Thursday, December 27, 2012

How to Unschool

This is inspired by Kathy Woodford's video, which I'll post at the end of this post. It's a gentle, supportive video intended specifically for Newtown parents who might consider homeschooling in the wake of the recent shooting, however, I think it's of benefit to the wider population. Like Kathy, I also have various relatives working in or retired from the school system, and despite my choice to radically unschool my own kids, have a great deal of respect for those who study, parent, and work within the system. This post is not intended to malign the people who have given their hearts and souls to the children who depend upon the system, but just to offer support to those who are considering or (as we are) constantly assessing their choice of unschooling.

Unschooling means no heirarchy: endlessly figuring things out with others.
The main premise: Let go of control.
If you are serious about unschooling, you've read about it, you know some other unschooling families, or you've just hit the end of your curriculum-knotted rope and you have to make the leap, then you know this already, but it's good to remind ourselves regularly - especially those of us who (like me!) were brought up in a coercive system or environment, and probably pass a good deal of that coercion on to our kids.

That's it. Let go. In every aspect of your parenting and relationships, just let go of control. We can advise our children, but we can't make them heed our advice. We can tell them what we hope for, but we can't dictate their hopes and intentions. I struggle with this every hour of every day. I want my kids to be polite; I want them to get inspired. I want them to feed the animals and be kind to me, and excel in the things they love to do. But it's not up to me. And every single time I get involved, they are not less but more likely, to make the same mistakes again.

Case in point: This evening I came home to red-faced angry children. It was clear they'd been in tears, and as it turned out, there had been an angry, heated argument over Minecraft (who gets a turn when), and they'd both come out of it feeling threatened and hurt. My initial desire was to shout at them for playing Minecraft when I'd expressly forbade it until January (my misguided punishment for the last few times this same argument happened), and to tell them how much they've hurt themselves and each other with this stupid argument. But for once I think I got it right. Well, maybe not right; I'm not sure there's ever an absolute right in these cases, but I did a whole lot better than previously. I stood up and silently went away to my room to think about what to do. Eventually my daughter came in and lay down on me, telling me the whole story, as accurately as she could. After a while my husband and son joined me, and somehow the situation was resolved without any threats, retribution, anger, or even feelings of unfairness. We just took ownership of our behaviour and we made things as right as they could be. And I apologized for having banned Minecraft. We can all learn from our mistakes, and I believe our children learn more from our mistakes than from their own.

Now what?

So... you get the letting go of control thing. You've left your kids alone for so long that they've become bored with video games, junkfood, and every other binge they tried when they realized they were truly free. Or maybe they didn't become bored, and you're now worried you've created monsters.

Let go some more.

Go get a book and read it. Do the baking you've been thinking about. Research something that's been on your mind lately. Do the mending. Your kids might come to see what you're doing, or they might continue with their own pursuits, but you are leading by example, and they are making subconscious notes that this is what a healthy productive parent does with a day. The unschooling parent doesn't hover over the kids; doesn't watch them with eyes-on-back-of-head; doesn't surreptitiously slip them grade-appropriate texts and expect them to get interested, and certainly doesn't research and study the things the kids are supposed to get interested in. The parent feeds the parent's own soul. And the children see this, and learn that this is what healthy productive adults do.

I'm not advocating neglect, here. Obviously, the younger the children are, the more attention they'll receive, but we can aim to make it supportive and positive instead of coercive and laden with expectation. We can invite them into our wonderful explorations and ask to be invited on their journeys, as well. We can watch and learn from their play as they do from ours. And when they're older they'll hopefully appreciate that our presence in their lives can be non-judgmental and supportive, and maybe we can have a closer relationship in the teen years. This is something I am not succeeding with, personally. I've been far too judgmental of my children over the years, and now my 10-year-old is beginning to show signs of pre-teen independence-seeking, closing himself into rooms, etc. But we're open with him about our desire for a close, loving family, and about the changes we're trying to make, within ourselves. I've asked both of my children to help me make my changes; to remind me that my coercion is getting me nowhere, etc. And they do. And it does help. We're all learning, together. I know it's a very good thing for them to see me climb my own mountain.

Because they're going to have their own mountains to climb, and it will be helpful for them to have seen somebody else make a similar effort. But still, when they try, they're going to fall down. Because we all do. And guess what you have to do then?

Let go some more!

It's time to step back and not fix our children's mistakes. We're going to want to pick up the pieces and cuddle them and make it right for them: phone the friend's parents and arrange to mend the friendship; help them find another job; rescue the plants they loved but forgot to water; tidy their rooms; drive them to events they're late for; etc. It's so easy to step in and take charge, but in doing so we strip them of both their independence, and their chance to learn.

Of course, when I say let go, I'm still talking about control. Let go of the control, but keep your arms outstretched because when your children need you, they need to know that you are there to offer love and support. That, after all, is our privilege to give.

I've written this before, and I'll share it many more times, I'm sure. When I became a mother, my own mother (a very experienced, educated, and well-respected professional in the field of child and infant development) gave me the greatest parenting advice I've ever received: "No matter what anybody tells you - including me - always trust your heart. You are a mother, and there is nobody who knows what is right for your baby better than you do." Well, my mother had grave concerns about our choice to radically unschool, but I took her advice and ignored her concerns... this blog in fact began as a way to communicate to our families what we and the children were doing - in part to dispel some of the concerns they had. Those concerns are no secret to unschoolers and homeschoolers; we hear them all the time, and they're definitely a part of the reason that so many of us waffle about on the fence between unschooling and homeschooling or homeschooling and schooling. We spend a lot of time researching, to find the answers we already know in our hearts, reassuring, to find the solace for concerned relatives and friends, and reassessing, to find the answers our hearts haven't quite settled on. But in the end it turns out that, as long as we truly support our children in their own desires and endeavours, and follow our hearts, most of the biggest concerns are unfounded. So let me dispel them for us, shall I?

Socialization: Children are not objects to be 'socialized'. They are humans born with a social nature, and it is important that, as they develop their social skills, they have wonderful role models to observe. So are you kind and generous? Do you love your friends and family? Then yes. They'll be fine. As long as we support them in this, and ensure that they have access to groups of like-minded people that they are interested in being with, our children will be just fine.

Broad vision: Access to a variety of socioeconomic groups, activities, belief-systems, etc. is in fact more available to those who have time and encouragement to study whatever their hearts desire.

Learning enough: Yes. They will. They may not learn the same things as their peers, but they will learn what they love, and eventually they will find people who know and care about those things, too. *Edit 10/22/15: In the two years since I wrote this article, both of my children have entered school. One entered a grade 7 program after doing grades 1-6 completely freely, at home, and had to complete an educational assessment when he began. The other entered a part-time homeschool support program this year in grade 6, but hopes to attend grade 7 full-time, next year, and has also done the assessment. Surprisingly (or not), both of my mostly free-range life-learning children were ranked average to far above average on the assessments, and have adjusted very well to the school systems they're trying out. I don't believe that my children are geniuses, and I can tell you with certainty that I have not trained them! I believe that the reason they developed the skills required by the school system to the extent that they did was purely because they were allowed to explore.
For what it's worth, this "school" chapter of their lives is also an exploration. They're still unschooling, as far as we're concerned, and are welcome to pull out of school whenever they'd like to.

Parents don't have the skills to teach: So what? Unschooling does not require parents to teach. It requires us to learn.

College/University entrance: Maybe, if they want to. There will be schools who welcome independent learners with open arms, but there is also a movement afoot of unschooling through higher learning. They may do more for themselves than a degree could offer them. And by the time they get there, who knows how wide their universe may be?

Financial concerns: Financially, anything requiring a parent to stay home and not work can be difficult; even impossible for some. But I do believe that when we work in community, and broaden our perspectives about how much money we need, and what kinds of work we can do, there is usually a way. Unschooling is a lifestyle for the whole family. I think it's best to go head-first, vowing to oneself that there will be no regrets.

Is it legal? Well... that's the sticky point. It's not legal everywhere. But in most areas of North America it seems to me that people make it work by shaping the rules to their advantage. This takes a bit of research, and often some guidance from experienced local home/unschoolers, but it is usually doable, given enough willpower. In our area we have a homeschooling support program that provides a weekly art group, as well as various other resources, and acts as a liaison between us and the school district. This means that we only are required to make a learning plan at the beginning of the year, and to report 3 times throughout the year, and have access to some funding for children's activities and supplies, etc. There's a bit of jumping through hoops for the reporting, but generally it serves our purposes well, and we meet with other homelearners outside of this time, too.

Friday, December 14, 2012

MAMA Manifesto

Just a week after the anniversary of the attacks at Ecole Polytechnique, today hits me with news of two more attacks on groups of helpless people, and this talk by Anita Sarkeesian, discussing the massive campaign of serious abuse she suffered after she spoke out about the ever-present mysogeny and sexualization of women and girls in video games.

The fact that there's a word for people like us - "feminist" - is just plain ridiculous. Deserving of equality is not an ideal of left-wing liberal nuts called feminists -- it is simply life. I had heard of this story, but had no idea of the horrific online abuse she had suffered, and unfortunately I know too much of this sort of thing pervades our world - even our children's world - and it causes me huge despair.

I need to work harder on this front; I've let it go for a while, but not anymore. We, as mothers, have the responsibility to teach by example, that we ourselves have value, and that our children do too, and that not EVER, for any reason would we stoop to the kind of harmful behaviour that our culture seems to accept. Children only learn by example.

Today two schools full of children were attacked. 20 children and 7 adults killed in Newtown, Connecticut, USA, and 22 children wounded by a knife attack in Chenpeng village in Henan province, China. I'm sad for the people who've lost their children and family members; their faith in safety and community, but I also can't help but think about these two men who so obviously needed help, and the weapons they used (guns and knife) which are so ubiquitous in our culture.

It isn't that I think we need tougher laws - I think we need to take responsibility for our children! I talked about this in the bullying post, a couple of weeks ago, but it's just SO important! As our children
soak up every word we say; every hand-gesture, every movement of eyes and facial expression, are we living the life we want them to emulate? How many of us just sit back and allow our kids to play games (online and otherwise) without engaging them in conversation about what they are playing, and the ramifications of it? If our children witnessed a bloody murder in the street, they'd have free counselling and support for years as they dealt with the ramifications. When they see it on a video-game, holding a plastic gun in their hand and watching their digital victims explode in a rain of red and black, we tell them to get on with their studies, or turn it off and join us for dinner. Or we send them off to bed without once considering that this too has lasting psychological consequences and that they should be talking about it. In fact they should have been talking about it long before they were old enough to have thought it was a good idea to buy themselves those games. I won't for a moment assume that conscious parents would buy those games for their children.

When my children asked me what rape was, I told them. And I watched this Anita Sarkeesian video with them. We talk about wars, and politics, and sex and drugs and mental illness. We pause movies and games when things need to be explained, and my kids soak up the explanations (and questions) sometimes with more enthusiasm than the film itself. I can't stop them from participating in what is now popular culture, and if I did, they'd only want it more. But I can lead by example, and so can you. We all can. We have to. It's our responsibility. We didn't have children to tend the farm or to look after us when we grow old; we had children because we love children. So it's our responsibility to raise them with integrity and awareness, that they go into the world full of questions and willing to look around, but also with a conviction to find their own truth and right path.

There is no time to waste. And the smallest things make a difference; the random comments from my children remind me of this. My daughter once said, "I can't wait until I grow up so I can have pimples and wear cover-up, too!" My son said "I hope my wife doesn't think I want her to shave herself. That wouldn't be nice of me." Once my daughter reprimanded her father for some grammatical mistake and then turned to me with pride in her eyes. Oh no - did I teach her that? Of course I did! And it will take a lifetime to undo. Not everything we pass on is what we hope for. My husband reads fantasy novels - when I read them I always discover that women are either helpless or brutally evil. Men are either affable or macho. My son has been trying to read some, lately, and I was happy when he told me that the people in the books aren't very nice to each other, and they're not so much scary as just upsetting. He's just not interested. My daughter can pick out obnoxious, unkind behaviour in the books she reads, too, and goes on to find better books when she encounters it. It matters very much not only that we lead by example, but also that we teach our children - from birth - that their own opinions and questions matter; that any question is valid, and that when we don't know the answers we will help them find them.* It's important that we reach for the best possible version of ourselves, because that will be the standard our children measure themselves against, and it will effect every single generation to come.

It is not OK for us to condemn violent video games but make jokes that put people down. It's not OK for us to practice attachment parenting but escape our children for a night at the bar. When they find us in the morning and discover that sour old booze smell on our breath they will learn that that is the smell of being with friends, and all the threats in the world won't take that lesson away from them when they're 14 and their friends are offering them cheap vodka under a bridge. It's not OK for us to tell them to be nice to each other, but to put our own community members down, to gossip, and to blame.

We are mothers, and our demonstrated values and behaviour are the greatest teacher our children will ever have. This goes doubly, of course, for those of us who stay home with our children; who homeschool or unschool.We are mothers! We must take the importance of this incredible occupation very seriously, because there is nobody who can make a bigger change than we can, in choosing how we raise each new generation.

I have been working on the MAMA Project for over 3 years, now. I've shown it at festivals and twice as indoor installations. It makes a huge difference to the awareness and thoughts of the people who visit it, and it matters to me to continue making that difference. I've financed it nearly alone (or rather I should say that my husband and his paid job have financed it nearly alone) and worked on it almost only late at night when the kids have gone to bed. But something's got to give, now. It needs to get further. It's way past time.

*I know many people who have a difficult time talking to their children about upsetting issues. This is a great piece I was forwarded today, which may be interesting to some who are struggling with this: Family Resource Center at Minneapolis Children's Hospital: Advice on talking to children about violence against children.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why we don't have cellphones, cordless phones, or WIFI in our home.

Or: What do colony collapse disorder, melatonin, sleeping disorders, cancer and other diseases have to do with electromagnetic radiation?

It hasn't always been this way, I used to park my baby-monitor beside my sleeping child, carry the other piece of it clipped to my waist, and walk about the house with our cordless phone, checking email while basking in the aura of our wireless router. I was only mildly irritated as I walked past the humming microwave, as it disrupted my phone-calls - even from outside the house behind the kitchen. I didn't have a cell-phone, but only because I consider them obnoxious and irritating, and like the freedom of not being reachable at all times!

I bathed my infants in a wash of electromagnetic field, 24 hours a day. And we're OK!!

BUT... it takes many years for the effects of EMF to become apparent, and even then, we have few means or desire to find the root causes of the problems, when the frequencies, sensitivity levels, and physiological effects vary so vastly in our environment and population.

RESONANCE: Beings Of Frequency
I just watched this movie because my son was interested, and, as it turns out, so was I! It's a thorough look at much of the scientific research and discourse that's gone on about electromagnetic radiation, and postulates on some of the most solid theories regarding our culture's immersion in it. Here is what I took from it, in the tightest nutshell I can squash it into:

  • The space between the earth and the ionosphere has an electromagnetic pulse of approx. (can't remember exactly) 10 hertz. Experiments have shown that when our bodies are deprived of this particular radiation, we suffer various ill-effects.
  • Cancer and other diseases are caused by free radicals in our bodies, which are a natural byproduct of mitosis (cell-reproduction) which happens every night while we're asleep.
  • When it senses darkness, (while we sleep), our pineal gland produces melatonin, which is a powerful antioxidant, that prevents the damage otherwise caused by the free-radicals.
  • The pineal gland can be easily limited in function by lack of sleep, and the interference of abnormal wave frequencies, including light and electromagnetic radiation.
  • Consequently, the ongoing lack of melatonin means that our bodies are not able to naturally avoid disease, as they normally would.

So... Watch the film!! It's a full-length documentary, but I must say it was absolutely enthralling. I learned a lot, and I presume so did my son.

Watch Resonance on Vimeo

We have for some time now lived with relatively little EMR in our home, having long ago gotten rid of our microwave and cordless phones, baby monitor, and most recently wireless internet. We fought the installation of a Smart Meter until the electrical company seemed to give up (cross fingers; we know they may still show up one of these months). So why have all of our health problems not miraculously dissolved? Because, as it takes 10 years for the ill-effects to fully develop, it may take even longer for them to go away. And we are, after all, still using electricity, and living in the shadow of various cell-phone towers. And we visit the big city quite regularly. But for now it's the best we can do. And I suppose the passing decades will show if this lifestyle has helped our prospects at all. If nothing else, it has made us happier.
The day I removed all electrical equipment from our bedroom, including the alarm clock, (replacing it with a tiny, single-battery-powered alarm), my sleeping problems were all but resolved. Instantly.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Similar Feelings in the Sea of Cortez

I've been having a difficult time expressing myself these past couple of years. I'm still persevering - yes - in the hopes that the spark will return, but the things I try to express are just lacking, especially in emotion. So thankfully my friend Suki is not having this problem, and her blog posts are totally beautiful to read. Also thankfully, she managed to express the emotion behind the "Into the Wild Without Me" post far better than I did, and I'm linking to it here, so you can enjoy it!!

I'm so grateful to live in the world with the friends I have, all of whom are powerful, courageous and brilliantly beautiful people. I became friends with Suki when we were both pregnant with our first children due to be born on the same day. They didn't make it out on the same day, of course, but they've had a surprisingly tight bond ever since, and subsequently so do their little sisters, also born a month apart. It's funny how, as parents, we seem then also to go through the same twists and turns at similar times, too, even though we've spent very few of the 10.8 years we've been parents living on the same piece of earth.

For those who haven't already read Suki's blog, it relates the adventures of a livaboard homeschooling family, currently sailing, diving, and living the sea of Cortez.

The Wet Edge Adventure by Suki Kaiser

Monday, December 3, 2012

Into the Wild Without Me

This is the year my children have grown outside the sphere of my involvement.

It began with a trip to meet their friends in the meadow. Then they began biking there and other places just to play. Then, come autumn, they began taking themselves to activities, walking and biking together, and even returning sometimes alone. My daughter came home excited after her first solo journey home from dance class to exclaim that she'd helped some tourists find the lake, on her way!

And now this: they left for dance, today, and came back 5 minutes later. Why? Because the neighbours' nasty biting Rat Terrier was on our driveway, and they couldn't make it past him. So I intervened, and they escaped to dance unharmed. After dance, normally my son would hike up to his acting class and my daughter would return home. But today I heard the bumpety-bump of the garbage can coming back up the driveway, and there they were! They returned early -- both of them! I was a little worried, but soon got their explanation:  Dance class was cancelled; the teacher was sick, so they walked home, and stopped to play in the forest - with two of the other girls from their class. They visited those girls' fort, in the forest, and they just hung around and explored.

What this translated to in my mind was: Your children are not your children. In the hour and a half you thought they were dancing, they were actually in some unknown part of the woods, checking out the forts of other children! And here they are - returned safely. 

I cannot tell you how happy I was to hear this news!! My children have suddenly both moved on to a new stage of life, which I remember as the happiest time of my childhood: the meeting-friends-in-the-forest-building-forts stage! Oh joy!! I love my memories from this age, and I feel a bit like they've just picked up the torch! This is when I remember catching frogs; when I swam in the creeks and built rafts and dams, when I played Tarzan in and around my many forts with the invasive vines, and I argued over which of them belonged to me and which to my brother or the other kids who built forts in that part of the woods. This was when I went sliding down from the causeway with my friend's sister's jeans on! This was when I had a red and yellow BMX that could get me anywhere. I was free!!

And when I think of who I am inside - the authentic true Emily - I think of this time.

But that was me, and my children are very different from me. I want to imagine that they will do the same things I did in that wilderness, but I know they will have their own discoveries; their own beautiful memories and mountains to climb. I admit to being terrified of my absence in their world (who will pick them up when they fall? who will be with them to know when they need support?) but I am not sad to see my children grow up and out and into the wild without me. I am joyful!

And I cannot wait to see who they will become!

In this time of too much control; of children not allowed to walk home; not allowed to play without supervision or training or 'gear'; when we increasingly expect professionalism from kids with any kind of sporting interest, or we send our kids to "Nature Camp" instead of just letting them out to play, let us let go a little more. Let us let our children know that they are their own greatest protection; that we trust them; that they can speak to strangers and stick up for themselves; that they are strong and courageous. Let them help the tourists find the lakes! Let us let them go with joy, and be the dependable hearth they can return to with their stories of heartbreak and triumph and fear and intrigue, and let us share in the joy of their growing up!

This video went black and I don't have the software to edit it right now, but just play it for the sound. This is my Mum (with accompaniment!) singing Kahlil Gibran's On Children at her retirement party, followed by The Parting Glass.

On Children
       ~ Kahlil Gibran
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but are not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.