Question: How should we handle our daughter’s “dramatics”?

A friend and reader writes me an email in late June, 2010:
[My 8 year old daughter L. has been having] periodic breakdowns (when overly tired) that are just SAD AND INTENSE. Everything comes up -including things that we talked about the last time. Specifically, the dogs dying, if I might go to the hospital with allergies and die there, why the older kids are so mean, that I like [her younger sister] R. more b/c she is littler, that [her father] C. laughs at her when she is angry, and more.  Some of these big feelings are traceable to events , some start to feel like dramatics.

We handle it the same each time.  I lay down with her in bed and she cries and talks.  She is so wrecked that her breathing is all ragged. Once she is wound down we read a story and she goes to sleep.  This morning I am thinking about it and it occurs to me that I do not make a lot of one on one with her.  I will increase that so that she gets all of my attention when she is not all upset. 

I want to be clear that I do not think L. is being dramatic or making anything up.  I just am amazed by the depth of her feelings.  I wonder if she is running this stuff through her mind all the time… I wonder how I can better support discussions about death (not my best topic) when she is not all wound up.  I wonder if I should take my kids to church so they have a spiritual foundation.  I wonder how she will manage these huge feelings when she is older and bigger things are happening?

Mostly, I wonder if you have any thoughts from your own experience to share.

Hello,

I thought quite a bit about what you wrote to me about L. I think the situation has some complexity and there are a few factors involved. First I want to speak about parenting girls (especially firstborn daughters), secondly some of my observations and thoughts around L. and your family specifically, and finally some of my similar issues with my daughter. I hope you can take a few minutes to read, respond, re-read and digest. And I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I have come to believe our culture is horrid at raising girls in a healthy way. I would go so far as to say once you step outside the door it’s an anti-girl zone. Even our societal shortcomings might be navigable (and as it turns out our social landscape would improve) if more parents were aware of just how girl-toxic it is out there and sought to supplant these harmful effects by giving their daughter their compassion, shelter, and support of her inner resources. Yet it is a rare mother, father, or carer who are fully nurturing and protective enough to best raise a strong daughter. Success is bestowed when we raise a daughter who functions well (and is convenient to others), but this is not the same thing. The academic- or career-achieving “good girl” etc. is created often at the expense of her integrity, happiness, internal awareness, and autonomy.

I don’t want to raise a well-functioning daughter anymore (although this is what I started with when I first had my child). I want to raise a strong and happy daughter. The funny thing is such a child likely will appear well-functioning to others. But if “well-functioning” is my only or primary goal there is every chance I will limit her severely.

It sounds noble and it sounds like every parent/carer’s goal to raise a “strong girl” but it is very difficult in practice because we are working against our culture and (usually) our own upbringings. We have a tendency to highly-socialize girls, expect more from them (in terms of manner, performance, and pleasing others), and boy do we not like their “displays” of unacceptable behaviors, including “throwing fits” or having “drama” (or bullying or rudeness etc etc.). We are so much more forgiving and have a sense of humor about this stuff regarding boys.

This brings me to your family in particular and L.’s wind-ups or wind-downs or what have you. First, a couple observations. Since L. was a very young infant/toddler, I have noticed when she has emotional displays you frequently tell her she is over-tired or over-hungry. Even in this email you cite her over-tiredness and seek to on one hand call her behavior “dramatics” but on the other hand seek to distance her behavior from “drama” (it seems clear you think “drama” is a bad thing).

I don’t know how L. experiences this but I can tell you as a young girl I experienced this kind of minimization (usually from my mother) as extremely condescending and infuriating. There were many variations of this diminishment growing up. I was told I was “too young” to understand (when I wasn’t), or “too tired” or “too hungry” or “going to start my period” (this was especially annoying as I was told this for FOUR YEARS before I ever did start my period). As an adult I think about the “fits” and the displays I had and honestly, they were usually for a good reason! Yet I was belittled so much. Now, I have empathy for my parents and I believe they were ill-equipped to handle emotional displays (my mother believes this as well and admits this now) and so they (esp. my mother) sought to “cure” me of my undesirable behaviors. Unfortunately the sum message – especially when compounded with cultural messages of “niceness” and virtue and unselfishness – was that I was an asshole and my “drama” was not appreciated nor would it be listened to, much. Hence I learned to sacrifice authenticity or else be shamed, I learned to subvert my feelings, to sneak around and hide, and to foster resentment which turned venomous over time.

I don’t mean to make it sound like my childhood was horrid because in many ways my home was a nurturing and loving one. Just that as an adult female of 33 I am still prone to second-guessing myself and it has not helped me in any way. Being tired or hungry is still an issue that crops up in my adult life, but it hardly makes my emotions and thoughts invalid. In fact sometimes being over-tired or over-hungry or what-have-you reveals deep-seated issues I”ve been repressing, and can serve as a divining rod to things I need to address or bring awareness to (And hello, I tend to think women’s so-called PMS can actually have the result of peeling back the veil and being a woman’s pretty goddamned valid expression of self). I know neither you or I want our daughter’s to feel so restricted and/or candy-ass or be a “play nice” adult (who is devious and resentful, or viscous behind her friends’/coworkers back). But if that’s true we have to do some hard work in the here and now.

(In contrast to the treatment I received as a young/preteen/teen girl, I recently wrote a bit about some different ways I’ve responded to my own daughter here: [ link ]).

L. may be experiencing the following as minimizing and frustrating: Her father’s laughter at her anger, the suggestions she is “tired” or “hungry”, or the admonitions that she won’t be listened to unless she can say or express it better or nicer or more articulately, etc. Even if she is not (yet) experiencing these as condescending or frustrating, I’m not sure these responses A. honor L. as a person with genuine feelings that are OK, no matter how strong or startling, or B. help her find out for herself when she is “tired” or “hungry” or what she needs.

Also, a rush to comfort a distraught child or a fear of their display sends the message: “You are out of control and I am unhappy with this,” (abandonment, heartbreak, conditional love may be experienced by the child) or “You are out of control and I don’t know what to do either!” (may be scary and/or alienating for the child) or “I do not trust you to handle yourself” (may undermine self-esteem and self-worth and/or foster resentment in the child). In other words any fear you feel at her displays are sending her the message something is Deeply Wrong with them. I encourage you to check every iota of baggage on this.

Another caveat: if you are NOT taking her emotions seriously – well, that’s almost worse. In other words if you view her displays as kind of “cute” or “childlike” or “drama” only and therefore laughable or beneath mention, this is a serious infraction (I have this tendency with my son Nels). This sends the message: “I will decide when something is important, and you have no say” or “You are less of a person than the adults in this house.” However I don’t think this is very You – it’s just worth mentioning as it runs in my family (especially my mom’s side).

Obviously this is all a tricky business and in similar scenarios I have responded quite poorly to my daughter’s displays (and more rarely, my son’s) – I’ll talk more about my struggles in a minute. However as the growunps we have the opportunity to regroup and come up with better strategies (as your email evidences you are doing).

Before I talk about my own experiences, a coda re: death in your household: the subject of death comes up when she is “all wound up” for a reason, not as a coincidence. She has, through her exposure to you and C.’s attitudes, developed a picture of death as frightening and overwhelming and perhaps a bit sentimental. By your own admission you have a hard time with death (as do many, if not most, people I know – except maybe my 512-year old dyed-in-the-wool Christian friends and neighbors) and I wonder if C. does too (he is a lot like you after all). As long as you both struggle, your children will pick this up too either some of the same fears and sentimentalization, or as a way to manipulate response (and I don’t mean the latter in a bad way). E.g. when L. is sad and overwhelmed she will refer to death because this is heavy emotional currency in your family. She is either just as fearful of death as you are and genuinely needs help, or she is “using” death as a way to communicate how Big A Deal her feelings are. When our kids tell us how Big A Deal their feelings are – by “drama” or hitting or strong words or the silent treatment – we are handed a supreme gift. They are still trying to communicate with us, and they are giving us their most vulnerable part. If we blow it, and continue to blow it, we risk hurting them or we risk them shutting down.

One more thought about death. Death is a subject that is not innately traumatic or horrid for children, but often they are made to experience it in that way. My children have been there for several deaths, sometimes graphic ones (we lost our first hen last night, BTW, FML). Most notable for us was my father’s death (right up close in the home) and our matriarchal cat Blackie’s death (lingering illness then euthanasia at the vet). I cope with death very well (I’ve had lots of practice I guess); my husband less so although he is improving. Our children have responded by being present and sorrowful but also strong and stable on the subject, and they have rarely evidenced nightmares or fears around it, even when “over-tired” or what-have-you. Now I can’t tell you or C. to just “get over it” and cope better. It is a highly personal issue. But to the extent that you struggle your children likely will as well. If your daughter brings up death when she is “all wound up” I would view this as a natural expression given your home and it’s unique challenges and emotional subjects. How to handle it, well first I’d have to hear some more details of your own feelings and I am open to the conversation and interested as well.

Now I want to talk about my own daughter a bit. I fall prey to poor parenting strategy regarding my daughter often. It is taking a lot of focussed work to improve. I wrote a bit about some recent stuff in the blog post I linked to above. I have many more thoughts on my daughter and her state of emotional health and I’ll share some.

I would say it is hard to know when Phoenix is doing well, because she gives the appearance of socially functioning well (as in, is “well-behaved” and doesn’t “act out”) even when she is unhappy. She is very subtle to me and thus I’ve had to grow new antennae. This is still a work in progress. Up until a couple years ago she was well on her way – thanks to me, her father, and school-environs – to being a “good girl”. In other words she was performing well in school and I was still socializing her to be polite and mannered. She got praised by her school staff often and at parent-teacher conferences the teacher would talk about the TINIEST MINUTIAE EVER – further ways Phoenix (then Sophie) could “improve” or be better. Because you know, it’s not enough to have a good girl at the top of the class who is a genuinely nice person, when she could be just even more perfect and well-behaved. I began to see the potential problem for my daughter wasn’t that she’d be “bored” in public school (b/c of her academic accomplishments) but that she’d start to thrive on praise and external validation. I’ve been there done that and could write tomes on the negative effects of this experience (but I’ll spare you for now).

Concomitant to unschooling at home I began to tolerate her “fuss downs” (her phrase) with less sharpness and irritation (for the child, our intolerance can be experienced as minimization, humiliation, and conditional love). I have noticed that in working against an intolerance for Phoenix’s emotional displays and focussing on being present for her these displays have decreased. She genuinely seems more happy and centered than she ever has before. Her name change was quite a good sign to me and the calm way she has owned her new name with steadfast determination is not something I would have predicted a couple years ago. She is gradually shedding her Good Girl upbringing and I hope to continue to assist her in doing so. Along with her happiness she seems more resilient to standing up to me and telling me “no” (which I’m aware can’t be easy). My job is to realize her “no” is her right and allow her that “no”. Of course, paradoxically, this makes her all the more willing to respond “yes” when it is something that will help me. She is also more honest about her mistakes, more proactive in apologizing, and more willing and able to make amends. Rather than these being rote duties she performs due to training, they are genuinely stemming from a place of gladness and a sense of responsibility and integrity – her own (not mine). A core of resentment she’d held towards me (from my more controlling parenting) seems to be dissolving and is now hardly evident.

To prove I am not a saint or awesome mom I can illustrate some failures on my part. Unfortunately I still respond to her sharply at times because I am often overwhelmed by the difficulties I have. One problem is I am still sensitive to strangers giving me the glare (or my perception of it even if it isn’t there) if my kids are rowdy in public. Sometimes I will suddenly abandon my mellowness and snap at them, take out my anxieties on them. The other problem is Phoenix often feels overwhelmed by her brother (who she will play with all morning and love so dearly, but when they have a spat it’s like a cage fight) and I feel unsure of how to help them and upset by their fights. I sometimes feel plagued with guilt when Nels hits her – like it is my fault. This is a short-sighted response because of course Nels’ hitting is only his poor strategy at having his needs unmet. Still, I feel such judgment and terribleness when this happens I become in my way paralyzed. And finally, I am pretty responsive and present with my kids alone but less so when there is an event or activity or friend I want to be with. I tend to wish my kids could operate well-mannered while I socialize or (like yesterday) get my haircut even when apparently this isn’t always realistic. I have still not let it sink in I am a Mother Full Time and that most especially includes when the kids are physically with me, whatever other activities I wish I could engage in. Also, frankly, our culture is just SHIT when it comes to helping parents with young kids – especially mothers. How many times in a world organized for Adults Only do you see strangers get that fart-smelling look at the “bad” child (sometimes even a very young baby!). I haven’t yet reconciled myself to this reality (and maybe I shouldn’t) so it is a strain in my life.

I am still working hard to re-program and I continually make mistakes. I wish I’d had even the slightest clue about all this when I first had a baby. But I didn’t, and I’m doing my best now.

For L. it doesn’t sound like you are handling things poorly with her crying etc., but I do think no amount of nurture and love in those moments is going to be the solution. These are issues deeper and will take some time to sort. I suggest adopting a long-view on this. If L. doesn’t have a crying jag tomorrow and the next day it doesn’t mean the factors I cite (or others I’ve missed) aren’t at play. My daughter’s gradual change from tension and performance to relaxed authenticity was not overnight, and it is still progressing. Handling the “crisis points” (like crying jags or in Phoenix’s case, the silent treatment) well is good enough, but getting to the roots of it to diffuse the crisis in the first place is harder work and may take a while.

I agree with your thoughts that one-on-one time is a good thing but it need not necessarily be “quality” time like crafting or whatever. Even just driving to the grocery store together, in fact especially mundane errands that take you out of the house and away from R. or C. or whatever, will foster healing for L.. You can try something more special like going on a hike or beach walk with just her, no one else and no distractions. I am fortunate in that Hoquiam/Aberdeen is big enough that when we go somewhere I don’t run into four hundred people to gab with, so I can be primarily with my child. So keep this in mind that an errand out with L. may be imperiled by the typical shoot-the-shit I know you and C. enjoy so much.

When Phoenix and I are alone together we often spend our time in companionable near-silence. It’s been wonderful and healing.

You can also think on what you think C. may or may not be adding to this. For instance Ralph is very nurturing and sweet to Phoenix and is often experienced as her respite and her supporter. He continually makes errors with Nels and I am all up in his business about this. He is improving with time. I know some people instruct one shouldn’t “manage” the relationship of a spouse with a child. But in my own life Ralph and I absolutely intervene when we think the other is fucking up. You are probably in a good place to weigh in on C. but maybe after you and L. are in a more stable place.

Additional reading material – I know I’ve recommended this book to you but I’m not sure if you’ve read it: The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence by Rachel Simmons. I would actually love more reading material on our girl-socialization because this book, though excellent, is limited to teen interactions with peers, and the only one I’ve read about contemporary girl-culture toxicity.

Please keep in mind I’ve thought deeply and responded based on what I know from my experience in my family and around yours. If I’ve said something that doesn’t ring true for you and your family by all means discard what I said or correct me.

Thank you for sharing with me and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

***
Editor’s note: my friend – who wrote this in the capacity of friend-to-friend, not so much as a reader of my various writings on children, parenting, culture, and unschooling – was courteous enough to agree I could post this letter (blog/journal-related emails and queries are subject to my Policies on publishing, although anonymity may be requested). I am not interested in comments weighing in on my friend’s unique circumstances nor guesses as to how she and her partner might be failing their child. I specifically posted this so that parents – especially parents of young girls – might engage in discussion of their own observations on parenting girl children, their own difficulties therein, and any gentle and respectful commentary re: this particular scenario.

In short, my friend had the benefit that I know her and her family very, very well over the years since we’ve had children. You don’t (know them). If you wish to comment, proceed with caution.
***

Question: A callous parent?

On May 30th a reader writes:
So, I was thinking about your post yesterday after a little accident on the beach yesterday. [My friend] G. and I make a great team with her kids. I know her kids and I know how she parents, and since we’re together all the time she gives me the right to draw boundaries and set consequences if need be for her girls. It works for us. Her kids are tough and if one hits the other and the other punches back, she just sits back and waits for them to work it out. I’ve learned to be comfortable with that.

So, another woman comes down to the beach with her two boys. They live there, so I’m sure they are much more familiar with the terrain. She seemed largely unconcerned that her one year old was tottering around near the quarry sans life jacket. Okay. Then her oldest sits down on the swing and the littlest toddles over and gets a little too close and bam! The bar on the bottom of the swing beans him on the head and he goes tumbling several feet. I jump up because the mom is nowhere to be seen and then the whole swing collapses and falls backward, most notably knocking the wind out of the oldest. I run over and no one’s crying, everyone seems fine and the mom saunters over and asks if everyone’s okay. I tell her that the youngest got hit on the head and went tumbling and she asks if everyone is okay and then walks away, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. I do likewise. Because – it’s not my deal. I feel like it was okay for me to run to the rescue, should someone have been bleeding or unconscious, but since she seems unconcerned, I have to do the same. But I felt weird about it.

Anyway, just wondered what you thought about it in light of what you wrote.

A story like this is rather hard to get a read on because I wasn’t there. First off, of course it was okay for you to run to the little one’s rescue. Had they been hysterical and hurt, you could have helped (although most young children usually want their mommies/daddies/carers when they are hurt and frightened). When I was a child I liked knowing grownups noticed when one of us had trouble, and I was comforted when they stepped in to assist whether I took them up on it or not.

As for the mother and your thoughts on her, I will say many parents I observe run the gamut of heavily managing injuries/crying to barely reacting. If I were being judged from outside by someone who did not know me I would likely often look like more of the “barely reacting” type. Not so much my kids don’t seek me out, though: they come to me for a hug and wipe their tears on my clothes and move on, and I always give them exactly how much love they need (How do I know? While I am still there, present, holding them, they release me and move on.)

Funnily enough when the kids have a huge throwdown (like what people call “a tantrum”) I am also usually pretty calm through that too. Last night we had a dinner guest (childfree) and I could tell she was watching me like a hawk to see how I’d handle my daughter’s “drama”. But the thing is, it is the very part of me that “allows” drama that also enables my children to move through it quickly and for the most part remain quite even-keeled through many stressors (as far as I can tell). My daughter had a few upsets at the beginning of the dinner and then she was calm and happy throughout the evening beyond 11 o’clock when our guest left. Not that I think anyone has the right to judge my parenting and my child based on her “convenience” for guests; my point is that I did not need to lecture my daughter about her “bad behavior” (or whatever) for her to move on to “better behavior” – but I often feel a social pressure to do so.

Back to the beach: those kids sounded pretty young and when I had young babies I tended to react more than I do now. It isn’t just because I love(d) them, it’s because I felt expected to (or else be judged a “bad mother”). I now believe I did not need to react and rescue and moderate as much as I did. But then, I was new to the whole bit too. Now instead of social mores I have my intense knowledge of my own children. A parent in tune with their kids recognizes relatively quickly when they really do need cuddling, a bandaid, some attention, etc. and when they don’t.

Was that mother in tune with her kids? I can’t tell because I wasn’t there, but you might be able to make a reasonable guess if you think back on what happened. I do see people here where I live who seem almost callous to their children. But often these people have a look like things are rough, their lives are rough, or at least they’re having some sort of terrible clusterfuck of a day. A sort of drawn look not to mention their clothing and their cars (or lack thereof) or their tone of voice or what they’re talking about or the look in their eyes – it reminds me I have things more fortunate than many others. I am not saying everyone who’s an ass-hat to their kids has some tragic story as to why. But I’m far less likely to jump to any conclusions than I used to be.

Another possibility is the mother felt shamed for not being there or shamed/angry for having another person “infringe” on her territory (I hasten to add again, you did nothing wrong) and she might have responded from a hardened place. I just don’t know but you might have a sense.

And finally, the life jacket thing. Well this is not only cultural but varies within families and if we needed to keep our kids safe 24/7 we, well, we wouldn’t HAVE kids. Anecdotally I am very, VERY paranoid with my children around water – and they both can swim. Since they were babies I’ve worried about drowning; even when I had them strapped to my body and was crossing a safe bridge I’d have terrible fantasies about them plunging in. At a quarry I’d probably have crazy-eye with worry over my baby.

And finally, off-topic a bit, anytime I hear adults judging one another about parenting I think of this video:

http://www.break.com/index/two-year-old-toddler-smokes-cigarettes.html

The truth is parenting is a hard job and most people are doing the best we can. It is wonderful you help your friend out and you are one of those valued friends who shares family life with us. I have several of those childfree (or childless, depending on your preference) friends and they are very treasured by myself, my husband, and my children. G. is lucky to have you.

From the vault: Thank you

A reader writes me an email on May 3, 2010.

As a first time reader who found your blog via a link from two Facebook friends, I just wanted to say an enormous thank you for your post written on March 5th 2010 about the devaluation of domestic work.[1. found at Underbellie]

I’ve been an at-home mom for nearly 13 years, raising three amazing boys. I love what I do, believe passionately in what I do, and feel strongly that it provides my family and myself (as a woman and writer) a better life than we would have as a dual-income family. Yet, lately, I’ve been feeling a little edgy about being at home, like maybe I don’t really need to be here anymore, that I “should” be doing something else. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but I think what it really comes down to is that I’m struggling against an undercurrent of devaluation. I’ve had 33 years of people telling me that a good education and a good career define me, and yet I have neither of those things. After over a decade of doing “lesser work,” that undercurrent is starting to hurt.

But when I cook – oh goodness, when I cook! – or declutter a closet, or sort everyone’s laundry, or go on my son’s field trip without a second thought… Nothing compares to that. And I’ve come to know myself without all the smokescreens I could easily hide behind in the world of paid work. At home I’m just A., and A. loves her life and her family, and doesn’t need anything else to make her happy.

Anyway, that’s the a-ha moment your blog post reminded me of. I really, really thank you for that. I’m feeling rejuvenated and proud of what I do tonight. You rock.

Thanks 🙂
A.

an apologist for lurve

I have to be so careful not to sound like I’m fetishizing the child-raising and family experience because, to tell the truth, it often seems to sound like I am.

What’s cool is that I do not promote my writings for readership nor take ad money or try to get picked up or join a web ring or in any way try to make a cash living out of the whole bit. It’s not that I have a judgment on those courses of action, it’s that I don’t want to do things that way with my writing (it is, um, mine after all). What the purity of my desire to merely communicate boils down to for me is a certain lack of pressure on my writings, whether they be Good or Ass. I can know that truly if I am boring anyone reading it’s not like I have in any way tried to say this journal is worthy of large readership or Everyone Should Listen. I talk so much on familiar subjects I’m sure I’ve scared may off, yawning. Secretly I’m happy to kind of Not Really Know About the many who’ve found me distasteful and fled. I am happy when I hear my writings mean something to others, I am. I am sad when my writings cause others distress, although I can’t always know when, how, or why this happens. I endeavor to communicate my experiences as clearly as I can, with little other goal.

Writing about my family and children is really writing about my expansion of experience. I find myself daily amazed at the lessons I learned in childhood and how I merely assimilated them even when they were hurtful or twisted. My life with kids and family has been quite healing as there are so many things I suffered as a kid, not huge travesties of justice mind you, but a series of Wrongs so subtle yet linked together such that my worldview used to be a sadder, more cramped one. For years I was angry or depressed that that world was The Way It Was and there was Nothing One Could Do About It. Today I know neither of those things are completely true; it is my children who’ve been my greatest teachers in this regard.

My family continues to afford me the opportunity to not only provide them with a gentleness and respect I was not always afforded, but to provide it to others as well. Today while my husband and I had breakfast out an older couple with their two young grandchildren shuffled in and sat behind us. The kids were enthusiastic about the venue (an airport cafe) and talked and babbled excitedly. Two things occurred to me: one that I was glad my husband and I were alone and did not have to “mind” squirrelly kids who get glares from grownups, and two that their voices, “raised” as they were, were so much sweeter and smaller than their carers likely heard them.

In another moment this observation was tested. The older child, a boy of four or so, became angry with his grandmother. He put his hands on her face and shouted to get her attention: “Grandma, you need to stop! You were wiggling! You are not supposed to wiggle!” Ralph and I carefully and successfully managed not to laugh aloud. The two adults at the table responded with a muffled and unified fury. I heard the grandfather (sitting so close to me our backs were almost touching) speak very sternly and angrily to the children: that was enough of that or they’d have to go home. The “disruptive” child seemed to have already lost focus in the moment, likely as he had assured his grandmother’s full attention on the grievance he wanted aired. The tiny ruckus had passed, leaving a slight air of tension in their corner of the diner.

I turned around to the subdued table and said quietly, “Grandma, I’m watching you. I saw you wiggling.”

At this the grandfather burst into deep and hearty laughter and the grandmother’s face relaxed. “Yes, I was. I was wiggling while I was moving this chair,” she affirmed. Ralph and I laughed because (we hardly needed to verbally share) the child’s outburst reminded us very much of one of our own. I can’t know if my joshing had any good affect on these fellow-diners (although it seemed to), but I can remember the times a kind stranger has smiled at me to let me know hey, it’s okay, we’re all human, and your children are human too. It has meant so much to me in a microcosm that often seems to wish my children to be silent and required a perfection of mother-care (these “perfections” often at odds with one another) and an unpleasant series of Disapproval hand-slappers. I thought how sad if parents, grandparents and carers can’t hear the “ruckus” of these small children, their voices so much smaller than the adult conversations happening all around the crowded restaurant, without feeling a tension to respond according to the cultural pressures in the room.

My father was a person with a resevoir of memory. He could bring forth a previously-unheard anecdote or Buddhist story or even a (usually funny) joke, always (it seemed to me) in moments when they most applied. I remember a story he told me once or twice. It is a part of the education he gave me that I savor.

One day while walking through the wilderness a man stumbled upon a vicious tiger. He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the fatal precipice.

As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine. His situation was growing more dire.

Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He stretched his arm out, reached, plucked it and popped it in his mouth. It was incredibly delicious!

Since the day my father told me this story it has meant a great deal to me. It is like something tender that swims in my heart. The slings and arrows of life and the blows and defeats; the inevitability of death and the lack of security in this flesh – none of these things can take away the meaning this story has for me right now.

8 AM
Phoenix, Nels, and Ralph this morning. The children sleep holding hands.

Q: Will unschooled children be limited by their parents’/carers’ worldview?

Today from formspring:

I’m thinking about unschooling my kids, but I’m concerned that my kids will be limited by only getting my perspective on things. To be solely responsible for educating my kids means that I need to address thing I don’t know much about. How do you do that?

I think this is a common concern for those open to unschool/homeschool lifestyles. They begin to become open and interested but remain fearful. I’m here to help put to rest some of those fears and assist you (as best I can) with any support you might need.

Of course as an unschooler (I prefer the term life learner) I kind of laugh at the thought of unschooling kids “only getting my perspective on things”. When I see how much exposure and education my kids get daily to many lifestyles and subjects and people (in far more walks of life than school affords) and varied social situations it occurs to me the last thing they’re getting is “just me”. And they’re only 6 and 8, not yet old enough or interested in driving/bus/bike themselves to concerts and museums and community events or take up paid or volunteer work they’re interested in (which I have an inkling they’ll do earlier and more willingly than most of their schooled peers). They are both on the verge of these activities though and of course, they both have a compass at getting around town (via walking, busing, and biking) better than some adults I know.

In other words, with an autodidactic learning environment I get to watch my children educate themselves (with my support and guidance and funds when they are needed). You remember how amazing it is to watch a baby teach itself to walk (make no mistake, they do it on their own)? Learning is no different. Give most children the supportive environment to lead the way, and they pursue most subjects with alacrity and ability that is a joy to watch (and I do believe this to be true of most children; I don’t believe mine to be particularly “gifted”). This lifestyle is not something that most American parents today accept, so most children aren’t given these environs.

It’s funny also you’d say unschooling means you will have to “[address] things [you] don’t know much about”. Two things come to mind, first off my biology teacher in high school who was mostly a football coach. I loved him, he was a sweetie. He read out of a book to “teach” us, a book nearly identical to the ones we had on the desk, open in front of us. Often he’d stumble over a word and someone would correct him (or we’d sit there with our eyes glazed, bored as hell). Guess who I know who’d be far more better at teaching my 8 year old daughter biology? My 8 year old daughter. In fact she is currently working her way through a Time Life series on the subject. Trust me, she is retaining more knowledge than I did (and I was a straight-A student)!

The second thing that comes to mind regarding “things I don’t know much about” is that as my children learn things on their own steam I have the opportunity to learn them as well or at the very least experience the joy in watching them learn the way they do. My son Nels started gardening at 4 and all I know about plant-growing is mostly due to him. My daughter humbles me, absolutely humbles me with her abilities at drawing. As a result I’ve been poring through more books and comic books (or graphic novels if you prefer) and re-connecting with my artistic self, a person I thought I’d lost years ago (back when I was voted “Most Artistic” a few times in my school career).

If you’re thinking about what we often consider the “advanced” academic subjects, such as chemistry or calculus, please. Should your child be interested in math (as both mine are; my son especially shows joy in the subject) you’ll pick up books as your child expresses interest and your learning will bloom alongside theirs. (Keep in mind a grasp of “math” is not limited whatsoever to doing problems in a book.) Or if they really take off to some high-level and you don’t want to work with them you’ll find them a tutor or another parent or another person to work alongside them. Or they’ll surprise you and won’t need help – or will seek it out on their own. I’m always kind of gobsmacked when I come across some amazing, detailed Lego structure they’ve built or some musical instrument they’ve created or a rich storyline they’ve put on paper or an email formatted beautifully – correct grammar and sentence structure and all. Part of me is so amazed at this beautiful thing, part of me feels guilty I wasn’t “around” for some of this learning, and part of me feels like an Old Person because I swear my brain is not this elastic and incredible!

A parent who is concerned their child gets good exposure to the subjects the child is interested in, and who has the tools to support the child (in other words enough money to pay the bills for the most part, a supportive group of friends and family or partner) is going to do a good enough job and hello, I’d wager a better job than any school I’ve set foot in. Autodidactic kids let us know exactly what they need from us; our exposure to them and life alongside them helps us keep in touch.

One thing I’d point out here is that I have heard kids who’ve spent time in school often have an adjustment period when you bring them out. They don’t immediately go start a garden or embark on a self-study of animal drawings, for instance (like my kids have). This process is sometimes called “deschooling” and can involve a child relearning that learning is fun – or how to be less of a passive consumer and more the author of one’s own life. I only know a bit about “deschooling” as I didn’t really have to deal with it in my family. If your children have been in school for some time and you are interested in removing them, please do re-question here or email me (kelly AT hogaboom DOT org) and I will help find some sources who have expertise and experience.

Thanks again for your questions and please don’t hesitate to write back if you like.

self-appointed guru, with scattered clouds of assiness

You know what’s funny, I am getting an increasing number of queries seeking advice on parenting, schooling, and family life. Today I had three such requests, two of them quite lengthy in content. I am very happy to help people; it is a calling (among a few others) very dear to me. I am currently worried about my inability to email or responding quickly to all missives and inadvertently hurting feelings. So these days if you put a letter to me and I don’t immediately respond, I do intend to.

It’s funny because my whole life I’ve been asked for advice (to be fair, I also tend to freely give it, a process I am working on doing with respect and a commitment to non-asshattery). I remember once in seventh grade choir a group session where suddenly a girl – whom I did not know – turned to me and tearfully asked if she could talk to me. In a private practice room she laid out agonies in her family life. She needed someone to listen and be present with her pain. I remember even at age thirteen feeling so honored to be trusted in this way. I hope for her, and for the friends and acquaintances and Tweeps and etc. who seek me out, that I did more help than harm.

My own life busies along. Yesterday a feminist blog (I adore) discussed reproductive choice and as a sidebar to the discussion a few people demonstrated a fair bit of birth ignorance. Ah, birth ignorance – a subject that usually has the power to send me into deep personal pain and agony. Rather than arguing what would have been a derail to the main topic, I did my best to turn my feelings into something constructive at my little Underbellie site (the jury’s out on that particular aim).

Today it rained the wet, splashy, delicious-smelling rain that is so entwined within my memory it seems bone-deep. With the spring weather comes a revitalization in my spirit; winter really can seem like a death to me at times. When the sun and spring precipitation re-emerge (often forming spectacular rainbows, as we were treated to today) I feel like the clouds are clearing.

so today i hear i’m a neglectful parent, or: why “living my life” isn’t just a solo event

A few days ago Good Morning America aired a segment on Unschooling that is roundly thought by thinky people to be unfair, sensationalist, and journalistically lazy. OK, well.  It is mainstream media, so what would one expect?

Rebuttals and responses popped up around the blogosphere.  Lee Stranahan, filmmaker and writer, responded on Huffington Post by offering up his unschooled 18-year old son as an example, a young man who spent most of his life out of any form of traditional learning.  “You can keep your theories; I have my son,” he writes; a statement that resonates strongly with me.  When I read the theoretical examples of the spoiled, self-indulgent, lazy, couch potato, socially- and intellectually-backward, junkfood-devouring, abysmally-low-impulse-control wretch that is sure to result by not having the child in school (no really, people say all these things and more) it’s almost humorous when I think of the Sophie and Nels I know.

Following up Stranahan’s article, Heather at SwissArmyWife.net wrote a piece fleshing out principles that many unschoolers (or life-learners, self-directed learners, autodidactic learners, etc. etc.) live by. Concerned with the “un-” in the label unschooling, she says, “It’s important to talk about Unschooling and Life Learning in a way that is positive, that explains what we do do.” In the vein of Heather’s post, some homeschoolers and unschoolers are beginning to dislike the terms unschooling and deschooling (and their negative connotations) and instead advocate using the terms “life learning”, “self-directed learning”, or simply reclaiming the more old-fashioned term “homeschooling”.

Of course, the onus shouldn’t be on individual families to provide the perfect picture, the perfect phrasing, to therefore give the “right impression” to families who do things differently, or to those who would (sometimes loudly and visciously) criticize with no or little reflection and study.  I hope those non-schooling families that worry over their self-applied labels keep this in perspective; because in talking about labels we are really talking about concepts and the mainstream reaction to them.

So on that note, really, is the discussion relating to the supposed fringe activities of a minority of families even important at all?  Oh yes.  Oh hell yes.

After all, it is hard for us homeschoolers to simply “go our own way” when public opinion could swing such that today’s rights become tomorrow’s threatened freedoms.  Many think homeschooling is here to stay in this country, and I tend to agree.  But other countries are less friendly towards home-education models, and there’s no real reason to believe things couldn’t move further in that direction in America, especially if we take our rights for granted and the mainstream hardens their hearts to us.

There is another reason we “fringe” should discuss both nomenclature and family life; because sadly, and in no small part due to the anonymity of the internet playground, dehumanizing language threatens to create enemies where there could instead flourish challenges and disagreements amidst a backdrop of united principles of human need.

Not everyone is committed to the goals of compassionate discussion.  Today in the Chicago Sun Times Betsy Hart writes an article entitled, “Careful, don’t ‘Unschool’ your kids”.  It’s a pretty rough read.  According to her, parents who unschool are “irresponsible” and engaging in “neglect”.  She claims she’s a “parent” and the people who unschool are “unparents”.

Anyone who reads here would not call me an “unparent” nor neglectful.  Agree or disagree with any particular choice of mine (and, um, what’s up with that weird clause we say to one another, anyway? Which one person agrees with every thing some other person does?) if you’ve read here long you know I give a hundred and twelve good goddamns about my kids, their development, their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual care.  Yet people with Betsy’s views would paint our family with the broad brushtroke of “nuts” (yes, this is in the article too).

I am no bodhisattva. At first when I read this sort of thing I feel so much hurt and anger. Yet today instead of being pissed or writing her off or sneering at her choices I attempt a conversation. Clicking through to her blog and feedback form I write the following:

I’m so sad to read your attacks ad hominem on unschooling families. We are one of these families, although I do not use the label unschooling for reasons I won’t go into here.

My kids are normal. Their names are Sophie and Nels, and they are 8 and 6. They read voraciously (having learned on their own at a very early age) and show natural interest in science, math, just about every subject one can imagine. And yes, they practice hygiene, play with other children, are affectionate and direct and the furthest thing from self-centered I can imagine. Incidentally, they are also physically fit, advanced in math, reading, and writing, and love learning. They do not watch television all day (we don’t own a set) nor eat only chocolate donuts.

I say these things not to “prove” I am a good parent (you used the words “nuts”, “irresponsible”, and “neglect” to describe unschoolers) but to tell you to please stop making sweeping value judgments on something you know little about. I know the concepts of unschooling are new and unfamiliar to many. If you are interested in the subject, there are so many places you can go to learn more. If you are not willing to learn more, I’m not sure you should be weighing in.

The Good Morning America piece was an unfair one. If you have a moment, you might like to read this article, taken from the perspective of a more traditional homeschooler:

“Unschooling and Unjournalism”, at themoderatevoice.com

I love exercising my rights as an American to live our life in freedom and the way we want to live. I’m sure you enjoy these rights as well. I’m equally sure that if we met in person you and I and our children would respond positively to one another and see opportunities to learn from one another.

If you’re interested in a dialogue about what our family life is like, I’d love to engage one with you! Please do email if this is the case. If not, thank you for reading.

Thank you for your time,

Kelly Hogaboom
Hoquiam, WA
kelly@hogaboom.org

A funny thing happened as I wrote.  I found myself weeding out words that were nasty or character attacks.  I found myself attempting to gently dance along the line of offering a dialogue and perspective without lecturing. I found myself between wanting to elucidate my wonderful life with my amazing children vs. risking sounding like the proof of happy, healthy, academically-advanced children is a requirement I owe the mainstream (I highly reject this concept, as the parents of the 98% of American children who attend school are not required to “prove” their choice of institutionalized school by their kids’ behaviors and accomplishments).

After I sent my email I read the article again, and I saw something new. Toward the end of her essay I began to hear her fear and concern she has for unschooled kids; she does not see how a consensual, free living life could create a human being with the capacity to make rational, altruistic, well-informed, self-sacrificial, and well-rounded decisions.  According to her, if I may be so bold to rephrase, she worries a child who is not raised with duties and commitments they “have to do” will develop to be entirely self-centered.

When I read Hart’s article with an openness and look past her personal attacks, I can relate to her fears and concerns.  I am sad she chose to spend the first 75% of the article maligning families like mine.  If someone like Hart – without knowing me nor choosing to get to know me – thinks of me as “nuts”, “irresponsible”, and an “unparent”, I can only try to engage with her.  It is certainly a reminder, too, to keep my own thrill at my children’s developments and freedoms in check that I do not allow my joy and engagement to morph into recrimination and dismissal of the many (majority) parents who do things the mainstream way.

By making the choices we do, we Hogabooms personally set ourselves apart in a way that can be painful for others and occasionally ourselves.  But this pain is not necessarily a bad thing.  Wendy Priesnitz, social activist, writer, founder and editor of Life Learning Magazine, veteran “unschooler”, and mother of two grown daughters who never went to school said a few days ago, to paraphrase, that her thirty years of experience have taught her any publicity is good publicity.  Today she posts a Facebook update reminding families who don’t traditionally school just how much they’re rocking the boat. She writes:

Change – of mind or actions – is difficult for most of us. The unschooling lifestyle challenges long-held beliefs about education as well as about children and parenting. I like to think that, by our very lives, we are encouraging and creating change, and making it easier for people to follow their own hearts instead of others’ opinions.

Sometimes I think that’s what I want most.  Not that every parent should see the wisdom in freeing themselves and their children (although it must be said, this would be a paradise of sorts), but that parents should follow their hearts – and I’d add, remain open to the experiences lived by others.  I am open to hearing views like Hart’s, even if she is not open to mine.

Each parent has the gift of self-awareness and a child whom they can continue to connect with, to learn to love anew. I have seen the power of this in my own life and my own family.  No one needs to live on autopilot; the joys, tribulations, and triumph of challenging our limitations is one of my favorite experiences in being human.

of needlesharp ire

Yesterday in my belly dancing class we learned to hold the veil and work with it while dancing. Holding the veil hurt the claw part of my hand, because I’ve been handsewing more of late.  The pain in my extremeties served a bittersweet reminder of my love and bondage; it spoke aloud of something that will be with me for the life I have, as long as I’m able:

Because I love sewing. Times one million.

I’ve been sewing since tempus immemoria, i.e. always.  And over the years I’ve been annoyed by, to some extent large or small, the following:

1.  The elitist, sizeist, racist, ableist, etc. buffet our current glut of craft books and websites are serving up. This needs so much unpacking I had to write up a separate post.

2.  “You should / could sell those!” Really?  Because I’ve never heard anyone say that before.  Or no wait, I hear it all the time.

I understand this is delivered as a compliment 99.44% of the time.  That’s cool.  And it’s interesting that from the lips of so many springs the concept that the ultimate compliment is deigning my work fit for commoditization or earning potential.  Huh.

A tip: those who sell things usually mass-produce them at some level.  This is not for everyone.  Some of us who sew shudder at the very thought of making two identical pillowcases (hello!), let alone churning out one after another diaper cover. Some sewists thrive on this sort of thing, sure. I personally know several. But when someone spies my crayon roll- up (genius!) and says you should sell those, they don’t seem to realize if I took their “advice” I’d be making a bunch of crayon roll-ups instead of other stuff, and the resultant item would be something that would either end up being more expensive than I could unload easily, or it would necessitate a whole wholesale fabric / factory-style construction / mailing center / production workshop.  And me making the same thing over and over.  And: no.

These days I simply smile and say, “If I sold them I wouldn’t have time to sew for my family.”  Ralph says I’m getting good at this.

What I say to other crafters:

“Wow, that’s fantastic.”
“How long did that take you to make?”
“Do you sell those?”
“I’m impressed.  How long have you been making those?”

3. “My mom/Granny/whomever used to make all our clothes.” Really? Did she do anything else, ever? Did she bonsai kitten you into a glass jar so you didn’t grow?

I have no doubt some moms (grandmothers, aunts, fathers, etc. etc.) did in fact make close to 100% of their progeny’s garments (though: socks? underwear? shoes? really?). However the number of times I hear this, I’m pretty sure many have exaggerated. Before I sewed a lot I used to say this about my own childhood wardrobe and I think I’ve even heard my mom say it. Until I look at the pictures in the photo album and yeah, I’m rockin’ some homemade digs but a lot of non-homemade stuff too.  To the extent cheap labor and crappy enviro-pillage occurs it’s currently a bit cheaper to buy ready-made (although not necessarily quality) than the materials and time-effort going into homemade.  This wasn’t always the case, though, and some people did used to sew quite a bit.

It annoys me to hear it because it’s all part of a conversation that cheapens the time and effort needed for high-quality, sturdy clothes. As if a half-hour a day thrown here or there could clothe a growing family.

What you could consider saying to crafters instead:

“My mom/Granny/whomever used to sew clothes for me. I loved (/hated) them!”
“How much time did it take to make that?”
“How much time do you spend sewing?”
“I seem to remember my mom made so much of our clothing. I wonder why so few do so now.”

4. “Will you make me one of those?  I could pay you [ some incredibly small amount for your time and the materials ].”

These days I will do it for free or not at all.  Because first off, again, my goals do not include earning currency. Secondly, if I charged someone a fair price it would be more than most people are willing to pay (trust me!).  So the offer of $25 for a full dress and pintucked pinafore, including fabric costs, is insulting (true example!).  But a request for a gift is flattering (I may not say yes, but it never hurts to ask).

5.  “OMG I would love to sew but I just don’t have time.”

Right.  I have loads of it to spare!  Why don’t I come over and do the rest of your lifework so you can sew, if you’re not too busy!

OK, no more sarcasm, but: Hey guess what!  I made all that time!  I elbowed other things out of the way!  It has been long, mostly joyous, occasionally hard, haul! It’s not like I just had time lying around!

6. “OMG, did you make that?  That is so cool!  I totally want to sew but I just can’t get past blah-blah, one time I made such-and-such, and everyone loved it blah-blah”

My sewing is All About You, so thank you!

7.  “You need new curtains?  Why don’t you just make them?  You can sew anything!”

FUCK YOU*, I totally hate sewing lots of things, including home dec, duvets, cushion-covers, etc. Just because I can make things doesn’t mean it wouldn’t kill my soul to undertake the effort (recent potholder-fail, I am looking at you!).

[ / asshattery, mine ]

* I don’t literally think “Fuck you” towards hardly anyone, it’s more like I think “fuck you” towards curtains.

happy weaning

Make Way For Duckling

Just like that, you are weaned. Like the three years that prefaced the last morning you nursed, breastfeeding evolved beautifully to meet both our needs. This morning, instead of watching you nurse, I hold you in my arms and you quietly stroke my face. Later that evening at your request we hide ourselves in the bathroom and I paint your nails a bright red in honor of your third birthday. I hold your tiny toes and you look me in the eyes and say, “I love you so much, Mama.”

With pure dumb luck I fell into the category who finds breastfeeding deeply satisfying on physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual levels. So to move away from this relationship feels major; I sometimes feel we’ve known one another forever. And for as long as I’ve known you, nursing has been so instrumental in the way we connect.

Little girl, I am so blessed as your mother. You above all taught me what it means to nurture. We nursed through two pregnancies and one miscarriage. We nursed in the evenings, mornings, at restaurants, in church, and in the bath. You nursed the morning of the arrival of your baby brother and shared the breast willingly with him. We nursed through the scary illness you had at 14 months when you couldn’t even keep water down; nursing saved you from many other would-be illnesses and eased many transitions. Nursing kept me laughing and let me put my feet up more often than I would have without it.

Now at this milestone you emerge confident, and I have the deep satisfaction of knowing I didn’t rush your babyhood for either of us. Yesterday you climbed into bed with me and after a few quiet moments you looked up at me and said, “I used to nurse with you in the morning. Do you remember this?” as if it were ages ago, not a few days. You were obviously so comfortable with this change, while I got one of the first of many moments to come where I act casual and give a quick hug; tears well up and I blink them away. I am so happy to see you confident and growing. But just yesterday you were still my baby at my breast.

Happy weaning, Sophie. My little Beak.

3rd Birthday, Sophie / Phoenix

Fort Warden

Kiki!

Hysterical, 1

Hysterical, 2