Learning to Trust Oneself

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The following article appears in the book The Sudbury Valley School Experience, Edited by Mimsy Sadofsky and Daniel Greenberg.  The article is written by Alan White.  The Sudbury Valley School Experience can be purchased online from the Sudbury Valley School Press at: http://bookstore.sudburyvalley.org/product/sudbury-valley-school-experience

Life is a journey and upon reflection I realize that, in my journey, I have been trying to recapture what was mine as a young child.

The accomplishments of young children up to the age of five are remarkable and have been acknowledged by many before me. They learn to sit up, to crawl, to stand up, to walk, to gain command of spoken language (even several languages), among other things and since almost all babies accomplish these enormously difficult tasks, we are not as awed by their accomplishments as we should be. Rather than recognizing how successful they have been at teaching themselves tasks that would be very difficult for any adult, we have gotten the idea that when they are four or five we can now take over their education and really teach them all the "important" things that they will need to know to be a successful and productive adult. We want to share what we know, offering them short cuts to our hard earned knowledge, and save them from making mistakes. Even if I were to concede that our intentions were good, which is not at all a foregone conclusion, I would argue that we have never been able to come close to doing as well for our children as they have been able to do for themselves.

In 1967 a group came together to begin an experiment in education, the Sudbury Valley School, that recognized the remarkable achievements of early childhood and created a setting that would allow children to continue learning about the world without interfering. Having had the opportunity to watch the progress made by children in this unusual school, I have once again come to appreciate a lesson that I have had to learn over and over again.

Since life is extremely complex, even the most gifted of observers can notice only a facet of reality. Even then, some of the observations stand the test of time, some are modified, and some are replaced by observations made by gifted observers who follow them. This is true for all aspects of knowledge. It is in recognition of this awareness that I have come to reject all religions and schools of thought that codify original observations and will not allow them to change.

Perhaps the most important disservice adults make in attempting to help children learn is to try to substitute the adult's knowledge for the child's own feedback system which was so successful in the earliest years. It takes away self-reliance and replaces it with "expert" opinion. The child often becomes passive, confused and even angry. From earliest infancy, children develop their own criteria about what works and what does not. They constantly test new input against the feedback provided by their nervous system in order to correct and transform their criteria until they feel they have things right, at least for a time, at their particular stage of development. For example, their use of language in a family setting may need to be transformed when they try to communicate to others as their circle of contacts expands into the larger community, and the feedback they receive as the circle expands helps them transform the language.

Take something as basic as eating. Even the youngest of babies know when they are hungry and will drink their mother's milk until they have satisfied their hunger. In experiments conducted over forty years ago to find out what kind of diet young toddlers would choose for themselves, a smorgasbord of dishes were provided. This research concluded that, although children would often eat bizarre meals at any one occasion, over a month's time their food intake was well balanced. An adult population that is grossly overweight, that has to resort to bypass surgery to try to compensate for clogged arteries later in life; a population where heart attacks are one of the leading causes of early death, and where mobility is seriously curtailed by deteriorating muscles, is hardly in a position to substitute their knowledge of what is good for anyone to eat or how to care for oneself. Even for that minority of parents who are health conscious, it is a mistake to rob children of the ability to develop their own criteria for good eating and caring for themselves. Normal, healthy children are not self-destructive. They do not walk over cliffs or expose themselves to known danger. Now it is true that they may, in their inexperience, expose themselves to an unknown danger and we can not let them experiment by eating poison or walking out in front of an oncoming car, but it is the rule and not the exception that should be followed. We should allow children to develop their own criteria for what is right for them whenever possible.

Like many of my contemporaries I have been struggling with an overeating problem over the years, and I have become increasingly aware of the roots of my dilemma. I am tempted to eat when I am anxious or when I am restless. I feel compelled to finish whatever is served. I also feel "starved" when my customary time of eating approaches. I have had a sense for some time now that all of these feelings about food are only partly related to any real need for nourishment. I also know that people can fast for days, or even weeks, without losing energy or feeling starved. It is only recently that I have begun to focus in on the problem. I began by fasting for three days, paying particular attention to my feelings of hunger and how my body was responding. Once I had made up my mind that I was going to start a fast I did not feel particularly hungry at meal times, so I think that, like Pavlov's dogs, I have been conditioned to eat at certain hours of the day. Parents tell us that eating at scheduled times is for our own good, but it turns out it is for their convenience. The one who has to prepare food should be considered, but it should be stated that way and not passed off as something that is good for the child. When people we trust and depend on deceive us, it teaches us to discredit the messages we are receiving from our nervous system. Now that I am paying careful attention to when I am hungry, I am finding out that I am much more relaxed, eat more slowly, I am eating much less, and I am not eating just because I am anxious or nervous.

Up until the age of fourteen, I, along with many of my cousins, spent every summer with my grandparents who lived on a farm. There were horses, cows, pigs, chickens, cats and dogs, among other farm animals. The birth of new animals was always an exciting event in our young lives. These young animals became our favorites and we would clean and pet them. It was a very traumatic event when these pets were butchered and presented to us as part of our meals. My grandfather's response was that it was necessary to our own survival. Had I been given the choice I would never have killed my pets, but I trusted my grandfather's wisdom and learned to enjoy the taste of meat. Later in life I became aware that there were people who did not eat meat and who seemed to survive just fine, in good health. Moreover, there were many warnings coming from the medical profession about adverse side effects that came from eating meat. I am now a vegetarian by choice and have been for the past twenty years. I find that I am perfectly healthy, I have plenty of energy, I have lost the taste for meat, and I do not need to live with the idea that I am taking the lives of animals for my own use. Had I had the confidence in my own feelings I would have avoided part of a serious trauma when I was young and I may not have had to struggle with eating problems throughout my life.

Once you begin to question the experts you realize that there are no areas that you are willing to leave unchallenged.

Once you begin to question the experts you realize that there are no areas that you are willing to leave unchallenged. We all know from personal experience or from stories we have been told about the mistakes that doctors make. I have come to look at them as sources of information but to rely on my own intuition and insights as well. A number of years ago I had a severe rash on my leg that was very itchy. The more I scratched the more inflamed it became and the more it spread. I went to a dermatologist for help. He prescribed an ointment which he said would alleviate the problem but would not cure it. He told me I would have to be on medication for the rest of my life. That thought was a very difficult one for me and I was unwilling to accept it without looking for an alternative. Since I was aware that scratching only exacerbated the problem, I made up my mind that I would not scratch no matter how much my skin itched. After about a week of not scratching, the irritation and inflammation subsided and eventually disappeared. After several months went by, I scratched at my leg when I was nervous to see if the reaction would re-occur and it did, so that I was aware of the connection between my anxiety and the inflammation to skin of my leg. But I have never used the medication that the doctor prescribed and that was over ten years ago. This lesson taught me that a doctor is only a consultant and not an all knowing sage.

It has been a great effort to try to undo the education that was provided for my own good. Some of it has stood the test of time, yet there are many instances where the observations that were presented to me as truth have not stood the test of time. When it comes to my own body, I am trying to rely on the feedback that I am getting from my heart, lungs, and other organs. When it comes to information about the world, I am much more skeptical about expert opinion and always ask if these ideas really make sense based upon my own experience.

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