Sunday, July 16, 2017

Strides in Unschooling

It's been quite a while since I realized we were "unschoolers." We'd been so in spirit pretty much from the beginning, academically-speaking. I was always willing to skive off the loose plan I had (we never bought curricula and always just had some random colorful workbooks around and some science experiments in the pipeline in case the desire arose) if something more interesting came up.

For instance, when I used to mystery shop, if I were able to schedule a whole day of shops, I'd do that and we'd listen to Dragon Rider or the Spiderwick Chronicles or Harry Potter on audiobook in the van. And I wouldn't feel like we'd missed out on anything, or that we were "behind."

And whenever we went on field trips, I never made a lesson plan in advance, or printed out a scavenger hunt, or made D take notes. We just enjoyed what we were doing, and what was interesting or important stuck.

Then a few years ago, everything fell into place and we had a label. At first, I thought it would just be academically. I read about radical unschoolers (parents who let the "they'll learn what they need to know without coercion" bleed into their home life as well as education), and it sounded for all the world like "unparenting" to me. It sounded boundaryless. It sounded like chaos.

And then D got older, and wasn't quite the people-pleaser (or mom-pleaser) that the younger version had been. I had to decide how to handle that: bow up against it and assert my "parental authority," or lean into building the relationship we'll have as adults, and invest my energy into something that will outlast what happens "under my roof." I chose the latter. It's taken a while, but it's changed everything, and I wish I'd done it sooner.

So Mal gets a different start than D did. We're starting him without the authoritarian model D had as a young tyke. And it's fascinating to see how it's going.

When D was newly-minted, I really thought that I had to provide "educational" stimuli every moment, or I was missing opportunities. Think things like saying, "This is your nose" or singing the alphabet song, or narrating literally everything I did. It didn't occur to me that entry into the world is stimulating enough. That kids learn by watching and imitating. That talking to them naturally rather than didactically is better.

Yesterday, Mal asked me to read "Thomas and the Ten Balloons." First of all, that was cool because he's a lot less into reading than D was at the same age. And we don't assign value to any of his pursuits over others, as a rule, but it's just interesting how different they are, and I really enjoy sitting a kid on my lap and going through books together!

Anyway, for the first time, Mal counted all of the balloons on the first page correctly. He can count to ten, and will do it "right" much of the time. But pointing to the balloons in sequence, without skipping any or counting one more than once, was a first. And whereas I'd counted out loud, counted objects, encouraged counting, and drawn numbers over and over, "working" with D, I've never done any of that with Mal. Yet somehow, he's managed to pick it up.

On the radical unschooling front, there's that Mal eats and drinks whatever he wants. I never made D eat at certain times, but, for instance, I made laminated "tickets" in the shape and color of little cups when D was about Mal's age. There were 2 "apple juice" cups, 2 "chocolate milk" cups, and like 8 "water" cups. They were in a pouch on the fridge, and D would get one ticket to bring me, I'd fill the order, and I'd put the ticket on top of the fridge to be recycled the next day. I did this because I felt very arbitrary about when I said "yes" to juice and when I said "no," but I "knew" that parents aren't supposed to let their kids drink a lot of juice, because sugar and obesity and whatnot. So I made a scapegoat and though it was brilliant.

Another time, D didn't eat the mandated amount of broccoli at dinner, and I insisted that would be the next thing consumed. Breakfast rolled around, and D instead opted out. Then we met friends a Chick-fil-A, and I brought that stinking (literally), cold left-over in a snack baggie. Half an hour into playing and desperate for a kids' meal, my poor child choked down those sad trees so we could all get on with our lives.

Again, at the time, I believed it to be a battle of wills I'd needed to win. The only problem with doping it like that is that it makes the kid the "loser." Winning and losing is fine in competition: sports and games... but not parenting. We're supposed to be working together. If it ever feels like the kid is "against" us, then it behooves us, as the hopefully better-able-to-think-rationally adult to see what's going on, what the conflict is, and how to navigate forward.

So, cut to yesterday: Mal had had three doughnuts to start his day A different mindset might have limited this to one or two before "encouraging" the child to eat something "more nutritious." But we just let him have what he wanted (actually, he walked into his room eating one that he'd gotten himself... and that was supposed to have been D's!), and no one made any big deal out of it. Whatever he ate throughout the day wasn't memorable, and then at dinner -- this is particularly ironic given the anecdote I just shared - as we were sitting down to the potsticker soup I'd made, Mal wanted none of it and instead requested broccoli.

Actually, there were a couple of tries with the soup, during which I realized that he seems to think the refrigerator is like the microwave, but for cold. He'd ask me to put the soup in the refrigerator because it was too hot, and 45 seconds later, he'd start fussing that I take it out... then scream when it was still "too hot."

So I only heated the broccoli 30 seconds, to knock off the cold rather than to heat it up. Mal inhaled it and asked for more. He probably ended up eating 3 servings, enthusiastically, with no "reward" in sight. He ate it because it's what he wanted, and he was happy.

It's so much easier and enjoyable that way.

In terms of learning... well, my son knew what a feller buncher was several days before I did, and I have more than four decades on that kid! D is an even more amazing artist than ever, and learning all sorts of exciting stuff I'd love to share, but teenagers and privacy and respect and all of that. It's just a treat to see my kids learning things I've never thought of learning, because it's where their interests are taking them.

Yesterday, when Mal was playing and being a little too rambunctious, and getting in my way when I needed to get something done, I asked him repeatedly and without shielding my frustration to please move so I could finish. Whether he moved or not, whatever he was doing, it occurred to me that he has no fear of disappointing or displeasing James or me. He does what he does, and if he does something "wrong" like hurting one of us or breaking something, he pleasantly and genuinely says, "Sorry, Mom!" but doesn't blanch and wait for the other shoe to fall. He's secure. He knows he's loved. He doesn't worry about what we might do when we find out this or that happened. It's a pretty amazing thing.

I believe there are two main reasons a lot of people wouldn't consider unschooling, on any level, but maybe especially whole life unschooling.

The first is a negative view of children (and probably humanity in general). "If you give 'em an inch, they'll take a mile." Well, that might be true if you've stingily meted out centimeters their whole lives and are "doing them a favor" by letting them have a "little" taste of abundance. However, if you just throw the whole rope out for their use, it's actually easier to reel it in when you need to, because they trust that you're being as generous as you can, since that's what you always do.

For instance, this morning, we were out of Lucky Charms, which Mal requested (specifically: "marshmallows with cereal"). He was disappointed, but I managed to sell him on Quaker Oatmeal Squares with bananas by telling him the truth, which is that it's my favorite cereal ever. And he knows we'll get more sugar bombs another time. He knows we say "yes" as often as we can, so he trusts our "no"s when we have to give them.

The second reason, I believe, is something akin to jealousy. "Why should this kid get to decide how to spend his time? I never got to do that." Often, this is stated as something more benevolent-sounding, like, "They have to learn to do what people tell them because once they get out in the real world..." Well, except... they're kids. They can probably pop on into regimented scheduling and being told what to do for hours on end fairly easily. And if they can't, maybe they'll create their own "thing" so they don't have to be beholden to someone for those moments of their days.

Regardless, I don't harbor any resentment against my teenager, who decides when to go to bed and when to get up and when and what to eat and how to fill the weird hours of wakefulness. I think it's exciting, and wonder what I might have done with that freedom. I used to make newsletters for my grandma on our computer (printed with the dot-matrix printer!). And write short stories for friends. I loved to walk while listening to showtunes. I liked sitting out on "the bluff," overlooking the Arkansas River. Who knows what might have come of unlimited hours to indulge in my own thoughts, plans, and schemes? How grateful I am that we can give that treasure to our children. Once they get older, they necessarily will have to choose more "mature" and less "fun" pursuits (though hopefully still leaving room for those; I do, in as much as I can!), so that they can experiment and while away hours and binge-watch and try to cut down trees with sticks and get trapped on the bed for 45 minutes because there's a cat sitting there like a paper weight... It's something I'm supremely glad I get to witness and in which I am privileged to play a role.


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