The Trials and Triumphs of Letting Go


Parenting is, in itself, a challenging proposition. The Universe hands over an utterly helpless little person and it is now your responsibility to do literally everything for them. You must decide what they eat, where they go, what they do, and a million other little details from the moment of birth until…forever. Even those of us who feel strongly that children deserve autonomy still struggle with the balance of being a parent while letting our kids freely experience the world.

The current culture, at least in the United States, does not help matters. Between stranger danger, helicopter parenting, and Mommy Wars, parents are under an enormous amount of pressure. It is not unusual for parents of newborns to be filling out applications for elite preschools, or even evaluating what college their babe-in-arms will eventually attend. Judgement abounds, and social media only adds fuel to the fire. I don't know what it was like to parent before Pinterest, but I imagine it must have been at least a little more laid back.

Families that elect to send their child to a self-directed democratic school (like Alpine Valley School) may encounter even more difficulty. Not only do we have to contend with the current culture, but we face our own challenges when letting students dictate the course of their own lives. Chief among them: that our kids may not be interested in the things we want them to be interested in. They will probably not learn to read when we want them to, nor do math in the same way we did. They may have a deep interest in Fortnite that we cannot understand. They may take up playing horseshoes all day, or building forts out of boxes, or any other number of activities that hold no value for us as parents and make us anxious about their future. Letting go of our expectations for our children (especially when they are unconscious) asks a lot of us.

And then there’s struggle. When kids in self-directed democratic schools practice real life, they encounter obstacles that no one is going to remove for them. Just as we do in our adult lives they will run into setbacks, and bureaucracy, and difficult social interactions, and they will have to persevere through those experiences. Watching your child struggle is challenging for a parent. It’s hard not to get involved, and it’s even harder to say to your son or daughter, “I can see this is difficult for you, what are you going to do about it?” Encouraging our children to tackle difficult issues themselves, or ask for help from a staff member, rather than jumping in and solving it for them is hard - certainly for Type A personalities like me!

Here’s the good news: Our kids will find their way. Self-directed learning can ask a great deal of us as parents - we have to get out of the driver’s seat of our children’s lives and trust them to set their own direction. If we can do that, the results are tremendous. We get a front-row seat as we watch our children as they find their path, explore what they’re passionate about, and learn to trust themselves. And, at the end of the day, we’re still there as their parents to provide guidance, safety, and support.

I was a student at Alpine Valley School for four years. I’ve been a staff member now for about the same length of time. I’ve been involved in the self-directed democratic education community for almost twenty years. And when it comes to my son, I still get anxious. Will he learn to read? Can I trust him to make the best decisions for himself? I still grapple with these questions, as I think all of us, even those who believe in this model very deeply, sometimes do. But what sustains me is the look of satisfaction in his eyes when he undertakes a challenging task completely on his own. I watch the joy of him playing with his friends free of any (even well-intended) influence. He is becoming his own person right before my very eyes and I’m willing to struggle a little myself in order for that process to continue.


Marc Gallivan