Against a Xeroxed Education

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“Xerox” is a great metaphor for our educational system. It’s one of those brand names that has become synonymous with the product it represents due to successful marketing, longevity, and popularity—like Band-Aid, or Popsicle, or Q-tips. We identify strongly with the brand name because we’ve heard it, read it, seen it on TV, and bought it so often that it becomes a generic monopoly on the item itself—the copy machine, the adhesive bandage, the ice pop, the cotton swab.

As consumers, we tend to be fiercely loyal to these brands. We think of them as mainstream, reliable, even comforting. And we come to accept them over time as the product itself, the real deal, regardless of price or quality.

Because these products sell well, they are often given prime real estate in the supermarket, pharmacy, or appliance store. Displayed at eye level and at arm’s length, we easily forget that other choices are readily available. We simply don’t see them because they aren’t in our peripheral vision. This is the tipping point for the successful marketing of any brand. When we buy without thinking, they have us exactly where they want us.

In this same way, over time, School has become the generic brand for education; just as Student has become synonymous with the person being taught, when in fact “Student” could readily be replaced with “Consumer.” We continue to accept the School brand name without question despite an ever-growing dissatisfaction with compulsory education, making text book companies, the test-writing industry and the general business of school quite successful. At the same time, we have bought into and continue to support the corporatization of education through homogenized curricula, depersonalized learning, and standardized testing as acceptable defects.

Rather than turning to another choice, completely overhauling the product, (or taking it off the market altogether), we repeatedly try to “fix” school, throwing catchy slogans and billions of dollars at the education industry, clinging to the possibility of reform through repackaging, while teachers, who might hold more insight into the defects and possible remedies, remain consistently underpaid and stripped of any input into how we might improve upon the product.

Choosing a “xeroxed” brand of education for our children also means we are subjecting them to a mass, one-size-fits-all learning platform that doesn’t allow for individuality, creativity, or freedom of thought and expression. Supporting the school brand without considering alternative options is a blatant form of educational bias. Any time something becomes a packaged commodity with a marketing machine behind it (and a direct path to Big Finance)—whether it be seeds, clothes, wine, food, or education—the essence of the thing has lost its authenticity. Those who push for a globalized agenda are merely phantoms of progress who have highjacked the very idea of democratic learning.

School is not a brand holding a monopoly on learning, and we need to stop feeding it as such. It’s time to open our eyes and see that there are valid alternatives to the faulty wiring of compulsory schooling and corporatized testing. And they’re right there in front of us on the educational shelf in the form of homeschooling, self-directed learning, open source course platforms, democratic learning centers, nature/wilderness programs, community volunteer opportunities, and even your local library or art museum. In fact, they have been there for some time now. It’s time to dust them off and let them shine. We need to help our children forge their own path to a democratic future based on freedom of educational choice.

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This essay is an excerpt from the book, “Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Life and Learning” available here.

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Book Release

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Dear Blog Readers,  Friends, Fellow Unschoolers/Worldschoolers and those interested in Self-Directed Education,

I haven’t been posting much here lately and I apologize for that. I have a good reason though. I’ve been busy writing a book, a true labor of love, and one I hope you will all enjoy reading. It’s a collection of essays about the personal journey of accompanying my two children on their life learning journey. It’s also about looking closely at my own formal education through a deschooling lens, confronting doubts, and embracing the joys and challenges of stepping outside the status quo. Woven throughout are threads of peaceful parenting, sustainable living, and anecdotes about living off the grid in Senegal, West Africa.

So without further ado, I am thrilled to announce the publication of

“Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Life and Learning”

Click on the link above or the book icon to the right for more information about the book.

Please share the good news! And thank you for your continued support!

All good things,

Ellen

Through the Back Door: Parenting Choices and Unschooling

 

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I often read testimony from parents who unschool their children that their choice was a natural progression from the principles of attachment parenting–breast feeding, baby wearing, co-sleeping, etc. This makes a lot of sense to me. Both are based on nurturing children’s emotional and physical needs while fostering shared trust in a safe and loving environment. I love reading these stories. They are deeply inspiring and deserve to be shared.

But this connection is so prevalent that when I was initially seeking solutions for alternative ways to approach education, I wondered if someone like me, who came at parenting from a different angle, was even capable of unschooling my children. It seemed to me that attachment parenting might even be a prerequisite. At one point, I shied away from these articles because they evoked an irrational sense of guilt and doubt.

For both medical and personal reasons, I did not breast-feed either of my children, who are eleven months apart. They were both miraculous gifts to my 39 and then 40 year old body which had been erroneously and hopelessly labelled “infertile.”  And while I did often carry my babies close to my heart in warmth and love, co-sleeping and feeding on demand were foreign concepts to me. I was a product of the system and didn’t question much.  I did my best as a mother based on how I had been parented and  while I got some of it right, I made lots of mistakes, the kind of mistakes that bubble up and ask for attention only when we are truly awake and open to real change, the essential missteps that allow us to revise, learn and grow.

You could say I came into myself as a parent through the back door. Attachment parenting did not lead me to unschooling; unschooling led me to a deeper understanding of the attachment I have with my children. In the process of deschooling myself over a period of  time, of detoxing my mind and soul of the societal messages and practices which had taken root since childhood, I was able to question nearly everything I believed about how children learn and how they view and interact with the world, as well as my role as a parent. I was able to allow my children to take the lead, to trust, respect and have confidence in their abilities and our relationship.  I often marvel, when I wake up in the morning and see my children, that my husband and I get to live with these two really cool people. They don’t belong to us; we are merely on a parallel journey with them. In the words of Ram Dass, “we’re all just walking each other home.”

I share my story not to discount the link between attachment parenting and unschooling–because it is real, and lovely and logical. I share it because maybe there’s another me out there, or several, or many, who are considering unschooling but who, for whatever reason, approached parenting differently. If that’s you, I have a simple message: keep digging and questioning, and walking your children home.  And if you want to learn more, if you’re open to discovery and willing to scale a few crumbling walls, the back door is always open.

 

 

A True Mother: On Breaking the Transgenerational Parenting Cycle

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“Shadows of the past churn and turn towards the light asking us to pay attention to unexpected feelings of ambivalence, comparison, and inadequacy in parenting. Unearthing, and addressing these feelings when they arise unwinds shame and is an essential key to healing our transgenerational attachment legacies”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

I was not always a gentle parent. Although I believed I was doing what was best for my children, my early days as a mother were a tug of war. I loved my children with all my heart, but my notions of parenting were based on what I knew. Transgenerational parenting, in short, means we parent the way we were parented. And in doing so, we often pass down complex ancestral emotional wounds. We all face the same challenge when we stand before the child-rearing fork in the road. We either follow the well-worn path of legacy or we veer off in a completely different direction, vowing to change a pattern that no longer serves us or our children. But the stronghold of that generational biologism is very difficult to break. It requires a certain level of consciousness and the willingness to ask ourselves some important and sometimes painful questions. Above all, it takes a great deal of courage.

When my son and daughter were toddlers, I believed with strong conviction that the best way to guide them was through rigid scheduling and correcting “bad” behavior. Which meant lots of yelling, time outs, talking to’s, threats and even spankings. Because, isn’t exerting control how children learn to behave, to obey and to conform? Isn’t that how we instill the notion of right and wrong? Isn’t that how we ultimately protect them? I wasn’t their friend after all, I was their mother. How many times had I been told that?

The results were detrimental. Most of my arbitrary attempts to control their behavior without trying to understand the emotions behind it was hurtful and confusing for my children and made them resentful. That resentment was either internalized in the form of withdrawal or externalized in the form of acting out, neither of which was the desired outcome. And it quickly became a pattern.

My personal interior tug of war was that I often felt rejected and disrespected. And I constantly felt guilty. And when I felt guilty, I would tap into the little girl in me that remembered just wanting to be loved and try to offer that affection to my children. But without an explanation, exchange, apology, or any real change in my behavior, my children soon learned to mistrust the 360° attempt to sooth away the damage. They would accept my  hugs and I love you’s, but they were left with the disappointment and menacing presence of unresolved feelings.

I was deeply at odds with myself because I didn’t know another way, but I didn’t like myself as a parent. My husband, on the other hand, was a model of patience and a first rate problem-solver who often intervened when I was overwhelmed. I admired him greatly as a father and wanted so much to be more like him. At the same time, I struggled with the resentment I felt at the bond he had with our children, which in turn fed my self-doubt as a parent. Some fundamental understanding of my relationship with my children was missing.

One day, when my patience was extremely low, my voice got loud. Really loud. It boomed and raged and reflected in my children’s frightened eyes. I recognized that voice–the tone, the intonation, the tenor–as that of my father’s, someone I had loved and feared with equal measure. That voice, on good days, could lift me up with  praise and laughter and on bad days and without warning, could plummet me into despair with criticism and disdain–well into my adult years.

Before my father passed away from a long battle with cancer, I  took the risk and asked him some hard questions. How was it possible that former employees, friends, colleagues and strangers described him as nurturing, loving, a great listener, kind and patient, when I knew a whole other side to him that was harsh, critical, rejecting and punishing? Was he even aware of how much he’d hurt me over the years? Did he care? Did he love me?

Well, my father was all those wonderful things that other people saw in him. And he was also the father I knew. He did his best, and of course he loved me. But, he was also a wounded child who grew up to be a wounded adult. As he explained to me in the vulnerable voice of a soul who’s come full circle,  he grew up in a household without love, walled in by strict rules and moral codes that demanded good behavior. He had been largely deprived of compassion and physical affection. “I was incapable,” he’d said. And I believed him.

I had inherited his long legs and his Irish sense of humor, as well as a long lineage of dutiful parenting and the emotional scars that got passed down alongside them. His admission broke my heart, but it also awakened a deep understanding in me that I would no longer be the forward carrier. I would break the cycle.

The first thing I did was get down on the floor. That’s where the change began. Down there, with my children, I could see the world through their eyes, I could imagine how tall I must seem to them, how everything asks to be explored and conquered, how it’s all wonderful and funny and frustrating as hell. Down there, I started to play, to clap, to dance, to sing. To be still. I looked out the window and up at the clouds. Those clouds! I fell asleep on the floor with my children on a bed of legos and books and cinderella shoes. I laughed and I cried. For my father, for myself and for lost time. I listened and I watched and I let the small things go. I spoke, slowly, purposefully and as gently as I could. I practiced. I held their feet, their hands, their heads, their whole small bodies until I knew their separateness by heart.

And when the time was right, I picked myself up off the floor and took care of myself. I engaged in the world. I did one thing, one small thing, every day just for myself. I read about respectful parenting. I tried on compassion and trust with myself and others. I learned how to talk things through rather than react. I learned to inspire rather than insist. I learned to ask questions and listen to the answers without judgement or criticism, regardless of how much time it took and how many other things I had to do.  I meditated. I wrote. And I asked myself a lot of questions about the parent I wanted to be. I didn’t try to be a perfect mother. I aimed to be a true mother. True to my nature, true to my instincts, true to my word and true to my intentions.  I forgave the past. And I learned to forgive myself when I’m not at my best. I would be lying if I said it was easy. It’s not. Every morning I summon patience and kindness to my side. The love is already there. It always has been. And so we move on, together.

Just Curious

 

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I wasn’t very curious as a child.

Writing that sentence feels both liberating and profoundly sad. The truth is, I was curious. Of course I was. But I quickly learned that there was little value in it.

Like most children, I was taught to stay inside the box (because it really was there to protect me), to color within the lines, not to read ahead in the history books, not to  speak unless I was called upon. I learned in school that information must be administered, monitored, measured and validated by adults in positions of authority. I was led to believe that I was categorically bad at math, but a star speller, so I excelled where I was praised and became ill when faced with numbers. I learned that if it’s not in a book or on a test it’s not worth learning, and that my physical and emotional needs were secondary to the material at hand. These messages, although never overtly stated, were reinforced daily by the routine and repetition of what constituted learning, namely, the unquestioning obedience to instruction.

The children we often hear about–the ones who retreat to their rooms, who don’t feel like telling their parents what they learned at school, who don’t seem to have any interests, the children who are labelled “sullen” or “introverted” or “dispassionate”  –these children are not part of a slacker generation, or emotionally void, or brain-fried from too much screen time. They are not, in fact, anomalies. They may just not know how to identify or explore their passions in the absence of prescriptive learning, or possibly even how to communicate without being prompted. They have learned to avoid anything that is not assigned or solicited. Most importantly, they have forgotten how to be curious. And this is when they get lost, to themselves and to us.

All children are born hungry to explore the world with their five senses on high alert. And since literally everything is unknown to a child when they are born, what a thrilling state to be in! The unreigned joy, the innocence of failure, the confident determination as they take their first steps, clap their hands or discover that dirt doesn’t taste very good. Isn’t that what stirs our own adrenaline and wonder as parents? Isn’t that what allows us to see the world with new eyes, what challenges us to be a little more curious ourselves? It’s what makes diaper changes, getting spit up on and sleepless nights bearable. We want to be around that joy, those pure discoveries, capture the grace and muck, document it and dream about it, and wake up wanting more.

But then one day, and increasingly too soon, most of us willingly hand  our children over to an institution in order to be “educated,” divesting them of the very same curiosity and wonder we so valued up to that point, and depriving ourselves in the process of the great privilege of witnessing our children truly alive.

People often ask me why I homeschool my children.  It isn’t because I hate school. It’s because I embrace choice.  I believe my children learn better by being free to ask questions at all hours of the day, and empowered to discover the answers at their own pace.  And I see great value in talking to and learning from other children as well as adults, and sometimes questioning their authority. I encourage my children to read ahead, to try ahead and to try again when they fail.  It’s because I now understand the fundamental difference between the deep knowledge we gain from being curious and the mere distribution of information. But it’s also because I’m a bit selfish. I’ve become addicted to my children’s curiosity. I want to be around it all the time. It’s worn off on me, inspired me and challenged the life I was taught to live. Depending on the day, It serves as either a kick in the ass or a healing tonic.

Life is an inexhaustible subject.

Finding Your Own Path: Homeschooling Choices and Parenting Intuition

 

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When we first made the decision to give homeschooling a try, I joined a few online groups and spent a lot of time reading through the conversation threads and asking questions of my own.  I was desperate to know how this at-home learning thing worked and how other, more seasoned parents dealt with doubts and insecurities. But mostly, I wanted to know what I should be doing. In other words, I wanted an outline for how to educate my children outside an institutional framework. But ultimately, there was so much information and so many, many opinions–often times conflicting– that I ended up feeling more confused and overwhelmed than ever, despite the (mostly) good intentions of all who had contributed to these conversations. I simply shut down.

This information overload seemed familiar. When had I felt like this before ?

When I was pregnant with my son.

Like many first time expecting mothers, I roamed the pregnancy and childbirth section of my local bookstore in search of the perfect tome to guide me through the changes in my body and how to best take care of myself and the rapidly growing baby I was carrying. Which led to birthing advice, choices and decisions. Then there were opposing “schools” regarding feeding, sleeping, wearing, bathing, diapering, and a myriad of other care-taking subjects to face once this little person arrived.  I got so much advice from doctors, friends, family and strangers that the books sat mostly untouched on my nightstand before they got shoved under the bed in favor of a vampire novel. (This was my weird pregnancy craving.)

I listened eagerly to all the advice I received. For a while. Then, when I started to feel anxious and overwhelmed about which path to follow, I took a  step back and began to listen to my intuition, which became more heightened as my pregnancy progressed. I sifted through it all, weighing and integrating what felt right to me and letting the rest fall away. Together, my husband and I made the big decisions about our child’s birth  based on our values, habits, and lifestyle. But mostly we drew from a deep well of resolve and trust in ourselves and our abilities. And we decided that  maybe we didn’t need to decide at all. . . that we could just be with our baby and the rest would come naturally. We continued to listen to our instincts as our two children passed through the differing stages of emotional development and physical growth, as they tested and explored the world around them.

Parenting techniques continue to be a widely-covered and controversial topic and there is certainly no lack of opinion on which is the right way to raise our children. Unschooling (and homeschooling in general) are also garnering a lot of attention as the benefits of interest-led learning proliferate. And with that coverage and awareness comes the division that is inherent to almost any movement that challenges the establishment. The homeschooling umbrella covers many different and legitimate ways to help our children learn outside of the typical school framework. Unfortunately, they carry labels based on everything from the reliance on or absence of curriculum, text books, bed times and even food choices.

How is a parent to decide which home learning« technique » is right for their family ? A more important question might be, do we each need to fit neatly into any one of these categories ? More importantly, do our children need to have the way in which they learn best (which may differ from child to child, within the same family) be so strictly defined ? In the end, it all comes down to our parenting intuition, our ability to identify which aspects feel right and which don’t. We can pick and choose and mix it all up and call it whatever we want because ultimately it only needs to work for our children within the greater family fabric.

Following our intuition is a learning process itself. Mistakes will be made, insecurities will surface, obstacles will present themselves in the form of setbacks, standstills and criticism about our choices. But if we consider our options carefully and observe and listen to our children, that same intuition that guided us through birth and parenting, and the accompanying peaks and valleys, will lead us along a rich learning path with our children. Eventually they’ll veer off onto their own unique life paths, patterned with experience and paved with intuition.

C is for Curriculum

 

When we pulled our two children out of school a few years ago and decided to homeschool, I was filled with giddy optimism. “Now THIS was going to be fun,” I told myself, as I rolled up my sleeves and began to set up a school in our home. (Yes, I took it that literally.) Blackboard? check. Textbooks? check. Desks and chairs? check. Alphabet on a string? check. Pencils, paper, paint, posters, rulers, maps, stickies, smilies, markers, doilies? check. Curriculum?

Curriculum?

Anyone?

For the love of doilies, I didn’t have a curriculum.

And that’s when panic set in. How on earth were my children supposed to learn? How was I suppose to teach them if I didn’t have an age-appropriate, time-tested, topic approved, standardized school curriculum? What time were they supposed to learn math? First thing in the morning or after snack time? (oh god, did I have any juice boxes?) Were they supposed to learn to write in lowercase, UPPERCASE, script or cursive? At  what point did history officially begin? with colonialism? the neanderthals? the big bang theory? oh no, wait, that’s science.

I quickly found said curriculum online. It was described as “co-ed, easy to use and teacher-friendly.” That was a relief. Since I had a boy AND a girl, that meant I could teach them both the same things! Phew!  I felt armed, confident, guided.

It lasted two weeks. Two weeks of feeling utterly defeated as a would-be teacher and a parent. Two weeks of  tantrums and tears. When I finally stopped crying, the seeds of our unschooling journey were planted. We haven’t used anything resembling a curriculum since. It was a long and sometimes confusing process filled with discovery, doubts, and missteps, but ultimately I came to understand that my children could not be neatly molded within the framework of a guided curriculum. When we finally left them to discover the world on their own terms and at their own pace, our children’s curiosity began to bloom right out of the pot and spill out in tendrils that criss-crossed and intertwined in ways I couldn’t have imagined. There was no way to separate geography from history, language, landscapes, culture, or art. We found fractions in the kitchen, patterns in nature, and science washed up on the beach. These things had been there in plain sight all along, only I hadn’t been able to recognize them as learning opportunities because I had been taught that they didn’t belong in the realm of education. Knowledge was something that had to be taught, acquired, instructed. And in my own personal case, paid for.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for us in the beginning was that neither of my children had any interest in learning to read. Experts from all fields–educational, psychological, developmental–were telling me that a child could not progress in their learning if they didn’t first know how to read. At the time this made great sense to me and resulted in a not-so-subtle campaign to get them on the reading bandwagon. Not only did it backfire on me, but it temporarily squashed their love of being read aloud to, so I backed off and let them navigate and explore their passions instead.

In the end, it was the exact opposite of what the “experts” had claimed. Because they wanted to learn more about what interested them, both my children began to put letters and words together in order to get there. Following their passions motivated them to want to read and write, not the other way around. Incidentally, their passions–geography and drawing for my son; horses and languages for my daughter– were nowhere to be found on the easy to use curriculum.

Which brings me to the glass of water. The one that some see as half-empty and others as half-full. Most people, when we talk about our no-curriculum life, like to point out that by a certain age, children should know a minimum of basic things. These basic things somewhere along the line were agreed upon and became universal– we need to fill our children up, drop by drop, to this level, at this age, with this information. And therein lies the half-empty glass.

What most people don’t understand is that while a standard curriculum may provide universal structure, it has crippling limits to children’s unique talents and capacities. The “basics” may get covered, but when children are allowed to learn without limits, to play, discover, fail, explore and experiment, the glass is not only half-full, it has the strong potential to overflow. The problem is that the realm of formal education doesn’t like overflow because it can’t be controlled or contained. It can’t be measured and tested. Overflow doesn’t fit the factory model generated by standardized learning.

In the absence of curriculum, C can no longer stand for conformity, or containment, or control. It now stands for curiosity, creativity and occasionally chaos. Oh, and most importantly, clown.

What Did You Learn Today?

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It’s a question I dreaded as a child.  Most days, having just walked in the door from school, I couldn’t answer it, especially under pressure. With few exceptions, I either didn’t remember, wasn’t interested in, or couldn’t easily express the information. The question made me anxious. So my response was usually a vague, “I don’t know . . . stuff.” 

I’m amazed at how many well-meaning parents and other adults ask children this heavily loaded question, which is really a quiz in the guise of “how was your day?” What is really being asked (perhaps with genuine interest) is, “what facts and formulas did you memorize, what topics were covered, and how much of it did you retain?” The fault lies not with the question itself but with the context. Asked within the framework of school, if every child were identical in their capacities, interests and development, then each child in the same class on any given day would be able to give a similar response. Which ultimately makes both the question and the answer impersonal. The “you” in “what did you learn today?” is collective by nature.

But what a lovely question it becomes when asked individually, with no right or wrong answer, in the context of meaningful learning born of curiosity. Instead of an inquiry, it becomes an invitation. Tell me. What did you see, hear, touch, taste, create? What mystery did you unravel? What gift did you unwrap? What questions fell upon you? What notions did you conceive? What answers did you light upon? Tell me. I really want to know.

The way my two children live and learn couldn’t be more different from my own childhood. Because they are unique and are given the freedom to pursue their interests and passions, what they each learn reflects how they individually look at and learn from the world. They will take away completely different things from the same experience. After watching the breathtakingly beautiful film, « Samsara », they both wanted to learn more about Tibetan Mandalas. We watched videos, researched their history, how they are created and the cultural and spiritual significance behind them. My daughter was intrigued by the creation process: the geometry, the colors, the method, the design. She wanted to make one right away, color it and appreciate it as a work of art. My son was drawn to the idea that after a painstaking period of patient creation, mandalas are immediately wiped away by their creators, the colored sand gathered and scattered to the wind, signifying the Buddhist teachings of impermanence and non-attachment to the material.

After finding an online mandala creator, they both designed, printed and hand colored their own. It took two days, several sharpeners and an entire pack of colored pencils worked down to stubs. The one above is my daughters. We’ll hang it up in a special place to admire.

It was hard to light the match– because it really was beautiful– but we watched the one my son created scatter and float away in weightless cinders. He remembers every detail.

 

 

 

 

The Learning Vacation

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Walking among the acropolis ruins on the island of Kos

I was telling another mom a few days ago that we just got back from a two week vacation on a small island in Greece. I explained that the trip had been part business and part pleasure, but that mostly, it had been a learning vacation for our children. She smiled knowingly and said, “Yeah, I guess every kid needs a vacation from learning sometimes, huh?”

What I had meant was that our vacation was intentionally centered around learning and discovery, that we had planned (and often improvised) our activities around things that my children are passionate about. What she heard, however–that children need “a break” from learning–reinforces a common assumption about education: that learning can only take place in a formal educational environment, i.e. school, and that by contrast, anything that takes place outside of that institution is considered leisure or fun. This mindset is so deeply ingrained, in fact, that time off from school to pursue intellectual or creative interests, or the discovery of a new place and culture is not only frowned upon, but isn’t considered valuable learning at all.

What we learn deeply as part of the human experience can’t be measured or compared or tested. During our two weeks in Greece, we each learned something valuable to us. We spent two days in Turkey roaming cobblestone streets, drinking sweet chai from hourglass shaped teacups. When we missed a boat connection from one island to our destination, the kids were tired and frustrated at being “stranded”.  But they quickly learned that a detour can turn into an unexpected adventure of climbing over ancient ruins in a field of wildflowers, followed by tasting wild thyme and honey drizzled over warm, tangy cheese.

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We met many new people and discovered two new cultures and languages. We visited historical monuments, museums and monasteries, talked to local artists about their work and influences, discovered hidden places by exploring the winding side streets against the flow of other tourists.

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My children learned from other people how to fish off a rock, which stones are best for ricocheting and how to play crazy eights. They learned about monks who live in solitude, small yellow flowers that close up when you touch them and the taste of figs eaten directly from the tree.

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We visited an organic farm and vineyard and learned all about WWOOFing, cheese making and how olive oil is pressed. We listened to people’s stories of ancestors who fled Turkey during the Ottoman empire and sailed to uninhabited islands in Greece, how they hid in caves, fishing and scavenging, fearing pirates and welcoming merchants, until the first house could be built. (“Come, I’ll show it to you. It still exists.”)

We learned about the Greek diaspora after World Wars I and II and the eventual return of new generations to Greece. For my son, hearing these stories showed him that history is more than a continuum of events. Its a hand-written memoir, a spoken memory. It’s about people and their very personal stories, very few of which ever make it into a history book. And the knowledge they impart can only be integrated and passed down, but never tested.

A few days after we returned from our learning vacation, I came across this exchange of letters between a school principal and a father who took his children out of school so they could share in his life-long dream of running in the Boston marathon. Despite three days filled with history, science, culture and endless examples of community, the children’s absence was labelled “unexcused” and the family was threatened with a possible criminal complaint for truancy if it happened again.

In response to the principal’s zero tolerance admonition, the father wrote,

“In the 3 days of school they missed (which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time) they learned about dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, overcoming adversity, civic pride, patriotism, American history, culinary arts and physical education. . . They also experienced first-hand the love and support of thousands of others cheering on people with a common goal. . . These are things they won’t ever truly learn in the classroom.”

His words echoed our experience. What struck me was that little phrase that got tucked into parentheses as though it was as afterthought to his argument about the three days they missed (“which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time”). Those few words speak volumes about the misplaced priorities of our educational system. When did standardized testing, which attempts to measure the conformed distribution and assimilation of rote information, become more valuable to our children’s experience than learning through the use of their five senses, their innate wonder and curiosity about the world, and their natural ability to make sense of and build upon those experiences? Simply put, how can anyone insist that school has a monopoly on learning? I think we could all use a vacation from that mindset by paying a visit to life.

Little Kids, Big Rules: Thoughts on the Criminalization of Childhood, Part I

photo credit: stomp.com.sg

photo credit: stomp.com.sg

When I was growing up, I was well aware of our family rules and those of our neighborhood, which were intended to ensure safety and foster kindness, integrity and good manners: Look both ways before you cross the street. Share. Don’t go swimming without telling an adult. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Pick up after your dog. Put trash in its place. Be home before dark. We respected those rules for the most part because we understood that, at the other end of this short list of restrictions, was a long tether of outdoor freedom. There was a great sense of comfort found in community. Parents knew each other’s kids by name. Everyone looked out for everyone else. Bikes got left on neighbors’ lawns and returned the next day. The bigger kids climbed the oak tree when the cat got stuck. Kids got in fights. And every once in a while, someone broke a rule. But we knew we were trusted even when we made mistakes.

We also knew that the consequences of breaking those rules would be proportionate to the ‘offense.’ If you pushed someone down, you said you were sorry and helped them up. If you destroyed a flower bed, you offered to replant it. If the baseball you threw ended up in someone’s living room, you took on a paper route or raked the leaves around the neighborhood until you could pay to replace the window. At least that was the idea. Things got worked out. No one called the police. Ever.

Unfortunately things are very different today. We’re seeing more and more serious rules with more and more disproportionately severe consequences imposed on increasingly young children. This phenomenon has been termed “the criminalization of childhood” and it is occurring in nature, in schools and in our communities. As neighborhoods, particularly private communities, continue to create and enforce ever more restrictions targeted at children, the limitations of natural play are numerous. As Richard Louv, Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, writes in his proposal to create a Forum on Children, Nature and the Law:

“(While) some community associations and public governments work hard to accommodate or encourage natural play . . . the psychological and legal landscape has changed. Girl Scouts can no longer climb trees at Girl Scout camp. Kids all over the country are hearing a double message from the adult world: Get off the couch, go outside, but oh, by the way, we don’t really want you doing anything out there. Other than organized sports.”

The obvious consequences of these restrictions on outdoor play are numerous, including childhood obesity due to lack of exercise, disconnection from nature (referred to as “nature-deficit disorder”), depression and reduced social interaction. Not surprisingly, many parents, deterred by a strong fear of liability and law infractions, feel helpless to create change for their children. As a result, they find themselves unwitting accomplices in the propagation of these rules. Louv goes on to state:

“In some communities, young people who try to recreate their parents’ childhoods may face misdemeanor charges or see their parents sued. Such legal barriers are not only created by public government but also by private government . . .One woman told me her community association banned chalk drawing on the sidewalks. Just try to put up a basketball hoop in some of these neighborhoods, let alone let the kids build a fort or tree house in the field beyond the cul de sac. In some planned communities, adult officials will tear down that fort or tree house within days. Too often, city governments do the same thing.”

What message are we sending to young children when we add on the threat of severe consequences for breaking rules that don’t make sense in the first place? For some, it is laying the groundwork for early societal control and obedience through fear. For others, it is surely planting the seed of distrust and future rebellion against authority. Although the term “the criminalization of childhood ” may seem exaggerated to some, it is representative of a larger problem stemming from infringements on basic human rights, namely over-policing. Civil rights attorney Chase Madar, in his article entitled “The Criminalization of Everyday Life,” says this “battlefield mentality” is what “leads now to the repeated handcuffing of six- and seven-year-olds in our schools as mini-criminals for offenses that once would have been dealt with by a teacher or principal, not a cop, and at school, not in jail or court.” This same mind-set is spilling over into communities and encouraging an individualistic and exaggerated notion of “law enforcement.” How can we, as parents, hope to foster independence in our children in the face of over-policing and fear of legal ramifications? And what happens when we add the layer of fear that law enforcement has recently inflicted on the black community to an already restrictive landscape? A friend or mine recently posted on Facebook:

“I tried to not let this worry me but it does. . . The next door neighbor has complained about the boys running in her yard to get the soccer or football they are playing with and said it hit her door. (Our community) doesn’t like kids playing in the front (yard). I talked to the boys and their friends and told them the rules. I watch the boys from the living room and quickly tell them to get out of her yard and driveway when I see them chasing the ball. Monday was a nice day to play outside after school. The ball went over there a few times and I had them bring (it) in and play something else. Yesterday I get a message from my sweet landlady saying the neighbor had called her, complained that the kids were playing in her yard and driveway and running in her backyard and the ball was hitting her door again. She mentioned that the next time it happens she is going to call the police. . .It churns my stomach in these times to think of police rolling up on my kids and their friends playing in our yard having fun.”

She received many comments in response, mostly describing the neighbor’s reaction as disproportionate, possibly race related and certainly frightening. Some suggested taking a ‘kill her with kindness’ approach, suggesting perhaps this woman was just old and lonely. Others strongly suggested my friend find out exactly what the neighborhood rules were as well as her children’s rights. After days of distress and reflection, she ended up drawing from the pool of advice and compromised. She proactively talked to her neighbor and let her know that yes, her sons would comply with her wishes. She also let her know that she found her threat to call the police unacceptable and why. And she explained that she had gone to the police community relations division to apprise them of the situation in the event of further complaints. Knowing my friend, she did this with both grace and authority. And it ultimately worked. The neighbor backed off because she no longer had a victim. By arming herself with knowledge of her children’s rights and the courage to confront her neighbor in a firm but non-threatening way, she was able to defuse the situation.

The world is not risk-free. And we should always keep our children’s safety in mind. But we need to find a middle ground between zero tolerance and plain common sense. Buying into the culture of fear and propagating it by following rules which harm our children isn’t the answer. We need to rely on the knowledge of our rights as parents and those of our children in order to be part of the solution. The good news is that people are coming together on this issue on a community, national and global level by resurrecting the supportive role of small communities, by actively influencing local legislation, by enlisting local and national political support, by raising awareness of children’s rights and by offering solutions on how children can safely enjoy the many benefits of outdoor play and the exploration of nature. For more information, to find nature clubs or regional campaigns in your area, see the Children and Nature Network. In Part II, I’ll be addressing the criminalization of children in schools and how it affects homeschooling in the U.S.