I think there's so much cultural baggage around the conjoined ideas that learning is hard, and children need to be taught, that it's actually really threatening for parents to hear that it's Okay to be nice to kids It's even okay to be proactively nice - to outright look for ways to make their lives easier. It doesn't harm them one bit - short term or long term - to treat kids gently, sweetly, indulgently. It's Safe to be kind to children.

Because if that's true, if kids raised gently "turn out" to be decent human beings as adults... then what's all that pushing and teaching for? Can it really be for nothing? That's a Hugely scary thought - even though for some of us (like me) it's the very thought that opened the door to unschooling: I don't have to be "cruel to be kind", I can just be kind.

do kids need rules?

It can help to stop and think about what rules are and what they do. They're kind of like an attempt at remote-control parenting. The only problem is, kids are curious and want to explore the world - and rules don't help them do that. They don't Need remote control parenting, they need chances to explore safely and people who will help them do that. Rules don't do any of that. And enforcing rules often puts a big, big block between kids and the very people who could be helping them explore and learn about the world. It's not that rules are "bad" it's that they don't do what parents want them to do. They don't do your parenting for you.

There are real boundaries, real limits in life. The sun goes down on the most wonderful of days. People get hungry and tired. Toys get lost and broken. It fails to rain when you most want a rainbow. There's no need to add a single rule to life for kids to learn that life has limits - it's Obvious. That's why babies cry - they find life's limits before they even have words to describe them. The difference with radical unschooling is that limits don't have to be end-points. They can be chances to problem-solve, brainstorm, come up with new ideas, new ways of communicating, new ways of thinking about the world. They can be chances to connect and commiserate when there Aren't any better options - chances to know that someone still loves you and wants to help, even when they don't know how. Limits can be a chance to grow together, rather than push kids away.


benign neglect?

I'm confused about the concept of "benign neglect” in relation to unschooling – is it a good thing or a bad thing?

It is confusing! Because unschooling isn't about teaching or leading on the one hand or following on the other sometimes it's described as "getting out of the way and letting kids learn" which would imply a kind of neglect - just let them do whatever they want. And there absolutely *is* an element of that in unschooling! But in another sense, it's not that at all - it's not throwing kids out into the world with nothing and leaving them to flounder. It's not ignoring them, shooing them outside (or over to the tv) and trusting that everything will be fine. It's not those things because kids are people with thoughts and feelings and perspectives of their own, and one of the fundamental perspectives of children is that parents are an important part of their lives.

This is always, always the central question of unschooling: what is your child's perspective? And one of the central tasks of unschooling is to hold that perspective as just as valid as your own.

With your child's perspective in mind, sometimes it's appropriate to "get out of the way". With your child's perspective in mind, sometimes it's appropriate to lift them up to see (as it were), or offer a better tool (I think of Morticia Addams taking away Wednesday's cleaver and handing her an axe!), or provide a comforting shoulder, or suggest a different perspective entirely.

It sometimes helps to frame things in terms of adult friends to gain a better understanding of what it means to consider your child's perspective. Your adult friends and relatives probably do stay out of your way and let you do your own thing. Those who don't (if you have any of those) you no doubt find irritating and frustrating - why do they have to be such busybodies? Why can't they get out of your way and let you get on with doing your thing? On the flip side, though, you may know a friend or two who's rather neglectful of your friendship - they don't stay in touch very well, aren't terribly "available" in terms of support. A good friend may be sometimes a busybody and sometimes unavailable - we're all only human, after all - but is someone who tries to value your perspective (thoughts, feelings, needs) as equally valid to her own. In that sense, you can see the goal of an unschooling parent is to be the best possible friend to our kids.


talking of which

If there's one thing I've learned from my kids, it's that just about the time I work myself into a comfortable parenting groove, where I feel like I know what to expect and what to do about it, things change.
I've learned to adapt, over and over, but that doesn't stop me from being somewhat bemused each time a new set of changes comes along, as I am now. This time, it's a big one. My daughter is thirteen. And she wants me to talk to her.
To understand why this is a big deal, I need to lay out some background. My daughter is not a talker. In fact, there was a time when I would have said my daughter had an aversion to words. For years I spoke in sound bites and practiced a whole lot of non-verbal communication skills to accommodate her because even “aversion to words” doesn't really convey the way things were. She could talk and read and write. She had a decent vocabulary for her age at any given age. But spoken words were not her friends and she didn't want too many of them in the air around her. So I adapted and learned to live and communicate with the kid who didn't like words. Now and then I'd be around other kids and it was a little startling – they talked a lot! But it wasn't a big deal.
My kid with the aversion to words wanting to sit on the couch and chit-chat? That's a big deal!
It's been interesting, to say the least. At first, I was flummoxed. And even now – as I write, this has been going on for a few months – I still kind of flounder, trying to figure out what I'm supposed to say when she gets in a conversational mood. She's not a great conversationalist, yet, so she's pretty dependent on me to keep things going. Fortunately, I've been keeping up with some of her interests so we can chat about books and comics we've both read, characters we like, creatures we like to read about and write about, that sort of thing.
I tell her about things I'm looking up on the internet and she comes and looks over my shoulder. This is the most “classical unschooling” sort of thing we do – looking things up together on the internet. Today, I was looking up the phrase “in flagrante delicto” which appeared in a graphic novel we're both reading. I had always thought it meant “buck nekkid” but it wasn't used that way in context – I explained this to Mo, and she giggled, both at “buck nekkid” and the way I was candidly admitting my own ignorance. She loves that – she's pretty sure I'm not the brightest bulb in the box and likes evidence to support her theory.
One of the things I'm learning in this new phase of our unschooling life is that Mo likes it when I get a little salty in my language. The girl who didn't approve of verbal interaction has gotten whatever sex ed she's had so far from books I've strewn (hopefully) and random sites on the internet (cringe) so I think she's glad we can finally exchange words on the subjects of bodies and sex and sexuality. I know I'm glad! I had expected a much more...um, educational kind of sex ed to happen around here. Guess that was something I needed to deschool – and Mo has been happy to help me out in that regard. So I've been working on not censoring my words and thoughts too much. I'm cussing more and outright saying things that I'd previously kept censored. One of the comics we're both reading right now is SAGA, and another is Rat Queens, both decidedly “adult content”. And from time to time we talk about that – not “how did you feel about that scene?” sorts of quizzy stuff, but real girl talk.
She especially likes it when I get silly, so I've been reaching deep into my goofy side and having fun with that. Here are a couple of examples:

We have a stuffed flamingo. His name is Casey:
Me: “Casey's been sitting in the window all day watching the hummingbirds. He says he met a bunch down when we were down in Florida... but I think he's lying about doing vodka shots with them. I'm pretty sure hummingbirds don't drink vodka.”
Mo (playing along): “what do they drink?”
Me: “Rum, for the most part. I'm skeptical because he says they were drinking in the cabana – I don't think that word means what he thinks it means.”
Mo: what does it mean?
Me: you know, I'm not entirely sure, but I know it's not a bar
We proceed to google images of cabanas.

The moon:
Me: “There's half a moon in the sky... I don't know what happened to the other half. I think it fell off. I'll get the umbrella in case of giant raining chunks of moon.”
Mo (giggling): “It's okay, I'm pretty sure it will all burn up in the atmosphere.”

This is little stuff, right? Basic, simple stuff... except that it's totally not at all. It's new and strange and wonderful around here. There are still plenty of long, slow silences and awkward bits, but our friendship is growing and changing and getting... wordier. I hadn't expected that. It's a good thing.


Flight of fancy

There's a story going round - not the only one of it's kind by a long shot – of a child who, in a moment of crisis, does something wonderfully kind, clever, independent, and wholly successful and his mom gloats that despite her fears she will never “clip his wings”. It's the kind of story that parents, like myself, read and think “awwww, that's sweet” and then a bare moment later think “that is So Not my kid.” Not that my kids are never kind, clever, independent, or successful, but this is a picture-perfect moment when the child in question gets all the right answers and everything works out beautifully. Someone told me it was a celebratory success story, but that doesn't ring true to me - it's not a success so much as a lucky break, if it's even true. It reads more like a fantasy than a real event with real children.

This is the article, if you want to read it.
Rather than rant about all the things that are wrong with this kind of image of children-as-perfect-examples, I'm going to re-tell the story a couple different ways. The fictional children in these stories don't magically come up with right answers, but they are no less worthy of "flight" than that picture-perfect child. They don't need their wings clipped to look like his, they need to have their own valued just as they are.
Story 1: Dragon wings.

While in the process of leaping behind the couch, playing dragon, Storm discovers a lost balloon leftover from the Mad Hatter's Tea Party last month.
Shit. I thought I'd gotten them all.
Naturally Rowan is over the moon, though, so I bite my tongue and stay close, wondering if I should ready an emergency back-up snack for when disaster strikes, or if I'm being defeatist. I'm trying to be more upbeat with my guys, but I'm just as temperamental as they are, so it's a challenge.
At first, everything goes well; the guys actually manage to play together for half an hour without Storm exploding or Rowan breaking down and I think: here's a day for the blog, thank goodness! I'm only just starting to wonder if I should try and redirect the energy a little, while Ro still has something like a sense of perspective, when disaster happens. The damn balloon that I should have thrown away weeks ago breaks and Ro, predictably, comes apart at the seams. I'm a complete failure. Again.
Deep breath. Deep breath. No-one's bleeding or choking. I can handle this. I'm the mom right? Surely I can figure this out.
And then Storm, being Storm, roars like a fricking dragon right in Rowan's face and all hope of calm and sanity are lost. Ohhhhhhh, I could just strangle that kid! Why does he have to be such a terror? I scoop up Ro to get him out of the line of fire and he howls in my ear, completely freaked out. As usual.
As usual.... Somebody online said something about that. About all those “as usuals” being chances to become more proactive. Didn't I have a plan for this? What was it? Picking up Ro was part of it... hey did I get something right? It's hard to think with a kid screaming in my ear and the other running in circles, jumping on the furniture, pretending to fly. Jumping... riiiiiiight.
Hey, Storm!” I call out, scrabbling for a blanket to throw over Ro's head. “Where's that new How To Train Your Dragon punching bag? Wanna blow it up with the floor pump?” The floor pump involves jumping up and down, and then Storm can wrestle the punching bag into submission for awhile, I hope, while I get Ro settled. Amazingly, he goes for the idea, roaring through the house to collect the toy and the pump and then jumping so enthusiastically the darn hose keeps popping out. Later, I'll laugh about that. Right now, I've managed to insert myself into a chair with Ro, blanket over his head, for some serious snuggling. I remember to stick my face under the blanket every chance I get because he likes the eye contact and not to say anything stupid like “we can get another one.” He doesn't want another one, he wants that balloon to be whole again. “Sorry little buddy,” I tell him instead. “I'm so sorry.”
I'm able to wiggle over sideways at one point to hold the pump hose steady while Storm blows up the punching bag – I'm totally counting this as my yoga practice for today – and then close the plug and let him have at it. He hurls himself on the thing like it's a rival dragon and thrashes his way around the living room for awhile, giving me a chance to direct some undivided attention at Ro for nearly a minute at a time. He's still taking forever to calm down, but I notice I didn't manage to amp him up and make things worse, so I'm counting that as a win. I might actually survive the rest of the day!
Once Ro is down to hiccuping and not actually crying I'm able to suggest a snack, glad I finally broke down and bought the one dollar pudding cups so I don't need to spend ten minutes making pudding. Instead, while the kids are eating the pudding (Storm mostly wearing his) I throw together a monkey platter with odds and ends from the fridge and pantry – cereal, cookies, apple rounds, peperoni and olives, and no, I'm not going to worry about the nutritional content – and switch on the tv and we all snuggle down on the floor to watch Dragonriders of Belk for the millionth time this week.
Storm announces that he's the Alpha Dragon and will protect all of us for ever and Rowan suggests that next time we go to the store, we should get some cauliflower and make “sheep” to eat and I wonder how I managed to get such amazing kids. I know I don't have this parenting thing down, yet, but I'm getting there, one tiny success at a time.

Story 2: Mantis and walking stick
Mommy, the balloon broke!” Samuel shrieks, as though I'm not three feet away, wondering what possessed me to let my boys play with something that inherently doomed to destruction. Richard is gasping like a landed fish and I give him a hard look, remembering some story I read about kids choking on balloon fragments – should I call 911? But he seems okay, just shocked with the sudden end to his play. So far so good, I think to myself.
It's okay, we have more of them,” I say, and then kick myself. Wrong-o mamma! You know that's not going to fly with Richard. And indeed, he's already tearing up at the suggestion. I shove my laptop under the couch where it won't get stepped on – no more facebooking for me – and get up to see if there's anything I can do to salvage the situation.
I know!” Samuel carols, “I'll fix it!” He runs to get his “fix-it-kit”.
Richard looks after him hopefully.
Shit. Now what? It's not like you can actually fix a balloon, but it's no good saying so. Richard will lose it and Samuel will argue that he can, he Can, mommy! and won't hear a word of opposition to his Grand Plan.
I circle around Ricky cautiously, reminding myself not to try and hug him. That's a tough one for me, I'm a hugger, but Richard is touch-averse and tends to melt down if he doesn't initiate contact. My mom keeps telling me I need to have him tested, that he's never going to have any friends if he doesn't learn to get over his fears, but he's actually gotten better now that I'm giving him lots of space and time, so I sit down next to him but not touching and together we watch Samuel.
Sam has got the big blue craft box full of his “tools” and is collecting bits of balloon to reconstruct. There aren't nearly enough pieces. He tries taping them together but the tape won't stick, so he tries stapling them. One piece tears in half and he sinks to the floor, defeated. “I can't do it, Mommy!” he wails. My own mother tells me that she's sure Sam is gifted and just needs to be pushed to do things himself, but I'm not so sure. Pushing just seems to make him more resistant.
Can I help, somehow?” I ask, not sure what I can do, but I've found that if I don't come out and suggest things the kids sometimes have ideas for me.
No longer the center of attention, Ricky gets up and wanders over to the arts-n-crafts pile and manages to get the book of construction paper out of the middle without knocking the rest over; now That's a gift.
They just won't go together!” Sam moans.
Richard comes and takes a tube of glitter glue out of the fix-it-box.
I think maybe some pieces are lost,” I offer.
No!” Sam is, as usual, very sure of himself. “They just won't go together!”
Why do you think that is?”
I can hear Ricky tearing paper, but it looks like it's just construction paper so I don't worry about that. As long as it's not the power bill, we're good.
I don't think the balloon wants to be a balloon any more,” Sam announces, eyes overflowing as he speaks.
I don't know what to say to that – where does this kid get these ideas? But he's my huggable child, so I hug him and let him cry into my t-shirt for a little while. Richard seems content to be doing something under the coffee table – I'm not sure what, but he's totally absorbed in his project and that at least gives me the time to deal with Sam.
Finally, I try asking “what do you think the balloon wants to be, now that it's done being a balloon?” not sure it's the right thing to say, but kind of intrigued with Sam's flight of fancy.
I think it wants to be a kite. A kite for Lego Spongebob and Lego Sandy to fly up out of Bikini Bottom and go visit Sandy's family in Texas.”
And he proceeds to turn the biggest scrap of balloon into a kite... or rather directs me to do it, since he's still feeling defeated by the thing. I suggest we glue it to a bit of paper and then staple some string to the paper for a tail. He offers suggestions and advice but refuses to have anything to do with the actual process: “No, you do it, Mommy.”
I wonder if Richard has fallen asleep under the table, but instead see he's doing something with the glitter glue. I hope he doesn't get any on the carpet, and then check myself; we're going to have to replace this carpet anyway. Which reminds me...
How's your diaper, Ricky?” I ask from across the room, trying to gauge his reaction without making eye contact... learned that one the hard way. He doesn't reply for so long I figure he's not going to, but then he gets up and goes to the diaper bag and gets a new pull-up and changes right there. I'm flabbergasted – this is a prizewinning day! Sam's happy playing with his Legos and “kite”, Richard is dry, and I have enough breathing space to go get myself a cup of coffee.
It isn't until later that I get to see what Richard got up to; on the underside of the coffee table is a rough picture, made from multicolored scraps of paper edged in silver glitter paint. At first I think it's a sun, but Samuel translates for his brother: it is the balloon, flying away free at last, even though it is in a million pieces. I snap a picture and send it to my husband at work... I won't be telling my mom about this, she wouldn't understand.