Silencing the Voice of Conformity

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My twelve year old unschooled daughter has been waking up late these days. Around 9 am, the sticky, stubborn residue of conformity whispers in my ear that perhaps I should wake her. There are things to do. It’s a beautiful day. The sun’s been up for hours. So has her brother.

At 10:15, the insistent inner voice of irritation (or perhaps jealousy?) quips that breakfast is still on the table and we’ve all got better things to do than wait for her to wake up. I was never allowed to sleep that late as a child. Why should she?

By 11:00, I am at my worst, convinced that she is wasting the day away. Misusing valuable learning time. It’s a weekday for heaven’s sake! We’re spoiling her. But then another thought sneaks in and suggests that maybe she’s depressed. Or sick. There’s definitely something wrong. Have I been available to her? Have I been listening? Why haven’t I noticed?

And then comes the crescendo of the cruelest inner voice:

I’m a horrible mother.

This internal dialogue is not something I can control, despite five years of unschooling and a great deal of self-work. It is a process that cycles back around and wallops me unawares. When neither of my children had learned to read when school said they should, the voice of conformity told me they were suffering from developmental delays. When they didn’t know their times tables or how to write in cursive, it convinced me they were lacking in essential skills. When they didn’t have an entire class of friends to invite to their birthday parties, it broke my heart and told me they must be lonely. And when others were critical or judgemental of the learning freedom my children are afforded, it shamed me into believing I should send them to school.

Sometimes, I can stand up to those voices and recognize them as vestiges of my upbringing and societal conditioning. They are recorded tapes, messages that have played so long on an ingrained loop that it’s difficult to silence them. But while I can’t stop them from having their say, I don’t have to listen anymore. And I certainly don’t have to act on them.

Other times, in weaker moments, I rail against the demons of self-doubt, fists of anger ready for the fight, tears of uncertainty pooling around the past. But I will not drown. In moments of self-care, I recognize them for what they are, sometimes going as far as gracefully accepting them as an integral part of my whole progressing self. I put them to paper. Invite them to a proper debate. And I try very hard not to impose them on my children.

My daughter owes me no explanation, no excuse, no justification, no proof. She needs sleep now and she listens to her body. So when she does wake up, rested and recharged, her smile and beauty take my breath away. I hug her and say good morning and the nagging voices skitter into the corner to be swept up with the dust and crumbs of our lives. She will certainly learn or create or ponder more in the next few hours than I did worrying about her sleeping too late.

I watch her eat breakfast with one hand while her heart paints with the other.  Another gentler voice slips in then, one I’ve cultivated and welcomed with time and experience. It never shouts or shames or insists. It simply says, “trust.”


*artwork by Sunny Rowland, created over breakfast, Posca pen on wood


Taboos vs. Trust: Answering the Uncomfortable Questions



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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.