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.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

all the broken stones, together

Photo by Fenneke van Swigchum.
Loved ones,
As this year comes to an end, I want to thank you. There has never been a year that I have felt so surrounded by you as this year--the year of social distance. (So not.) Every single one of you has given me love in some way. This year has shown me that all the broken stones that we are, together form something magnificently strong. I wish you all a beautiful last day of the year, and still more beautiful days, ahead: A year when we will hopefully fully enjoy the beauty that life offers us, and everything we offer to each other.
Be well!
Love, Emily

This is my translation of my cousin Fenneke's New Year's Eve post, which says so perfectly what I feel. So many people - even all the donation-requesting non-profit organizations in my inbox - are bidding good riddance to 2020, but I look back and I see a year to remember with love. Yes, I was lonely, often. Yes, our (and many, many others') finances were hit by the financial fallout of lockdown. Yes, we lost people we love; people who mattered in our community and families. It was a terrifying year in many ways, as forests, monuments, villages and cities all over the world burned (and even exploded, in the case of Beirut); violence and hatred erupted all over the place, and all under the threat of this terrifying illness that even now is not quite understood (and what we don't know is always so scary!) Three people in my close and extended family also had cancer, and my own health took a nose-dive. 
But you know what? Those three beloved people also BEAT cancer (or are in the process of doing so). My health nose-dive meant a deeper connection with my partner, as he learned to care for me and the children. He gained a feeling that he was a capable house-man, and he did so while also working fully from home. Being stuck at home with my children and partner 24/7 for ten months now has meant the building of deeper relationships and the discovery of what is important to us.The raging forest fires are yet another in a series of wake-up calls about the plight of our home, and next year's fires will be worse. That's a good thing, because we apparently need a bigger kick from behind to get us moving. It's slow, but finally, I feel we ARE moving. The violence in the streets is frightening, but an inevitable part of our culture's evolution. It's long past time that we begin to see each other as equals, and I am glad to be witnessing the rise of people who have long been squashed in the shadows. Black Lives Matter. Indigenous Lives Matter, too, and even covid is showing us how horribly unfair our society is. Covid, BLM, climate catastrophe, and even the relatively insignificant struggles of privileged people being forced to cancel holiday plans are wake-up calls that we desperately needed. 

If we can't bring ourselves to cancel our New Years plans just to protect the vulnerable, how will we ever make the massive, sweeping changes that are needed to save our species? Our habitable planet? It's like Fenneke says: Each of us a broken stone, but cobbled together, we make something magnificent. And here we are. We can do this. This year has given me hope. Thank you for being there; for making the difference you make in my life, and in the lives of us all.

love, Emily

Here is Fenneke's original message in Dutch, because it's much more eloquent than my translation:

Zo op de valreep van dit jaar wil ik jullie bedanken. Er is geen jaar dat ik jullie zo om me heen heb gevoeld als dit jaar. Het jaar van de sociale afstand. Niet dus. Ieder van jullie heeft me op z'n eigen manier liefde gegeven. Dit jaar heeft me doen inzien, dat al die gebutste steentjes die we zijn, samen een prachtig sterk werkje kunnen vormen.
Ik wens jullie allemaal een mooie laatste dag en nog heel veel mooie dagen. Een jaar waarin we hopelijk weer volop kunnen genieten van al het moois dat het leven te bieden heeft en van wat we elkaar kunnen bieden. Heb het goed. Liefs, Fenneke

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

nine months into covid: cultivating hope

It's coming on Christmas (and many other holidays) and we're not just cutting down trees as usual, many have already put up the reindeer, people were going all out with the decorations before Remembrance day, even. WHY?!

I'm not being grinchy; we're doing it too, as evidenced by this big giant snowflake we've been making for our local gallery show (SO FUN!) But I did briefly wonder why this holiday enthusiasm is happening, given the fact that so many have greatly-restricted holiday plans, this year, much less cash to spend, and... because back in the early days of the pandemic, people like me were projecting and hoping for a huge big cultural shift--away from consumerism; away from capitalism. And let's face it: Christmas is an extravaganza for capitalism.

Our current way of life, economy, and social system depend on us spending money. So buying things and making displays of those bought-things (ornaments, lights, etc.) is our way of holding up a big beacon of hope for life: the economy and our whole social system will prevail.

But what if that's not the important part of the picture? Most of us know the lights are a twice-removed version of the ancient tradition of bringing back the sun, or of simply carrying the light through the darkest time of year. The decorations often have very deep sentimental value; they remind us of those we love, of those who love us, and of times spent together.

Well that's something we're missing, this year. Time spent together is, for many of us, something like a distant memory. We're weary of living in fear, we're lonely for the friends and family that we haven't hugged (or perhaps even seen) in nearly a year. Many of us have even lost loved ones this year, due to covid or other reasons, and have not been able to hold the traditional ceremonies of grieving that we otherwise might have. Protecting each other from illness has meant denying each other love, in the most basic ways we're accustomed to showing it. We've all lost something huge, and many days have been feeling hopeless. I think we're decorating early (and boldly) as a means of cultivating hope.

In my community, people are finding all kinds of ways of coming together, apart. From the online Remembrance day ceremony to Legion dinners being driven around to isolated people, we're getting creative. Halloween happened without fireworks, this year, and new celebrations were made. More of us saw our own neighbours at our doors, instead of everyone going to the fireworks, and trick-or-treating there. The arts council organized the community making of gigantic snowflakes to fill the walls of the gallery. December craft-sales have gone online as "Buy Local" facebook pages, and other such inventions. Most recent years, Santa has come in to our community by boat, and sat with children in the cove. But due to covid, and the need to protect Santa's health, the wonderful organizers of this event have arranged for him to be drawn around the whole island by parade float, so that every child who wants to see him, can, from the protection of their isolated homes. It's not Christmas-as-usual, but it's happening. 

Oh, and it's happening with a WHOLE lot of new pets, because, in our quest for hope, we seem to have all filled our lives with new cats, dogs, chickens, goats and horses (yeah... that's just my family's list...). There are some downsides to this story, of course (puppy mills, irresponsible animal breeders, unprepared pet owners, lack of available vet appointments, etc.), but it's still a beacon of hope; a lightning rod for the love we are all needing to give. We'll get through this little cultural blip of new pet ownership and, again by necessity, we'll all learn a lot more about caregiving, emotional welfare, and love.

We are making a cultural shift, as we necessarily and creatively keep hope alive in our hearts, homes, and communities. It's not quite the end of capitalism that I hoped for last April, but it's change, and it's good, and it's rooted in love. I feel like this is a gigantic scurry of millions of people in a good direction. Happy holidays!

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Wild Art Through the Year

My book is out! I've spent the last nine months making this hand-drawn activity book that brings together all my worlds: explorative learning, ecological awareness, art-making, cooking with wild-foraged foods, and writing. What a pleasure for me!

Wild Art Through the Year is a 60-page book of inspirations to get out and explore the Pacific coast wilderness right outside our doors, and to notice the natural world we're a part of. It's intended to be used throughout the year. Each month begins with a list of things to do and notice, outside, then follows with a colouring page featuring a north-west coast indigenous tree, a puzzle featuring plants or animals of seasonal interest, and sometimes a recipe for seasonally-available wild foods. It's suitable for anyone living or traveling in coastal British Columbia or Washington State.

The book is available to view and purchase through this link:

I loved writing Wild Art Through the Year, and am so grateful for my family's comments and suggestions throughout the process. I hope you'll love it too!

Emily                      .

Thursday, November 19, 2020


My daughter Rhiannon has published her first book!!!
"Ten year old Bertrice cannot imagine a life different from the one she lives. With a group of wonderful friends, a loving family, and a weekly Unschooling meetup, she feels that things are just right. However, when friendships start to go sideways and illness threatens the family, Bertrice is forced to learn about change and the difficulties of growing up."
This book is intended for 9-12-year-olds, and follows a girl dealing with the death of a grandparent, along with typical social frustrations of a ten-year-old, and the challenge of witnessing her parents' emotional fallout after the death. It's SO real. SO poignant. I imagine it would be a wonderful read for the kids it's intended for, but to be honest I feel like all parents should read it, too. It gave me such an opportunity to see my kids' emotional journeys. I wish I'd read it before my kids were ten. 
Of course, I couldn't have done that, since my daughter didn't write it until she was in her teens. She had to go through the experience of losing a beloved grandparent, witnessing a terrible family fallout, and dealing with her own emotions around all these issues in order to write a book that accurately explores them. So she did. She wrote the book, and by the time she got to the end of it she realized her writing had improved so much since she began that she had to go back and write most of it again. And she did that too! Finally she finished the book, and had it proofread by a few of her family members and a couple of friends, and spent months making edits, both very large and very small. When she finally thought she was done, she realized she wanted imagery in the book, and a cover. Her brother wasn't interested in illustrating for her, so she diligently taught herself to draw, to the point that she could render the various things she wanted depicted in the book. She wrote the book, made all the art, laid out the book herself, and took advice and criticism like a champion (which personally I know to be quite a challenge), editing and adjusting as she went along. This is unschooling at its best. This is how a kid takes on her own passion project, does it exactly and only the way she wants to, and grows into the person she wants to become. The result of this labour of love is a book that no adult could have written -- a true-to-life but totally fictional book about a girl developing as a writer while going through family and social challenges that most kids face, at some point. 
And the protagonist is an Unschooler! There aren't many books out there that treat Unschooling as a natural part of life. This one does, showing life from an unschooler's perspective, while also being accessible for school-going kids to understand. 
The explorative nature of the kids' play, their questioning of gender stereotypes and age-appropriateness, as well as the complex emotional considerations of kids with a diverse social group are things we parents may not realize are occupying our kids minds. But they are! This book is a clear and thoughtful presentation of a child's emotional growth, and we parents can learn a lot from it.

Also my daughter is a fabulous writer. You can purchase her book through this link:

If you're interested, she also has a writing and book review website:

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Maplerose: bringing business and unschooling together

I ordered this box of felting supplies from a small business in BC. They ship all over Canada and the US, but I wanted to shop local, which is how I came to make my purchase there. Then... Look how it arrived!!


Just look at that!! It wasn't just a box of gloriously colourful natural felty goodness, it was a box of love from a person I'd never met! It nearly brought me to tears, as I was reminded of the early years of my Dad's toy shop, when my step-mother made waldorf dolls to sell there, and my little sisters helped with the stocking and packaging (and endless cash-register and typewriter practice!) This kind of heartfelt family business practice is rare, now, but maybe with the pandemic can shine a little more.

My heart was so filled by the care and personal attention put into this package that I wrote back to the woman who owns the business to tell her how much it meant to me. And guess what! She's an unschooler! Well, surprising and not-surprising, I guess. Unschooling is about living life like every little piece of it matters, and that's exactly how Jenn conducts business at Maplerose.

Charlotte, Walt, Mark and Jenn out for a picnic.

Meet Jenn. She and her husband Mark live with their kids Walt and Charlotte in the Kootenays, where they live life to the fullest, and Jenn conducts the business of bringing natural and Waldorf-inspired products to families. Why Waldorf? "I love wool, wood and wax," Jenn says. "I find them beautiful materials and I've always tried to surround my children with simple, beautiful, natural things. I wouldn’t consider us absolute Waldorfians, but I do like a lot of Rudolf Steiner's ideas. We wear lots of wool, love the smell of beeswax, and that lines up so nice with what Maplerose was about when I bought it."

And what Maplerose is about is also family. Her father was an entrepreneur, so taking a chance on running a business was a natural choice for Jenn. It wasn't as easy as she expected, though, she says. "I had no idea how challenging entrepreneurship was - I thought my dad just knew what he was doing. I realize now that he didn't and that having your own business is so much about taking calculated risks. I had no idea it would be this hard but unlike past businesses I'd tried to run when I was single, having children depend on you is very motivating. Those sweet faces watching you as you flounder and struggle and then loving you anyway. Even if I feel I've made mistakes in my business they still love me so much and reassure me that it's going to be okay. One of the biggest challenges is finding the balance between putting energy into my business and attending to my children."

Charlotte and Walt on an Equinox lantern walk
Jenn came to unschooling as a mother with some experience of teaching children, and through the observation that her firstborn, Walt, was discovering and learning about the world naturally; with intrinsic motivation, as babies do. First it was rolling and crawling and walking... then eventually reading. "It was amazing to watch," she explains. "I figured I just had to create the opportunities for him to learn and explore and he would or he wouldn't and we could adjust and adapt and just have lots of fun together. And we have." 

Like so many unschoolers, Jenn's family tried out school, first. She thought she and Charlotte would have a great time bonding when Walt was away at school. "That fall, though, when Walt went off to school (two days a week) Charlotte was not happy. She had never known life without Walt in it and she was not happy that he was gone. It really made me rethink how I saw our family and the importance of us being together and maintaining that safe place that they had known so well. And Walt missed being with us. So this year, we decided he wouldn't go back to the kindergarten and we'd just see what happened. For the most part it's been great. Walt and Charlotte learn so much from each other in so many ways. And I wouldn't want to miss any of it either. I love being with them. It's really an honour." The kids' father, Mark, has a corporate background, but also some experience with teaching, music, yoga and writing. Jenn has a BFA, and is a writer and illustrator. She says that "talking about the idea of teaching our kids at home it seemed that we could provide them with a very dynamic education and so many opportunities to learn. There's so much to be learned just by doing the things we love with our children."

And yes, the kids help out with the business of running Maplerose! True to the principles of self-directed learning, they're never coerced into helping, but have nevertheless found ways to get involved. "They have put labels on kite paper and other stickering jobs, measuring and weighing packages but their main job now is as toy testers and book readers, until they let me know otherwise. I love seeing what they are and are not drawn to. Lately Walt has been playing with the block crayons arranging them into unique rainbows of colours of his choosing. And then he'll build robots out of them and make up a story. I love open-ended play and it reassures me that what I have at Maplerose works and is useful and helps children grow, learn and express themselves. They often just hang out with me in the studio and do their own thing and I'll explain different stuff and just see what lights them up."

Walt testing a beginner woodworking set
Maplerose seems to be the quintessential synergy of business in an unschooling family. The kids benefit from the passion of their mother (not to mention the wonderful products she's bringing in!), and the business of selling materials for creativity and discovery is helped by those kids' avid exploration. No wonder the packages feel so full of love!

You might be wondering, in these times, if buying from Maplerose is covid-safe. So I asked about that. Jenn, Mark, and their children live in a small community, where they remain isolated, except for one other family who they share a social bubble with. Maplerose products are shipped in from a handful of suppliers in Canada and Europe, all of whom Jenn knows personally, so she feels pretty safe about the situation. Then they're lovingly packaged up and shipped to customers, or left in a contactless pick-up location for local customers. By the time my beautiful box of felting supplies arrived in my home, the contents had been quarantined for the duration of the shipping time. Because I am ultra-careful about what I bring into my home, I wiped down the outside of the box with alcohol, and felt completely safe opening it to enjoy the contents. 

I was grateful to Jenn for answering my questions between all the Maplerose work, mediating for her kids who began squabbling, and shoveling reheated noodles into her mouth in a meagre effort at feeding herself, too. "Running a business amongst the fullness of motherhood is a challenge. As much as I do it for myself - to contribute, to create, to learn and to grow I’m doing it for my kids," she says. And I know how that is. My own kids are older now, and one of them is making our dinner in the kitchen as I write this article. It takes a whole lot of love, constant creative problem-solving, and some little bit of taking "calculated risks", as Jenn says, to raise a family that's all wrapped up and involved in each other's business. And that's just wonderful.

Maplerose website: https://lovemaplerose.com/

Instagram: @maplerosestore


Friday, November 6, 2020

how our social system perpetuates cruelty, and how we can break the cycle

When I was a kid, I wanted to disappear. I didn't have much resilience, and didn't know how to protect myself from the typical schoolyard bullying of the eighties. I felt small and dark and afraid, and spent many lunch-hours sitting out on a small, hidden bluff, hoping desperately that nobody would find me, and with a number of shrubby, mossy escape-routes already mapped out. Hiding was my solution to a social situation I wasn't prepared for. I escaped grade school into high school and became weird and vaguely threatening as a means of keeping other kids at bay. It worked, and I was lonely. Throughout the first thirty years of my life, I assumed the problem was me. I assumed I was just simply anti-social. Worthless.

It wasn't until I was a mother that my desperation to save my own children from the same fate caused me to really consider how I could prepare them for the culture that had crushed my own childhood. I began with keeping them home from school in order to protect them, but amazingly, it was a piece of wisdom from their school-going friend that finally helped me see a real escape-route: how we raise our children, and the society we build for them, matters entirely. We can look thoughtfully at our schools and other community groups just like we can carefully consider our home environment, and how those things make or break our children's mental health.

Once in those middle-years of raising my children, a boy I love very much and who I consider an extra son had this conversation with me:

"I feel like I'm at preschool when I'm at your house."
He was about 10, so this very much surprised me, and I asked him what he meant.
He responded, "...like I have to be polite and not swear... like in preschool."
I was astounded by his self-awareness, and even by his memory of preschool, but I pressed on. "Don't you still normally behave that way when you're not at my house?"

"No." He said, assuredly. "I can't. People would beat me up."

"What?!" I was incredulous. I, with my kids who stayed home every day and had big happy romping visits with friends (including this boy), couldn't imagine the threat my treasured child was describing. The threat of his schoolyard.

"I have to swear and act mean at school. I have to."

"But not at home," I begged, looking for a bit of hope.

"Not always but the boys from school come over to use my trampoline, so I kind of do there too. They always come over."

My heart broke for this boy--one of the gentlest I've known--to feel so trapped in his own community that he felt he had to become a different person. 

I have known a variety of violent, cruel men in my life. And every single one of them was a loving, compassionate person who had been raised in a culture or family that made him feel inadequate, hopeless; small. Every one of them used emotional, physical, sexual or verbal violence to control the world around him when he felt he was threatened. Every single one of them was doing what he felt was necessary to survive. 

After the conversation with my young friend, I saw so clearly the desperation in all those men's behaviour. I sat with that realization for weeks at the forefront of my mind, and it changed the way I saw that boy's father. It changed the way I saw my own partner. I forgave my fathers. I forgave my ex-boyfriends and my husband their variety of transgressions. I forgave my son for the many things I imagined he might end up doing because of a heartless culture that mocked him for wearing a tutu as a preschooler and pummeled him into a little corner full of muscle trucks, fear, superheroes, villains, and existential threat. And as I saw my own brave, intelligent daughter growing up toward a sexualized, diminished expectation of humanity, I forgave my mother and myself for all the ways we've fought without conviction and tried to disappear in life. I forgave us. Then I just cried.

What are we to do, as parents of children who our own community vilifies for the mere fact they're boys? I've been a feminist, all my life (yes, I've been fighting for my own and my mother's rights since before I ever heard the word 'feminism'). And I'm surrounded by the anger of my fellow feminists over boys who are excused from terrible crimes because their social status is at stake. I'm aware that those excuses leave girls unsupported; women languishing in shame and lifetimes of victimization. But as a mother of a boy, I also think about the boys. The 'social status' or 'future prospects' argument sure sounds hideously arrogant and small-minded, but maybe it's worth looking at. Those boys' and mens' social status may be what pushed them to commit the crimes in the first place. 

Perpetrators of abuse are usually victims of some form of abuse, themselves. That doesn't excuse their actions, it opens up a door for healing. It opens a door for us to see them as humans in need of help. In fact, it opens a door for us to look at every single child as a potential victim of abuse (familial, scholastic, societal, sexual, intellectual, etc.) and set them up to be resilient and--hopefully--to avoid abusive situations.

It was all very simple for me to assume that my kids would be safe from the schoolyard bullies because I didn't send them to school, but isolation from their own community isn't a solution, either. Both of my kids did end up attending some form of school in the few years after my conversation with their friend, and we did deal with the kinds of social trauma that happen there. However, the best thing I think I ever did in this respect was keep them home in the first place.

I and my husband unschooled our kids at home from Kindergarten to grades six and seven, respectively. They weren't isolated while they unschooled, because we did have a small community of other home- and unschoolers that we visited with multiple times a week. Picture groups of three to ten kids of all ages and their three or five parents all hanging out together at a park. Or maybe somebody's house. It was messy, it was chaotic, but it was whole. And by whole I mean that each gathering was a motley collection of different ages and types of people, all awkwardly sorting out social cues and each other's needs and values, in each moment, all the time. Together. We were a whole. Of course there were disagreements and social issues that came up among kids in the group, but the parents were involved in each moment, and were developing and modeling our own social skills in front of the kids, all the time. Our kids learned to respect each other, and more importantly, they learned to respect themselves and their own needs. 

Because so many of them were unschooled, and the play-times were for leisure, with no expectations of 'learning', kids weren't obliged to come along, and when they did they weren't obliged to participate. If something felt wrong to them, they could step aside and nobody would fault them for it. They learned to trust themselves in this way; they learned self-preservation that didn't rely upon reactive, hurtful behaviour. They learned practical social coping strategies from free, open play in a supportive environment, and by watching their parents engage with thoughtful empathy and a sense of enjoyment.

When my kids went to school, they both eventually experienced some form of social cruelty. I can't say they weren't harmed--they were. But pain happens in life. Other people do and say things that hurt us. We can have compassion for those people, but we can't change them by changing who we are. That's a lesson I am still learning now in my forties, but my children had apparently learned it by the time they were young teens. And I note that so had many of their homeschooled peers. 

So no, I'm not saying everybody should keep their kids home. I know that's not an option for most people, nor is it desired by many. But I feel like there must be a better way to raise our kids so that they develop a sense of self-worth. Boys and girls are equally susceptible to the degradation of self-worth that happens in the schoolyard and in our culture in general. Boys are more often encouraged by our culture to preserve their dignity and physical safety with violence, cruelty, and a kind of masculine arrogance. Girls are encouraged to do so by emotionally belittling other girls, by remaining calm in the face of fear, and by not taking up too much space, physically, intellectually, or emotionally. All are expected to conform. And may heaven help you if you don't fit the mold.

Can we just stop this now? No, I know it's not that easy to change centuries of cultural learning. But we can sure try harder! I would like for all children to spend their time in small, supported groups of mixed ages, genders, cultural backgrounds and political ideals. Free exploration in a supported, diverse environment is how we learn to really see other people, and it's how we learn empathy, as well as real dignity and self-awareness. 

That once-ten-year-old boy who told me my home felt like preschool is now eighteen. He's studying computer science and he still comes by and talks to me about his life. He's not here mainly to visit me; he's here to visit my son, who considers him a best friend. But he also takes time to talk to me. He takes time to talk to my daughter, who considers him an extra brother. He has grown out of those schoolyard bully days to find a path in his life that feels right. He doesn't have to swear just to keep himself safe, anymore. Probably through his amazing self-awareness, as well as his many social connections with people from all walks of life, my 'extra son' has grown out of the culture that limited him as a child, and is one of the beautiful young men emerging as a new adult in this world.

We can learn to live and tumble along with our culture's faults, or we can heal them, and thrive. We're never going to keep our children safe from pain and struggle. Hard times and heartbreak are part of life, and how we get through them is how we grow. But we can build diverse, supportive environments for our children and for ourselves, so that the getting through is easier, safer, and conducive to personal growth.

Friday, October 23, 2020

our kids aren't going to save us

Ever since I was a very little girl I knew that the teens of today will save the world. Or make that the teens of yesterday. When I was around ten, I remember hearing someone say that it was up to the (then) teens to make the big changes the world needed. Wow! I thought! They're going to fix the ozone layer! And pollution! And get rid of nuclear weapons forever! And this new thing called global warming that we were just starting to hear whispers of. I looked forward to the beautiful world those just a few years older than I was were creating for me. 

A few years later, when I graduated, and couldn't yet even vote, that burden of saving the world had shifted to my shoulders. I was the generation that was going to make the big changes. Well, OK, I thought. I can do that. I don't know what the rest of the generations were doing -- I mean, what happened to those teens from when I was a kid? Didn't they fix things? Well anyway now things were different. And me, I was going to finally fix things. We were going to finally fix things!!

Fast forward another five years and find me teaching some teens in a rec centre art program. It wasn't that I wasn't "fixing" the world, but plans for great upheaval, protests and really doing something big were on the back-burner as the need for paying rent and paying off my student loans was forefront in my mind. I tried to keep climate change and social justice on the menu during all activities, but, you know, that's not what parents were looking for in these art classes, so I had to temper it. You can't rock the boat too much if you're a new teacher and trying to keep your job; trying to keep people opening their wallets to pay you for teaching their kids. I figured I'd change the world when I made enough money.

Another couple of years later, I was joyfully welcoming my own kids to the world. It was even more imperative to me to save the world from the increasingly terrifying prospect of climate change which, by calculations at the time, was likely to cause global catastrophe by the time my kids were old. Well... if we didn't stop it, which we planned to. The only thing was, we all still needed to make money, and to do that we had to keep our jobs, and keep up the status quo, and really support the industries we knew were destroying the earth's ability to regulate the climate because, well, those companies had bought out all the smaller companies and were now the only affordable ways for us purchase the many many things that seemed to be required for home-life and babies! After all, what good is protecting your kids' future, if you can't even give them a semi-normal, socially-conforming lifestyle to start out with? But you know what I told myself then? Those kids I taught. They were about graduating age by now. They were coming up to voting age, and not yet burdened with the need to pay rent and student loans and preschool fees. They would save us!

Climate change, as we know, eclipsed the miraculously-diminishing ozone hole, as well as nuclear weapons threats, in the list of potential perils. And by the time my kids were ten years old, we knew for certain that their lives would be cut short by the ever-growing, ever-menacing list of catastrophes caused by climate change. In fact, the hurricanes, forest-fires and floods had already begun, and we began to realize that even our own lives would likely end in a kind of apocalypse we 80's kids had never fully imagined. Around that time it began to be acceptable to use the word apocalypse in my blog posts. Nobody was shocked, anymore. We were apathetic. We couldn't not give our kids tons of gifts, because we wanted them to be happy! We couldn't not buy the plastic toys and fleece clothing that they needed to fit in with their friends. We couldn't step off of the rat-race treadmill because somehow we had to afford all these things, and we still weren't managing to take them on enough vacations for their social and emotional well-being. We knew we were doomed. So we sipped up our lattes and attended some climate rallies on lunch-breaks, and told ourselves that the teens of the current generation would save us.

My son voted, this week. He's eighteen. I just can't bring myself to tell him to save me. 

This is bullshit, and we all know it. Telling ourselves that each new generation will fix the mistakes of the twenty before it is a bright shiny carousel of lies we tell ourselves so we don't have to make the hard changes that are required to save ourselves from climate change. And those changes are HARD! We're all going to have to sacrifice the tarred dreams we pursued; we're all going to have to sacrifice our income, social status and the careers, homes, vacations; even relationships that are threatening our sustainable future. Because if we don't, our future is far more bleak than we can imagine. And I don't want that for my kids. I don't want that for me. 

We have to stop buying things we don't need. We have to reassess the meaning of the word "need", according to a non-commercialized, non-selfish scale. We have to stop supporting industries and corporations that are fiscally tied to financial gain. The pursuit of money isn't saving the world; it's destroying it. Growth isn't saving the world; it's destroying it. We have to stop seeking more, and start acknowledging how much joy there is in what we already have. We have children. We have love.

My son was interviewed by our local paper about his first voting experience, and he had this to say: "I think a lot of politicians are afraid to take the necessary drastic steps to counteract climate change because of the possible short term cost to our economy, but I say it's worth it to ensure that we have a safe, livable future for us and our families going on into the future."

In the upcoming election, we have an opportunity to stand up and vote for the candidate or party who is most likely to make the hard changes. People, get out and vote. Then let's look at our lives honestly and just make the changes we should have made decades ago. We are adults and it's time we started behaving like adults. It's time that we all stood up and made the change we want to see in the world, instead of expecting our kids to do it for us.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Why every kid should be raised as if they might be LGBTQ


Today is National Coming Out Day. I didn't even know that was a thing, until I saw it posted on Facebook this morning and went to Google it. As a parent I've tried to be so careful; so deliberately woke, but, like the term 'woke', I'm watered down. 

When my kids were little, I consciously referred to their future partners as a genderless "they", or "he or she". I wasn't very familiar with trans culture at the time, and my only gender-defying parenting feats were to encourage them to play with all manner of toys, and to dress themselves in every colour, and every style of clothing. If I knew then what I know now, I would have encouraged them to choose their own pronouns, too. Some brave souls are raising kids that way, now. And in 2016 the province of Alberta presented schools with guidelines for allowing students to choose and live by their own preferred pronouns. Amazingly (or not, when you consider the culture we live in), both of my kids subscribed to gender stereotypes from very early ages, and defined themselves as cis-straight. I defied - just in case - and kept telling them that was fine, but that I would love them and their partners no matter what genders or pronouns they may happen to use. I wanted to be sure that there was never a day when my kids questioned their sexuality or gender, and didn't feel safe talking about it. I didn't just wait for the conversations, I started them.

And when my trans cousin committed suicide just after Trump was elected, I started even more conversations. Can you imagine knowing that your cousin felt so unwelcome in society that he no longer wanted to live, and then perhaps discovering you might be similarly different from the norm? I don't know what my kids' place on the spectrum of gender and sexuality is, and they had only met our cousin once, but I needed them to know that they had a safe space; that their feelings would always be valid, even if they change, and even if they don't want to talk about them. The necessity of being an accepting parent became deeper and more desperate for me.We attended Pride like it was our special family party, having finally had a taste of the loss from which pride is cultivated; the ashes from which humanity is trying to rise.

When my kids were little I was told that if I didn't help them identify as cis and straight, I was damaging their sense of self-worth, messing with their identity, and setting them up for bullying. Those comments terrified me, because what I'm trying to do is the opposite. But I carry on anyway, because you know what really damages kids' self-worth? Feeling like they're not acceptable to their own parents. All kids are potentially going to question their sexuality or gender. Everybody should question those things, just so we can know ourselves and live our best lives, with open eyes. If we want our potentially-LGBTQ kids to feel self-worth, we need to openly accept and advocate for LGBTQ people in our community, so they can see people they may or may not identify with, and feel safe around them. Even if our kids are consistently cis-gendered and straight, they need to know that it's normal not to be, as well. They need to have no fear about identity, love, or their belonging in community. So no, I'm not messing with their identity - I'm refraining from messing with their identity. Because it's theirs to determine. Not mine.

Bullying is scary. I'm telling you, as the girl who knelt, eating weiners off the floor, being kicked by my classmates, while my teacher stood at the font of the room looking through her papers. You know what I did when they stopped? I went outside and I told a younger kid that I'd magically turn her into a frog if she didn't give me the swing. She ran away crying, and I took that swing and my pride and rode it all the way through recess. I felt terrible about becoming a bully, myself, and it's what makes me so determined to raise children who feel secure enough to be neither victims nor perpetrators. Fear is what makes bullies. Fear is what makes victims. The only way to give our kids a ticket out of this dynamic is to make sure they know they're safe in who they are; that they can always come home to a pair of loving, accepting arms. No matter what.

Accepting our kids is not as much about being OK with whomever they become as it is about being OK with the whole world, so our kids know that they'll be acceptable, whomever they become. They have to be accepted to become themselves. The right to self-determination is as important as shelter, food, love and security. It isn't any of my business what my kids' gender or sexuality may be, but it's my business to provide a safe place for them to self-identify, and to be flexible enough in my own mind that whenever their identity changes, I'm ready to accept it. And there is no end-point; no final level of consciousness to achieve. There's just a constant, always-learning, growth.