Monday, May 9, 2022

Parenting and Gardening with Climate Change: The Aesthetic of Allowing Diversity

This morning we put the tomato and pepper seedlings out on the porch again. They've been waiting for the ground to warm up enough to be transplanted, for weeks. It was nearly freezing last night, just above ground, in early May. And now weather forecasters are predicting that La Niña might stick around all summer. Bad news for the Atlantic hurricane season, great news for our Pacific fire season, and... sad prospects for my warmer-weather food crops. Climate change is one thing for sure: unpredictable. And along with the weather, our food, finances, and children's futures are all unpredictable, too.

Diversity in the Garden
Our strategy for dealing with this unpredictability has been to become more independent. I guess psychologically it's about keeping control of our own actions, when so much else is now reeling out of control. But practically speaking, it's also very helpful: The more we learn about the way we and our needs work, the more capable we are of supporting ourselves, of creatively solving problems that arise, and of adapting to our rapidly-changing world. So we're growing many of our own foods now, unschooling our kids, and diversifying our own skillsets. Put simply, we're diversifying how we live, just like financial investors diversify assets. Thrivent says "the idea is to avoid putting all of your eggs in one basket—because something bad could happen to that basket."  We don't have any financial investments, but the same strategy applies to living, eating, educating ourselves, and planning our future, in general. So we grow warm weather crops, cool weather crops, fruit trees of various types, summer crops and winter crops, and root, leaf, flower and fruit crops. It looks like this year we'll have a lot of potatoes, celery, spinach, kale, broccoli and cauliflower... and apples, if the bees do well, which is still in question.

There are a lot of questions, these days. Among them, how to save seeds. I received a newsletter from our local seed supplier recently, in which he explained the importance of diversity in seed-saving: 

        "We’ve all experienced accelerated climate change and it’s important to prepare for more of the same if we are to have successful harvests. The best strategy can be summed up in one word: Diversify!
        "We can be hit by extreme cold, heat, wind or rain at anytime during the growing season. If we can, we should not trust all our seeds to one sowing. We should stagger and expand our plantings as well as planting our crops in both shade and sun. We can also think about working with friends and neighbours to mutually maximize our locations."
                            ~ Dan Jason, Saltspring Seeds

See that? This is a seed supplier encouraging his customers to grow and save our own seeds, to share with neighbours, and basically to evolve away from supporting his seed-growing business. Why? Because obviously, he and his business will do better if we all do. He's diversifying his own network of seed-growers and customers, as well as his output. He also wrote a small book about seed saving, and frequently writes blogs, articles, newsletters and other things about how to grow plants and seeds in these changeable times. A greedier businessperson might not encourage seed-saving, when they can make more money upfront if their customers remain ignorant about this practice. Dan Jason is looking at our mutual future, and diversifying all of our prospects, in community. There will always be a place for that.

Diversity in Life and Education
Which brings me to the human side of this picture: How do we diversify our own human community; our own skill-sets, to ensure our adaptability as the world changes around us? I threw out the word unschooling back there, like it was nothing, and for our family it really is nothing these days, but I know it's rather out-of-left-field for some people. Here's what I'm going on about: Unschooling is the practice of allowing our kids (and ourselves) to explore any and all of their interests, on their own time, in their own ways, and just seeing what comes out of it all! Without going too far into our own experiences (read more about our unschooled young adult children at our blog, if you like), our family is now reassured that unschooling was an excellent choice for our kids' future. After many years of determining and following their own interests, they have become agile thinkers, able to check in with their own needs, fulfill those needs successfully, and change course when the need arises. What more can one ask for, in a future where no career choice is guaranteed, nor even the ground we stand upon?

But that's our kids--what about us? We're a couple of middle-aged adults, one dependent on a satisfactory job that doesn't meet our evolving ethical standards, and the other now disabled by long-covid. Can we still unschool? The answer is yes, and we've been doing it with our kids these past many years. Our skill-sets have grown as our needs changed, and we find ourselves becoming reasonably adept at growing food, raising and processing chickens, building needed devices, implements and home-improvements, and also learning to live together, twenty-four-seven, peacefully. We're also becoming very good at living more simply, and finding joy in a life far less cluttered by activities and must-haves than it once was. Life is always about unending personal growth--it's just that climate change and related social change have caused us to appreciate that more.

The Aesthetic of Natural Diversity
What I sometimes struggle to appreciate is the absolute chaos of natural diversity. I mean when you just let things grow however they're going to. It's a mess. Truly. My garden, my kids' educational careers, my own career and even my living room is just truly an absolute mess. But I've learned to see its beauty.

See this lovely mess of a garden bed? We had an open garden here a week ago, and I heard a few people comment on the number of "weeds" we have. And they're not wrong! But the tone of their comments was. Now that I am coming to understand the importance of diversity in my regenerative garden, this picture is pure joy, to me! 

one of the diverse salad-green beds in our garden

What you're looking at here is a few indoor-started heads of lettuce, now ravaged by our salad-needs, along with some dark green kale on the right, flowering out as it does every spring and fall. On the left there's a tiny pink flower--that's a Robert Geranium, considered a weed by most people, but it's antiviral and edible, so I put it in salads and smoothies. Along with this there is a whole plethora of edible asters: dandelions, wild lettuces (and some seeded from our previous years' crops), lambs' quarters, and others. There are teeny tiny bittercress plants everywhere, their leaves and tiny white flowers delicious in salads and sandwiches. There's some chickweed coming up, which will brighten my summer smoothies and delight our chickens, and in the woodchip-covered pathway at my feet, there's a lively mat of winecap mycelium, that pushes up big tasty mushrooms at totally unpredictable times. This garden feeds us. And when I see the diversity of flavours and promise, it's absolutely gorgeous to me.

Parenting can be like that, too. When my kids were young, I used to feel irritated by the drifts of toys, costumes, and craft materials that seemed to cover everything. But I also saw how it mirrored the creative mess of my own art studio, and how my kids dug in their mess, explored and improvised, and eventually also desired to tidy it themselves. Now they're older, their social lives are also somewhat of a primordial stew. I look at my own young-adult memories and how different my social life is now than what I thought I was building, at twenty. I have a few of the same friends, but our interests and priorities have changed many times. My children, of course, are no different, even though right now it's hard for them to imagine how life will change them. Their activities are an eclectic chaos of experimental successes and left-behinds. At twenty, our son is paid as a 3D modeller, but also practices music, concept design, drawing, and is a life-long physics and engineering enthusiast. Our seventeen-year-old daughter runs programs for kids, organizes an alternative education festival, publishes a magazine by and for kids, and has recently also begun a side-career as a dog-trainer. Three or four years ago I could not have predicted many of these directions, but our kids found them and followed them with enthusiasm, and that has set them up for success in our unpredictable world. They're accustomed to wrangling interests and commitments in multiple different directions. They're accustomed to changing course when needs demand it. Our kids' comfort and ease with this chaotic, changeable lifestyle is the gift that unschooling gave them. As our social climate becomes more chaotic, they will fit right in.

The Struggle of Allowing
Then there's the concept of allowing. I'm not really as comfortable with all this as I make it sound. Excited by the prospects; reassured by preliminary observations--yes! But I fight change like the devil, and I am not good at just going with the flow. I'm a child of the eighties. I thought I would pick a career and stick to it forever; have kids who went to school, grew up through birthday parties and grocery shopping and family holidays, and I'd always live a typical low-to-middle-class family life. I also thought Caesar salad would always be easy to buy. Now lettuce is too expensive, eggs for the dressing are even more expensive, chickens are dying by the hundreds of thousands in their barns from flooding and bird flu, and I'm allergic to croutons. Damn. I had to allow my palate to change with the times. 

Sometimes allowing my kids to make choices I don't understand or necessarily agree with feels like gluing my back to the wall; peeling my eyes from the view and willing my voice to fall back into my throat. I pound down my own fears to let my kids thrive or fall flat on their faces. It's like letting the weeds and lettuce seedlings stay under the dominating squash leaves, knowing they'll just die there, but that their failed lives will feed the squash. And then discovering that one of them grew and fed my family, anyway. Allowing is when I know for sure I could make things better in the short term if I just take control, but I also know that I can't see all the variables, so any control I think I have is just a sham, anyway. As our world becomes ever less predictable, I can't predict how my controlling actions will play out in my garden, my life, my kids' education, or even this article. So I force myself to quit trying.

Luckily I've diversified my needs and the seeds I plant, and am learning to cooperate with the changing climate.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

A Letter to the Boy Who Was Bullied with Me

This is a hard topic for me, and one that I rarely bring up, because, even after forty years, it's too raw to talk about. I was one of four kids on the bottom rung of my grade, throughout elementary school. I don't have to tell you what that means. The story is ubiquitous all over the world. And Pink Shirt Day seemed kind of like a slap in the face to me, sometimes, because the isolation caused by being bullied means that I never feel welcome in cultural events like that. Especially that.

This year is different. I connected with one of the kids who was my bullying-mate. I say mate because the other kids used us against each other. We were never friends--precisely because of that. Now we are, I guess, and I have his permission to publish this poem that came out of our conversation, and my recent walk to the overgrown forest site where the cottage he grew up in once stood. This is where the photos come from.

I'm publishing the poem and images as part of my current project, One Solar Year (@onesolaryear on Instagram, and then possibly a book, at a later date). This project lies at the intersection of ecology and humanity, with thoughts and observations on changing human experience through one of our planet's cycles, trailing behind our sun... and during our interesting journey through climate change and social change. I'll add an in-line text version of the poem at the bottom, for those reading on phones.

I still walk the trail that led to your house
often, where the ivy is taking over
the woods that took over
      your home      
I remember the day you came to school and said you’d dropped your homework
                         in the mud
lame excuse, like the dog ate it
they laughed
but I knew you slogged that muddy
trail to school every morning
shoulders bent to confront
the wind and rain
mind washed empty to confront
                    our classmates
now I walk the trail without you
and remember us

              they laughed
because they couldn’t kick you
while the teacher was standing
they kicked us when she looked away
shoving my face into spilled little sausages
on the floor, splotched with mud from the trails we came in on
Keds in my ribs, gravel-studded
gumboots caught in my hair

he pushed my head down again, when I pulled to standing
I couldn’t look at you

we lived parallel lives, we knew the same
the same jeers
we knew the pain of watching teachers
watching us
and not helping
telling us we could do better; we could stand
move out of the way of the dodgeballs
the basketballs that found our heads
before the  hoops

but our shoulders bent to our teachers’
just stand tall, they said
what did they know?

we already stood
like pale beaten trunks on a    
       muddy trail
yeah, we were bent!
backs folded against the wind of our classmates’
words, we knew

we couldn’t even
speak to each other
though we lived the same torment; we knew

how impossible it is
to stand up
when every part of us is
with rejection

already standing

in our isolation

forty years later, you
asked me whether they   
    to isolate
   or was it just
    a byproduct?
I said they’re just climbing
        the social ladder
                like ivy

you and I were the trees,
  my friend
pale-barked trees
growing skyward
get the hell out of
       words can sure
hurt us, to the bone
so we learned
not to hear
to forget
to stand cold
and alone, self-

you said
you wished you could say
you came away with
your heart fully intact
but that too, was
not offered to us so we drank
the shards of our hearts into oblivion
raised kids and tried to protect them
from our own childhoods; you left this town
and the mud and the ivy and the
rain falling down on our paths        I stayed here
and beat the memories into words        rejected the school
                                       where shit happened
where you and I         were never friends           and I said we
               all       climbed      our ladders       to wherever we went
to drink in the sunshine of life that was denied to us
by the soles and rubberized toes of runners

and with our branches we tell the sky
we plan to be whole, again
I tell you you’re my friend
in the mud of our adulthood
and memories and forgets

it’s my commitment
my friend
to grow despite the ivy
to the sky

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Our New Valentines Tradition

I was recently reminded that my son, when he was about three, suddenly asked me, "Mama, what is Valen"? We were walking along the road, as I remember, his sister bundled in against my chest in the damp winter. And he looked so sincere. This was a question of great importance, but I was clueless.

"I don't know," I answered. "What do you mean?"

"It's time for Valen," he said with wide eyes and a face full of open fascination.

Oohhh. Yes. Valentimes. I think I tried to explain that it's a day for showing how much we love each other. But he was born tenderly expressing his love, and he never needed a special day for that. Still. It was something he could understand, even if the name (and a saint from somebody else's religion) meant nothing to him. My kids have grown so much since those early days, and so have we, as a family.


That gorgeous spread is our slightly new Valentine's tradition. I suppose it came out of the pandemic, though I honestly can't remember where the idea came from. We first did this in 2021, but we loved it so much we've decided to make it a tradition: Homemade High Tea! 

The idea is so simple: each person in the house creates some kind of treat, and we serve it all with tea! Thank goodness both my kids are great cooks--we really feasted! This year we had sausage rolls, sandwiches, scones, pear clafoutis, and cookies! It's pretty extravagant, and all home-made from scratch, gluten-free and pseudo-keto, because those are our requirements. I guess for me it's a beautiful thing to see that my kids are so capable, but also it feels like a culmination of everything we've worked for, in raising them: a family that can all contribute to a communal happiness. And we actually enjoy each other's company. Honestly, what more could we have hoped for?

My mother sent us the snowdrops from her garden, and we ate off my grandmother's fancy rose dishes. Maybe one day when we're free from pandemic fears we can expand our Valentines High Tea to include more of our beloved family.

Happy Valentines day!

Thursday, February 10, 2022

I've Changed my Thinking on University Entrance and Attendance

Taliesin in his early years, trying to get some lift. Photo: Emily van Lidth de Jeude

I thought about calling this article 'Getting into University as an Unschooler', because that's what people ask me about, knowing that I parent two young adults who are currently in this stage of life. But by the time I finished writing it, I realized that I can't even recommend university anymore. Not the way it's traditionally done, anyway. University is a beautiful little corner of a much bigger, beautiful picture, and I mean to let my kids have the whole picture.

I have two different kids who have traveled through life in the same community, sharing the same upbringing, home and family, and often the same activities, but with vastly different journeys towards what our culture calls "adulthood". They're both now on the precipice of finding meaningful employment in fields that inspire them, still living at home during the pandemic, but eagerly researching the rental market since, one day soon, they plan to move out and build their independent lives. Here are their stories, followed by my current thoughts on university.

He's my firstborn. He was passionate about science since he opened his eyes, though it took me a few years to see it. He observed the whole world around him, figuring out how everything worked. He was passionate about making art, too, but since he was mostly drawing machines (albeit very imaginative machines), I figured science was his thing. By the time he was nine he was begging to go to university and study physics. He was fully unschooled, so we went out to our local university (UBC) and their particle accelerator for tours and to listen to lectures whenever we were able. It was wonderful to see him so engaged, but other than attending lectures, there was little to interest him, scientifically. All the kids' programs were too condescending and boring, having little to do with the science he craved so much, and the teen programs that graciously let him in before he was of age were too few and far between. And as his friends became busier with school activities, he was becoming lonely. We tried gifted homelearner social groups, but both he and I feel an aversion to the 'gifted' classification, and we weren't interested in defining ourselves that way. 

So he went to school. Taliesin did two years at our local private middle school where his uncle teaches, followed by three years at the democratic school in the city. We always approached school from an unschooling perspective, with no concern at all for grades or attendance, and always the option to take a different view of the projects than what was expected. Mostly this served him well, and he managed the shift from unschooling to school quite well. He found science classes boring, because the material is presented in such a slow, methodical manner that there was little room for him to explore his interests. He aced most of the tests because he knew the material, but he stopped pursuing science, on his own.

He still wanted to attend UBC for physics, but now understood he had to wait, and decided to go through the usual route for entrance, by graduating and applying like most others. He graduated with honours at the end of his grade eleven year, and then spent a year taking additional grade twelve and first-year science courses at college, while volunteering in his community and applying to UBC. He only applied to UBC, because that was all he had ever wanted. And at the end of this long haul that started when he was nine, and in the middle of a pandemic, he was denied entrance to what had been for many years his constant life's goal. It wasn't a big deal to me, but I think it was to him. I think it felt like failure, simply because of the competitive nature of our school system and the application. However, he tells me that by the time he received his application rejection, he was already losing interest in the program.

Taliesin moved on. He began teaching himself digital music composition and 3D rendering. He says he's just not that interested in science anymore--and it's true he's been creating art and music all his life--but what I saw as his high school career ended was a young man whose interest in science faded away as he dragged himself through the system that was meant to teach it to him. What I saw was my son's enthusiasm dwindled, his confidence shattered, and his life's goals just thrown out the window. But, because he had little else to do, he continued drawing, rendering, and composing. Within months of self-teaching from his bedroom, he had mastered rendering to such an extent that he found a volunteer job rendering a space station for a show being produced by the College of Southern Nevada's planetarium

And now, eighteen months after he dropped out of college and failed to be admitted to university, I am finally seeing a resurgence of his enthusiasm for learning. He has developed the beginnings of a successful career as a digital artist. He still works entirely from his bedroom, but with a fancy convertible desk and insane computer setup that he created and funded through his work. He did rather over-commit with his many contracts (he's still mostly employed designing planets and space vehicles), so is now consciously working on his health, making sure he gets free time, outside time, and family time. He's also now talking about using some of the money he's earned to pay for a mentorship to help him establish a good careeer. The great thing about all of this, to me, is to see that all of these decisions were his. He identified the needs in his life, and is finding and actualizing solutions according to his means. I never could have imagined his career developing this way, but honestly could not be more proud.

She was born communicating. She smiled her first gigantic toothless grin at only two weeks old, as she watched her big brother walk by and followed him with her whole upper body. Stories, music, and social interactions are her lifeblood. As young children, she and her brother sat for hours looking at books together every day, but while he was tracing the mechanisms of the machines, the families, the buildings, or whatever else he could find, she was telling the stories. She was looking in the little faces of the characters and feeling their feelings. By the time she was six or so, she frequently stopped her brother from telling about science, declaring, "science boils my brain!" 

Like her brother, she was unschooled for many years, until social interactions became too infrequent, and she went to school. She attended a part-time Distributed Learning program, and then the same democratic school as Taliesin, but focused more on writing and musical theatre than anything else. Over the years she enjoyed many personal projects, including publishing magazines online, working and volunteering for local childcare centres, reviewing books for middle grade readers, and babysitting every chance she got. By the time the pandemic hit, she was nearly finished preparing her first novel for publication, and finally self-published it at the end of 2020.

It's funny how people often struggle with the things they excel at. Despite being a highly social person, or maybe because of it, Rhiannon's struggles have mostly been social, and the pandemic isolation has been the worst of it. Her decision to quit school entirely and register as a homeschooler, returning to a fully self-directed unschooling life was difficult for a girl who thrives on social connection. So after cutting herself off from all the social interactions she relied upon, she began livestreaming, teaching online, and writing like her life depended on it! She's still reviewing novels on the website she built herself. She's expanding that website to include relevant articles about writing for children and teens, and she now publishes a successful magazine for middle-grade readers. She's not going to graduate from high school. She's just living.

But what about university? Well, Rhiannon still hopes to study Early Childhood Education at Capilano University, so before she quit school she made sure that would still be an option. I helped her find a contact, but other than that, this process is hers. She had a conversation with someone in the ECE department and discussed how she might apply without a high school diploma. Capilano University doesn't really have much of a homeschooler admission policy, but they were delighted to hear that at fifteen she was already enthusiastically pursuing her goals, that she already knew enough about those goals to know exactly what her own educational values are, and that she intended to apply. They will, eventually, look over her activities and projects from the last few years and admit her according to whatever those have been. 

There's no guarantee, just like her brother wasn't guaranteed a spot at UBC despite an honours-standing graduation, a scholarship for his biology-related community work, and significant long-standing attendance at UBC lectures. But then, there's really never a guarantee about life, is there? Amazing grades in all the relevant subjects don't create success. The only thing we can do to prepare our children for the reality that there are no guarantees is to equip them with resilience, resourcefulness, independence and confidence. That's where unschooling shines.

That brings me to what I've learned. I've learned that not only is there no guarantee of admission to university, but there's no need to worry about it, either. I've learned that university, like school or a job or a friendship, offers a lovely and important opportunity for learning, but it's not everything. 

When I was a kid, we were expected to go through the gamut of school until high school graduation, and then either get a job or access further education if our career goals required it. College or university has now been tacked onto that expectation as a part of the gamut. But why? What's the point? Not only do most kids not have firm career goals by the time they finish high school, but increasingly, people are having a multitude of different careers over the course of a lifetime, and accessing further education only as needed. There's little point in spending four years in training for a job that may not even exist when we finish. There's equally little point in spending all that time in school, when we can be learning and growing on the job, or while working on other pursuits.

So what's university for? A friend of mine pre-read this article and asked me to explore this a little more. Her comments made me realize that many of the skills and experiences I gained from university are now unneeded in our society in general, like outdated job-search skills, now-antiquated writing conventions, and working in a pre-social-media world. Other skills I gained, such as time-management, a sense of self and community engagement, mature social skills, real-world career-building skills, and, most importantly, independence have already been mostly acquired by my unschooled kids, simply because they spent their teen years exploring rather than schooling. During one of the many parent meetings at the democratic school both of my kids attended, the principal explained that at a democratic school kids are encouraged to do whatever they like, even when that means spending every day playing video games or sitting out on the grass chatting with their friends. She then said something to the effect that "we let them do this in their teens, instead of during their first year of university, when they're paying high tuition fees just to sit out on the lawn chatting with their friends." Right. At the time, with a couple of unschooled teens I could already see had more "adulting skills" than I did at twenty, her words hit home. Resilience, resourcefulness, independence and confidence are often what we gain through attending university, but we can also gain them through unschooling, at any age.

This current expectation that everyone should attend college or university just to have a diploma or degree that allows us to apply for the next degree, or for a particular job, is not a long-standing tradition. Universities used to be simply a hub for research and discovery. They still are, and in addition to that, they offer kids who haven't already had a chance to gain independence a space to do so. More excitingly, they offer a place for people to gather in pursuit of common interests, and because of this (and their ancient position as research hubs) they still hold more resources for the exploration and pursuit of those interests than other parts of the city. The only particle accelerator in this little part of the earth is at our university, for example. And much of the pertinent medical research happens at universities. It's good to have a place to gather in community and pursuit of knowledge and understanding! We need that! Universities still offer this, and the greatest professors are those who show up not to impart knowledge, but to gather people together in pursuit of it, sharing their enthusiasm as they do. The best classes are not rungs on the ladder towards a degree, but those that welcome in the public and people of all experience levels to just get excited and share ideas. I hope and imagine that as humans and education continue to evolve, universities cease to be an expected part of "growing up", and continue to be, as they have been for many centuries, a hub for growth.

I love how my kids are making their way into adulthood without following the prescribed route. My son felt he needed some education in rendering, so he found and accessed an online course. Now he needs help developing his business, so he's looking for a mentor. All his own initiatives, and both through universities, but only on an as-needed basis. Both my kids are on the precipice of their adult lives, and finally free to jump. Maybe one day university will be a bigger part of my kids' lives, but I imagine it will be just one strand in a great weaving--definitely not something to spend their teen years fretting about. It turns out they can spend their teen years doing what they love and each of those other activities will be equally valuable strands in the same big weaving of their lives.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Youth Voice Magazine Marks One Year of Publication!

This fabulous human and the magazine she publishes!

The Youth Voice Magazine is the third publication my daughter Rhiannon has put out in her young life, and after a year, it seems to be going quite well. Every season she gathers votes on a particular theme, and then she and the other teen editor, Vera, accept submissions by nine to fourteen-year-olds from all over the world. Anyone eighteen or younger is also invited to contribute to the community page. Then Rhiannon lays out and publishes each issue in digital format, and on paper. Subscribers to the paper magazine get a shiny mag delivered by mail.

To me, the beautiful thing about this magazine is how adamantly the editors insist on submissions being wholly the work of the kids who submit them. They request that no parents submit work for their kids (although exceptions can be made), and no child is coerced to submit to the magazine; each submission comes directly from a kid who was moved to contribute to the theme. It might be art, poetry, puzzles, fiction or journalism, but it's wholly from the mind and pen (or keyboard) of a young person. I was moved to tears by a couple of stories about racism and love, and, well... I keep looking forward to Mollie's hilarious stories about Addie, which seem to be becoming a fixture of this publication! 

" bend and touch your toes," said the yoga teacher.

"PWWWTTTT," was the noise that came from Addie's mum's bum.

"Oh MUM, you are sooooooo embarrassing," said Timmy trying not to be heard. Mum carried on stretching as if nothing had happened.

~Mollie Wilcox, September 2021, the Youth Voice Magazine

Every time Rhiannon brings home a copy for us to read, I'm amazed and thrilled that this thing is envisioned and created entirely by youth. It really does represent "the youth voice". 

Now it is time to rebuild,
even though some hope is unfulfilled.
If we support each other along the way,
We will have a future with sunny days.
But after all we must carry on,
even though loved ones are gone.

 ~Daniyal Hamid, March 2021, the Youth Voice Magazine

Over the first year, themes have ranged from pandemic to pets, and I'm particularly excited about the upcoming issue: weather and climate change! The contributors have blown my mind with their astute observations on humanity and culture, and I imagine this issue will be no different. Our kids see the world without the coloured lenses we adults have plastered to our eyes. I learn something and feel emboldened by hearing the voices of these kids.

If you know someone who might like to contribute, do send them this information. Then step back and see what our kids will make of the world!
Instagram: @youth_voice_mag

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

We Like Field Mice in January: Returning to a Healthy Seasonal Rhythm

If you watch a meadow for a year, at least in places with our temperate climate, there are two down-times: When it's too cold, and when it's too hot. Those are vital down-times that we use to prepare and rest up for the up-times of spring and autumn.

Spring is, of course, vibrantly busy with new growth. Everything seems alive; everything is green, or flowered or bustling! It's like a great shout! for the sun and the great moving sky! Summer begins with the busy growth of berries, and the setting of seeds. Mammals, insects, birds and fish all rejoice in the excitement, fill their bellies with plants and each other, raise their babies, and build their homes and communities. But by the end of summer, the grasses have bent under the scorching sun; many of the animals shelter under them from the overbearing heat. Seeds dry and cure in the hot, persistent drought. Everything waits. Even the wind. It's just way too hot. What a huge relief when autumn comes to the meadow! The wind picks up, leaves and nuts and seeds fall to the ground and everybody gets busy packing in for winter; lining burrows and fattening up. Leaves of evergreens that folded up to protect themselves in the summer heat are now open again, washing and renewing themselves in the autumn rain. The rain and wind goes on for so long that by winter, grasses have died back, their old stalks brown and limp under the flood or snow. Rodents and insects still live, making and tending their pathways under the flattened grass of the meadow, and hungry prey birds sit still, hoping to catch one out of its shelter. Hungry. Everything is hungry. Trees and shrubs around the edges of the meadow stand naked without their leaves, just bending in the wind, cracking as their bodies swell with ice, and waiting. For spring. 

When my kids were young, our life was like the meadow. We, like field mice under grasses, nested in our house, in winter. We traipsed out in the meadow, sure, hungry like those field mice for a little adventure, but then we left our wet clothes at the door, and cocooned. Inside, we built cardboard box forts, did drawing and crafts by the fire, baked and sang and nestled in blankets with books. They call this hygge, now. Somehow in the post-Christmas lull, and without the demands of school and work (I was an intentionally stay-at-home-mom and unschooling my kids all year), we had freedom to just be. But it wasn't a pointless existence. In that quiet winter, like grasses, we were putting our roots down, deep, and by early spring we were ready to thrive.

Spring is when the whole world wakes up. And HOLY we partied!!! Everybody, like cherry blossoms, is out celebrating right through spring and into early summer. Everything has exclamation marks!!! For kids there are field-trips aplenty. There are festivals and conferences. Everybody is dancing their life out in the sunshine and flaunting the choices we made. This is when we were proudest to live our chosen lives.

As summer dragged on, though, the heat became oppressive, and we hid indoors, or in the cool shelter of our beloved forest. Drought meant even our well was close to dry, and we had to be careful about how much we used. No sprinklers; no water balloons. It was even too hot to go to the beach during the day, so we went there in the dark evenings, singing at campfires by the ocean with friends, watching the sun set again and again on the season of growth, as the grasses dried and we waited, again. We prepared our bodies for the autumn.

And there it was. Just like leaves fell in the meadow, summer friends went off to school, and we, like field mice, made our burrows under the grass. We prepared for winter by going over our goals, enrolling kids in programs, taking stock of our finances and plans for the coming year, and busying ourselves with all the considerations of raising children. My mother used to buy me a new outfit along with my school supplies, each year, and it felt SO GOOD. As an unschooling parent, how could I resist the displays of just-so school supplies, happy little felt pen packs and blank books just waiting for the glorious productions of the year ahead?! My kids got them too! More exclamation marks, because the giddy anticipation of this time of year is just infectious!!! Field mice are running with abandon along their grass paths, shoving their burrows full of treats for the coming winter!!!

Winter, again. December is a great distraction of bright-lights and colourful wildness, but then it's over and, again, here we are in the January lull. My family spent a few of our kids' teen years in schools of various forms. We abandoned much of our winter downtime for the routine of classes and general graduation preparedness. But when covid hit in 2020, we took it as an opportunity to drop all that, and returned to unschooling. It's very different, now that my kids are almost grown, one graduated and the other with no intention of graduating; both working their way to careers. But because of the increasing uncertainty in the world, we decided to grow our own food. Or at least, as much as we can, given the small bit of land that we rent. 

In the past year and a half we have begun keeping chickens for eggs, meat, and garden-maintenance (they eat bugs and till some of the soil), and we're growing about half the vegetables we consume each year (and none of the grain), through regenerative farming practices. It's certainly not full-fledged farming, but it has brought us closer to feeding ourselves, and also to the healthy seasonal rhythm we used to know, when the kids were young. Right now, in January, last year's veggie stalks are poking half-rotten from the melting snow. Seeds fallen last autumn are lying in wait--some in my seed box, and some in the ground. Chickens keep a low-key routine of scratching for bugs under the rotting leaves, and are beginning to discover (and eat) the first spring shoots. Spring is just around the corner and, like all the plants in the meadow, we've been putting down our roots for a strong spring start. Like field mice, we're watching for new shoots.

Regenerative farming (that is, growing food in harmony with the ecology of the land it's growing on) has brought us much closer to that easy seasonal flow we had when the kids were little. It's a satisfying way to live, in our climate: rooting in winter, blossoming in spring, resting in the hottest part of summer, and nesting in the fall. There's something to be said for living in tune with our bodies and the ecology of the world around us. 

And there's something deeply harmful about fighting it. In our urban culture, even our daily rhythms are governed more by the needs of the economy (whether personal or societal) than by our physiological needs. How many of us get up before dawn and trudge to work in the dark, dependent on a host of chemical and physical methods of preparing an un-rested and un-ready body for the work day? This lifestyle came close to eliminating my husband, before the pandemic saved him. How many kids do the same, for school? How many of us carry on our routines despite failing health, when the winters are too dark and cold; when the summers are beating the life out of us? We need to change.

I'm not saying we should be a solely agrarian society, but perhaps we can take the natural cycles of the year into consideration, in how we work, play, and parent our children. Some agrarian populations shift industry and school schedules to accommodate the needs of planting and harvesting. Maybe we could shift ours, similarly, or even determine some of the specific activities done at certain times of year to correspond with our natural energy levels and physiological needs. Maybe, like field mice, we can run in the pathways of our communities to spend this winter tidying, eating our stored grains, and watching excitedly for the sprouts of spring.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Stay-At-Home-Feminist-Mom: Why I Traded my Career for the Privilege of Parenting My Children

As a teen, I never really thought about becoming a mother. Finding the elusive “true love” — yes! But not kids. I was going to find a man who was supportive of my political views (and would understand there is nothing actually “political” about equal rights), and spend my life busting up the patriarchy with gusto! Through the amazing art career I had planned, I was going to save us from climate change AND our degrading societal norms, by showing the world what absolute tools for the patriarchy we’ve been, and getting us out from under the shoe of the Man. Yeah.

So… that didn’t go quite as planned. My man was not unsupportive, he was just mild-mannered and uninterested in the big angry mission I was on. But he loved me. And also: hormones. Somehow my hormones side-swiped my passionate goals, so that suddenly, and for a few years, there was nothing more important to me than having babies. (My teenaged self gets whiplash here: HUH?!) So I had my baby, and determined when he was nearly two that it was time to go back to my career… or have another baby. I chose that latter. The timing of this choice coincided with our first child’s registration for preschool.

Preschool is such a wonderful thing! These devoted people take our kids so we can go back to the work of tearing down the patriarchy! My mother in law tells of the glorious day she left both children at preschool, and walked away with her body upright for the first time in years! It’s the place you go to drop off your beloveds for a beautiful day of mind-building play and learning, and you — the newly freed mother — go back to your world-changing career!! YES!! (I was SO naive.)

In my case, the first two years of preschool were spent back and forth between nursing my youngest and tending to the eldest while he very slowly acclimated to a system that never worked for him: school. I said he acclimated. He never thrived. By the time my youngest entered preschool (where she absolutely did thrive), my job became accompanying my eldest to his Kindergarten, where he continued not to thrive.

It wasn’t a heartfelt thinking-through that led me to leave my career behind. It was just circumstance. I could never have left my son in that world that wasn’t serving him, and homeschool (unschooling, in our case), seemed like the best option. Nobody picks the second best option for their kids if they can help it. My husband and I rarely even talked about our life as a choice, and when we did, it was only that I apologized for not making any money, and that he reassured me my work with the children was equally important. I had found the equality I’d been fighting for: not in equal pay, but in being equally valued — at least by my partner.

Financially, staying home with my kids was certainly a sacrifice. On one income for the foreseeable future, we abandoned our dreams of owning our own home. We are incredibly lucky in being able to rent from my parents, which has meant we have a kind of home security unavailable to most renters, today. But it was a mouldy and rotten home, and has necessitated over a decade of my husband’s free weekends and vacation time spent rebuilding (he’s still not finished, actually). So we sacrificed free family time, as well. Of course all this meant that unlike many of our kids’ friends’ families, we rarely had money for vacations, new clothes, or sports and arts programs.

What we do have is an amazing attachment. That alone, and the benefits I knew it would have for my children’s lives, was enough to keep me home. It was enough to make every sacrifice of money, freedom, and career worthwhile. And I was so passionate about my work as a mother that it really became my life. I volunteered at various family-related organizations, served on and chaired various boards in my community, and founded and ran a few programs, all geared towards supporting healthy families in our community. I somehow never even saw the irony of becoming a stay-at-home-mom, after my passionately feminist youth, until people began pointing it out to me, as my kids grew older, and I continued staying home. It seems it’s reasonable for a feminist to have kids and attachment parent them, but then apparently one should put them in school and get back to work on smashing the patriarchy.

Well hold on! What if my work as a mother IS smashing the patriarchy?! Is feminism now relegated to single, childless women, or those who leave their kids in the care of others? What does that say about our respect for other women? Day-care workers and teachers are some of the forgotten sacrifices in this equation, disrespected in wages, benefits AND the mainstream feminist viewpoint. Like stay-at-home-mothers, they’re the people feminism blindly relies on to raise the next generation of feminists, while feminists are out doing “more important” things.

In the process of changing the world, there is NOTHING more powerful than raising children.

The way we raise our children determines how successful each generation of women will be at improving our lot. When caregivers aren’t valued as much as our economy values shareholders and industry-builders, we all lose. That goes for daycare staff, teachers, AND stay-at-home-mothers and homeschooling parents. Many stay-at-home-mothers are the volunteers in our communities who make the programs that support women and children. 

And all that is not to ignore the unbelievable power of setting an example. As parents, we are the greatest teachers our children will ever have. When they’re sixty they’ll find themselves blindly doing what they saw us doing. There is no such thing as “do what I say, not what I do”… our children will always do what we do. So when they see us living powerful lives, when they see our partners respect us; when they see us respect ourselves, they will follow suit. And if we take in other children to care for, we’re influencing those children, too, and their children’s children. In everything from the choices we make in life, to the ways we speak to our children to the ways we glance at ourselves in the mirror, in passing, caregivers are POWERFUL. We’re the grease in the wheels of feminism. I argue, actually, that women who put down other women for choosing to stay home with children are just part of the blind patriarchy. 

Without regular vacations, without owning a home, without being socially acceptable, I am privileged. I’m privileged to have watched my kids grow up; to have shared my own life with them, and to have grown alongside them. I’m privileged to have had opportunity to make a difference in my community, and to model that for my children, so that, as young adults, they’re now busy doing the same. I’m privileged to have developed a very close relationship with my kids.

The experience I’ve had in staying home with my kids and unschooling them is not available to all women: especially not to single mothers, or those with partners who are not supportive of the idea. Even as I now struggle to develop a career as a middle-aged woman with disability and not much documented work experience, I know how lucky I am to have lived the life I chose. My career has shifted from some-kind-of-subversive-artist to an artist that is deeply rooted in my own experience as a stay-at-home-feminist-mom. The first big installation I created was about giving voice to other mothers. Being a parent has given me a perspective on humanity that was deeply needed for my art-making, but not available to me until I’d had the experiences I have.

I didn’t trade my values and career for having children; I traded my early career for the extremely powerful, feminist privilege of parenting my children, full-on. Or, to shift the focus a little, I am using my chosen experience as a stay-at-home-feminist-mom to build a stronger foundation for my career, and thus hopefully to smash the patriarchy, even harder.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Why and How to Unschool Teens

They're basically adults with jobs and dreams and full-grown bodies, but they still climb the walls. Or posts, in my house. In many ways, they're capable of conventionally adult activities and often hold much wisdom, but their prefrontal cortex, responsible for rational thought, won't finish developing until about age twenty-five. You know what part is guiding many of their decisions? The amygdala. That's right. The emotional centre of the brain. The one that makes us fall to pieces for seemingly small reasons, make decisions without regard for the future, and quite possibly is also responsible for their open minds, and daring escapades of emotional wisdom. That doesn't mean that we should shield them from hazards, of course. It means this is the time for them to experiment--to learn exploratively how life works for them, and thus to support that big development of their brains. Just like we learn to walk by taking steps, falling, getting up and trying again, we develop our thinking capacity in the same way. As our kids' prefrontal cortex continues developing, they will make mistakes and learn from them. They will be hurt and heal. They will grow. It's our job, as parents, to support our kids while they do that.

So, let's throw a massive social non-compliance on top of that whole mess of amygdala-guided growth: Unschooling! Maybe you started unschooling because of the pandemic; maybe because you found the school system or even homeschooling to be problematic for your teen. Maybe you, like me, have been unschooling all the way along, but just carry a lot of anxiety about what might go wrong, and how to do right. Maybe you're just considering starting.

Really, the answer to "How to Unschool Teens" is the same as the answer to "How to Parent Teens", but for unschoolers the challenges and solutions can be somewhat unique. Without school, and especially during a pandemic, supporting our kids through loneliness and associated mental health issues is a huge challenge. Supporting their confidence in a world that equates graduation and competition with success can be difficult, too. Luckily, unschooling also offers benefits: greater connection with our kids, more time and growth, together, and more opportunity for consciously supporting our kids through this time.

Social Challenges

Unschooling is all about exploration, experimentation, trial, error, and growth. But as parents, we're so worried that our kids will experiment themselves into harm's way! Most of us have held our raw-with-feeling teens as they've bawled their eyes out over social situations that neither they nor we (nor sometimes the others involved) had any control over at all. We're not different from school families, that way. We hold onto them helplessly, just willing our love to be enough to heal the wounds. Or worse, we've sat outside their bedroom doors, knowing they suffered alone, and didn't feel able to come to us for support. 

The feeling of impotence for parents of teens can be pervasive. When they were little we thought we knew and understood their experiences and feelings. We were often wrong, but they didn't make it so damn obvious as they do, now they stand at eye-level. Now we just step back in blurred astonishment, delighting and flailing and trudging through the tidbits of feeling they cast our way. 

I have two very different children; one talks to me openly about their feelings, all very rationally considered, while the other says "everything's fine" until they explode with little-to-no warning and sometimes no association with known events. All I can do in both cases is accept the flow. And it's hard!! Because I'm an emotional human being too, and my feelings matter! I'm scared for them, I'm thrilled for them, I'm excited about their social interactions and terrified of anything going wrong. But they don't need that. I imagine my poking in their emotional lives feels to them like trying to learn to walk while a hovering parent pushes and prods them from every angle. Maybe that's actually a pretty accurate comparison. My meddling makes them fall, and makes it harder for them to find their footing. 

Unschooling is about giving kids freedom to find their footing--academically, socially, and emotionally. It's that freedom that allows them to make the mistakes they will learn from, and it's the hardest thing in the world, as a parent, to stand back and watch them fall. Sometimes the fallout is a cake with too much baking soda; sometimes it's a catastrophically broken heart, or deep, deep depression. It's a constant assessment of risk and being honest with ourselves: most risks are not such a big deal. And even the big ones, we have to learn to deal with. And so do our children, through trial, error, and growth. We want to raise kids who are resilient, courageous, and unafraid. We can't always be there to pick them up, but we can be the foundation that helped them develop the skills to pick themselves up.

Academic Challenges

Again, there isn't actually a whole lot of difference between schooled kids and unschooled kids, here. It's entirely possible for unschooled kids to set up and jump through the hoops of high school graduation, college, and university, as it is possible for them (or anybody) to build a career without any of those things. The difference is, schooled kids are often led to believe that without the diplomas they cannot succeed, and unschooled kids (hopefully) have been raised without that fear. I say 'hopefully', because fear of academic failure is probably one of the greatest shackles we parents have carried forward from our own lives within the system, and most probably, we've passed it on to our kids. I certainly have.

If you follow my blog, Rickshaw Unschooling, you may know that my first-born was uninterested in high school graduation, until struck by a crushing belief that his interest in science could only be served by entering university with a high school diploma. (I know a high school diploma isn't actually necessary for university entrance, but... we unschoolers let our kids make their decisions and hold them when they fall, right?!) So he suddenly worked his butt off and graduated high school with honours. However, the process of taking so many high school science courses led him to lose his lifelong ambition for studying science. Graduation is not always the highway to our dreams. My son changed course and developed a career for himself as a digital artist. Maybe unschooling failed him, or maybe the school system he tried to compete in did. Definitely my own often-spoken ideas that university would be the path for someone interested in physics did. Maybe, though, unschooling gave him the resilience needed to bravely change course, without sacrificing his interests or values. In his work as a digital artist, he is becoming known for his skill in rendering physically plausible spaceships and planets.

Just like kids who attend high school, unschooled kids can fail to meet expectations, too, but for radically unschooled kids, those expectations are only their own. My son knew I didn't care whether he graduated or not. He knows he faces no disappointment from his parents when he changes course, fails to reach a goal, or spends all night watching movies. Because his parents' disappointment doesn't come into play, he has more time to consider his own personal values. And actually, facing disappointment with oneself can be extremely challenging, and we'll all do it sooner or later, if we live a full and independent life. Luckily, my kids have been expected to make and meet their own personal expectations since they were very young, so they're accustomed to it. They both frequently come to talk to me about goals not met, or when they're considering changing course; when they're afraid of failure. That--the fact that they come to me at all, is our enormous privilege, as parents.

Unschooling Takes Sacrifice, but Also Affords Privilege

Of course the choice to fully unschool our kids comes with some sacrifice. During early years, especially, it generally requires one parent to stay at home, or both parents, tag-teaming to share the burden of earning income and parenting. That almost always means financial sacrifice, and therefore necessitates less-than adequate housing for many, and refraining from many of the activities and purchases that families in this culture expect: travel, vehicle ownership, new clothes, eating out, and participating in sports or other expensive activities. Single parents, shift-workers, parents with low-paying jobs, and those with disabilities have an even steeper hill to climb. It's not impossible, especially within a supportive community or family, but requires quite a lot of flexibility, and flexible thinking, in terms of what sacrifices (time with kids, ability to do more affordable adventures like camping, hiking, swimming and visiting free festivals) we're willing to accept in our lives. We also often sacrifice our belonging in community, as we're shunned from local social events and sometimes even our families. And our teens--our teens are going to tell us, surely, that we sacrificed all the opportunities every other teen has, like prom, and sports and climbing the social and academic ladders, just to blindly follow our hippie ideals!! Or... they might. Just remember: That's their amygdala speaking. Just like we hope they will follow their own hearts, we followed ours in raising them the absolute best we could. And the privileges our sacrifices afforded us were probably worth it: A 2013 survey by Peter Gray and Gina Riley documents "improved learning, better attitudes about learning, and improved psychological and social wellbeing for the children; and increased closeness, harmony, and freedom for the whole family."

Unschooling our kids meant that we spent much more time together than we could have if they had attended school. It meant we were thrown together as a family, day in and day out, through thick and thin, when we wanted to be and when we didn't--and we had to work through our differences, because there was no escape. Now we know each other more than we could have if they had attended school.

Unschooling meant that we parents had to question our preconceptions and fears, again and again and again, and we not only became less fearful (and passed less fear on to our kids), but also demonstrated to our kids how to question their preconceptions and fears. Now we're a family who easily engages in serious conversation about Life, the Universe, and EVERYTHING. My kids know I got pregnant when I was sixteen. They know my fears and challenges, and they share their own with me, when they want to. We have a kind of connection that is not unavailable to school-attending kids, but is more difficult to develop, without sharing so very much of our lives.

Unschooling teens is in some ways similar to spousal or close-friend relationships: Ideally, we're equals. We all have friends who make a lot of decisions with their amygdalas, too (in my life, I'm that friend...) If we can survive road-trip arguments with our spouses or best friends, we can get through them with our fourteen or nineteen-year-olds, too. It's really no different when your partner thinks he knows where to turn off the highway (and he's wrong) than when your kid thinks he knows what's the best camping spot (and he's wrong). In either case, we're going to have to question our own convictions, and find ways to peacefully navigate a solution so that everybody feels heard. And in both cases someone is going to be wrong, and we all learn. And our prefrontal cortexes develop a little more.

One thing I ask myself, when faced with conflict with my teens, is whether the topic in question is mine to consider. If it's the place we're stopping to camp for the night, then yes! It sure is! And we're going to have to debate it, and grow, relationship-wise. If it's my kid's choice to spend hundreds of her own hard-earned dollars on a video game? Nope. Even though I cringe when she plays it. None of my business. Do I have to "just try the game--it's fun!!" No I don't. That's my business. I didn't play dolls, either. 

Unschooling means learning with our kids to know and hold our own values with confidence. Sometimes, like with a decision not to graduate, we feel at odds with the whole rest of our culture. But in the circle of our parent-child relationships (or our greater unschooling community, if we're lucky), we are held all the way into adulthood. Both parents and children can develop an innate self-knowledge and self-worth, as well as an independence made stronger by a secure foundation. And that is why to unschool teens: it's the privilege of a healthy, secure adulthood that makes unschooling worth all the sacrifice.

So You're Committed (or Recommitted) to Unschooling Your Teen--But How?

This is something I've been asked often, even before my kids were teens, and long before I began consulting for unschooling parents. The answer is so simple, yet so enigmatic. 

The answer is to just quit school, and the whole school mentality.
Hand the kids the reins.

If they've been in school, recently or anytime, let them deschool. For months or years--as long as it takes. And deschool yourself. Learn from them, and don't expect them to learn anything at all. They have enough of their own expectations to deconstruct without adding yours to the heap. During this deschooling time, question all your motivations and never question theirs. Become your best self, as a parent, and independently. They are watching you and learning how to be from every breath, word and action they see.

Let them make their own decisions; let them make wrong choices and scary choices, and totally unimaginable choices. Let them do all the research and development for all their choices. Don't help them research--especially if they're prone to asking for help. You've got your own stuff to do. Let them handle the consequences of their choices. I didn't mention academics or careers here, because that's not your concern. Ignore it.

Love them. Be there to commiserate, to celebrate, to listen to their stories and to share your own. Be their best friend and also the person who will fight the hard fights with them and for them and with your own fears and prejudices, when they arise. 

Be the one your kids can come home to, anytime, for the rest of their lives, and also be the one they're not afraid to leave behind. Be strong enough in your own values and goals and confidence that they know you'll be OK without them. This will give them permission to grow. 

Be their equal. Rise to meet their amazingness, and when they fall, sit down in the pits with them. If you're lucky, they'll be so confident in your love and support that they'll love and support themselves. 

That's how to unschool your teen, yourself, and also your adult children. It's not easy, but it's life. I'm still working on it, every day.


*Regarding that photo of my son, Taliesin, climbing a post: He declares that climbing has nothing to do with his amygdala. He will not stop climbing things when he's twenty-five, and I suspect that's correct, since when I met his father (then, aged twenty-six), he had a tagline on his treehouse webpage that read, "some people still have a bit of monkey in them". Maybe the wall-climbing is a perfectly natural part of life, and unschooling can support it. :-)

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Unschooling: Am I failing my kids?

My nine-year-old son sat staring at his comic book, lengthily, before raising his eyes to meet mine in the glassy glare that has always alerted me to my failings. He told me his friend, who was a year younger, was already doing grade five math. 

"So?" I said, wanting to reassure him, but already knowing that the river of his disappointment would overcome my small boat of hope before it launched. "You're unschooled. We don't even know what level of math you do. Who cares."

His eyes pierced me, and he muttered, "I can't even do math."

I knew it wasn't true. Sure, he would probably test 'below grade level' if we tested him, but I disagreed with testing, and besides, though he was ignorant of long division at the time, he was able to Google a useful formula and calculate the speed at which his theoretical space-station would need to spin in order to simulate earth-gravity for those on-board. I didn't really have any concerns about his ability to 'do math'. But his eyes told me that I had, indeed, failed him. If not academically, then socially. Or maybe in supporting his sensitive heart and competitive nature. There's always something. My boat was sunk.

I've been consulting for unschooling families since the beginning of the pandemic, and by far the biggest and most common reason people call me is because they're afraid of failing their children. I struggled with that so much, myself, in the earlier years (and off and on even now that my kids are grown!) I struggle with it as a teacher, too, and I'm pretty sure it's actually most parents' niggling deep fear. 

I think we always want to do the absolute best we can for our kids, but the truth is we can't ever know what the best is for each individual kid, and for our family as a whole. We won't even know when our kids are grown if we've done what might have been best for them. All we can do is to keep an open heart, an agile mind, and work through every challenge as it arrives. But picking through our human insecurities and finding ways to re-imagine them is kind of my life's work, so I've decided to dig into this one a bit. Every one of my thoughts won't apply to every one who reads this, because we're all unique, and in that uniqueness is an infinity of different possibilities and outcomes. So don't take this essay as advice, please--just some thoughts on our mutual journey and a jumping-off place for your own thoughts and conversations. And be reassured, although this list may bring up many deep-seated fears, I'm going to talk about how to overcome them later on.

Have I set my kids up for failure if they want to go to school (or quit school) later on?

Luckily, in most places, if you have the legal right to homeschool your kids, then you also have the legal right to send them to school, later on. Some systems make you jump through hoops in order to determine appropriate placements for new students, but some also make coming and going from school quite easy. And regardless, we can rest assured that many kids leave school for a variety of reasons (travel, illness, poverty, or exploring different education options) and manage to return when the time is right. The system is always willing to take kids back. 

Then there's the fear that kids will be 'behind' if they join school later than their peers. From the experiences I've had as a parent and also witnessed in other eclectic homeschooling families, I can say this is actually rarely the case. Sure, there will be differences between our home/unschooled kids' experiences and the schooled kids' experiences, but every school year begins with quite a bit of review, and home/unschooled kids are often quite skilled at harnessing learning opportunities. They 'catch up' quite quickly. 

The bigger issue I see here is the possibility of failing our kids' learning and self-esteem in general by succumbing to our own fears about 'grade levels' or 'keeping up' or 'being behind'. These competitive thoughts often lead to our kids feeling insecure about their learning. My son's insecurities about math were absolutely rooted in my own 'encouraging' him to practice math. I thought I was being mostly positive, but my actions made him aware that there was a bar he needed to reach, and he always felt in danger of failing. That's really no different than the very visible bar that school-going kids are expected to reach, so I'm not going to kick myself too much for bringing it into his world. Still, since my conviction that competition and coercion is detrimental to learning was a big part of the reason we chose to unschool, I really did fail myself, in this case. And my son's ongoing insecurity about his own intelligence is the result.

I don't know if [insert educational philosophy here] was the best choice for my child!

It might not be. Maybe you chose unschooling and now your kid is passionately yearning for the excitement and rigidity of the school her friend attends. Maybe you and your child researched the hell out of all the school options, then maxed all your credit on 'the best school', and now you're all miserable. Both of these situations have happened to me. Things change. Things can change. And the way we navigate these needs and unexpected changes with agility will be the greatest lesson to our kids. And after it all? Our kids will almost certainly blame us for choices we made that didn't serve them. That, too, is an opportunity for growth. How we work through our feelings of regret and uncertainty as a family is another of life's greatest learning opportunities.

I'm antisocial. How can I socialize my kids?

This one is hard for me. I have really deep social insecurities, and I passed them on to my children long before we even considered educational options. Unschooling, and being a part of an incredibly small homeschool cohort, was in some ways easier for me, because of the possibility of forging closer relationships with fewer people. But it was also devastating to all of us when friends moved on to school, or other communities, or just other friendships. My kids have witnessed my depression upon realizing that close friends had moved on, and this didn't help their social confidence at all. My experience with this led me to see, yet again, that the way I navigate this challenge is hugely important to how my kids will grow. Yes, unschooling in a small community amplified this problem for us, but that just gave us a chance to meet it, head on. 

My kids and I talk a lot about our social lives; our thoughts and feelings about why we or others behave the way we do. They know I don't have many answers, and frequently I have learned more from them than they have from me. As a whole, these conversations are one of the most important things we do. We all know that our house is the place we can safely air all our thoughts and feelings, that we'll love each other no matter what, and that we'll always have our hearts held, here. Dr. Gabor Maté "believes that most mental health conditions originate from unresolved childhood trauma" (Human Window, 2020). We can't avoid emotional trauma, but we can work to resolve it. So, rather than hold back about topics that challenge or frighten us, we talk about them. I'm not a psychologist and I'm not confident in my understanding of humanity, but I am my children's confidante, and that means it's my job to support them and to take their social and emotional journeys with them. Wherever we go, we go together. At least there will be someone there at the end of the road, holding their hand.

I'm no good at [insert subject here]. What if my kids want to learn things I know nothing about?

In my consulting work as well as on homeschool and unschooling discussion groups, this question comes up often, and in many different forms: 'My daughter is interested in sewing clothes, but I have no idea where to begin!' 'My child is asking to learn to read, and I don't know how to teach them.' 'I failed math in high school, how can I teach my kid at home?' In fact, the reason my son was so worried about his math level was likely because he sensed my own and his father's lack of confidence in math. I really don't understand much about math, but his father studied engineering and physics in university. His actual skill may have passed on to his son, but so did his lack of confidence. The confidence we lack as parents is normal, but it's also a detriment to learning, both for ourselves and for our children.

This issue is complex, but relatively simple to solve. First of all, we need to dismantle our thinking that learning is a top-town dissemination of knowledge. Many of us were raised in the school system and/or at home to believe that that's how learning works, but this system no longer serves our population, and even school boards across the world are beginning to change. While it's entirely possible to seek out a more experienced person as a guide or mentor in a specific subject area, that person is still growing, too, and there is always more to learn; more to share, and more ways to grow than just by collecting knowledge. The best mentors are just sharing their enthusiasm for learning with others. As parents, we can be those best mentors simply by finding some kind of enthusiasm as we go on the learning journey with our kids.

The learning can be direct, where we (or our kids) seek out information and learn it through whatever means suit us best (my own kids have variously accessed local experts, online courses, YouTube tutorials, in-school classes, and library resources). But it can also happen through undirected exploration and play, which happens to be how most of my kids' lifelong passions and skills have developed. The point is that my own skills were not needed for any of this. Maybe, especially when they were younger, I helped them access the resources they needed, but I didn't have to actually understand the subject matter to do so. My enthusiasm was for supporting their learning--whatever that was. I was the excited buyer-of-microscopes. I was the diligent driver-to-the-library. I was the supervisor of Googling, and the provider of the computer. I was the lady who made the muffins and insisted we were going to eat them in the woods, because I like the woods, damnit! That's our role, as parents: to be unflinchingly passionate, supportive, and true to ourselves. This is how our children learn to do the same, and how they learn to learn.

How to Support Our Kids:

Our kids are watching us, and they're learning 'how to human' from every nuance of our lives and behaviour. Working through our own insecurities is always the best work we can do, as parents. We will most definitely fail our children. All we can hope is that we've done our best to model resilience, agility, and a kind, supportive heart, so that when our failings rear their heads in our children's lives, our children are prepared to meet them with confidence, and grow.