Follow Your Dreams?

A-goal-without-a-plan

I have to admit, the older my kids get the more complex this unschooling life becomes. When they were younger it was easy to see that they were learning in every activity, no matter how big or how small. But as they get older it isn’t really enough that they are learning. We are all learning. But at some point, and it’s admittedly ambiguous when that point is, we have to actually begin to do something with all we’ve learned and are continuing to learn. This, it seems to me, is the logical progression of our unschooled life.

These thoughts, and more, have been rumbling around in my mind for the last few months. More and more conversations with friends and family who choose homeschooling (in various forms) turn to how we’re approaching the high school years. It seems to be a fairly common concern because I have a Pinterest board dedicated to unschooling with teens and the followers for it grow almost daily. It’s mostly a board about online classes and tutorials I think my kids will find interesting but lately I’ve realized that it also needs to be a place for me to keep information about helping them achieve long term goals, not just short term interests. The board is a digital representation of the idea that as their needs change, so must my role.

As always, to figure out this changing role I have to begin with them. For quite some time now J has expressed interest in video game design and K is increasingly talking about a career in fashion, specifically as a stylist/personal shopper. I know a lot of teens express similar desires and my first instinct was to tell them that they need a back up plan. But I stopped myself because it occurred to me that it’s probably a good idea to have a plan for your actual goal before you start talking about plans for failing that goal. It’s a scary prospect though because the path to success in the fields they are interested in is not clear cut like it would be if they wanted to be engineers, nurses, or bankers. And if it’s difficult to even imagine the path it stands to reason that at times it will be even more difficult to follow that path.

samwise

However, I know that in the end, it’s not likely to be any more difficult than a life full of regret and laboring endlessly at a monotonous job. So, as my kids grow older and we look more toward the future my job as the facilitator of their education shifts. Instead of simply giving them space, resources, and support to find their passions I have to help them turn those passions into something tangible.

james02

I love the above quote from The Princess and the Frog because Tiana’s father acknowledges that the star, the wish that is the beginning of a goal, is important and it will take you places, just not all the way. Too often we are told that growing up means being realistic and that being realistic means following the safe, easier path. But it’s entirely possible to have your feet planted firmly on the ground and still chase your dreams.

So, how does that translate into our everyday, unschooling life? Well, J and I have been talking about dreams versus goals and, in turn, long term goals versus short term steps to reach them. In the interest of game design he’s decided that his goal this year is to complete an indie game. He works on it almost daily and is saving money for computer upgrades. For my part I’m expressing interest, checking in with his progress, and helping him save (and contributing funds as I can) for equipment he needs. For K, who is a bit younger and not quite as settled on her long term goals, I’m trying to find ways for her to explore her interests. We’re looking for local fashion shows and talking about jobs she can do related to fashion (like working retail when she’s a bit older) which may help her decide if she’s truly interested in pursuing this as a career.

I continue to be ever mindful of the fact there’s a fine line between pushing my own agenda and helping them pursue theirs and I try to pay attention to their reactions to my suggestions and offers of help. My dad has often expressed that he is like a chain; you can pull him just about anywhere but if you try to push him you won’t have much luck. This is always in the back of my mind when it comes to my role in helping my kids achieve their next goal, no matter how big or small. I offer a helping hand but it’s up to them to grab hold.

As I said in the beginning of this post, as my kids get older our unschooling life becomes more complex because life, unschooling or otherwise, becomes more complex as we grow up. But no matter how complex unschooling is something I still believe in. Something which sets them on a path for well rounded success, not just financial security (which is absolutely a spoke in that well rounded wheel). Something which continues to allow space for mutual respect and understanding. Something which I think prepares them for the future without sacrificing the present.

 

Family Time

The kids and I have been in a reading haze for the last few weeks. We all got new, great books for Christmas and we’ve been cocooned in piles of pillows and blankets, devouring them ever since. It’s been really great but I have a confession to make.  I miss watching TV with my kids. Don’t get me wrong, I love books and love reading but I also really enjoy TV. And TV is something we can do together.

Often TV is viewed as a passive experience while books are thought to be more interactive- I don’t really understand this. Both TV and books have the potential to open us to new ways of viewing the world, new people, places and ideas. Both have high quality story telling along with really trashy options. Both have fiction, non-fiction and a mixture of the two. Both can be thought provoking or mindless, depending on what we choose from their varied smorgasbord of options. So, why is it that if I told you I spent the entire day lounging and watching Netflix it would conjure completely different ideas than if I told you I spent an entire day reading? And if I told you that my daughter stayed up all night reading but my son stayed up all night watching videos online your judgements would probably be vastly different despite not knowing what she was reading or he was watching?

The truth is that in the last few weeks we’ve all spent more time reading. I’ve enjoyed it immensely and so have the kids. But we are more disconnected from each other as a result. We each have different interests but there are a few TV shows that we all like and usually watch together. We are actively engaged with each other while we watch- we talk about the characters and stories, we exchange knowing looks at plot twists and subtle jokes. We reference favorite quotes in daily conversation. It is anything but a passive, solitary activity for us and after a few weeks spent with each of us reading alone, in our own little worlds, I miss it.

Day 27/Post 26: They’ll be so far behind…

I keep running into this phrase. It comes in a few contexts, all relating to homeschooling.

Concern from parents that their kids are falling behind their peer age group.

Concern from the kids themselves about falling behind their peer age group.

Condemnation from family members and strangers who think homeschooling should be school-at-home and if it isn’t the kids will fall so far behind they’ll NEVER be able to catch up.

But what does “falling behind” even mean? Falling behind an age group? Falling behind a grade level? Falling behind in what areas? Who decides what kids should learn and when? What are they basing this decision on?

I have a lot of experience in the field of education. I’ve worked in daycare, as a classroom teacher and special education teacher in public schools (at various grade levels) and as a GED instructor working with teens who had just left high school up to people in their 60s. I am here to tell you that there is no average student. Age does not determine what people know. Grade level does not determine what people know. In fact, one of the most common topics of discussion among professional educators is differentiated instruction- trying to find ways to teach students in the same classroom who are at different levels of skill and ability.

Based on my personal observations “falling behind” is based upon what works best in the classroom* environment. In that particular setting it is necessary to move at a specific pace, introducing new ideas at specific times for organizational purposes. This is loosely based on when some kids seem able to master certain skills. It’s not based on current brain research or what we know about how people learn. For example, the reason kids who can’t read by the end of 2nd or 3rd grade in school are at risk of never reading fluently isn’t because they are no longer capable of learning this skill. It’s because classroom teachers don’t have time to work on reading skills beyond that grade level. And the kids lose interest because books that are increasingly difficult are required so they give up. This isn’t a critique of teachers, please don’t misunderstand me, it’s a critique of the inherent flaws of the system as it is currently structured.

So, when I hear people concerned with kids “falling behind” I take it with a grain of salt. Many of the arbitrary guidelines necessary for schools to run smoothly disappear in the home environment. I still, of course, listen when parents express concern because there are times when a legitimate concern might arise. However, I don’t think it happens often and certainly not as often as I hear it from “concerned” bystanders.

*Classroom here is referring to a K-12 classroom. Post-secondary instruction is organized differently in that it is, for the most part, voluntary. Additionally differentiated skill can be addressed by the individual student in these instances in the form of taking necessary per-requisite courses.

Day 23/Post 21: Beyond HAES: Accepting Limitations in Other Life Choices

In my previous post I included a footnote that I’d like to expand upon. In it I wrote:

… I’ve limited this post to HAES for the sake of flow but this applies to so much more. When I embrace unschooling I also accept the limitations it may impose because I feel the benefits outweigh the costs. When I embrace gentle, respectful parenting concepts I also accept the limitations they carry. When I embrace less work for more family time I have to do so while understanding and accepting the limitations this creates on our finances. You get the idea. Truly accepting any concept or philosophy implies accepting its inherent limitations.

This little footnote led me to contemplate some of the inherent limitations of some of my life choices, especially those relating to radical unschooling and peaceful parenting. I’ve come to accept them but it was a gradual process; one that Robbie is still working through in many ways. Some of these limitations are things that I get asked about A LOT from people who are new to radical unschooling/peaceful parenting. I used to go on the defensive and try to deny these limitations exist but now I realize that denial is not the answer.

Too often when we are making choices outside the mainstream we try to hide the parts people will be most critical of but I think this is a mistake. It makes us seem delusional at best, dishonest at worst. All choices have consequences, limitations and sacrifices. If we truly want to help people understand our choices then we have to help them understand why we accept the flaws associated with them. The most glaring, for us as well as for those who’ve come to me for advice/help/a compassionate ear are:

1. Radical unschooling isn’t about getting your kids to choose what you want.

Many people new to unschooling, myself included many years ago, have the mistaken idea that if they simply stop pushing traditional school that eventually kids will choose this type of learning for themselves. The truth is some do; we can read countless anecdotes of kids doing just that. However, many will not. They will actively choose a completely different type of learning that may or may not involve “core” subjects (as defined by traditional school models) and passively learn through a multitude of experiences. If you are choosing radical unschooling with the belief that your kids will eventually choose the exact same type of education you would have chosen for them you will probably be disappointed. If, however, you approach it with the understanding that radical unschooling is about them choosing their own path you will see a multitude of rewards, not the least of which is happy, confident, intelligent children

2. Peaceful parenting is not a quick fix.

When I first came to peaceful parenting, from a far more mainstream idea of discipline, I remember thinking, “This ISN’T working!” Regular meltdowns, throwing things, slamming doors, and sometimes hitting (usually me) were still rampant. It didn’t seem like much was changing and while this idea of treating my strong-willed child with respect was nice theory, in practice I had my doubts. But a small voice inside me told me to keep trying. To try to see things from his perspective. To stop looking at how difficult this was for me and focus on making things easier for him. And eventually it worked. I honestly don’t know if things improved because he felt heard, understood and respected or if he simply matured (my guess is some combination of the two). But I do know that we have a much easier relationship now. We still have our moments but they are rare and also more easily negotiable than they used to be. This didn’t happen overnight but it did happen.

3. Neither radical unschooling nor peaceful parenting are about doing things the easy way.

I feel like I should have this tattooed on my forehead since I have to say it so often. Trusting and respecting my children is simply that. Trust and respect. It is not hands off, lax, leaving them to their own devices, ignoring bad choices and hoping for the best. I am their guide, facilitator and, sometimes, voice of reason. Life isn’t a choice among tossing them into the deep end to sink or swim, keeping them safe in the shallow end or forcing them to learn with you for their own good. There’s another option- standing back to help when they ask, offering encouragement, and being their safety net as they venture into the deep end in their own time, in their own way.

This is what I try to do and how I have come to define radical unschooling/peaceful parenting within our family.  But this definition means availability in a way that some of those other choices does not. Tossing them in, keeping them where it’s safe or pushing them into my time table means I get to relax when I’m “off duty”. Sitting back to watch and help when they need it means I’m never off duty. As they grow older they need me less but it’s also increasingly difficult to know when they’ll need me so even though it gets easier in some ways, in others it gets harder.

4. Neither radical unschooling nor peaceful parenting are about obedience.

I don’t really see this as a limitation but many, including Robbie, often do. He’d like to have compliant, if not obedient children. He likes the idea of them questioning the status quo but it’s difficult at times to accept that this means allowing them to question him. And they do question us. And tell us when they are unhappy with a decision we’ve made. And push our buttons. But I don’t think it happens any more (and it actually feels like much, much less) than it did when we were mainstream parenting. They still pushed back. But now they do it less often because they believe our decisions take them into consideration. And, perhaps more importantly, they know how to disagree respectfully. This not only makes our house more peaceful but I firmly believes it will benefit them more as they transition into adulthood and have to deal with difficult bosses, co-workers, etc.

On our journey into this new way of approaching family life I have learned that accepting that my kids will learn in their own way, things will progress on their timetable, that I have to be more available to them for longer, and that “because I said so” is never going to be a good answer are all part of fully embracing our life choices. These inherent consequences are inseparable from our definitions of radical unschooling and peaceful parenting. But as we watch our kids grow into responsible, competent, confident, amazing teens who still trust and respect us because we’ve done the same for them we realize that, for us at least, the limitations are definitely worth the benefits.

Day 21/Post 20: Acceptance Includes Accepting Limitations

Lately I’ve written a lot about the concepts of Health At Every Size (HAES) and am also striving to put these principles into practice in my daily life. I’m focusing on my health, not my weight, and am learning to separate the two. I’ve learned to love, care for, and appreciate my body as it is now instead of constantly wishing it were different. I accept myself as a fat, beautiful, intelligent, passionate woman. I do not hang my hat on your acceptance of these concepts or of my body. And yet, I discovered this week that I hadn’t fully accepted myself because I hadn’t accepted the limitations that my weight might impose.

We are planning a trip in the fall to Universal Orlando. The kids and I are recent converts to the Wizarding World but when we finally fell, we fell hard. We can not wait to walk down the streets of Hogsmeade and try our first sip of butterbeer. But Universal, unlike Disney World which we visited three years ago, is not always accommodating of people above average size. I’m not being euphemistic with that phrase either; everything I’ve read online indicates that people who are exceptionally tall, muscular or fat may have trouble fitting into some of the ride seats. I worried about this quite a bit because one of the rides in question is the one featuring my beloved wizards and witches. I’ve spent a lot of time pouring over information from those who’ve been there, fretting over whether I’d be able to ride “Forbidden Journey”. I still have no idea because it’s all about proportion, not weight and it’s impossible to tell until you’re there in the test seat. (And even then the test seats have been known to be wrong.)

A lot of the discussion on the forums I’ve visited center around “encouraging” people to lose weight, to remove these limitations. And I have to admit that I briefly considered trying to diet my way down a few pounds before the trip. I told myself it was okay because it’s not about my weight or other people’s perceptions; it’s about doing something I really want to do. And that argument may be true for some people. But it is NOT true for me. With my history of eating disorders there is no such thing as a casual diet. There are no “right reasons” to go down that road for me. Ever.

So, with that realization I realized that HAES and body love aren’t really enough. I also have to be honest about the limitations I’m accepting when I accept my body as it is.* Instead of following the standard assumption that I should actively try to lose weight for myself I’m choosing NOT to for myself. I accept the limitations of this choice and also reject the misplaced pity that may accompany it. I am not a victim, I am a warrior fighting for my health and well-being.

I may not get to  fly with Harry, Ron and Hermione but I will still get to walk through the streets of Hogsmeade and explore Hogwart’s castle. If that’s what happens then that will truly be enough for me because a few minutes on an amusement park ride is not worth the risk of triggering a downward spiral into relapse.

Besides walking through Hogwarts is hardly a consolation prize. 😉

*Just a brief note to say that I’ve limited this post to HAES for the sake of flow but this applies to so much more. When I embrace unschooling I also accept the limitations it may impose because I feel the benefits outweigh the costs. When I embrace gentle, respectful parenting concepts I also accept the limitations they carry. When I embrace less work for more family time I have to do so while understanding and accepting the limitations this creates on our finances. You get the idea. Truly accepting any concept or philosophy implies accepting its inherent limitations.

Day 21/Post 19: Why I don’t complain about my kids (or my husband)…

There is a big push in the blogosphere, as well as on social media, for parents to be more real. We are encouraged to post the nitty gritty of parenthood instead of just sunshine and roses because the former is more honest. The general idea is that by only posting the positive aspects of our daily lives that we are somehow setting up unrealistic expectations and therefore causing other parents to feel even worse about their own imperfect families.

I understand the sentiment, and in the context of talking with friends about issues they may be having with their kids or asking for advice about issues I may be having with mine I completely agree that full disclosure is important. But I’m not going to share it here. Or on Facebook. If you want to I don’t judge you for it, especially if it helps and you feel better after doing so. But for me, it is not helpful AT ALL. When I spend time complaining about aspects of my family life (commonly referred to as venting) without looking for ways that I can either change the situation or change my perspective about the situation it sets me up for a downward spiral. Soon I will only be able to see the problems; none of the good things seem to matter because I am too focused on the bad.

I also think it’s far too easy, under the guise of venting, to turn a blind eye to my own role in whatever is happening. In the early, unhappy days of my marriage I spent a lot of time complaining about my husband. In my mind I vilified him and martyred myself. It wasn’t until I stopped complaining and started looking for solutions that things changed. I didn’t take on all the blame myself but I also stopped laying it all on him. I started communicating my frustrations in productive ways and asking him to do the same. It changed our relationship in such a profound way that it’s difficult at times to even remember the way things used to be.

Since this epiphany I have tried to extend this realization to all relationships, but especially to my relationship with my children. It’s easy to take things personally; we are repeatedly told that when our kids act out that they are trying us, asking us to set limits, seeing how far they can push us, etc. We are rarely told to look at their motivations as separate from us. How ridiculous.

This is as true when they are 13 as it is when they are 3.

This is as true when they are 13 as it is when they are 3.

This does not mean that their moods and actions don’t impact me or that I have no right to respond or have my own feelings in return. It simply means that I try, usually after my initial, though increasingly brief knee-jerk defensive reaction, to see things from their perspective; to look for solutions instead of laying blame on either of us. When I say that I look for my role in things it is not because I’m looking for a stick to beat myself up with. It’s because I’m looking for things I can do to make things easier and better for all of us, including myself.

So, I’m sorry if I sometimes come across as a bit of a Pollyanna when it comes to my family. We do have our moments and I do try to share them but usually from the perspective of problem solving, not complaining. And honestly, these moments are rare and brief. They didn’t used to be. They used to happen daily, sometimes multiple times per day. I don’t know if this changed simply because we changed our approach or if we’re just lucky. But either way, I’m not complaining. 🙂

 

Day 16/Post 15: No choice is perfect, not even MINE! ;)

 

I came across this blog post today, written by a grown unschooler whose husband was traditionally schooled. I’m anxiously awaiting the post of the interview she alludes to but I thought this post was pretty great on its own. I especially liked this:

For me, and I suspect for other grown un-schoolers, there is the grounding reality of imperfection. There is no perfect education, no perfect upbringing, or family.

She goes on to reiterate this idea that unschooling is simply a choice, not the choice when she shares her husband’s perspective:

And my husband, having experienced public, private and boarding schools at different chapters in his education, has his own opinions and sense of determination to do better as a parent, to guide and harness all the positive things that institutions have to offer.

I honestly think this may be the first time I’ve heard an unschooler use institution without a negative connotation attached. It gave me pause and caused me to examine my own prejudices. Unschooling saved my family, saved my son, saved ME. This is extraordinary and I’m forever grateful but as a result it can be difficult for me to be objective on the topic.

This is why the post linked above struck such a chord with me. The acknowledgement that no choice is perfect is significant. As an immature unschooler I used to bristle and get defensive when people questioned me or asked me about perceived flaws in the philosophy. But now, as a mature unschooler I realize that I’m not trying to make perfect choices; I’m trying to make the best choices for my family. I don’t choose unschooling because it’s *the* best. I choose it because it’s best *for us*.

And ultimately that’s all any of us can really do.

Disclaimer: If you ask me for advice I’m going to give it to you from the perspective of a radical unschooler. That’s what I know, and all I have to offer by way of knowledge and information. So, if you don’t want to hear advice from that perspective, ask someone else! If you’re simply looking for a compassionate ear with no advice, I’m always your gal. 🙂