"natural mommy" wrote:

>If I could, sometimes I would just veg out and do all my computer tasks and fun for a few days straight

You "can" though - you could decide that leaving out a few boxes of cereal and the tv on constitutes taking care of your kids and do what you want to do. You could put them in school or daycare and forget about them for hours at a time. You're choosing not to do those things, choosing to set aside what you want for other things that you value as much as your desires. It helps to see those behaviors as choices. You're not "stuck" being someone's mom, you are actively choosing to parent because doing that is meaningful to you in some way.

The economics of limits can skew choices in big ways, they can make choices feel like chores vs luxuries. If getting on the computer feels like an escape from “have to” then that’s going to affect your reasoning. My MIL, for instance, spends the day on the computer for her work, so the last thing she wants is to be on email lists or social networks – getting out in her garden feels like a luxury so she’ll spend hours there

>>Fact is,there ARE plenty of kids (and adults) that would spend all day watching t.v, playing vid games or whatever suites their fancy, so when are they taught about balance vs. excess?

Plenty of people do those things who *have* been taught about balance vs excess, though. There are tons of messages in the world about moderation and what one "should" do to be good, be healthy, be productive... yada yada. The trouble is, teaching doesn't "get" people to produce specific behaviors.

A lot of people spend time watching tv or playing games or surfing the web as a way to de-stress, or step back from other parts of their lives that are unpleasant - school or work for the most part. School isn't an issue that unschoolers need to worry about outside of deschooling - but its Very common for kids to spend a lot of time watching tv or playing games while decompressing from schooling. If a family member is needing time to de-stress from work, then other family members can help with that by bringing food and offering companionship so the person isn't having to choose between one value (connection) and another (decompressing).

One of the fascinating aspects of parenting as a partner is getting to see kids choosing to do things for reasons other than “whatever suits their fancy” even though they have the freedom to do exactly that.

>>This topic particularly concerns me since our family is loaded with people who like to go to the side of excess and in an unhealthy way.

It can help to think about what those people have experienced in terms of both limits and support. In conventional parenting a lot of support only happens within a context of limits, so "no limits" looks a lot like "I don't care". But support doesn't have to involve adding more limits to a person's life. Its important to articulate real limits! Drivers unable to see little children is a real limit in a parking lot. Mommy too hungry/tired/hormonal to deal with taking kids to a playground is a real limit. Not enough money for certain foods or toys other things is a real limit. The wonderful part of unschooling though is that limits aren't an end game. They're a chance to find other options.

Mo likes to do things in big chunks - if she's going to play a game, it will be for hours and hours. If she's going to watch a movie, she'll watch it a bunch of times. It doesn't help her to pull her away from what she wants to do - its more helpful to find her ways to "fill up" as it were so that moving on to the next thing feels good and right to her. That can look a lot like "excess" and I could point to others in the family who tend to excess, but I can also point to people with a lot of drive and focus, too - a lot of drive and focus is another kind of excess!

Halloween has just ended and I have limited my kids to one piece of candy after lunch a I just don't want them eating so much candy they don't want and one after dinner.to eat their next meal or get themselves sick.

Why one and not four? Why one and not ten? It’s a little ironic, that you’ve picked a fairly extreme limit if your goal is to coax your kids more toward moderation. Why not, instead of a number limit, put the candy up out of the way and say “yes” whenever asked? Those are things to think about.

How sick is sick? That’s something else to think about. Would they get a belly-ache or would they need to be hospitalized? There’s a lot of ground in between those two options, too. Would it be a catastrophe if they ate it all in one day?

How much do you want to emphasize that candy is a luxury item? That’s something else to consider. A whole lot of food issues arise from limiting Because of the economics of limits – limited foods are luxuries so its natural not just to crave them but to binge on them.

It isn’t a horrible thing to eat to excess now and again – arguably, its part of human nature. This spring I discovered a new source of fresh, organic fruit and went a bit overboard on fruit. I made myself a little sick and rebalanced. That’s part of balance, if you think about it – its not some kind of middle of the road stasis, our human bodies and interests often swing wildly in one direction and then swing back to equilibrium. Its unfortunate that we’ve developed a lot of culture pressure saying the extremes are “bad” and the middle is “good” because it skews our ability to see what natural learning looks like. A lot of natural learning involves extremes. Passion is an extreme, and it’s a really common way for people to learn about the world.


I'm That mom

There's glitter on my ceiling. I only realized it taking picutres of the bat that flew into our house sometime during the night and decided to sleep the day away, toes tucked into the grooves between the panelling. Yeah, I'm "that" mom, the one who can "discover" a giltter-covered ceiling and think "pretty", and go on taking picutres of the sleeping wildlife, after having stopped whatever terribly-adult-important business of the moment at the excited bubblings of a little girl. Come see Mer!


Quiet, now

Quiet, now.

There’s a screech owl living in my back yard. Every evening and every dawn he sits on a branch and sings a soft voiced quavering song that makes him sound far-off and mysterious. This past spring he made camp for a time under our eaves and we’d gather in the bedroom window to watch him sit on his doorstep and blink sleepy eyes at the world. One day, when it was overcast, Mo made a set of paper stars, including a comet, which she hung in the window so that the owl could have stars no matter the weather. Six months later, the stars are still there, although the owl has relocated to a nearby tree.

Watching and listening to the owl has been an recurrent happening this year. We have clustered excitedly on the back porch to watch him take off on perfectly silent wings, taken pictures, made short videos, read about owls, and nudged each other countless times to say “Shhh… there’s our owl,” and then fallen into silence. Mo has drawn owls, made paper and Lego owls, played at being an owl, and made inevitable segues into fascination with bats, the moon and stars, other birds and the magic of flight. It almost seems like a unit-study, put like that, but that hasn’t been what it has felt like. The owl is one of our family touchstones, as it were; life swirls around and it’s there again: “shhh, there’s our owl.”

“Shh” was one of Mo’s first words. It surprised me – I still don’t know where she picked it up, but she delighted in its power as a young child. It was the perfect stop to adult wordiness, a reminder to me to be still, to look and listen instead of nattering on. Even so, as Morgan has grown older I’ve been amazed by her capacity for silence. It’s not that she’s still or quiet by nature – she’s not likely to be described as “mellow” any time soon! Although she’s not as loquacious as some she certainly can chatter about her day: games and shows and projects. But I’ve seen her sit beside a creek and watch the water go by when she could be splashing in it, or spend an afternoon snorkeling, filling her ears with quiet when there were other kids, kids she likes, to play with. I’ve seen her swing for hours, or spend hours flying a kite, or a morning trying to figure out how to meditate. There isn’t anything particularly astonishing about any of those things… except that children aren’t usually described in terms of their capacity for contemplation.

It is ironic that while children are often adjured to sit still and be quiet they aren’t encouraged to spend hours of their “own time” in contemplation. I don’t mean to imply that children should be encouraged to be quiet if they’d rather do other things. Some people are more naturally contemplative than others and so some children have little need to listen to birdsong and watch the slow tracks of stick-insects. Ray needed to be listened to when he was younger, and still does when he’s bursting at the seams with new anecdotes of his projects and adventures although he has grown more contemplative over time. But then, as unschoolers, all of Ray’s and Morgan’s time is thier own. Stillness and quiet aren’t limits in thier world – or beauty and nature for that matter. They are free to play video games or watch television for hours at a time and sometimes do exactly that. They are free to be boisterous much of the time in that we rarely take them places where childish exuberance is disallowed unless they are agreeable to the experience. Given that much freedom, at times they both choose contemplation and silence. Mo simply chooses to enjoy more of it.

Instead of encouraging Mo’s quiet observations, George and I make room for them, as we made room for Ray’s wordiness. It’s easy for me to make room for listening to owls and frogs; less easy when “making room” involves planning extra time into things I’d rather do quickly like shop or read a list or magazine. I don’t necessarily want to sit and examine every advertisement, or turn over ever candle, or look at each and every one of the over five hundred Pokemon… but Morgan does. She’ll examine each picture or object in turn with utmost attention and care and I remind myself that this is a marvel and soak in her mindfulness.

I admit that I find myself resisting all this contemplation at times and wanting progress reports: What do you See? What are you Thinking? I want prosaic statements of interest and intention, reassurances that all this quiet is Good for Something. It’s some of my baggage: schoolish worries about progress and Puritan-work-ethic worries about utility. I keep those thoughts to myself: “shh”. Morgan, following her interests into silence and back out again, doesn’t need any of that.




I promise you this is most definately not about control, it's purely about [my son's] health, at least for me it is, I can't speak for [my husband] as he does seem to hang on to control a LOT more than I do. I would gladly let go completly if I were parenting alone.

It's certainly a complex situation with a lot of factors! A big one is that you're trying to impose unschooling on your husband and extended family and it's generating conflict. It might be better for you to step away from the idea of unschooling and focus on ways to reduce conflict.
I think maybe you're reading "control" as control of people when what you're trying your hardest to do is control the environment. That's certainly something that can be kinder and gentler than controlling people directly... when it works. The trouble is, you have a number of key people in the environment who aren't on the same page with you. You don't Have your ideal environment and are stuck trying to push these other people to help you build it.

That's one of the problems with wanting to be a "gatekeeper". But from the perspective of supporting natural learning, the bigger trouble with being a gatekeeper is that its easy to focus so hard on the gate you forget why you're there. Supporting natural learning as a partner (unschooling) involves shifting your focus away from the gate, to the child and what the child wishes to learn – even if its Not something You want him to learn. There’s the rub!

Right now you're seeing a 'gate' that's all about "health" - and that's totally understandable considering the poor health of the extended family; but you've made the gate pretty slim. Maybe that's unavoidable given your circumstances. Whole life unschooling isn't possible for everyone.

A good base for ds to learn from is basically seeing that people eat healthy foods, foods that help the brain and body function properly. From there he can decide what to eat and when.

It’s a good idea, but it depends on you being able to create an environment in which that’s what he sees – and it doesn’t sound like that’s the environment you have. As I said, that’s one downside to being a gatekeeper, it doesn’t take the real world into account very well and you end up exerting a whole lot more control in order to keep your environment pure.

The thing is, you don’t need that for your child to learn about food and health and decision making. Controlling the environment, being a gatekeeper is One strategy, but it's not the only strategy. And if your goal is unschooling – supporting the process of natural learning in partnership with your child – then being a gatekeeper puts you in the way of that on a regular basis. Getting away from being the gatekeeper, though, to being your child’s partner, takes a Lot of work. It may be, with your circumstances, that it's just not something you can manage. I’m not trying to downplay your concerns about sugar, but if your goal is to be your child’s partner then limiting his sugar intake is not the way to do that. Providing more healthy options Before He’s Hungry is a fantastic way to do that, but you have consistently stated that’s too much work for you. That’s going to limit you to something more like gatekeeping than partnership.

. I don't want 'rules', I just need DH to have some consideration about his sons health and how he is influencing what ds chooses to eat.

And that’s where you slip from controlling the environment to trying to control other people. You have rules already – rules about what makes a “good base” and expectations as to how that good base will result in a better child. That’s the “school in your head” – that’s what you’ll need to deschool in order to understand how “unschooling food” actually plays out.

A lot of people get very confused by expressions like “unschooling food” – I’m trying to move away from those, and away from making statements like “what helps unschooling” because of the vast confusion that I see around those. What does it mean to “unschool food”? Unschooling is the process of supporting natural learning, so unschooling food means helping kids explore and discover their own relationship with food and health. Their own relationship, not necessarily the relationship parents want them to have. That’s scary! In a situation where other adults aren’t making “good choices” it can seem terrifying. What if your son’s choices become those of the extended family? The trouble with gatekeeping is that it won’t prevent that from happening any more than saying “no” will.

I can't expect DS to do something as natural as self regulate with foods that quite simply are not natural.

Learning about food, developing one’s own relationship with food isn’t about self regulating. Your husband and his family self regulate, they just do it differently than you’d prefer. Your son eating a box of biscuits for breakfast is self regulating and it's natural.

If you son’s self regulation doesn’t look the way you want it to look, then its important to look hard at what you want. Not that it’s a terrible thing to want your child to be healthy, but that you appear to have some very narrow ideas about how that looks, how it comes about, and what you’re willing to do to get what you want. That’s a setup for frustration. Its also a setup for binging on less nutritionally dense foods… which is what happened. I know you’re doing the best you can with the resources you have, but that’s not the same as learning to be your child’s partner. As his partner, if he wants to explore biscuits because he sees them as wonderful, then help him have more and better options to explore – that’s more and better biscuits!!!! Not fruit instead of biscuits or yogurt instead of biscuits. But you’re story is also rather contradictory because you’ve also complained about chips, pasta and sausages. Give him what he wants, lots of it, and Before He’s Too Hungry.

but surely there is room for some disagreement about something that would not be available in a natural setting?

Unschooling isn’t natural. It's perfectly natural for adults to exert control over children. It's natural for parents to use force. It's natural to say No, to set limits, to seek to control their lives and limit their worlds. That’s the history of parenting. Unschooling exists only because we live lives of luxury and abundance. Natural learning doesn’t mean learning in a “naturalistic” environment, it means allowing the process of discovery to unfold in this world of luxury and abundance. Kid are surprisingly well equipped to do that, to learn to negotiate the vast array of choices that exist in the world, but they can’t learn to negotiate vast arrays when their worlds are kept narrow. Limiting sugar teaches your son the exact same skills his father’s family has. Limiting it kindly is better than heaping him with shame and guilt for sure! Likely he’ll have an easier time deschooling than you or his dad. That’s better, and better is better. It's not the same as supporting the process of natural learning in partnership, though.

I find it great to let go and unschool...

Supporting the process of natural learning in partnership does take some letting go. Letting go of baggage, yes. Letting go of the old voices in your head saying “children need…” absolutely. Letting go of the idea that you can protect your children from the world, bingo. Letting go of expectations and outcomes, unquestionably. Your posts don’t show that you’ve let go of those things very well. That’s totally okay – you’re still deschooling! It’s a process! It's not going to ruin your kids lives if you don’t unschool one hundred percent successfully right from the start, they can deschool too, later. You’re working on being kinder, and that’s fantastic.

Step away from the idea of unschooling for awhile and focus on creating more peace and kindness in your life. You don’t need ideas about unschooling to be kinder and more peaceful, and those ideas can get in your way. Right now they seem to be keeping you from being the parent you want to be.


Travels with a Conservative Eater

While visiting family recently in New England, I came across fresh figs at the grocery store. I’ve never had a fig that wasn’t dried, or turned into paste. I was surprised at the color and intrigued by the shape and so bought a couple to try. Mo was intrigued too. She’s become more loquacious, lately, for her I mean. She’s still not in danger of talking anyone’s ear off but she liked the look of the figs and was happy to talk about them, ask some questions, and watch me eat one. Naturally, she didn’t want to try one, herself.

I say naturally because Morgan is a naturally conservative eater. I spent a good deal of time explaining that on our travels, since she doesn’t eat things most people associate with kids her age – not pizza or sandwiches or homemade mac-n-cheese. Most kids go through a conservative stage, but by 8 they’re usually coming out of it.

Mo’s a bit more sensitive to looks and textures than average, and that has a lot to do with her conservatism. She still has a fairly narrow range of foods and the tend to be light and fine: cereals and pale pastas (no whole wheat, please), tortillas and pancakes, cheese and tofu, chicken nuggets, bananas. There are a few other things, but you get the idea. Milk and juice form a big part of her diet, so we don’t cheap-out on juice, we get 100% and try new flavors whenever we can. She’s most open to experimenting where juice is concerned, but she rarely samples new fruit. Like I said, texture is an issue.

It was nice to talk with other people on my travels who have been down similar roads, either as parents or as conservative eaters, themselves. It was refreshing to hear tales from George’s mom of her passionate, strong minded children, of Liz liking things just so and George coming apart at the seams if his hotdog was cut in the wrong number of pieces. Good to know Morgan doesn’t just get it from me!

I was the proverbial picky eater. I recall there were foods I did like as a child, but most of my actual memories of dinnertime revolve around a sense of disgust as I would steal myself, over and over, to lift the fork to my mouth. I sometimes wonder how much of my vegetarianism comes down to being finally able to avoid all the foods I despise in one fell swoop. Certainly when I go to vegetarian homes and potlucks and feel a sense of nervousness at an unfamiliar dish, I can dispel most of that with a simple reminder to myself: its okay, its vegetarian. Its amazing how much that relaxes me. I don’t recall ever being disgusted by a mouthful of vegetarian food, even if the flavor didn’t appeal to me. I’m sure there must be some, but they don’t stand out in my memories.

Food is such a personal issue. Some people seem to be able to eat anything. Ray has always been able to eat foods he dislikes. He may complain about them, but he doesn’t struggle to eat them. I’ve watched Mo struggle to try a food she thought she’d like only to have the actual experience prove different than she’d hoped. I’ve seen her on the verge of tears when a food at a restaurant wasn’t what she expected. We ate out a bunch on our travels, something we rarely do at home, and I did a good bit of explaining and negotiating with wait-staff as a result. They were all very helpful, even found ways to charge me less for, say, a plate of “nachos” with none of the meat, salsa or guacamole listed in the menu. One waitress brought Mo all the popcorn she could eat at no charge at all. That was sweet.

It was wonderful to overnight at another unschooling house on the way home. I’m always nervous meeting people I only “know” via the internet, and we hadn’t really talked about food with this family. But Faith was perfectly happy to walk Morgan through their cereal collection even though we’d arrived at dinnertime, that was great. And despite eight hours in the car I was ready to do a happy-dance at the sight of real home-style vegetarian food on the stove (its okay! Its vegetarian). And its good to get back home to where Mo doesn’t have to ask if she isn’t in the mood to talk, where she knows where everything is and the microwave is conveniently located for little people. Good to get back to George’s home-style vegetarian cooking every night. Even if I can’t get fresh figs around here.


Peeling back the layers

I spent the morning looking through an online Pokedex with Morgan, pages and pages of Pokemon, lines of evolution, abilities, types, battle strategies… it was quite an endeavor, hours of one thing leading to another. I’ve done similar things for my own enjoyment, poured over a dictionary or thesaurus, an appendix or other reference work. I enjoy that sort of thing. Recently George got a new book on guitar making and we’ve all picked it up at one time or another and been sucked in. That sort of book is eye-candy around here.

Yeah, I know: geeksville.

When Ray was little and we were homeschooling (not unschooling) I loathed Pokemon. It was, I was entirely sure, the epitome of commercialism, a symbol of All That Is Wrong with modern culture. I mean, think about it; in addition to the fact that the game and all the so-called stories are nothing but blatant vehicles for peddling merchandise (gotta get ‘em all!) the shows themselves were appalling! People enslaving creatures
for the sake of making them “battle” one another, like some sanitized version of cock-fighting! A preponderance of “win one for the team” spirit that’s clearly all about promoting brand and corporate loyalty! Disgusting gender stereotypes with thinly veiled homophobia evident in the portrayal of Every villain (can you say “effete”?).

But, naturally, being the open minded, liberal parent that I was, I didn’t tell Ray he “couldn’t” play Pokemon, rather I expressed my heartfelt sentiments on the subject. I believed the game and shows to be horrible proponents of the worst sort of thinking possible, and told him as much. That’s called “being authentic” right? Ray, alas, got the brunt of my parenting blunders.

How and when did these attitudes change… or did they change? What happened in between “Pokemon = Bad” and being the one to shout out “Look, there’s Darkrai! Oh, let’s read about him” and actually mean it? How, in the words of the song, did I get here?

I didn’t really have any “aha!” moments on the subject, not as such anyway. Learning about learning played a role. Seeing a fascination with Pokemon as an expression of naturalistic intelligence helped a lot, especially in conjunction with the oh-so-painful acceptance of the fact that my kids are not me. Coming to see the learning potential (in the early days, when I thought in those terms) of all the various aspects of the phenomenon helped: the cards and game (math, logic, strategy), the quirky names of all the Pokemon (decoding, etymology, history), the types and evolutions of the creatures (science, obviously, but also mythology and spirituality). There’s a whole rich world of inference tied up in Pokemon lore. Even the competitions and the character interactions in the shows and movies are fodder for talking about people and goals, planning, courtesy, custom and social change. I haven’t even gotten to the literary value of the series and movies, which explore a range of genres from sci-fi to mystery to comedy to drama and romance. Even with all the fighting thrown in, when you get right down to it Pokemon isn’t any less rich than, say, Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Ultimately, though, what has let me be okay with Pokemon and other similar enterprises has more to do with me than with my kids. It was a slow process of giving up something that was really important to me: a measure of my cynicism.

Barbie, and others such) because I wanted to, because I wanted that wall between me and those big, sparkly eyes – my kid’s eyes, not Pikachu’s although Pokemon does typify the big-sparkly-eyed style of animation second only to Hello Kitty. I wanted to hold on tight to my surety that the world is a cold, dark, dangerous place that eats babies for breakfast because without that hold All is Surely Lost.

I was wrong about that. Without warm, soft places to cuddle and play, people are surely lost. And to create that warmth and softness, some of the cynicism had to go. Had to. Cynicism isn’t the least bit soft and warm.

My partner, George, helped by being smarmy. He’s a cynic, too, but he has a big warm heart under all that and still manages to go misty-eyed at sunsets and baby possums. He gave me warm, soft places in his heart and somehow I managed to be gentle with him and return the favor. That didn’t carry over into parenting, though, especially once we started homeschooling. Parents and teachers, as far as I knew at that time in my life, weren’t supposed to be soft. We’ve all heard that bit of mis-advice: be a parent, not a friend.

Learning about unschooling chipped away at that assumption. Reading stories of people with older kids, kids raised gently, even “difficult” kids like Ray, reassured me that all this softness didn’t “ruin” children. Being gentle and gracious didn’t unfit kids for life in the big, scary world. Learning that made giving up a measure of my cynicism easier. I was, frankly, relieved to know I didn’t need all that defensiveness any more… even
though the idea was unsettling.

Without my hard barricade between myself and my loved ones, I found I could see learning unfold naturally without hunting for “learning potential”. I could see wonder, creativity, experimentation, playfulness and contemplation, where before I fretted about seeing my kids brainwashed into zombified consumers. In a way, that’s the key to unschooling, seeing that kind of natural learning, knowing its there all the time regardless
of what my kids are doing so that I don’t have to think about it. I just have to think about Them as people I want to get to know, to spend time with, to share my life with – really share it, not “share” my panicked assessment of the cruel grip of corporate death-mongers. Without my barricade, I could Be the better parts of the world, the better parts of human nature. I could be someone my kids would want to share their interests and fascinations with and so get to grow closer to them.

I didn’t give up all my cynicism – I’m not sure that’s possible or even wise. I don’t see my kids growing up starry-eyed and trusting of everyone and thing irregardless. They know that parts of the world and humanity suck royally. They’ve met assholes, been cheated and lied to, had their feelings hurt, been treated poorly. Being safe and warm and kind, setting them up for success more than failure, helping them work things out,
saying yes as much as I possibly can… those don’t make strangers better or kinder or the world gentler or softer. So they have strategies and barricades of their own, defenses against the world. They’ve learned, are still learning, those things too. What they do have is a soft warm place to cuddle and play, an opportunity to snuggle up to a warm shoulder and spend the morning immersed in Pokemon without risking censure.



What do you kids do to help out? That’s a question that came up recently on one of the email lists and people wrote lovely stories of gifts of housekeeping and organization, putting away groceries and laundry. They’re sweet stories, and I don’t want to diminish them, my kids do things like that too. But when I think about how wonderful my kids are and how much I’m glad to be their parent, I don’t think about housework; it’s such a small thing. What follows is a list of things my kids give and do for me, a paean, and an invitation to see your own family in a similar light, and share your joy with others you know.

My kids invite me to step outside myself, to see another viewpoint, a different perspective. They invite me into their lives, their worlds, they offer to play with me, read with me, watch tv, build and create things with me that fascinate them. It took some effort on my part to do that, I have a rather strong sense of self and sometimes that gets in my way. Fortunately, my kids are persistent.

My kids charm me. The offer me smiles when I don’t expect them, allow me to guard their treasures in my pockets, show me wonders I didn’t expect to find in everyday places. They light me up with their inventiveness. Some days, when I’m tired or grouchy or hormonal, it helps to be charmed, to allow them to charm me out of my blues.

My kids remind me to slow down and pay attention – to hummingbirds and cheesy cartoons, to the taste of ice-cream, and the way the light shines through a dirty window like fairy dust. They remind me, by growing and learning all the time, that life is composed of millions of fleeting moments, never to be revisited except in memory.

My kids challenge my expectations and assumptions. They aren’t me, darnitall, and they don’t see the world the way I do! They don’t always share my values or ideals. They persist in being themselves even when it’s inconvenient to me, and give me the opportunity to re-frame my worldview in the light of their different wisdom.

My kids push my boundaries. I have very good boundaries – they used to be practically armor plated, but they’ve softened over the years, with friendship and with my own willingness to become semi-permeable. My kids interrupt me when I’m focused on serious adult business, or serious Meredith business, and give me a chance to see through the gaps in my well-defended fortress of “self”.

My kids hold up a mirror and shine lights on things I’d rather not see. They keep me honest with their artless imitation of my ways and their ingenuous wondering. They allow me to be true to my vision of myself and to change that vision, too, sometimes, when the reality is less lovely than my imagining.

My kids remind me what’s good about humanity. That’s a feat. I’m a longtime cynic and it wasn’t easy to accept that I didn’t need to school my kids away from their human natures. My kids have shown me that human nature is Enough, that it’s the best that we have in the best sense of those words. They have given me a marvelous opportunity to see human beings as people, doing the best they can with sometimes limited resources; the opportunity to see everyone, not just the people I love, with compassion and grace.


Unschooling with atypical kids: would you care to explain?

What does it mean to have an “atypical” child? I’ve been wondering that, lately, talking and writing and thinking about my kids as I do: Ray, 16, was surely atypical as a child, but now merely lives an atypical life, even for an unschooler; and my daughter, Mo, who is nearly nine…

Uh, oh, here it comes… an explanation.


Unschooling parents understand about explanations; it’s a function of our atypical lifestyle. People don’t “get it” so we’re faced with the same, recurrent questions: do I explain this? And: how? Living with an atypical kid involves the same dilemma over and over. Do I say something or let the other person come to her (or his) own conclusion? If I say something do I fall back on some short hand, a label, and risk the assumptions that come along with that label? Or do I go for something long-winded and risk sounding uncertain, defensive or conflicted?

In person I rely upon a mix of strategies. I hold my peace or give out labels that are, I hope, unobtrusive and let strangers and acquaintances think what they will. I proactively explain to people who matter in order to offer those people tools and strategies. I’m asked about labels – diagnoses – and I brush those aside with blithe comments about school (as in “oh, I’m sure if she was in school…”) while maintaining that such concerns have little place in our unschooling life.

I’m saying “my” and “our” – this is personal, not generic, okay? I’ve looked and thought, researched and questioned; I’ve found insights and value and right now (and unschoolers may recognize both truth and tactics in those words) the best possible option is full blown radical unschooling – neither intruding nor stepping back, but striving for partnership.

You’ll note I have, so far, avoided explaining anything.

Writing about my kids as I do, I run into a wall again and again. How do I paint an adequate picture with inadequate words? The experience of a person is never the same as a description. Words fail to convey the nuance of posture, the vibrancy of focus, the firm rock of stubbornness… and most of all, that thing Morgan does when she speaks. Describing her as “not terribly verbal” utterly fails to convey the gap between printed and spoken words, between comprehension and perception, between sensory overload and expressiveness. “Disfluency” can’t begin to express the way you get lost in the middle of one of her sentences when it’s bro+ken+up+in+to+so+me+thi+ng li+ke+sy+lla+ble+s or the frustrated sigh that comes before the utterly perfect repetition, articulated with such inflection you can hear the difference between a comma and a semi-colon.

Recently – days ago, as I write this – a friend and neighbor engaged me in a long conversation about Morgan and her “atypicality”, which reminds him of his own. It was charming and I let his mentions of “early intervention” roll over me as I listened and validated, chatted and enjoyed, recognizing the conversation had more to do with him than with her.

His own experience of atypicality involved struggles to express and communicate, to defend his boundaries within the confines of an educational institution, but Morgan isn’t living that struggle. She is free to choose to express herself verbally or not, free to refuse assistance or any communication tool that doesn’t appeal to her, and as such she takes self-expression seriously. When she actively chooses to be understood, she is.

You’ll notice I still haven’t explained much and one of the results of that is the word “atypical” is becoming almost meaningless. A hundred atypical people will have a hundred different experiences. Commonality lies in the question: to explain or not to explain. Both options come with slings and arrows, with peacefulness and dreams. Like “coming out” those of us with atypical children and/or lives are caught in the headlight glare of expectations, transfixed with the memory of how those expectations can change, with a single utterance, from bad to worse.

A couple decades ago some hopeful soul coined a new term, an analogy with which to express atypicality as a function of typicality; difference as a function of our common human nature. It was a bold new venture into the realm of mutual understanding that has crashed tragically on the twin buttresses of popular psychology and institutionalized education.

The “spectrum” is a good idea gone bad; an affirming image of human diversity bastardized into diagnoses and badges of difference. I’m bitter about the spectrum – can you tell? It has lost its utility and become, at best, a shorthand explanation, a tool to get “services” or a way to tell someone to back the fuck off. It’s useful in that capacity, but otherwise says nothing at all about real human beings with complex needs and unique personalities – you got that? Do you fucking hear me? I haven’t explained agoddam thing!

Excuse me.

One of the recurrent marvels in my life is friendship. I know amazing people, many of them atypical many others with atypical lives. I live amidst spectacles of passion, scintillating personalities who light up the room, astonishing visionaries, and remarkable craftspeople. I’m a dormouse surrounded by superlatives.

One of the recurrent marvels of unschooling is getting to be friends with my kids; fascinating, superlative people in their own right. Among people with atypical lives I see my kids make connections that defy expectation. Unschoolers and misfits, freaks and faeries all provide opportunities to move beyond explanations to places of commonality.

Human beings defy explanation. We have superpowers of language and mathematics, of artistry and humor. We are atypical animals, continually drawn to be more than we seem. Describe, express, invent, display… explanation is too limiting, too small to elucidate this big, rich life.