With discussions about the American Constitution in the news, it’s a nice time to explore principles of democracy and how they can operate within the family and the classroom. Convening meetings that encourage shared decision making can have positive results even with young children. Preschool rooms sometimes have whole-group discussions to decide what activities to plan at a class party or how to work together to get the classroom cleaned up. Older grades can discuss what to do for a fundraising event or problems that occur on the playground. The underlying principle in a democratic meeting is everyone gets a voice, whether outcomes are decided by vote or consensus.

Much has been written about the benefits of weekly family meetings, whether they are held at the dinner table or convened outside in the yard. Regular meetings underline the idea that individuals living in the same house are a family with common purposes and problems, even when people’s schedules have them going in different directions. Grandparents and anyone else taking part in the household can offer their perspectives at a meeting. Meeting topics might include questions like “What was the best thing in your week?” “What should we have for dinner on Sunday?” “How can we get everyone involved doing chores?”

The idea of democratic practices within a household or a classroom can be confusing. What if children vote to throw out all the rules or make a huge expenditure? Children aren’t mature enough to make all the decisions, but they are equipped to make some, and doing so builds their collaborative skills. When groups make decisions together, they also become closer, and ideally everyone feels heard. This early exploration of democracy can be a springboard for discussing the way our government works and for using our hearts and minds to imagine a world where everyone has a voice.

Thursday, Founders Day, was a lovely, spring-like day – a perfect day to visit with some animals.

Preschool and elementary classes took turns trekking up the hill behind the school to our Founders Day petting zoo. There were alpacas, cows, lambs, two very pregnant goats, a donkey, a llama, piglets, and some rabbits. Some of the children, especially younger ones, were content to view the animals from a distance, while others were eager to pet, or even hug, them.

The happy event was planned and organized by our fifth grade. Fifth graders told visitors about the animals they were tending and explained how to pet them. (Each animal likes to be petted a certain way.)

Back in their classrooms, the children and their teachers each received a Founders Day treat, a gift-wrapped chocolate chip cookie that was almost, but not quite, too pretty to eat.

Missing this year because of social-distancing requirements was our neighborhood bluegrass band, which has entertained at Founders Day celebrations for as long as anyone can remember. (We set some cookies aside for them.)

We rented the animals from Friendly Pony Parties and Barnyard Pals in Half Moon Bay. The camp’s founder, Terry Tenzing, was married to the son of Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali-Indian Sherpa mountaineer who guided Sir Edmund Hillary on the first ascent of Mt. Everest, in 1953.

Learning the lessons of ownership takes time and patience, and there are opportunities for new learning on this subject even into adulthood. In one of our preschool classes, some students have been exploring the idea of ownership by taking classroom items home in their pockets. It’s interesting that these young students sense that their actions aren’t something to be proud of because they don’t want to admit they’ve taken them. What a chance for adults to teach children important principles of ownership and respect.

The teacher handling these sensitive incidents has taken exactly the right tone to promote understanding and avoid stimulating any feelings of shame. She has talked to the class about things that belong in the classroom and need to stay there. Instead of asking an individual child if she has taken a dinosaur or special shell, she states very unemotionally that she knows they’ve taken it, and it’s fine to just put it back. She has avoided using the word “stealing” so children don’t take on the identity in preschool that they are thieves.

Many fights at every age occur because of misunderstandings about ownership. A basic lesson in maintaining harmony between siblings, friends, neighbors, and even countries is learning to ask permission. Can I borrow this shirt, this tool, this book? Can I go in your room, walk on your property? Often older children in a family have to be protected from younger siblings who innocently ravage their possessions. Younger children can learn to ask “Can I play with your toy?”

Once we understand ownership as one of the foundations for respecting others, we can learn to listen to our hearts and dissolve those boundaries so we can share what we have. A child has to feel safe saying “I’m using these materials now” before feeling comfortable offering the invitation “Would you like to join me?”

Our school song “Friendship” includes these lines: “Now there’s owner-ship, where you stake your claim to what’s yours and yours alone, and relation-ship, where you share the game with someone you call your own, but the best ship under the sun is the one built for everyone, and that’s Friend-Ship, Friend-Ship, finest ship of the line.”

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