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.