safety, morality, and trust

This is from the unschooling basics email list, 2006, hence the q&a format. Ray (then 14) had been living with our family for less than a year. Karen S. btw, is now very much a radical unschooler.

--- In unschoolingbasics@yahoogroups.com, "Karen Swanay" wrote:
>If a child is allowed, encouraged, not
> guided away from anything they want to do, then how can you (anyone
> not just you) say things will never go wrong?

Think about guiding "toward" rather than "away". Not "away from danger" but "toward" good decision making. Its not just a semantic difference - it creates a really different family atmosphere.

Will things go wrong? Of course. But all the control and guidance and protection in the world won't stop "things" from "going wrong". The difference is that kids who have felt supported by their parents are far far more likely to turn *to* those parents when things *start* to go wrong, or even before.

> And that is exactly why I'm stuck...kids will want to do something and
> to respect what they want to do and help them do it no matter what
> seems wrong. It's the "no matter what" that has me.

There are times when one of my kids wants to do something, try something, and its really not such a good idea - but my response isn't necessarily an outright no. Why does my kid want to do this thing? what are his or her goals and expectations? Is there a different way to meet those goals? Would more information help to adjust those expectations to something more realistic? Sometimes that's *exactly* what my kids need, a little "reality check". The thing is, they know that what they'll get from me is "reality". I'm not going to represent my fears as fact, I'm going to say "I'm worried that...". I'm not going to overstate the danger in order to get them to do what I want. I'm a trustworthy source of information. That's really important.

If my 6yo wants to climb something that's too high for me to support her on, I'm going to tell her that. What if she still wants to climb? Depending on the very, very specific circumstances, the answer may well be "I'm really sorry, that's not an option". But I'm going to try my darnedest to find another way for her to get what she wants - or at least Part of what she wants. Since she has had that experience over and over, she knows she can trust me to help her, and not merely hinder her.

> 15 yr old boys
> want to have sex. That's biological drive.

I live with a 14yo boy and I find this comment somewhat dismissive. Its not like he's a disembodied penis looking for a vagina! He's a human being with thoughts and feelings and worries and frustrations and questions and needs that all intersect with that "biological drive". He's not on the prowl for random sexual encounters, he's a real person looking for real relationships. And ultimately, some of those relationships will include sexuality.

>Do you help your kids
> achieve that?

I don't assume I can stop him. I can throw obstacles in his path and hope he doesn't do anything too stupid. I can try to scare him with skewed information. Or I can talk *with* him and try to assure he has the information and skills he needs to make good decisions. But he's not going to believe the information or learn the skills if he things I'm trying to control his behavior, not even "for his own good". He's going to put his energy into thwarting me.

Some of the skills my guy needs to make good decisions about sexual behavior include communication skills. He needs to be able to communicate as openly as possible with any potential parnters! He needs to be in the habit of listening and thinking, and not just reacting when an opportunity becomes available.

How do people learn to have good communication skills? Well, practice helps - so I and my partner work on communicating openly with him and with each other. Its not always easy - Ray's used to being told what to do and having to sneak around or be defiant in order to do what *he* wants to do. It has taken time to establish ourselves as trustworthy sources of support, and *we* have the advantage of not having been the main sources of control in his life for six years.

One of the topics that comes up for conversation in our home is sex/sexuality. This is where communication can get tricky, bc we (my partner and I) want to give Lots of information and yet we have to be very very careful of Ray's boundaries. We want him to know that his boundaries are *very* important in the area of sexuality. Part of that is we want him to be able to recognize and communicate when he's not comfortable/ready so that he's not impelled to have sex *before* he's comfortable and ready. The other part is that we want him to respect when a potential partner isn't comfortable or ready. If he's used to people tromping all over his boundaries, he's going to be much less likely to respect someone else's.

> I mean, do you guide your kids at all with morals, ethics and values
> or no?

My partner and I have very strong personal values, ethics and morals, and those form the foundation for our relationship with each other and our kids. I seek to use my values to guide *me*, but I also believe that morality is something kids learn without being taught. They need to see it in action to value it.

One of the things my partner and I were chagrinned to discover, early in our unschooling journey, was how much we ignored our own morality where our kids were involved. Sadly, that's part and parcel of conventional "because I'm the mom!" parenting. I'm not saying you should let your kids walk all over you - not in the least - but I am asking you to think about how you would feel if you kids treated you, or each other, *exactly* the way you treat them. Seen from that angle, does the behavior hold up to your Own standards or morality?


On limits, consequences, and valuing family

Organic learning, often called radical unschooling, is a really different paradigm of adult-child interactions. Its challenging to envision relationships outside a model of limits and testing and adult-based decision making - it sounds wacky. How can you have relationships without limits? Craziness.

Start someplace else. Start from ideas of exploration and autonomy and connections. Human beings are all about exploration and autonomy and connections - especially children.

From a radical unschooling perspective, children don't need limits in the sense that conventional parenting assumes. Limits are a natural part of life - the sun goes down, flowers fade, moms get tired, people miscommunicate. Natural limits. Organic learning isn't about ignoring those or pretending they don't exist, its about finding ways to facilitate all that exploration and autonomy and connecting over and around and through the limits. Limits aren't the tools we use to manipulate the world and each other, they're the playground equipment we get to climb on.

The nature of natural consequences

People getting frustrated and angry at one another is a natural consequence. Its not always reasonable! but its certainly natural. That's something families can talk about and problem solve around. One of the things that can lead to family members getting frustrated and angry is "disrespectful" language or behavior - but making a rule against it doesn't keep people from finding ways to be snarky at one another. Similarly, parents often get frustrated and angry by young children running away, but making a rule against it doesn't guarantee a child won't run, or find other ways to go somewhere or do something a parent dislikes.

Rather than making rules, start from the underlying reasoning. What do you want to see in your family? Be that. Young children are often said to need concrete ideas more than abstract - they need to see and touch and smell courtesy and grace, not be told about it. They need to experience win-win problem solving first hand, as a real fact of their real lives, not hear about cooperation. They need to see mom take a big, deep breath and hear her say "okay, I'm really mad now and that makes it hard for me to think" rather than "I'm the mommy!"

Forget rules. Forget authority. Dig deep down and lay out all your most basic values and try to become them.

Value based parenting

If you value authority, then embrace authority. Be the best authority you can be. I don't value authority, so I can't say much to that.

One of my values is kindness so I strive to be kind to my loved ones. Another is thoughtfulness, so I try to be thoughtful. I value trust, so I work on being trustworthy in the eyes of my children. I value joyfulness, so I strive to live joyfully, every day.

The biggest issue I have with an idea like "respect" is that it has a whole bunch of values and cultural memes all rolled up together. I found, in my own search for my basic values and how to live them better, that when I broke "respect" down into bits, I didn't really need it as a concept. I can work from the parts - which include things like thoughtfulness and trust.

My personal experience is that my kids are more likely to be kind if they have received plenty of kindness lately. They are more likely to be gracious if their needs have been met, if their "cups" of love and attention are full. My kids are most demanding when they feel a sense of lack - isn't that when we All are the most demanding? when we haven't had "enough" sleep or care or time or loving? Its good for parents to look for ways to get their own needs met so they aren't parenting from a sense of lack. Its sooooooo much easier to do all the warm-fuzzy stuff from a place of abundance! Getting to a feeling of abundance without turning it into a battle of my needs -vs- the kids' needs takes some practice, and is definitely more challenging with babies and very young children, but its possible!

It may be that your kids are happy to listen to your decisions - some are! And if so, then all this problem solving for other ways to communicate with children probably don't make much sense to you - why not just tell them? Individual temperaments and personalities have a lot to do with this. Some kids need to be listened to for a long long time before they can do much listening. Some kids need to make as many decisions of their own as possible before they feel safe trusting someone else's decisions. Some kids need a thousand small acts of kindness and service a day to feel okay about being in the world. In conventional parenting, those are "problem children". In unschooling families, they're our children, and we honor their needs and look for ways to help them meet them.

Living for today

My stepson, Ray, has only been a part of our unschooling family for a year and a half. In that time he's gone from being "the typical surly teenager" to a very gracious, sensitive young person - so I don't believe all those rules and demands that he respect authority did him "undoable harm". Humans are resilient. We grow and we heal.

As refreshing as it is to know that, at the same time, that kind of thinking ignores the reality that is our children right in this very moment. In this moment, I have the opportunity to be a gentler parent, to be more thoughtful, to make my children's lives softer and warmer, to fill their cups of love and attention a little more. That opportunity is why I decided to have kids in the first place. I could fall back on what "everyone knows" about kids and parenting, but that doesn't uphold what I really value in my heart of hearts. I value my kids for who they are right now, and want to find more and better ways to honor that right now.

Housekeeping with children

In answer to the following question on the Unschooling Basics list:

"we used to demand that they clean up any mess they had made else there was
punishment (we thought this was the norm). Now we understand how disrespectful
that was to them, we are discussing with them how leaving a mess for our 1 year
old to find could be dangerous and how helpful it would be if they picked up
after themselves. Our problem is they ignore anything we've talked about..."

Try to step away from the idea that they are ignoring what you're telling them.
Start from the assumption that they love you and want to help, but something
else is getting in the way. What that "something else" is, is mostly childhood!
Kids are sooooo busy learning and discovering that things like tidying up tend
to take a back seat in their awareness. Often, by the time they even notice how
big the mess is, its overwhelming to them.

Explaining isn't going to be much help. Rearranging your expectations as to how
housekeeping gets done will help a lot. Streamline the process of picking up to
make it easier on *everyone*. Have bins and baskets in convenient places, maybe
put a big blanket or cloth on the floor for play with small parts so they can
all be swooped up at once. Remind kids of things that will be a hazard to the
little one - and expect to have to go on reminding bc they're too focused on
their own business most of the time to remember that detail. Be really specific
about that and come up with some easy strategies for quick cleanup. Otherwise,
designate "safe" play areas, away from the little one. On a table, maybe, or
behind a gate.

Clean things cheerfully, yourself, and invite them to help, but don't demand it.
Right now, they still likely see cleaning as being related to punishment. Its an
unpleasant chore. If You think of it as an unpleasant chore, you'll go on
reinforcing that idea. You need to reinvent cleaning as something you can do
happily - and that means You need to find a way to clean happily. See it as a
gift you are giving to the wonderful, creative people who you get to live with.
Every time you declutter a room, you make it easier for them to find the tools
they need to learn and discover even more! That's a better reason to clean than
"it has to be done".

>>> When you respect your children and they really don't show any respect back -
how do you handle it?

I remind myself that my kids are people, with needs and feelings that aren't
necessarily convenient to me (darn them!). My kids have grouchy days, bad moods,
get overwhelmed, are too wrapped up in their own selves to notice the rest of
the world - just like adults. If I want them to respect me despite My groucy
days, bad moods, etc, then its important that I show them the same respect. And
because I'm the mom, the role model, I need to be the one to do it first and
more often. That's part of my job.

The vast majority of the time I find that when I'm giving them enough attention
and care, showing my kids enough respect, and making an effort to help them get
their needs met, then they're kinder and more helpful to me. It makes sense if
you think about it - if I'm meeting those very important needs, then my kids
have energy to expend on being kind and helpful. If I'm not meeting those needs,
they're too wrapped up in neediness to look beyond themselves. Its not some kind
of magic. Its basic human nature.

If your kids have dealt with school and control and punishment, then they've
learned not to trust you to meet those needs. They've learned that you'll step
between them and their needs with lunatic demands, like "its time to clean up".
That sounds nuts to a young child, intent on playing or eating or watching a
show. Worse, to them it Looks disrespectful. So you're working to undo years of
modelling disrespect.

Eventually, kids develop to the point where they start to notice mess on their
own, and have the skills to do something about it. They don't have to be forced
or trained to do those things, although they may need little reminders. Just an
hour ago my 8yo was changing and dropped her dirty clothes on the bed, and I
said something like "laundry basket" and she merrily tossed them there. My 15yo
almost never leaves his dirty laundry on the bathroom floor these days, and as
I'm typing he's cleaning the kitchen.