Like most change that occurs in my life, it occurred when I was ready for it. God is gentle with me in that way. God doesn't push me off cliffs and tell me it's time to learn how to fly. He invites me, asks me if I'm ready, and when I am, proceeds. Because of God's gentleness I have slowly stopped fearing Him, and have started instead to trust Him, and have therefore become able to love Him freely.
I have a three-year-old daughter. Of course I want to raise her to be a polite, strong, confident, and ethical person. In my former parenting life, which sometimes seems like it was eons ago, but in reality is only about six months ago, I tried to teach my child obedience, and if she did not do as I said, I would exact some sort of punishment—usually a time out. She would not sit in a place, so I would hold her and not let her move for a couple minutes. I would not hurt her but I held her firmly enough to prevent flailing arms and legs. She would scream and cry like she had been shot.
Now I used to be a volunteer advocate for a sexual assault resource center. This meant that I received training to answer hotline calls from sexual assault survivors needing to talk, or from their family members. I could also go to the ER to support victims through examinations or evidence collection—that is, however the survivor needed support, sometimes needing a supportive person with her through that process and sometimes needing someone nearby, but in another room through the examination. I could also support a person through police interviews and reporting if s/he chose to report to law enforcement, and I could attend trials—again, to be a support and be a friendly face through the trial. And I could be there just to listen if the survivor needed to talk. I say this, because I was well aware of the personal stories and journeys of survivors and of the statistics about sexual assault. I wanted to raise my children in a way that would give them some protection against sexual violence, and if, God forbid, they were assaulted, I wanted them to be able to come to me, to know it wasn't their fault, and to be able to get healing instead of keeping silent in shame as so many victims do. I wanted to teach my children to respect their bodies and I wanted to show respect for their autonomy. And I have to say, forcing my daughter to sit for a moment, by the use of my physical strength over her own, and telling her that she deserved this because she had done something bad—did not sit well with me. I felt like I wasn't teaching her all those things that I wanted to. On the contrary, I felt like I was grooming her to believe all the victim-blamers in this world.
One in four girls is assaulted before the age of 18—the average age being 11—and one in six boys is assaulted before adulthood. I had often wondered what we must change in our parenting so that these children will speak up, so they will tell someone who will protect them, or even tell the abuser, "Stop. This doesn't feel right. I'm not comfortable with this. No." I wondered what must we change so our children will listen to their intuition and not so easily forsake their own judgement for the judgement of another. I had some issues with the conventional way of parenting, but I didn't have any better alternative.
So I prayed. I prayed to Mary, Jesus' mother, to please teach me to be the kind of mother that my daughters needed me to be. The following day I discovered something called radical unschooling.
And finally we get to it. Yes, this is a post about how I came to radical unschooling. What? It seems to be more about my spirituality than an educational or parenting philosophy? Ahh, but that's how it is with me. Just as unschoolers do not separate learning from everyday life, I do not separate spirituality from life. My life is not compartmentalized. Washing the laundry is spiritual. Cooking and eating is spiritual. Interacting with my children, making love to my husband, going to play-dates, and cleaning the bathroom is spiritual. Because everyday, ordinary moments are opportunities to grow in love, to become a better person, and I know God is with me in each moment—whether I feel warm and fuzzy and loved, or whether I feel alone and sad. God's presence in independent of my mood or my ability to perceive that presence.
A friend on Facebook suggested that I look into unschooling and gave me the name of Sandra Dodd. When I came to her website, the first thing I saw was, "Unschooling mother to Kirby, Marty and Holly, who never went to school." What?! Okay, I was intrigued. So I spent some time reading random posts from the list on the left side of the page. What struck me was the respect children were shown in this lifestyle. I watched Dayna Martin's youtube videos. I read everything about unschooling that I could find. I bought John Holt's book How Children Learn. Radical unschooling seemed like the answer to my prayer. It seemed like the recipe to raise my kids so they listen to their intuition and respect themselves and others. As Sandra Dodd says in her essay about respect, "Abundance in one person provides benefits to others. A child with all the trust he needs can trust others. A child with all the time he needs can share that time with others. One who has freedom won't begrudge freedom in others." I became really attracted to the philosophy of radical unschooling, especially the respect shown to children. This felt right to me. And the idea of providing a rich and stimulating environment in which children can learn rather than structured lesson plans and a set curriculum to teach children all they need to know was fascinating. But I had some practical questions, all the usual doubts that unschoolers have been hearing for decades. Can unschooled kids go to college? What about gaps in their education if the children only follow their passions? Will they be able to get a job? Within my month and a half of study on the subject all such questions were answered sufficiently. As an educational approach, I believed this could work, and probably work better than our current mode of educating our youth in this country.
So I started saying yes to my daughter, started looking for excuses to say yes to her requests and trying to find ways to meet those requests. Before doing this my daughter bit her nails constantly. Though there was scarcely anything left for her to bite, still she'd sit and bite. Within three days of saying yes more often, she stopped. Just like that. I had previously contemplated putting some foul-tasting ointment on her fingers to discourage this habit, but as it turns out showing respect for her feelings and wants had the same effect.
Next, my husband and I decided to relax all sweets limitations. Now previously our daughter had a major sweet-tooth. She would actually ask to eat sugar out of the bag. Looking at it from my new radical unschooling lens, this made sense. Placing limits on sweets taught her to value this food above all other food types. The first day we threw limits out of the window, she wanted candy for breakfast. I made some healthy suggestions but she wanted candy, so I let her have candy. She might have had candy for lunch too. I don't really recall. I just remember she ate a lot of candy throughout that day. (We usually don't have a lot of candy around the house, but for some reason we had some at that time.) The second day, the candy still lay there on the table, free for the taking, and she ate two pieces. She chose to eat healthy things the rest of the day. One day she decided to eat ice cream for breakfast. So I gave her ice cream. I decided on cereal for myself. After three bites of her ice cream, she decided she'd rather have cereal. So I put her ice cream back in the freezer and gave her cereal. I should mention that we are vegetarian and buy primarily organic food. The cereal she chose was not sugar-coated sugar, but it actually had nutritional value. I was amazed that my sugar-loving child chose cereal over ice cream.
Similarly, not too long ago we went to a gathering at a friend's house. On the table was candy, fruit, pretzels, and chips. My daughter snacked on fruit and pretzels that evening. My husband asked her if she wanted a gummy worm. She didn't. My daughter, at three-years-old has learned to listen to her body. By allowing her to make choices, and make "mistakes", she has figured out that she feels her best when she eats healthy food. Although she still likes sweets, she understands they are best enjoyed in moderation. (Usually.) Once in awhile, she will overdo it on the sweets, but I think doing this for a day or two, out of many many more healthy eating days is probably not a bad thing. Also, not being able to rely on parental force to get what I want forces me to rely heavily on modeling appropriate behavior. If my daughter is overdoing it on sweets, I much more readily look at my own behavior and ask myself if I am modeling healthy eating choices. Of course this is something that parents want to do anyway, but it can be very easy to rely on punishment to deal with unwanted behavior, rather than reflecting and taking the time to get at the root of the problem. By allowing my daughter to go through her own process, I hope she will be free from cycles of binging followed by fad diets later on, or from gaining the "freshmen fifteen" the first time she leaves home. I hope she will be free from allowing junk food to make her feel bad, and yet continuing to eat it and letting it ruin her health because she can't say no to it. I don't want her to have food issues. I want her to have freedom.
I know most of us have been taught that children need us to impose structure and rules regarding food, bedtime, chores, and the like for their own good, because they are incapable of making good choices otherwise, but I feel differently. I believe children need to be treated in a way so that their dignity remains intact, and they need some freedom to make choices and make mistakes in a protected environment. Of course they need guidance, but it should not be domineering and overbearing.
God created us with dignity. The creation story of the Israelites is unique in this regard in comparison to many of the creation stories of Israelite contemporaries. Many believed that the gods created us to be their slaves. But this is my pearl of great price. God created us with dignity. This dignity demands freedom. And the Creator of this freedom respects its value so much that even God himself does not transgress it. This seems to be a clear lesson to me that I must take great precaution not to tread on the freedom and dignity of those over whom I have power.
And me? My days are much more enjoyable and peaceful now. Before there were many days when my husband would come home from work and I was just physically and emotionally exhausted from dealing with power struggles all day. And I was so desperate for "me time". I had to wear my "mom hat" all day and that meant I had to monitor all behavior and verbally correct each action or utterance that was not perfectly genteel. I needed to teach appropriate lessons and had to police each action and exact the required punishment for offenses and everything was on my shoulders to know everything and be everything. Now, I don't need as much me time because I feel like I can be me all day, even around my children. This is perhaps the greatest gift of this lifestyle—the freedom to truly see and connect with my children. I can now be truly present to them and not have that presence ruined by always coming at them with an agenda or needing to teach them something.
My daughter's trust in me has grown too. Before she wouldn't allow me to look at or touch her foot if she had a sliver in it. And I wondered, how can she ever believe that God is trustworthy, that God truly wants what is best for her, if she couldn't even believe that of me? Now she allows me to see her boo-boos. For the first time she told me that she missed me when I was away and she was happy to see me even though she was happily playing with other kids and different toys.
So I'm still new at this, and I rejoice in the little successes when I'm able to come up with creative ways that meet everyone's needs and keep all dignity intact, when I'm able to look behind the behavior and see the need and then work to meet that need. And my family and I are extremely grateful to the answer to my prayer.
"Frequently parents forget that children are people. I don't try to treat Kristen as an adult, but I do try to treat her as a person, with a child's sensibilities." - Kent McCord
Link: Children's reactions to parental coercion