I sometimes feel for a moment that I can see myself through other people’s eyes, and I look pretty radical.
It’s possible that they think I’m making these parenting choices because they all fit into the extreme philosophy I was raised in and have been conditioned to adhere to. You know, that whole unschooling thing. Which is sort of right, but doesn’t tell the whole story. I’m not choosing these things because they fit neatly into a philosophy I’m trying to observe. I’m choosing them the way everyone else chooses a hospital birth and a crib and a daycare center.
But what do homebirth and co-sleeping and homeschooling really have to do with each other? I sometimes wonder. They’re all surprising to most people I encounter. They all sound risky to many. But why do they seem to fit so automatically together for me?
Maybe, I think, they all have something to do with trust.
My parents trusted me to be smart enough to learn from the world, outside of school. I trusted myself because of that. When I got pregnant, I trusted myself to be able to safely birth without an operating room next door. Bear and I trust ourselves not to kill our daughter in our sleep.
And most of all, we trust Eden. We trust her to cry for a reason, even when that reason is just that she’s new and overwhelmed and figuring out how to be a person.
Charm, Good Conversation, and the Wisdom of Buddha, by John Taylor Gatto
Certain very useful things to learn must be self-taught; they cannot easily be learned at school.
Charm, for instance, if you develop it, will confer lifelong advantages upon you, opening doors wherever you go, because you make other people feel good just by being around you. Cary Grant, the actor, built his legendary film career around being a model of charm, despite having to overcome lower class origins; charm did the same service for Audrey Hepburn, although her own origins were from her minor nobility, making her exercise of outstanding charm easier to understand because the models around her to observe in childhood were themselves charming–the social contexts in which we travel influence whether we are to become charming or not– to a considerable degree vulgar, coarse, overly loud men and women are never charming–no matter what other positive attributes they may possess, neither are folks who show too much emphasis in speech, an excess of facial makeup, or strain too hard in making points; visible strain of any sort–like speaking at an overly rapid rate–is an enemy of charm.
To radiate charm, you must be totally at ease with yourself in any situation, never straining to call attention to yourself, exuding the same sort of signals cats emit when contented, because that type of expression brings delight to your companions just as dogs and cats stretching full length in the sun do. Your eyes should sparkle, even a trifle mischievously, at the sheer joy of being alive, as the eyes of little children, especially girls, often do.
I got on this treadmill when I started preparing for college, but I never fully bought into it. As an unschooler, I knew the world did not work only as advertised. Growing up, I would watch recorded cartoons on a Tuesday morning and see the public service announcements. These PSAs told me not to be a fool, to stay in school. But I was not in school, I was home watching television between GI Joe battles and art projects. Yet I felt fine, and my mother said I was fine.
The greatest gift unschooling gave me was the willingness to question the world around me, the knowledge that even the best practices and experts could be wrong. If they were wrong about school, what else could they be wrong about?
Coupled with that, I learned the value of experimentation because there were not that many people besides myself who were unschooling in the 1980s. Unschooling taught me to question and think for myself, and to experiment with life.
All through college I struggled with what I knew was wrong. I had tasted real life, and I knew college was not real life. So first I chose an alternative school with no grades or tests or majors, Hampshire College. When that wasn’t enough, I left Hampshire and unschooled my way through college until I was pressured to finish school. School clearly was a dumbing down, but I finished anyway.
One Foot In, One Foot Out, by Seres Kyrie
Learning also takes many paths, perhaps all paths, as the quantum physicists say of particles. Is one path longer than another? Faster?
My biggest challenge as a sub is when I am required to be part of what I consider to be the breaking of the spirits. I’ve been wrangled into proctoring standardized testing and sulk in a moral dilemma all day. I had one young boy diligently writing a Xena Warrior Princess Screenplay. He had pages of scrawled notes that he had written late into the night before. He simply did not want to stop in order to take the required “SRI” (Scholastic Reading Inventory) test and it just about broke my heart to force him to. I sometimes fight the urge to whisper in ears, “There is another way! Ask your mom if she’d take you out of school so you can spend all day on your screenplay. . . ” Instead I have to settle with offering my praise and encouragement, occasionally with the (I hope) honest promise that life will improve after high school. And to the boy who wouldn’t stop playing with the earwig swarm in the classroom corner? I required him to sit in on the group lesson but allowed him to return back to his corner for study hall time. “Have you ever read Walden?” I asked, sharing the chapter where Thoreau carefully observes ants.
It is obvious that we pass on many traits genetically to our children and we see much of ourselves in them as they grow older but what may not be so obvious is that we also pass on our fears. We have such power in what we teach our children about how to react to the world. They learn how to react by watching us react. If we are afraid, it is quite likely that they too will be afraid.
A friend who is squeemish toward most creatures without fur in the natural world has amazingly produced two daughters who are also not big fans of non-domesticated furless creatures. Unless of course they are safely locked up at the zoo. Another friend is extremely comfortable in nature, so much so that a tarantula crawled over the family’s outside southern California sleeping space and she did not react. Of course, her children also did not react. The only way this mother and her children react to nature is with reverence and curiosity, never fear.
We are conditioned to accept that some people are programmed to be uncomfortable with nature and its creatures while others are not, but I really think that we can choose what we fear and we can rid ourselves of fears that we no longer wish to have.
Constellations and Comfort Food, by Brian Landrum
Though the weather be rough, winter also offers some of the longest, most gorgeous night skies of the year. Inspired by H.A. Rey’s wonderful book, The Stars, we bundle up in the dark whenever the skies are clear, and we watch Orion and The Big Dog, giants of the southern sky, drift to the west. And as the cold nights carry on, we watch the northern sky to see Cassiopeia drop down and the Big Bear climb up, and we know our feet may be frozen, but nature is on the the move. Our spontaneous observations, something hard at first since we’d all just rather stay in and stay warm, become interesting times to break the winter monotony, times when we all learn far more than we expect or attempt, since we’re unconscious of learning anything at all as we simply stare at the beautiful stars and their slow, deliberate march across the sky. We talk about ancient Ethiopian kings and queens, and the basics of navigation, and tragic stories from Greek Wisdom, and how our world moves in the universe. Throw in some Milky Way candy bar bites, or some hot chocolate with real cream, and suddenly we’re all avid, excited stargazers, somehow enjoying the winter chills as we look to warmer times. And once we can see the cup of the Big Dipper above the trees, we start feeling for sprinkles of sap on sunny afternoons.
Small Bodies, Great Wisdom: The Extraordinary Value of Listening to My Children, by Nicole Olsen
My family is shifting in a big way right now. If humans had tectonic plates, ours would be sliding around like air hockey pucks.
As a new mom, how I longed to come across that perfect book–the one that taught me precisely how to do this parenting gig well. How I wished someone could direct me to the volume entitled All You Need to Know About Thomas: a perfectly tailored guide to his unique blend of strengths, weaknesses, gifts, quirks, and precisely what makes him tick. I’ve yet to come across it. In its stead, I’ve eagerly digested dozens of books and articles, all of which claimed to unveil the mysteries of child-rearing. I have learned a ton. But not everything.
I thought all that reading had equipped me with plenty of tools for childhood’s challenges. I knew how to distract my tiny tot when he got too close to the wrong end of the cat. I ruthlessly removed the words, “Good job!” from my repertoire and replaced them with “I see you enjoyed using the blue crayon today.” I was clear on when to ignore misbehavior, when to enforce a time-out, and how to make the most of natural consequences. I was a walking, talking version of mainstream parenting literature.
The problem was, Thomas clearly hadn’t read the same books. He almost never did what those volumes cheerfully predicted he would. Again and again, I found myself perplexed by this. The books told me if I did x, then my child would do y. But they were irritatingly silent on how to handle it if he skipped y in favor of an entirely different letter of the alphabet. Which he did. Every time.
Home-Colleging: It’s a New and Wonderful World Out There in Online College, by Ann Walker
Online college was not a new phenomenon in our family. When my oldest brother graduated from high school, his youngest siblings were still infants, and he hated the thought of missing their babyhood as well as leaving the family orbit so suddenly. At the same time, our father’s corporation offered an informational class about a then-new college program that could be completed at a distance through the online medium. An idea was born.
It didn’t take us long to discover the benefits of studying online at home rather than in a traditional classroom setting. Not only were we still together as a family, growing and loving each other, but our parents could continue to serve as our primary role models, give us guidance as needed, and motivate us to do well. If we needed something, they were there (and there were times they needed us, too!). We also could attend state schools (with undeniable cost savings) without being immersed in the campus culture. Peer pressure and negative influences were lessened due to living at home as well as the “paper trail” by communicating through the online medium. Room and board costs were also slashed; this cost us no more than when we were in high school. Better yet, it phased us out of the family orbit gradually rather than suddenly finding ourselves on our own in a strange, very-different-from-homeschool world.
The Feminist Homeschooler, by Suki Wessling
The role of women is the elephant in the room in homeschooling circles. We don’t really want to talk about this, but there it is: all of the parents who are on the board of my homeschooling cooperative are women. All of the teachers in our public homeschool program are women. Dads support their families through their work and through evening childcare so the moms can get together and commiserate. Dads show up to homeschooling events sporadically, mostly on weekends. A relative few take part in the actual homeschooling, and only a smattering out of millions stay home full-time.
But I’m not terribly comfortable with just letting this issue lie around unquestioned. I asked a wide list of my homeschooling correspondents, some of whom I know personally but most of whom I only “know” online, to respond to a few pointed questions in an anonymous, online survey. Within hours, 93 people had offered their thoughts, from taciturn “yes” or “no” to rolling text that sometimes spilled over into passionate direct e-mails to me.
Not surprisingly, almost all my correspondents said that they believed it was important to teach their kids about equal rights and opportunities for both boys and girls. Divorced from divisive political arguments, this issue is pretty uncontroversial amongst educated parents. But I was also not surprised that a full quarter of my correspondents don’t consider themselves “feminists,” disowning the label while believing in the tenets behind it.
Protecting My Child’s Inner Hero (or Why I Unschool my Transgender Teen), by Penny Adrian
A few days after his thirteenth birthday, Sam had told me he did not feel like a girl. “I feel like I’m a boy,” he said. I asked what that meant to him, and he told me he did not want breasts, did not want curvy hips, and wanted to cover his lovely little face with a beard. And he wanted to be addressed as “he” not “she.” “Mom,” he said,”I think I’m trans.” I was in a bit of a panic. My child had never claimed to be a boy before that day. I thought transkids started asserting their true gender identity by the age of three or four. But I was used to my child doing things her–no, his–own way. I poured over the internet and printed out articles on breast removal surgery and testosterone therapy. I shared what I found with Sam, and he said, “I don’t see why I should do dangerous things to my body just to be accepted as a man. No surgery and no hormones? So much for no breasts and a beard, then. When I finally got Sam to spell out what he DID want, I took him to a barber to chop off his long blonde hair; took him to Target to buy men’s underwear, shirts, jeans, and a boxer-style bathing suit; and ordered two “comfort fit” breast binders from a company in Taiwan. My sloppy, scraggly haired teenage girl named Beatrix transformed before my eyes into a thirteen year old boy named Sam. He looked adorable. And I could see that he felt more comfortable and free.
Just Being a Family is the Foundation, by Jennifer Walker
Moving across the country, even voluntarily, can be an emotional roller coaster. But despite the ups and downs, I look at my kids now and am struck by their resilience. Everyone we know was so worried about “how the kids would handle all the moving.” I guess that’s something else I’ve learned–people worry too much about their kids’ emotional wellbeing. Not that we, as parents, shouldn’t, but kids are a lot stronger and more adaptable than we give them credit for. What I’ve learned so far is if you love your kids and they know it, odds are good that they will be fundamentally happy people.
Every choice in life is part of our voyage. Had we not chosen to homeschool, I can’t imagine we would have chosen to try living in Arizona. And had we not lived in Arizona, my kids wouldn’t have seen how they can make new friends wherever they are, or how homeschooling can come in a variety of guises. Most of all, we now have the luxury of knowing that our family’s foundation, based on individual strength paired with love for and loyalty to each other, is strong enough to carry us through a world of challenges. These are lessons that might actually be more important than being bilingual.
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