Sunday, November 27, 2011

Kids, Included

This is perhaps a little bit obvious to most unschoolers, but I just have to put this out there: The absolute best way to educate a child is to allow that child to experience life - to be included.

That means:
Take them with you. Welcome them at town-hall meetings, in social settings, in business settings, at fancy restaurants and at late-night neighbourhood parties. Welcome them at mealtimes, working times, playtimes, in your bed at night, and while you are taking a bath. Allow them to experience the security of being always welcome. Show them your humanity and allow them to feel human, too. They look to you to show them what it is they will grow up to be like, so be everything as beautiful as you dream of, and welcome them in to share it with you.

Obviously there are some things that may be inappropriate for young children. But for the most part, we need to welcome children into our adult world. And really -- if things are so violent or overtly sexual that they may harm a child's psyche, what are they doing to our own? Is it healthy for us to be witnessing or participating in those activities? Experiencing violence has been shown to cause permanent changes to the brain, which may in fact influence a culture for centuries to come (1). So can we extrapolate that an increasing percentage of our population, while having grown up in a relatively violence-free physical community, is in fact suffering from various forms of violence-induced stress, physical and mental illness? I think so.

For my part, I avoid violent media regardless, because I am aware of the effects it has on my own psyche. It's not difficult, in that case, to ensure my children's psychological safety, when they're in my company.

On the rare occasion that we do witness or hear about violent or other upsetting acts (usually on the news), we take time to discuss with our children the act itself, the context and ramifications, and every other issue that might arise, at any length they desire, as often as needed. I feel that being open to discussion - to educate them - is the best way to keep them emotionally safe from the reality of violence in their world.

Finding intimacy with partners can seem challenging when we want our children to be always welcome in our presence. But I think that a moderate level of intimacy is perfectly acceptable for children to witness; it lets them know that this is normal. Parents kiss. They love each other and they comfort, caress, and care for each other. We explain to our children that it makes us feel shy if they see us making love, so for that reason we do it in private, but we are willing to talk to them about anything they are curious about, and encourage them to ask questions. It's not always easy for us to be so open, but I know that the physical, emotional and sexual behaviours we model will be the foundation of their own future relationships (2), so it's vital that we allow them to learn from us rather than from whatever they might find in the media. It therefore also behoves us to ensure that our relationship is as healthy as possible, not only for our sake, but for theirs, as well.

I think there's a misconception that children will be uncomfortable or bored by our activities. To some extent that may be true, but often it is not. Often children are not given the chance to discover for themselves whether they're interested, and often they're shamed into not participating by adults who are intolerant of their sometimes noisy presence. This isn't the children's fault; it's ours.

I think it's up to us, as their role models, to welcome them into our circles; to help them engage in and enjoy the experiences. It is up to us to ensure that they have plentiful opportunities for participatory learning. For example, it is one thing to do online and library research on astronomy; it is quite another to go out at 11PM with the local astronomy club and look at Jupiter's moons through the telescope of a neighbour. The feeling of engagement and inspiration that comes from that community-based learning experience is the spark needed to make that astronomy knowledge valuable.

Yes, kids may indeed be bored when we bring them to board meetings for societies whose goals or activities they do not understand. But my experience tells me that if they are involved in the societies, and if we take time to explain to them the meaning and necessity of the conversation, they may actually become interested. During one of the Occupy meetings at the Vancouver Art Gallery, my daughter was getting bored, so my husband offered to take the kids off for a walk. 9-year-old Taliesin didn't want to go. "No. Sh." He muttered, and returned his attention to the conversation being held. It was a rather dry group discussion about consensus decision-making and meeting protocol -- but it interested him! Neither of us expected him to care; we just took our kids along with us because we take them pretty much everywhere with us. But it turned out to be one of the most inspirational experiences of this season, for him. At other times he hasn't been so interested in the conversations at Occupy, but his involvement there this autumn has given him the chance, at least, to have felt his presence was valued, and I think that's vitally important.

My Mum has just begun a 4-week Canadian Folksong workshop -- for all ages. This past week as I sat (coincidentally, at her knee) with my daughter, singing the songs with her and generally enjoying the workshop, one of the participating parents asked how I had learned all of those songs from her, and I was rather at a loss to explain. She did come in and teach some at my school when I was a child, but by then I already knew them. I just learned them by living with her. We sang for entertainment while cooking, while walking, and on car-trips. And, since folk music is her interest, we accompanied her to traditional folk events, and sat around while she sang and performed with friends. That was just simply our life! I became interested in traditional folksong, too, and my brother did, to a lesser extent. But I blame his keen interest in human history on the traditional stories she passes on to us. And of course, now I bring my kids to everything I do, including music gatherings. There isn't a method to it; it's just life.

Learning does not come from an orchestrated input of information into our children's brains; it comes from their own navigation of the things that interest them. I think most of us know that, but do we understand it? Do we realize that learning does not necessarily involve a core of expected knowledge, or even any outcome at all, but that learning is actually a very un-orchestrated opening-of-the-mind? Learning is what happens when we feel. That feeling can involve any or all of our senses, and emotions, but that feeling is essential for the learning to happen. We talk about tactile learners, visual learners, auditory learners, etc. Those are ways of feeling! So when a child feels safe, accepted, and welcome to feel and express whatever s/he experiences, then the opportunity to feel is full, and s/he can learn. Dr. Candy Lawson states that "Emotions are the relay stations between sensory input and thinking. (3)"

If we make our children welcome in the most austere intellectual conversations, we give them the feeling of being valued for their intellect. If we make our children welcome when we socialize, then they know they are a part of our community; they know they are our friends. If we make our children welcome when we play, we let them know that they are a part of our life's happiness. If we make our children welcome in the cooking, cleaning, and repairing of our home, then they will know that the home is also of them (4). If we make our children welcome when we eat, sleep, and bathe, they will know that they are integral to our very existence.

Self esteem goes much deeper than knowing that we are good, beautiful, and comparatively smart. In fact, comparison of any kind is probably detrimental to self esteem (5). Self esteem comes from the feeling of acceptance in our communities; of knowing that we are valued simply for our presence. And our children's involvement in our communities is obviously vital for that value to be perceived.

(1) The Lingering Effects of Violence; William Harm. University of Chicago Tribune, December 1996.

(2) Unpacking Authoritative Parenting: Reassessing a Multidimensional Construct; Marjory Roberts Gray; Laurence Steinberg. Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 61, No. 3. (Aug., 1999). Download PDF:

(3) The Connections Between Emotions and Learning; Dr. Candy Lawson, Ph.D. Center for Development and Learning, LA.

(4) Tony's Hard Work Day; Alan Arkin. Illustrated by James Stevenson. Harper & Row, 1972. This is really just a shout out for one of my all-time favourite books. My Pappa gave it to me when I was very young, and it always made me feel like I was valued for my small contributions to our home.

(5) The Case Against Competition; Alfie Kohn. 1987.

Other Resources:
Repeated Exposure to Media Violence Is Associated with Diminished Response in an Inhibitory Frontolimbic Network; Christopher R. Kelly, Jack Grinband, Joy Hirsch. PLoS One, December 2007.

Children Exposed to Violence; Linh Vuong, Fabiana Silva, Susan Marchionna. Views from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, August 2009. Download PDF:

Violence, Media (Position Paper); American Academy of Family Physicians. 2010.


  1. Because I never had access to family for babysitting, I took my two everywhere -- doctor, bank, haircut, groceries, retirement homes -- and they learned patience, imagination, tolerance and respect for the elderly.

    As you say, it's not a method. It's just life.

  2. good post. it can be hard to slow down and let them participate. i've found our kids LOVE doing what i call "chores", like laundry, cleaning dishes, and cooking. great reminder as to why it's so important to include them...even if it may give us more work in cleaning up :)


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