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.

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

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #1

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on ten lists I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the 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.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. So from today: here’s my daughter Phoenix. She’s going to grow up to be a Furry, I think. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That. #LOL

Phee

#1. Stop judging other parents; stop being self-critical. Both are self-obsessed behaviors.

“Stop judging” usually runs into one of two quagmires right off the bat. The first is, “What do you mean don’t judge, we all make judgments, I have the right to decide what’s best for myself/my family/my kids,” blah blah blah.

So about choices. Just this week I’ve chosen many times over, at any given moment, whether to clean my house, play with my kids, work volunteer hours, cook homemade fare, build my garden, pet or walk my dog, exercise, have a date with my husband, visit friends, sew, write, rest. Et cetera. Each time I chose one thing I couldn’t very well do the others. This is life. It happens.

So let’s drop the pretense. We all discren and we all make choices. We’re all doing the best we can on any given day, and we all make mistakes. No one is free from making mistakes, from having wrong perceptions, from being driven by fear and anger. We can only demonstrate our will, our uniqueness, or what Viktor Frankl called “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” in how we respond to our anger, fear, our mistakes. Some of us have a sense of humor, humility, and openness about these things; some of us, less so. I’m hoping this post restores or imparts humility, humor, and courage. These are all traits accessible to every single human being.

There’s a second speedbump in mainstream culture when we talk about unlearning judgment. For those of us brought up Nice White Lady  (*raises hand*), we interpret the pop-culture mag articles about not-judging to mean merely the outward appearance of civility. In other words, “keep your opinions but keep them quiet, merely dropping hints in public, and finding those who’ll share in your hatred and judgment when you want to be more open about it all. OUT LOUD judgment or judgment voiced in the wrong company is Mean & Nasty, a social gaffe.”

Just: No. Keeping nasty comments to yourself is a start; but it’s the inner voices that will hurt you and then necessarily, hurt others. Those perceptions and judgments will construct pitfalls for other parents, for children, and for yourself. You will fall on the sword you install. Every time. And P.S., you aren’t making things easier for others when you live this way. This didn’t used to occur to me. It matters to me, today.

My experience informs me that judging other people (and finding them inferior, worthless, “bad”, et cetera) is our Ego’s response to Fear. That’s it. It’s that basic. I don’t like formula-feeding moms because I’m upset to think of babies who aren’t getting the best upbringing/nurture/nutrition etc. I hate pro-lifers because they oppress women and their hate frightens me. I can’t stand Christians because I was hurt by my family/the church and they’ve made me feel inferior! While I relate, I understand, and I’ve been there, for me a Fear-driven way of life is not a quality way of life.

Our strategies need never be informed by Hate and Fear; they are more intelligent and skillful when they are not. It’s kind of sad that when it comes down to it, many of us are trying to save our own skin, or telling the world, “I can’t deal with the suffering of others, so everyone needs to behave.” Once I recognize these drives within myself the whole thing falls apart and I can proceed with a great deal more intelligence, compassion, kindness, strength, and courage. To be honest, when I realize this is where I come from, I usually have a laugh about it and talk it over with someone.

I don’t have an antidote to Fear to impart here. Personally, I had to have a spiritual, moral, mental, and emotional breakdown, and be built back up brick-by-brick, which is where I found faith – I discovered the possibility to live a spiritual life. That’s just me, though. It actually wasn’t as bad as it sounds. OK, it was pretty rough. But I’m here today and today I have Faith. Faith has enabled me to participate in the world, to change the world for the better when I can. I no longer need to put myself in a box, to not be friends with so-and-so because she does this Naughty thing, to stay up late being Right on the internet, to Other other people. Et cetera.

If you don’t like the concept of Faith or spirituality, by all means substitute ethics or principles or values. Do not allow my experience and the rituals that help me, be an unnecessary impediment to your life.

One thing helps me here is fluidity. When I see a father scolding and yanking his son’s arm, I don’t think “What a monster” today. I know that man is all out of better ideas. It hurts him to hurt his son but he has no better option. I’ve been that harsh and hurtful parent. I can walk up to that man and say, “Can I help you?” I can let him know I see him hurting someone and I won’t let it continue, but I see him hurting too. I don’t have Fear like I used to.

I have a dear friend who found the St. Francis Prayer very effective. She told me it kept her from practicing all her bad habits and allowed her to supplant them with better ones. The prayer reads:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

It is very brave to live this way. Many cannot bring themselves to do it. I am not a Catholic, but I find this prayer to be a wonderful reflection. These principles help me to minister to others, instead of building up my Ego and my sense of righteous indignation. When I see something that makes me angry (in other words, that frightens me), I am less likely to go on the offensive with MY way of seeing things, MY practices, MY life. Today I know I am not helping others when I clobber them with my judgment, words, and actions, and when I put the nail in the coffin of being Right. These new strategies (relatively new to me, anyway) have helped me a great deal. I can ministrate with kindness in public, and feel compassion and experience Presence. When I am troubled by something, I can respond with more clarity. If I need to, I can talk with an understanding friend who has less Ego at stake than the so-called offending party (or the person, edifice, or principle that disturbed me). Egos shouting at one another, well, we all know what that looks like.

I didn’t change quickly, or all that happily. It cost me a great deal to live the way I used to. Ultimately I found resentment, judgment and fear made me too sick. Just: very, very ill. They make me ill today if I rehearse them.

I hope you’ve come to see that judging others and self-criticism go hand and hand. It is not possible to live with one but not the other. Both are steeped in arrogance. Both only seek to grow the Ego, the Self, the personality. They do nothing to reduce our anxiety, increase our usefulness. If nothing else, know a thought like, “I’d never be caught out like that,” “I wouldn’t tolerate that from MY kid”, “what shitty parents”, et cetera is going to hurt you later. There is no if, and or but about it. It’s going to hurt you later, and it hurts you today, even if you don’t know it. It hurts other people too.

It really is okay to say, “This scares me, and it hurts me.” It works wonderfully to say this, to know this, instead.

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

“You’re not in trouble. We don’t get into trouble here.” – my daughter Phoenix, to a friend

Today my friend Wendy tweeted an article by Norm Lee, the author of nopunish.net. It was just my kind of thing – a brief history and analysis of the school system.

I’d been thinking about Norm Lee just recently. On the seventh of March, 2010 I sent him an email asking to subscribe to his newsletter. Five days later I received an email from him. It read, in part:

Okay, you’re included on the nsltr list. you happy? For the week following your email, I haven’t been able to do a lick of email work – AND IT’S YOUR FAULT. Engrossed as I’ve been with reading your stuff, I’ve kept wondering if there is an end to this wonderful tunnel of love & freedom. Lovit, lovit, lovit! Where did you get the devotion-to-kids, the insights, the compassion, the courage to be so open and vulnerable and brave the brickbats that are inevitably visited upon anyone as free? I’ve worked on it for more than the last half of my life (I’m 81), and I just get stronger and more dedicated. But then, I’m a trained Buddhist (Bodhisattva), with 40 years of daily meditation practice, so slings and arrows are just slings and arrows, nothing personal, nothing more.
 
I believe I love you. (So much for training in detachment.)

I remember how I felt reading this email. It was kind of a Big Deal at the time. First, I felt glad that someone out there in the Ether, an experienced parent and grandparent at that, supported my husband and I in trying to raise our kids without coercion and violence. There was light at the end of the tunnel, there was a mentor saying, “You can do it!”, and that meant a lot. Because believe me I am surrounded culturally and personally by adults who either flat-out denigrate these aspirations or at the very least, have a complete ignorance as to how to live them or what life is like when you try.

I appreciated Norm’s support; but I also knew I wasn’t where he was at – and I envied him. His sentence, “slings and arrows are just slings and arrows, nothing personal, nothing more” stuck with me. Ever since. I knew what he wrote was true for him, and I knew I wanted it to be true for me. It was a truth in my head but not in my heart. At the time I had recently received my first “anonymous” hater online. And despite handling it okay, maybe, I perceived other people’s opinions of me mattered too much. While critics, either directly criticizing or implicitly shaming, had sometimes helped me a great deal, I also knew they could upset my little happy-rowboat. It’s not an exaggeration to say I let other people keep me awake at night.

Today I also know slings and arrows are just slings and arrows. I know it is nothing personal. And I know it in my heart. My change didn’t come from Norm’s email and it didn’t come entirely from practicing Buddhism (although both of those things helped) – and it didn’t come overnight. My life is very different now. It’s a wonderful thing.

It is possible to arrive at this place; and having arrived, to practice the principles that give us this grace.

As for non-punitive parenting, I still get it wrong sometimes. But I get better and better at leaving that way of life for others. Sometimes I get a few days in a row being a nurturing, present parent. Today I’m content with my commitment to the practice, and I’m grateful for those who do better than I. They are my mentors.

Today there is not much a critic can say to upset my rowboat. Thank you, Norm, and the many others who’ve helped me and continue to help me.

published with permission

Today The Atlantic features another post on radical unschooling. It is called “School’s Out Forever: Parents Who Don’t Believe in Education”. Despite the title (LE SIGH) It’s not the worst mainstream piece on unschooling I’ve seen (it’s sad I’m all jaded and shit! – but, my readers will remember recent history). ANYway I thought I’d publish my piece about the conference we attended. I’ll point out one thing: this is featured in the latest issue of Life Learning Magazine. They are a wonderful, independent publication and I’m grateful they find my work up to their caliber. I highly endorse them and hope you will support them.

“understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing”: reasons to attend an Unschooling conference
by Kelly Hogaboom (July/Aug 2012 Natural Life Magazine)

 
My husband, two children, and I recently returned from our first-ever family-oriented convention: the Life is Good Unschooling Conference, traditionally held in May in the city of Vancouver, Washington, the United States. We didn’t have the financial capability for the registration fee, the hotel charge, and food on the road, so several months ago I asked blog readers if they’d financially assist. And assist they did, their aggregate donations funding the trip in full. I am – obviously – very grateful for this, and here I’d like to briefly mention a few reasons why.

My original desire to attend the conference was purely for the benefit of our two children. Full-stop. I knew they’d enjoy it (although I didn’t realize how much they would) but I didn’t have any particular expectations for my experience or that of my husband’s. Our position was similar to that of fellow life learning parent Amy Bradstreet, who wrote about her first unschooling conference two years ago: 

“We didn’t attend because we needed convincing as we are dedicated to unschooling and learning in freedom, and it’s not really that we needed more information […] [W]e are fortunate that we have an established network of relaxed-unschooly-homeschooling families in our area, but our conference experience was indeed life-changing.” (onbradstreet.com, August 31st 2010, emphasis mine).

 

As it turned out the conference was indeed life changing for all of us. I’d like to attend next year, and I’d like even more to raise a scholarship for another family to attend as well. But I get ahead of myself a bit.

 

Post-Swim Lunch
new foods and elegant restaurants amidst busy conference activities

Listen, I’ve never related much to the “find your tribe” mentality – yes, even when it comes to the so-called fringe activities or lifestyle choices that I sometimes believe I desperately need support for. The way I see it, the entire human race is my “tribe”, and if I’m looking for differences I’m cutting myself off from perceiving commonalities. Even though unschooling is considered by many a radical choice, the truth is schooling parents and carers are more similar to my husband and I than different. We genuinely want what’s best for our children, we seek out models and mentors to help us, we make mistakes and lose then find our way, and we can be plagued with distressing self-doubt sometimes (or, often).

So I don’t need a specific “tribe” to commit to unschooling, but even after this first experience I can relate several benefits from the Conference’s immersion environment.

One: bold and experienced mentorship. “Unschooling” (or life learning, or autodidactic education, or non-coercive parenting, et cetera) has been around a very long time, and some of the more passionate and brilliant minds of today are those attending conferences, giving talks, and writing books and magazine articles. This conference was stocked with attendees who had a lot to offer. I attended two sessions helmed by an always-unschooling parent who has four children aged thirty-three to nineteen – and I hung on this woman’s every word. I listened to the comments of another family who’d been featured in a frankly defaming way on a national television show (so in other words, had some experience with lots of public criticism). I got to watch grown children who’d been unschooled their whole lives, giving me future glimpses of potentiality for my now-tween children. Notably, in general the teens at the conference were more expressive and gentle, made more eye contact, and were imbued with more self-confidence than their schooled peers.

I also benefitted a great deal from the shared commonality of difficulties, framed in an unschooling context. We discussed how we sometimes felt alone, isolated, fearful, or “crazy” to have chosen unschooling. Surprise surprise, I am not the only parent who’s felt marginalized, mistrusted, and left out. I am also not the only parent who’s made mistakes and attempted lifestyle choices, large or small, that didn’t end up serving our best interests – while simultaneously lacking the support of those who understand and support an unschooling philosophy. Speaking about my experiences frankly while in a pro-unschooling environment? Priceless.

Third: the conference demystified some of the difficulties in what, living in a semi-rural area, I sometimes experience as a fragmented movement. As I joked to a childfree girlfriend once we returned home, unschoolers don’t seem to have that many controversies, really. Summing up: bedtimes, food, video games and/or television, and math. That’s all! (That’s not really it, but you might get my drift if you’ve been unschooling a while). And, news flash, those are hardly issues that schooling parents don’t struggle with! Seeing these difficulties reduced to only a handful of solvable situations was refreshing, and allowed me more space to consider what I want for my family. More than once I was reminded of the phrase: “Don’t sweat the small stuff – and it’s all small stuff.”

Meeting and talking with so many pro-feminist and anti-patriarchal fathers? Well… let’s just say my heart skipped a beat.

Finally, the conference provided me with a vision made real. I’ve long held that most of the social framings I’ve experienced (primarily white, west coast United States) are often profoundly adultist and kid-unfriendly. Children are age-segregated, institutionalized, coerced, talked over and about, denigrated, abused, distrusted, ignored, bossed and bullied, and under-supported. And a lot of this is considered not only our right but our cultural edict. At the Conference, with rare exception, we briefly lived in a different world entirely. Children were not merely tolerated, as so much of our culture seems to manage (or not), but were honored, assisted, helped, loved, and accepted. If a toddler ran down a hall people smiled and stepped aside. When teens grouped up in a hugging pile no one glared; we smiled. When a baby needed to nurse, people helped the baby’s mother get situated. Children and adults not related to one another spoke directly to one another, and not in the limited sentences I’m used to hearing (“What grade are you in?” “How’s school?”), but in terrifically more interesting ways.

In short, children and their carers weren’t treated as second-class citizens but just: citizens. And this vision bloomed throughout. As adults had set up this framework, in turn, many of the teens in this environment assisted and loved up on small children. And in turn the small children had already learned to respect their own voice and authenticity. You could see this in their demeanors, their agency, and the light in their eyes. They were not being forced to unlearn their own merit.

That’s a community, and a future, I can unabashedly align myself with.

Another Morning At #LiG2012!
Phoenix and Nels, accomplished at playing hard and sleeping as needed at Life is Good 2012

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Kelly Hogaboom is a wife to one, mother two two, and muse to … at least a dozen. She lives in rainy and lovely Hoquiam, Washington, huddled next door to her mother and living amongst all sorts of domestic pets. She enjoys B-movies, New Wave music (and new New Wave music), Mexican food, sewing, laughing, and snuggling her family and cats. You can read more about her experiences at Life is Good 2012 via her blog (https://kelly.hogaboom.org/?tag=lig2012), or by searching for the Twitter hashtag #LiG2012.

i’m grateful for cancer

I know I recently wrote a bit about my father… this piece, however, was written a while back, at the request of the editor of Grays Harbor College’s zine.

I’m grateful for cancer
by Kelly Hogaboom
Originally published in “The Diversifieds”, Grays Harbor College Aberdeen WA, Spring 2012

Happy Father's Day, Dad

Caption: My father and I, Huntington Beach CA

My father was first diagnosed with cancer in 2000. I remember where I was when my mother told me – I was eating a white fish sandwich and fries at, of all places, the Southshore Mall food court. I was stunned to hear the news, although even in that split second it wasn’t the spectre of Death and Doom I sensed. I was shocked, sure, and over the next eight years I’d experience a lot of sadness and sorrrow. But I don’t remember being frightened or angry.

I learned so much during his illness as he received treatment and surgery, then went into remission. During this time I discovered much about him, a lot about my family and friends, and a great deal about myself. I took time out of work when he’d have his first radiation, his first chemo, then his surgery. I travelled to be with him. I do not know how glad he was that I did this, but over time it made me more centered, stronger, calm in my convictions that if I was a welcome presence for someone, I wanted to there for their big journeys. And, thankfully, he was there for mine – I remember he had a fine new growth of hair for my wedding, some months off chemo. That day we all celebrated his life and that of my new family.

Don’t get me wrong, there were disappointments along the way. His illness had been missed a full year before by a doctor who dismissed blood in his stool. I think my mother might have been angry about this. I accepted things as they were – for the most part. Sometimes my mind would churn on the “What if…?” I remember this mind would also hook on strange yet strong desires – like that he could live on and be there when my children graduated high school. Why this particular milestone, I do not know (funnily enough, they’re homeschooled now anyway!).

Always Bitchy
My father, during one of innumerate rounds of chemo. The staff were always so kind and professional.

During this time my grandmother in California fell very ill to a stroke, and my experiences with grave illness were very much with me. I packed up my new husband and baby and we flew down to be with the family, despite some protestations of my employer. She died after five days and I grew all the more. I was living life, not avoiding its terms.

My father’s cancer returned, this time blooming throughout his body. Again: chemo, pills, appointments. He had to stop long-distance running, a passion he’d excelled at since we’d moved to Grays Harbor. In September of 2006 he called us where we were living – Port Townsend, Washington – and let us know there was a job opening in Aberdeen that would be appropriate for my husband. I’m smiling as I write this, because my father rarely called me for any reason. We knew we was asking us to his home, asking us to bring our small children and spend time with him before he left.

When my father died in August of 2008 I was with him. My mother and I nursed him at home with the help of hospice. This too had its surprises and challenges, but it was deeply satisfying work. On August 22nd I stroked his hand and held him and spoke, only a little, and calmly, as he struggled through his last breaths. I felt brave and very Present, filled with transcendant love, shining bright within my body out through my fingertips. When he finally drew his last breath my mother jumped up to make a phone call. It was as if I had all the privacy in the world. I put my head on the bed and cried sobs from the very heart of me, the deepest I have ever cried.

After he died, many expressed sentiments. Some seemed to understand my mind, many did not. A surprising number couldn’t bring themselves to visit, or speak to us at all. I learned a lot there, too.

Brevity prohibits me from listing the many things I learned along the way from my father’s illness, treatment, and death – and especially that year and a half after we moved to be close to him, when every day I saw him I was filled with joy, a knowledge of how precious he was to me. It wasn’t remission or pills or chemo that gave me these things, although I am grateful such options are available to those who want and can have them. But cancer gave me these things, that enlightenment, that knowledge of how deeply I loved, the ability to slow down and savor our time together.

I could write so much and the many moments of deep satisfaction and awareness this process afforded me. But it is not necessarily afforded everyone – my journey was not my father’s, nor my mother’s or brother’s, and they may have very different experiences to report. When it comes down to it, this is what I believe: the journey my father took is one we all take – in some form or other – and I am grateful I do not experience anger about this. Just sadness, and then: gratitude. Life is an incredible blessing and experience.

Kelly

Forgiveness is possible; loving others in a way that works for us

All comments on this post will be moderated.

Welcome to the Spank Out Day 2012 Carnival

This post was written for inclusion in the Second Annual Spank Out Day Carnival hosted by Zoie at TouchstoneZ. Spank Out Day was created by The Center for Effective Discipline to give attention to the need to end corporal punishment of children and to promote non-violent ways of teaching children appropriate behavior. All parents, guardians, and caregivers are encouraged to refrain from hitting children on April 30th each year, and to seek alternative methods of discipline through programs available in community agencies, churches and schools. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

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Mid-summer of last year I shakily drove my new (to me) car to a friend’s house. I’d made a desperate call just a few minutes prior and she could hear that I was in need of someone kind to talk to. I knocked on the door and was welcomed into the home of this friend and her partner, both women very dear to me. I sat on their comfortable couch in the soft summer light, ready to compose myself to tell them what was wrong – and instead burst into shuddering sobs.

I’d just come from a meeting in a self-help group. Over the past few months I’d been recovering from the shame and misery of my past – including, in my own words, “the worst shit I’d ever done”. The worst shit I’d ever done, what does that mean? Well, we all know deep in our Knowing Place what these things are, and my worst and your worst aren’t going to be the same. I have a share of immoral (by my own standards) acts in my past. But for me at the time, the “worst things” weighing on me were the things I’d done, or hadn’t done, for my children. I couldn’t shake the thought that while other adults could choose to play in my playground or leave me be, my children were hostage to my bad behaviors. This thought had haunted me to this very summer day.

So in my self-help group I had named some of my mistakes aloud. I briefly related that I regretted yelling at and hitting my children (in an commitment to truthfulness and yet a simultaneous masochistic act of self-criticism, I’d refused to give myself an “out” by calling my behaviors “spanking”, “swatting”, or “paddling”, etc). I started to talk about my freedom from this guilt and shame, and the help the group had brought me in this regard.

But before I had finished speaking, another woman turned to me in disbelief. “For spanking your kids?” She asked in astonished contempt. I paused, surprised at an interruption – rare to unheard of in this group – and went on talking.

As soon as I finished speaking – on a larger point than my parenting, or so I thought – this woman immediately launched into her own narrative. In a most articulate fashion she listed every justifiable reason to hit one’s children and make sure they know who is boss, and why. The world is a hard place. They’re going to learn on the streets if they don’t learn at home. Your kids will blame you later if you don’t discipline them. Anyone who criticizes can fuck off. “CPS can show up and I’ll beat their ass.” Et cetera.

I sat on the sofa and listened. The oddest feelings crept up on me. As she went on – seemingly for ages! – I knew I was feeling – something. I knew I was unhappy, but I didn’t know what else I was going through.

At the end of the meeting we closed and said farewell. I was still confused, but I smiled with a genuine shining love for this woman, the love I feel for all members of the human race today. I knew even though she was addressing me, she was telling me about herself. I knew she had a heart and mind and love for the children she was raising. Perhaps she’d heard what I had to relate and would reflect on it later. I knew she was stressed. I knew I had nothing to give her in this moment but love and compassion.

A few minutes later, I got in the car. I drove a little ways before bursting into tears. Minutes later I’d made my phone call and sat weeping on my friends’ couch. After I had a good cry, the cry I needed to have, my friends and I talked it out. And when I tried to explain how this woman’s words had hurt, but my own words failed me, my friend said firmly and kindly, “She told you to do things that don’t work for you.”

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I was spanked growing up, but I don’t cite those experiences as particularly painful. The physical aspect of my childhood punishments weren’t as humiliating and confusing, for me, as the emotional and spiritual dysfunction. Besides spanking, I remember only a few other humiliating episodes involving physicality, such as my father throwing a glass of water in my face when I was a teen, and my mother slapping me across the face about that same era. Neither of my parents ever apologized to me for these actions, and I have no idea how deeply, if at all, my parents felt regret, remorse, or shame for these actions on their part.

I have forgiven them, and that forgiveness has been a gift to myself.

I’ve maintained for some time that there is little difference in our “punishments” or “discipline” of our children, as long as we are trying to manipulate them out of our own fear (however deeply our own fears are hidden from us). Last year for my post for the Great Spank-Out I wrote,

“[I]n my opinion there is little to no concrete differences between the following: hitting (also called “spanking”, “swatting”, “smacking”, or “beating”, depending on your culture/family), yelling at, scolding/lecturing, grounding, removing toys/items as a lesson, “natural and logical” consequences (applied at the discretion of the parent/carer in order to groom for desired behavior or eliminate undesired behavior). On the flip side of the coin, praise and rewards are perfectly complimentary to this type of punitive/manipulative parenting schema – and those “carrot” (as opposed to “stick”) systems are relatively common too.”

Although I believe there are more similarities than differences in the above-listed strategies, I also believe every child (and adult!) has the right to relate to themselves and others which strategies hurt, and why. In other words, what was painful for you might not have been as painful for me, and vice versa. What matters, as parents or carers, is we honor our responsibility to our children, instead of deciding our will for them be made manifest. What matters is we forgive ourselves and change. What will make a great difference is if we can forgive those in our past who hurt us. It may make all the difference in the world.

Imagine my intense gratitude when five months after I wrote this post I heard a talk on this topic from Harshada Wagner, a yoga meditation instructor I respect and admire. In his guided meditation, “Living Wisdom: Releasing Shame” (August 29, 2011, at yogaglo.com), Wagner said the following:

“The good news and the bad news about shame is this:
 
“The good news is it’s not our fault. We can blame our parents for a lot of our shame.
 
“The bad news is that our parents aren’t here, and our parents aren’t going to be able to take away whatever it is that we have taken on. We’re going to have to do that ourselves.
 
“Of course, I’m kidding. It’s really Good News, and Good News.
 
“It’s good news that it’s not our fault. Everyone has a certain degree of shame that we carry around that keeps us from really shining. And it’s actually good news that the sources of the shame, if they were on the outside, aren’t the ones that can take it away. Because it puts that responsibility, but it also gives us the ability and the privilege and the freedom to work out what we need to work out.”
 
[…]  
“Almost every child is punished with emotional pain. It sounds very harsh, but let me just spell it out. When a child makes a mistake, when a child has done something that the parent doesn’t approve of and the parent wants to get the child to do what they want them to do, they will withdraw some kind of privilege until the child does what they want them to do.
 
“Why is that? What is the parent drying to create there?
 
“You parents watching this, please don’t take offense.
 
“When we do that, we’re trying to create emotional pain in the child. ‘You can’t go outside until you do your homework.’ ‘You can’t eat your dessert until you eat your vegetables.’ These are very benign sort of punishments. ‘Go to your room!’ … And then it gets harsher and harsher, all the way up to, some of us were actually slapped, or screamed at.
 
“But whatever the punishment was, was made to make us feel bad, as a way to learn a lesson. Even if our parents didn’t want to hit us physically, they wouldn’t feel like we had really gotten the message, unless we were sad. Our favorite toy was taken away. Our video games were denied to us.
 
“A really smart little kid, you know if they said, ‘Jimmy, you’re only five years old, you shouldn’t be playing with matches,’ and little Jimmy was really sharp and said ‘You know what, you’re right. I’m only five, what do I know about playing with matches. I could burn down the house down. You’re so right. I’m too young to play with matches and it’s dangerous. Thank you, mom and dad for the feedback. I really appreciate it. I’m going to take this on, and really make sure that I don’t play with matches any more. Thank you so much.’
 
“No, it wouldn’t go like that. If a child was that bright, was so smart, most parents would still not be satisfied until they grounded him or smacked the matches out of his hand, or yelled at him and frightened him in some way.”

Wagner’s entire meditation, which I have since earnestly recommended to so many, resounded with me deeply last September, and continues to today. All parents, even the best parents, attempt to apply emotional pain to their child to get their child to do what they want. We may do it reflexively or we may do it deliberately with some thought ahead of time – or, as is most likely, we do both. We may do it for noble reasons or for selfish ones – again, we likely do both. Some of us can know we are doing this to our children and desire not to – yet we still do it, to whatever degree we do. A lifetime of training, and our own fears and resentments and anxieties, have created a habit energy hard to dissolve. Progress can be made, but I’m unsure if perfection can be achieved.

I also know the child has a right to her own experience, and tuning into her experiences is as important, if not more so, than time and energy spent building and defending and tearing down and rebuliding and obsessing over our strategies, or those of other people.

The woman in my self-help group who told me I should beat my children had what seemed like the absolute noblest of intentions in advising me such. Briefly: she is the matriarch in a black family, raising her own nieces out of familial necessity while living in an urban, drug-riddled and economically-depressed environs. She is battling her own disease of alcoholism and she has an unsupportive larger family. If you can see deeply at all, you can have compassion and understand where she might be coming from.

As I heard in group the other day from an older man: “I had to come here to this group to learn things. I had to learn to stop hitting people. You hit people when you’re afraid.”

You hit people when you are afraid.

And the parents, carers, or those without children who attempt to put themselves in a false position of separateness and superiority with regards to the topic of disciplining children are also acting out of fear. Compassion, kindness, and gentleness are needed – not more recrimination and words spoken in anger.

This upsetting conversation last summer, and the discussion with friends afterwards, were very helpful. I was brave to be honest and vulnerable in a public way – about my worst shit. And after I spoke, someone directly challenged me with every possible good argument to punitively parent my children – even as she spoke and I felt sad, the amusing image of a little cartoon devil on my shoulder popped into my mind. But the truth is this: I could not parent my children this way and be okay with myself. I had never had this ability. So, I part ways in strategy with this woman. I can speak my mind and relate, from the heart, my experience as child, then parent – but I am not in a position to play God and I cannot follow her home and force her to see things any particular way.

I have not seen this woman in a while, but I hope she holds me in love and kindness the way I hold her. I know that this is possible, even in the most controversial and personal of topics. It is possible when we practice love and compassion – for all beings.

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Spank Out Day 2012 Carnival hosted by TouchstoneZ

On Carnival day, please follow along on Twitter using the handy #SpankOutCar hashtag. You can also subscribe to the Spank Out Day Carnival Twitter List and Spank Out Day Carnival Participant Feed.
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

Question: Is unschooling a form of anarchy?

A few days ago via Twitter my friend Elizabeth addressed fellow radical and unschooling proponent Idzie and myself:

Hey smart ladies, random question, do u identify with anarchism at all? Is unschooling/gentle parenting lived anarchism?

I am quite unqualified to write much on anarchy, but I will note here, briefly, that Idzie self-identifies as a green post-leftist anarchist and you can read some great stuff on her blog. For my part, the concept of anarchy is one that, what little I know of it, I have a great deal of respect for (I recently read somewhere, “no nukes, no wars, no laws, no morals and no conformity”).

I notice knee-jerk biases against non-schooling and/or non-punitive parenting often sound quite similar to reflexive dismissals of anarchy – or any practice eschewing authoritarianism, a culture of expertism, and concepts of meritocratic structure. The mainstream reaction to the word “anarchy” is not a positive one: many identify anarchy as germane to and necessarily resulting in chaos and crime, disarray and disorder, a great deal more violence than already exists, of course, and some kind of feral state of humanity where all our Evil is manifested and all the breathtaking instincts of every other animal on the planet is entirely missing: “the terrorists have won”, total disrepair and a breakdown of civilization (because, of course, in the mind of many civilization is inherently a good thing). Think Mad Max, but without the saving grace of a young Mel Gibson in leather pants.*

And that’s what people, by and large, predict about unschooling, life learning, or living without compulsory schooling. It’s not going to work, and it’s going to be a Very Bad Idea. I’m not talking about open-minded questions or even some fair skepticism, conversations I’ve engaged in many times with a fair degree of lightness, usually – I’m talking about vitriol, labeling the lifestyle as resulting in an Underclass of ignoramuses, or on the other end of the spectrum being an offensive exercise in unexamined privilege; at turns either over-involved, or neglectful. In fact it’s the demonstrably ignorant, wildly vacillating, and mutually exclusive nature of the most vigorous and spiteful criticisms that made my partner and my tentative foray from public education to homeschooling to living without school all the easier. As we considered these criticisms, the whole culturally-prescribed normative edicts just collapsed like a house of cards, while our family thrived.

At root, these biases against even listening with an open mind to the principles of anarchy or living without school seem to have a root basis: a profound distrust of human beings. I note that in the case of living without school, there is also an incredibly strong adultist response (rooted in how we were trained to view children, while we ourselves were growing up). This profound distrust of human beings and the resultant affinity with a poisonous pedagogy is, when it comes down to it, a spiritual or moral choice we make with our every thought, and it is a way of  life we create with our every action. Do you personally believe God (or the cosmos, or whatever) made a mistake when He (or whatever) created humans, so “fearfully and wonderfully made”? Do you personally believe children have naughty, querulous, non-empathetic, and lazy natures that only the wise, firm hand of adults and institutions can and should properly mold?

I hope it’s obvious you don’t have to answer here, or to me. Ever. This is all your business; and as a direct result, your attitudes and beliefs will make it the business of everyone else you come into contact with.

Although many would like to believe otherwise, it has been pointed out to me rather convincingly that school was primarily created so we could continue with our Industrial Revolution and capitalist values and way of life, however well-intentioned many proponents are today. Many families currently live a reality that would make it very hard indeed to care for their own young during the day; USian culture’s child-unfriendly public spaces make this even more so the case. Consider: how much do we culturally value in a holistic way those who put the time in caring for the child class, and how much do we culturally value the nourishing of the spiritual and emotional health of all families? Children are mostly institutionalized, full stop, and many families who love their children very much are a part of these systems because they have little choice, or even if they have a degree of choice, truly don’t see the value in participating as a member of a non-schooling minority. As for the status and respect we afford those who do the important work of other-care, I’m not seeing it unless you get paid. And in the money-earning sphere, the lip service to teachers’ so-called heroism is expected to placate these working adults who are living out their professional lives in systemic circumstances far less than ideal and often downright dangerous and damaging (although I believe the children are the most primarily and profoundly affected during formative years).

Compulsory schooling is where I learned how to regurgitate information and to sit still and listen to Grownups, because Grownups knew more and better than I. Compulsory schooling helped me learn a great deal of fear or at the very least, encouraged me to become very risk-averse and unlikely to challenge Authority, even when my heart and gut told me Authority was doing wrong. Compulsory schooling taught me the myth of the United States as meritocracy: people who were poor and downtrodden, well they weren’t working hard enough. Compulsory schooling never “taught” me critical thinking (as if children need this “taught” to them!) nor much valued the creative process and drive because, as my linked-to friend Wendy Priesnitz has also written, if compulsory schooling did value these things the system would not be able to function. The attitudes of by-rote institutionalism for children can also profoundly negate a child’s most basic needs and drives; briefly I remember my brother who received a D in high school Art, primarily because he didn’t complete things on the teacher’s schedule (today this makes me laugh when I think about the world of art, which to my knowledge does not have a universally-adopted timeline on how long to work on a piece!). Needless to say his adult life has involved a tremendous and consistent amount of creativity, and within the career he chose as an adult due to his passions he has an excellent reputation as an employee. I will also add schooling was not experienced as a positive thing for my brother in many ways; he was continually criticized and thinks of himself as a “poor performer” despite a B-average (yes, I checked).

I have observed children learn things profoundly well, in their own ways, when allowed this freedom and the necessary safety and support adults can provide. I did not experience this freedom growing up, which is perhaps why I was open to valuing and creating this reality for my own children. I mentioned my brother who didn’t much enjoy school; well, I did, because I learned how to be a Good Little Girl and because my abilities were along those privileged in our educational system – linguistics, science, reading comprehension, and math. I was a High Achiever in school, a straight-A student, and received a full-ride educational merit scholarship that delivered me a degree in Engineering within four years of college. I could write tomes on the costs of assimilation, a near-entire capitulation mechanism to Authority and Expertism, and my performance-to-gain-praise-and-prizes but I won’t here. I will merely relate that, much like my children’s experiences seem to evidence, it was when I began living my life for my own reasons that I began to grow character, to grow compassion, to be less selfish, to find my passions (instead of merely chasing income, status, and prestige, not that there is anything wrong with any of those things), to reach out and assist others, and to question those culturally-sanctioned narratives that hurt us all. The list goes on. I’m gratified to watch my children, who hopefully won’t have to “un-learn” as many fear-based theories I believed and strategies I employed .

I also find it really surprising that the largest vocal majority against whole life unschooling is by far those who not only haven’t tried it, they have just now heard of it and already hate it. These days, if I were to hear of a lifestyle I knew little about, I’d likely go, you know, asking questions directly to someone who had experience. Preferably, if I thought I might benefit from an open mind, I’d seek out someone who was having a great deal of joy and personal growth in the process. To that end, my blog is a catalog of our experiences, and my email and social media streams are always open to those who want to ask me anything at all (kelly AT hogaboom DOT org, kellyhogaboom on Twitter).

“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all argument, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance. This principle is, contempt prior to examination.” 

Today very few adults in blog-reading US of A grew up in a home that not only consistently met the children’s needs – physical security (home and clothing), nutrition, and consistent emotional nurturing – but that also allowed the greatest autonomy and personal freedom (of expression, of movement, of choice) possible. Given that’s the case, it’s always encouraging to see a grownup who was raised without such autonomy, asking how that sort of thing might work.

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* Or if you’re into the really weird movies we are, think perhaps Warrior of the Wasteland, with all the senseless killing and electro-harness rape but without the heroic awesomeness of Fred Williamson’s gold-plated archery and fabulous mustache.

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Edit 12/13 – You know what I forgot to mention? I forgot to tell an anecdote about our family. Like, if you come inside my house you will see a “normal” family (whatever that means), a clean and tidy house, food on the table, kids who are mostly polite and assist chores regularly and without being forced. Etc. Etc. I was going to write about our current experience a bit just to point out that, if you think life without school and with an exchewal of authoritarian and coercive parenting is all disarray and disrespect, you’d be incorrect. Anyway we’d much rather have you visit, if you want to see how it works!

Question: How do you implement non-punitive parenting [and whole-life unschooling]?

Remember so long ago when I wrote a primer on non-punitive parenting? That got a fair number of shares on Facebook as well as several emails, tweets, and comments that asked for more information or follow up.

But, I had a hard time thinking of how to write another piece for many reasons. One, I wasn’t sure if I should write to parents-to-be (who may be more open-minded to such ideas), or write to those who’d already had bad experiences or results from mainstream parenting strategies (in other words, who could use some help, but already had specific problems developed between themselves, their children, and other adults – the latter class who may or may not be supportive of non-coercive/manipulative/authoritative strategies). And really, that last little bit is crucial. Assisting families out of harmful patterns and (seemingly) complicated impasses is often best done with specifics discussed, and at length. To that end, I am always willing to respond to emails and assist anyone as best I can (kelly AT hogaboom DOT org). I do this writing and work for no other reason than I am passionate and I want to help families live in harmony, freedom, and with intelligence and respect.

Fortunately, a reader and Twitter friend gave me a few direct questions about her specific situation and I was able to write her. After the first bit of our exchange I asked her permission to publish her query and my response, as I thought it might help other readers (please remember anything written to me is considered fair game for publishing, although if you have any specific objections let me know as I am often wont to honor them). So here’s a scenario-specific followup.

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This is Sandi, @5and1 from twitter. I’ve seen you link some really interesting things about non-punitive parenting and unschooling and I’d really like to learn more. I’ve looked a bit on your website but if you have other resources I’d love to read them.

A bit about my family. I have four year old boy/girl twins. We co-slept for a year and a half, and I nursed them for almost two and a half years so I’m used to being labelled as a hippie by my friends and family. My kids are whip smart but have room to grow socially. They have been in preschool for a year and are really excited to start back again.

We don’t spank but we do do time outs. I am realizing that they are not effective so I’m trying what I call time ins. The kids have to sit with me and once they are able to we talk about what has happened. But. Even that is not always effective. I am way more shouty than I care to admit. I never thought I’d be this kind of parent. I know that it could be a lot worse but I see that there is loads of room for me to improve.

So what has worked for you and your family in terms of non-punitive parenting? How have you implemented unschooling?

Thank you for the generous offer to give me more information!

Hello Sandi!

I think it is wonderful that you’re seeing the limitations of punitive, authoritarian, manipulative, and/or coercive parenting. Many if not most adults are quite sure these strategies are necessary, and very fearful that if they were to abandon them for something else the results for parent and child would be horrific or at the very least, highly uncomfortable and inconvenient.

My kids are “well-behaved” (whatever that means! – I only report what many grownups tell me, here), literate and life-skills proficient, social, intelligent, strong, loving, empathetic, self-directed (now there’s a value you won’t see most school environs fostering or supporting in a meaningful way) and this is all despite the many many times I’ve fallen well-short of my ideals and been quite ungentle – and resorted to punitive or authoritarian strategies. I too was for a long time able to report “I never thought I’d be this kind of parent”. This was made confusing by many factors, especially considering that before I had children, I’d never been a violent person or rather, had not considered myself one. It was a very discouraging revelation to find out I was, or had that potential as a parent. But I have resolutely used my experiences to delve deeper into the roots of my story and my inner states of spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being, as well as developing and writing with a critical eye towards the narratives society purports – which are often quite harmful. The results are pretty good, in that we’re a happy family as far as I can tell, my kids are thriving without school or authoritarian/authoritative edifices, they tell me I am a wonderful parent, and I am committed to further improvement, god willing.

So as for being a “shouty” parent, or behaving in ways you never thought you would – welcome to the human race. I have not met a parent/carer who would claim perfection in the ideals they wish to live out, although I have met some who seem not to examine their own behaviors very closely, nor evidence corrections. I never want to sit back and justify my bad behavior or poor strategies, and leave it at that. I want to, and do, pick myself up, apologize, strive to do better through mentors and/or spiritual practice or whatever works. Sometimes I think I will never get it “right” but – that’s okay. The days I think, in so many words, I’m doing so awesome at this gig!, and compare myself favorably to other parents (ugh, yes, I do this sometimes), I’m usually overlooking something and I am definitely suffering from major cases of Ego and Denial! Usually these spates are followed by me having a massive and inappropriate blowup at my children.

So, you asked about my family. My kids are 7 and 9. Raising them as we have, they are very adept at handling themselves in many situations I notice schooled kids, parented in mainstream and authoritarian fashion, tend to be less competent with. They also seem very happy, well-rested, well-fed, and physically and “academically” active (the latter: they read, study, teach themselves skills and world science, do math etc. on their own). The factors I’d say contribue to our successes (such as they are):

1. a knowledge and acceptance that to live the way we wanted required financial sacrifice (specifically, of a fulltime income),

2. a partner who is in as complete agreement with these principles as is possible or likely in another human being, and who is as committed as I to our role as parents, and our passion to sort out problems when they arise (I don’t think a partner is necessary to so-called whole-life unschool, but if you have one that is in disagreement with these parenting values and practices, this can add some complexity),

3. freedom and autonomy given the children as much as they request (example: today the kids know they can choose school if they ever want to try it out),

4. complete inclusion of the children as to how the family runs itself and why, and a regarded voice in all decisions.

When it comes to freedom and autonomy for children as well as their vote, my main regard is safety as is age- and child-appropriate on a case by case basis. It seems to me safety concerns take a more active role when a child is very little. But in raising kids the ways we have, it is incredible to me how adroitly they master concepts of personal safety and how quickly they are to take suggestions, directions, and/or advice from a parent who they’ve come to trust via their own experience, and trust at a deep level.

By the way, I have realized that “time ins” can be tricky too, because we may still be forcing our will on our children. If children respond well to “time ins”, use them! But I suppose if pressed to comment I would say it’s better if kids are immediately removed from hurting one another, or humanely separated if need be, in a non-punitive nor angry fashion. Then each child should be loved up or given attention to in whatever way seems best, making sure your OWN needs are as reasonably met as possible before doing so (learning to meet one’s own needs, with regularity, is a challenge but well-worth the effort). Later in the day when things are calm a brief, age- and child-appropriate approach to conversation may be introduced, but watch and see how interested, if at all, the kids are in this. The separation, whereby you keep the kids safe, and respond with calmness as to whatever need they may have (food, attention, a quiet space, a LOUD ROWDY space, whatever it is), and later discussion with your partner or mentor as to the children’s possible deeper needs, is probably the most effective treatment in the long term. Over time kids will trust you to keep them safe while not trying to direct their feelings, actions, thoughts, etc. This in turn gives them room to develop better strategies and participate in family life in a more self-authored and likely more helpful way.

Obviously what I describe above, especially for young children, is time-intensive and means being able at any moment to put your work on the back burner. I just want to acknowledge this, because few adults seem to give primary carers respect for this aspect of a difficult job! This time-intensive nature was a fact of parenting my young children, but I will add that so soon the kids grow and need so much less physical constancy – and also that I miss the intimacy of my infant and toddler years, and in no way regret the efforts I put in during those times.

And on that note – your children are young enough they likely can’t be left unsupervised for much time at all. You also mentioned on Twitter that you work out of the home. I don’t know if you have a partner and if he/she is interested in the tenets of whole life unschooling, or life learning, or whatever label we’re calling it. All of these listed factors matter. However, I am convinced no matter what our particular circumstances are we can always move away from harmful practices towards ones that better reflect our ideals. So please do write more, with specifics, if you want to, and I will respond as best I can, keeping in mind that for some situations I do not have first-hand experience (for instance: raising twins).

If I had young children and was unable to have a partner at home, I’d probably seek out care for the kids in a less academically-inclined school – like a Waldorf or an outdoor preschool (however, in my opinion it is likely better to have the kids with kind and loving adults than prescribe to a specific type of educational model, so the type of preschool etc. is less important than the leaders/directors/teachers). Alternatively, I might seek out someone such as myself, a person at-home with other kids, who could care for yours in a way you and the children would be happy with. Finally, I might also consider committing to a life where one partner can be at home, if he/she can do so with a willing spirit (and I can speak to how exciting it is!). I might also consider living on student loans or some other form of assistance for those early years. These are all deeply personal decisions, especially that of working in-home without pay nor status, and I will say there is a phenomenal lack of support for kid-care work should you or partner choose it, or should you seek to have it personalized. Just things to be aware of, because my experience is that in having my children out of mainstream school/daycare structures I am often asked, basically, to explain or justify myself! *grin*

If you have any questions or desire clarifications please let me know. Realize also I am only a person raising my children and (to a lesser extent) other children around me. I have no professional qualifications that make me an expert on much of anything. I am passionate about these ideals and happy with the way we live – but I am human and fallible and have many lessons to learn. I write and share like I do because of how many adults have requested it, and how many have told me it has helped them.

Thank you for your query!

Non-Punitive Parenting: A Starting Primer

This piece was written as a participatory exercise for The Great Spank Out. All comments on this post will be heavily moderated. No comments endorsing punitive parenting will be allowed through, although of course you can write your own blog post saying whatever you’d like. Send me an email if you’d like me to link to it.

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I’ve heard every rationalization for punitive parenting in the book, and then some.* I’ve heard that using these strategies doesn’t really hurt nor humiliate a child. I’ve heard Yeah, it hurts/humiliates, that’s the point, and it works well! I’ve heard “I was hit, and I’m fine” (about… a thousand times). I’ve heard punishing/hitting/grounding/time-outs are necessary and if you don’t do them, you will absolutely generate “spoiled, entitled brats”. I recently had a friend tell me he thinks something is wrong with my partner and I that we do not spank (hit) our kids as a parenting tool – although he grants my children are the first children he’s ever liked – and that he envies our family life but holds no hope he could raise children without violence. He explained to me his carers beat the shit out of him (his words), but it was for his own good; he lived in a dangerous and crime- and drug-laden neighborhood. I bring up this anecdote because it is an elegant example at the extreme end of this (common) worldview: “the world is tough and my kid needs to know about it, and I’m going to help him learn early to keep him safe.”

And of course, arguing against those who promote spanking, I’ve heard many words said against hitting children – while still maintaining we absolutely should exploit our power position to “mold” them. This worldview is represented by those who hold that spanking is inhumane and/or child abuse, while they advocate for so-called “gentle discipline” methods cited as time-outs, restriction/grounding, removal of privileges, lectures, etc.

I’m going to get down to brass tacks to state in my opinion there is little to no concrete differences between the following: hitting (also called “spanking”, “swatting”, “smacking”, or “beating”, depending on your culture/family), yelling at, scolding/lecturing, grounding, removing toys/items as a lesson, “natural and logical” consequences (applied at the discretion of the parent/carer in order to groom for desired behavior or eliminate undesired behavior). On the flip side of the coin, praise and rewards are perfectly complimentary to this type of punitive/manipulative parenting schema – and those “carrot” (as opposed to “stick”) systems are relatively common too.

So I’d imagine some people are reading (if they’re still reading) with their jaws on the floor – or perhaps they’re sporting a sarcastic smirk. It would seem I don’t hold there’s any way one is allowed to raise a child. Next you’ll be guessing my house is a loud, craven mess with children shouting at me at the top of their lungs, their mouths set in garish and sticky Kool-aid grimaces, and that these children are the terrors of the town, and I’m in “denial” about it all, and I’m Ruining America.

Well, first of all, let’s banish this “allowed” business. You’d be surprised what you’re “allowed” to do as a parent. Actually, everything I’ve listed above is fair game and usually encouraged in our country. Indeed, in the United States you are legally sanctioned to hit your child – as long as you don’t use an implement nor leave a mark (grownups and animals are protected by at least the letter of the law). As for grounding, restrictions, time-outs and the rest – these are generally thought of as Good Parenting. In any case, I have neither the ability, the right, nor the interest to drive around inspecting how you’re doing things. If you parent or care for a child you are pretty much free to do as you see fit and nothing I say here can force you one way or another.

Secondly, you should know I do not think parents/carers who employ the above listed strategies are bad people, monsters, stupid, “crazy”, or any other pejorative. If I thought that I’d pretty much think all parents/carers were jerks. I’d also have a hard time forgiving myself for my own “monstrous” behaviors, because for reasons I won’t go into detail here and now I have let myself and my children down many times, yes, even against my own better judgment or principles. Now while a sense of sadness in knowing one has violated one’s own spiritual practice or strayed from one’s moral compass can be helpful in course-correcting, shame and guilt as forces for improving one’s parenting don’t work very well. I do not wish to promote these experiences. Sadly, when it comes to parenting – or mothering, as most finger-wagging diatribes usually concern – almost any discussion of bad strategies vs. better ones will prod the injuries most parents (/mothers) carry. This is a sad thing, but perhaps unavoidable unless we decide not to talk frankly.

The good news is, I’m here to deliver some hope.

Because what many people are too afraid to hope for, and too convinced otherwise to entertain, is the possibility of raising a happy, healthy child – complete with a compassionate and moral and fierce spirit – without punishing them, or at least while actively resisting punitive methodology. That’s right. No grounding, yelling, lecturing, time-outs, spanking. Yeah, I wouldn’t have believed it either. Until I started experiencing it firsthand. It’s been one of the most humbling and exciting and amazing partnerships of my life. And my kids seem to feel pretty good about it too.

Parenting non-punitively is possible, rewarding, and incredibly freeing in about twenty discrete ways I could probably list (and will do so at some point). Most parents/carers are too scared to try. They intuit, correctly, that if they attempt to give up punitive measures they will have to give up things they want. And they’re right. Here is, as of today, my best thoughts on these sacrifices as I’ve experienced them.

Primarily, we give up the illusion of control. Hear that? We don’t really have control – we have the illusion of it. We maintain the facade of control as long as our child is not developmentally aware enough to perceive how she is being controlled; later, we may maintain this facade if our child either chooses to let us win out, because we have made things so unpleasant for her should she assert herself, or if she chooses to hide her nature, opinons, feelings, and/or actions (indeed, duplicity in a child is a first-string symptom of punitive parenting). We maintain the illusion of control until we observe our child regularly employing self- or other-harm. I am often very sad to hear adults promote narratives where their teenager “suddenly” starts acting “crazy”/sullen/angry/anxious/like an asshole. Thus many parents and adults put forth junk-science rhetoric regarding the “teenage brain”, pathologizing teens themselves and/or setting down young adult expressions of anxiety, alienation, anger, sadness or severe disassociation to hormones or some kind of temporary innate contrariety, etc. (what’s deeply sad is to witness teens internalize and then repeat this denigration and erasure; I was one of them). I personally think espousing “teen brains aren’t ‘normal'” / “teens are jerks” rhetoric is a last-ditch attempt to avoid admitting the damage many endemic mainstream parenting and teaching practices have inflicted upon our children. It’s too bad, too, because I’d like to believe it’s never too late to admit our mistakes, acknowledge our fears, and in doing so improve our treatment of the children in our lives.

Again: what do we give up, when we decide we will no longer punitively parent? We give up many accolades and praises from mainstream parenting “gurus”, from our family and friends, and from our micro- or larger culture. Believe me, if your child has a loud emotional display in a store (for instance) you stand to gain approving nods if you come down on the child with a stern and/or loud voice, especially if delivering a threat. Giving up punitive parenting strategies, then, means many adults will expect these displays of you and, when you do not deliver, tsk tsk – or worse. You may be told to beat your child. You may be encouraged (usually implicitly) to put him down or speak about him in a sarcastic and dismissive manner so he at least knows what a pain in the arse he is. Fortunately, although it can sting to give up the many surface-level commendations you receive as a demonstrably-“strict” parent, if you can cast off punitive forces or provide better caregivers or environs for your child, you’ll likely soon be receiving genuine expressions of delight regarding your children’s character and behaviors. The funnest part of this is, for me, a state of far less attachment to outcome; e.g. appearing virtuous or a “good mom” by result of my children’s behaviors (however I am nowhere near immune to this vanity, sad to say). When my children are complimented (as they often are), I can know it is not me in the driver’s seat, but the kids’ own individual qualities emerging. I do not accept compliments regarding my children’s behavior, but of course my children themselves are allowed to handle those as they see fit (they usually say, “Thank you.”).

I’m wracking my brain to think more about what we give up, but really those two things are about it (although they’re biggies, I grant it). I suppose we give up allowing ourselves episodes of retaliatory anger. Or rather, when we inevitably give in to such displays (as I do, still), we can relatively quickly abandon the premise that this is our right or responsibility, apologize sincerely if we did something asshat, and return to our better selves a lot quicker.

So that, I suppose, is the bad news. (Except you can see it really isn’t. Bad news.)

Now: what do we stand to gain?

For one, we stand to gain the experience of a healthier, happier, braver, more empathetic, more alert, more humorous, and more fair-minded child. We also begin to see how children raised this way are less likely to experience or evidence the following: depression, low impulse control, habitual duplicity, generalized anxiety disorder, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, repetitive bullying episodes (either as the bully or the target), self-harming rituals, and susceptibility to peer pressure. Please note I said less likely. Believe me, if I knew of any formula to raise a child safe from all large-scale harms, I’d be tempted to can it and put it up in my pantry.

What do we stand to gain? More enjoyment of our time together. More knowledge of who our children really are (and who they continue to grow to be). When we trust our children, we really trust them. It’s a wonderful experience. I’ve often been told by other parents, “Wow, I can’t believe you let your kids run a restaurant / ride the transit / pay your bills / use your phone / walk to the library. I couldn’t trust my kids to do that.” At first I thought these parents were talking into their sleeve, essentially chastising me for being me too permissive (and perhaps some of them were). But I began to understand I really do trust my children in a deeper way than many parents trust theirs. This wasn’t necessarily easily won nor is it fully accomplished, but is primarily due to and results in the fact: I don’t feel I should, or have to, fiddle with them too much. I am their advocate, I am their mentor and advisor (when they need me), but mostly I am their nurturer as much as I can be.

What do we stand to gain? Children we want to spend time with, and children who want to spend time with us.

What do we stand to gain? A home that is peaceful, fun, funny, compassionate, fierce, tender – and doesn’t feel scary … to anyone (including the parents… many whom I believe are often very scared indeed).

And a final note: although I have met other grownups who agree with principles of non-punitive parenting, I haven’t yet met one who claimed he/she had raised a child to adulthood and never hit, grabbed, yelled, or performed some other small or mean-spirited lecture, petty theft, or retaliatory creepitude (many parents/carers have done all the above). In other words, believing in a better way doesn’t automatically make one a saint.

But believing in a better way is the first step to living a better way. And so far, it has been the most encouraging experience of my life.

And next time I write, I’ll talk more about how it looks in practice.

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* Here is a working definition of “punitive parenting”, from a site called the Positive Discipline Resource Center (I have not read nor formed opinions as to the site’s content, but do find this definition to be pretty good):

“Punitive parents assume children have to feel bad in order to learn – though they may not use those words to describe it. When confronted with inappropriate behavior in their children, punitive parents search for a punishment to extinguish the behavior. Punitive tools include: time outs, spanking, lectures, grounding, loss of unrelated privileges or property, physical exercise, and physical discipline such as hot sauce on the tongue. Reward/punishment systems are part of a punitive paradigm. ”

Further Reading
“Spanking Traumatizes Children” by Laurie A. Couture. I love this article by Laurie, for many reasons. Here are two: she discusses neuroscience and its findings on childhood development with regard to punishment, and she also provides one of the most convincing and brief yet well-rendered explanations of why so very many adults defend punitive strategies regarding children.