When we started, almost five years ago, we didn’t have any rules at all. At our first few community meetings, we began to lay down some basic community norms--hang up your coat when you first walk in the door, put your lunch away when you’re done eating, don’t leave dirty dishes in the sink, no offensive language or aggressive physical contact, etc. All of these rules have one purpose: to promote the idea of a harmonious community where everyone feels respected. For the most part, this community runs pretty smoothly. Conflicts do arise-- as they do in any community-- but what’s unusual about the Macomber Center community is that it is up to the kids as well as the adults to find solutions.
In response to conflict we sometimes create new rules but try not to if we can help it. The few rules we have are not hard and fast, but more like community norms that we all more or less agree with in principle. These norms are flexible and open to interpretation, and there is a good reason for this. They are essentially social norms - don’t leave a mess for someone else to clean up, don’t offend others, don’t annoy or harass others, don’t be too loud or disruptive - and social norms are not clear cut, they are not hard and fast rules. Because they are social norms they are fluid and always shifting depending on the context. What is appropriate behavior in one moment, with one person or group of people, may not be appropriate in the next moment, when the people and context has shifted. While the community generally agrees with these norms in principle, there can be disagreement about how these norms work in practice. Resolving these issues through discussion is one of the primary functions of the community meeting and forms the basis of the community we have created here.
Another unusual aspect of our community is that there is no system of punishment for the breaking of rule and thus there are no “consequences” to deter people from doing what they are not supposed to do. So how do we “enforce” these rules? Well, we don’t. We want the members here to learn to adhere to the shared norms of the community, not for fear of punishment, but because they are important to the other members of the community and therefore important for individual’s role in the community.
Learning to navigate this complex and subtle social terrain created by these norms is a vital part of being an individual here and one of the more important lessons of life for kids at Macomber.