Is unschooling / homeschooling only for the privileged?

Hey Kelly!  I think you know by now that I admire your work, and I have a great deal of respect for home/unschoolers.  One thing that concerns me is that I haven’t seen much discussion of privilege in the reading I’ve done on home/unschooling.  I realize that many people give up a LOT in terms of material items/income, “free” or “adult” time, or a career path in order to ensure that someone is home with the kids, and present for them.  But what about those who are, for example, single parents, or who are poor, and must work outside the home to keep everyone fed?  Even our family might be an example – our situation isn’t that dire, but for right now, for many reasons, it doesn’t seem like US/HS would be feasible for us.  I guess in an ideal world, there might be a solution for those kids – some sort of community-based, small- group environment, where families band together to share ideas, expertise, and time.  Do these situations exist?  At one point, we were in talks with a few other families to create a sort of shared, nurturing learning situation, but the logistics got very complicated and it fell through.  Anyway, excuse me for being all over the place here, but I was wondering what your thoughts were on this.

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I am not an expert on privilege, class, or social movements. What I write here is based only from my experiences. As you know, we’ve “given up” a lot to unschool. But I am also not here to tell every human soul that they should, or that they have to, or that they can, et cetera.

Every now and then I hear the charges that home- and/or unschooling communities are only populated by the privileged classes (and therefore a “bad” thing), or that these home educators do not address privilege from within their communities. My friend Idzie agrees on this latter point, and makes the call-out for unschoolers to take these issues up more often. I find myself in agreement with Idzie’s points – all of her points, because shouting “privilege!” at a fringe movement can be a double-edged sword (more in a minute).

All home- and unschoolers who read here who operate from a place of less privilege*, and who are working your asses off, I pause to let you have an *LOLsob* moment, that is if you even have time to read this piece.

But let’s address these points, because I think they are important.

First, I’m going to write about my experiences in this field for a minute, not so much this particular comment. I find it interesting that homeschooling and unschooling get put on the moral chopping block by progressives who claim these institutions are failing social justice in some way. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around an assertion the “institution” of unschooling is failing marginalized groups more than the aggregate realities of the institution of compulsory schooling. As for the community, not that it’s a monolith, well I do not think the unschooling community takes action on privilege any less than the general population. In fact if anything I see more community involvement and passion for social justice within unschooling families, than I do in the general population (or perhaps that’s just the unschoolers I hang out with). I see a little discussion amongst home- / unschoolers about privilege, and just like discussions with the general population, they are lively, passionate, and occasionally annoying or hurtful. I don’t see these conversations as being any less enlightened than the general population’s strategies, either. Again: just my experience. Your experiences with your unschoolers may be different.

Of course, all parenting realities are influenced by privilege. Many parents with kids in school spend their energies trying to effect improvements for their children or their child’s school; most do not take on the larger cause of educational and social inequities. Notably, many of the progressives who I’ve seen voice anger or angst about unschooling or homeschooling and privilege, either don’t have children at all, or have children already privileged in terms of race, socioeconomic, health, family support, heteronormative family structure, neighborhood safety, and the school options available to them. Et cetera. “Privilege” accusations, in some cases, begin to feel like a red herring.

However, I will always support the discussion of privilege and oppression, and even more so action-based strategies, within any group I find myself allied with, a member of, or sympathetic to (this goes far beyond education and parenting, for me). On a personal note, even more than discussion at a macro level about systems and socioeconomic realities, I enjoy working with families on a one-on-one basis for them to have more of the family life they want. More on that in a minute, too.

There are a few problems with painting home education as necessarily privileged and therefore suspect and exclusionary. Claiming “unschooling=privileged folks” erases the many realities and lives of diverse unschooling families: single parents, parents with disabilities, parents battling addiction or illness, working-poor, queer parents, non-heteronormative families, trans* unschoolers, unschoolers who are women, parents without career-wage and security, unschoolers with children who have special and/or medical needs, or unschoolers of color – to throw out a few groups of dedicated unschooling communities and families.** Not only do we erase these individuals and their experiences (insulting!) – we perpetuate the problems of inequality by doing so. We  should be going to their blogs and published works and discussions and digging deep, because they can tell us more about the problems with schooling and/or unschooling than someone in a position of relative privilege can!

Eva Swindler’s article “Re-imagining School” – which I know I’ve posted here before – is one of my favorites for the unschooling or homeschooling family who is realistic about socioeconomic inequalities. If there’s anything you read, stop reading my piece and go read hers. She also, notably, addresses the cultural cry that public schools can be trusted to look after the interests of the oppressed. They can’t, and they don’t. In fact, many families who’d be supposed beneficiaries of the so-called “social equalizer” of public school have found homeschooling to be the best choice for them from the perspective of their personal values and their financial situation. From a perspective of race, schools often are inflicting grave harm on children and families of color. When white progressives claim home education is a “privileged” choice, they are erasing the heartbreaking or at the very least difficult decisions so many non-white families have had to make; they are at the very least are ignorant (willfully or no) to the realities of families of color.

Then there’s the aspect of “your social justice cause isn’t as important as other social justice causes” that just makes me, personally, very sad.

“I […] get extremely frustrated with the reaction from radical and social justice type people who are not unschoolers, which is more often than not “only privileged people can unschool, so it’s privileged and horrible and selfish to do so, and no one should do it.” I feel like this is another example of how little children and teens are valued and respected, because with most oppressed groups, at least in words if not actions, [social justice] and radical peeps are quick to talk about concrete changes that should be made, yet when it comes to kids in school, it’s just a reaction of “oh well, it kind of sucks that they’re being indoctrinated with the tenets of the dominant culture, and that’s not very good I guess.” – Idzie Desmarais, Thoughts on Unschooling and Privilege

I’ve seen what Idzie is talking about, here. Social justice proponants who claim a need for intersectionality are often ignoring the needs of the child class. Worse, they often react in a hostile fashion when called out on adultist behaviors, or they suddenly lose their passion, fervor, curiosity and interest with regards to human rights and will hand wave with a, “Well that’s too bad for kids but that’s just how it is” mindset! It can be very disheartening to observe, to say the least. That apathy for the child and teen class – that apathy regardless of whatever educational philosophies we align ourselves with – is a bigger problem for educational opportunity inequalities than the practice of home/un-schooling. Here is what I’d call a true minority, and what we need more of – social justice activists dedicated to the rights of the child class.

Now to speak on something I know only a little about, but can merely relate from my own experiences in the community I live.

The original comment here asks about options available for those who want to homeschool, but do not have significant economic privilege or who do not feel safe in doing so (how “safe” a family feels to unschool is something I’d love to talk about in great detail at some point). Frankly, our law and the cultural and institutional schooling complex are not on their side at the moment. You can take responsibility for your kids’ homeschooling in every state; organizing any formal entity gets very tricky real quick and runs the risk of government interference – although people do it successfully of course. So when you ask about community options, this obviously depends on the community. Homeschool co-ops and creative solutions are real and on the rise, but they are not available everywhere (so: start one! LOL).

Like many unschoolers, I had to find my community, and my mentorship, online. I also had to find my balls. It took time. We initially looked into private school options but there are only two here – one, economically impossible for us, and the second, Pentecostal and extremely religious. So in a very real sense, we ended up unschoolers in part due to our lack of options. Other factors of safety and opportunity were at play in how we started out, as well. At first we were cirriculum-based homeschoolers in part because I was frightened if anyone “found out what I was doing” and reported me to Child Services – a nightmare I didn’t feel equipped to handle, at my level of newbie and with the illness I was dealing with.

I am an experienced unschooler now and I write in order to give those, espeically those in difficult situations, the roadmap should they want to pursue a different path than the mainstream. Many who could afford to, with no more financial discomfort than my family, choose not to. That’s fine with me. It really is. I only write about those because there are OTHER reasons people choose not to unschool, and I wish those were discussed more often. Anecdotally, although I am not legally able to offer homeschooling services to anyone, even if I am not making a business out of it, I have offered many parents our resources – meaning our food, our home, my time and energy, our washing machine, et cetera – as a homeschooling/unschooling option. None have taken us up on this, so far – even parents with children in significant distress at school.

Economic privilege or lack thereof is not the only factor in why people don’t homeschool, although it is often framed as such.

If someone wants to unschool but find themselves a victim of circumstance and “can’t” unschool – whether the obstacles are real or imagined is not my business – my heart goes out to them. I am not going to judge them, or say they don’t love your kids as much as I love mine, or anything like that. I am not going to tell them to do without things and “make” it happen. I am not going to claim they should go without material possessions, or food security, or health insurance, or running cars, or Social Security, or a savings account, or all the things we’ve done without.

I will help anyone who writes with anything I might be able to help with – if they want my suggestions. We have worked our asses off to unschool and that’s one reason I write about it – to help those who need help. That’s it.

In the meantime, some thoughts for those who do home- or unschool.

I have come to see how hurtful it is for some parents to be told, or to believe they are being told, that they should work JUST A LITTLE HARDER, that they should sacrifice JUST A LITTLE MORE, to do what’s best for their children. It seems many parents already feel at the end of their rope, or just barely getting by – in terms of all sorts of resources, not just financial ones. No one can be shamed into anything good and long-lasting – and that includes a parenting style or a lifestyle. I want to be an oasis of kindness and compassion and assistance, not another egoic entity needing others to see things my way. This is a work in progress – meaning I can’t claim perfection – but it’s one I undertake every day.

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* Seriously. Maybe as a working class (or working-poor, depending on who you believe) family of four I should write more graphically about the bounced checks, the pile of collection-center bills, the many times I’ve been dissed for having kids in public spaces during normal business hours, the times we used water out the neighbor’s hose (with her permission!), what it was like unschooling while battling alcoholism and illness. No wait I have written about that, it’s called “my blog”!

** I’d love to see more on non-custodial unschooling and step-parent-as-primary-carer unschooling. Add in the comments who YOU’D like to hear from!

How do you unschool the multiplication tables?

Ed. note 11/26/2012: Please read all the post and all the comments before commenting. As always, if you have a long response consider writing your own piece and let me know if you’d like me to link. Thank you!

Recently in the commentariat of my blog I received this, from Kelly G:

I think you have a beautiful life, and wonderful children. I am no hater.

I do have a couple of questions though,

How do you unschool the multiplication tables? My daughter has gone to public school with near perfect attendance, and I found that I had to enroll her in MORE school (Mathnasium) to get her at grade level.

Similarly I went to public school and I never learned multiplication tables. I never bothered to teach myself them, so I never learned them. This was a pretty huge obstacle in my life.

also:

Do you think you will be able to unschool during the teen years? How will this affect the process of applying for colleges? Do your kids talk about college as though they expect to go?

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“Everything I am interested in, from cooking to electronics, is related to math. In real life you don’t have to worry about integrating math into other subjects. In real life, math already is integrated into everything else.”Anna Hoffstrom

(more great quotes – about math and lots of other stuff – at this quote page)

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My reader here (I can tell she’s no Hater!) probably wasn’t looking for a very long answer, but her query raises some great points that delve into the very nature of raising one’s child without compulsory schooling and its application of “forced” learning (you actually can’t force learning, although schools and parents try, and this is why some kids keep not getting math, or whatever).

Briefly: college. Unschoolers, like homeschoolers, usually have no difficulty getting into college and the evidence indicates they generally do better in college than their always-schooled peers. This subject is vast and I’m not going to cover it here, nor address the assumption college is necessarily a good thing (it’s expensive, degrees continue to plummet in value, the average college student changes their major five times, and a college degree does not predict success and happiness). My children know about college of course, it’s another subject that comes up often enough, but steering them in that direction would be rude, unnecessary, and possibly harmful. If my kids choose college I’ll bet they own it.

But ah, math. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MATHS!? As a former math-nerd who KILLED it in high school, then college, and then had a mathy career as chemical engineer, I know too well the pressure to be awesome at math. And I also know what it’s like to be awesome at math. And as an unschooling parent, I’ve heard countless – and I mean countless – queries about math, teaching math, “lazy” kids who won’t do math, “is it OK if I unschool but make them do math workbooks?”, et cetera. Now since there is an absolute wealth of radical unschoolers (“radical unschoolers” is shorthand for, those who don’t enforce ciricculum and usually parent without coercion or punishment) who’ve written about math, I don’t need to duplicate their fine work (I have some links below). Most experienced unschoolers will identify “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MATHS!?” as the number one query people ask after, “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SOCIALIZATIONS?” The links listed below are not to overwhelm but to encourage any reader here to self-educate.

It’s interesting the comment here involves multiplication tables. A woman I know took her child out of school at about age eight. For one and a half years, this kid did not want to “learn” anything. If he felt he was trying to be “taught”, he avoided the exercise like the plague. This caused her some anxiety, of course! But she stayed true to unschooling – or, as is more accurate – deschooling – and continued to support his interests. He was doing so much better emotionally and from a behavior standpoint, that I think that gave her the necessary courage. One day when he was about nine and a half he asked her about the times tables – he needed to know them for some interest he was pursuing. She reported this to me as a great relief in her unschooling career. I admire her having the guts to stick to it, because I know how much pressure is applied that kids should learn a certain skillset at a certain age. And not that it matters, but he chose times tables about the age, or a little earlier, than school tries to cram them in kids’ noggins.

My kids never had to deschool, so they’ve always liked learning, all subjects. PLEASE THINK ABOUT THE IMPLICATIONS OF THAT FOR A HOT MINUTE.

I’ll wait. Please keep thinking about it.

OK, so Kelly’s comment above reads in part:

I went to public school and I never learned multiplication tables. I never bothered to teach myself them, so I never learned them. This was a pretty huge obstacle in my life.”

I could write loads on this but I’ll just make a few remarks. A., here is another demonstration schooling doesn’t work for teaching math any better than anything else, and there’s a lot of evidence it makes people into big math-haters (or math-fearers). Some kids are going to get it, but a lot of kids are going to learn to hate math (and learning).  The comment here proves school, and more school (in the case of Kelly’s child), doesn’t make someone a math whiz.

B., I hope it occurs to some readers that the very structure of compulsory schooling helps create a child who is resistant to learning, especially certain subjects. Even more grave, the school schema saps many kids of their drive, their self-knowing, their authenticity, and their creative expression. Children end up in memorization-based math training not because they love it (more in a second about the kid who does love math), but are struggling (or succeeding) for the praise and at the insistance of adults – or the ultimate in other-validation, a 4.0 grade. Graver still, kids attempt academic achievement chasing the adult-taught illusion of guaranteed future security in some way (how often was I told my math and science intelligence was going to write me CARTE BLANCE to a financially-secure and therefore entirely successful life?). Saddest of all, kids learn to succeed (or struggle), to try to obtain assurance of their parents’ love. Compulsory schooling (and authoritative/authoritarian parenting) are likely to influence a child into confusion; she may indeed learn NOT to go after what she wants. She may need adults or authority figures to tell her how to do what and what terms define “success”. Now the child who loves math, like balls-deep loves it? Is going to love math if she is unschooled, too. Got one of those living in my house, except instead of doing tedious workbooks and word problems he does life-relevant things with his math skills.

C., I think Kelly has a bit of fear about math (many people do!). I ask: who needs this child to succeed in math? The child? Or her parent? This is another example of parenting one’s fears. I am not picking on this query or comment, and I’m glad this person asked. Many, if not most, parents end up parenting their fears. I’ve written literally thousands of words on this. Unlearning our fear-based mindset and strategies is the process of a lifetime, meaning I don’t claim perfection. But just because we started out on this path of fear-based strategies (or as is more common, a snakes’ nest mess of them!) does not mean we have to continue doing things as we have been.

So what about that whole, “I never learned this and it really hurt me” business? I hear it a lot. WHY did you never learn it – and was it necessary that you should have? What did you learn instead? Do you still hold shame and fear around this issue? Is that influencing you in a positive way with regards to your parenting? A few more questions about “making” your kid learn vis-a-vis school. Is it working, is it really working? Do you think our typical parenting and school models help children to be self-validated and do what they need to do? Or do these edifices stunt that process in any way?

My unschooled kids pursue the skills they need with a focus, humor, and joy that is amazing to behold. Happily, this ability is true of most any child – look at the schooled kids who race to my home and play a game that involves a lot of memorization. Sometimes they play it for hours until they’re called home. Imagine if that wasn’t a couple hours of bliss out of your child’s week, but your child’s whole day most days. A child in a nurturing life learning home gets to define her own terms, try, make mistakes, get up and try again. She gets to rest, eat, sleep, relax, and work when she wants. She is exempt from school culture (unless she chooses it; my children are free to do so) which is often imbued with not-insignificant climates of bullying, sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, materialism, anxiety, and hours of tedious desk-time. Eight-plus hours a day.

I know it’s hard to wrap one’s head around a lot of this stuff. It was, for me. To any parent or carer interested in life learning – or anyone who thinks they might be at some point – I urge you to do the footwork on building a different future for your family. Here are a few links to get started.

Wendy Priesnitz; this link will take you to her various publications. Wendy was my number-one mentor when I was first considering unschooling (I was scared and uncertain!). I have so much gratitude for her body of work, which spans decades. Besides 30ish years of a wonderful career, she and her partner Rolf raised two always-unschooled daughters who are now adults and doing just fine.

Idzie Desmarais put in quite a few great 101 (and beyond-101) posts on unschooling. Her archives are fabulous. Start here and explore the site!

Sandra Dodd has some great writings on math and unschooling.

Try to find a copy of Parenting A Free Child by Rue Kream.

Please feel free to comment here, or if comments have closed by the time you read this, write an email and I will upload it here for comments (with your permission). I can’t speak for Wendy, Idzie, Sandra, or Rue – or any other person – but I’m happy to give my perspective on the pieces you read, or the difficulties you have.

My partner Ralph and I have proved to ourselves we will walk through hellfire and every obstacle to raise our kids in freedom. Mental, physical, emotional and spiritual illness have not deterred us. Financial hardship has not deterred us. Social, cultural, familial, and “academic” skepticism (both genuine and sweet, and … other kinds) have not deterred us. Being in a super-fringe radical minority (for now), and the discomforts that can evidence, have not deterred us. So when I write here, it’s to encourage anyone else who has that drive or is starting to think about this amazing way of life.  I can tell you, raising our children without forced institutionalization has been one of the best choices we’ve made. It has improved our lives in almost any way you could imagine.

But one caveat. If you’re starting to consider unschooling but you’ve still got math fears – or whatever fears – it’s better to go for it, surround yourselves with mentors & commit to YOUR deschooling (and unpacking of adultist mindset) – but bring out the math workbooks if it helps you. Or the enforced bedtimes. Or whatever. If you’ve read here long you know I began as a pro-education parent (and pro-compulsory pubic education, pro-public school, pro-academic achievement model). At first I had a cirriculum. Then I had workbooks floating around (which the kids loved doing, always on their own steam). The kids  grew out of math workbooks pretty quick, although they do them now and again for fun. Mostly they do a lot COOLER stuff now. And as for math – Nels was six – I think – when he mastered – and I mean beat the game – Plants Vs. Zombies. He’d play it over and over again, using different algorithms to win. That’s math. Math at this point I couldn’t do easily. I think this was also the point he’d be adding and subtracting three column numbers with 100% precision, and doing things like counting very high by 11s, stuff like that.

You’ll never see your kids doing stuff like that, stuff that just amazes you and that you can know you didn’t force, and you’ll never end up parenting your faith rather than your fears, if you don’t go to the end of that diving board and do a little bit of a hop.

My Daughter Asks A Hard-Hitting Question

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #9

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the ninth installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it.

This is item #9. You can find item #1 here, #2 here, #3 here, #4 here, #5 here, #6 here, #7 here, and #8 here.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. A picture from this evening: on an 8 o’clock walk, Phoenix and Hutch pause and goof around. Hutch is RARING TO GO, out to the mile long semi-wild loop we call “The Flats”, just a few blocks from my house. The kids and Hutch get to here every day; usually Ralph or I (or both) also take the dog this way later in the day.

Happy Pup + Happy Daughter

#9. Parent my hopes, not my fears. Works brilliantly.

I parented my fears for many years. I thought about writing in a general way to cover lots of ground, but I’m worried these Ten List posts are too general. So let me talk about something specifically. Manners and so-called “socialization”.

For years I tried to parent my kids to be “polite” and well-mannered. I know that sounds good on paper, right? But unfortunately, “manners” were required at the expense of my kids’ authenticity; and, to be honest, at the expense of my own. Specific social niceties were required years ahead of when it was reasonable for a child to develop them. These behaviors were essentially enforced, rather than looked at as something they would naturally learn if I modeled them; what I like to call the long view of compassionate parenting. You know those annoying adults who give your three year old child a treat and then sing-song, “What do you saaayyy?” (meaning: This was not actually a gift, YOU MUST THANK ME FOR LIKE AN ANGRY AND CAPRICIOUS MINI-GOD I DOLE OUT CORN SYRUP BLESSINGS)? Yeah, I basically went along with that. “Say ‘please’,” I’d order them. Like a douche.

I sold my children out.

Oh, not every single time of course. And hey, weren’t my intentions good? It’s something many parents do, if not most (if you seriously think I’m judging, you don’t read me too closely). Today I have compassion for my former strategies. I wasn’t just culturally-trained to parent my children this way; it was also a family lifestyle. I certainly came by it honestly.

Yet, parented this way myself, I had not only resented it, but I’d learned the wrong things. I remember going out to a restaurant and one of my parents was so servile to her perception of the waitstaff’s time schedule that often I did not get to order the food I want, rushed through my selection I’d be forced to eat something I didn’t want. I wasn’t treated like an adult would be. Well into my adulthood this same parent did the same thing. A couple years ago she apologized to the waitress when I asked, perfectly politely, for an ice tea refill. “Excuse me, may I have a refill on my ice tea?” I ask. “Sorry!” my mom winces and calls out at the waitress. TRUE STORY.

This sort of thing was not an isolated incident, but hopefully it serves. I didn’t like being parented that way for about a dozen reasons. One, I learned as a child I was less important than an adult. I always knew this was bullshite, but I didn’t seem I had many people to back me on this. (Later, sadly, I would treat my own children as “less than”.) Two, I often felt like my parents, in particular my mother, would sell my ass out to meet some kind of approval from a perfect stranger. I hated my mother for needing that kind of approval from others. I hated her for not being in my corner. If your mom’s not in your corner, who is?

I’m happy to tell you today I no longer carry that hate and resentment; my mother’s need to get approval is none of my business. But releasing the resentments of my past does not mean I don’t remember how it felt and the reflexive responses I developed. Namely, being a people-pleaser. Saying “I’m sorry” for stuff that wasn’t mine. Caring more about “polite” and “nice” than kind, compassionate, and authentic. Saying “Yes” to stuff and coming to resent the person I’d said Yes to. Twisted shit.

Years ago I read an article by author Naomi Aldort entitled “How Children Learn Manners”, which fully articulated what I didn’t like about the way I’d been raised and the way, de facto, I kept treating my own kids. This article blew open everything I couldn’t fully articulate as a child. I’ve sent it to parents now and then who struggle with this issue.

I began to parent my hopes. I began to stop demanding my children perform in public. I began watching my own behavior and talking to my husband more about the problems in our previous approach. We figured if we modeled civility the kids could learn it (we were right).

I wasn’t perfect at this – specifically relinquishing controlling behavior. Old habits die hard. There was this weird gap too where I hadn’t learned to address my kids’ deeper issues effectively, but was determined not to be scary to them in public, and there were times I was caught amiss and the kids were too. (Here’s a great, gory story you’ll love.) I went through doubts and fumbles. But I am so glad I stuck to it.

Today I have no regrets. My children are kind and considerate. When they say Thank You, they mean it. They have well-developed consciences. Two days ago I came home and the children hadn’t done the dishes as they’d said they would; when my eight year old walked in from taking the dog out he said, “I apologize mama, for not doing the dishes.” then he did them. Stuff like that. The system works.

The truth is, it is rather easy to bully one’s children into being “well-behaved”, but it is not a lasting model, and there are so many negative side effects, as I’ve written on at great length in many other writings. It isn’t the issue so much but the methodology; I was parenting out of Fear. Fear they wouldn’t be nice and that it would reflect on me. Yup, I didn’t want to admit that to myself, but that was just about it. Talk about being self-absorbed!

Today I can parent out of Hope. Not even hope – Faith. I absolutely know children grow up on their own terms, and are best served being treated well and being around adults who treat all people well, big or small. I know it because I’ve seen it. I’m passing it on here, so maybe you’ll believe in it for long enough until you see it for yourself. Maybe you can have some Hope until you get your Faith.

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #8

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the eighth installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it.

This is item #8. You can find item #1 here, #2 here, #3 here, #4 here, #5 here, #6 here, and #7 here.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. A picture from this evening: my kids horsing around, skateboarding and fortune-telling. At far right you can see the corner of our rental’s porch, covered in some kind of outdoor carpet and inundated with enough cat piss to be seriously disgusting. Oh and by the way, this is many hours of play today; my children love each other very much.

New Boot Goofin'

#8. Remember my job is twofold: to make my job obsolete, & help my kids have awesome memories.

This post may seem redundant. After all, I wrote a bit a couple days ago about what kinds of parenting I’ll be glad to reflect on, and what I might be less glad to remember. I have a few more words about keeping parenting in perspective.

Our children are the authors of their own lives. Once we know that, and commit to helping them, we can stop letting our minds be run by “experts” and stop letting every magazine article or parenting guru or next-door-neighbor invoke our insecurity. It doesn’t take a particularly organized, well-groomed, college-educated, perfectly-devoted, etc. etc. mother (or parent or carer) to know what one’s child needs. Sometimes their needs baffle us, or frighten us. Sometimes they are screaming and we don’t know why. Sometimes we sense they are unhappy, deeply so, maybe for days or months on end. As they get older it can get scarier. Maybe they’re cutting themselves or showing signs of very troubled relationships or drug or alcohol use.

The day we throw up our hands and pretend we don’t have a right and a responsibility to help them is the day we let them and ourselves down, profoundly. Sadly, I’ve seen it happen time and time again. I’m not saying you have to be perfect – please, PLEASE read my whole many-year blog if you want to see Imperfection in action – I’m saying that there are always mentors, there is always prayer and meditation (if you are earnest and don’t find it objectionable), there is always community to help. Have a bad day? Cool. What do I do with my bad day? These days, for a little while at least, I’ve been able to forgive myself and dust off my knees and get going. I operate not out of self-pity, fear, and anger, but out of gratitude, humor, and some degree of humilty. String a few days together like that and this parenting thing can become a joy no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.

I have the privilege of living in a home with my children and being able to give them my time. My time and my unconditional love are job #1. They will have plenty of adversity in their life and I am not frightened of it. My job is not to shield them unnecessarily; but also, not to organize the adversity for them. It is sad how many parents and carers are locked into doing just that.

I’m a bit hesitant to post a list several parents assembled on the ways we organize adversity for our children: “How To Screw Up Unschooling”. The list is helpful enough; but one thing I know is that parents often beat themselves up very badly and sometimes don’t even know they’re doing it. Parents expect themselves to be so-called “perfect” parents (mothers are pressured a great deal especially) and again, may not even know they’re doing it. The list – which is not at all confined to those who identify as “unschooling” or pro-unschooling – can be used as a series of life-changing opportunities. If you like, print it out without looking at it and have someone else slice it up into stack of slips. Work on each little scrap of paper for a week. Go easy. Be kind. Prepare to have your mind blown. It’s that fun.

Children are resilient. They shouldn’t have to be, but they are. Nevertheless, don’t let “children are resilient” be an excuse to continue ignoring that voice deep within that tells you how you are mistreating them, or how you are mistreating yourself (and therefore, them).

The real question is, are we resilient? Are we able to admit, “I’ve been doing _____ for a while now and I don’t want to do it any more.” That is the beginning of admitting we are faltering and being that much more open to asking someone for help. We are not the first person to be confronted with what seems like an impasse. Believe me, tangentially, as an alcoholic and a survivor, this process holds deep meaning. I can tell you that saying, “I’ve been doing _____ for a while now and I don’t want to do it any more” is a perfectly good start. Maybe you don’t know how you’ll ever change your reality, your habits, your circumstances. I’m here to tell you change is possible and the construct of No-Choice is an illusion and a choice in and of itself.

Admit where you’re living a way you no longer want to. Trust another human being and ask for help. You have only a better future to gain.

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #7

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the seventh installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it.

This is item #7. You can find item #1 here, #2 here, #3 here, #4 here, #5 here, and #6 here.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. A picture from this morning: my son, after a bowl of cereal, but before he drank the milk in the bowl. He’s giggling about something, but I’m not sure what. I went out for a run right after I snapped this picture. When I got home he shared a hot bath with me. Lovely times.

Nels, Post-Breakfast

#7. When someone else’s parenting makes me uncomfortable, lean INTO it, instead of fight or flight.

For me, it hasn’t been enough to merely refrain from and attempt to unlearn judgment; it is necessary I find out why I’m upset so easily by others. This process has helped me a great deal in that these days I am considerably less disturbed (angry, anxious, depressed, et cetera) than I used to be.

There are usually only two reasons we “fight or flight” when it comes to other people’s choices, their lifestyle. I’ll get to them in a minute.

Although the principles I discuss here can be applied to lots of areas of our life, I am trying to focus on raising a family. So what do I mean by being disturbed or uncomfortable by someone else’s parenting?

Maybe we’re angry when we see a family in a big SUV and we decide they are not environmentally conscious enough (for our standards). When we see a family in McDonalds and hold them responsible for our food anxieties. We see an family of fat parents or kids in Walmart and hate them for a baffling number of reasons. When we see our neighbor’s thirteen year old daughter dressed a certain way and wearing a certain amount or kind of makeup. When we see a child have a loud emotional meltdown in public. When we see a bottlefed baby. Or a breastfed baby. When we see a father berate his child in public. When we see a toddler drinking a pop. When we see boys in their Pee-Wee football league playing with one another and bullying one of their group. When we see a little boy in a pink dress. When we see a little girl in a pink dress. When we hear the neighbor child of age ten call another child a “retard” and a “faggot”. When we see an evangelical Christian family, seven well-behaved boys and girls, daughters and wife dressed in long dresses and hair in a bun.

When I say we feel “hate” – is that too strong a word? What else would you call the feeling in the pit of one’s stomach, the desire to Other that family, the feeling of “pity” those (supposedly less-fortunate) beings evoke. Pity and “feeling sorry for” someone are not loving, kind, or compassionate responses; these are not skillful strategies. These are merely another attempt to distance ourselves from others because we can’t tolerate them and what they evoke within us. To pretend, perhaps, we don’t have their problems because we’re better / smarter / etc. than they. Or even more fallacious: that if everyone would just behave, would just do what we think is right, everything would work out better.

There is a way out of being overrun by these reflexive coping mechanisms. But we can’t make much progress unless we figure out why we feel the way we do. The good news is, we have everything to gain from this process. We stand to gain some degree of equanimity. We stand to gain strength and calm and constructive action and intuitive thought, even in the face of things that previously would have upset us a great deal. We can speak up when we see something abusive or unkind; we can speak our truth. But we no longer have to be Right, or Righteously Angry, or – disturbed.

I live in a better place with this than I used to, but I still have the capacity to be disturbed. A few hours ago I was at a meeting. I witnessed a group of people repeatedly and a bit angrily shushing a five-year old child (for being, merely, a five-year-old child with attendant behaviors and energy). The bit of disturbance I felt is because I despaired, briefly, at the unkindness and intolerance shown this child. I am powerless to control the situation and it is my powerlessness I have not accepted. Yes, I have some options. Maybe I can speak up and say, “That’s not right,” or, “Come on guys, he’s only five!” or as I did today, smile at the little guy and play “peek-a-boo” and lean down and whisper, “I have new shoes too!” and let the other adults know he belongs, as far as I am concerned. But no matter what I say and no matter how perfectly I say it, I do not have the power to MAKE those other adults see things my way, let alone behave the way I think is best – whether I’m correct or mistaken about what “best” is.

Earlier I said there were two basic reasons we get disturbed, that we “fight or flight”, we feel uncomfortable, aversion, or hatred. Either we are reminded of something we have not accepted about ourselves, or we cannot tolerate and accept other people’s suffering. That’s just about it.

Today I grow in seeing myself as the perpetrator, past or present. In having compassion that I too have been short-sighted, short-tempered, lost, confused, consumed or angry. To pretend I am in the right and know what is best for everyone, is no longer an option I willingly exercise. I have found, conversely, surrendering to a more open mind and a more compassionate spirit has left me stronger than I used to be. I speak up more, not less. And I have more success, and fewer fights, and I sleep better, and I am friends with a larger variety of people – not just the ones I previously needed to feel comfortable or to bolster my ego.

 

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #6

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the sixth installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it. 

This is item #6. You can find item #1 here, #2 here, #3 here, #4 here, and #5 here.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. A picture from 6 o’clock: my daughter has just asked me if I got dog biscuits for our dog, and I took a few pictures to stall my answer, which is no, not yet. I’m going to get some soon, promise.

My Daughter Asks A Hard-Hitting Question

#6. Parent the way I’ll look back on & think, FUCK YEAH. For me this means relaxing more, judging less.

When my daughter was very wee – I may not have even been pregnant with her younger brother – I took her out on the streets of Port Townsend with me. It was beautiful out after a refreshing rain. And even though finances were tight while we lived there, I always worked hard to make sure my kids had quality footwear and raingear (my mom often bought their winter coats each year, for which I am grateful). On this day I’d dressed my child to play in the rain comfortably. She had boots and a raincoat and wee mittens and she was fed and she was dry in her diaper and we were going for a walk. Crossing the street she wanted to splash in a puddle a few feet out of our path. We veered off, her little hand in mine, and she made a satisfying jump and (to her mind) a massive SPLOOSH in the puddle, and she was happy as shit.

An older man passed us in the crosswalk right as my daughter completed her gleeful stomp and splash. I looked up and our eyes met. He smiled and said, “Good mama.”

I want to be the parent who does what my kids need me to do.

I am not going to look back and be glad I yelled at the kids for making a mess, or glad I bitched at them about how we couldn’t afford X because it was so expensive, and enforce all of MY money anxieties aloud or by my tacit behavior. I am not going to be glad I pressured them from the sidelines to be MY kind of athlete or to be the best in gymnastics or swimming; I won’t be glad I exercised my will to get them to impress coaches or to beat other kids’ performances. I am not going to be glad I “managed” their relationship with their grandmother(s) or their father or the neighbor kids, that I made sure they thought and acted the “right” way. I am not going to be glad I cluttered up their schedule with activities and treats to compensate for my bad moods or feelings of personal inadequacy.

I am going to look back and be glad I tickled them late at night when everyone else was asleep and we were dissolving in giggles. I am going to be glad I watched monster B-movies and ghost-adventures with them, I am going to be glad I took long walks to nowhere out in the woods or along the beach, I am going to be glad I made all their favorite foods and made some of my own favorites and shared with them how to do those things, when they’re interested.

I am going to be glad I spent the time helping them clip nails and brush teeth and take baths. I am going to be glad I took a few minutes to recognize that their first visit to the doctor’s or that their vaccinations are a big deal for them, and to be Present for them during this. I am going to be glad I take the time to find out what their interests are and why, and not offer my opinion if I don’t “get” video games or the latest pop star they’re into or their personal clothing style.

I am going to be glad I bought them everything they need to do their art or have their fun, within my absolute best abilities to get them these things. I am going to be glad I sewed them their favorite clothes and their unique and beloved Halloween costumes. I am going to be glad I let them have as many sleepovers, as many trips “froggin'” at the railroad tracks, as many s’mores and outdoor fires, as many bike rides to new parks, as many ice cream cones on as many summer days, as many of their favorite comic books as I can afford.

I’m going to be glad when I take care of my needs – not require them to – and then I give and give and give without thought of return.

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #5

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the fifth installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it. 

This is item #5. You can find item #1 here, #2 here, #3 here, and #4 here.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. A picture from this afternoon: my children cleaning up the play/bedroom upstairs. Within about ten minutes the beds were tidied, linens in the laundry, Legos put away, floors vacuumed, and costumes and stuffed animals bundled away. The kids also vacuumed the large bedroom and my sewing room. No threats, bribes, or coercion were employed.

Housework; Upstairs

#5. Allow myself to suffer public discomfort for a few minutes; stop parenting in a reactionary fashion.

I’m going to get down to brass tacks and say it: there are very few emergencies in public that require us to step in forcefully with our children. Full stop. And yet, we do it anyway. For many of us, it becomes a way of life. It isn’t the handful of times they run into the road at age two, when most people could easily understand a deeply-frightened parent grabbing a child and striking the child’s bottom. No. It becomes our way of life. We grab their arms or yell at them or perhaps, even more sinister, we impart consequences, many not necessarily violent, and build a world so fearful for them they are petrified to make mistakes in public. We do whatever we can to coerce them to behave well.

I have so much empathy and sadness for how this starts for so many. Maybe it starts at age six months when the infant cries in a restaurant and we capitulate to the glares of those who think children do not belong in public spaces; resentful, embarrassed, overwhelmed, and full of congested shame we flee the restaurant. We skip our meal, we women (usually) who sleep little and don’t eat enough and are overwhelmed and often ill-supported; we make sure no one is inconvenienced by our young child. And there it starts.

Sooner or later comes the day we are too tired and too overwhelmed and we don’t leave the restaurant and our kid cries and we think, “Fuck it.” Perhaps we hate our child. Perhaps we hate the world. We feel the disapproval of strangers or father-in-law or whomever but we cannot bring ourselves to march out that door and abandon our rights; nor can we cope with our current reality. Sadly, our parenting skills decline. Sadly, our child – sensing she is not welcome in the cafe and she is somehow disappointing her mother or even incurring her mother’s wrath – is left frightened and defenseless and without an advocate. This becomes a way of life; feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, resentful. It becomes a problem we cannot name but we feel it’s effects.

Our children suffer the most. Not the stranger in the coffee shop or the father-in-law. Not even us, although we suffer a great deal. But:

our children suffer the most.

And they learn how to parent their own children; and they learn how to manage those who need help. That is, they learn to MANAGE them. Or to try. They cannot tolerate the pain and suffering of others; they cannot tolerate their own pain and suffering.

If there’s anything I could take back, it’s the time and time again I parented in a reactionary fashion (I sometimes call this “reptilian parenting”), caring more for my reputation and for my kids’ “good behavior” than parenting according to a long view of what parenting is really about. And that is, briefly, this: as my children’s parent it is my job to keep them safe – and for a time, to keep others safe from them – and to nurture them and to be their advocate and helper.

It is not my job to make sure others approve of their very existence and/or my parenting or any particular episode of my life.

I have little patience for those who call the practitioners of punitive parenting “monsters” or some such, who loudly call spanking “child abuse” on internet forums. Certainly hitting someone smaller and less empowered than us is abuse, full stop. But someone being called a “child abuser”, her ears will close up. You have effectively tapped the shame she’s been feeling. She will stop listening. She will hate you. She will feel more lost and alone.

It is very unlikely she will stop hitting her child. She will not know where to seek help.

There are many who believe punishment is the right way of things; but these people are not monsters. They merely believe in a strategy I myself do not support, but they have come by these beliefs through intense indoctrination. Even so, there are few parents and carers who don’t feel pangs of conscience when they punish their children. Calling these parents or carers names, shaming them, will effect little change, no matter how briefly exhilarating it is to rehearse righteous anger.

When you call them names you are demonstrating YOUR inability to tolerate other people’s suffering.

In any case, so many out there vilify and call parents names that I can relinquish this right. It’s being taken care of by other parties.

It is never my intention to shame parents or carers who read here. I have not always been skilled at being careful, and I have my own biases and prejudices I may not be aware of. But hopefully I am better today than in previous writings.

I have a few closing remarks.

If you yell at your kid, give them a “time out”, count to three (repeatedly or once), hit them, scream at them, pinch their arm, cold-bloodedly smile while planning to later remove their most precious precious thing EVER when you get home, employ “natural and logical consequences” – in short, PUNISH them, do something to them to elicit emotional pain – and EVERY parent/carer has done this

– if you do any of these things:

DON’T PANIC. I’ve done them all (well, except maybe the “count to three” thing). I don’t do them anymore. If you want to stop, it’s possible. It’s a beautiful way of life, and it works. My children’s character, empathy, strength, loving nature, self-control, and care for other human beings is testament to a better way. I write here to help people who want to learn how to parent non-punitively; or rather, those who want to unlearn mainstream schema of punish, mold, “correct”, coerce.

It’s possible and I’m happy to help any who want it.

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #4

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the fourth installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it.

This is item #4. You can find item #1 here, #2 here, and #3 here.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. So from this afternoon: my daughter does the dishes. She’s wearing a hat I made her last night while her friend was over. She is amazing at the dishes. It seemed like for so long it was more work to TEACH my kids how to do a chore (let alone MAKE them do it), but then suddenly they could and wanted to do so much on their own. Trusting kids, and having the long view. That’s kind of the theme of this piece.

Phee, Dishes

#4. Stop trying to get my kids to sleep/eat when/what I think is convenient or best. For me.

This is probably the most controversial of my posts in this list so far, if I go off the commentary I regularly see from adults on the subject of kids’ sleep and kids’ schedules and kids’ food. These topics cover a lot of ground and I’m not going to write some massive manifesto here. I’m going to say a few words about what I’ve observed, then speak from first-person about our family experience.

A little Problem Statement about the backdrop of raising a family. Our culture promotes the scheduling of children’s activities, full-stop. In most families the parents/carers decide just about everything about their kids’ schedules, whether by true necessity, convenience, preference or ideology; our family is a little different as we constantly work to relinquish this cultural edict of Control. On the subject of food, the United States is built on what many would consider an unsustainable model for feeding our population in an ethical manner. Some people have far more resources than others; and those with fewer resources are often villianized and condescended to. We are also an obesity-shaming, orthorexic country who promotes disordered eating and pushes fad diets daily. Our grocery stores are stocked with diet foods and convenience foods and magazine racks full of celebrity-shaming headlines honing in on these public women’s bodies. Our children are exposed to constant messages that their bodies are flawed, their appetites are shameful, and food should be consumed at our convenience with a minimum amount of our effort and respect.

There is very little I can personally do to change those massive realities listed above.

But, I don’t have to. I will just write a bit about where we’re at today.

Regarding sleep. We honor our kids’ autonomy as much as we can reasonably bear. As infants and toddlers, I abandoned setting their naps and schedules. It was exhausting and seemed cruel to everyone. I found they would fall asleep when they needed it, or give me signals they needed rest. I also learned that allowing them to sleep, or not, according to their needs gave me a greater presence in caring for myself. Instead of knowing I’d get free time at a certain hour and working myself to exhaustion in anticipation of that final “break”, I learned to listen to my own signals and rest a little more when I could. Not artificially imposing strictures on another’s life made me care a bit more for my own. I wasn’t a perfect adherent to these principles, especially given I was and am surrounded by people who not only schedule their kids’ lives but vociferously tell me why they do and sometimes, why my family should. Still, we had enough success honoring our kids’ sleep needs and adjusting our life to the realities of caring for small children that it gives me confidence to continue this way.

Today, sleep freedom includes allowing the kids to set their schedule and sleep when and where they want to. I remember when we first “allowed” them the option of staying up all night. Shit got weird. They would stay up all night. But oddly it was pretty chill. They’d take a nap. They were thrilled to have that freedom; reading a book or playing a game or doing art whenever they felt like it, alone until the wee hours. It was pretty thrilling.

That stage of all-nighter didn’t last though. For the last couple years, the kids have slept when we did, without any enforcement, fights, or complaints. They sleep beautifully, can sleep at other people’s houses and at camp, et cetera (there are some houses they prefer not to sleep in), and are well-rested. Not having to get up for school, they awake in the morning and cuddle with myself, their father, the dog, the cat, or one another. They sometimes get breakfast for one another or curl up with a book. When they’re ready for the day, they brush their teeth and wash their face and get dressed. Our mornings aren’t rushed and our nighttimes aren’t crabby.

Regarding food. We honor our kids’ autonomy as much as we can reasonably bear. This means we provide as well-rounded, ethical, and nourishing food as we can. And then we let them eat what and when they want.

We are not a family who can afford an all-local all-organic diet. But we are a family who can support those things to an extent. We are also a family who wants to let our kids enjoy their childhood; part of that is eating 7-11 hot dogs or ice cream or a huge bowl of popcorn. Or Halloween candy until they puke. On the Halloween candy subject, our son Nels did throw up one year… the next year he trick or treated and refused all candy, with a weary shake of his head and hand and a “No thank you.” Ha! I think he was four, which means he remembered the incident of the year previous when he was three. In subsequent years, he’s been very moderate in his candy consumption, on his own accord. No lecture required during any of this.

Our kids did odd stuff around food freedom now and then, but not as much as I would have guessed. I remember once my son filling a Chinese restaurant teacup with sugar and taking a spoonful. I even took a picture (he was also wearing a Hawaiian dress and had marker makeup on). I can’t find the picture now, sadly. Anyway, he didn’t repeat the experiment.

Our kids eat a variety of foods. So far today they’ve had apples, bananas, bacon, eggs, toast, and a smoothie with homegrown blueberries, raspberries, yogurt, and banana. At this moment they’re at a birthday party, so they’re probably eating pop and hot dogs. They love to eat at a variety of restaurants and order off the adult menu. Sometimes they devour a new dish with gusto – Phoenix is every enamored with Thai rad nah, lately, and Nels loves sushi rolls. Sometimes in a restaurant they order a large exotic dish and decide they don’t care for it. Which is kind of like, what we adults get to do. It’s really fun to watch them enjoy a huge variety of food. When I was their age, I’d go to a Chinese restaurant and order a burger.

I could talk a lot more about food and sleep. I encourage anyone with a specific query as to how they can employ their ideals within the confines of their current lived reality, to email me. I’ve written and helped many parents who’ve asked (and several childfree who had questions).

At this point, I’d like to close with a few comments about kids’ freedoms in general.

It is useless for me today to try to control every preference and freedom my children have. It is counterproductive and it is a lot of work. It does not teach them self-control; precisely because it is imposed control. Even “successes” at controlling my kids are likely to create within them anxieties or even resentments. Ralph and I can lead with the best conscience and actions our situation provides us. We’ve built a single-income life that prioritizes our kids’ greatest freedoms. There have been many ups and downs and no shortage of financial difficulty. But the freedom we enjoy today is wonderful.

I can’t program my kids to have the habits I want them to, the food or environmental conscience I think is best, the values I think are right, et cetera. I influence my kids a great deal, but to enforce my values on my children whenever I feel like it, or whenever it suits my convenience, runs so many risks I am no longer willing to make that a way of life. There are always, and I mean always, solutions to letting go mainstream parenting edicts. I am grateful I no longer have the illusions of Scarcity and I do not dwell on non-choice.

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #3

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the third installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it.

This is item #3. You can find item #1 here and #2 here.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. So from this afternoon: my children play in the beach. I posted lots of these pictures at my Flickrstream today, because as I went through them, each one showed the kids’ delight at being in the water, which they dove into without hesitation the minute we hit the sand. I couldn’t pick a favorite.

Unschooling Beach

#3. Find mentors for something I’m new to & stay open. Very much worth the time!

Dedicated to my mentors… too many to list! Here are a few I talk about here: Wendy, Cheryl, Kathee, Sylvia, Jennifer, Charla, Linda.

A mentor is strictly defined as: an adviser. That’s it. What’s the difference between a mentor, a leader, an “expert”, an elder, a caring friend, a smart co-worker, a member of your mama’s group, book club, or poker night buddy?

I define a mentor as “someone who has something I want”. That is, they have a quality I want, and they have a quality I currently don’t have. I’ve had many such mentors. One woman had experience in the field I needed help in. One had an immense amount of faith, and a spiritual strength I’d never before witnessed in person. One had forgiveness that astounded me. One had loyalty that took my breath away. One had bravery and vulnerability despite incredible odds. One had generosity that surpassed understanding. One had leadership in the field of helping others.

A mentor should be willing to help me without regard for return. A mentor is willing to take time for me, even if the help is just an email response. A true mentor won’t take ownership of my life, nor try to force an outcome, or make my behavior requisite for their approval. They merely exist to serve. Sometimes, often, a mentor is also a friend. But they don’t have to be.

I have responsibilities in this relationship. It is my responsibility to recognize a mentor’s limitations. It is my responsibility not to hold them accountable for my difficulties. It is my responsibility to be mindful. It is my responsibility to receive from the mentor what she is capable of delivering. Some mentors can provide me skills in one area but not another. I don’t go to the hardware store for oranges, to use a phrase I recently heard.

I have been on the mentor side of the relationship, too. I have had the honor of assisting others and I try to employ the principles listed above. I do not require reciprocity in any form: financial payback, blog hits, a certain kind of friendship or alliance with me when my life has troubles. To the degree I can help others, I give it freely.

My responsibility as a mentor is to be kind and gentle, and to let people have their own problems. My responsibility is to listen as deeply as I can and to not project my own persona onto theirs. My responsibility is to be mindful.

The benefits I receive by being able to help others are immeasurable and profound.

Despite the world being full of caring friends, fun coworkers, loving family, elders, leaders, and “experts”, a mentor relationship is hard to find. It is worth it to consider who could mentor you. I’ve learned the most valuable life skills through my mentors. I owe them a great deal of gratitude and I take time to express this gratitude. Any quality I have today, that you admire, tell me about it – and I’ll tell you who helped me with it and how.

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #2

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the second installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it.

This is item #2. You can find item #1 here.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. So from today: here’s Nels, playing on his sister’s (new, to her) GameBoy color, and watching Minecraft tutorials. He’s also eating homemade matzoh ball soup. I told the kids to help themselves to soup while their father and I were at meetings, but to leave SIX matzoh balls for everyone else. I got home and they’d left them in the pot – the six SMALLEST balls. I am proud of their scrupulous consideration of others while also maintaining an appropriate voracity for homemade matzoh balls, which are really frakkin’ delicious, which is why I made a double batch.

Nels + Phee's (New) GameBoy Color

#2. Do what feels right but is scary. A mistake here & there is better than a stifled life.

dedicated to Elizabeth & Cynthia

I’ve two examples, briefly, of milestones that illustrate this premise. Maybe they will seem small potatoes to you; I can assure you they were crucibles for me.

The first: homebirth. Nine months into the pregnancy of my second child, that’s right, nine months, I started seriously wanting to try a homebirth. I became fixated. I was consumed with the thought, especially given I’d intuited it might be a far better experience than my first birth.

But I was frightened. What if it wasn’t safe?* What if I failed? These were the only two real questions – but tell my mind that, because the inner dialogue clattered on incessantly! I thought about homebirth, and I read about it and researched it. Very soon I’d satisfied myself it was perfectly safe to proceed. But that wasn’t the biggest hurdle. Because: WHAT IF I FAILED? What if I wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t tough enough? What if people mocked me – told me I made a big fuss over nothing worthwhile? Over and over I played these tapes, I couldn’t help it. Over and over I came to the conclusion I wasn’t going to know if I could walk the tightrope unless I stepped out. I remember talking to my doula at the time, and expressing the deal-killer: “What if I labor and labor and I can’t take the pain and I want drug relief, so then I transfer to the hospital?” She told me, in effect, so what. She’d been through a transfer after three days’ labor and she was still very, very glad she’d attempted homebirth. She effectively gave me permission to “fail”. I never looked back after that. I had committed.

Many of my longterm readers know how things turned out. The homebirth was – amazing, one of the best experiences of my life. I owe a lot to the women who helped me. Some years later I saw that same doula in a different county, and I burst into tears of gratitude the second I recognized her. She gave me permission to fail, although she likely didn’t know that’s what had happened. This permission was priceless to me.

The second example I want to talk about came a few months later. My dear friend Cynthia had owned a cloth diaper service long before she and I became friends. We got to talking in her living room like we did every night, and I started to realize I was fixating on cloth diapering for my two small children. I don’t know why, today. Maybe I’d had it up to here with the nastiness of the chemicals in disposable diapers; perhaps I felt a pang about the environmental detriments. Perhaps I wanted to do it for hippie cred. Maybe I was tired of the expense and trouble of always buying disposables. Perhaps it’s my love of laundry and cleaning and sun-drying cloth – or just my love of fabric (I am, after all, an ardent seamstress). Perhaps a dozen other things. All I can say is: I had a desire in my loins like a flaming, golden Hawk.

Again: fear. I was going to fail. I was going to look like an asshole. I was going to annoy my husband. I was an idiot. Et cetera.

I switched my kids into cloth diapers when my son was a couple weeks old. I instantly had two children sopping wet, all the time. I think for about two weeks, as I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. And I didn’t have the funds to buy cloth diapers at the time I hatched my plan (another reason it was a “stupid idea”) – but again, women came through, loaning or  gifting me a tremendous supply. In no time the money I was saving not constantly buying disposable diapers allowed me to buy a very nice diapering setup. I used these diapers on both my children for years, then gifted to a local woman. They are still in use almost a decade later!

Scary. I’ve faced a lot of scary things. Leaving an abusive boyfriend: scary. Abortion, all on my own and left in a rundown hotel at age 17: scary. Recovery from alcoholism: scary; working with fellow alcoholics and addicts: scary. Deciding to homeschool and THEN deciding to unschool: scary. Being married to a man I’d come to hate: scary. Nursing my father in hospice and through death: scary. And more.

Every single thing mentioned above has yielded me the most amazing dividends in life experience, faith, forgiveness, heartbreak and unconditional love. These experiences, and how they transformed me, have been the cornerstone of my spirituality.

Not everything that was scary in my life always felt right; but I’ve no remorse over the scary things I tried that were primal desires for me. I’ve no remorse, regardless of the outcome. How do I know if it feels right? It’s when my gut says, “DO THIS”, and my head starts in with a racket. TRUE STORY things my head has told me: I can’t possibly do this, I don’t deserve it, THEY don’t deserve it, I’m too busy, I’m overwhelmed, they can’t expect this of me, I’m not a saint, I’m not smart enough, I’m not strong enough, I’m too poor, I’m too fat, I’m too ugly, I’m not “expert” enough, my husband will be upset, it will hurt my mom’s feelings, my friends will mock me, no one will like me, people will be mean to me. The list goes on. My head can tell me shit all day but when it’s yakking out of – you guessed it, Fear – I don’t have to obey. I can look a little deeper and find out what I truly, truly want.

The best news of all is, when I decide to go for something scary, I’m not alone. Ever, unless I want to pretend to be (it sounds foolish but we do this; it causes a lot of suffering). Tomorrow I’m going to talk more about that whole, “you’re-not-alone” thing. It’s no coincidence the times I healed and grew most vibrantly were the times I sought help with whatever particular Vision Quest, to borrow a phrase, I’d set out on.

But for tonight: be brave. Think on the times you have been. Honor your courage. It makes life worth living to the last drop.

***

* Yes, I know. As if hospitals are! But doing something safe WITHOUT the mainstream vs. WITH the mainstream. Big diff.