Does your family have a foundation? Are there a few guiding, unifying principles by which you work together and treat each other?
There are many foundations upon which our spirit as a family is built; respect, dignity, communication, and honesty come readily to mind. Sometimes we falter because all four of us are learning and growing together, but at different speeds, making authentic communication challenging sometimes. For the most part, though, we tend to "groove" along fairly well.
At various points in our journey, we have referred to ourselves by a variety of different labels: AP, unschoolers, radical unschoolers, life learners, take your pick. Personally, I gave up on labels a while back because I found them unnecessary - certainly, I did not need a label to validate the life we've chosen, and I don't need the additional pushback from others that goes with calling myself an "un-" or "radical" anything. For us, our life choices are not badges of honor; they are simply the way we live our life, hour to hour and day to day. When I think about how to best describe the way we live, I think about it in terms of freedom - the freedom of thought with which we seek new experiences, the freedom of the heart with which we pursue passions, and the freedom of spirit with which we approach our lives each day.
To us, freedom as a concept is fairly simple: we should be able to choose, within the limits of safety and common respect for others, the activities in which we participate and the way in which we participate in them. Through the exercise of this freedom, we can learn for ourselves what works for us and does not work for us, and eventually develop the confidence and comfort to pursue our passions that only comes with trial and error - and eventual success.
For many parents just starting out on a journey of freedom with their children, some freedoms seem quite logical and simple to give:
- The freedom for a child to pour their own milk, and spill it if it gets too heavy or pours too fast. Most parents recognize that there's no use yelling over spilled milk, and most kids only do this a few times before they learn how best to pour.
- The freedom to wear what they want, when they want, regardless of whether or not it assaults our own sense of good taste. Personal expression through clothing choice is something that adults do every day, and of course children deserve the same level of respect for their choices - and for the right to make those choices.
- The freedom to wear their hair in whatever style they choose. See above, with the caveat that many parents recognize the right for kids to choose their own clothes, but will readily become embarrassed to be seen with a child wearing a mohawk, or a boy wearing a ponytail.
- The freedom to sleep late, or arise before dawn. This freedom takes some adjusting to as it's impractical for a 18 month old to have the rule of the house alone; but as they grow, most parents can let go of this one and grant their children the freedom of solitude and responsibility.
- The freedom to watch South Park until 3:30am. Not only does this call into question the concept of the child setting up their own schedule, but also speaks to unrestricted TV or computer use, even at young ages. Many other people have written far more eloquently than I about the freedom to watch TV, but I will say we learned long ago that watching with our kids as much as possible enabled us to earn the right to talk through what they are watching, a critical step in respecting your child's needs and wants.
- The freedom to say "no" to church, birthday parties, or hugging Daddy when he walks in the door. Our values may state that Church attendance is important, or that Daddy works hard and deserves to be greeted when he walks in the door each night. But those are our values, not necessarily shared by our children, and if we believe that they should be able to make their own decisions then we need to also support those decisions when they are made - not because we agree with them, but because our children had the freedom to make them and used some sort of prioritization process to work through it. If a child is not free to say "no"when the stakes are minor, will they have the confidence and security to say no when the stakes are huge, as they will be in their teen years - and beyond?
- The freedom to listen to their bodies regarding hunger, sleep, energy, and cleanliness. Their bodies are their bodies, not ours; and while we can offer support and suggestions, we cannot enforce arbitrary rules on these issues without risking the enforcement of our own preferences upon our children.
- The freedom to spend a day or two alone in silence. Sometimes, just like adults, kids need to be left alone in peace and quiet. We need to trust them when they ask for time, either with their words or in nonverbal ways.
Whose Freedom is it, Anyway?
Maybe you grant just a few of these, or similar, freedoms to your child; perhaps you grant most of them. But ask yourself, simply and honestly, this fundamental question about the freedom you give to your child:
Is the freedom I give my child really mine to give in the first place?
I don't think it is. Freedom, as a concept, is an unalienable right of all people, especially of children who are born in freedom and unencumbered by the notion that freedom must be earned as you grow older. The freedom to learn, to do, to succeed, to fail, to laugh or cry, to be silent or emotive, to be engaged or disengaged, are all freedoms which, in my mind, we are all born with. But as parents, most of us are trained to restrict those freedoms so we can raise our children the way that society tells us they should be raised.
What do I mean by that? I am referring to the Sad American Parenting System (SAPS) on which so many of us were raised and which seemingly embodies the "American Dream":
Dad works, mom works; breakfast as a family with a healthy meal; lunches and book bags all packed the night before; kids on the bus and doing well at school; work being hard but rewarding; home by 6:00, kids all there, dinner together then chores; some time to play, then homework; then time to brush your teeth and put on your PJs, and off to bed by 9:30 or so. Of course, the kids would play sports, and I'd be a member of the Jaycees, mom would be on the Chamber of Commerce, etc, etc, etc. We might even go to church on Sundays and sing in the choir.
This schema is one in which children - and their parents - are expected to "snap to" a lifestyle which was in many ways pre-defined for them, without any freedom of choice or any other say in the matter. So as parents, many of us begin parenting in order to ensure that our families conform to the SAPS to the greatest degree possible; and in order to do that, in order for us to be the perfect American Family, we all must give up a few minor freedoms, such as the freedom to
to do, go, wear, say, see, act and feel what we want, when we want to. There is no other way, in the eyes of the people to whom SAPS is their defining familial vision, to make everything fall into place and work the right way.
A Change in Perception
In the SAPS, we start with a perception that the parent defines the vision, the parent does the work, the parent provides the choices, and the parent gets to dole out the freedoms as rewards for conformity to the vision. We begin with an understanding that freedoms do not support the vision, and therefore must be restricted so that the children can do their part, look their part, and act their part. We completely lose the very foundation of freedoms - that we are born with them, that we are entitled to them, that our genes wire us pursue them - and assume that we, as parents, are obligated to grant them to our children and to each other. And when parents from other SAPS families see kids who have been "granted" freedoms, they question and judge those who "provide" greater freedoms to their children.
How sad. How sad that so many of us perceive that it is our right to withhold and grant freedoms to our children. How sad it is that so many of us fail to see that only through freedoms - freedoms which we, as parents, have no power to restrict or grant, but only to support and embrace - will our children fully learn a life lesson in all of its nuances and subtleties. But how wonderful that those of us who "get it", or are on the way to getting it, are graced with the inner beauty of the spirit of a child who is free to learn about their world and define in whatever way makes the most sense to them. And though we may sometimes falter or stumble along the way, it is a journey we make together, with our children, hand in hand, in respect and love and freedom, just the way it's supposed to be.