Thursday, August 13, 2009

Open Letter to a Childhood Friend...


This letter was written, through many revisions, to clarify my own thinking after some very difficult interactions with a longtime friend who, after considering unschooling, opted to enroll her child in preschool...

I've spent hours and hours thinking, and many, many pages, working out what it is in our recent interactions that has not been working. I can only speak to my own experience, and my own truth.

I am giving you these thoughts as a gift, with no expectations.

When you see unschooling posts on my wall, they are there for a reason. There is a lot of very accepted steering of children and parents towards compulsory schooling in our society - so much that many people might never consider there are options. Now that I am comfortable in our unschooling life, and can speak truly about the many, many positive changes it has brought to our lives, I want to offer an alternative.

My Wall is an expression of myself, and my life. If you respond to posts there, I would very much appreciate if you would do so with consideration. You have on several occasions posted misinformation or misassumptions about unschooling there, and someone might come to my Wall and discover a lifestyle that fits their family as well as it does mine, but be put off by untrue comments. I don't want to delete any posts, but I might feel the need to, at some point.

Unschooling needs to be grokked (best word to express it), not just read about. Unless it is approached with what Zen calls "beginner's mind", there really isn't any hope of understanding it. We've spent over a year consciously moving closer to understanding, and still, we are near the beginning of our journey. This isn't an educational style, for us and other radical unschoolers. It is life.

You seem to be very offended at my support of unschooling, since you decided to send M (3.5 year old son) to DS (name of school). That leads me to believe that one has something to do with the other, since you investigated it yourself. But I don't understand that. I can accept your choice to enroll M in a private academic preschool without having any interest at all in pursuing that path.

I did go to the DS website and explore. And, for us, it would be a very bad fit. There is something in the thought of "giving bright children the tools they need to love learning" that sounds like a great concept, until it is examined. We know bright children *are* bright because they possess many tools for learning naturally, And they are extremely passionate about learning, without any adult coaching or directing them - often to the point of near obsession. And I watch my kids. They possess an ever-growing array of tools, both literal and figurative, and wield them with ever-growing assurance. All they need is someone to support their passions, see to their safety, and help them realize their dreams. They do the rest!

By saying that, I am in no way implying that this means it isn't a perfect fit *for your family*. I am simply saying it's not for me any more than unschooling is for you. There is no need to defend it to me. If it's your considered opinion, and the place feels comfortable to M, and the decision seems right for you all, my opinion of it shouldn't enter into it. I'm a bystander.

You may find, though, that going to visit DS with you affects M very differently than being there without you, five days a week, following a curriculum, even on days when he might prefer to do something else, like hang out at home in his jammies all day. There really is no way but experiencing it for him to understand this difference. He doesn't have a frame of reference, and he is too young to think logically or predict how he will feel about it long-term.

If, as you say, social situations are stressful to him, school may demand a lot from him. If, as you also say, temper and patience with him are challenges for you, it might be useful to know that children who are stressed in that way often save their frustrations and anxieties until they get home, where they can let go, safely...

Knowing this possibility and preparing for it with a few strategies to help you both cope could be a salvation, especially early on.

You've also mentioned several things regarding both M and Annalise that lead me to believe that you may not really understand early childhood development. Children their ages are not capable of logical thought. When Lise says, "Do you know what you can get me?" she's not intending to be rude. It's just an impulsive comment...if you heard it from an adult friend, "will you get me the....?" it wouldn't sound rude. There are many possible responses to such a question from a young child, ranging from, "a gorilla of your own?" to "no, what?" to "I don't like the way you said that," to "I don't feel like getting you anything right now." Letting it get under your skin seems to ignore that you were interacting with a person who is very new in the world, and just hasn't yet figured out all the nuances of social interaction ( some of us need to work on those pesky nuances our whole lives!). She was accepting you into her life as best as she knew how, in that moment, in a way that was meaningful to her. If you’d done something for her, it is very likely she would have joyfully returned the favor. Annalise loves serving baby doll-sized portions to adults!

Same thing with the insult words you found confrontational. They weren't at all. It is a very typical four-year-old behavior to insult in safe surroundings, to get the hang of personal limits and what might be hurtful to others. It's social experimentation, and growth. Many use phrases like "poopyhead", so I am very happy again for Lise's facility with language! And I am happier still that she can trust me to understand, and play the game for her benefit, knowing she means no harm, and trusting in her learning.

You mentioned M being always at your elbows during the day, clingy, whiny, and needy. This struck me particularly, because I have spent a lot of time, in this phase of my parenting evolution, seeing things through the eyes of a child, and I may have some insights here you haven't seen, from in the midst of the situation, and at an adult level.

If a child is at his parents' elbows, that implies that the parent(s) are often sitting, else he wouldn't reach so high (as in"he’s always glued to my hip", used describe clinging in a child whose parent is often standing). It also implies that there is something...a notebook, a laptop, or a screen perhaps, in front of the parent, so that he's got no chance of a clear, unobstructed face-to-face view....the parent's back may even have been turned to him, so that the elbow is the closest he could approach.

In my experience, a child who is whining, clingy, and needy at home won't be cured by school. What he is saying, in his unpracticed preschool way, is that he needs more *of you*. If you wanted to try an experiment, you might try, when he is clinging, or whiny, dropping *whatever* you are doing and just *being* with him. If he wants to play cave and is climbing on your back, don't decide whether to Facebook or work on writing. Stop. Piggyback him to a good spot; let him pick it. Let him tell you the rules, for a change, if there are any, or let him lead the fantasy (which is early storytelling). Play what he wants, when he wants, the way he wants, for as long as he wants. Let everything else wait. Facebook and notebooks will be there later; M will only be this age *now*. Tomorrow, he'll be a little different, a little less little.

When he tires of the game, hug him or ruffle his hair. Make the two of you a quick, fun, yummy snack and eat it together in the cave, or somewhere else you usually wouldn't. More hugs and kisses. More play....and more love. More, more, more. Not in a martyrish way, or as though the world will collapse if you do. But as if there is nothing in the universe right now that is more important in to you than this little boy. Because, really, is there? =)

How long? Until he's done, and wanders off all by himself, to happily pursue something else - piano, pooping, sleeping, doesn't matter, so long as *he* is the one to leave.

And then, you can do whatever you thought was so important a while ago. Or you could find the joy in just sitting there on the floor, seeing him and his world from his level. You might see things differently from there. But the only goal is to fill him up. If he is full of you, your love, your attention and affection and acceptance without expectation, there would be no need for whining. He would know that you could hear him even if he whispered, and understand even when he didn't. No need to cling, because, when he needed you, you would be available and accessible. No need for neediness, because his needs are being met.

There will still be whiny times, maybe even whole whiny weeks now and then. Being little is sometimes too frustrating to handle neatly (sometimes, so is being big!). But there is a very clear difference between needy children and those who have needier times, but are sure the adults around them are doing their best to understand and meet those needs.

It would have meant everything to me, as a child, to know these things the way my children are beginning to know them.

There is another point I've considered...a lot of the interactions I've witnessed between you and M away from home have been very irritable and impatient. When we are ill-at-ease or at wit's end, we're modeling to our children how to handle frustration...I've realized I whine at my kids way too much. I used to be a lot worse, and so did they. You've seen me be worse, so you know I know what I'm talking about here. I used not to listen to them, *really* listen to them without overlaying my own agenda and opinions over their words. I still have a long way to go, but I can attest that there is a very obvious connection between how I comport myself, and how they do. The more aware and calm I become, the more they do (and so does Jim, and that feeds my peace which feeds the kids; it's a very positive cycle! =) )

Lastly, from your last mail, I think I finally understand something very confusing you mentioned in your first one. You said you hate confrontation, because you had to witness so much of it as a child. While I understand and am familiar with that sentiment, it surprised me. You are the most confrontational friend I have, by a considerable margin. I love you, so I accept it as part of you, but it is true. It seems that you have had intense confrontations at one point or another with all those you are close to.

I wonder if maybe you engage in these conflicts in order to avoid a much larger one - the confrontation between your love and desire to please your parents, and your own deep emotional needs - the ones that were unmet by those parents. I wonder if taking time and space to attempt a resolution to those inner conflicts might ease a lot of the smaller external ones...and perhaps give you some clarity in your dealings with M, because it seems, often, as though you are experiencing considerable overwhelm.

Take this as you choose. It has given me the opportunity to put into writing so much of what I am feeling and experiencing in a soul-deep way. I am grateful for that. I believe in radical unschooling, as utterly as I believe in mindful living. Radical unschooling *is* mindful living.

If you are willing to let go of your assumptions, and ask questions that truly seek understanding rather than an argument, I would love to share the incredible joy of our lives with you. We can agree to not discuss education or parenting, if you'd prefer. Or some other place where you can be comfortable about your choices, and not threatened by mine.

My best energy, though, goes to my family, and to the balance and harmony of the life we live together. I am the navigator of this journey, and that is my honor and my delight. If your energy is contentious, I find that distracting, distressing, and draining. I'm not willing to spend much time at all in the presence of that type of energy. It's not good for me, or for my family. We have life waiting, and I don't want to miss it!


1 comment:

Renee Cabatic said...

Beautifully written and very well said. I too am trying to keep friendships with parents who are putting/have put their kids in school. Very challenging.