed me a link to a blog with a different POV. Feel free to check it out:

  13. I’m so glad you are blogging again! And I’m excited to read your book!! I have lots of parenting questions and few answers. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  14. Just read this post as I am going back through your archives. First, I have two daughters who love inventive hairstyles and clothes. I used to try to get things to match, but that didn’t last long. Now, I’m happy if the cast-offs land back in the drawer, more or less. It doesn’t happen often — about as often as an uninterrupted shower (though the interruptions in my house are more along the lines of the old Cosby show, “She hit me!” “She hit me first!” We don’t have a Wii. Maybe that’s the problem).
    Second, congrats on getting an agent!! I have a novel completed and I’m sending queries. After getting hooked on your blog, I’ll definitely be lined up to buy your book.
    Last, on the freedom question, I find that I vacillate on this everyday, often to my chagrin. I am always trying to find a balance between the “right” level of autonomy and the “right” boundaries. Sometimes (often) I fail out of distraction — “yes” to the lollipop so I can just finish the damn chapter — that kind of thing. Based on your description of the BFS, I think it would drive me crazy, but I’m not a fan of endless meetings. For our family (and we homeschool), a clear schedule, regular sign-post expectations, and some flexibility with the kid-sized decisions seems to work well. If only it were easy to stick to that, but there’s always a damn chapter to finish! Thanks for another great post, even if I’m late to the “meeting”.

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