Childism as a Missed Opportunity

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“Living with Wild Abandon” is an original bi-weekly column appearing sporadically on Tuesday at Everything-Voluntary.com, by Breezy V. Stevens. Breezy is a long-time radical unschooler, an advocate for children’s rights, a crazy dog lady, a crafter in various mediums, a lover of all things tropical and beachy, and the designer of “EVC in Color“. Archived columns can be found here. LWA-only RSS feed available here.

When I’m out in public places, I see an awful lot of instances of people treating their children rudely and disrespectfully. Sometimes they’re just flat-out mean. Every time I see it, it breaks my heart, and it’s easy to get stuck in the thinking that the world will never come around to kinder ways of living with children.

Occasionally, though, I witness an adult-child interaction that warms my heart and gives me hope. Recently I was at the post office, in an awful hurry. I came rushing out toward my car, noticing that the door of the car next to mine was open, preventing me from reaching the driver’s seat.

Just as I started to get irritated that I would be delayed, I noticed the people behind the open door – an older woman and what was presumably her young grandson. The woman was carefully unpacking the box she’d just received, in order to pull out a big air bubble packing cushion. She handed it to the boy, all the while talking kindly and attentively with him.

Seeing this, I relaxed, remembering all the times I’d paused in the middle of my busy day to talk and play with my wee ones, and wishing dearly that more people were able to push aside their busy-ness and impatience, and spend more moments connecting with their kids. Instead of pushing past them to my car, I hung back and watched.

I watched as the grandmother handed the cushion to the boy, took his hand, and walked with him to the sidewalk. I watched as he placed the bubble on the ground and tried to stomp on it. It skipped out from under his feet, and grandma smiled, patiently placing it back in position for another try. Their car door was closed now, and I’d been spotted, so I continued to my own car and got in. As I slowly drove away, I continued to watch them.

The last thing I saw was the grandmother look up, as an airplane flew overhead. She pointed it out gleefully to the little boy, and his eyes grew wide as he watched and listened to her words. There was a palpable air around them, of love and joy in each other’s company. The grandmother had taken what could have been just another boring errand, and made it into an adventure.

I drove home in a wonderful mood, feeling that I’d just witnessed a small miracle. And I wondered to myself why this is a comparatively rare occurrence in our current culture. I remember when my own children were young, the way their wonder was infectious. Being home with them was a shockingly rejuvenating experience, as my own eyes were reopened to the almost magical possibilities that lurked in everyday experiences, most of which had long since become boring and routine. Living moment-to-moment in the presence of small children allowed me to be more present, to notice so many of the fine details of life and the world around me that I’d unconsciously learned to tune out as I’d grown older. Their relentless energy and enthusiasm, while at times overwhelming or even exhausting, changed and renewed my overall outlook on the world and humanity. I feel blessed that I was able to witness and participate in so much of my children’s childhood. Now that my kids are so much older (one grown, and the other a teenager), the energy and enthusiasm is less apparent. Small things are no longer new and exciting. I find myself missing the moments of awe at “the little things”: the first fall leaves and snowfall; the excitement of running from frozen puddle to frozen puddle, relishing the crunch of the ice as we jumped onto it with all our might; bending low to examine an insect we’d never seen before; staying in the warm house on a cold winter day, doing science experiments, or baking something wonderful… it’s a list I could add to all day. And though we don’t really do these things anymore, we will always have these memories to cherish, and hopefully, my own children will endeavor to fully engage with their children as well.

These kinds of experiences, I believe, are not only foundational to the children we share them with, but also transformative for the adults that share the childhood adventures. We are given an opportunity to see the world through children’s eyes again, and if we embrace the opportunity, we are the recipients of great and lasting gifts that can remind us to see the world with an outlook of innocence and wonder.

It’s a profoundly sad thing, to see so many people missing such an amazing opportunity, as they brush aside their children’s questions, hurry them from one “important” errand to another, and shush or shame them (or worse) when they disrupt the ingrained busy-ness of the adults around them. What could be more important than to savor every moment, and every experience with these precious, amazing tiny people, as they learn to navigate the world around them? Being present with our children, paying attention and taking them seriously, and allowing them to act like the children they are – even in public – has the potential to contribute to a radical change in the way our culture treats children. I worry about the consequences of locking children away from the rest of the world, for their own sake, as well as for adults’ sake. We all miss out on mutually beneficial interactions, to everyone’s detriment. I believe the world would be a better, happier, more compassionate place to live if people of all ages were free to mingle, to work, to play, to explore and investigate, and to share companionship together, in our daily lives. This will, of course, require some attitude adjustments from adults, both in our philosophical beliefs about children’s rights and place in the world, as well as in our day-to-day interactions with them: it’s all well and good to believe that children should be treated equally and with respect, but we have to learn to live this belief, every day.

In our crazy, busy, stressed-out world, more of us are finding that we need to slow down and connect with the truly important things in life. It’s easy for life to become a blur, to get stuck in a rut, to lose touch with our values and forget to see the wonderful-ness in the world around us. I think including and connecting with kids again is likely to do everyone more good than we can even imagine.

I am heartened each time I see someone like the grandmother from last week, taking the time and energy to enjoy and appreciate the small moments with children. More and more people seem to be embracing a new way of living with children every day, and I am hopeful and grateful for each and every one.

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Unschooling Isn’t All About the Kids

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“Living with Wild Abandon” is an original bi-weekly column appearing every other Tuesday at Everything-Voluntary.com, by Breezy V. Stevens. Breezy is a long-time radical unschooler, an advocate for children’s rights, a crazy dog lady, a crafter in various mediums, a lover of all things tropical and beachy, and the designer of “EVC in Color“. Archived columns can be found here. LWA-only RSS feed available here.

Spend some time surfing around the Internet, and you’ll come across scads of articles, blog posts, and community discussions about how unschooling is sure to turn out smart, well-adjusted kids who are ready to go out and make their way in the real world, because they’ve never been sequestered away from it.

An oft-repeated phrase goes something like this: “Kids will follow your example, not your advice.” In other words, if you model certain attitudes and behavior patterns, especially if you do it cheerfully and with kindness and compassion, kids will be sure to emulate your example.

When I read things like these, I like to imagine they are followed by a tiny asterisk, with a warning – something along the lines of a disclaimer you might see on a weight-loss product or a nutritional supplement. You know the ones I mean, the ones that say things like:

* Results not typical; individual results may vary.

Or even, to borrow a common car sales disclaimer-cum-popular Internet acronym:

* YMMV (your mileage may vary).

Because the thing is, at the risk of sounding corny as hell, kids are people too. Real, actual people, with their own completely unique personalities. And so are their parents. Every one of us has our faults, weaknesses, histories, biases, and quirks. We will fail in our parenting endeavors sometimes, and kids may pick up ways of thinking and behaving that we’re not entirely enthusiastic about (yes, even unschooling families encounter these challenges!). You know, because they’re their own people, with their own paths to walk, which may or may not parallel ours. How then, can we possibly guess what any child will grow into or whether or not our parental methods will yield the desired results? I’m not at all sure that we actually can, despite the vast quantities of inspirational materials that claim the contrary. And I’m not totally sure we would all even want to.

You know the old adage: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

So, if that’s true, I hear you ask, what should we do? If we can’t really be sure that the endless amounts of time, energy, and love we put into raising our kiddos with an unschooling lifestyle will result in compassionate, productive, or even happy adults (there are NO guarantees in life, and unschoolers are not exempt to this fact), what’s the point? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Why even bother?

My answer? Because it turns out it’s not just about the kids.

I don’t mean to suggest that the kids aren’t an important part of unschooling – arguably the most important part – but unschooling brings benefits that extend far beyond just our children’s education, and can in fact be a transformative process for the adults in their lives as well. In my family, the adults have benefited just as much as the children, as we learn to shed our conditioning and find new ways of engaging with the world. We can regain our ability to see our personal potential, and learn to open our minds to ideas we might otherwise discount. If we’re lucky, our attitude toward children will become contagious, and will help encourage others we come into contact with to re-think their ways of being with the children in their own lives as well.

I’ve noticed that it doesn’t feel very good to be disrespectful and mean-spirited to our children. Acting in ways that disconnect us from our own instincts diminishes our joy in parenting, and decreases our capacity for patience during times of struggle. Concentrating on relationships is rarely wasted. Being present, attentive, and loving is still our best chance at creating and maintaining strong relationships with our children. Parenting in a manner that brings us joy and delight allows us to fully enjoy their childhoods, and discarding the authoritarian power struggle model of parenting transforms everyday experiences into opportunities for engagement. Parenting with joyfulness and a sense of wonder is much easier when we see ourselves as our children’s partners, instead of their keepers, and happy parent-partners have an outlook that is contagious. If you want to be a happy, connected parent, start by embracing parenting techniques that connect you to your own happiness. Be a little bit selfish; cultivating your own happiness and enthusiasm will leave you with more to share with your children.

Unschooling as a concept can be expanded to include your community as well, and by extension, the wider world. The more families that reject the coercive schooling model, the more free children will be engaging with the rest of the community. The more we interact with people unfamiliar with this lifestyle, the more normative unschooling will become, as more and more people realize that schools are unnecessary and that living in the real world is the best way to learn to live in the real world. If there is enough interest and demand, supporting infrastructure can be created. The more that people become comfortable with freedom, and the more they get used to seeing children treated as small people, with the same capabilities and rights as adults, the more these ideas and practices will spread. Unschooling indeed has the potential to reshape our society.

The real question isn’t whether unschooling “works” to instill in children qualities or habits that will result in “successful” adults (whatever that even means). No parenting style is a surefire way to ensure a predictable outcome. Instead of focusing on the adults that children will become (which we are truly powerless to control or predict), let’s focus on connectedness and joy in the experience. Let’s leave ourselves and our children plenty of room to grow, expand, and change. Let’s find ways of exploring and enjoying the world, together, and let’s realize that it’s not just our kids’ experiences of this part of life that is important. We’re living our lives too, and our experiences matter and bear influence on both our children and the other people around us. We can never know what the future may hold for either ourselves or our children, or where, good or bad, either of our paths may lead. We can hope to make a positive contribution to our children’s lives, but we can never really know for sure. We can make the choice to embrace joy in our journey together, and increase the amount of happiness in the world. How will it work out in the end? Your guess is as good as mine, but given the choice, I’ll choose happiness as a journey rather than as a destination, and see where it leads.

Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a world full of happy people? Personally, I think following your bliss, engaging with your loved ones and passions and enjoying the moment is one of the best things you could model. Will it create kids who grow up to follow in your footsteps? Potentially. Then again, maybe not.

YMMV. And that’s the way it should be.

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Unsanctimonious Unschooling

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“Living with Wild Abandon” is an original bi-weekly column appearing every other Tuesday at Everything-Voluntary.com, by Breezy V. Stevens. Breezy is a long-time radical unschooler, an advocate for children’s rights, a crazy dog lady, a crafter in various mediums, a lover of all things tropical and beachy, and the designer of “EVC in Color“. Archived columns can be found here. LWA-only RSS feed available here.

I am an unschooler, and I am not perfect. There, I said it. My secret’s out; there’s no sense in pretending. And what’s more? I don’t even want to be.

This is a relatively new perspective for me, and one that seems to be underrepresented in the unschooling community as a whole. That’s not to say that maybe some of us don’t think it; but most of us don’t say it out loud very often, and we certainly don’t proclaim it from the rooftops (try googling “unschooling not perfect,” and you’ll notice there don’t seem to be too many people shouting it out!).

There seems to be an awful lot of pressure on us unschoolers. We not only have to cope with most of the same challenges that “mainstream” parents face, juggling chores, errands, appointments, nap-times, arguments, our own needs (ha!), etc., but since we don’t abdicate responsibility for our children’s education, we willingly take on an entire additional set of challenges, and they can sometimes be overwhelming. Our lives are far outside of the “norm.” We have no authority to look to for answers, and no book that tells us what to do and when. Consequently, we also bear the burden of pressure from both our critics and our peers.

There are more people that don’t understand this approach than do, and it can be exhausting, always facing skepticism, criticism, and interrogation about our choices. Being on the defensive, as so many of us have sometimes found ourselves to be, gets old quick. We tend to “circle the wagons” against the people that accuse us of being idiotically naive or ruining our children’s lives. I get that. We want to present the best possible picture of unschooling to people who are baffled by or critical of it. That’s probably a good thing; after all, someone who’s already on the attack may very well decide their critique of unschooling is correct if all we can muster is a wishy-washy, noncommittal mumbling. Put your best foot forward, and all that…

On the other hand, most of us aren’t in this situation accidentally. We have read more books than you can shake the proverbial stick at; spent countless (!) hours on the Internet, gobbling up blog and forum posts, participating in group discussions and learning about everything from child development to attachment theory to various flavors of psychology; and agonized over making this decision for our families. We do this because we have a strong belief that this is the best way to raise our children. A natural outgrowth of this attitude is the desire to continually learn new things and improve our parenting approach. We’re always striving to be better people, parents, and facilitators for our children. Because there is little infrastructure in our society to support unschooling, we turn to others on the same path for support. Unfortunately, that can backfire.

Because of these things, it seems apparent to me that we are often our own worst enemies. When we spend time trying to find a way to make unschooling look good to people who don’t understand, we naturally focus on the good parts – how amazing our relationships with our children are, what good choices they make, how free our families are when we disconnect from the public school system. But we also tend to minimize or gloss over areas that we struggle with or don’t find problematic – whether that’s household cleanliness, children that really do play video games or watch TV all day, lack of access to a supportive community, etc. We tend to not be fully honest about the reality of our lives.

We also tend to hold ourselves and our peers to a very high standard indeed, perhaps too high for most of us to actually live up to. There is often placed before us a paragon of parenting perfection (to coin a phrase?) that seems, to me at least, almost unattainable. Many of the most outspoken individuals in the unschooling community are portrayed (or portray themselves) as infinitely understanding, patient, and overflowing with kindness from morning till night. We trumpet our successes to the world, and muffle the moaning of our struggles. So much of the barbed “advice” we give each other feels weighted with unspoken (or sometimes spoken) judgment for our failings and challenges, causing us to feel as though we must either don some sort of emotional armor in order to talk about our issues with others, or instead, to just keep our mouths shut and listen, while feeling that we aren’t quite good enough at this whole parenting gig to meet the bar of the “good unschooler.”

While I certainly agree that striving toward perfection is among the worthiest of goals, I feel it’s important that we remember that none of us is actually perfect, and that it’s okay to admit that. In unschooling, as in any other endeavor, the perfect is the enemy of the good. When we feel the need to adopt a defensive stance, whether in response to critics of our lifestyle in general, or to peers that try to impose their ideas of perfection onto us, we tend to adopt a voice (and sometimes internalize it as an attitude) that is often expressed in sanctimonious language and shrouded in an air of implied superiority. I catch myself doing it sometimes. Yuck!

So how do we step away from this situation? I think a start would be to admit that we do struggle, and don’t have everything figured out. We don’t have all the answers, and sometimes our responses don’t live up to our ideals. We are all real people out here, and we all have issues and problems. Things that frustrate us or piss us off, times when we are tired or emotional or just not in the mood to go above and beyond all our other commitments, when we get angry or yell, or want to hide away from it all, or just want to do something purely for ourselves, dammit! I know I do. And I bet you do too, whether or not you say it out loud.

My house is a mess. I’m almost always late. I swear a lot. We live in a place with very few unschool-friendly resources. We all spend a huge amount of time in front of screens. Sometimes we argue and fail at communication, even after all these years. Our lives aren’t a perfect example of “successful” unschooling (whatever that even is!). We do not have it all figured out. And that’s okay. Our lives are a work in progress.

If we want to continue on our quest to improve our parenting and unschooling, we should be willing to cop to our failings, to admit to and own both the good and not-so-good parts of our lives, in order to make improvements and adjust our courses as necessary, and develop support systems that recognize that we are all humans out here, and humans aren’t perfect. Let’s be kind. Let’s be honest. Let’s be real.

Anyone want to join me?

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Embracing the Chaos

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“Living with Wild Abandon” is an original bi-weekly column appearing every other Tuesday at Everything-Voluntary.com, by Breezy V. Stevens. Breezy is a long-time radical unschooler, an advocate for children’s rights, a crazy dog lady, a crafter in various mediums, a lover of all things tropical and beachy, and the designer of “EVC in Color“. Archived columns can be found here. LWA-only RSS feed available here.

I remember our early days of homeschooling. It was exciting, but it was equally overwhelming: how do you pick out curriculum? How do you arrange field trips? How do you make sure you cover everything? How on earth can I possibly do this and keep up with the housework, the bills, the cooking, the errands? And the big question: What do we actually do?!?

I remember when my hubby came home from work after our “first day” of homeschooling (probably the first day of a new school year) and asked something along the lines of, “How did it go? What did you do?” I’m pretty sure I looked like a deer caught in headlights, because I know I definitely felt like one. I think I feebly showed him some papers we had printed off and filled out, and tried to fill him in on what we’d “learned” on our first day. The truth was, I’d spent a significant chunk of the day trying to juggle everyday chores, a young toddler, and this whole homeschooling thing, and I felt like maybe I was in over my head.

For quite some time, I struggled to find some sort of balance between all of my responsibilities; I mean, after all, I’d met other homeschooling moms. Some of them had many children, and some even had farm animals to care for, or ran a 4-H group on top of that. They never seemed overwhelmed. So why couldn’t I figure out a way to juggle everything and maintain my sanity?

And then, one day, I went to visit a friend . She homeschooled her three children, and often had other children visiting, as well. The first thing I noticed about her house was the mess. It seemed messy to me, at least; I routinely spent much of my time trying to keep my house clean. There were toys and projects strewn around the living room and covering the table (which was made from sawhorses and an old door, and covered with a sheet). She had a giant tackboard leaned up against one wall, where the children could reach it. It held a colorful assortment of various children’s artistic endeavors. Shelves of differing sizes, ages, and degrees of stability held books, science and art supplies, bins of construction paper, popsicle sticks, building blocks, math manipulatives, etc. The children ran around crazily, as young children are wont to do, and moved from one activity to another as their desires drew them, exploring and experiencing each moment until they decided to move on to something else. It was loud, rumbunctious, and cluttered. And everyone in the house seemed happy.

It was a totally different environment from the one in my own home, where I’d often find myself trying to wash dishes or cook a meal, while directing my daughter which project to work on from the kitchen (and while I simultaneously tried to comfort a toddler clinging to my leg). I never felt like my attention was entirely available for my children, and yet I always felt like I “should” be concentrating equally on my regular chores. I kept finding myself thinking about the visit to my friend’s house, and eventually, in lamenting tones, I mentioned it casually to my husband. I had loved the free-spirited nature of her household, but couldn’t find any way to re-create it in our home. He thought about it for a bit, and suggested that maybe- just maybe- we should just try to do what she did. Maybe we should stop worrying so much about the mess, maybe we should stop worrying about paperwork and schedules and subjects, and spend some time finding our own rhythm instead. Maybe it was time to relax, forget what other people thought about the condition of our house and what we were doing all day, and just… embrace the chaos.

This revelation was at once liberating and terrifying. I’d never been a particularly tidy or organized person, but I’d bought into the idea that in order to be a responsible adult and a good parent, there were things you just had to do. Even though trying to match the societal norm had been exhausting, I was determined to do my best for my children. And so I’d spent years going against my own nature, struggling to keep up, and still failing to create the sort of home life I desired. Maybe my nature wasn’t the problem; maybe the problem was trying to force our lifestyle into society’s mold.

So we took a deep breath and made the leap. And embrace the chaos we did. I started worrying less about how many dirty dishes there were in the sink, and more about finding fun projects and activities to do with my kids. I worried less about dust bunnies and more about discovering and playing. I intentionally bought cheap thrift store furniture that could really be lived in. I stopped pretending to be afraid of dirt. I didn’t care that there were paint marks on the table. Science experiments and history kits started to take up serious counter space, and ramshackle shelves filled the hallway. And the more we relaxed, the happier and more harmonious our home became.

As the children have gotten older, the nature of the chaos has changed. We’ve done everything from hatching butterflies and ladybugs and chickens to upcycling free materials into art projects; from target shooting with slingshots and bb guns to tearing apart a travel trailer (reducing it to splinters) for parts, from building a cob pizza oven to butchering chickens. We’ve kept as pets more kinds of animals than I can currently remember. We go shopping or pick up friends at all hours and are available for last minute plans. We’ve had “extra children” (friends of our kids) that have lived with us. We’ve built, destroyed, and experimented with such an assortment of projects and ideas it’s positively staggering. This spring, we’re working on building a gaming computer for my son, from scratch (which is something I would never, ever have dreamed I’d be willing to try). Hell, I think there’s still the remnants of an old airsoft fort (complete with old furniture) in the woods in the backyard. The projects have only gotten bigger, crazier, and messier, but we have learned not just to embrace it, but to love it. And I’m glad we made the decision when we did, when the chaos was smaller in scale and simpler to ease into.

I think that becoming more accustomed to spontaneity has broadened our ways of thinking and allowed us to become highly flexible people, and I believe it is part of an ongoing process that allows us to push limits and take risks that other people may not be comfortable taking. We are retaining our ability to reinvent ourselves, and to resist the comfort of the dull rut. We are finding ways to roll with the punches life throws at us, and consider options that seem crazy to people who are used to following the herd. I’m happy to have had the chance to model these ideas for my children.

I’m thankful that I went to my friend’s house that day, and I’m grateful that I have the kind of husband that would be willing to go along with living a life so far outside the lines of “normal.” And I’m very, very glad that we learned to appreciate our own unique ways of living and being in the world, instead of trying to be a typical family, keeping up with the Joneses, and everything that goes along with it. That’s just not who we are. In embracing the chaos, we’ve embraced life, and all of the big, messy, exciting possibilities that don’t fit into anyone’s mold.

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It’s Time to Unschool the Unschooling Movement!

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“Living with Wild Abandon” is an original bi-weekly column appearing every other Tuesday at Everything-Voluntary.com, by Breezy V. Stevens. Breezy is a long-time radical unschooler, an advocate for children’s rights, a crazy dog lady, a crafter in various mediums, a lover of all things tropical and beachy, and the designer of “EVC in Color“. Archived columns can be found here. LWA-only RSS feed available here.

Well, that’s it. I’ve sworn off online unschooling groups again. It’s happened before, for precisely the same reasons. Every couple of years I get it in my head that perhaps things have improved in those circles, but it always degenerates quickly. As long as one follows precisely the prescribed unschooling format, things seem to go along swimmingly. But if you ever find yourself in any kind of struggle, beware.

It usually starts out with a whole boatload of people telling you that you’re not providing enough love, understanding, compassion, freedom, etc., or that you’re otherwise lacking in parental capability. You’ll be told over and over again that if you just “stick to the principles,” everything WILL work out. If it isn’t working for you, you’re not doing it correctly, or you’re not doing it hard enough (or both). There’s usually a mildly patronizing tone, as though you are being patted on the head like a cute but stupid puppy, as you’re reassured that once you’ve had more experience, things will be better (aww, poor little noob!). If you, like myself, are silly enough to assert that it’s not always so simple, that all circumstances and families are different, and that there is not in fact one perfect formula that works for everyone (or if anyone else is ballsy enough to chime in and suggest something similar), all hell will start to break loose, and the discussion often quickly devolves into scolding, censorship, and even outright attacks on the person who came looking for help.

I find this simultaneously heartbreaking and interesting.

Heartbreaking, because to me it seems glaringly obvious that when someone comes to you seeking help and advice, they are probably in dire need of the much touted love, compassion, and understanding. And, you know, maybe a bit of help, for good measure? Perhaps even a suggestion that -gasp!- doesn’t involve making the person feel guilty that no matter how much heart and soul they’ve poured into it, their best just isn’t good enough? If it weren’t so sad, it would actually be kind of amusing: for a group of people who pride themselves on living “outside the box,” there are some pretty strict rules in unschooling circles. For a group of people who generally emphasize acceptance and celebrate diversity, we can be astonishingly narrow-minded. A common theme that is reprised in peaceful parenting and unschooling circles is that it is counterproductive to make kids feel bad in order to try to get them to behave better. Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I am too: why, pray tell, does this cease to apply to other adults? My advice? If you ask for input on an online unschooling forum, please be advised that it would be best to first don your sturdiest flame-proof suit. (Time and frustration-saving hint: if you encounter any sort of difficulty in your unschooling journey, it’s your fault. Try harder.)

Interesting, because I can’t help but wonder, why is this the state of things? Is it because most of us have spent the majority of our existence being told, in both overt and subtle ways, to seek the “right” answers? Is it possible that we’re not even aware of our own assumptions? We ourselves are a product of our culture: conventional parenting, social norms, public school. When we start to break out of the mental mold we’ve been raised in, we start to look around for better ways of doing things. Many of us may try different educational techniques and methods with our kids, as our understanding of their needs evolves. When we find unschooling, it can feel like we’ve finally found It. The One Thing that will Fix Everything. It makes sense, in theory, but when we seize on any one method and follow it rigidly, we forget something very important: every family, every child, and every situation is different. Standardizing our parenting approach or reading from a “script” of strict unschooling principles is not always equal to the endless complexities of everyday life. To expect, or to insist that others should expect that there is an educational or parenting equation, a formula for child rearing, that when consistently applied, will work at all times for all children in all families is, in reality, a bit facile. My experience certainly suggests otherwise. And you know what? I’m not the only one who’s noticed this. But this is a Big Secret in the unschooling world. If you dare to suggest in most public unschooling forums that, for example, talking and asking children politely sometimes isn’t enough to fix a problem, you will be shamed. If you hint that perhaps there just isn’t a clear-cut solution, and that no matter how much love and trust there is between two people, sometimes people behave and treat each other poorly, you will be asked to shut up. If you actually have the guts to say, hey, this was my experience, and the only thing that helped was to draw a line or create a boundary, you will be criticized, and even potentially asked to leave. There just is not room in most corners of this community to discuss what you’re supposed to do when you’ve tried everything, given it all you’ve got and more, and it’s just not working. The worst part is hearing from people that will send you a personal message and tell you their story. They are often too afraid to speak up anymore.

Maybe some part of it is due to the fact that unschooling is starting to gain more and more mainstream attention? There are more and more people out there, acting as voices of a sort for the rest of us, and more and more attention is being paid to unschooling as a viable educational alternative (or not). Those of us who believe it’s the best way to raise our kids, naturally want to show its best face. We want everyone to see just how amazing things can be when you step outside the conventional paradigm. But in our haste to polish our delivery for public consumption, what are we glossing over?

I think this does a grave disservice to the potential of unschooling itself, and creates disillusioned and burned-out parents. I think it puts pressure, even if unintentionally, on children to prove our methods right. The thing that I have realized, after 12 years in the trenches, is something I should have kept in mind all along: you simply can’t ever control how another human being develops. You can influence, you can guide, and the parenting style you choose will most likely contribute to the shaping of your children’s personalities. But in the end, the choice is theirs. Some children, perhaps even most children, will embrace the freedom and opportunities that the unschooling lifestyle offers. Some will live harmoniously with their families, with open communication and mutual respect. People who have this experience seem to believe that all children will respond in this way. But I am here to tell you that some will not. I am not the only one who has found this. But- and this is a big but- as hard as it may be for some of us to swallow, after spending years believing it like gospel, this is as it should be. After all, expecting kids to conform to a nonconformist lifestyle is pretty ridiculous, don’t you think? The value of freedom should not rest in its ability to produce always-moral, judicious people. Unschooling must ultimately place value on the freedom to quit, to fail, to make poor choices, even to reject the unschooling lifestyle and mindset completely, or else it was never be freedom at all.

I think that, in order for unschooling to thrive into the future, instead of fizzling out before it really gets going, we need to do something really, really important: we need to embrace honesty. We need to work toward creating a culture around unschooling that doesn’t shame people for struggling or scold them for disagreeing. We need to be willing to have frank and open discussions about our obstacles, and we need safe circumstances in which to do so. We need to be brave enough to admit that due to the diversity of the human experience, there will likely never be One Right Way to do this or anything else. If instead we continue to emphasize orthodoxy and dogma, not only will the larger movement tend to stagnate, but innovation into new and improved ways of living with our children will be largely stifled.

It’s time to apply unschooling principles not just to children, but to the way we think about and relate to the unschooling community as a whole; in other words, it’s time to unschool the unschooling movement. It’s time to realize that “living outside the box” isn’t enough. We need to realize there is no box at all, just people, struggling to find the best possible way to live our lives.

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The Measuring Spoon, or Enjoy It While You Can

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“Living with Wild Abandon” is an original bi-weekly column appearing every other Tuesday at Everything-Voluntary.com, by Breezy V. Stevens. Breezy is a long-time radical unschooler, an advocate for children’s rights, a crazy dog lady, a crafter in various mediums, a lover of all things tropical and beachy, and the designer of “EVC in Color“. Archived columns can be found here. LWA-only RSS feed available here.

It is mind-blowingly astonishing just how fast that time really does fly.

My house feels a little empty some days, now that my oldest has moved out. My youngest is a teenager now, and is mostly self-sufficient, and often I find myself remembering the joyously chaotic days when they were young. We spent our days adventuring, experimenting, discovering, and playing, and though I knew better, it really felt as though those days would last forever.

Last week, as I was washing dishes, I noticed that one of our sets of measuring spoons had come apart. It’s a brightly colored set, held together with a red zip tie, and we have had it for so many years now, that I can no longer remember where we got it, or when. What I do remember, though, is that it was purchased as part of a children’s cooking set; one of those primary colored things that are marketed for small children, along with a book of easy recipes that kids could cook with little parental assistance. I’m not even sure we cooked anything from the book; neither one of my kids turned out to be much interested in culinary endeavors, but we always had shelves and shelves of equipment, tools, and books available, so that they were free to dabble at will in whatever might strike their fancy at any given time. The measuring spoons in question, though, were something I had used practically every day, as I prepared meals for my growing family, for what seemed like as long as I could remember. Seeing them broken apart brought on a wave of emotion, as I remembered many of the projects we had done together; the supplies bought, the messes made, even the things that sat on the shelf, unused, when the kids lost interest before they got around to using them.

I thought back to the hard times, too; the times I felt like I’d never get a full night’s sleep again, or ever have the time to pursue my own interests (or even to remember what my interests used to be!). The days of meltdowns and tantrums and children fighting. The days of struggling to cook something, anything, with fussy kids pulling at my clothes, or hanging on my legs. The days the only thing I wanted in the whole world was to go to the bathroom alone, or take a shower or grocery shop without all hell breaking loose. Diapers that exploded, requiring a bath, no matter how inconvenient the timing. The years I spent, feeling like a human cow, confined most of the time to a rocking chair, nursing a babe for what seemed like most of my waking life.

And though some days I struggled to believe that I would indeed actually make it through, I never, ever actually believed people who told me that someday I’d miss it (in a period of desperation, I insisted that hubby get ‘fixed’; I was convinced that I never wanted to go through it again). But the people who insisted that I would someday wish it hadn’t gone by so fast were right; I miss it. I really, sorely do. All of it, and not just the easy, fun parts, either.

Today I was out grocery shopping again. I was alone, and I could take the time to leisurely examine items. I could scan the shelves, or the racks, just to see what might be new and interesting. It was peaceful, and I was unrushed. And then, as I turned a corner, I entered a freezer section, and was confronted with a bin of frozen pizzas. And I almost cried. My oldest never would eat much home-cooked food. She lived on frozen and boxed foods, at one point declaring that ‘real food’ actually came from a box. Just a few months ago, she would have been with me, and she would have, no doubt, gleefully filled the cart with those frozen pizzas. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it, crying over frozen pizza? But I’d give all the peace and quiet back, just to have some more time to play with them, to admire their tiny faces, to kiss the boo-boos, and experience the world anew through their eyes again. Now I have all the time in the world, most days, to see to my own needs, to pursue the things that I need to or love to do, and sadly, to regret all the things I meant to do or wished to do and just wasn’t able to manage, and the moments I wasn’t able to muster the kindness and compassion I now desperately wish I’d been able to.

I’m extremely thankful, though, that we made some of the parenting decisions that we made. I feel blessed to have a husband who was willing to be the sole provider for all these years, so that I was able to stay home with the children full-time as they grew. I’m extremely glad that we decided relatively early to peacefully parent and unschool them, as well. Being able to be with them every single day, to guide them and to witness their achievements, to console them when they were disappointed, and to do my very best to answer their questions and facilitate their explorations is, I believe, the single best possible investment of my time, and the best gift I could give them; the gift of their childhoods, free from the controlling, authoritarian, over-scheduled and generally mean-spirited environments that children are usually relegated to. Connecting with love instead of disconnecting with control has proven miraculous as well. I believe it has made a huge difference in our lives thus far together, and I hope it has a positive impact on the whole course of their lives.

I cherished our time together, and though my parenting/unschooling years are not quite over yet, things are different now. As I have worked on this article, the other two members of the household are involved in their own projects; hubby is in the kitchen filming his YouTube show, and my son is firmly ensconced in front of his computer, where he spends much of his time, bug-testing a game. And while it’s exciting to be able to use my time as I wish again, it’s quite an adjustment, and I’m still adapting. I think I probably will be for some time.

I know that some days, every moment feels like an ordeal, and sometimes you just want them to grow up already, even if just a little bit. I know you probably won’t believe me any more than I believed all the people that told me, but you will miss this. So hard though it may sometimes be, take that deep breath, count to ten, put yourself in time-out, rather than your kiddos, until you can respond with love, do whatever you have to do to keep on keepin’ on. And enjoy it while you can. Take advantage of every opportunity that you are able to, and appreciate every precious moment, because it will never happen again, and you don’t want to miss it.

The measuring spoons sat around for a few days, and I contemplated just throwing them out. We have another set, and since we’ll be moving in a few months, we’ll need to get rid of most of our possessions anyway. What’s the use?, I thought. There aren’t any children around these days to play with the brightly colored things anyway. But my hubby insisted we fix them. After all, we still use them every day. We found a new zip tie to hold them together. It’s yellow this time, instead of red, but it still does the job. I imagine that we’ll be using them through at least a few more adventures. Times, they are a-changin’, but they’re not over just yet.

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