Successful Struggles

In a striking passage near the end of Daring Greatly, Brené Brown addresses the topic of helicopter parenting, emphasizing both the difficulty and the necessity of letting kids struggle:

There seems to be growing concern on the part of parents and teachers that children are not learning how to handle adversity or disappointment because we’re always rescuing and protecting them. It’s not that our children can’t stand the vulnerability of handling their own situations, it’s that we can’t stand the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, even when we know it’s the right thing to do. I no longer see rescuing and intervening as unhelpful; I now think about it as dangerous. Don’t get me wrong—I still struggle and I still step in when I shouldn’t, but I now think twice before I let my discomfort dictate my behaviors. Here’s why: Hope is a function of struggle. If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle. And let me tell you, next to love and belonging, I’m not sure I want anything more for my kids than a deep sense of hopefulness.

Reading this, I was reminded of the story  about a butterfly greatly harmed by someone’s well-intentioned help. Here’s the version told by writer Paulo Coehlo:

A man spent hours watching a butterfly101589666_1e7ba141cd struggling to emerge from its cocoon. It managed to make a small hole, but its body was too large to get through it. After a long struggle, it appeared to be exhausted and remained absolutely still.

The man decided to help the butterfly and, with a pair of scissors, he cut open the cocoon, thus releasing it. However, the butterfly’s body was very small and wrinkled and its wings were all crumpled.

The man continued to watch, hoping that, at any moment, the butterfly would open its wings and fly away. Nothing happened: in fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its brief life dragging around its shrunken body and shrivelled wings, incapable of flight.

What the man—out of kindness and his eagerness to help—had failed to understand was that the tight cocoon and the efforts that the butterfly had to make in order to squeeze out of that tiny hole were Nature’s way of training the butterfly and of strengthening its wings.

There’s an inherent paradox in raising children, a basic, unavoidable dilemma: they enter the world completely dependent, while our goal is to help them become independent. Time and again, over the course of many years, we’re pulled in opposite directions in wanting to do what’s best for the young people in our care.

When it comes to letting kids struggle, examples abound of taking it to an extreme, from letting the very young just “cry it out” to showing “tough love” later on. I don’t want to reduce this to a simplistic formula (“struggle good, rescue bad”) or a rant against helicopter parenting. For me, the question is how to find a middle ground between enabling or rescuing, on the one hand, and on the other, deeming it our job to dole out unpleasant, “character building” opportunities.

At Alpine Valley School, we believe that challenges and struggles aplenty arise on their own when you let young people live their own lives: there’s no need for (and, indeed, much harm in) inflicting scheduled, structured, arbitrary struggles on them in the name of “rigor” or “grit” or whatever the buzzword of the day might be. We also believe that growing up in a supportive, respectful community is a healthy, natural way to learn how to appreciate and cultivate a support network.

And so we trust kids to negotiate authentic struggles, in their own ways and at their own pace, even as we remind them that they have the power to do so. AVS students have the opportunity to confront difficulties on their own, and they have access to people of a wide range of ages and personalities when they want help. Staff members in particular are always developing our sense of when to offer an encouraging word and when to back off and allow students the time and space to find paths of their own.

Whether it’s a disagreement with a friend, the challenge of deciding what to do with their time, or any of the fears and frustrations we all encounter in our lives, I personally struggle to think of a better balance of freedom and support than what we offer here at Alpine Valley School. Yes, it can be very painful, even heartbreaking, to watch the young people we care for go through difficulties. Yet allowing them to grow into their own strength, naturally and powerfully, is truly the greatest support we can offer.

The Cure for the Summertime Blues

We’re through our first month of summer, and already students are asking when the new school year is going to start. One AVS student recently complained to me, “Summertime is boring. There’s nothing happening!” While most students seem to share the sentiment that they wish summer would hurry by faster, many nonetheless find ways to engage themselves.

A significant number of Alpine Valley School students spend the summer working. For several years now, many of them have held summer jobs through Jefferson County improving and maintaining hiking trails throughout the Denver area. One of our recent graduates was promoted into a management position in this program and is spending her summer leading and supervising a crew of workers.

In addition, there is no shortage of summertime volunteers at Alpine Valley School. When called upon, students will frequently show up to help with such maintenance projects as cleaning, painting, and reorganizing storage areas. Last summer a number of them came to school for several days to construct our lovely new patio. We also host Help Days where students, parents, alumni and other friends of the school drop by and help us accomplish maintenance-related tasks that are needed throughout the building. In the coming school year we’ll be expending these events to include additional non-physical work such as marketing, organization, technical support, and much more. Please contact me at if you are interested in joining us for the next Help Day!

As for the staff, many of us are working hard on projects we might otherwise be distracted from in the day-to-day hubbub of the school year. We frequently catch up on maintenance, marketing, and other tasks during the summertime so that we can have a fresh start at the beginning of the new school year. This is on top of day-to-day activities such as checking the mail, deep cleaning of the building, and generally gearing up for new bursts of activity in the fall.

How many schools do you know of where students complain that summer breaks are too long? To me, this is strong evidence that we’re offering families something of tremendous value. And yet there’s also value in having time away, time to relax, catch up, and explore new possibilities. While students suffering from “the summertime blues” may wish the school year would come around faster, Alpine Valley School’s summers off are a crucial change of pace for all of us.

The 2015-16 school year begins on August 24. We still have spaces open, and you can start the enrollment process at any time. Contact us at or 303-271-0525 and find out more!

Stop Trying to Make Everything Educational

We don’t often repost from external blogs, but this recent entry from Happiness is Here is exceptionally straightforward and insightful. An Australian homeschooler, Sara’s post speaks directly to what we at Alpine Valley School believe about natural learning environments. Many thanks to Sara for allowing us to share the following excerpt.


Everywhere I look there’s themed worksheets and clever ideas for tricking your child into learning things you think they should learn with ‘fun’ activities. Firstly, we don’t need to make learning ‘fun’. Learning is fun. Children are born to learn and they love to learn. Everyone knows this. But when you start getting into the habit of trying to take over and control their learning it tends to lose its appeal. And then yeah, maybe you do have to trick them into it. It makes more sense to me not to get into that habit in the first place.

Secondly, children are not stupid. They know when you’re trying to disguise learning behind a ‘fun’ activity. They feel your hidden expectations and pressure. I don’t want to go down that road either. Personally I don’t think there’s ever a time for coercive learning but early childhood is especially not the time! There’s no rush right now, the most important thing is play. So let’s not do anything that may dampen that beautiful love of learning and innate curiosity so soon.

Children are constantly learning new things anyway; just because you might not be able to see it (or measure it), or it’s not something that’s traditionally ‘academic’ doesn’t mean it’s not there. Not all learning is that obvious or quantifiable. Maybe they’ll share it with you when they’re ready? Maybe they don’t want to? Do you want to share every little thing you learn with other people? Or are there some things you just keep to yourself? Is it even our right to constantly judge and test and evaluate? Can’t we just observe and trust? I think so.

Just have fun. Trust them, and trust that learning is happening all the time. There is no rush. Let them be little.

Note: Viewpoints expressed on all external links are those of the individuals involved in those sites and do not necessarily reflect those of Alpine Valley School or its students, staff, and families.

Over Exposure

It’s one of the most frequent of frequently asked questions: I lost track long ago of how many times we’ve fielded concerns about exposure over the years.

In general, there are two different types of exposure, positive and negative. Many people ask how kids can learn all that they need, or even discover what they like, unless adults carefully manage the process. Others are concerned that kids will be exposed to the wrong things unless adults are sheltering them from what they’re not ready for.

What geniuses we must be to know for any given child, at any given moment, what things must be brought to their attention and which must be kept from them! The truth is, at Alpine Valley School exposure naturally helps young people practice exactly the skills needed for successful lives in the larger world.

When it comes to “positive” exposure—introducing children to subjects they need and might enjoy—the intensely rich randomness of Sudbury schools is not to be underestimated. Conventional schools group students by age and walk them through the same limited set of subjects at the same plodding pace. In that setting, students are shown not how to confront life, but only allowed to encounter what the experts deem appropriate.

In contrast, Sudbury students are free to experience life in all its messiness. Indeed, given access to technology and a full spectrum of ages, personalities, and interests, the sky’s the limit for what Sudbury students can encounter. Yet while the range of subjects is virtually limitless, time is obviously finite, and so one of the most critical lessons our students learn is how to sift through a flood of information, think critically, and decide what’s accurate and useful.

So the good news is, AVS students will in fact encounter a much broader range of things on their own in this vibrant school community than they would if adults imposed on them their own ideas of what’s important.

And yes, this can include things some would say they should not be exposed to. Whether the objectionable material is scary, “mature,” or violent, many people believe it’s essential to pick some age and categorically prevent access to everyone below that cutoff. However, this doesn’t merely protect kids from accidental exposure: they’re denied the choice and practice of deciding for themselves what they’re ready for, what they can handle, and what to do when they don’t want something in their environment.

In day-to-day Sudbury life these questions receive all the nuance and thoughtfulness they deserve. What sorts of language and media are permitted, in what parts of the campus and at what times of day, frequently become the subject of conversation and debate—even judicial complaints. Sudbury students and staff learn to be sensitive not only to the ages of the people around them, but also their varying standards of what’s acceptable. As communities, we decide how to handle unintended and unwanted exposure, as well as how to balance an individual’s right to choose his or her activities with everyone’s responsibility for the general welfare of the school.

As with so much of the Sudbury model, the issue of exposure comes down to basic principles of trust and responsibility, a vision of how best to support young people in growing to effective adulthood. We believe young people deserve to learn for themselves how to find what they need, how to sift through information, and how to prioritize their time in trusting, supportive communities. This way, they learn what they’re good at and enjoy, what they want to get better at, and what they don’t want to be exposed to (and how to deal with that).

Not only do young people deserve these opportunities, this is how they learn best. Here, the question of what to expose them to and what to protect them from is not taken out of students’ hands, but rather becomes part of the process by which they develop their amazing potential.

Give Me Liberty

Twenty-one years ago, I went to the Colorado Libertarian convention to promote the then-nascent Alpine Valley School. Libertarians, I figured, would greatly appreciate the freedom of our school, and so I proudly displayed my cleverly titled flier, Democracy in Your Bones. Of the 50 fliers I made, however, exactly none was taken. Eventually, I began to understand why.

Democracy is confused with various things—freedom, cooperation, collaboration, influence, sunshine, and all things good. This happens, I think, when people feeling disenfranchised by our representational republic seek more influence over it. If they really knew what democracy was, they might stop focusing on democracy and start focusing on freedom instead. Democracy in and of itself is neither pro- or anti-freedom. (Consider Kim Jong Un’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, for example.)

While freedom is the right of the individual to live unfettered by arbitrary authority, democracy simply means that power rests with the governed—and without checks and balances, this is an invitation to the tyranny of the majority. Consider the definition of democracy as two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. Early in our country’s history, many opposed the new constitution because there were no specific limits on governmental power: this is the context for the opening words of the First Amendment, that “Congress shall make no law.” The Bill of Rights is not an explicit listing of rights so much as an explicit limitation on the power of the majority.

At our school the smallest minority is one, and proposed School Meeting laws are debated with this in mind. We strive to restrict the arbitrary authority of School Meeting and school officials by circumscribing their powers. The students and staff, the daily residents of the school, are the sovereign power: they must balance the general welfare of the school against the personal freedom so central to its existence. For us, democratic processes are a means to an end—the end of self-governance.

One of our sister schools (The Circle School in Harrisburg, PA) describes succinctly the role of self-governance in an educational context (notice that nowhere in this eloquent statement does the word democracy appear):

The daily school program is self-governing, with authority and responsibility shared among the governed, students and staff alike.

  • Voice. All members of the daily school program—students and staff—enjoy equal rights of voice and vote in matters of governance and the common good.
  • Rule of law. All members of the daily school program are subject to the authority of school government according to duly adopted laws that are publicly disclosed in writing.
  • Responsibility. All members of the daily school program share responsibility for the common welfare.
  • Protection: All members of the daily school program enjoy equal protection and due process under school law.

In schools like ours, democracy is simply the principle that sovereignty over a day-to-day society rests with those who participate on a day-to-day basis. And this philosophical principle has crucial, practical implications. If our children are to develop into self-directed, responsible adults—if they are to realize their innate, unique potential—what they need isn’t so much democracy as freedom.


Letting Nature Take Its Course

I have recently come across a couple of ReadingSudbury perspectives on how and when children start reading. This got me thinking about the difference between a child discovering they can read and a child being taught to read. This may seem like a subtle difference, but like the following Sudbury alum, I think a reading curriculum and learning on your own are worlds apart.

I don’t recall thinking of reading as something you learned. I never saw a kid in a reading class, but one by one my friends would be reading. I’m not sure reading is a significantly different process from learning how to talk. You don’t have talking lessons for babies, and they learn how to talk.

When my son was around 8 years old and attending Alpine Valley School, he was very engaged with computer games, along with many other students. He was not a proficient reader at the time and would often ask his older sister and, occasionally, the adults around him for help when there were messages or instructions related to his game. Eventually his sister, engaged in activities of her own, told him he needed to learn to read.

Several weeks later, my son asked me to watch a computer game he was playing. As I stood next to him, I saw several text boxes pop up and noticed that he seemed to be reading and had not asked for my help. When I asked him if he was reading the messages, he casually replied that he was. I then asked him when he had “learned” to read. His reply? “I don’t know, it just happened.” He had never had any formal reading instruction or been exposed to phonics. He just picked it up because it was useful to him and the timing was right.

I had not been concerned that my son was not reading by a particular time, but was quite excited to know he had become an excellent reader in his own way and on his own time. It is a story I share with other parents who are considering enrolling their children at Alpine Valley School, to help them trust in the process of self-education. My son is now pursuing a degree in business, works full-time at Target, and is living a full and happy life.

In his blog post “Children Teach Themselves to Read,” Dr. Peter Gray tells a similar story:

Motivated children can go from apparent non-reading to fluent reading very quickly. In some cases unschooled children progress from non-reading to reading in what seems to observers to be a flash. For example, Lisa W. wrote: “Our second child, who is a visual thinker, didn’t learn to read until he was 7. For years, he could either figure out what he needed to know from pictorial cues, or if stuck, would get his older brother to read to him. I remember the day he started reading. He had asked his older brother to read something to him on the computer and his brother replied, ‘I have better things to do than to read to you all day,’ and walked away. Within days he was reading quite well.”

It can be hard to wait for this sort of natural learning to take its course, but you can also trust that it will be unstoppable. The Sudbury parent I mentioned above has an excellent perspective on how learning happens in an environment like Alpine Valley School.

Three years of Sudbury schools have shown me that the learning process is like a drip of water against a rock. At a glance, it appears fragile and delicate, but uninterrupted over time, it is an unstoppable force of nature. The challenge of the Sudbury parent, then, is to leave the water alone and allow nature to take its course.

Contact us to learn more about Alpine Valley School, where children thrive while pursuing activities that interest and intrigue them—where we let nature take its course.