Friday, December 4, 2015

It's a new year!

Some years ago, I started a practice of choosing a theme for each year -- one word I could start with and return to throughout the year. Some past themes included Kindness and Joy, for example. I find that a theme works better than a list of resolutions, which typically end up being a bunch of rules I use to beat myself up when I fall short. It's an extension of having principles vs rules in our home.

This past year's theme was self-care, and I really did will with it -- I resolved some health questions, made a point of being kind to myself more often, set some boundaries in relationships with loved ones, found a therapist, and made some changes in my life. It was a good year. I'm keeping up with the self-care, as I do with all past themes, the idea being to make lifelong improvements.

I start my new years on my birthday. After all, these are my years. Why use someone else's calendar? That means I've been at this year's theme for almost 6 weeks now. I don't choose the theme as much as it chooses me. I write down words and ideas, starting in September, to narrow down a choice by Oct 26. Most years, when the first word comes to me, I dismiss it, thinking it somehow wrong, before I end up settling on it as a theme. It's an intuitive - or maybe counterintuitive - process. 

This year's theme is release. I chose it quickly, thinking it would be wonderful to let go of all the things that have held me back. I could let go of anger, pain, and sadness, throw out relationship tools I no longer need. Maybe get rid of the couple of hammers still hanging out in my personal toolbox. It'd be wonderful! Right? And yes, I'm letting go of some of those things, sifting thru the years, forgiving slights, striving to see people and events in a new light.

Last week, tho, a new thought popped into my head. While releasing means letting go of things we've outgrown or no longer need or want, tools that don't serve us well, people who aren't safe, it also means freeing things held inside too long. It means expressing the words and feelings I've kept inside in a lifetime of peacekeeping and caretaking. It means trying the things I was afraid for others to see. It means speaking my truth in ways I haven't before. It likely means being more outspoken than I've ever been and less diplomatic. Maybe taking more risks that people won't understand or accept me. Not that keeping my truth inside has helped many people understand me.

It my also mean people who liked me before -- or the person I've presented the past 53 years -- might find they don't like me so much after all. You know what?  I'm okay with that. If people fall away, I won't take it personally.

Just a heads up -- if you've found me only a little annoying, you may find I'm more so. And if you've wondered how I really feel about things, if you want to see me try some new things, and you'd like to see me maybe offend some folks I've not gotten around to yet, this could be fun! 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

How tv saved me (TW: violence)

Recently, my therapist asked me in my childhood, what people or influences gave me hope, a sense of what was good in the world. My first thought was one favorite aunt and a favorite uncle. As we talked, I realized that while the aunt and uncle each gave me an unconditional love no one else offered, that tv -- of all things -- played a huge role in giving me hope as a girl.

There was no educational tv as we know it today. As kids, we watched some cartoons on Saturday morning, but mostly regular sit-coms and dramas -- The Andy Griffith Show, The Brady Bunch, Star Trek, and later Facts of Life or Different Strokes. Our parents didn't watch with us; it was clear they didn't feel a need to share that with us. Watching tv was our escape, our shared landscape of the world in a chaotic, often mean, house. What I recall most from those shows, and why I remembered it during therapy is this -- the people on tv shows were nice to their kids. No one hit their kids with a belt, grabbed them by the hair, or backhanded them across the mouth. No Brady kid was ever sent out to cut her own switch. Seeing stories where parents were kind to children, where they not only said "I love you" (I had one parent who did that) but treated the children like they were loved, showed me that somewhere people were nice, that life didn't have to be mean. I could see my parents were wrong; it wasn't necessary to hurt us to civilize us.

That knowlege, tho, was double-edged. It was good to know kindness existed, but also sad and confusing that we didn't enjoy that sort of kindness; that no matter how good I tried to be, how much I helped, how many chores I took on, how hard I tried to help my sister be good, too, we didn't live in a kind place. At least not reliably kind or soft. The result of those contrasts gave me determination. I was going to grow up someday and leave home, make my own family. Things would be different. I'd show them people could be kind. I knew that because I saw it on tv, where parents and kids laughed about small mistakes, no one belittled the kid's feelings, or dismissed them. Feelings were taken seriously; kids were comforted and helped.

I did grow up. I became a Mom. I didn't always get the whole tv watching thing right. I let people convince me that The Simpsons was bad and didn't let my son watch the show. And because he's my kid, he found ways around me. Several years later, I came to my senses and let everyone watch The Simpsons. I bought that child a viewer's guide to The Simpsons as a peace offering, an apology of sorts. Today, Will can identify every Simpsons episode by the opening sequence.

In the years since, our family has enjoyed so many tv shows. More shows than I can list, because I'm sure I'd miss someone's favorite. Some of them I was slow to embrace. Some I still can't watch, but the boys do. There are some shows I watch with Andy, some I watch with Dan. We love finding a new show we can share, and I love what I learn about the boys while watching tv with them. Another treat is seeing which shows the boys share with Gary, who enjoys watching some shows that just aren't for me.

I wasn't overstating to say that tv saved me. In fact, I probably wasn't giving tv the credit it was due all those years ago. Which is why I cringe every time I hear or see someone assert that tv is dangerous to kids and should be tightly controlled. I believe tv should be embraced, shared, discussed, laughed at, and remembered fondly for all the moments we spent together.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Better than Peace

For years, practically my whole life, I've wrestled with the idea of peace. It sounds like a perfectly good word and ideal. Doesn't it? And yet, for me, peace and peacefulness have always been disappointing concepts. I've found a better, more useful concept than peace, a joyful goal even. I'll get to that later. 

Peace, tho, is the starting point of today's musings. Peace was my goal for years. It's held up by people as a noble goal. World Peace we're told is lofty - and then we're told why it's unachievable. Peacefulness in relationships, families, between parents and neighbors and relatives is laudable, especially when peace is reached between two entities who were previously being unkind, or even hurtful, toward each other.

But is peace always a laudable goal? That has not been my experience. My entire childhood, all I ever wanted was peace, but peace came at a terrible price. Having peace meant I had no boundaries, that I promised people things that could only be accomplished by giving every moment I had, leaving me nothing for myself. Peace meant sacrificing privacy, silencing my own voice, ignoring my own needs. Once people learned I'd give anything -- really, anything -- for peace, I was taken advantage of, lied to, and given false hope of peace. I chased peace, I begged for peace, I plotted for peace. How could I make peace happen? How much more of myself could I give to others in pursuit of peace? I mean, if peace was the magic answer, someday I'd reach that goal and get some calm and space. Right? I just needed to keep trying, keep trading away bits of myself, keep working harder.

I began to suspect I'd been sold a bill of goods no one could deliver. Peace is a lie. Peace is expensive beyond its worth. Peace costs joy, justice, and personal comfort. Sometimes peace even seems to demand one's soul and well-being. Peace is a thief. Peace is a tool used by those who would control others with threats and terror and lies. Peace is an empty promise, used to convince others to do your bidding. All of those statements were my truth, my experience of what peace meant and what peace cost.

I began to see that peace, as a goal, requires an amount of privilege and power that always eluded me. Proposing peace, if only I could give up one thing, and one more thing, accommodate one more discomfort, defer one more need, was my undoing. Peace doesn't guarantee justice or fairness, or even that everyone's needs will be met. Peace simply promises a cessation of violence, a hope that maybe others will stop violating one's boundaries, health, and very soul. 

So, you see peace as a goal, especially when sold to me by people who didn't struggle as I did (as I do) often angered me, saddened me, and almost always reaching what looked like peace to others didn't bring me any inner peace. Peace always brought with it sadness and pain and a deep sense of lonely otherness that broke my heart.

Today, tho, I saw a post on facebook that so completely spoke to me. It was an epiphany for me -- peace isn't the lofty goal I'd always been led to believe! Peace is simply a cessation of violence; an absence of evil. Peace really isn't want I want for my life -- the price is too high. Peace doesn't necessarily give us joy or even meet our needs. The best peace can be is safer than conflict. Really, peace is a pretty low bar for my life. 

Anyway, on to the better, higher goal than peace, to my new goal and the word I'll be using in place of peace from now on -- harmony. Isn't that a lovely word? It feels good in my mouth, brings a smile to my face, and so much comfort to my heart.

Sure, harmony comes at a cost, too. Harmony requires that some compromises be made -- in timing and priority and patience. Harmony, tho, also means everyone's voice is heard, everyone's needs are considered and prioritized as a goal to be met. Harmony calls for everyone to work, play, laugh, cry, wait, and show up together. Harmony, when reached -- and that's a process, not a unilateral "shut up and be peaceful now" -- is so much better, stronger, and more joyous than peace. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Is Unschooling Hands Off?

I've seen posts in which people share a common misunderstanding about the nature of radical unschooling. One Mom new to unschooling wrote, " My one Unschooling disclaimer is that for us, we do not embrace “Radical Unschooling”. It’s usually a secular belief that children are not to be told what to do ever… And other thoughts that I just don’t subscribe to."
Yes, radical unschooling is often a secular belief, tho some people who choose radical unschooling are also Christian, but I suppose that if one is adamant about not allowing any secular ideals into their family home, that radical unschooling likely won't be a good fit. However, the idea that children are not to be told what to do ever, isn't part of our radical unschooling home. We have boundaries, respect for each other, principles of safety and kindness and we give loads of guidance in how to navigate relationships, both at home and in our community outside our home.
I have known a few families who seem to practice the hands-off method cited by the people who seem to think unschooling is inconsistent with giving children valuable direction in how to get along in the world. I've met and heard stories about parents who profess they never tell a child what to do -- that radical unschooling means "learning from the world" or some such. While they might call themselves radical unschoolers, they are mistaken if they tell others that radical unschooling means parents never say no to a child, or don't help a child who has been unkind or disrespectful to other people to find better, more considerate ways to interact with others.
I understand how those misunderstandings happen, and the only way for those of us who want to help our children navigate the world in kind, thoughtful ways -- and who consider such guidance essential to unschooilng as a whole-life practice -- is for us to clarify this for folks who are new to or exploring unschooling. I'm confident that families who work to be present and helpful to their children are the majority in the radical unschooling community. Families who never tell a child what to do are the minority, tho sometimes they seem to be the most vocal and visible minority.

My boys have been through seasons where, on the surface, it looked like they only did or ate one thing -- only white foods (yes, really), only high-sugar junk foods, only played Grand Theft Auto. When they'd spend a whole week target-firing one pellet gun or another, or talked of nothing but knives, or motorcycles, or World of Warcraft. I had people tell me I needed to limit the games, control the food, refuse to by them pellet guns or knives; that indulging kids' whims in this way would make them violent, thoughtless, or unkind. I simply don't have it in me to tell someone I love that their feelings, passions, and aversions don't matter to me; that their needs don't matter because as the adult I know what's best for them. So I stood my ground. I watched my kids, I offered my own experiences, perspective, and insights. I shared resources and stories from other people. We talked about articles, tv shows, books, things I'd heard in school, things other people believe. We talked about how my kids felt, what other people thought and said about their choices, what folks worried about, what my kids and I did or did not worry about. Mostly we talk. A lot. Really a lot. People warn that eating a certain food or watching a specific tv show will affect a child's mood, and that their only choice was to limit those things. Our moods are affected by so many things -- how much sleep we got, if something hurts a bit today, the distractions of sounds, smells, scratchy clothes, how the floor feels under our feet today, and so much more. I got into any situation with my kids remembering that what I think is going on may be completely untrue. The only way I can really know is to be open to any combination of factors. If I go in convinced it's about what my kid ate, or because I let him watch a tv show or play a particular video game, I may completely miss what my kid really needs. As kids get older and can tell us what they're feeling it gets somewhat easier.
I'm 51, and I don't always know why I'm in a particular mood. I can hear Gary say something, nod my head, feel sympathy for him, know what I want to say, how I want to feel. Then when I open my mouth, what I say may be very different from what I was thinking. If that's true at my age, I can be sure my kids sometimes don't know why they feel or say as they do. In those moments, instead of thinking I know why he said or did that, and attributing it to the food he ate, or the video game he was playing, I listen and empathize. I offers options, usually including some that fit what I guess might be going on for my kid. In my better moments, I offer even the options I think are unlikely.

Imposing limits and controls based on fear, or on what others tell us to worry about seldom meets needs or brings any peace. And there's so much joy and wonder we'd have missed along the way.

Giving Your Kids Everything They Want

Recently in an online conversation that began with how shocking it is that some of us more experienced unschoolers (I've been at this for about 13 yrs - my boys are 29, 18, and 13) recommend not limiting tv, or food, don't require chores, etc, I read this: 
"However I know people who were given everything they wanted as children, never told no and oh my they turned out to be the most self absorbed entitled people I have ever meet. I don't want that for my children." [sic]
My entire life, I have heard the assertion that if you give kids what they want, simply because they want it, they'll become selfish. It was my mother's reason for being as restrictive as she was (and in some ways, she was pretty liberal) -- that people who always get their way are selfish. Mind you, she always got her way where we kids were concerned. Who was selfish? That was always the question I wisely kept to myself as a girl.
For me, the point is this -- "people who were given everyTHING they wanted". Contrast that to what I see when we more experienced folks talk about what we did and still do while our kids were eating what they wanted, watching what they wanted, playing the video games with dangerous reputations for violence or misogyny. We're not talking about setting the kids in front of the tv and going off to do our own thing. Every seasoned unschooler I've seen comment or reply to online questions shares examples of how we watched WITH our kids, and started conversations about what we see on tv. We explore foods our kids like, offer foods we love, talk about how food makes us feel, the bigger social and political contexts of what we read, play with, or consume (both food and media). We talk about how other people feel, and what they believe in contrast to what we believe. We ask our kids why they believe as they do; who or what informs their choices and values?
I recall Pam Sorooshian once posting - and I'm paraphrasing here, but I hope to get the gist of it -- that just as people warn that kids with who are never punished will end up in jail, there are surely lots of people in jail who had rules and limits and were denied things and told NO *because kids need to hear NO* (one of my Mom's biggies).
It seems to me that the reason parents most often set limits on what they will allow their children to have at home -- bad food, irreverent tv shows, violent video games, for example -- is fear. Usually it's a fear that their children will be harmed, either physically or emotionally and developmentally by untoward influences. I'm not sure how to calm all those fearful voices.

For me, the answer has been to figure out what matters to me. Do I want happy children? Will watching tv shows that make fun of others lead my children to be mean? Will playing video games with stolen cars or fights between medieval fantasy characters encourage them to be violent in person? Is sugar really a poison to all bodies and to be avoided by everyone?

I think usually what those people whose lives fell apart lack is presence from a parent who is willing to listen, reflect, model, and question everything in the goal of helping find out what that child needs, who he or she is, and why. To do that, though, you need to be willing to sit down to watch the tv shows, serve the food that maybe you don't like or think is junk, try things that maybe scare you or challenge your accepted notions. It's all about being with your kids, not about setting controls meant to keep them with you philosophically. Sometimes this also means finding ways to really listen and be with a child whose needs are different from the needs of the other people in the family, it often means stretching yourself in ways you never could have anticipated.

A Toolbox Full of Hammers

I've not read much on the Adrian Peterson story (the Ray Rice story pretty much depleted my reserves) but what I do see saddens me. People defending the actions of a man who abused his 4yo child; a DA stating that Peterson "exceeded the standards" for disciplining his child, as if there is an acceptable standard for hitting someone younger, smaller, and weaker than you; folks trotting out the old "I was spanked and I turned out fine" line.

I'm not the first to say it, and I hope to not be the last: If you think it's acceptable to hit anyone you profess to love - your partner, your child, or your parent - you did NOT turn out fine. You learned poor methods. The people who loved you shared the same parenting toolbox full of hammers they were given, and really you deserved better. So do your kids. We all do.

Online I read a perspective that professional athletes should be held to a higher standard. I'd like to see everyone held to a higher standard for kindness, especially as parents and partners.

That said, I do not think throwing anyone out of any profession in response to abuse allegations, or even a first conviction, is a good policy. The knowledge that if a partner, spouse, or parent is alleged to be an abuser it would cost that person their entire career -- and all your family income -- would be a deterrent for some victims; it would push abuse further underground. Mandatory counseling and parenting classes (because adults who hit other adults WILL hit children), follow up, legal compliance, supervised visitation for child abuse situations - absolutely. But ejecting someone from his or her career at the first allegation? No. Let's try helping them learn better ways first. I'm pretty sure everyone who hits a loved one was themselves hit by a loved one. It's a learned behavior. People can learn better ways. But only if we talk about it, only if they're given a second chance. I'm not saying no consequences, just a reasonable first response.

What About Tests?

Over the past few weeks, we've been reviewing a practice test for the Accuplacer test used by our local community college as part of Andy's exploration of what's next for him. We learned a few things. 

First, we are all grammar geeks, with no tolerance for typos, and poorly proofed sample exams. Really, if this practice test is indicative of the sort of education one receives in public school, our boys didn't miss anything important. Questions included "you bought a boat for $10,000. You have made 9 payments of $450 each. How much have you paid for the car?" And one that opened with Rome, and closed with London. Such bad proofreading. I do hope the actual test is clearer.

Second, the boys learned (I already knew) that tests are designed to trip you up. The questions and paragraphs to read (for the comprehension portion) are either confusing or mind-numbingly boring. Passing tests is about test-taking ability, and not necessarily an accurate measure of actual knowledge.

Third, Andy found math easier than he feared. The biggest challenge was his unfamiliarity with math notation. The concepts and how to make math work were logical, even where they were intentionally arcane.

All of which makes me question the value of said placement test.

Oh, and he took the tests cold, with no study or prep. If we needed proof, there's some that unschooling *works*. That's not why we unschool, tho. We do it because it makes us happy, and happiness is reason enough for me.