Sunday, November 25, 2012

Whatever They Want

I just read an article, one of many I've seen over the years, written about an unschooling family. The focus of the article is that the Mom "lets the kids do whatever they want." There are no rules. No limits, no restrictions, no bedtimes, no school, no tests. Anything the kids want to do, the Mom "supports."

Reading the article from the perspective of understanding unschooling, the information in it is true, and fairly unremarkable.

But from the perspective of most people, it hits all the triggers that they fear.

Once again, I'm pondering how to explain unschooling to people in a way that does not alarm them, that does not make them defensive and reactive. It's a challenge.

I could describe our family life much like the article did.
Kids never went to school.
No bedtimes.
No limits on food, in kind, quantity or timing. We don't all eat the same things at the same times.
No limits on TV, video games, or computer time.
Anything the kids have been interested in, I've tried to support, assist, and supply resources.
No testing or "evaluations."

But the thing is, that description doesn't really tell anyone very much about what we DO, only about how we ARE NOT LIKE THEM.

One of the mainstays of any culture is the built-in evaluation of anything different, and often, in many cultures, that includes the automatic rejection of anything "outside the lines" of what has been asserted in that culture as "the truth and the way."

As much as it is politically correct to "embrace differences," the truth is, most people don't do that very well at all.

I think one of the ways to better communicate to people how an unschooling family lives is to focus on how we are the SAME, not how we are different.

I would suggest that we are the same in that parents, generally, if they want to be "good parents," want the best for their children.
They want them to grow up happy and healthy, strong in body, mind and spirit.
They want them to be able to have a good life, one where they have what they need, and to eventually become parents themselves, should they want to, and be able to provide for their families.
They want them to have friends, to be socially comfortable, not to be "picked on" or bullied.
They want them both to do well, and to do good.

They might use different descriptions, some might say they want to raise "good, productive citizens."
Others might say they want to raise "good people."
Either way, parents want good things for their children.

I think if we could help people see that our goals are not all that different, at the heart of them, it might reduce some of the fear and incredulity around the whole "no rules" thing.

We don't have a lot of rules here.
We usually have a few, but they are somewhat fluid, changing as necessary to accomplish what we need them to do. Mostly, they are reminders of ways we want things to work together. Not things to force someone to do something they don't want to do.
I might borrow a phrase from the fire service, and describe our "rules" as "standard operating procedures." They are often simply a way we have decided to do things, rather than a restriction on someone's behavior. We use them to keep the family running more effectively for everyone.

For example, we recently added a "rule" about when to communicate that we are running low on some food item, so it needs to be added to the grocery list. We were having a problem with a difference in dietary preferences making it so I was not always aware of what others had finished or nearly finished, so we were running out of staple foods. The people eating them were expecting one of the others to make it known, and as is often the case, when there is no clear responsibility for who in a group does a thing, no one does it at all.

So it isn't, really, that we "don't have rules."
It's that we don't have rules that are imposed by one or some on someone else.
We agree on what the rules are. We change them when we need to, when something isn't working.

The same sort of thing is true for limits.
We don't have imposed, arbitrary limits.
But we DO have very real limits. Some are financial. Some are physical. Some are decided on by each individual, for their own reasons. Some are accidental- like the running out of a food item situation.
We live in the real world, and while it may sometimes seem to be so, the world is not infinite.

Those two are actually fairly easy to help people understand. When they hear yes, we have rules, and yes, we have limits, it makes them more comfortable, even if what we mean by those things are not the same.  The one that is the most challenging, the one that people have difficulty grasping, is the big one: my kids do whatever they want.


Within the natural limits of what is possible and available to them, they do, on a daily basis, all day, every day, what they want to do. They choose their goals, their activities, their ways and means of expression, their schedule.

From this angle, it isn't a big deal.
I do what I want, too.

Where this runs smack up against a brick wall of lack of understanding, is that most people are on the other side of a paradigm shift, and cannot connect with our perspective. It does not seem possible or real to them.

Sadly, most people live lives where they do NOT do what they want, much of the time- and they believe this IS LIFE, that this is the natural state of humans, or at least of good, productive citizen humans. They HAVE TO work, go to school, clean their houses, mow their lawns, etc. And they don't really want to do any of these things, They crave "vacations" and times and places when they don't have to do all those things they usually have to do.

If they begin to consider that they DON'T have to do those things, the very framework of their lives, their stability, starts to unravel, and THAT is a very big deal. So they don't want to and can't look at that, at all.

Our lives, and our focus, sidesteps that entire thing.

We find work we want to do. Since the rules we have, and the choices we make, are fundamentally based on creating a living environment that is happier, easier, more loving, for all of us, we WANT to do the things that help make it so.

I'm not sure why it is that so many people fear that relaxing external controls on children will create children who are uncontrolled (and uncontrollable). That might well be true if that "relaxing" also included no guidance, no help, no supervision. I don't make my children do things- I help them see, from their own perspective, what needs to be done. Then they want to do whatever it is. But it MUST be from THEIR perspective, their understanding.

They have, all three of them, grown up to be people who do good. They care, deeply, about the truth, about contributing to their community, about helping others, about doing the right thing. They are responsible adults, self-disciplined (the only real kind of discipline) and what most people would generally call "well behaved." They respect other people's property and rights. They stand up for what they believe, even when it is difficult to do so- and it often is challenging.

I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens as they find partners, and possibly raise children. To see what choices they make, what family dynamics they prioritize.

I was raised to believe that there is always conflict between children and parents, especially between rebellious teens and parents. That kids always "reject" how they were raised, and blame their problems on their parents.

We completely skipped the "rebellious teen" experience.
Although none of my kids are "perfect" (and neither am I!!), I enjoyed having teens, and never had to do the whole worrying, staying up late, getting angry and frustrated, fighting all the time, thing. I have kids who have always been happy to hang out, and do a lot of things together, while still having our own lives.

I am interested in seeing whether we skip the whole "reject the way I was raised and raise my own kids totally differently" phase, as well.

Yes, my kids do whatever they want.
And what they WANT, is generally pretty great.

Connected families share goals, so "doing what they want" all works towards those shared goals and priorities.
Maybe the fear of "doing what they want" is actually a fear of disconnection from each other. Else why would anyone assume that what someone else wants would always be harmful?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

What Did You Do On Your Summer Vacation?

When I was a kid, that question was so typical as to be expected, and planned for.
Every child knew that when school started again in the Fall, they were expected to have some sort of story.

It wasn't generally a difficult question, since most people DID take some sort of "summer vacation," going away somewhere to do those kinds of things that families couldn't do during the school year.

Travels to distant lands.
Visits to family.
Summer camp.
Family camping.
The zoo, museums, ball games.

Fast forward to now, or to when my kids were growing up.

We didn't have summer vacations, as such.
At least the things we did during the summer only varied from the things we did the rest of the year in being season-related, but NOT fundamentally different from the KINDS of things we did during the other seasons.

Unschooling is, in a sense, a permanent "summer vacation." Without the summer part. And without the sense of being separate from, or different from, the rest of the time.

So to answer the question of what we do in the summer, I need to look at those annual things that are scheduled in the summer.

Like Grassroots.
Swimming outdoors, or hanging out at Flatrocks.
The Farmers Market (which is almost all four seasons, but not quite).
Grilling, or various other types of outdoor cooking.
Summer rain and thunderstorms.
The annual fire department kid's day at the park, with fire engine rides and free balloons. (Yes, we still go.)
Fresh pesto.
Fireflies and meteor showers.
Sweet corn, bought right from the farmer from a roadside stand with a coffee can for payments.
Baby animals, whether domestic or wild.
Movies- because the theaters are air conditioned!
Watching Drum Corps- whether live (not available often) or now, on the big screen, since DCI started offering that option.
This year, watching the olympics.

There are a million other things, of course, but most of them, we do all year. Reading, writing, playing games. Listening to music, dancing, taking pictures. Cooking, playing with the dog and cats, making plans. And the things on that list: visiting family, camping, the zoo, etc.

In short, what we do over the summer looks remarkably like what we do the rest of the time.

We live.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Which Way Do I Go?

On a list that I am on, I wrote something in response to a discussion, that I've decided to bring here. Some of the examples are related to that specific discussion, but the concepts are much more broad.

One of the things that is most difficult about talking about unschooling and different families' ways of doing things is that most "question and answer" type things really only touch the surface of what is going on. To fully explain everything that is involved would either not be possible to put into words, or would take far longer than anyone would keep reading.

There are three "domains" in which people learn.

One is physical, or "psychomotor," and is involved in doing things. It is how and what to do. 
It is generally fairly easy to describe things in this domain.
"We turn off the computers."

One is the thinking, or "cognitive," and is exactly that: information and knowledge, rather than physical skill or technique.
This can be relatively easy to put into words, too, since it is all about putting things into words, talking about them, thinking about them, and trying to figure them out. It is about reasoning.

The third domain is the emotional, or "affective" domain, and that is the one people have the most difficulty with. It is the most important, really, at the root of things. People learn and do things because of how they are emotionally connected to them, what they love, or what "feels right." Every interaction has emotional content, and much of it is not spoken, and often may not be recognized or acknowledged without doing so intentionally.

The thing is, this part is rarely put into words.

So when you ask what other people are doing, you engage the cognitive domain for the discussion, and they usually tell you about the psychomotor domain. But you often DON'T get information about the heart of what is going on, the part that makes it all make sense.

It isn't a matter of "turn off the computer or leave it on" and it isn't a matter of "let him sleep or wake him up" or "let him stay up or make him go to sleep." Life in an unschooling family isn't a series of black and white either/or choices.

It's about feeling, about connecting.

In one family, with a well established environment of respect and cooperation, there may well be an agreement (whether verbalized or not) that sometimes, we all need to slow things down a bit, and turning off the computers helps us to do that. Everyone knows that it isn't punitive, and that they will be able to finish anything important, and that the goal is to help ALL of them to feel better and be more connected. Making the decision to turn things off is part of a whole sequence of events and experiences and feelings, and if all of those lead to that being a good choice, then it likely will work out just fine.

That does not translate to any other family in the world. Not yours. Not mine.

Most experiences shared by unschooling families have this in common: it isn't about saying this is the thing to do, this is the solution, this is how it works, this is the "unschooling way." It is about sharing AN experience and train of thought and method of working together to find a solution that works for everyone. What is important isn't the end product, the "solution," as much as the path it took to get there.

Think of it this way: 
If I share an experience with you, it is so that you can see ONE of the possibilities of how things can work out, when we give attention to finding a real, equitable, comfortable and fair solution to something that was a problem for us. It is intended to give you some different ways to look at and think about your situation, and to encourage you that it is possible to find that working solution, but it is NOT intended to suggest that your solution would be identical, because the people in your family are not identical to the people in mine, nor is your situation identical to ours.

I can't know the emotional dynamic in your family.

If the decisions you make in your parenting are from a place of love, of caring, of trust and trustworthiness, if they come from having intentionally considered everything involved, with a desire to be fair and just, then you are likely headed in the right direction. If the results of your choices lead to more harmony, more grace, and more ease in connecting with and living with each other, you are likely headed in the right direction. If there is a sense of fluidity, of flexibility, and of balance, you are likely headed in the right direction.

If everything feels difficult, if there is a lot of conflict (not that ALL conflict is a bad thing), if it is a constant struggle and people are unhappy, stressed, and uncooperative, you are probably NOT headed in a good direction, so start over, take a deep breath, find the places in your patterns of thinking that are unhelpful, the parts where something is inhibiting trust or balance, and change them.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I Like My Kids

We live in an odd culture. Much of it is built around separating families.

There is HUGE cultural pressure to send kids to school, and often, to preschool and daycare, beginning as early as six weeks old. There are places where the competition to get into the "right" preschool is intense, and the schools are as expensive as an Ivy League University.

Along with this pressure comes a bizarre thing: people who proclaim publicly about not wanting to be with their children.

The ads start about halfway through the summer. You know the ones I mean. Parents dancing and singing while pushing a shopping cart through the back-to-school sales, happy that school is starting again. Children with downcast faces, sometimes tears.

Once school starts, we get articles like the one I saw comments on this morning, on facebook, called How to Thank a Preschool Teacher.

The article starts with this quote:

"If there were no schools to take the children away from home part of the time, the insane asylums would be filled with mothers." -Edgar W. Howe

In the article, the author states that she would rather be on a 15 hour non-stop flight than spend two weeks at home with her children, she thanks the teacher for making the child feel safe "especially on days when Mommy is feeling irritable," she reports using preschool art activities as an excuse for refusing to do such things with her child at home, thanks the teacher for telling her that hitting other children is normal, and thanks the teacher for answering questions because she, the Mom, is "tired of talking to the kids."

The worst part of this is that I believe the article is intended to be amusing and entertaining.
Apparently, complaining about your own children is "funny" in some circles.

When I was pregnant with my first, people told me- frequently and repeatedly- that I'd never have a life of my own again. People I knew with young children complained about being "brain dead" and "bored to tears." Most couldn't wait until they could send their kids off somewhere else- anywhere else. And since we started homeschooling- meaning we did NOT ship the kids off elsewhere for the majority of the day- the most common comment I've heard is "I could never do that. I'd go crazy being with my kids all the time."

On the flipside of that, I know some teens who will bolt out the door, and never look back, the moment they graduate from high school. They want to spend time with their parents even less than the parents want to spend it with them.

To all of those people, the bored parents, the brain dead parents, the tired moms, the frustrated teens, the irritable moms who would rather be anywhere but with their children, to all of them, I say this: I'm sorry. Your stories make me incredibly sad.

For the record, I like my kids.
I like spending time with them, and have since they were born.

Since they were very small, we've played together, and still do. Word games, board games, pretending, whatever. Not five minutes ago, I was ambushed by two of them with squirt guns.

We work together. Sometimes, that is around the house, cleaning or baking or making things. Other times, it might be one of them assisting with a class I teach, or often, three of us are on fire or medical emergency scenes as a team. On fire scenes, my son has a higher rank than I do. I'm fine with that.

We go out dancing together. We watch movies together. We grocery shop together. We sing in the car together- often in harmony.

We aren't together 24/7, like some imagine that homeschooling families must be, because we don't all have the exact same interests. But we do share a lot of interests. While I'm not always, or even nearly always, with ALL of my kids, I am, often, with at least one of them. I have things I do without any of them, but that has mostly been in the past few years, since they've gotten older and more interested in and able to go out and do things on their own.

Their interests expand my world. There is so much out there, that if I had to be the one doing all the exploring and researching, I'd never find half of the cool stuff that I get to see, hear or otherwise experience because one of my kids found it, or found out about it, and shared it with me. In particular, one of them has musical preferences very similar to mine, which has brought a lot of great music to my attention. One has similar academic interests, and shares articles and other information on a regular basis. All three are interested in cooking, in different ways, and bring recipes or ideas to me that I might not have considered. There are all sorts of other things they share or tell me about; the list is endless.

We have a wide variety of discussions, ranging from base humor to philosophy, from how and why people do things, to the latest internet memes. I value their thoughts and opinions.

We all still live in the same house, even though the older two are at ages at which my generation would have long since left home. It makes more financial sense than them trying to afford an apartment on their own, since we have the room. If they weren't here, I'd have an entire large house to myself, which is pretty wasteful, really. I imagine they will move on eventually, but no one is in any hurry, and really, it is entirely possible that they may not all move out. Multi-generational households are becoming more of the norm again, with the current economy.

So all of the people out there who can't stand being with their kids, or who are in a hurry to rush them off somewhere else, I'm truly sorry for you all. I can't imagine what your lives are like, and quite frankly, I don't want to. I have no interest, whatsoever, in spending more of my time alone, or in doing interesting things like traveling, without interesting companions. My kids are some of the most interesting people I know. I'm sorry that you don't feel that way about yours.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Where Is the Line?

I've been living this life with my kids since they were born, perhaps even before then.
When I've needed a name for how we live, "unschooling" has been one of the choices.

At the beginning, I had a large group of like minded friends, and we hung out. Long park days, every week, a bunch of Moms and kids and food and conversation.

Then we moved.
"Back home."

I had expected it to feel like that, but it didn't. All my old friends from when I was growing up had either moved away, or moved on. Most didn't have kids. Those who did, made different parenting choices.

I connected with another group of similar-minded people, another park day sort of thing. My kids were getting older, and were less interested in going out places to do group activities. We kept at it for several years, but eventually, for a variety of reasons, the appeal was less.

There was a progression, of sorts.
First, being a new Mom, trying things out, figuring out how this parenting thing works, and making choices that fit us.
Then, sharing some of those choices with other "seekers." Since some of those choices were somewhat "unusual," there was no lack of people looking for support. Whether those people were online, or around here, there was plenty of opportunity to discuss unschooling, living and learning with my kids, exploring the world. I met some wonderful people both here and online, some of whom have been friends ever since.

As my kids got older, we started to move away from the larger groups. Partly because the focus of the local group changed, to have a lot of people who were into the idea of learning cooperatives, and classes and schedules, which we weren't interested in, and partly because many of the kids my kids were friends with ended up going to school.

Most of them.
Those families were no longer interested in discussing anything to do with NOT going to school, as they refocused and re-prioritized their lives. Any support they needed was no longer going to come from the sorts of discussions we had had before.

As this change happened, I was also no longer in such need of "support" for my choices. We were pretty comfortable with what we were doing. I stopped having those discussions, stopped participating in online unschooling forums, and probably pretty much disappeared from sight from the perspective of a lot of people who had been reading things I had to say. We were busy doing other things.

Just a few months ago, I started commenting on unschooling forums again. At least on a few, mostly on facebook. They are called "pages" or "groups" there, but it's the same thing. People ask questions, other people answer them.

Oddly, some people there remembered me.

It was interesting for a while.
Mostly the very same questions that people were asking way back when, but that's okay. Most people start out with the same, or similar, concerns, as they move away from the mainstream. I have no problem with answering the same questions over and over. It's a lot like how many, many emergency medical situations aren't such an emergency, but those people still need help and support.

Over the past few weeks, two things have happened, and I'm faced with deciding how I want to move through this.

One is that on one of the forums, someone misrepresented some of what I had been saying, in such a way that trying to correct it would be tedious, annoying, and likely not very helpful to anyone. It's the sort of thing that people often want to turn into something "personal," and I have very little tolerance for that. I decided not to bother. I'm not into this in order to argue with anyone, or to disrupt a forum, so I've simply stopped posting there. I can't be misinterpreted or misrepresented if I'm not there.

The other is that some of the questions are not only the same questions, but they are... how to describe it? It isn't that they have questions about unschooling, it's that they think that they DON'T have questions, that they are unschooling just fine, but it "doesn't work." Reading through many of those, it is clear to ME, that what they are doing is not unschooling at all, but instead, is something I've also seen a lot- people who trade in one set of "rules" for a different set, based on what they think they are supposed to be doing, instead of what they know in their hearts and minds is what is best for their family.

When their decision making is coming from some set of assumptions in their heads, it can be very difficult to have a discussion with them at all.

What I'm pondering today is this: should I spend my time trying to help these people untangle the mess they are in? Would it be possible? There is so much thinking that they need to do in order to get things sorted out, and I can't make them do it. In order to help them get closer to where I am, I'd have to work through many, many different aspects of what they are saying. It would take a lot of time. A lot of writing. I don't know that anyone would want to work through so much online.

If I could sit with them, have them meet my kids, it would be easier.

It must be terribly difficult to be trying to do this thing called unschooling when you aren't sure what it is or how it works, or even IF it works, and you get criticism from every angle. But maybe it's important to work through that yourself, rather than have people try to explain it to you?

Where is the line between helping and not helping?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Sprummer, No Longer

I remember the first day of school, nearly every year when I was a kid.
Not being able to sleep the night before.
Waking up early, much earlier than I had the whole summer, in the dark.
One of the few days of the year that I'd turn the lights on when I got up.
Dressing in "school clothes" for the first time in weeks.

There was a sense of excitement, of "newness," as if the first week of September was the "New Year."

By the second day, or maybe the third, the newness would have worn off. No more restless sleep, no getting up extra early, no turning on the lights. 

My kids will never have that experience.
They'll never know that odd urge to buy new notebooks and pencils at the end of August.
They'll never do "back to school shopping."

Instead, our lives follow a pattern of seasons, governed by the rotation of the earth, rather than someone's decision about when the "school year" starts.

The current season here is... a very good question.

We have been having the strangest weather I can remember for about the last year.
Last April, we had a tornado- in a place that never has tornados.
While it's not exactly weather, we had a small earthquake- in a place that doesn't have earthquakes.
Last summer, we had a spate of days over 100 degrees, and that rarely happens.
Then, in the Fall, we had flooding, very serious nearby, and not-as-serious-but-still-a-pain-in-the-butt here.  As in right here. Our house.

So I suppose it shouldn't be any surprise that the odd weather is continuing.
After the mildest winter I can recall, contrary to the prediction made by Punxsutawney Phil, we've had an amazing early Spring.

For the entire month of March, we've had above normal temperatures. First in the sixties, then seventies, and eighties.
We've seen more sun than we usually see here in the land of grey skies.
We've dreamed of gardens, made plans to plant early, wondering- hoping, even- if we might be about to have the longest growing season ever.
We've seen fat chipmunks and red squirrels scampering across the lawn.
Birds making a racket every morning.
Brush fires popping up all over the county, about a month earlier than usual.
A structure fire where we were far more concerned about the heat than we usually need to be this time of year.

We've done yard work, started up a new compost pile, and have planned hikes and other outdoor activities. We've had the camera out, taking pictures of daffodils and magnolia. I've slept with the windows open, and the fan on. In March.  When the temperature was forecast to go above 90, I had to consider whether I would even consider air conditioning this time of year.

I didn't. :-)

It isn't even Spring weather. It's bordering on Summer. Sprummer.

Some of it is very interesting.
Lots of things are blooming- but not everything. Some plants bloom and grow according to the temperature, but others are dependent on day length.
There are flowers everywhere... but not bees. What's going to happen with that?
Some places are "greening up" nicely, which makes the risk of brush fire much less... but not uniformly. Some kinds of grass are growing like mad, and others aren't.
Sugaring was crazy this year- earlier, shorter, and if you missed it, you missed it.
Farmers aren't sure what to do. Plant early? Wait? Our "average last frost" date is still SEVEN WEEKS AWAY.
The ground, which would normally be frozen, or, at best muddy and cold, is warm and primarily dry. The little bit of rain we got today was more than welcome.

We've had pesto, sweet corn (imported, but it just felt right!) and salt potatoes. Plenty of ice cream. All those summer foods, falling just short of firing up the grill.

I think we've already had a better summer than we usually have in the summer.

It's crazy.
I wonder how the actual summer will go.
Are we in for a hotter than usual summer? Will it make no difference in the long run, this being some sort of "aberrance" that will fade away into history, to be recounted years from now, when my kids are telling their kids about "that weird year"?

And now, suddenly... we're being thrown for another loop.
I've checked the weather forecast nearly obsessively, and it had been holding on with predictions of highs in the fifties for another week or so. Cooler than it has been, still warmer than average for this time of year.

Until today.
Suddenly, whoever is making those forecasts is telling a VERY different story.
The predicted low for tomorrow night has been dropping all day.

It now sits at EIGHTEEN degrees.
A hard, hard freeze.
Likely to devastate any fruit trees that have started to blossom, and who knows what else.

Not an unusual temperature for this time of year in most years, but it's going to be a shock to the system THIS year.

So what IS this season, exactly?
Is it about to be the winter we barely had?
What will "Spring" be like when it finally, relentlessly, comes?

I can't help but be struck by how suited this "season" has been to our lives.
Not exactly like everyone else's.
Not exactly going according to the typical cultural blueprint.
A "bit" unpredictable.
Very interesting.
Maybe a little crazy-making at times.

Clearly, the weather doesn't have memories of those early mornings, heading to school.
If there ever was a time that something hasn't "read the textbook"- this is it.
And like the rest of us, if the weather wants to have an off the wall "sleep schedule," I'm good with that.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How To Unschool

Over on facebook, someone posted a link to this article, with a comment about how it makes things easy to understand.

I think the article is not helpful at all, really.
It contains too many assumptions that are inappropriate.
As Frank said, it's crap.

So I thought that for fun, I'd make my own list.
For people who really need some sort of instructions, some guidelines, some rules.
I have no idea where this is going to go.

How to Unschool

1. Stop trying to understand what unschooling is. Trying to define it and trying to narrow that definition to something you can easily quote and use to defend your choices is counter-productive to actually doing it. It's like trying to put a label on a relationship.

2. If this is new to you, accept that you are a beginner, and know very little.  Embrace your beginner-ness. It means that you are not expected to know what you are doing, or to do everything well. It gives you the freedom to make mistakes and to continue learning more and more.

3. Stop measuring everything on some sort of "Am I doing it right?" scale, and start using the "Is my family happy?" scale.

4. Spend time thinking. Think about your childhood. Think about how you were parented. Think about your school experiences, if you had any. Think about all the terrible things that have happened in your life, how they made you feel, what you learned from them, and how you feel about them now. Likewise, think about all the wonderful things that have happened in your life. Think about what things you enjoy, what makes you excited, what makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. Think about what relaxes you. Talk to other people about their thoughts about these things in their own lives. Compare and contrast. Use all this thinking to help guide you in your choices. Make choices based on what you really, truly believe in your heart, not what other people have told you. It takes time and a lot of thinking and examination to move past cultural conditioning, and that will be at the heart of many people's choice to unschool.

5. Instead of constantly feeling pressured or defensive about criticism you hear, look for the truth in it, and use that to help you. It is true that your children will not have the same experiences as their schooled peers. They will not learn or do the same things. They will not socialize in the same ways. They will not have the same opportunities. If they WOULD be "the same," why would you be doing this? Start answering people with "you're right" rather than jumping to defend something that you don't yet fully understand.

6. Avoid the temptation, in your excitement over unschooling, to over-do everything. You do not need to come up with a dozen "exciting" activities to do that are related to something your child just said. If your child mentions, for example, that they like fish, you do not need to go get an aquarium and get a bunch of fish, get books about fish, learn how to fish, paint some fish, find new fish recipes, make a fish costume, go visit a fish farm, etc. Honest. Let your child's interests come and go, wax and wane, and develop as they will. Kids will be interested in more things than you could possibly fully explore. It's a big world. They will have many passing interests, and some intense ones. It will be easy to tell the difference. Don't worry that you might miss one. Do, however, pay attention.  While you don't need to go out and find a bunch of related things, if you happen to come across something your child might be interested in (and you will know what things they are currently interested in if you are interacting with them frequently), by all means, bring it to their attention. Seeing a shower curtain that has a beautiful fish design on it, and showing it to your fish-interested child, is a different thing than going out and trying to find every fish thing you can. Supporting their interests should not be or feel forced.

7. Stop sorting things into subjects, even in your head. For one thing, life is not organized that way, really, and separating things is largely unhelpful in the real world. Everything is interconnected.  For another thing, thinking of things as subjects encourages the idea that the really valuable things to learn and know are those subjects... school subjects. While things that are considered school subjects are mostly good things to know about, what is good and interesting and valuable is not limited to those things, at all.

8. Avoid confusing the concept of "unschool" with "anti-school." It is true that many people come to unschooling after bad school experiences. But not everyone has those experiences, nor are they relevant. If every argument you use to explain or defend your choice to unschool has, at its heart "anti-school" you're going to needlessly offend a lot of people, and it isn't going to help your unschooling at all. Not all schools are bad places. Not all schools are robbing children of their souls or self-esteem. As in many other situations, you need to be "running to" unschooling, not "running from" school. Choose this lifestyle for its benefits, its joys, not to escape from something else. Personally, we found that there wasn't anything we needed to be doing that the schools could do better than we already were. It wasn't that we "hated" them, it was that we didn't need them. We were having a great time... so we kept doing that.

9. If you understand only one thing about unschooling, let it be this: it does not guarantee perfect, happy, well adjusted, successful, peaceful children or adults. It does not guarantee a family without sibling rivalry, without disagreements, without conflict. It does not guarantee that your child will be brilliant, or that they'll find that all-consuming passion. Does it encourage good family relationships? Sure. But I've seen great family relationships in families where the kids are in school, too. 

10. Be honest with yourself about why you want to do this. I have seen too many people decide they should unschool based on some group they want to be part of. They somehow think that in order to be one of the "cool kids" they have to unschool. Maybe they want to be counter-cultural. Maybe they want to be like their LLL Leader, who has been such an inspiration. Maybe they've read an article, or a website, or been to a conference that made it seem like this was the only legitimate choice, or that unschooling is the only way to respect their child. If the decision to unschool is made for these types of reasons- extrinsic reasons- it will not likely be successful. You have to want to DO the thing, not just BE the thing. Unschooling ITSELF needs to be the reason, not all the supposed (or even the real) advantages or benefits. If you aren't really into the doing part, everything is going to devolve into excuses sooner or later. The vast majority of people who start unschooling end up sending their kids to school, often because they didn't really want to be that involved with their kids. They may quote other "reasons" or excuses about why it "didn't work out" or they "couldn't," but it all comes down to this: if living this way is a priority for you, you'll do it, and not even consider anything else. If it isn't in your heart and soul, you'll find all sorts of excuses not to continue. And, if it isn't in your heart and soul- it's better that you not pretend to do it anyway.

11. Ask questions, but don't expect answers. Or at least, don't expect to fully understand them. See #2, above. File them away, and revisit them every now and then. Your understanding may change. Sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in "Holy crap! How did I miss that?!?" sorts of ways. If someone who has decades of experience unschooling tells you that you are misunderstanding something, consider that they may be right. Even if you think you understand perfectly, there may be a paradigm shift between you. Expect paradigm shifts. If you go for very long and your understanding of things doesn't change, be suspicious. This isn't only an unschooling thing, it's a parenting thing. As your child or children mature, things should change. Your understanding should develop as your experience increases.

12. Be honest with your children as your understanding of things changes. Especially at first, you may be changing a lot of things about how you think and how you act. It might be confusing to a child whose entire life has been a certain way... and suddenly, it isn't. Be kind. Don't worry nearly so much about being "consistent" as you do about being open and honest and clear.

13. Do stuff. Lots of stuff. Don't worry about whether it is educational. Do things that are fun, interesting, challenging, exciting. Do things that are relaxing and comforting. Do things that are social, and things that are introspective. Do things with your body as much as with your mind. Play a lot. You will go through phases of relative activity and relative inactivity. Go with that.

14. Have a life where it is not possible to distinguish between "work" and "play." Do what you love and love what you do. If there are things that "must" be done (and consider carefully whether anything is truly required) reduce whatever is unpleasant as much as you can. If possible change either the activity, or your attitude. Or get someone else to do it.

15. Seek balance. Sometimes, you find balance by experiencing extremes.

16. Collect interesting things, be they physical things, or thoughts and concepts.

17. Be generous with your time and energy. 

18. Understand that raising children is a balancing act between meeting physical needs and meeting emotional needs. In general, for a healthy person, from the time a child is born until they are adults, those needs develop in opposite trends. An infant has primarily physical needs. Meeting those needs can be all-encompassing and exhausting. Meeting their emotional needs is simple: love them. As they mature, their physical needs slowly decrease, as their emotional needs increase. As adults, your children will have complex emotional needs- but physically, won't need you very much. In other words, as things get easier physically, they get more complicated emotionally. Your sleepless nights will change gradually from being up with a nursing baby, to staying up with an upset child, to waiting up for a teenager.

19. Share your children's lives. Hang out together. Talk. Argue. Play. Work. Be. Unschooling, while not requiring constant, 24/7 interaction, tends to lend itself well to being together a lot. Certainly more than the typical schooled family spends together. Make it good.

20. Seek out interests that you share. I wouldn't expect that any two people would have exactly the same interests, but I'd be surprised if there are many pairs where there is NO overlap. With very young children, it might be playing with blocks, telling stories, painting, walking in the woods.  With older children, it might be music, or games, or intense discussion. It could be anything.

21. One of the best things about unschooling is the opportunity to re-experience so much with your children, from a child's perspective. Consider it a time when you can live out the best aspect of "If I only knew then what I know now..." Look at the world through a child's eyes- but with an adult's resources. Instead of rushing your child to become an adult, spend time in their world. It's kind of like this: when I went to college, I was stressed out about grades, about graduating. I spent most of my time studying and worrying. Now, years later, I work some of the time at a University. It is ASTOUNDING how much opportunity there is there, the things there are to do. Movies, plays, lectures, discussions, performances, clubs, etc. At any given time there is a huge number of "extracurricular" activities. Huge. Something for everyone, without a doubt. Just about anything you could be interested in doing, there is someone else interested in doing. The trouble was that when I was in college, I didn't have time for ANY of that, so I let all that opportunity go by without taking advantage of any of it. I was too busy trying to get to the next stage. SLOW DOWN. Don't be in a hurry to get to the next thing. Just as I only had a limited number of years to experience college, and mostly wasted that time, you have only a limited number of years to experience having young children. Do it with gusto! Play in the mud, be a space alien, whatever it is your kids are into. Some of those interests, they may have lifelong, but some of them are typically done only by young children. Enjoy it, every second of it. If there ever was a definition of unschooling, that would be it. Explore life with your kids. Sometimes, lead, and other times, follow. Following can be especially rewarding when your child leads you somewhere you might be embarrassed to go on your own.

22. Stay up late with your kids. At some point, those late night discussions will be some of the most memorable in both of your lives. Find some private time with each kid so you can build these relationships.

That's my list, for now.
If there is something about unschooling that you are concerned about that I didn't include, consider that it might be because I don't consider it important.
Or maybe I forgot.
That, and it's about time for me to get to bed, so I had to stop somewhere.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Friends and Neighbors

The "American Dream" used to include the image of neighborhoods, where everyone knew each other, there were children playing in the streets all summer long, as families had barbecues together. It included the nearly-cliche concept of going next door to "borrow a cup of sugar."

When I was very young, in Georgia, I have memories of such a thing. One neighborhood I lived in had an alley that ran down the middle and all the kids played together there. We knew everyone on the street.

We moved away from that neighborhood when I was 5. I have never experienced such a thing since.

Most neighborhoods I've lived in, I've known a few people. The closest I came to that same sort of feeling happened twice.

Once was where I lived for a few years about a block from the downtown area of a small town. I knew almost everyone within a couple of blocks- but my parents and sisters didn't. I knew them because I spent a lot of time walking around the block. A lot.

The other time was when I was about 21. We lived in an apartment in an old house, and I because friends with the family that lived on the other side of the downstairs. I really did borrow a cup of sugar once, and used to go over there and hang out a lot. It was my first "real neighbor" since I was a young child. After a few months, they moved, then we moved, and that was the end of that.

Since then, I've lived in 6 places, and only one of those places for longer than a year.

When we moved into the house where we live now, I had high hopes of getting to know the neighbors. They even welcomed us by bringing over a basket of homemade goodies.

We live in a very small "town" with a population of around 3000. It isn't the population that makes it so small here, it's that there isn't really a town, at all. No stoplights, no businesses to speak of other than a few in people's homes. The only actual business we have is a bar/restaurant that is on the extreme edge of the town, literally a few feet from the town line, and it associates itself more with the larger town next door than here. We have no school, no gas station. No real community gathering place. Sad, in some ways, but if you're looking to be left alone, it's fairly ideal.

Our house is in a small group of houses. There are four on our side of the road, and three on the other. You might think it would make a nice little neighborhood, but not so much. Not for us, anyway.

When we moved here, it was like this:
The house to our East had an elderly couple who were nice enough, but in poor health, so they weren't outside much. One died not long after we moved here, and the other moved away. The person who bought the house a couple of years later is a single woman who is a violin teacher, who has never really chosen to be part of the community out here, instead maintaining her connections with the town where she teaches.
The house to our West had a young family with two kids, near in age to my own, but the difference in parenting couldn't have been greater. The kids were not allowed to go barefoot, and had a sandbox that they were only allowed to play with from outside the box, not being allowed to actually get in the sand. This family called child protective services on us once because my 2 and 5 year old were playing naked in our back yard in 90 degree temperatures. Concern about the kids? Not so much. The Mom "didn't want to have to see that." They "threatened" to put up a fence. We wished they would.
The next house over from them had a home daycare, where we overheard the woman yelling at the kids day in and day out.
Across the road was another young family, also with two kids, but also with an extremely different parenting and lifestyle. The Dad mows the lawn every day most of the year. Is he obsessed with short grass? Or is it so he can be out there watching all his neighbors? Turns out, he works at the same company as my brother, and would give him "reports" of what he saw. Peachy.
One of the other two houses has had a high turnover, being one of the few rental homes in town. There were some people we were sort of friendly with for a year or so, but they're gone. I've seen the most recent people one or twice, but that's all. The last house in the neighborhood is an elderly woman I've never even met.

The family next door (shoes, no sand) moved away a few years back, for which we were grateful. We run into them around town sometimes, and are on MUCH better terms with them now that we don't live next door. A young couple moved into that house, and while they lived there, had two children, but they were not very social, and although we were certainly friendly enough, when they suddenly sold the house and moved away, we had no idea why.

Why am I mentioning all this?

Just a couple of days ago, I had an experience that has me somewhat hopeful.

We have a new neighbor in that house, one who made the effort to introduce herself to me.

And I like her. Quite a lot.
She has more in common with me and my chosen lifestyle than anyone else who has ever lived in this neighborhood. Maybe more than most people in the whole town. We aren't exactly living the typical American rural lifestyle.
I have a feeling she may became an actual friend. The kind I can talk to. Hang out with. Share things with.

It's kind of exciting.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


A friend brought these to my attention today. Adorable.

I saw this one first:

Then I watched this earlier video:

And then I watched a few more older videos, including this one:


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Unintentional Bias

I was participating in a discussion on facebook a few days ago. It was about kids staying up late.

Someone had said that it was "inconvenient for kids to stay up late" and I disagreed. I don't think it is inconvenient, in and of itself, for kids to stay up late. It depends.

My kids have always stayed up later than is generally typical- but I stay up late, too. We are pretty much a family of night owls. I wish that in addition to 24 hour grocery stores, we could have 24 hour book stores and/or libraries.

Since for most of their lives, we havent' had any sort of schedule that would require people to get up early in the morning, it really has not been an issue for us to say up late, and then sleep late in the morning.

After I posted something about that, the very next comment pointed out to me that I have a bias that is something I hadn't even thought about for a second.

We don't have neighbors near enough to hear us.

Many people live in situations where they are in close quarters with other people, whether it's extended family, or they are in an apartment, or the houses are close together.  Having a child stay up late- and be noisy- could cause a very real problem.

The conversation moved on to talk about common courtesy, and being respectful and considerate to other people.

Even so.
I found it interesting that the idea of needing to be quiet because of very close neighbors simply didn't cross my mind, since it isn't our situation, and never has been.

I've seen other people have biases, or assumptions, that are similar in nature, if not in content. Like people suggesting we take a bus somewhere. Or order food to be delivered. The only bus here goes by twice a day, and the only possible delivery food comes from the gas station down the road in the next town. They do make good pizza, but they lack in variety.

My experience this week, of stumbling across a bias that was so invisible to me, was a great reminder to examine what I think and say, on a regular basis, to be sure I'm not making unfounded assumptions that I'm not even aware of. Also, a reminder that many times, communication is complicated when there are unrecognized assumptions.

I'm very accustomed to recognizing other people's biases.
Not always so perfect at seeing my own!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Been Busy

Been too busy to write for the last week.

We went to Baltimore to an EMS conference for a couple of days. I don't think I ever stopped moving. It was a huge success- we brought home a ton of information and materials and free samples.

Came home to a search for a missing person and spent nearly seven hours out in the cold helping. Unfortunately, the search did not end the way we all hoped it would.

The next night, we were out at a motor vehicle accident in the middle of the night. There was a sudden snow squall that covered the roads and someone did a "creative parking job" across a ditch.

In between, I've been teaching, conducting a training, and continuing my own research online.

Not getting a lot of sleep.

And now, we're up listening in to the fireground audio of a structure fire in a building I used to know well. Years ago it housed a book store that I used to spend a lot of time in, even sleeping there some nights. It was owned by a friend of mine, and whenever I accidentally locked myself out of my apartment a block away, he'd let me sleep in the store. Sometimes I'd sleep on the couch in the back, and other times I'd sleep in the basement.

My friend's dog had puppies in the basement once. She was a gorgeous black lab, and the puppies were adorable.

He sold the store a few years later, and the new owners moved it downtown. It never felt the same after that.

Now, instead of a friend owning the store, we have friends there fighting the fire. I can sit here and picture the building inside and out.  At the moment, it sounds like they are getting things under control. I hope that continues to be the case.

Tomorrow I'll be up late, picking up one of the kids at the airport, coming home from a trip to Florida. We've been missing him and are looking forward to having him back home.

We may also be buying a car tomorrow, if all goes well and we find what we're looking for. Plus, it's supposed to get up to about 60 degrees and I have a bunch of outdoor work to do. I'd far rather do it while it's warm than not. The weather here has been so crazy this year that I couldn't begin to predict what it will do more than a few hours ahead of time. I feel like I need to take advantage of the warm weather because you never know what the weather will do next!

It sounds like the fire is about out, so I'm going to try to get some sleep while I can. Nothing philosophical in this post, but now you're caught up on what life here is like these days.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Go Look It Up.

When I was a kid, "Go look it up" was a phrase used by parents or teachers who didn't want to "give the answer" to a child, but instead, wanted them to "learn something." It implied that a child would only learn something if they went through the motions of looking up the information, but they would NOT learn it if someone "gave" it to them.

Kind of funny, really, considering how much of "teaching" at that time was simply lecturing.

Somehow, spelling ended up one of those things that someone was supposed to go find for themselves. Except if it was on their spelling list, in which case, they were supposed to memorize it. If they forgot, then they had to go look it up, it couldn't be given to them a second time.

I guess there were rules for all that looking up.

Looking words up in the dictionary, or looking something up in an encyclopedia, were almost all the "looking up" opportunities to be had for young children. Assuming, of course, that they HAD a dictionary and encyclopedia. If they didn't, then they had to go to the library, which kept copies of those books, that people were not allowed to take home, because they needed to stay in the library, for all those trips people made there to look stuff up.  The library also kept a bunch of other "reference books" that a person could looks something up in, but those were not generally used by young children. I suppose the young ones were too busy looking up how to spell something, or using the encyclopedia to look up some subject in order to "write a report" on it.

Fast forward to today.

Things have changed.

Where "look it up" was previously a command given to children who asked questions, now it is an easy way for anyone to access just about any information about anything. Since the availability of resources no longer rests in the library, or even in a few books, but is, instead, the internet as the gateway to the information universe, it is easily available to almost everyone much of the time.

Much of the first world, anyhow, and to those who can afford the technology, anyway. For now, I want to look at that particular subset of people, rather than discuss why it is that it isn't, actually, universal. The following thoughts are about that population who does have access.

It started with search engines.
Then those improved.
Then there was Wikipedia. An "encyclopedia" that could easily and rapidly be edited and added to by anyone who cared to do so. No more waiting for some committee somewhere to decide what needed to be added, and then for them to write and edit and add. Which then immediately became out of date.

There are other collections of information, too, like the Internet Movie Database, or imdb. Plus, all sorts of other groups have started their own "wiki" for information about whatever it is that they are specifically concerned with.

There has been a veritable information explosion. The average person has access to more information in seconds than previous generations had in their lifetimes.

What to do, what to do, with all that information???

I can't speak for other people, but around here, we "look it up" all the time, in an ongoing way. We read newspapers online. We get directions to where we're going. We can find out a restaurant's hours and menu, and sometimes, even order before we leave home.

We look up words and concepts, find the text of documents that are hundreds of years old, and can look at pictures of practically anything in order to understand more about it or to find what we're interested in.

We look up actors and writers and plot points when we watch TV or movies. Find recipes while we're cooking.

And now, to make things even easier... most of what we read online has embedded links, so we don't even have to type in what we want to find out about... it's there with just one click.

The latest thing we've learned to do to get up-to-practically-the-second information on breaking news is to use social media.  News media find things out when they hear about them, and then they have to send someone there to look at it and report back. The people involved, however, are ALREADY THERE, and the information they have is raw, unfiltered, and in the moment. How accurate it is depends on the emotional content of the situation. Sometimes, they are much more accurate, having a first hand account, and other times, rumors fly fast when the stress level is high. Either way, you can get information before it is officially announced. You just have to learn how and where to look, and it helps to have a lot of contacts in different places.

No longer is "look it up" relegated to being a command from an adult to a child, and an avoidance of giving away the answer. It is a powerful, powerful tool available to bring information and ideas directly to a person much more rapidly than ever before. As people learn to use these tools, I hope they also continue to learn to use critical thinking in order to evaluate the information they find.

In fact, that might be the most useful part of all.
Someone who learns to evaluate the validity of ANY source of information, will make much better use of ALL of them.

So not only are we no longer limited to a few written resources, where children are sent to find things on their own, rather than being helped, we are moving away from the very idea that those resources are the definitive source of truth.

I think that's a good thing.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Lots of Opportunity

I'm heading off on a short adventure in a couple of days, to a conference. Last year, I attended the main conference by way of a scholarship, which made it financially possible. Even so, the hotel costs were enormous.

This year, I can't afford the registration fee for the conference proper, plus a hotel for  nights, but I'm going anyway, to spend a day and a half on the exhibit floor. My daughter is coming with me.

There are free classes available from three different organizations, plus over 300 vendors, most of whom give away something, ranging from a pen, to complete training programs. This is why I decided to go back, even though I can't go to any of the "real" classes.

The best part, though, is meeting up with the people we met there last year- bloggers we had known online for over a year, some of whom had been very supportive and helpful above and beyond their blogs. One of them, who will be back this year, comes to the conference from Saudi Arabia. Not much chance of me getting to visit with him there.

All the presentations and free materials and conversations all add up to tremendous opportunity to continue my own training and education plan.

In some ways, this is very different from how we as a family and/or as individuals, learn most everything else. We don't typically have any sort of "training plan" or try to gather materials to use for "educational purposes." We get stuff we're interested and do the things we're interested in doing, but most of the time, it isn't in order to learn something. Learning happens along with, or incidental to, the stuff we do.

In other ways, it's very much the same. If one of us wants or needs to know something, we figure it out, one way or another.  And that's what this is- stuff I need to know. Stuff I need to be able to do.

So sometimes, we DO specifically and intentionally decide to learn something in particular. Not as a byproduct, but as an activity in and of itself.

While we're off at the conference, we're hoping to visit the science museum right across from our hotel, if we can find the time. That part is solely for fun, not because it's "educational." There isn't anything in particular there that we are looking for, or hoping to learn.

It can be challenging sometimes to explain the difference between the two to someone who is still caught up in school ways of looking at things. Harder still for some people to let go of labeling and categorizing certain things as "educational" and other things as not.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Old Films, New Films

I haven't posted for a couple of days because I've been busy. Busy watching movies and collecting my thoughts for this post.

This isn't going to be a cheerful post.

I mentioned before about how we have always watched a lot of movies, and how you can learn so much from a film, beyond what the movie is about.

One of the things you can learn is the prevailing attitude about things portrayed in the movie. Sometimes it's obvious, and is part of the plot, other times, not so much. For example, various forms of discrimination can be in either of those positions.

You can also learn things about history that you were never taught in school, if you went to school. Things that are not part of "common knowledge" because history is not always recorded fairly or accurately, and often the very things people need to learn FROM, the things we wish had never happened, are the very things that are hidden or denied.

Last year, I saw a film that had good reviews. I did not know ahead of time what the topic of the film really was.  It was called Sarah's Key, and was about the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup in France in 1942, where the French police rounded up 13,152 Jewish people and shipped them off to concentration camps. Right. The French police, not the Nazis.

I had never heard of this event. Ever. I had no idea it had happened.
I came home from the movie and started looking things up. There is evidently a whole lot of history out there that I've never heard about.

So this past week, I had an assignment to watch two specific films that also fall in a similar category. This time, I was well aware of the general events of the films, but had not seen these excellent examples of propaganda. They are not comfortable to watch, at all. Stomach turning, even.

But they are important.

The first was a Nazi Propaganda film by the name of "Triumph of the Will." A lot of footage of the Hitler Youth, and of Hitler himself, including some speeches. Scenes of HUGE crowds of supporters.

The other was a film called "The Birth of a Nation." This film was banned in some places, and was reportedly used as a recruitment tool for the "second era" Ku Klux Klan.

Not a comfortable warm fuzzy film watching day.
Much to think about- and much I'd rather not think about.
I would not recommend these for small children.

On the good side, so this isn't a totally depressing post... I discovered that youtube has a lot of classic movies available in their entirety. There is a channel called "Openflix" that is well worth exploring if you like old films.

I also came across Cinevault, which claims to have "The Largest Collection of Classic Films Online." This is a great source for films that are in the public domain.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Coming From a Different Place

I went to a presentation this evening, where I knew that the person giving the talk would have a very different perspective from my own.  He would be coming from a different place, both literally and figuratively. I was right.

Even so, I listened with an open mind, and looked for areas of agreement- of which there were many. I looked for things I could learn form what he was saying, even if it didn't exactly fit my situation.

The thing is, it's always that way.
No one else's situation will ever be exactly the same as mine, yet all situations will have something in common. It could be more, or less, but it will always be something.

It seems to happen to me a lot, that someone else's perspective is different from my own. The part I'm trying to understand better is what it means for someone to have a different perspective, different beliefs, different assumptions. How does that affect our ability to communicate with each other? What do they see that I do not, and vice versa? How can I move toward being more aware of their viewpoints? How can I reach them with mine?

In order to connect with another person, to really communicate with them, you have to meet them where they are. If they can't understand you, they aren't going to get much from whatever you say.

I run into this all the time when the subject of education comes up. So much so that I tend not to discuss it with people unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Making Biscuits

Real buttermilk biscuits, hot from the oven.
It doesn't get much better than that.

I don't mean the kind that come out of a can.
And I don't mean what we would call cookies but English people would call biscuits. Totally different thing.

I mean the kind that your grandmother used to make.
If, that is, your grandmother was from the Southern US.

Somewhere along the way, making good biscuits became one of those litmus test things for a good cook. I don't know how that happened, given that making good biscuits is possibly one of the easiest things in the world. Making that the standard for good cooking is a lot like judging someone's baking skills by how good their mud pies are. The process is very similar!

There is really only one thing you need in order to make excellent biscuits: you need your mother to show you how. Of course, she needed her mother to show HER how, and on and on back through the matriarchal line of your entire ancestry. If you don't have that, it's going to be a lot more difficult.

You can try a substitute Mom: there are, believe it or not, youtube videos of someone else's Mom demonstrating how to make a real Southern buttermilk biscuit. That might help, or it might not, since the directions are usually pretty vague, and assume a familiarity with the making of biscuits.

Even so.
I'm willing to make an effort to help you. Making biscuits is fun, tasty, and a great thing to share with your kids both before and after the baking part.

The first thing you need (besides your Mom, but if you have your Mom, you don't need me!) is a large bowl. Preferably a corningware bowl, in one of the truly horrendous colors they used to make them in (mine is avocado green). Wear an apron- you're likely to get flour all over.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees, if you have that sort of oven. If you have one that uses some other settings (like they do in England, I'm told) get a thermometer, and use that to figure out what you need to set it to. It probably doesn't have to be exact, but it shouldn't be too far off.

Sift a bunch (that's a technical term) of self-rising flour into the bowl. How much you use depends on how many biscuits you want, of course. I usually want a lot, so I use a lot of flour. Don't use more than your bowl will hold.

Make a well in the center of the hill of sifted flour.

Put some shortening into it. Crisco. Lard. I wouldn't use all butter.
That's another technical term. Some. You've baked before, right? So you should have some idea of a typical ratio of shortening to flour in most baked goods. Start there, and maybe add a little more. More shortening makes for a lighter biscuit. To a point. What point? I have no idea.

Use your hands to start blending the flour and the shortening. Use a light touch, and don't let the shortening start to warm up from your body heat.

Once it's mixed up a little, so there aren't huge globs of shortening sitting there, pour in some buttermilk. How much? I don't know. Some. A puddle of it. Mix everything together. (It's going to stick to your hands, so don't be surprised by that.) If it's too stiff and dry, add more buttermilk. It's going to be cold, mixing the buttermilk in by hand, since you keep your buttermilk in the refrigerator, right?

Here's the part no one can tell you: mix until it looks and feels like biscuit dough. It should be pretty soft, but not too wet. Not sticky. Not too dry and stiff. Don't overmix it, or the biscuits will get tough. Add more of whatever you need more of to get it to turn out right. When you are starting out, you might want to mix flour into the wet ingredients, instead of trying to mix the other way around, and don't feel like you have to use all of the flour in the bowl. Just mix it in until it feels right, and stop. Once you have more experience, you'll be able to estimate more accurately, and will have a better idea of how much of things to use to only sift the amount of flour you want.

Once the dough is right, break off a piece of it that will make a biscuit the size you want to make.  Remember they will rise in the oven. Using your hands, slightly roll and tuck the edges underneath to make a rounded but somewhat flattened ball. You know. A biscuit shape. You can roll them out and cut them with the open end of a tomato sauce can if you want, but it's quicker to just hand form them.

Put them on a cookie sheet, barely touching, and bake for 20-25 minutes, depending on how big you made them. They should be a little brown on the bottoms, and starting to be golden on the tops.

Next comes the best part: finding out if you made biscuits, or if they are a bunch of duds.
You might be a little nervous the first few times That's okay.
Break one open with a fork. Steam should come out. Butter or something similar should go on.
If all is well, remember what you did so you can do it next time.
If not... remember what you did so you don't do it the next time!

Your biscuits should be light and fluffy on the inside. If they are tough, or chewy, you either used too much flour, too little shortening, or you mixed it too long. Adjust those things and try again.

Once you've gotten to where you can do this without looking at any instructions, and you consistently turn out good biscuits, it's time to pass it on to your kids. Because it doesn't take any measuring, and the recipe is pretty forgiving, it's a great recipe to play with with small kids. Who doesn't like mixing dough by hand? Even a very young child should be able to help with this one.

If they turn out to be duds, you can always give them to the dog and try again.

They are best right out of the oven.
They don't keep very well, although you can try to heat them up if you want. They are okay that way, but it's kind of like the difference between fresh brewed coffee and instant- from what I've been told anyway. I hate coffee.

I learned to make biscuits almost literally at my mother's knee, since that is about how tall I was at the time. She used this method, and also had another method that uses both baking powder and yeast. That method has an actual recipe, with measuring and everything, but it isn't nearly so traditional.

That was my adventure for today. Making mudpies, without the mud part.

Monday, February 20, 2012


Every now and then, I stop and refocus myself. I take time to look at my priorities, and see if they are clear to me.

I've been spending a lot of time lately posting unschooling-related stuff on facebook, right when I've also started this blog. Part of the reason for the blog was to gather some of my thoughts in one place, and instead, I seem to be broadcasting them.

Today, I'll consolidate a little.

There's something I wrote somewhere- and oddly, now I can't remember where, or in what context- that people have started quoting.

"Try to make each choice, each decision, from a place of evaluating what is really happening, what really matters, rather than from any script in your head or the cultural pressure or preferences of other people. "

One person sent me a note, telling me she had quoted it, and saying that she thought it applied to many things besides unschooling.

She's right.

It applies to everything.


Every relationship, every habit, every moment. From the serious and important, to the small and lighthearted, every choice you make needs to be YOUR choice.

Once I figured that out, it changed my whole life. As I told that person today, it was in learning to do this for my kids that I learned to do it for myself. To live my life on my terms, by my beliefs. To do what I think is right, even when everyone else disagrees. 

Many, many things about my life are not quite standard American behavior. :-)

My lawn is unmowed.
My relationships unlabeled and undefined.

It isn't that I just do whatever I want, and damn everyone else.
It's that I carefully consider my choices, rather than make them blindly.

At least that's what I try to do. I still get tripped up sometimes, and have to take a step back, re-evaluate, and unwind some tangled up thought processes.