Tuesday, March 31, 2015

One Thing

My life, these days, is a busy one.
I have two paid jobs, and a full time volunteer job.
I spend a fair amount of time training for all three.
I have several passionate interests.
AND there are my kids, of course.

My kids are adults now.
This means, for the most part, on days when things are going well and we aren't having some sort of crisis, that they don't need nearly as much direct attention as they did when they were young.
I now have TIME for the jobs, the interests, and the kids.

It was not always so.

When my oldest was a baby, I clearly recall the very moment I realized that I would, in fact, leave my job (that I loved), and be a stay-at-home Mom.
I was sitting on the couch, holding the baby. 
I was exhausted.
He had not slept more than two hours at a time since birth, so neither had I.
And when he was awake, he needed constant attention.
I sat there, holding him, thinking to myself "I can't believe how much time and energy this tiny being, who doesn't even really DO anything much, requires. It's constant! How on earth do daycare centers give the babies enough attention?"

And then it hit me. Duh.
They don't.

I'm sure they try. And that some are better than others. But the dynamics are pretty simple: there are more babies than caregivers, and most often, there are also older children, and it just isn't possible for a group care situation to provide as much one-on-one care as a parent can provide.

So I stayed home.

As I tend to do, once I decided to do that, I went full speed ahead, and passionately committed. :-)

My child was the center of my life.
I spent nearly every moment with him.

Everything changed.
For one thing, we were having a blast.
I found it puzzling, and more than a little frustrating, that every person who had given me "advice" before his birth had said things like "Your life will never be the same" and "It's so much work" and "You won't have any time for yourself" and "Better sleep while you can!"
And while those tidbits have some merit, what they left out, ENTIRELY, was "You are going to have so much fun!"

My second was born, and he was a totally different person.
He taught me SO MUCH about parenting.
To begin with, he needed nearly constant physical contact. I wore him in a sling most of the time.
And secondly, he nursed all the time.
And I do mean all the time.
I became a LLL Leader when he was about a year old, and I have since heard hundreds of stories from new Moms, about how their babies nurse all the time, and they most often mean every couple of hours, when they were expecting four hours.
Nope. I mean all the time.
As in, for the first year of his life, if he went as long as half an hour during the day, it was unusual.
MAYBE a couple of hours at night.
But most of the time, we had to take into account that he was going to need to nurse.

If we needed to go somewhere, we'd nurse before getting ready to go, nurse right before leaving, nurse in the car, stop somewhere partway there to nurse again, nurse in the car when we got there, do whatever we needed to do, take a break to nurse again, etc.
We nursed walking around grocery stores.
He nursed through the closing on our house.
We were inadvertently an "exhibit" of the new "nursing room" at the grand opening of a children's museum.

If there was anything on earth that could get me to slow down and be in the moment, to respond to needs rather than expectations, this was it.

As he got older, and we added a third child, those intense needs eased up a little.

And THIS is what this post is about.

There comes a time, as kids get older, when they appear to have fewer needs from their parents.
Maybe it's so, in some ways.
But not overall.
Needs CHANGE, for sure- but I don't think there comes a time when they don't need you.

As they mature, and are better able to deal with delayed gratification, it can SO easily start to contribute to a very common dynamic.
Mom (and/or Dad) has been totally committed to young children for how long now?
There may be a desire to get back to their own interests. To do more things for themselves. To get a "break."

It starts simply: a child wants or need something, comes to the parent and indicates that need, and the parent, instead of stopping what they are doing and addressing it, wants to "finish up" whatever they are doing first.

"Just a minute."
"Can you wait…?"
"Hang on a sec…"

As the child is more able to wait, that waiting time gets pushed longer and longer and longer.
Other thoughts and activities start to become prioritized….   maybe even something like checking facebook. "I just need to catch up on something." "Let me finish this post."

If you ASKED a parent if facebook is a priority over their child, they would, most likely, say "of course not."
But if you observed them, especially from the child's perspective, you might begin to wonder whether that is true.

This attention shift kind of creeps up on you.

Way back when, when my kids, and the internet, were young, I made an intentional choice.
Being online, checking email and AOL, making new friends, being able to have adult conversations in writing, all these things were tremendously compelling.

I caught myself putting my kids off in order to finish something.
And committed to not doing that.

I made a decision that I would not use any of those phrases about waiting a minute, and that if I started to, I would stop what I was doing, and focus on my child.
That I would keep them the priority.
Even if it was inconvenient.

Problem solved.

Right?  :-)

Well… partly. Sometimes.

It turns out, it's a cycle.
They get older, need less direct, immediate attention, I get more accustomed to longer times to myself, get more mentally and emotionally involved in other things, and then, suddenly, something changes, and they need that attention again. But I'm doing this thing, and it needs my attention, too, and… and…and…

I'm back to that "even if it's inconvenient" thing.

Granted, as they have become adults, I don't spend my days sitting around playing with them on the floor nearly as much as when they were young.
I DO have more and more time to do the other things I need to do.
I HAVE been able to shift more attention to my interests.

But I STILL need to pay attention, and catch myself when I am losing focus, when they need me more than the moment before.

I am not perfect in this.
Just ask them. :-)

An occasional reminder- like this post- helps.

So here it is, that One Thing:
Prioritize what is truly important in your life.
Remember, and honor, that priority.
Refocus when necessary.
When your kids need you, BE THERE.  Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually.

Multitasking, as much as I thrive on it a lot of the time, has moments when it is not appropriate AT ALL.
In those moments, STOP.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Step Away From That Plan!

It begins even before pregnancy, for many people.


Dreams of children, perhaps what to name them, or whether they will be a boy or a girl.

Images of sweet babies, maybe rocking them, nursing them, reading stories to them.

And then, once they are born, the beginning of getting to know them.
Hopes for their future.
What they might do, where they might go, who they might be.

It is a wonderful, sweet time.

As they become toddlers, and parents find their parenting "groove," there are many plans to be made, not the least of which is where -or whether- to send them to school.

Some people hear about unschooling, this very strange, magical, radical thing.
It sounds crazy, maybe.
Or maybe it sounds perfect. Sensible.

They decide this is what they want to do, so they start to research it. Maybe they find online forums and ask questions. Or maybe they read blogs, or books. The occasional article somewhere (but not the comments!).

They form an impression of What Unschooling Is.
Of how it will work.
Of how much fun it will be.

Maybe they make lists of fun activities to do. Places to go. Books to read. Park groups to join.
They practice defending their choice when they are criticized by well meaning family and friends.
They gather the "answers" to questions about socialization, curriculum, reporting to their state (or not), unlimited media, no bedtimes, freedom of food choices.
Maybe they purchase family memberships to museums.
Get a AAA membership and plan road trips, or even decide to live in an RV and travel around.

And then…

it turns out that their child, that small being they have invested so much time and effort and thought and love in…

is their own person.
With their own personality, and thoughts, and dreams, and ideas, and goals.

Sometimes, those match the parent fairly well, at least in part.
Sometimes, they match the parents' idea, in their heads, of how exciting and fun this unschooling thing will be.

Other times, they don't match at all.


Extrovert parents have an introvert kid, or vice versa.
A family that lives in the middle of nowhere has a kid who craves urban life, or the other way around.
People who thought they'd spend their time "facilitating" what their kid wants to do, finds that their kid doesn't WANT to BE "facilitated," they want to do things their own way, in their own time.

My kids really helped me through this, simply by being themselves.

My oldest was a lot like me as a child.
Early talker.
Early reader.
Very logical and analytical.
Actively interested in nearly everything, especially… well…. everything, actually.
Stubborn as heck.

Things with him went about how I expected.
Everything we did, he enjoyed.
Every toy, every book, every everything I brought into the house or suggested, he thought was cool.

The next child flipped all that COMPLETELY.
He was not like me, or his brother, at all.
He didn't want toys or books or activities; he wanted physical contact.
He didn't want to be talked to when he was  upset, at all. (He is, in fact, still this way, at 25)

It was SUCH a gift.
I found out, in a hurry, that it wasn't about what I wanted, or what I thought, or what I liked.
It wasn't about what I might suggest, or what his brother liked to do.
It wasn't going to match that vision in my head, EVER.

And when there were three, with the addition of my daughter, it was even more abundantly clear.
I had to let go of that whole fantasy in my head of "We Are Unschoolers, with a capital U."

Unschooling isn't about me.
It isn't about my goals, or my beliefs.

It is about family relationships.
About how we work together.
About flexibility.
About changing plans- and finding a way to do so that doesn't upset the ones who have trouble with transitions.

Way back in the very beginning, I, too, like so many people, had fantasies about doing family projects, about finding our passions and running with them, about making something of everything and anything, of living a full, exciting life.

It turns out, we're all kinda homebodies, after all.

I never could have planned any of this.
It all went- and is still going- the way it needed to go, in the moment.
Looking back, we've had our share of adventures and great moments, for sure.
Describing some of it now, it almost sounds like a project or two.

Today, I got maybe the best confirmation possible of this being the best path for us.

My daughter told me that her boyfriend admitted to her that he feels more like family here, with us, than he does with his family- because WE feel more like a family. We do things together. We hang out, make food, play games, and we talk, about anything and everything. There is no separation between "parent" and "child," as such. No authoritarian set up.

Don't get me wrong- he has a great family, and  they love each other very much. It isn't that his parents are bad parents; they are not. They are clearly very GOOD parents, if you go by the wonderful person he has turned out to be.

But it is clearly the case that our version of "family" is, in fact, different from the mainstream concept.
We are much closer, day to day, than most families, because we have been able to foster that, the whole time. We have not had hours of separation on a nearly daily basis.

And although I didn't micromanage how we got here, that part was, in fact, my plan, all along.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

I Hear You, and I Believe You: Unschooling Through Illness

I'll start right out and say this is the most challenging thing I've ever had to do, for numerous reasons.
This isn't going to be a general guide, or a "how to." It's about sharing some experiences we've had recently, adjusting to a "new normal," and how this new journey has fit with unschooling.

Having a person in the family with a sudden (or at least suddenly discovered) chronic illness readjusts priorities in a heartbeat, and changes EVERYTHING.

There are, however, things we learned through this that we've found valuable.

At the beginning of what I've come to call my daughter's Medical Mystery Tour, it seemed like a fairly normal thing.
An ear infection.
Kids get those, right?
I mean, when I was a kid, I had ear infections often, and remember well both the misery, and my Dad taking care of me.
And I had been told, or absorbed from somewhere, that kids having ear infections was simply part of life, and a thing everyone had to deal with.

Except my kids never had one.
Three kids, 20-something years, no ear infections. Ever.

Until suddenly, at the age of 19, here we are, in the emergency room in the middle of the night, miserable daughter, in pain, and an ER doc who looks for horses rather than zebras, and diagnoses an ear infection. He said that it didn't really LOOK like one when he looked in her ear, but all the other signs and symptoms matched, so here, have some antibiotics, and an ear drop pain medication, and follow up with your regular doctor.

So far, it seemed like an ordinary, run-of-the-mill, if later-in-life-than-expected, sort of thing.

And for about three days, we believed it.

But then.
We embarked on a grand adventure of love and learning, of family bonding, of rearranging our lives and habits, of relying on each other.

Yeah, it sounds grand, doesn't it?

I suppose, in a sense, it really was (and is) all those things.

But living through it?

There were many times we'd have chosen somewhat less rosy-sounding words to describe this particular experience.

Having a child in pain gets right to the heart of parenting, in a hurry.
In a no-nonsense, what other people think no longer matters, we need to deal with this right now, in the moment, and Just. Keep. Breathing. sort of way.

If ever I had thought, before, that I was the one in charge of things around here, I quickly learned, at a whole new level, that I was not.
Instead, what was "in charge" was doing whatever we needed to do, in the moment, to allow my daughter whatever level of functioning she was capable of, with as much support and care, and as little expectation, as possible.

Sometimes, it was nearly invisible.
Her meds were working well, she was feeling sort of okay, and we could go out and do things like a nearly normal family.

We never knew how long that would last, though.
An hour? Two?
A day?
Five minutes?

We learned to find things that were fun, interesting, flexible, low stress (both physically and mentally) and easily interruptible. Things we could drop in on- and things we could leave.

It became nearly impossible to make plans that involved others outside our family. Hard to commit to any specific activity at a specific time.
We never knew when we'd be making another trip to the ER, or when we'd be able to get appointments with specialists (and whenever those were available, we HAD TO take them, since some required MONTHS of waiting and were not easily rescheduled). 

This situation that primarily physically affected my daughter, affected everyone else in the family, as well.
It had to.
Some of her needs required being the priority.
Over everything else. Sorry. :-(
My daughter could not be left alone, ever, and this required a lot of flexibility and commitment juggling for all of us.

This was difficult for everyone.
Not out of anyone begrudging her what she needed, but because it simply isn't fair, to anyone.
Being "in the moment" is a great thing, no question- but being unable to plan anything ahead of time, and unable to keep any sort of schedule, turns out to be very draining in the long run.

A complicating factor in all of it is that whatever it was that was the problem, medically, was invisible to the eye.
No one outside my daughter had any way of understanding or knowing what she was going through, and we began to experience having people question whether it was "real." Is she REALLY sick, or is she faking it, or exaggerating, or looking for attention, or trying to get her way, or trying to avoid doing things she doesn't want to do, or…. on and on and on.
This is not an unusual experience for MANY people who have chronic illnesses, especially those involving pain, that other people cannot see.
It was, for us, a very NEW experience.


But you know… having people question a child's "motives," and decide that adults know better what they need, and how, and when, and what is or is not "real" or important, and suggesting that the child is "attention seeking" and just needs to be ignored or told what to do… THAT was not a new experience, at all.

It's fairly standard for unschooling families, especially at first, when their friends and family have no idea what on earth crazy thing they have decided to do.

Interestingly, having gone through that whole thing when the kids were young came back to make it much easier for us to deal with it NOW.

It all comes down to the same thing: what are the child's actual needs? What is developmentally appropriate? What CAN they do? What do they need help with? How can I support those needs? How can I allow and encourage in my child as much autonomy as possible, without it being pressure? How do we manage OUR needs well, while respecting the needs of others?

What no longer mattered was what we had been able to do BEFORE.
What mattered is what we were able to do NOW.
Right now.
In this moment.
Even if it has changed from moments before.

Every day was a new experience of finding out what we could and could not do.
Of being flexible and trying to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
Of understanding that we all were struggling in our own ways with this, and that we needed each other.

We had days where our primary activity was lying on the couch, with me holding my daughter while she shook with pain.
Yes, it was as horrible as that sounds.
Absolutely nothing I could do to help her, other than be there, with her.
And then, in a heartbeat, the symptoms would abate temporarily. A moment of peace, out of the blue.

It took nearly two years to find a diagnosis that seems to make sense.
In that time, we saw MANY doctors, she went through MANY tests (some quite uncomfortable; most not such a big deal).
We had a wide variety of potential diagnoses that turned out not to be what was happening.
We were blessed with some great doctors, who were very creative in trying everything they could think of.

We became our own experts.
Lots of research. Record keeping.
We learned how to navigate the health care system.
What to say to doctors- and what NOT to say.
We learned about medications and mechanisms of action and side effects and interactions and half lives.

We learned to ask for help and support.
We learned to adjust and change plans on the fly.

We played, as much as possible, in as many different ways as we could.
We listened to live music- an emotional/spiritual lifesaver.
We started doing things that we had put off for later, when we could, because we suddenly had an even more clear understanding that at any moment, we might not be able to.
We had long conversations, when we could do little else.
We had times of silence.
We had struggles with our fears for the future, whether it was a long term financial fear, or a fear of what was happening in the next few moments.

At the heart of it, it was- and is- all about respecting each other, and what IS, rather than either trying to conform to anyone's expectations, or make the world conform to us. It is about living and breathing in the best way possible for each of us.

We now have a diagnosis.
It turns out that part of what made it so difficult to figure out is that it is not one thing, but two. Two things that don't happen together- happening together.
So much for statistics. :-)
As many people know, that "one in a million" chance turns out to be 100% when it's YOU.

We have moved through a few different treatments.
Things are mostly better.
Not gone. Not "solved." Not "cured."
And every time things begin to go smoothly for a while, we'll have a setback. Medication side effects. Changes in symptoms. Dealing with the various medication schedules and changes. Some new twist.

It may always be this way.

For now, we're making the best of this reprieve.
Trying to "make up for" things that got shoved aside or deprioritized, that, under "normal" circumstances would have happened already.
I'm spending more time with my son, who suffered the brunt of the "suddenly there is another priority" situation, and had some of his needs go unmet for a while. This is something I will always wish had not been so, but it was the way it was. Even now, I do not know how that could have been managed better, with the resources and skills that we had- but we are continuing to work on improving both.
I'm still constantly examining and processing and considering how we might move forward. We all are.

All in all, the whole thing has been another chapter in unschooling, in respecting needs, what is, rather than what anyone thinks should be (even us!).
In listening to and appreciating the people right here, rather than trying to make someone else's ideas and "solutions" fit.
In thinking outside the box.
In continuing to learn, find out, experiment, and never give up.
In listening to our hearts.
In believing, and believing in, each other.

One last interesting bit:
It has been through this experience that my daughter has found her passion.
She wants to work with people who have illnesses no one can see, to support and care for them, to help them feel believed and valued.
Sometimes, in the darkest, most painful, most difficult moments, it is that one thing: "I hear you, and I believe you," that makes a world of difference.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Who Do I Listen To?

When my kids were young, and we were making the decision to be unschoolers, there weren't a lot of places to find information.
There were a few local people I knew.
There was some information on how kids learn, which led me to consider what made sense to me.

There was NOT the internet.
At least not for most people.

After a few years, there was AOL, and it was great to connect with other unschoolers that way. I'm still friends with some of them!

But at the beginning, I didn't have a lot of sources outside my own thoughts. Growing Without Schooling. Mothering Magazine.

NOW is a completely different story.

There are more sources of information than anyone could possibly keep up with.

This is a good thing, right?


The problem is that with there being more online forums, more facebook groups and pages, more yahoo groups, etc, and more people, overall, who are interested in unschooling, it has become much more difficult to sift through and figure out what information and advice is appropriate, and what is not.

I've been pretty active online, writing things for new-and-seeking unschoolers, so I see, every day, what kinds of information is out there that is NOT helpful for unschooling, at all. I also see what happens when anyone tries to make that point in most forums: accusations of being the "unschooling police."

So the question is, how CAN you figure out what is helpful, and what is not, as far as guiding anyone towards happier unschooling?

The answer is somewhat more complicated than most people imagine.

We need to look at several different aspects of it.

First, it's the concept of asking for answers at all.
I think it's great when people ask questions, in order to gather information, and clarify what makes sense about all of this new and wildly-different concept of how kids learn.
I think it's not so great when people expect to be given "the answer," WITHOUT needing to think about it and try it out and figure out for themselves, so they OWN it. This isn't something that can be spoonfed. The "answers" really are from within a person, from their world view and thought process, from working through everything they think and believe and have internalized, and sorting it all out.
It isn't at all a matter of "in order to unschool correctly, do this and this and this."
It isn't a matter of doing what someone else says is unschooling.
It's a matter of finding your way back through all the cultural conditioning you have experienced, and actively choosing a different way because you want to do better for your kids.

So let's assume that a person understands that, and isn't looking for "the way" as decided by someone else. Instead, they are looking for information and suggestions and help in knowing where to start on their own process.

We're back to where we started: how do you know who to listen to? How do you evaluate information that you get?

I'll make some suggestions.

First, whatever page or group or list you find, read a while before you ask anything.
No, really.
Don't join and announce your presence, that you are new, and ask a general question like "Where do I start?" or "What is unschooling all about?"

See what kinds of questions are asked and answered.
When you are brand new, you are in that position of not knowing enough to know what to ask. That's okay, but it means that you aren't ready to ask yet, and often, that if you DO ask, the answers won't be very meaningful yet. It's a lot like being somewhere new and not speaking the language.

While reading, and seeing what kinds of questions are asked and answered, pay attention to who answers, and what sort of answers they give.
How do their answers make you feel? Are they good at communicating in writing? Do they attempt to explain things clearly? Is it obvious that they spend time carefully considering how to answer?
Find the people who seem to know what they are talking about- even if you don't always agree with what they are saying, because it doesn't make sense to you yet.

Look for people who prioritize family relationships. Who encourage others to do the same.

Notice who the people are who are making suggestions that don't quite fit- and are told so.
There are many things about mainstream parenting that people find difficult to let go of. Some continue to suggest these things for a while, because they don't yet know what else to do. They might suggest a curriculum, maybe only for one or two subjects, or they might say that they find it necessary to limit any of a number of things (screentime, bedtime, food, etc). These people may have a lot of good things to offer, for the stuff they DO understand… but they don't have the whole picture yet, which makes it difficult to figure out when they do, and when they don't, if YOU are in the "don't understand it yet" category yourself.

Pay attention to the ages of people's kids.
This does not mean that people with young kids have nothing to offer. Many of them do. They might also have kids that are close in age to yours, or be going through some of the same developmental stages as your kids, which can be very helpful.
There will be some things they have not yet experienced, that they are taking on faith. As long as they are talking about things they can speak to from experience, then great. But beware of those with only young children who try to tell you about unschoolers getting into college or how things go in the teen years or as adults.

Beware of people who offer unschooling advice for money.
Yes, everyone needs to make a living, and just because someone charges for a service doesn't mean they are cheating anyone, or doing anything wrong.
Make sure that what they are saying is based on experience, and on really understanding unschooling, and that it is NOT being "popularized" or sensationalized in order to sell something. Make sure that their advice includes practical suggestions, and isn't just pop-psychology or vague generalizations, assuring everyone that unschooling is THE answer to everything, for everyone. Look for things beyond "just trust your kids, they always know…" Look for explanations, rather than soundbites.

Look for people who are more pro-unschooling than they are anti-school. More pro-learning than anti-teaching.

The next part is what to DO with all that information, and this is the most important part.

Who you really need to listen to is YOURSELF, and YOUR KIDS.

As you process the information you gather, and as you try new things, pay attention to what is going on.
How does it feel?
Are these changes you want to make, because they are beginning to make sense to you, or do you feel like you are "supposed to" do things this way?
Is it easy? Or really a struggle?
Does it make your family life happier, or more stressful?

This isn't to say that every new idea must go smoothly and easily, or it isn't any good. Expect to feel challenged, while you are working through your beliefs about learning and parenting. ALSO expect to have breakthroughs every now and then, when something that sounded crazy before, suddenly makes sense. Often, that uncomfortable, challenging feeling is strongest right before a breakthrough. There's a lot of stuff in your head that was put there by well meaning, mainstream sources. It will make you question stuff that sounds absolutely crazy to you, until you work through all of the "but what if it's NOT crazy, what if the way "everyone" does it really ISN'T the best way?" thoughts. 

When you feel that breakthrough, that deepening of understanding, go back and read stuff from your now-favorite unschoolers. Especially anything that they said that didn't make sense to you- it might, now. Or you might be closer. THIS is when you start asking your own questions. This is the part of the process when you are able to take in new information, and connect it to your growing sense of understanding.  

Expect this to take time. Not days, probably not a couple of weeks. Months, maybe. Years, for some things. For some things, it may be more helpful to ask questions of specific people, those whose "voice" you have come to trust, rather than asking in an open forum, where sometimes, threads don't go in a helpful direction. Most of the folks online who are best at answering unschooling questions have been doing it for years, and are open to being contacted directly.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Overachieving Unschooler

We've all heard of them.
That family where the kids are passionate about something, totally consumed and fascinated by that thing, who want more and more ideas and activities and input related to that thing, and it leads them to an amazing alternative career.
There are museum visits and traveling and books and projects and internships and ideas and experiments and artwork and etc.

And it sounds glorious.
A wonderful, perfect, child-led education.
The stuff unschooling dreams are made of.
Plenty of ammunition to use to counter ANY argument anyone presents against unschooling.
Better than school.
Better than school-at-home homeschooling.
More opportunities.
More creative.
More dynamic.
More fun.

But also… the flip side.

More pressure.
More exhausting.

And somehow, many parents find that their kids "aren't at that phase yet." When will they find that all-consuming passion? When will all that learning I keep reading about HAPPEN? Shouldn't I be doing something? Shouldn't we be doing MORE? Everything I read, everything I hear, everything I see, those amazing unschoolers are out there being prodigies, geniuses, starting their own businesses, traveling the world…

Here's the thing.

Most unschoolers are pretty much just people.
Interesting people, for sure.

But that image of all that running around, diving into every interest, finding all those resources, living that exciting life, etc- for the most part, that is a fantasy.

Sure, bits and pieces of it happen, a lot.
But the whole picture, all the time?
Not so much.

It IS, however, the parts that tend to get written about, because they ARE very interesting.

I think it provides a very skewed image of unschooling.
And I think it creates a LOT of pressure on people who are new to unschooling. A lot of unmet expectations. A lot of discomfort, when what they think is supposed to happen, doesn't happen.

Here's my advice:

Read about what other people are doing if you find it interesting.
Consider what, IF ANYTHING, applies to your own family's needs.

But instead of setting yourself up for unmet expectations, look at your actual kids, what they actually like and want to do, and do that.

It MIGHT lead to a deep, passionate interest.
And it might not.
Either way is okay.

It isn't some sort of weird unschooling competition.
You aren't competing with other unschoolers, and you aren't competing with schools, either.
What other people do only matters as much as your kids find it interesting or useful.

Relax, and enjoy being with your kids. Provide whatever opportunities and resources make sense IN YOUR FAMILY, and in your situation, because it's what makes your family happy- not because you think you have to keep up with the unschooling Joneses.

It can be hard to let go of the fantasy of the "perfect unschooling life."

But believe me, the REAL unschooling life, your kids' lives, are MUCH more interesting and rewarding, even if they seem pretty laid back in comparison.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Book, Maybe?

I've been thinking about writing a book.

Actually, several. :-)

But the one most relevant to this blog would be a book about unschooling.

It's an interesting idea for a project.

There are already books about unschooling, and it isn't really possible to learn how to be an unschooler from reading a book, so if I'm going to write one, I need to have a clear idea of WHY. What would be the purpose of the book? How would it be different from anything anyone else out there is saying or writing about? Why would anyone want it?

One idea is to take a bunch of stuff I've already written- because there IS a bunch of stuff I've already written!- and put it into a book format somehow.
Although that might save writing time, I'm not convinced that it would make a cohesive whole, and using only things that people may have read before feels a little bit like cheating, somehow.

I've played around with a couple of different outlines, with a different focus.
Haven't really found what feels right yet, though.

Of course, I'd love to illustrate it, as well… but it's not a subject that fits particularly well with most of the photography I do, so there would be a learning curve there, as well. That might be half the fun- or a huge time sink. Or both.

I don't want to end up with such complex plans and ideas that it never happens.
At the same time, I don't want to rush it just to get it done.

Right now, today, I think my focus is likely to be this:

Unschooling, for life.

It's not a "revolution," it isn't an "educational method," and it isn't something only appropriate for any certain subgroup of people.
It's a way of looking at learning, relationships, and life that encourages and supports each person's individual strengths and interests, in community with each other.
Although some people say that a person is only "unschooling" if they would otherwise be of an age to be schooling, I disagree. I believe this way of being, of connecting, and of moving through life, starts earlier and continues far beyond "school age." It is somewhat unfortunate that we've ended up with the word "unschooling," because of its obvious counterpoint to school, when really, it's about much more than "not school."
I believe that adults who are living an unschooling life, whatever they want to call it, for themselves, are likely to be far more comfortable living it WITH CHILDREN, than are those who have never experienced or been aware of living and learning this way.

Why now?
I have a feeling it's not going to be too much longer before I have grandkids.
And while my own kids have been unschoolers their whole lives, their partners either don't, or are unlikely to, have that same background and understanding.
Their partner's extended family will also be unlikely to understand this, and as many of us know, pressure from family who don't understand can be very challenging in the early years.
I'd like to create a resource that would be helpful for a wide variety of people, not only those with school-aged kids.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Dog Days

We're having an interesting challenge in our house these days.

It has to do with my dog.

He's a great dog, for sure.
We got him almost by accident- we were at the shelter looking for a cat, and this puppy looked at me and let me know he was my dog, and ready to come home with us.
At the time, we were not "dog people."

I mean, I liked dogs and all, and had had a dog a time or two as a kid (although never for long, for a variety of reasons), but we were firmly and sincerely cat people.

Then my dog came along and taught us how to be dog people, too.

For one thing, he's a very smart dog. I didn't know such a thing existed.

He's a dog.
He thinks like a dog.
He acts like a dog.
And he has dog priorities.

When he was a puppy, we took him to a series of puppy training classes at the nearest pet store.
Fortunately, the person teaching the class was kind of awesome, and their focus was on positive reinforcement.
We were told not to use the word "no!" in an attempt to discipline the dog.
We were also told not to ever use the dog's name in a negative way, not to yell it at him to try to get him to stop doing something.
Instead, we were told to always use his name in a loving way, along with rewards of attention or treats, so that he would associate his name with positive things, and therefore, be happy to come to us when we call him by name.

Thinking about it, it makes perfect sense. 
If, some of the time, his name is yelled at him and followed by disapproval, any sort of punishment (and to a dog, who is very sensitive to the emotions of his people,  anger and disapproval and lack of touch ARE punishments), and then, other times, you call his name and expect him to come running… it makes no sense at all.
Just like little kids who can easily learn that being called by their full name means they are in trouble… dogs figure that out, too.

So, in our household, where we were being told to treat our dog pretty much like we try to treat each other, with love and respect, things moved right along in a happy, comfortable way. It took a little bit of learning about dogs, and how their minds work ("if you don't eat all the food right away, and leave some on the stove or table, clearly, it must be the dog's share, right?"), but for the most part, has been awesome and trouble free.

He's kind of an old dog now. He's a larger dog- a shepherd/rottweiler mix, as best as we can guess. He loves EVERYONE and everything. People, other dogs, cats, toys, everything.

Over the past several months, he developed a habit which makes perfect sense to a dog, but is kind of annoying for people.
He likes to steal cat food cans out of the recycling bin.
And chew them.

This is not a good thing.

Besides the obvious "chewing a metal can is not the best choice for healthy teeth," issue, he ALSO often knocks the bins over, spilling all the recycling, and THAT is something I get tired of cleaning back up fairly quickly.
And then, with the bins "out of the way," he can jump up and steal not a cat food can, but the cats' food, itself. Bonanza!

He's a dog.
From his perspective, there's no problem.
From my perspective, I'd rather not have to put recycling in the bin more than a couple of times, you know?
I'm sure the cats would prefer not losing their dinner to the dog, and having him do so is expensive!  It adds up!

So we've been trying to find the best solution for this.

We've tried changing where the cats are fed, but that hasn't been a complete solution.
We've tried feeding them less at a time, so they finish everything before moving away from the bowl, meaning nothing to steal.
We've tried moving other things around to make it more difficult to get to the food, to no avail. Big dog has no trouble "rearranging" things.
We're working on taking the recycling away more frequently, but haven't been so great at that. Not the dog's fault, for sure.
We've even gone as far as gating the kitchen at night, to keep him out of there, but it made him so SAD, and feels uncomfortably restrictive to me, so don't intend to keep that.

We're still working on it.

And now, we have a new situation.
One I hadn't anticipated in quite this way.

We have a new, part time, pack member.

My daughter has a boyfriend.

He's a great guy, seems like, don't get me wrong.
I enjoy having him around, and appreciate how well he treats her.
I love how he brings out her playful side.

He grew up in a household that was very different from ours.

As have most people, to be fair.
We're not exactly mainstream here.

He has started doing something that none of us have ever done, and it is both startling, and an interesting challenge to figure out.

He yells at my dog.
Yells his name, and "no!" and "Bad dog!"
Tries to shame the dog for his behavior, in an attempt to make him stop.
Things we never do.
Things the dog has zero context for.
He doesn't understand "no."

The dog understands being a dog. Doing dog things. Having dog thoughts. Playing dog games.

He doesn't understand being yelled at.
He doesn't understand having a whole lot of intense, negative emotional energy directed at him.

The first, most noticeable thing that has changed, is that my dog- who loves everyone- doesn't want to be around the person who yells at him. He has started to spend time elsewhere in the house. Where before, he'd want to be right in the middle of what folks were doing, now, he'll come find me when I'm in a different room, and stay with me. If I'm in the same room, he'll often choose to go outside, to get away. This behavior change happened nearly immediately.

The challenge for me, now, is what to do about this.

It isn't as simple as telling the person not to yell at the dog.
I know that he isn't doing it to be "mean," he's doing it because he DOESN'T KNOW ANY OTHER WAY.

In his world, he has only seen this sort of "discipline."
He has no concept of any sort of positive discipline, of helping someone change their behavior by understanding it and supporting them in the change, rather than by trying to force it from the outside.

He only has an authoritarian model.
Top down.
The person with power decides and enforces.

So… as a family, we're choosing to model this sort of approach, not only with the dog, but with the person.
We're focusing on calm, loving interactions.
On being proactive, rather than in a rush to stop something after it happens.
On solving the problem, rather than asserting control.

And we're working on doing our part of getting the recycling out of the house, so the dog isn't tempted. :-)

Hopefully, this will be enough to shift everything, in a process of discovering a new way of interacting with a dog, or anyone perceived as having less power.
If not, I may need to have a discussion about the concept of positive reinforcement.
We'll see.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

But How Will They Graduate?

One of the things I see, especially with people who are frustrated with their child's school situation, and who are wanting to start unschooling at a later age- maybe the end of middle school, or beginning of high school- is that although they want to change the METHOD they are using, they don't want to change the GOAL.

In other words, they are hoping to get the same outcome from unschooling that they had originally hoped to get from schooling.
Schooling, for whatever reason, "isn't working" for them, so they are looking for something that WILL WORK.

Often, the first thing they want to know is how their child will "graduate" and get a diploma.
The next, associated thing, is how their child will get into college, and be able to go right back into the formal education model that CURRENTLY ISN'T WORKING.

I'd like to share some thoughts with these people.

First, unschooling does not "produce" the same results as schooling.
If we wanted our kids to have the same experiences, do the same things, and have the same "results" and life goals as they would if they went to school- we'd send them to school.

What this means, for some people, is that if your goal, your plan, is to "unschool the last couple of years of high school, until graduation," and you want to know how to do that in such a way that your child learns precisely what they are "supposed to learn" in school, and does precisely the same thing afterwards, that you (not they) have already planned on, I'm going to say something that may be fairly unpopular, that unschooling is NOT FOR YOU.

It is not a last ditch, "kinder, gentler" method to shape kids into the same "product" that schools are trying to create, only without the stress of school.
ESPECIALLY if your child is unhappy in school.
It will TAKE TIME for them to adjust to a TOTALLY DIFFERENT way of being in the world.
The same time that you HAD been expecting to be their last couple of years of school, run-up to college, complete with tests, college applications, etc.
If you take them out of school NOW, they will still be in that deschooling phase, right when you were expecting to send them off somewhere else.

This is not to say that it's "too late" to take them out of school, or to begin unschooling.
It means that if you do so, you will NEED TO ADJUST YOUR GOALS.
You will need to change your way of thinking about what education means, and how to help your child get what they want and need in their lives.

The first thing that needs to change, and may help you, is to stop thinking that there is such a thing as "graduation" for unschoolers.
Learning doesn't end at a specific age, or after a certain length of time, or once some specific body of knowledge is gained. It is a lifelong endeavor.
When you see unschooling not as a "teaching method," but as a life where you do the things you want to do, and learn whatever you need, in order to do those things, as you live a full and interesting life, it's easier to see that it doesn't have an end point.

The next thing is to let go of the idea that college is the only, or even best, goal for a young person.
MANY kids go off to college right after graduating high school not because they have a specific goal that requires it, but because it's simply what they are expected, and expect, to do.

In my parents' generation, the focus was on being a high school graduate, as THE way to guarantee a "good job."
By the time I was that age, it had begun to shift to a college education being THE way that guaranteed a good job, and something that proved a person was intelligent and of value. Someone who did not finish college was a "failure" and doomed to "flipping burgers."

Never mind that many people had no interest in further formal education, being much more interested in hands-on skills than "bookwork."
Social status became more and more dependent on going to a "good school," rather than on anything a person might or might not DO. Academia gained status in some social groups, while working with your hands lost status, with all the associated assumptions about someone's intelligence, or even what intelligence means.

Now, for kids the ages of my kids, an undergraduate degree is not enough to guarantee ANYTHING. Many find themselves compelled to go on for a masters degree, or a PhD- and THEN, to a post-doc position, because there STILL aren't jobs available for them.

But the public school system is still focused on "go to college" as the goal.

YOU, and your child, don't have to have that goal.
College MIGHT be something they are interested in, IF their interests are in something that college is best for.
Or, it might not be.
Or, it might not be right now, while they explore other things, and it might be something they choose to do later in life.

And, even if they go to college… it may not be that they "leave home" at the age of 18, as used to be expected.
It is not so easy for a young person to go off and support themselves in a world where the minimum wage buys approximately 20% of what it did when I was a teen. No joke.
People who say the minimum wage should be $15/hour aren't making that number up out of nowhere. That is what it would have to be in order to support someone the same way minimum wage did when I graduated high school.
Not only is it not, but entry level jobs in MANY things don't pay that well, either. If there even ARE entry level jobs.


My point here is this:
Unschooling isn't going to work well for people who still feel bound up by the cultural expectations of college preparation, with a goal of college entry, at the age of 18, after "graduating."
If your kids are in school all the way up to high school, they have been in that system for most of their lives.
If you want a different way of living, it comes with changing everything: your thought patterns, your goals, your expectations.
It is not just a substitution of one method for another.

It's like this:
If you spend all day making bread dough, and letting it rise, and putting it in the pan, then in the oven to bake, it isn't going to help you to decide at that last part that you want to put it in the freezer instead of the oven- but you still want freshly baked bread in an hour.

Starting unschooling is a whole new adventure.
A new plan.
A new way of thinking.

Worth doing, even if you are starting in the teen years?

But it changes EVERYTHING.

That should be what you are looking for.
Not the educational equivalent of trying to hide broccoli in the meatloaf.
You can't get where you are going without leaving where you are.