Your Unschooling Story is Extraordinary

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photo courtesy of Kirsten Schroeder

Our family just spent several days on a small nature reserve close to the Senegal/Gambia border with about fifteen people we didn’t know. As there were no distractions at night , our evenings were spent eating communally and sitting around a blazing camp fire talking and singing under a dome of stars.

The subject of our children’s education came up fairly quickly and I found myself in that uncertain place within myself, not wanting to give too much information for fear of being judged. I tend to tread lightly when talking about our learning and life choices, offering the initial response, “my children are educated at home,” a truthful answer which gives people the option to dig further if they are curious about the how and why, or change the subject if they aren’t.

This was a particularly open group of souls concerned with preserving the local environment and the rituals and traditions of the Senegalese people who live on this small parcel of protected wetland. In my experience, people who are already thinking and acting for the greater good are usually receptive to alternative ways of living. But none of them were familiar with unschooling. The questions they asked were genuine, respectful and came from a place of open curiosity and admiration.

It was the first time since we made the decision to unschool our children five years ago, that I was invited to share our story, rather than defend our choices. And as the details slowly unfolded, I found myself talking freely and confidently about the many ways in which our children learn without school. Since none of this resembled the rehearsed answers I usually pull from my arsenal, I found myself making connections I had never thought of before, such as how my children have gained communication skills by being invited to sit in on business meetings, how their time spent in nature has given them the appreciation and motivation to become future environmental actors, and how the many films we watch as a family have given them a diverse exposure to languages, cultures, lands, music, creativity, cinematography, story-telling, images, and the various ways we express the human condition.

One woman, whose children are now grown, admitted that she’d always wanted to homeschool her children, but that her husband had been adamantly against it and so she had backed down. Another woman loved the idea of how we embrace apprenticeship as a valuable means of gaining knowledge and experience. Although she isn’t in a position to homeschool her daughter for several reasons, she told me our story had inspired her to incorporate community and life experience into her daughter’s learning. I was told by several people, “your story is so inspiring.” Really?

Many years ago, I took a class in creative writing which focused on drawing from everyday experience. On the very first day, the teacher, a seasoned writer,  said, “the details of your lives are extraordinary and you need to write about them.” I don’t think any of us felt particularly extraordinary because we all looked around at each other in bewilderment. Someone said, “I wouldn’t know what to write about, my life is pretty boring.” The teacher asked him to tell the class the first thing that had happened to him that morning. “I brushed my teeth?”

“No, dig deeper.”

After a few seconds of reflection, he said, “Oh yeah, I did get woken up early this morning because there was a parade or people passing by my building. When I went to the window, I saw it was a bunch of senior citizens protesting for their rights. So I  cheered them on. One of the women blew me a kiss.”

I imagine that some of us feel the same way about our unschooling lives, that not much is happening, that our days seem “normal” or routine,  or that people probably wouldn’t be interested in the details. But we are wrong. Our individual unschooling stories, as they are being lived and told, are themselves an expression of the human condition. The choices people are making all over the world to embrace learning as something innate, individual, joyful, fulfilling and above all, personal, is and will have enormous impact on the future, not just in terms of liberating our children’s learning experience, but for how we will approach and solve small and large problems in every area of life and ultimately how we will relate to each other.

Our voices need to be heard. The beauty of unschooling is that, while we can share information and offer guidance, our experiences are unique. Each how, why, where and who is different, which provides for richly textured and inspiring stories. Tell yours, as an unschooling parent, teen or grown life learner. Dig deep, make the unexpected connections and then share, verbally, or in writing. Send your story to publications dedicated to promoting interest led learning. Life Learning Magazine, The Homeschooler Post, and Otherways Magazine are just a few that welcome submissions. Start a blog if you haven’t already. Or simply document your experiences for your family.

Tell your story, because its full of courage, risk, determination, overcoming obstacles and embracing change for your children and yourselves. Tell your story, because it’s extraordinary. Not everyone will listen. But those who do will not be left unchanged.

 

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Taking Stock and Making Space in Our Unschooling Lives

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We recently made the decision as a family to paint our house inside and out, which  meant emptying each room, going through every single thing in it, and deciding which items really meant something to us and which things we were ready to let go of.

This simplification process isn’t always easy. It can be very emotional, this nostalgic letting go. Because we are inevitably confronted with the fact that we’ve changed,  physically or emotionally, that we’ve gotten older, that tastes or interests have waned or been replaced, that the things we cherished only a few years ago somehow ended up in the back of a junk drawer. We are also inevitably confronted with what we think we “should” keep, what either society, family or our own sense of moral obligation tells us we shouldn’t throw out or give to someone else even though we may no longer want or need them.

It had been about six years since we’d really examined our possessions and the pile of things that no longer fit into our lives was impressive. After my typical nostalgic procrastination of lingering over baby clothes, scribbled drawings, books and old photos (and lamenting several pairs of jeans that hadn’t magically gotten any bigger), the four of us really got to work at weeding through our things.

During the process of de-cluttering our home, I found an unexpected connection between taking stock of our possessions and the evolution that unschooling has taken in our lives.  I became acutely aware of how my children have evolved and how little they need to be happy and fulfilled. Few of the things I had supplied them with at the beginning of our decision to homeschool –things I had assumed were necessary for them to learn and grow intellectually–survived the cut. Expensive text books, science kits, times tables posters, writing guides and math workbooks had all been gathering dust while my children gathered the knowledge they needed and wanted in a natural progression of deep understanding and interest.

Initially those textbooks and other educational material were a reassuring presence for me, a reflection of my own insecurities, of what society deems essential to a child’s education. They had been brought into our home when I was still caught up in the doubt and skepticism that others had openly expressed about our children being able to learn without school. They had stayed on as vestiges of my old way of thinking and conforming. But just like those jeans that no longer fit, I finally had to acknowledge that they, too, no longer held a place in our lives and that it was okay to let them go.

Other things my children were willing to get rid of were a testament to the progression of their learning and their growing bodies and minds. They kept only those things which meant something to them personally, items that furthered their interests, supported their creative activities, inspired play or nourished their souls. My husband and I followed their lead.

What we cherished most turned out to be books-fiction, history, architecture, art. Not surprising for a reading family. We read alone in a pile of pillows on the floor or under a tree outside. We read to each other in bed, on the sofa. Sometimes a book catches our eye and we sit down right where we are on the floor and that thing we were on our way to do gets forgotten. That’s okay, it’s part of learning as we go. And we’re tactile readers. We love to feel the weight of the book, hear the satisfaction of turning a page, smell the history of old books. They are like steadfast friends.

With all the extraneous stuff that no longer serves us either given away, recycled, or tossed, we find ourselves surrounded by what we love and care about and what is truly useful to us. Being able to see those things clearly and have easy access to them has also cleared our minds and consciousness of old patterns and habits. I’m certain that over the coming years, as our family of four continues to grow and change, more things will be added and subtracted. But they will be chosen carefully and reflect a learning and living philosophy that more closely resembles who we are as individuals and as a family.

In the meantime, we’ve found more space to work, play, create and breathe. We intentionally left one shelf in our bookcase empty.  It’s a freshly painted reminder of the endless possibilities ahead.

A Big P.S. and a de-cluttering tip:

  • This is not meant to be a judgment of textbooks or other standardized learning material, or of those homeschooling families who choose to incorporate them in their individual learning philosophies. It’s about talking to our children and listening to ourselves, taking a close look at what’s working, and letting go of what isn’t in order to make space for new things to come into our lives, literally and figuratively.

  • I am not a clean freak. Nor do I like stark rooms or dainty meals (which would account for the jeans that don’t fit). And I love a good mess, which is always a sign of creation. However, taking the time and effort to simplify our belongings had a profound effect on our lives in several ways. First, it made us more aware of our consumer habits and the impact we have on the environment when we purchase unnecessary or cheaply made, disposable items that, if not recycled, end up polluting the environment.

  • Secondly, taking stock of our possessions ultimately led us to take stock of our lives and make some simple changes like taking electronics out of the bedrooms so we sleep better, and organizing our shared office space and the kitchen in a way that made sense for everyone.

  • Getting rid of or storing things we didn’t use on a weekly basis allowed us to really see, have access to, and appreciate those things that we value the most. As a result, our house has seen a focused, creative burst and a slowing down to enjoy peaceful moments at the same time.

  • Going through our possessions can also remind us of the personal changes we want to make as well as the things we’ve accomplished and the goals we’ve attained. Sometimes we forget that we are not static! Move things around as a reminder of that.

  • Lastly, this process took a while for our family, and patience was crucial. But my husband came up with a great technique for helping us de-clutter. When we were hesitant, rather than threatening to get rid of things, we each put ten items that felt important to us in a separate space (our garden shed) for one week. At the end of that week, if we couldn’t remember any of the ten things without looking, or if we decided we could live without them, they went. What remained were the essentials we needed and sentimental things we loved. This is a respectful and effective way to let go of things we are holding onto for the wrong reasons. And it empowers each family member to individually make the final decision about what stays and what goes, which fits right in with our unschooling philosophy.

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.

 

 

 

 

Unschooling is About a Shift in Perspective

I recently became a translator. It’s not something I set out to do. It just kind of happened. An acquaintance asked me if I would translate a twenty-page document for her from French to English and without even thinking about it, I said , “sure, why not?” I agreed so readily, in fact, that I surprised myself. I’ve never translated anything in my life, and although I speak both languages, writing in French is not my strong point. But I tackled the project, word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page. Then my friend recommended me to someone else and I took that job as well, which led to others: a study on tourism in Myanmar, a marketing study for an eco- hotel in Senegal, a warehouse fire investigation in Cameroon. And so without ever really meaning to, I find myself picking apart, rearranging and transforming other people’s words into another language and learning about different problems and solutions offered by people from diverse parts of the world in the process. And I love it.

Me. Who a few short years ago was terrified of taking personal risks–of failing or succeeding–in anything new; who would have emphatically turned down that translation job because it was outside my comfort zone; who would have insisted that I couldn’t possibly accept such a task because I wasn’t qualified. I had no training. No diploma. No degree in that particular field of work.

I once held tight to the notion that a formal education was the only way to learn; that the goal of an education was a diploma; that a diploma was a golden ticket to success; that success was quantifiable by the number of zeros on your paycheck; that the loss of that paycheck, or  job, or business was a mark of failure; and that failure was in some way a reflection, not of circumstances, but of our efforts. I once defined myself according to these narrow parameters and relied on them for much of my adult life. Luckily, at some point, they began to crumble and fall away under the contrary evidence of my life. And I have my children to thank for that.

I thought about why I had said yes this time. What had changed? And that’s when I realized that something important had subtly but steadily shifted in me. In the process of giving my children the freedom to create and learn from experience, I had witnessed genuine inspiration. While I was helping them to erase “should” and embrace “can,” I had broken down old barriers. While I had observed them fail repeatedly without shame or discouragement, driven to find a different solution or try something new, my fear of failure had lost its power. And I had come out on the other side with a whole new perspective. I had unschooled myself.

I’m not sure we ever stop evolving as unschooling parents, particularly if we are in the process of shedding old belief systems that no longer serve who we are or how we look at the world. We are all works in progress. If we choose to, we have the fortune to learn so much when we accompany our children on their individual life learning path. But perhaps more importantly, we have the opportunity to unlearn false perceptions and negative ideas about ourselves, our beliefs and our capacities.

When we look at life and learning the way our children do, as limitless and attainable, we have the rare chance to redefine ourselves as well. When we are not bound by others definitions or desires, we can take two steps forward and one step backward and still see it as progress. Loosely translated . . . even if we occasionally trip in life, shift happens.

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.

Taboos vs. Trust: Answering the Uncomfortable Questions

 

 

photo credit: favim.com

photo credit: favim.com

 

I grew up in a family where certain things just didn’t get talked about. My parents, like many of their generation, directly avoided discussing any topic that made them uncomfortable or which they assumed we were too young, or naive or immature to understand. In this way, taboos got established and deeply rooted in our family. It wasn’t that my questions didn’t get answered as a child. I was discouraged from ever asking them in the first place. I found out about Santa and sex the way a lot of young children do–on the school playground. I was deeply disappointed on both accounts.

As a teen, if we did have a conversation about alcohol or drugs, it was to strictly condemn experimentation of either. Subjects like discrimination, violence, racism and large-scale human atrocities were the responsibility of school, often as an unemotional sidebar to a history lesson. The human body and its functions (that miraculous, mysterious, magical vessel of inner workings) was reduced to a diagram poster in the science lab or school nurse’s office. Sexuality, puberty and the female cycle (with its intricate web of fragile teen emotions) were thankfully addressed within the cherished pages of Judy Blume books.

I don’t blame my parents for this. They were raised according to a lingering post-Victorian authoritative parenting style. And while the more child-centered writings of Dr. Spock had largely taken hold by the 1960s, old patterns and perceptions die hard. However, the result was that my questions usually got answered by the experimentation my parents were ultimately trying to avoid. By learning that uncomfortable subjects should be swept under the carpet, I in turn avoided asking myself hard questions as a young adult.

My husband and I made the conscious decision to break the pattern of silence and taboos and replace it with trust–in our children and in ourselves as parents. We would answer all of our children’s questions, in the moment, no matter how uncomfortable they made us. And we would do it without drama, shame or condescension. We would answer questions like ”how many stars are in the sky?” and “how are babies made?’ with equanimity.

Interestingly, once we were faced with those questions (and there have been lots of them), answering them wasn’t nearly as nerve-racking as we had anticipated. The questions got asked, the answers came fairly naturally and, if their curiosity had been satisfied, my children would move on to something else. If not, there was fresh material for conversation, or research to be done until we found the answers they were looking for.

Paying attention to and addressing our children’s curiosity has led to many rich conversations about things like reproduction and their own birth stories, war, humanitarianism, sexual and gender identity, physical and mental disabilities, religious and cultural differences. Critics might say that we’ve offered too much information given their ages (9 and 10). I would argue instead that if a child is informed enough to ask the question in the first place, they are ready to handle the answer. If we remove the stigma from the subject matter, we ultimately demystify the process of talking about what our society deems “taboo.” With time and acceptance, we may even contribute to the dissolution of the taboo itself.

Having their questions answered in a safe environment by people they trust gives children the foundation to explore the world with confidence and ultimately removes the desire or need for future rebellion. Answering tough questions also opens the two-way door to asking them. Children are much more willing to share important emotions and events in a relationship where communication, respect and trust has been established. This seems like such a simple concept and yet I am constantly warned by other parents about the difficulties that lie ahead for us as we approach the “tween” years.

I lived through those years too. I remember them well. And I didn’t confide much in my parents, not because I didn’t love them, but because the path to open communication had never been paved. It’s my hope that by answering our children’s questions, we’ve eliminated their need to put up barriers of communication in the first place. As for what’s ahead, I can’t know for sure. I do know that we can’t avoid the questions themselves. They are universal, human and essential. And when we answer them, we may even uncover a few unexplored questions of our own.