Friday, March 25, 2011

Disapproval

Last night, Ginger left the house late to help a friend for a few hours and I had the chance to just hang with the boys as they were beginning to wind down a bit. I always love doing this, but because I am often at work most of the day the opportunities come few and far between. I love the rush of coming home from work, as we compete to connect and enjoy each other as quickly and thoroughly as possible. We'll move from quick "hello!"s to playing games, watching games, going outside to play, wrestling, looking up funny videos on YouTube, or whatever else suits our fancy. Usually, we'll break for dinner and clean up, and then re-connect for a while before I have to toddle off to bed. But when I go to bed at 10:30 or so, I miss the calm that comes when the "Daddy's home" rush is over . . . and it is in these calmer waters that I can really observe my children, getting to know a bit more about their hopes, dreams, fears, and uncertainties, while they relax and settle in to routines that I do not always get to see. When I get to do this, I see them in a light that most other people will never come to know.

I like to think that I see my children for what they are, and not for what they are not. We have made hundreds - thousands - of choices over the past several years all designed to fit that maxim. All of those choices - from cloth diapers to no vaccinations to family beds to unschooling to no bedtimes or media restrictions - have been made with our eyes wide open, and with our hearts open even wider. We've researched, lived the other way, learned, watched, listened, laughed, cried, been frustrated, worked through it, and come to the place we are now - ever evolving, to be sure, but in a place that works for us and our children given the hundreds of variables that go into painting our family dynamic. As such, I firmly believe that there is no one who knows any better about how my family should live than I do (except my partner and kids, of course). I think that most people who have consciously chosen the way they parent - regardless of what "way" that is - are convinced that they know what is best for their family.

But that sure doesn't stop people from trying to point out that what we are doing is wrong.


Whether it's from co-workers, friends, neighbors, school administrators, or (most commonly) our own parents and family, most parents have had their decisions questioned at some point or another. Particularly if your choices are, like ours, outside the mainstream, many people consider questioning your choices to not only be a right, but to be an obligation. Sometimes they question in order to understand, but more often they question so that they can help us come around to the "right way" - ie, their way - of thinking.

One key for me throughout the years has been to take a large step back and consider the reasons behind why someone would confront me about my choices. Doing this with newer friends is usually fairly easy, but doing it with our own parents is very challenging because we have so much history; we are fairly certain that we know exactly why someone made a comment or questioned a decision, because our experience tells us exactly where that comes from. I have had to work hard to give my parents some credit, and to try to see their point of view in their thoughts about my parenting choices. But sometimes this is hard, particularly when they interact with my children in ways that are contrary to my preferences.

With practice, I've been able to do it for the most part. We have found that many "unsupporting" people aren't unsupportive maliciously; for the most part, they just really want to connect with the child but find that the traditional routes to connection ("What grade are you in?", "What are you learning?") are now closed. If you think about it, most of us (and a number of preceding generations) were raised and "schooled' in some basics - naming Presidents and state capitols, knowing the dates of wars, The Mayflower, yada yada. While these are all trivial pursuits, they do give us a common frame of reference, a connection point, that allows us entry into deeper conversation. Most of us were raised that way, for good or bad, and continue to work that way today.

Grandparents are no different; they are using their tried and true methods for connecting. The problem is that our kids don't know the answers to these trivial questions, don't know what they've "learned" in a day, etc. So rather than acknowledge that they need to find a different way to connect (which means undoing years of programming), our relatives will ask our children to change so they can connect. And if that doesn't work, they'll question unschooling in an effort to get us to change, all so that they can connect with our kids. This paradigm holds a very mighty sway.

But at it's heart, I think that most time this behavior comes from a place of good (trying to connect) rather than a place of bad. So we try to help them find other ways to connect - suggesting questions the grandparents can ask that will lead to enjoyable conversations, providing background info on our children's interests rather than on unschooling, and ensuring they get up-to-date info on what our kids are into at that particular point in time. The goal of this is simple - I don't need my parents to "get" unschooling, I need them to "get" their grand kids. Once that happens, a lot of the worry melts away - - -and many of the criticisms with it, because they no longer have a problem to solve.

But even that, as sweet as it sounds, doesn't always deflect the criticisms. When they do come, there are a number of ways a parent can respond. Some parents choose the "fuck you" approach. In practical terms, this often takes the form of "my choices are not up for discussion, and if that doesn't work for you then stay away." That's an okay approach for as far as it gets you, which is often to a place of hurt, conflict, an negativity. I have always resisted this approach, based on something my Dad told me when I was very young: when you wrestle with a pig, the pig has a blast and you just get crap all over yourself. Nothing joyful or productive about that.

Some parents choose to argue about or defend their choices, which is also a fine approach as far as it takes you. Personally, I have found that most parents who choose non-traditional parenting methods have a deep emotional attachment to their choices and to their position; that only makes sense, because if you're really sold on something it is natural to have an emotional attachment to it. Unfortunately, that also means that when your beliefs are under fire you are likely to act with emotion. Now, I have been involved in conflict virtually my entire professional career, and not once have I seen emotion win an argument over logic. In fact, I have never seen emotion win an argument, period. I have seen tempers flare, feelings irreparably damaged, and punches thrown, but I've never seen two parties engage in any sort of learning when one or more of them is working from emotion.

Some parents choose to defend their choices with logic, as opposed to emotion. This often takes the form of presenting a logical argument about why they made their choices and the benefits the choices have for the children. Examples are usually given, such as "well, look at what my child does; obviously it is working." I used to be a fan of this approach, but lately have come up a bit short because I don't like using my child's performance, behavior, aptitude, attitude, or anything else to justify my choices. Assessing my child in order to defend a choice, and then communicating that assessment to others as a justification in an attempt to win an argument, seems a bit disingenuous to me, if not downright degrading for my child. I see little difference between this and subjecting them to, for example, any other performance assessments or grading systems.

When questioned now, I am most likely to say "that's interesting, I respect that, thanks." No need to tell people to back off and leave; no need to get angry or use my children's "performance" to justify our choices. At the end of the day, I simply do not need anyone to applaud my children in order for my viewpoints and choices to be valid.

Taking that one step further, I do not need anyone's approval for how to raise my children at all. Frankly, I would like approval; my life feels happier when I am in concert and agreement with people for whom I care, and despite what people say the sense of affiliation that comes with approval is a driving factor for almost all humans. But I don't need it. I look at my children at play and at rest, at morning and at night, in pain and in health, in sorrow and in joy, in uncertainty and in harmony, and I know that I have their approval of the choices we have made.

In the end, that's all that matters.

8 comments:

  1. What a great attitude and wonderful advice. It's a tricky balance for sure and takes time to figure out, I love your perspective though. I appreciate your blog and thoughts.

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  2. Lots of stuff to "chew on" from this post. Thanks, Jeff!

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  3. Hi, I've been reading you a while (loving reading your insight, also you're futher down the road we just started) and now I have some "advice" to ask from you.
    I really do get that that's the best way to handle the situation. But now, where I live, homeschooling (not to mention unschooling) is under threat. A law it's about to be approved and it will be considered neglect "the lack of regular schooling of a child or teenager with the consent or tolerance of the parents or guardians", in that case they might lose custody of their children.
    My brother-in-law thinks that what we are doing with our child is bad and our choice is just some stupid idea that I got, because I'm wierd and not mature (he has that "I'm older and I know best" attitude and completely mainstream). I know he has doubts and he's just worried about our child, his niece, but we made our choice after thinking about it (as with breastfeeding, cosleeping, AP... which also bothers him).
    What would you do?
    Thanks in advance. An unschooling mom.

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  4. Interesting perspective, I haven't considered looking at the root of parental advice: the need to connect. It makes spluttering defensive remarks in the face of criticism silly. I shall this lesson to heart. Thank you!

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  5. Great stuff. I am going to need this pretty soon. So far I have been "under the radar" because my oldest is only 4. But I am bracing for more and more questions as she approaches "school age" and not looking forward to all of the criticism. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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  6. Dear anonymous unschooling mom:

    That sounds like a very difficult situation for you all. Not sure I have too much in the way of advice, but I do have some thoughts.

    First, it sounds like there are two issues here - the legal issues around homeschooling in your area, and your brother's thoughts and feelings. Regarding the legal issues, there are always three options: comply, choose not to comply, or move. At the end of the day, different people choose different approaches. Some people will submit to state testing or register their kids with local school districts to stay legal and keep the government at bay. Some people will choose to fly under the radar, which obviously has it's risks. And some people have chosen to move to places where we have a better chance of making choices independent of the local school districts. I can't say which answer is the best one for you, but I will say that the worst thing in the world is to have your children taken away - keeping them with you is more important than unschooling, homeschooling, or anything else. If faced with that stark a choice, I would send them to school and work toward a move, rather than risk losing them, or having to go to court to fight for my own children. But your choice will be your own.

    Regarding your brother's thoughts, you could certainly take the tack of trying to help him understand your choices. I wrote a piece a few weeks back called "Why We Unschool" that talks about how children learn, the importance of learning, and why unschooling is a logical choice. Maybe reading that would help your brother understand that your choice was not ill-conceived. Some unschooling parents - any parents, for that matter - have chosen to stop speaking with their families because they wanted the freedom to make their own choices without interference. That is a hard decision and not one to be taken lightly, but you may choose to do that if your family simply refuses to accept you. Hope it doesn't come to that, for all of you.

    Best wishes -

    J

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  7. Thanks again, Jeff, for sharing your thoughts on this. I know that this is a BIG issue with lot of people. My own parents are completely on board (they kind of have to be, because they live with us!). However, my mother in law never says ANYTHING. She doesn't ask about learning, or homeschooling, or unschooling, or even regular schooling. No comment whatsoever. I actually find that more disturbing. I can't share any of my thoughts with her because she basically just pretends it isn't happening. :)

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