Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fifteen Years From Now...

Some weeks ago, a random, general status update I posted on Facebook created quite a discussion. It began almost immediately - although it was the way-wee hours of the morning, to me here on the East Coast, one of my West Coast unschooling pals who loves a good conversational bone to sink his considerable fangs into was wide awake, and we tossed ideas about pleasantly for a bit before I fell asleep.

The next morning dawned, and I spent the day offline, being with the kids and tending to the house....it was Jim's Friday, and I like a semblance of order to welcome him home. It was nearly 24 hours later when I came back to Facebook to find that my comment had engendered considerable discussion in my absence.....and a long series of very angry posts from two family members, most of which had little or nothing to do with the topic at hand...

At first I was shocked and numb. I didn't respond to anything that was posted directly, since a lot of it was in the form of personal attacks, a family dynamic I am too familiar with. But the things that were written, as always, led me to consider what I would say, if I were to answer.

Even a few months ago, if confronted with hostility or false assumptions about the life we lead, I would have railed back in little better than a knee-jerk way, hackles up, passionately defending my way of life as the best one. Still, my own arguments were more reactionary than based on personal experience. That was a hard habit to let go of - but an essential one, for me.

So, for the past month, I've been simply living with an awareness of what was said, and paying very close attention to the moments I am with Jeremiah and Annalise, the harmonious gleeful chaos and brief intense storms that come from four strong-willed and passionate people sharing one small home.

Some things have become very clear, over these past weeks...and, over the next few, I hope to examine them, and perhaps come to understand them better still.

The first thought I am going to explore is something said more than once by both of the family members in question....that whether I like it or not, in ten or fifteen years, my kids will tell me about all the mistakes I've made in raising them. That all kids rebel as teens, even if only a little, and that I will soon enough find out all the ways I've ruined their lives.

It didn't read true, to me. For one thing, I've observed a few unschooled teenagers with their parents. I've also listened to, read the blogs of, and talked to others with enough frequency to know clearly how they feel about their parents and the job they have done thus far.

None of those experiences point to rebellion and recrimination....but those are, after all, other families, and not my own. I don't have teenagers, I have Jeremiah, and Annalise. They aren't grades or ages. They are two unique people, and I get the joy of being their mom.

And being their mom is a joy, in nearly every moment. It hasn't always been. Not for me, and most certainly not for my children.

And I know that because they have told me. They are still telling me, every time they feel that I've let them down. They are specific and justified in their opinions, as seen from their perspective. There is always something in what they say that I needed to hear, if I have unintentionally wounded their young and tender emotions.

Just lately, they've started really noticing and mentioning specific things other parents are doing to their own children, when they consider the treatment unkind or unfair. They notice things even when I'm not with them, and we've had some deeply amazing conversations about why parents who love their kids are sometimes mean to them. We talk about grownups who were once children, too, and who maybe weren't raised to know that being kind and patient is a natural way to be.

We talk a lot about how I used to be, too, and how things were for me, when I was a child. Not only the less-than-stellar behavior of volatile adults, but also the fun and loving parts when I knew I was loved. I tell them that I've always wanted to give them those great parts, but not the other, scarier parts. But, at first, having never been anyone's Mommy before, I really didn't know how. I tried, I did the best I knew how to do, but it wasn't the best way for us, and that took time to find out.

We are all deeply thankful to have found that better way, slowly and after a lot of research down several concentric trails, all leading eventually to radical unschooling, to trusting our children, to respecting their opinions and perceptions in the way we ourselves want to be respected and trusted.

We've worked hard, as a family and as people, to get to where we are. And I have looked more deeply inside myself than I ever dreamed possible. That looking within has turned out to be the key, for me. Looking within to see what I might have become, with a kinder, gentler, safer childhood. Letting myself sink back, sometimes, to that little girl I used to be, to feel again the things I felt as I was living my life. The times that I felt free, and the times I felt trapped. What events surrounded those feelings, and how I felt about my parents and how they had treated me.

I've been aware of that quite a lot, this past month, and I am remembering so many moments as clearly as if I'm reliving them. I'm not hurt or angry or frightened, now - but there were many times when I was, then.

Something that always felt like a trap was not having, for the majority of my childhood, the freedom to express out loud those hurt or frightened or angry feelings. I was very young - I think seven - when I started writing and drawing out my feelings. Before that, there was escape into the world of books, when I was 4 and could read them. Before that, I remember narrating stories in my head, and, in my crib as a toddler, playing with the word Hunger (a name given to a stray tom cat, who has forever since meant hunger, in all its too-lean, too-desperate desires....).

But I was a teenager myself before I ever felt safe or strong enough to risk the consequences of learning to speak my own mind, and it is only now, more than halfway through my fortieth year, that I can remember and speak without shame or guilt or anger, but with acceptance of what was.

I'm not angry, but I'm not willing to ignore the inherent lack of respect for my feelings and individual needs. I needed to feel safe, and seen, known, loved, and understood for who I was - and that is something that is still missing in those relationships. I've come to accept, lately, that there isn't anything more I can do to create feelings that others don't have to give. I was as good a child as I knew how to be. As an adult, I am striving to be the best I can be, in every moment.

So I've begun to look forward and outward to the children I brought into this world, and to focus on ways of bringing more of the good feelings, and less of the bad ones, into their lives. That means seeing that they, too, are being as good as they can be, in any moment, and treating their inevitable mistakes as opportunities for learning valuable lessons. It means paying very close attention to their words, to their meanings, to their passions and hopes and fears. It means seeing two young people, each with their own set of talents and way of being in the world, and honoring that as who they are. It means thinking of them not as a grade or an age or a gender or ay other label, but as Jeremiah and Annalise - or whatever other name they might choose along the way.

It means giving them the freedom, at 8 and 5 and every age hereafter, to share their feelings with me. All of their feelings. The ones that make me feel a mile high, and the ones that prove I can still be unintentionally uncaring. And all the ones in the middle, too. Right now. Or whenever they need me to. The feelings they talk about, and those they don't.

They tell me, now. I don't have a crystal ball, so I'm not going to stand up before the world and make claims about my children that it'll take a decade or more to prove. I will say that they don't seem to be holding back or saving up to have ammunition in their teenage years. They say iIam getting nicer and nicer. They want to be near me, share things with me. They do nice things for me for no other reason than they want to. They seem to understand better than I do that such big changes take a while, and lots of practice to get easy. Maybe that is intuitive for them - they exist, as all children do, in a state of change. They are more patient and forgiving with me than I am with myself.

So, while I understand that rebellion and teenagers lambasting parents for all their mistakes is extremely common, I just don't really see it happening, in our lives. I think it comes from a place where a child is forced to hold in too many grievances for too long, so that when they are big enough, strong enough, and willing to risk the repercussions, it all comes pouring out.

If the child doesn't have to hold things in, but is encouraged to speak their mind, throughout childhood, what then? So far, for us, it's been alot of joy and peace and harmony interspersed with a few difficult moments and feelings that become easier and easier to deal with, as we practice listening and considering the needs of everyone in our home, no matter how trivial they might seem. We work toward solutions that give everyone as much as possible of what they want, and Jim and I skew what we can toward the children, because they have less power and control in the world than we do. We make it safe for them to explore.

It's a life filled with principles and possibilities rather than rules and limits. I'm not sure what there would be to rebel against - already, they are learning that, if the answer is no, there is a reason we just can't think of a way to work around. Usually it's a safety issue, or a physical impossibility, or something that would infringe on someone else. We look for ways to say yes, and the kids know and appreciate that. When they have complaints, we listen, and sometimes, if it's needed, apologize and do something to make up for our insensitivity. Other times, talking it through shows then a side they hadn't seen, and they understand another little piece of the adult world.

I could be wrong. My oldest child is just really coming to that wonderful place of awareness where he is a big kid with big, important, very mature ideas and feelings starting to emerge. He's becoming an idealist, but he's a realist, too. My youngest is still exuberantly expansive, claiming vast tracts of the worlds of reality and fantasy for her own each day. She's bigger than life - and smaller than she'd like to be. She wants to fly, and knows that she can't.

Maybe they'll be very different, when they're teens. But I like the odds of the road we're on, of the children who have gone this way before...where we are is remarkable, and I really feel it just gets better from here!=)

And that has meant giving them the freedom to tell me, in any moment, whether I am getting it right, with them.

By these faces, captured in random moments, I'd say I'm getting it right more often than not, these days! =)


Sandra Dodd said...

I have a photo of Kirby and Marty I've just lately scanned and sent to Lee Stranahan for his project.


A year or two after that, a friend of mine who also had two children about those ages said to me, at a party at her house, that Kirby was going to grow up to hit me. "When he's a teenager, he's going to hit you."

It didn't make me worry, but it was like a curse, like a bet. If Kirby hit me, she won. If Kirby didn't, she lost.

I should perhaps mention that she and her husband were Kirby's godparents.

About ten years after that, a friend of ours who had been there spoke one brief statement to me. I didn't respond. It was a message that was best unresponded to. It was: "Jeff hit Linda." The mother who assured me that her childrearing was right and mine would lead to violence had been hit by her son.

I hadn't. Still haven't. Kirby is 23. Jeff will never be. He died of an overdose in December. I don't know if it was accidental, but he had attempted suicide some time back.

When other parents or relatives tell you "he will hit you" or "he'll stab you in your sleep" or whatever curses they choose to gift you with, that's more about them than about you. How could a person wish that on another person? Turn away from that darkness and toward the light of your beautiful children's faces.

Shan Jeniah Burton said...

When other parents or relatives tell you "he will hit you" or "he'll stab you in your sleep" or whatever curses they choose to gift you with, that's more about them than about you. How could a person wish that on another person? Turn away from that darkness and toward the light of your beautiful children's faces.

Sandra, these words have sent a jolt of pure *something* straight through my consciousness. After I read your longer account, it got much stronger.

I want to respond to this, but I need more time. It's not finished with me, yet....

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Ren Allen said...

No teen rebellion here...not with a 20,16 and 13 y.o. I guess we'll have to wait and see if the 9y.o. makes me wrong...but I think teen "rebellion" is a myth. ;)

When a child is respected for their views and opinions, when they are treated as valuable beings...what is there to rebel against? Unless you put obstacles before them, there isn't much use for rebellion.

Unknown said...

I was going to say the same thing Sandra said. Your family's fears are not your fears, and you don't have to take them on as your own.

I feel anger when you say, "I'm not angry, but...." The "but" is saying to me, "I really am angry, but I'm afraid that it's wrong to express it."

All emotions are good, useful, and necessary, including anger. If we weren't allowed to feel it as children (and I suspect you weren't because you immediately went numb in reaction to the posts on your FB page), of course we're going to need to feel it now. We don't have to accept anyone telling us that it's "wrong" or "bad" anymore. We don't have to hide it, push it down, or pretend we're not feeling it anymore.

Anger points at injustice, and it gives us the energy to change our lives when we need to. It doesn't mean we have to yell at people, blame them, or get lost in rage. Sometimes we just need the power to say, "I feel angry, and I don't know why," and then we can begin to explore where the feelings are coming from. Sometimes our feelings are triggered from experiences in the past (childhood) and having nothing to do with the people in our present, but sometimes someone really is doing us an injustice right now, and we need to do something about it.

You don't have to keep toxic family members in your life (or on your FB—I just reduced my "friends" from 200 to 20). Just because they are family, it doesn't mean you owe them anything, if they are not good to you. They are just people. If they treat you like crap, they are not good people.

Sandra says it beautifully (of course): "Turn away from the darkness and toward the light of your beautiful children's faces."