Saturday, March 20, 2021

Book Review: The Sandbox Revolution--Raising Kids for a Just World

"We stand at a time of unraveling." That's how this book begins: The Sandbox Revolution. I knew as soon as I read that line that this would be no ordinary parenting book. I think I expected it to be a happy, heart-full handbook for raising kids in ways that promote justice. I was thrilled before I even opened it, because I deeply believe that parenting is one of the strongest ways we create change in the world--not just because of our direct influence on our kids' generation, but because of the need to consider justice in order to parent consciously, and how that consideration, along with the hardship and trials of parenting, changes us. I was unprepared for the vulnerability, the encouragement of deep personal questioning and growth, and even support I would feel upon actually reading the book. The Sandbox Revolution is so much more than advice; it's a collection of stories, by parents who have had struggles like mine (like everyone's), and thoughtfully dealt with those struggles in writing for me to consider. 

Parenting is a deeply philosophical endeavour. This book makes no bones about that. It challenges us to look at the mundane and the routine as profound. It empowers us to ride that profundity, or even better to take charge of it, and create the world we want for our children. And importantly, the book challenges us as humans, because how can we raise our small (and even adult) humans without digging deeply into our own humanity? Editor Lydia Wylie-Kellermann states in the introduction that "with a love for this world and a commitment to its future, parenting becomes a radical act of resistance and hope." And this work of personal growth is not easy. Each chapter ends with a series of questions we can ask ourselves, as parents and citizens of the world--difficult questions like "How do I need to shift my own habit, internal expectations, or understandings in order for my kids to feel alive in their bodies, loved in their families, and able to make their own borders welcoming?" On broad, universal topics like money, shame, family history, ableism, racism, spirituality, community, and gender, this book is like a giant quilt of stories--a beautiful, diverse, Christian quilt. 

Oh wait--Christian? Yeah. That took me by surprise! As an atheist I admit to having been a little put off by the constant references to God, Jesus, and Christian experience. Most of the contributors are leaders or otherwise deeply involved in faith-based Christian organizations, and their stories, though diverse in gender, ethnicity, and other experiences, are framed in a Christian perspective. 

I have a slightly tumultuous relationship with Christianity. I was raised on one side by atheist parents who sang beautiful southern gospel at Christmas time but also explained that there is no God, and on the other side by Baptists who tried every which way to coerce me into going to bible camp, including threatening me with the fires of hell, which I would surely suffer due to my sinful divorced mother. I knew with certainty which path was for me when our local minister offered me Oreos if I would come to Sunday School and I felt angry. I told him I didn't want his cookies. I have worked hard, as a parent, not to pass that resentment of religion on to my children, but I guess I felt unrepresented by this book. Then I realized that I was receiving just a tiny sliver of insight into the usual experience of bipoc, LGBTQ, disabled, and other marginalized people, and this experience, too, was worth my consideration, in the choices I make as a parent.

To be fair, this book clearly doesn't assume that all readers are Christian. There was usually room for me to appreciate descriptions of Christian experience from my own perspective. I felt no implied judgment. But I did feel this book may not reach as wide an audience as it might if it were from a slightly broader perspective.

And it deserves a wide audience! By the time I'd read half the book (and reached a couple of non-faith-centred chapters), I realized it's a book that I'll keep on my shelf and go back to again and again. It's that important. But before it hits my shelf, it's going out to a growing list of friends and family whose thoughts I can't wait to hear! It's the kind of book I get passionate about! 

Chapter 8, Resisting Patriarchy, brought me to tears. It includes a transcribed conversation between passing male and female parents Sarah and Nathan Holst about their roles and experiences of early parenthood. The way they communicate--equally attentive to both sides of the relationship dynamic--is a courageous and conscious model for all of us. Sarah and Nathan actively demonstrate the work of dismantling patriarchal tendencies in relationships through how they communicate with both the readers and with each other. This book doesn't tell us what to do, as parents. It just opens up the hearts and lives of a few real, diverse, courageous people, and invites us to question our own lives. It's vulnerable, fierce, and utterly current, discussing the impacts of patriarchy, climate change, social justice and even the Covid-19 pandemic on our parenting experiences. 

Of deepest importance to me is that this book gives voice to children. Lydia Wylie-Kellermann, in talking about her young son, says that "Perhaps the most powerful act of parenting I can do is to let him guide me." In fact the last contributor, Myriam, responds to her parent's article about raising children who do not appear to be continuing their parents' activism in political/social movements. Myriam describes her thoughts, including her new experiences of university, and ends her piece with one of the most thought-provoking ideas in the book:

"So maybe my sister and I are not growing into the shell of past activists. Activism is changing. And we aren't going to grow up to become activists; we already are. We are not the people who are going to change the world when we grow up; we are the people who are changing the world right now."

For me, that's the crux of it all: Raising children for a just world (the subtitle of this book) is about listening to our children; making space for them to find themselves in the world with our love and support, but without our dogma, or the shell of their parents' world, around them. It is theirs to build and live in the world right now, and ours to deal with our own issues, so we can get out of their way. I loved this book, and plan to keep it around as encouragement for dealing with my own issues, as my children get out there in the world and do their own work.

The Sandbox Revolution will be released March 30th, and is now available for pre-order from

Iron Dog Books
Barnes & Noble
Broadleaf Books

Friday, March 19, 2021

Why I Let Kids Play Without Rules in the Wilderness

The first thing I do when I meet with a new group of kids in the woods is sit down and talk. I like to hear what they're hoping to do in the wilderness and what their expectations or concerns are. Then we talk about rules. Well, more to the point, I talk about our lack of rules. I say, "You can do anything you want, and please keep yourself and all the other living inhabitants of this forest safe." 

In that one statement, I hand over the reins. Some kids are excited at discovering new freedom; others are terrified, as they feel overwhelmed by the responsibility, or just plain stunned and unsure what to do without a clear path. So we talk some more. There are always lots of questions, both right off the bat, and continuing throughout our time, together.

"So can I eat Colton's cookies?"

"Well I don't know. Why don't you ask Colton? Colton, Do you feel safe?" (You never know. Colton's mouth is full of cookies; maybe he swallows, and shares the cookies! Maybe he just says 'no'.)

"Is she allowed to climb that tree?"

"Yes of course. Do you feel safe up there?" ... "No? It seems she needs some coaching to come down."

Or maybe I see someone hauling moss off a maple tree, and I ask them to consider why the moss is living on that tree and how the act of pulling it off might affect the other things living in the woods. (The moss may die, the maple needs the moss to retain moisture, and the various plants and insects living in the moss need it, too.)

We do a LOT of talking. We do a lot of considering. And by "we", I truly mean the group; not the condescending "we" of adults who really mean "I". The kids sometimes police each other, and we talk about that, too--how having responsibility and independence means also allowing others to have their own. Usually after a day or two the group is comfortable being in charge of their own actions. This is when all the magic really begins. 

The Cheese Restaurant was magic like that. I was just settling into a forested hillside with a group of eight-to-twelve-year-olds, looking at one child's collection of snails on a piece of bark, when another child called frantically from about thirty feet away: "Stop them! Stop them!" It was the kind of panicked-sounding cry that actually made me jump up and hurry over, to where two boys were passionately destroying a large, rotten Douglas fir stump. 

I collected myself again, and asked nonchalantly how they were doing. They responded with guttural sounds, orange powder of wood still flying in all directions. In a couple of minutes they'd already pulled apart about ten percent of the stump. So I pulled out my secret weapon, started digging in the orange powder, and cast my eyes all over the place until I found something cool, then said excitedly, "Oh wait! Let me save this millipede!!" I pulled it out and held it up.

"What?" They stopped tearing at the crumbling stump and looked at my outstretched hand. "Gross!" 

"It's not gross. It's just climbing on my hand. Want to hold it?" One backed away and the other stuck out his hand. The millipede cycled its flow of tiny legs across his skin and he shiveredhas he felt it. The other boy approached with a large piece of bark and suggested he put the millipede on, with the cheese.

"Cheese?" I asked.

"Yes, I'm having a cheese restaurant. This is cheddar." And he dumped a handful of orange powdered wood onto the piece of bark, next to the millipede, who immediately sought cover in the powder."

"You ruined his home", moaned the child who had originally called me up to stop these boys from breaking the stump. She looked shaken. In an effort to diffuse the situation, I suggested that he would probably be fine, and maybe when they were finished serving him for dinner, they could return him to what was left of the stump. They hardly heard me, because they were already gathering more "plates". 

Within a few minutes, these two boys had a bustling business going, serving cheeses of all varieties on plates to customers who paid with fern leaflets (or rocks, for extra-rare specialty cheeses). The child who was most concerned for the safety of the millipede began "harvesting Swiss cheese" from the pile of powder at the base of the stump. The millipede was forgotten and likely eventually made its way back to the stump, which had become the wall of the Cheese Restaurant, for the full half hour or so that it was in business, before other endeavours took priority for the restaurateurs. 

Did these kids destroy a bit of nature? Yes, they did, but they naturally turned their play into something less destructive when they realized there was a living thing in that bit of nature, and they did it without my direction. They went home feeling proud of their restaurant, happy about their play and discoveries, and, most importantly, more deeply connected to the ecology of their home. That connection is a kind of magic that will stay in their hearts forever, that will lead them to think more carefully about the effects of their actions, and that will lead them to feel more independent and secure in all that they pursue.

In giving kids freedom to explore, we give them space to learn. They learn how to be safe as they explore their own limits. They learn how to handle their bodies in space when they're allowed to play in the creeks and the trees and get stuck in the mud. They learn how to manage their social interactions when they have unhindered space for free play and conversation. And when they are charged with the responsibility of keeping the forest safe, too, they learn to see, understand, and value their ecosystem, as well as their involvement in it.

Is it dangerous? Absolutely. It's risky play. And as we know, risky play is essential for learning to be safe. It's dangerous for the ecosystem, too. That chunk of stump pulled apart will indeed cause some creatures to die, or at the very least to be displaced. And more damaging will be the impact of the continued use of particular locations in the wilderness, where our footsteps and clambering over logs and tree-climbing will, over time, leave noticeable bareness and changes in our path. This is a chance for teachers and parents to point out these changes; to notice our own human impact and compare it to, say, the impact of deer. 

Deer rip stumps apart, too--especially when they're rutting. They even rip the bark off living trees. So why don't we see large areas of the forest just rubbed smooth by this activity, the tree trunks bare, the moss dead, and the ground turned to mud, as it does under the feet of children after ten days playing in the same location? Because deer keep moving. They step lightly. They graze only the tips of leaves in many places instead of devouring whole plants or communities of plants, not only because it's healthier for them to eat a variety of foods, but because that means the plants will keep growing, to be eaten again, later. They interact with their ecosystem in a way that is sustainable, because it's their home, and they need to survive. It's our ecosystem, too, and we need to practice interacting with it, so that we can learn to act sustainably. Giving children freedom and responsibility to engage on their own terms with their environment ensures that they will get the practice they need to become responsible, thoughtful stewards of their home.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

How Covid Has Changed Us

This is going to be rather personal. I know in my art that personal story is the best way to reach people; to make art that is real and inclusive and changemaking. But it's a lot easier to interview other people and include their stories than to tell mine. And when I do tell mine, it's a lot easier for me to be vague or gloss over the challenges in favour of the awesomeness. I'm trying to change that. Here's a synopsis of my family's experiences of the past year.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Five Huge Unschooling Mistakes I've Made

Has your kid ever looked at you in earnest, and accused you of causing them problems by unschooling them? Mine has. And it was in that moment that all the indignation and arrogance I'd built our unschooling life upon totally collapsed. Because indignation and arrogance might have given us the courage to jump out of a system that wasn't working, but in the end they were just walls we built around our hearts to keep us from the vulnerability of life. Some of us unschoolers needed those walls to protect us as we built this new world, but now it's time for the walls to come down. I have made lots of mistakes. Now I want to own up to them, and grow.

Mistake #1: Succumbing to Self-Doubt

Actually, my reaction in that moment, a few years ago, when my son told me I had set him up for failure by unschooling him, was to question everything I've done as a parent and to cave in. It's a great thing to question ourselves, to evaluate, assess, and make changes, but there has to be an end to it. At some point very soon in the questioning we need to adjust course (or not) and keep on steering the ship. Instead, in that moment, I told myself I'd failed. I told myself I'd destroyed my son's life. He calls me dramatic and he's right! I mean, there's place for drama in the world--I'm an artist and writer, and I know that drama is often the key to reaching people. But when the people is your kid, and the reaching needs to be done with a supportive and steady hand on the wheel of his life, drama is not the way to go. Yeah. I bombed that. I basically let go of the ship's wheel and hid in a corner for a few weeks. 

Unschooling being what it is, he already had the freedom to steer his own ship, and he really did quite well, getting into a groove that worked well for him, and forgetting all about that day he had blamed unschooling for whatever the frustration was, at the time (we have both forgotten, by now). But unschooling is really largely about leading by example, and in that time I unfortunately set an example of succumbing to self-doubt--something that my son already struggles with, and which I desperately wish I hadn't modeled so well.

Another way that we often succumb to self-doubt is defensiveness. Other parents or family members question our unschooling choices (or lack thereof) and out of fear, self-doubt, or frustration, we get defensive. A little explanation can go a long way in educating others, and that's definitely a good thing, especially when making social precedent for others to join our journey. But when we get wrapped up in trying to defend the place we are in the journey, it's hard to keep moving--to carry on the actual journey. We can get stuck in that defensive place, and that's not the great big adventure unschooling was supposed to be!

Live and Learn, as they say. The learning is easy, because, as unschoolers know (or are trying to remind ourselves, constantly), learning just happens. It's the living--or sailing, to return to my previous analogy--through all the rough seas and mistakes and course-adjustments that happen along the way that can be challenging. But we're up for a challenge, right?

Mistake #2: Protecting our Kids from Challenges

It seems obvious, when you look at a title like that. We know our kids need to face and overcome challenges in order to learn and gain confidence. But watching them trip and fall and not rushing to catch them before they hit the ground is another matter. Or not clearing their pathway right from the start to avoid them even tripping in the first place. I've done that. OK, I still do it!

I'm so guilty of this that after all nineteen years I still catch myself doing it almost every day. I'm OK with the big things: hearing my kid's plan to attend a school program that I don't really like, and buckling in for the ride, for example. But in the moment, I have very little control over my own mouth, and find myself constantly forecasting problems that I think my kids should avoid, or advising them on ways to keep safe, or be successful in their endeavour, etc. My son made himself a great keyboard tray this morning, and was struggling to fit it into his desk. I just had to advise him on what I felt was a "better" way to design it. Gak. What does this constant advice do to my kids' confidence?! I know very well what it does. It kills it. I walked into the problem he was well on his way to solving himself, and reminded him that somebody else knows better. What the hell?! I only know better because his father and I made a keyboard tray for that same desk, ourselves... and figured out the challenges, ourselves! And we did this at a time when we were gleefully living away from our parents, free to make our own mistakes, and learn from them.

Seriously. Like I mentioned before, living and learning sometimes seems to take a lifetime. I wish I had held my mouth shut this morning. He probably would have made a great keyboard tray that might have been very different from my design, and possibly even better suited to his needs.

Confidence-shattering is not the only harm caused by protecting our kids from challenges. Having a life devoid of struggle, strife, and challenge, or--alternatively--a life in which somebody else was always ready to solve their challenges, leaves kids unprepared to meet the challenges they will inevitably face, in life. It leaves them looking for solutions from other people instead of exploring and trusting their own ingenuity. It leaves them less resilient.

Now, as an unschooling parent, I've been told many times that my kids need to face the bullying and hardship of school so they can "toughen up", but that's not what I'm talking about. Toughening up isn't becoming resilient; it's building a hard shell, and that doesn't seem very healthy to me! I know. I've had a hard shell all my life. I don't want that for my kids. I want them to feel so confident, so resilient; so intrinsically strong and ingenious, that they can be vulnerable and live their lives without fear. That is resilience. 

Although I'm still struggling to allow my kids to fall, I'm all good on being there to commiserate or snuggle them when they're picking themselves back up again. Unschooling gives us the chance to really live with our kids, and if we can master allowing them to meet their own challenges, we're in the wonderful position of being their support team.

Mistake #3: Comparing

The whole school system works on comparison. No matter how hard our amazing teachers try to nurture the unique skills and needs of every child, they work in a system that requires them to evaluate our kids. This kind of evaluation requires some kind of a measuring stick, and by nature that means comparison. The root of our whole school system is therefore competitive, and that's exactly why many of us chose to unschool. But then we got our kids at home and panicked that they weren't "keeping up", or that they'd struggle should they ever need to join the system. 

Remember, most of us were raised in the system. We're terrified of failing, of allowing our kids to fail. Those fears are deeply ingrained and didn't just get left behind when we stuck the word "unschooling" on ourselves. They are firmly rooted in our every word and action. In fact, some people even choose to unschool because of the reported competitive advantages it gives kids in adulthood. But then we forgot that the competition was so dangerous.

To me, the biggest benefit of unschooling is the fact that we can separate ourselves from that kind of competition and live by our own intrinsic values. It gives us the opportunity to make our choices based on our own moral and intellectual standards--and by "us" I mean parents and kids separately. Unschooling means that kids are defining their own goal-posts, their own compasses; their own personal evaluation criteria. Every time we judge them, or even worse, compare their achievements to others or to some kind of outside expectation, we take back that power from them, along with their impetus to lead themselves. 

Sometimes we're comparing our kids, even without words. I can't tell you how many kids I've taught art to who walked into my program with the idea that they couldn't draw, or that they only knew how to draw one specific thing (usually a cartoon character). You know how they became that way? From guided art projects, where either the book they learned from or the adult they were with set up an expectation for them to follow. Maybe they succeeded and their work was comparable, but more likely, since the book or example-drawing was made by an adult with much more experience, they saw all the dissimilarities between their own work and the example, and they felt defeated. Luckily, teaching art was something I did for a long time before I had kids, so I managed to stop myself from creating situations where my kids would compare their art to mine, and the results were amazing. My son used to draw the sounds that the instruments made! "Tell me about your drawing," I would ask him, and he would say, "It's a drum!" This drawing he proudly held out consisted of many many repeated lines. He was drawing the sound of the drum. If I had shown him how to draw a drum, he would have copied me, but the genius--the uniqueness of his own experience of learning to draw--would have been lost. He grew up and did teach himself to draw visual representations of what he saw, but he did so without self-criticism, fear, or road-blocks, because in that one respect I was able to give him room to be himself, uncompared, un-assessed, and unhindered by my expectations.

Partly, for parents, this issue comes back to self-doubt, and defensiveness, again, because when we're already struggling with our own fears, we're more likely to turn tail and run, or to dig down into some kind of defense. Getting stuck in a competitive mindset leads to fears of failure, self-doubt, and possibly over-protection. All these things are intertwined, of course, and it's hard to move on from one without tackling the others.

Mistake #4: Not Enough Time with the Same Group of Kids

This, unfortunately, is a challenge that most unschoolers face, and many--including us--fail to overcome. The nature of unschooling is to be following the needs of each individual kid, taking them out of situations that aren't suitable, and experimenting frequently with new activities and interest groups. Obviously, this sets kids up for an ever-changing array of relationships, rarely having time to settle into long-lasting relationships, to tackle and overcome the challenges of long-standing relationships, and to make all the personal growth that these experiences would have afforded. It takes many years of shared experiences for kids to build deep connections, and kids without a consistent cohort miss that. It is even more challenging for families who live in rural areas than it is for urban families, who likely have more access to regular programming and a larger unschooling community. 

Our family lives on a small island just outside of a big city, so while we did develop bonds in a community of homeschoolers when the kids were young, it wasn't long before most kids in our group either went to school or became busy with an assortment of other activities. Both of my kids were very lonely, and due to our unschooling convictions we were reluctant to put them in school. We did try out a couple of different alternative programs over a two-year period, but in the end both kids pulled out for a variety of reasons. My kids did end up attending a democratic school on the mainland for a few years, and really found their people, there, but by then there was so little time left of school that deeper connections were very few. Consequently, my two never spent more than about three years with the same group of kids and, while they've made a few very treasured friends, they really missed out on the experience of growing up in community. Of all the mistakes I've made, this one was possibly the most harmful. 

I still don't know how to reconcile in my mind the choices we regret with our educational philosophy. The only options that would have given my kids a consistent cohort of friends over many years would have been to ignore our educational values and send our kids to mainstream school, or to move or commute to the mainland for a significant portion of their lives, thus losing connection with our island home and their extended family, who also live here. Would those options have been equally damaging? I can't know. This is a horrible dilemma that I know many unschoolers face, and I think the truth is we just can't ever know how things will work out. On the whole, I think my kids are OK, and we controlled the damage as best we could over the years, but it's still a deep regret.

Mistake #5: Vilifying the School System

In the middle of writing this article, I had a beautiful long talk with my brother, who is a teacher of grades six to nine in our community. We talked a lot about politics and education, his work, and the struggles of teachers and parents in the increasingly divided, challenged world. And goats and chickens, but that's another story. I have a deep, deep respect for teachers. All three of my mothers were teachers in some capacity (preschool teacher, elementary art teacher, and high school educational assistant). I have taught art and wilderness exploration in a number of different schools, sometimes working with teachers to integrate with their activities or the curriculum. If I criticize the school system, I do not do so lightly. I am extremely critical of the system as a whole, and the speed at which it is changing, given that for my whole life I've been witnessing good teachers trying to make changes that still only scratch the surface of the problems. I'm very serious about my criticisms. They're a big part of the reason we unschool. But I sometimes veered into vilification when my kids were younger, and I regret that, now.

There were a number of incidents with schools that made me angry, over the years. I sought to link programs I was running with public schools, or to integrate schools with homelearners, or to ask whether my kids could join for certain programs but not the whole school experience, and was frequently shut down. I think feeling rejected often makes people reactive, and it did me. But even worse, I felt I could offer something to the whole community by making these connections, and when my ideas were shut down I felt the system was arrogant, ignorant, and harmful. That made me really angry, and I often told my kids about it. Now my daughter tells me that at a certain point in her childhood she was worried about going to pick up her friends from their school because I'd told her so many negative things about it that she felt unsafe. 

I'm sorry. I unequivocally apologize. That was a terrible mistake, and I truly plan never to repeat it. That school I vilified to my daughter was my school. Sure, they rejected my unschooling family, and still ignore my emails offering programs or volunteering, but damnit, we're a small community and that was the school I attended, myself. It's our school. People I love teach at that school, and we share many philosophical ideals. Countless children I adore attend that school, and my careless words during a couple years of my children's lives left them with many more years of distrust in one of the most important institutions of our community. More than that, my words made unschooling appear adverse to mainstream schooling, and actually I fervently believe that unschooling is a stepping stone in the betterment of mainstream schooling. As an explorative learning consultant, some of the people I work with are teachers in mainstream schools. Many of the readers of my articles are mainstream school teachers and administrators. My apology is deeply felt because, as so many of us in the education world know, we're not at opposite ends of a scale; we're all in one big soup together, and we need to be working together, not against each other. 

~ ~ ~

I considered calling this article "Unschooling Regrets" but here's the thing: We all make mistakes, and if we learn and grow from them, perhaps we can avoid regretting them. It may have taken me a long while to see the benefits my family gained from these mistakes, but in the end I'm glad we had the opportunities to grow. Because that's unschooling: the whole family, the whole community, the schools and the teachers and the self-doubting, arrogant unschoolers just running and tripping and getting up and learning, together: All the hands on the wheel, all determining our course. All the things we do matter, and we're always learning, together.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

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, nearly a year after he dropped out of college and failed to be admitted to university, I am finally seeing a resurgence of his enthusiasm for learning. 

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 just this past winter.

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 she wrote! 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's just begun the process of publishing another 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 highschool 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?

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. 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 of "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.

This current expectation that everyone should attend university for four years just to have a 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. 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 feels he needs some education in rendering, so he's just now beginning an online course. My daughter is about to begin a job running a book club for middle-grade readers. Both my kids are on the precipice of their adult lives, and finally free to jump. Maybe one day university will be an important 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.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

how the language we use matters to progressive education and parenting

My little one looked up at me with a livid glare from where she had tumbled into the creek. I reached out my arm and she raged: "I do it self!!!" And she clambered herself back up the muddy bank. By the time she was two I knew better than to ask if she was OK or offer her a hug. I felt so disempowered that she wouldn't accept my attempts at comforting her, but I was trying my best to unschool her, so I refrained.

You probably didn't flinch when I said I was trying to unschool her; neither did I, when I wrote it. But I should have. Parents like me talk about unschooling our kids, as if it's a thing we do to them, like picking them up, changing their diapers, or schooling them. It's not. It's our conscious choice to not do things to them, but to simply offer companionship and support, and allow them to grow, themselves. And if we're honest with ourselves, nothing should be a thing we do to our kids, because growth that happens from external prodding is usually reactive; reflexive... and frequently in the opposite direction. "Counterwill" isn't a negative reaction to be discouraged; it's the most natural reaction of a child pulling away from demands in order to make space for her own learning.

We forget the meaning of our words, when we speak. I say "I nursed my baby", but actually my baby nursed herself. I just held my breast out and we wriggled together to find mutually less painful positions, and she did the work of nursing. If I think about picking up my kids, even--which can be an act of total domination--does it need to be? In fact, my little ones pulled up their legs and tightened their shoulders when I lifted them. They nestled their little bodies onto my side and hung on with whatever skills they had at that age. When they didn't want to be picked up, they became loose and noodly, easily slipping out of my grasp. If I persevered and picked them up anyway, then that was truly an act I did to them, instead of with them. I asserted my dominance--sometimes to keep them safe. But it always provoked a negative reaction. Is that how I want to parent them?

Language matters. I recently read this wonderful article from the Tyee about decolonizing language. Tara Campbell writes not only about the need for correct use of language in reference to Indigenous Peoples, but also about the need for ongoing growth and engagement with the topic. Language isn't a fixed target; it moves as we learn and evolve, and it shapes how we learn and evolve. I didn't send my kids to school; I allowed them to go, when they chose to. I didn't nurse them; we nursed. Language can empower the subject, or disempower it. 

Kids who attend school experience many things. Try though they might, the teachers, curriculum, and system cannot truly "school" our kids. Kids learn from all school experiences, primarily about how to exist in a large group and become or retain their concept of self, and then they learn to play the system. So if nobody really "schools" our kids, and they are in fact just learning, themselves, how can we "unschool" them?

Unschooling is the process of training our minds to be free from an imposed way of learning. I have been unschooling myself for nearly three decades, now, since I started thinking critically about mechanisms of learning (and engagement) and how those are supported or hindered by my actions as a teacher or parent. I admit to having imagined I had a more directorial role than I actually did. I'm slowly learning to see my role as a friend and co-experiencer, but it's taking me longer than I hoped. It's a slow process to remove my own school-based ways of thinking and make way for progress.

Think about the words "teacher" and "parent". Both are also verbs. I teach you; I parent you. Where is the mutual respect? The terminology creates an active (superior) person and a subject. Where is the space for the subject's agency in that experience? If we want our children to run towards learning, instead of pulling reflexively away from it, our terminology has to change. Maybe that's too big of an ask, right now. But it does matter, and thinking about it will help us make choices that empower our kids.

Part of the myth that keeps us tethered to "school" thinking is a myth of superiority: Adults are superior to children. Principals are superior to teachers. The government is superior to the school. There's always somebody who knows better, to whom we should look for answers. And somehow the voices of people with superiority are always more important. The fallacy goes that adults have more knowledge, and that we learned that knowledge from more superior people, ourselves. Now we can pass that knowledge on to children. Well where were we adults when our kids were learning to nurse, or crawl, or climb, speak or sing? We were just there, being available to wipe up the spilled milk, kiss the bruises and listen intently to the first words. We oohed and aahed but hopefully didn't instruct our babies in moving their little limbs or forming their vowels! We just gave them space, and they learned. Nobody taught them. They watched us, and they tried things out, and they learned, themselves. The myth of school is that somebody has to teach the children, and the myth of unschooling is that somebody has to unteach the children. But those are myths.

What it comes down to is this: We can't teach our kids. We can only teach ourselves to listen to their needs and make space for their innate learning to happen. We can't unschool our kids. We can only unschool ourselves, by looking critically at all the ways the mythology of "school" has shaped our lives and choices. Just like when they were learning to nurse, and crawl, and communicate, our kids are watching us, and they will learn too, on their own time, in their own way, and frequently they'll learn things we never knew, ourselves. That's progress.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

farmschool into spring

Rhiannon and the Splash, our cuddly rooster, taking a break from building his new digs.

Well I can hardly call it farmschool, since we're back to being absolutely 100% unschooling, but it seemed like a nice title, because we're learning SO much!! We're all being schooled by the seasons and all the organisms we live with. In some ways it feels like we're coming full circle, as we round the year into the spring, and there's much to report!

As you know if you're a regular reader, we all buckled into an indefinite isolation last spring, my partner has been working from home, and the kids quit high-school and college completely. As food became much more expensive and income diminished, we doubled the size of our vegetable garden and, at our daughter's urging, got chicks. All four of us got involved in various ways, and we raised these little fluff-balls until they were grown. Then we put all but two of the roosters into the freezer, and eventually began getting a few eggs, just as winter began. We really hoped to develop a hardy self-sustaining flock of birds that would feed us, feed our garden, and generally enrich our lives, but knew we'd have to wait until the next spring for any of our hens to hatch chicks.

As climate change would have it, "next spring" came in early January, when we had a tiny warm spell, and one of our hens went broody! We debated whether to try to break her of her broodiness, and decided she was just too sweet to break, so we let the others build upon her tiny clutch of eggs for three days (which they did by unceremoniously sitting on top of her, to lay). And she diligently sat on her total of seven eggs for three weeks until... hatching day! We documented the process of our family's first chick hatch, and all the decisions we had to make on our video channel, so I'm sharing, here. I hope you'll be as delighted as we are!

Next up: Weeding out the annual influx of invasive buttercups, readying the garden for planting, starting many seeds indoors, and starting the peas outside. With frequent breaks for visiting our adorable chicks.

Hatching Day #1

Hatching Day #2 


Hatching Day #3


Hatching Chicks Q & A



Monday, January 18, 2021

how to unschool kids of diverse ages at the same time

It was a bit of a frazzled day, but I was killing it on the home-school Mom front. I had my kids' two best friends arriving at any second, the floor vacuumed, banana-orange-strawberry smoothies made, and I was just pulling muffins out of the oven. At the table behind me, my kids were nearly silent. My five-year-old sat working on his kindergarten journal while his two-year-old sister was colouring. She called this activity "work" and I thought it was adorable. I lovingly placed the muffins in a napkin-lined basket and turned to bring it to the table. The first thing I saw was the horror in my son's eyes and his slightly open mouth. "Did you see what Annie did?" he asked, blinking. "She wuined my jouynal." 

My two year old looked at me with a gaping mouth, eyes wide and fingers splayed on hands poised in mid-air, dripping with some white substance that might have been milk, glue, or a combination of the two, and which was also in her hair, on her brother's journal, in the jar of markers, and, I then noticed, dripping onto the floor. The dog was cleaning it up. There were sticky notes, stamps and organic oat O's laying in the goop in front of her. She said matter-of-factly, "my seeyoh fell oveh when I was makin' a clauge", as if somehow the frank explanation took away the disaster I now had to contend with. She was making a collage. Just like her brother had done, recently. And why not?!

I wanted to cry, to run away, to scream at my little girl and her gigantic mess, but, as usual, I bottled it up, instead. With tight lips I snapped at her to sit still and not move while I set the muffins back in the kitchen. I then picked her up and carried her to the kitchen sink, washed her hands, wiped the milk off her pants with a dish cloth, and banished her to wait by the door for her friends to arrive. I frantically cleaned the mess up, while glancing out the window at the driveway, and at my son, who stood looking stunned against the wall, tears beginning to well in his eyes. With a trembling voice he repeated, "She wuined my jouynal."

"You're fine," I said. "Your journal will dry."

Fifteen minutes later, muffins and smoothies were on the table, four kids sat making a much more predictable mess at the table, and my two were recovered. The journal sat drying by the fire, my kids were indeed fine. But I was not. 

I felt defeated. Why had I not cleaned up her breakfast cereal before getting the art supplies out? Why had I put glue in the art supply box anyway?! Why was I failing so hard at homeschooling my kid, who hated his part-time school and all the required home-learning that came with it, and the journal, reading reports, and that dreaded "alphabet rap"?! I lived in constant fear of rebuke from his teachers or other parents, despite the fact such rebukes rarely happened. I knew every other parent of young kids in distributed learning programs (and many in mainstream school) faced the same fears and challenges, but everybody else seemed to accomplish more than we did.

My kids are sixteen and nearly nineteen, now. They both live at home, are fully unschooling without regard for age-based expectations, are happy and fulfilled, and... amazingly, they really are fine. We got here by bucking the system, because it didn't work for us. 

At the end of the year in which the milk-and-glue-collage happened, we pulled my son out of school and did his first grade as a distributed learning family, unschooling all the way. I found a program where we only had to report once every term, and I filled the reports out according to what he had done, instead of tailoring his activities to the school's expectations. It was the first time he was truly happy with his education. My daughter attended two years of Reggio Emilia preschool taught by her grandmother, and then slipped easily into the comfy self-directed life that her brother was living, at home. With nobody holding us to the Ministry of Education's age-based expectations (then called 'prescribed learning outcomes'), we were free to live and learn in peace. And that is where we all learned the best.

I've been consulting with new unschooling parents for a while now, and one of the things people ask me most often is how to unschool kids of diverse ages at the same time. We want to nurture each kid's individual passion; feed their learning; support their projects. I have some activity suggestions for diverse ages to share with you, but first we need to address the elephant in the unschooling room: You don't need to babysit your kid's learning. Not only does it take up time you could otherwise use to engage with other kids, but it's detrimental to learning.

Stop Hovering
Maybe you don't think you're doing that. I would have denied it if someone had asked me, when my kids were young. But to this day I find myself stressing over whether my kids are achieving 'enough' (whatever that means), and quietly (or loudly) pressuring them to keep at whatever projects they're working on; to finish the projects they've given up on, or to amp those projects in some way. I offer to help them; I offer my advice. My advice comes across as criticism. 

My feeling of wanting to encourage my kids--to get involved and interested in their projects--is deeply linked with my love and pride for my kids, so it doesn't feel like a bad thing to me. But our kids don't actually need that kind of involvement. At best, it's hovering, taking the joy of independence away from our kids, but at worst (and commonly) it implies that our kids' work is never good enough, that there's always something I can do better; that they are never good enough. It takes the fun out of learning, and is hugely destructive to our kids' confidence. I'm not speaking from a throne, here. I've seen the damage my hovering has done to my own kids, and am still trying to repair it. 

My daughter learned to hide her work from me--to never show me the stories she wrote, until one day she told me she had sent a story I'd never heard about to a publisher! I didn't learn to step back from her work; she forced me. I'm currently reading her second novel as an editor. I didn't earn that position by constantly editing her early work, though. I earned it by ignoring her early work, until she finally came to ask for my input. She gained the courage to do so by honing her confidence and independence, without me. And now I'm very, very careful about how I give advice.

Unschooling really, really does mean allowing your kids to lead. Even when it's terrifying. Even when they actually fail. Everybody fails! That's how we learn. It's our job, as parents, to allow them to fail, to allow ourselves to fail, and to demonstrate healthy recovery. 

And within that, we can play. Here are some of my family's favourite all-ages activities. The important thing to remember with every single one of these is that there is no predictable learning outcome. We can't know what we or the kids will learn, but we will learn. And decades later we'll be glad for it. 

So have fun! And remember: The moment you catch yourself leading, stop. The moment you find yourself designing the project, directing the play, or polishing things to make them pretty, 'better' or instagrammable, just stop. Get back to being your kids' friend. When they're teens, and they're still your friends, you'll be glad you did!

Cardboard Construction
Get giant cardboard boxes from your local recycling centre, appliance seller, or even by request on your local buy/sell/trade group and go to town! Or make a town.

Materials: Your basic tools are a serrated bread-knife for cutting the boxes (much safer and easier to use than an exacto or box-cutter), a screwdriver for punching holes in the cardboard, and some cheap string or wrapping ribbon to sew up the sides of the boxes. Packing tape comes in handy for certain applications, but sewing is more fun (my kids disagree with me) and more durable. Oh, and paint. You're going to want to paint this thing, repeatedly. Cheap acrylics are the best--but cover the floor before you do it!

My family had a cardboard construction that took up about a third of our living room from the time my youngest was a few months old until she was about six. It had multiple rooms, and was changed, added to and repainted repeatedly to provide an ever-changing complex of wonderful play-spaces. We had everything from a rocket-ship to a restaurant and kitchen, an office, a retail outlet, an orphanage, a theatre with backstage and a bat who lived in the 'attic'. Which was sometimes the clock-tower. Or the pantry. Or fuselage. Or sail. Depended on the day. 

We were enrolled in a distributed learning program at the time, so I was tasked with finding the 'learning' in our activities. From the ongoing process of this cardboard construction, my kids learned everything from measurement, geometry, material and function to creative and technical writing, infant development, cooking, drama and costume design. And democracy, via the constant debating about what changes would and could happen next. And a million other things. Maybe sewing cardboard gave my son his interest in physics and engineering; maybe serving her babies in various settings gave my daughter her deep interest in child rearing and education. Maybe the cardboard construction was the way they developed those interests that came naturally to them. It doesn't matter. I highly recommend cardboard construction.

My daughter first learned to pull herself to stand in order to use her cardboard kitchen. And as a teenager she and her brother made a cardboard vending machine which they brought into our community for social experimentation (and fun!) Cardboard construction is cheap (or free), and the benefits are endless.

*Easy alternative: Blanket forts (using any and everything you find in the house!), or outdoor forts using scrap lumber or found objects in the wild. Go for it!

Outdoor Exploration
Just go outside and explore. Play. Wherever you are, whether urban, rural, or the most isolated wilderness, there is always something to discover, and a space for creative exploration.

Materials: Appropriate clothing for every member of the family! Where I live, on the wet west coast, this means rain gear for cooler seasons: Tall waterproof boots with tough rip-stop rain pants and a fully waterproof jacket. Warm hat, socks and lining for winter, and sun hat and waterproof closed-toe sandals for summer. And sunscreen. Maybe where you live, warmer gear is required. Just make sure that you have some too, because the parent who crawls through the mud and fords the stream with the kids is part of the game. And because once you're comfortable, everything is more fun.

Outdoor exploration was a way of life for my family. I took my kids and countless groups of other children and parents out gallivanting in the wilderness a few times every week. My go-to solution for cranky kids and sibling squabbles was rain gear and a march into the woods. But in recent years my declining health has made most outdoor excursions impossible for me. My kids are pretty much adults now, and I've been amazed to discover that they tend to go out for a hike, run, or bike ride almost every day. When they were younger, and I couldn't get into the woods with them, I took us to somewhere I could manage: maybe a parking lot where they could get out and play while I sat in the car; maybe just the garden bed outside our front door. It's still outside, and there is always plenty to discover.

For the most success and joy, do not go out with a plan. Just go. And see what happens! It's really difficult to come up with a plan that successfully engages and challenges kids of diverse ages (and parents), but given freedom to explore, each will discover their own interests, and age-appropriate play and learning will happen.

The things we learn from being outside are, quite literally, everything. Outside is where the rest of the world is. If you notice the weeds in the front steps, you're taking an interest in botany. If you notice your neighbours arguing about their home renovation, you're learning about diplomacy, relationships, and maybe even residential design and construction. Maybe you learn about weather systems, dog training and anatomy, and for sure, as long as you're moving, you're learning about your own health and physiology, and what can be more important than that?

Obviously, where there's an uncurated smorgasbord of 'the whole world', there's danger. What specific dangers you might encounter depend where you are in the outdoors. From traffic, to sharp edges, to rushing water, or even other people, we can't escape these things in life, so it's good to just ride the wave of discovery with our kids, not hide the dangers, but be there to help navigate them when they happen. And if you're going very far out into the wilderness, have a basic first aid kit with you.

The Library
The bigger the library the better, but any size will do. How often have you seen a parent lounging around with a baby, some snacks, and a stroller while the older siblings explore (and/or ransack) a different section of the library? Libraries are not only intended for all ages, but you may find delights in unexpected places.

Materials: your own curiosity!

I think the benefits of libraries are pretty obvious. However, since I have often found myself subtly directing my kids' choices, taking them to sections I think they'll like, or offering them books, I think the elephant in the room deserves another mention, here. It's absolutely true that if I don't share this awesome space-travel book with my son, he might never see it. I'm just engaging in his curiosity! But... maybe if I do share it, he'll come to believe that's the thing he 'should' be reading, instead of that superhero comic book that I loathe. Oh wait... that's a judgment he doesn't need on his shoulders! My son has learned to self-criticize and to look to me for approval, and it's exactly because of minor things like my suggesting books to him, with the implied judgment that the book he chose himself is inferior. What happens if we just let our kids be? What happens if they read comics so much they actually become comic illustrators, or marry some kid they met at a comic-con? Well... I'd rather they did that with confidence and with my blessing, than that they were still seeking my approval, as adults, feeling ashamed of their choices or, even worse, not choosing the life they really want to lead. 

Maybe my nine-year-old daughter sits in the corner of the toddler section, leafing through books as she surreptitiously eavesdrops on the conversations of mothers with their young children. It looks to me like she's pretending to read books that are too young for her. Actually she's researching for the book she's going to write. Our kids' minds are always alive.

The Internet (gulp)
Far be it for me to suggest more screen time, but... if we're going to use screens (and most of us do), let's use them well. Together.

Materials: A good-sized screen (not a phone or a tablet), internet access, and lots of time to spend with your kids.

The Internet is a bit like 'the outdoors' I mentioned, earlier. It's where you find the whole world. Like the outdoors, there are dangers, there. So go with your kids! React reasonably. I set all our search engines to 'safe search', not even because I was protecting my kids but because porn upsets me and I don't want to encounter it. I explained that to my kids, and they understand. I set my boundaries. It turns out, now that they're adults, they have the same boundaries, and they now know how to protect those boundaries, using good internet hygiene. When we demonstrate healthy internet use ourselves, our kids are more likely than not to follow suit--especially if we don't nag them about it. They like to feel they are capable, without our nagging. They just need time and experience to get there.

Once you've got your boundaries set, get out exploring and have fun! One of the best things we've done as a family is exploring Google Maps. Honestly, it's endless. We've learned so much about the world I can hardly begin to tell you. Just try it out, if you're not already obsessed. And beyond that there are countless resources for fascinating exploration, from virtual museums, to interactive music or animated engines, to YouTube, where we've learned everything from how to farm to how to make wedding cakes to how to raise our puppy. Now we even have our own YouTube series: How to explore outdoors. Ha. Literally--the whole (online) world.

Cooking and Baking
As I'm writing this article, my daughter just brought me a mincemeat roll fresh from the oven. We invented this together, a few weeks ago. Need I say more?

Materials: However you cook for yourself. It doesn't matter if you have wild-caught food, a creek and a campfire, or the most well-equipped high-end kitchen in the world--your kids watch you make their meals, and they can join if they want to.

One of the proudest moments of my kids' early childhood was the Mother's Day morning when they got me out of bed and presented me with the very special dish they had invented for me: One thin square rice cake with two mini-marshmallows on top, which they had carefully poked dozens of times, until they became a little squished-looking. Again. Seriously. The delight!! Need I say more?!

OK, fine. Just in keeping with some of the other examples, I will say more, but I'm not going to describe how things fit into learning outcomes anymore because frankly I think that takes away from the actual experience of learning. My kids have learned to cook or bake the things that mattered to them. They don't have the option of just heating instant foods, because we rarely have those in the house. So when they're hungry, they figure something out. When they're inspired, they figure something extravagant out. Both I and they have had some epic disasters (OK, mostly I have the epic disasters because I'm incapable of following a recipe)... but we learn from these experiences. A few times a year we have big cooking projects where everyone gets involved: gingerbread constructions from scratch and perogy-making day are some of our traditions, and soon we plan to make ourselves a Valentines high tea. I have no clue what my kids and partner will contribute to this event, but it's going to be an adventure!

Sometimes people say that providing food is the most important job a parent has. I would say it's good to raise kids who are confident to make their own. And that requires a lot of experimenting.

Growing Food
Whether you have a few little herb pots on your windowsill, a hydroponic fish farm in your basement, or an all-out, rooster-crowing-cow-mooing-eco-farm in your back forty, there is little more empowering than eating what you grew with your own hands. Babies might look like they're just eating dirt, when actually they're diversifying their own microbiome, discovering new flavours and textures, and observing their older siblings make totally different discoveries.

Materials: Obviously, this varies with how much space you have to worth with, how much money you want to spend, and how much of what kinds of food you plan to grow.

I feel really inspired by dirt and chickens and getting down and dirty in the yard. Maybe you don't! That's OK. I know people who grow all their salad greens without any dirt at all in a series of plastic tubes in their living room. It was a relatively inexpensive (when you compare with what they would otherwise have spent buying all the greens it produced from a grocery store) maker project for the family. They got healthy food to eat, and they felt they provided for themselves. I once grew beans and pumpkins from 2-gallon pots on my tiny apartment balcony, leaving only enough space for two chairs and a four-square-foot shallow planter box full of (what else?!) lawn for my cats to roll on! 

For some people, gardening carries a lot of anxiety with it. Maybe because failure can be so devastating, and gardening usually comes with quite a lot of failure. But you know what? Failure is something we have to learn to do. And instead of giving up and labeling ourselves "black thumb", as I have done in the past, we have to carry on. If our dinner depended on the survival of our plants, we'd have far more success. Giving up is only an option for those of great privilege, and we are poorer for not learning to persevere.

Food gardening and farming takes perseverance. It also takes hard work, and a lot of trial and error. And through all those experiences, it gives us a deep knowledge of not only plant life, but also nutrition, biodiversity, human physiology, and often also chemistry. It gives us, most importantly, an opportunity to provide for ourselves--to feel independent and experienced and engaged with our own health.


Each of these activities will be different not only for every age but for every individual who participates. We can't know what we, our teen or our two-year-old will get out of each experience, but we'll get something out of it, for sure. It's up to us, as parents, to step back and ensure that the experience is owned by our kids, as it is for us. There's always going to be some amount of wrangling and damage control, especially where babies and toddlers are concerned, but that's part of the picture. Older siblings will learn from being a part of that, too.

Besides unconditional love, food and shelter, the biggest gift we can give our kids is freedom to be themselves.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Toward Democracy: can parents stem the tide of angry white men?

untitled render by Taliesin River

We have a problem with angry white men. Barely a day goes by without news of Incel attacks, MAGA protests (rioters), white supremacist gatherings and uprisings, or the “friendly” neighbourhood “quiet guy” who unexpectedly murdered his wife or kids or a bunch of his community members. We have a problem with angry white men, and we’re raising our boys to become them. At home, school, and in the media, we’re leading young white boys to reach for an idealized goal that’s unattainable for most, and when they fail to reach it, many fall back upon a stereotypical violent, angry identity that is devastating for them and for humanity.

Let’s think about that for a minute. How do our little white boys determine their future? Once upon a time I found my son ensconced in the back corner of his closet, with a cardboard box sitting on a little table he had dragged in there. He was wedged behind the table on his tiny pencil-chair, staring at the box. “What are you doing?” I asked him, curiously.

“I’m in my office,” he replied, without hesitation. “I’m doing my work.” At three years old, and with a programmer-father, he was simply playing out the future he saw for himself.

One of my fathers was a forester, but as children we mostly saw him working out on the property he was slowly developing, axe, chainsaw, or shovel in hand. My brother used to go out with his little plastic chainsaw or some kind of stick and “work”, too. But I was a girl. I built forts because I instinctively knew that chainsaw “work” was not for me. When required, I collected eggs, weeded the garden, helped with the cooking, and generally did the things I saw my mother do. When we were older, my father took me to his office to colour cut-block maps, but he took my brother out in the bush with him. Despite my teen-aged feminist conviction that this was all rooted in sexism and that I would rectify the unfair world by not participating, I grew up to embrace my middle-class privilege, married a man who is the main breadwinner for our family, became an educator like my mother, and also a stay-at-home-parent, by choice. Increasingly few of us have the option to stay at home with our children, and I made the most of it.

I was a powerful stay-at-home parent! I learned to cook and bake for our kids’ dietary restrictions, I sewed, mended and made costumes, threw the best parties, and even managed to keep two part-time careers going at the same time as unschooling my kids. I made all the financial and practical decisions, did all the bookkeeping, kept the calendar and even dictated the course of each person’s day. I chose what foods we ate, how we decorated the house, and even what we wore. When it mattered, I chose my partner’s clothing, too. I was so awesome. My kids saw that. For a while I ran a program for new mothers and my kids saw me feeling totally in control at home, and going out to the community to empower other mothers. I made motherhood look powerful to my kids. My daughter played “babies”, emulating the strong, loving mother she imagined she could be as she and her friends hauled their dolls all over the place, engaging them in every awesome activity imaginable.

And their father sat in his little office, typing away. He joined us for dinner every single night, and he dressed the kids and brushed their teeth and read them stories at night. They sometimes begged me to read, because I read with more inflection. As they grew older they mocked his attempts at cooking dinner, coining terms like “Pappa-cooked” (which means ‘burnt’). I told them what important work he was doing at his desk, and not to bother him when he was having an important meeting, but they saw how he lived on the margins of their home. My son dragged a little table into a closet and played “going to work”. This marginalized, disenfranchised, humbled existence was what he saw as his future.

How many little boys are growing up all over the world with a sense of disenfranchisement? They see their righteous mothers busting through glass ceilings; accomplishing things one after another, and they see their fathers either pushed to the sidelines or angry at their lack of agency in their own homes. Feminism is supposed to be a push for equality and yet as men take on some of the domestic duties that our culture has not prepared them for, they become hopeless. Women, who now frequently work outside the home, continue to do the majority of the house-work, make the majority of decisions, and hold the majority of power in their children’s eyes. There is no equality in the home.

It doesn’t end at home. Let’s talk about school. School is the core of education, and education is the pathway to success. This path is so well-trodden, in fact, that each and every step is predetermined for our children. Despite generations of education research and countless breakthroughs in our cultural understanding of human learning, child development and teaching methodologies, students are still corralled into a system that leaves them powerless. In order to maintain the quality standard of the education offered in schools, students are held to a standard. There is little room for individualization, and even less room for true personal goals or self-directed exploration. Students are humbled by their placement on the scale of achievement.

Although white men are still the overwhelming majority in science-related professions, the competition just to attend the schools that would lead to success in these careers is so stiff that it now begins in grade-school. Students are often pegged and steered towards sciences from a very young age, their work entered in competitions and held up against the work of other young kids for awards and acknowledgement. Success means such alienation from such a majority of their classmates that it’s no wonder there’s a large number of those classmates feeling disenfranchised. Sure, universities are accepting more and more women, LGBTQ and people of colour into their programs, but a look at the leaders of most corporations, universities and government agencies still reveals a spread of wealthy, straight white men. If that’s who white boys were born to be, why is it so out of reach?

We tell our children they can be anything they want to be, so they look for their options. And guess what? The media, we their parents, their friends’ parents, and their teachers all show them what they can be. A constant display of shiny happy people doing amazing things is there for their inspiration. Putting all the stereotyped options for female, LGBTQ and people of colour aside, the media shows white boys that they can grow up to be rich, powerful, dominant, or… superheroes. Or beer-drinking dads. And somewhere in early elementary school it becomes apparent that only white boys from rich and powerful families will grow up to be rich and powerful white men, and what’s left? Poor and not powerful. Beer-drinking Dads. Or superheroes. Is it any wonder that so many Dads come home from work, grab a beer and watch TV? And is it any wonder that when they and other men feel disempowered, disengaged and disenfranchised, they seek to take the power back from the people who got the lion’s share? They dress up, paint their faces, and parade with torches or guns into the places they feel have rejected them. Is it any wonder there are so many angry white men?

The opposite of towers full of powerful white men is not towers full of powerful black women. It’s the toppling of the towers — and not by violence. It’s the equitable distribution of power — not among the previously-disempowered, but among everyone. The opposite of the power-struggle that is our current society is democracy. That’s something we don’t actually have, despite the claims of the tiny minority of corporate CEOs and lawmakers who wield the power right now.

The lack of democracy leaves most of us disenfranchised. And what are you going to do when you’re an angry, disenfranchised white man who climbed the education ladder as hard as he could and works every day in a job where he feels powerless, who votes for people who don’t make any positive change in his life, who’s watching his children grow up towards the same fate, and even in his own home finds himself unneeded, unskilled, and unimportant? Well you crack. You put on your superhero cape; fly a rebel flag. You paint your face or maybe you put on a fur hat and horns and call yourself a shaman. Maybe you get a gun. You crack, and out of the wound comes all the ways your little-boy self was taught that men take back their power. And eventually you find yourself actually attacking the people who have the power. Sometimes that’s another guy at the bar; sometimes it’s the people in the Capitol building; sometimes it’s your wife.

Who am I to be talking about this? I’m a feminist. A privileged middle class woman. I live with a disenfranchised computer-programmer who never votes for someone who gets elected. I am the mother of a disenfranchised young man who long-ago stopped pretending to “go to work” in his closet and now sits slightly unshaven at his own desk, working towards a career as a digital artist. He voted for the first time this year and his chosen candidate nearly won. Nearly.

I’ve been thinking for nearly two decades about my role in my son’s empowerment. As his mother, I know my role is huge, and I don’t know that I’ve got it right at all, but I’ve never stopped trying. I unschooled him and his sister, with hopes of providing them both a broader range of visible options, and I enrolled them in a couple of schools that I thought could broaden those options even more. I told my kids they could be anything, but I also tried to demonstrate that we can find happiness with what we have. I inadvertently minimized their father’s role in the home for the first half of their young lives, and have now spent years trying to step back and allow my kids and their father to make household decisions, and to share the glory, stumbles and joys of running our home. Can we pull out of this trajectory toward disenfranchisement as a family? Can we do so as a species? As I watch the news and see white men carrying rebel flags, torches and guns, I feel desperate. We must change course, and as the empowered leaders of our families, we mothers are already holding the wheel.

I think the changes needed to the way we raise our children are enormous — terrifyingly so — but, as with climate change, there’s no time left to squander. At home, school, and in the media, we have to empower our white men.

We need to engage our male partners in running our homes, not just to do jobs at our bidding, but to make decisions that impact our lives. I have to let my partner wear his ripped jeans to family dinners. I struggle with this, but I developed my own style and he should have that chance, too. My son is watching him, and now gives him fashion advice. I have to let him cook whatever he wants for dinner, and he’s now becoming an excellent cook. My son is watching him. I have to let him make decisions I disagree with, and we’re learning to consult more, and to converse more. If we want democracy, it needs to start in the home, and democracy requires a lot of conversation. I have to let my partner be powerful. We need to restructure our lives — perhaps away from the too-many-activities and the too-much-screen-time to include more time for conversation. We need to talk with our children openly and without reserve about the balance of power in our homes, and we need to let each other be powerful, so that we can all be empowered.

At school, we need to remove the hierarchy of principals, staff, and students. We need to remove the hierarchy among students, as well, by taking away the inherently competitive grading systems, the age-based curricula and achievement-based reward-systems. We need to listen to the children as much or more than we speak to them, and we need to teach them to speak to each other. And obviously, we need to teach all history and from all perspectives, not just that of straight white men. Mostly, we need to talk with students openly and without reserve about the balance of power in education, to ensure that they share that power, and that their education leaves them empowered.

The media, well — that’s a hard one. I have little faith in the corporate media to change, since its very existence relies on our continued buy-in. But we can change. We mothers and fathers can make change, not by wielding the remote control or the internet codes, but by setting an example. We can stop buying in; we can even make our own media (the Internet is truly a Godsend for consumer rights and freedoms). We can think critically about how the media we consume changes our minds and lives, and we can talk with our kids, too. We can listen to their experiences. We can ask for their opinions. We can speak and listen openly and without reserve about the media’s role in our lives, to ensure that we all share the power, and that we are empowered.

And when we’ve opened up the lines of communication, and our children are accustomed to being heard, we can keep talking; keep listening, and keep empowering. And among this great population of empowered children will be the next generation of empowered people of every colour, gender, sexual preference, socioeconomic background and belief system, and some of those will be empowered white men. Out of an abundant diversity of empowered people, and an endless open conversation, I believe we can create a true democracy.