I do apologize for my recent bout of blog neglect, but I've been feeling a bit like Mr. Don Music lately, having things to say but not knowing quite how to say it. Or worse, finally saying it and having it come out all wrong, as in and if the crumbs are all you want, then don't come to my restaurant? Damn, that's not what I wanted to say at all. So, you see, that's where my head has been at lately, banging against the keys.
Here's the thing, though. I've been noticing a trend within the unschooling community, here in blogland, via social networking sites and sometimes in real life, that has me perplexed. Embracing the concept of unschooling was never difficult for either Alex or me, but the embracing the word took a bit longer (how can one unschool if they've never been? It was all very confusing.) Usually we just stick with eclectic home/unschoolers, if we feel we need to add a label, mostly with the wish to not lump ourselves in with other types of school-in-the-home groups. For a long time I've known about the radical unschooling movement, too, and most times can classify myself as such, also. That said, I think the extreme permissive parenting (neglect) that I've been noticing a lot more than usual lately, and what Sandra Dodd addresses here, is what concerns me most. Here she is addressing the question of what unschooling means to many, and "how far" does one take the concept that children need freedom in order to learn.
Each family has a point which is too far for them. For me "too far" is when a parent comes here and says they don't think it's their job to suggest anything for their kids to do, ever. They don't think it's their job to comment on their children's interests. They don't think it's unschooling if a parent ever directs anything or imposes his or her own interests on the child in any way. See, I think that's justifying some kind of detached neglect, and I think it's stupid.
Sandra writes that she's seen very little of that type of parent, but this is what concerns me, as it seems I run into this, more and more, among non-homeschooling families, as well. And frankly, I don't care all that much how a family conducts their business, assuming every one's needs are being met. But that's just it, I don't think every one's needs are being met in these overly permissive-in-the-name-of-unschooling families. So why stick my nose out here at all? Well, because, at least in my real life community, I am an experienced unschooling parent with two kids who have never been to school, one nearly a teen and one approaching 11, and I look at our life and feel pretty damn good about the sorts of people our kids are, how well-adjusted they are, and how our life is and how connected we are to each other. I'm not arguing we're perfect, far from it. I do know, however, that over the years, hopefully by listening and being connected to my kids, I've learned to let go of a lot, embrace new ideas and yeah, I have something to say.
What I've been seeing a lot lately has been this idea that merely having expectations of your children equals authoritarian, harsh, unconnected, coercive parenting. And if by expectations one also means manners, etiquette, chores, rules, guidance, limits, bedtimes, boundaries...well, that's just the height of evil parenting. And this is exactly where I (and Alex) disagree with those parents. For some reason, there's a group of parents out there who seemingly are okay with a free-for-all household where every person is out for themselves. I hear from these parents and see how unhappy they are, I observe how they don't make the connection to their lack of sleep, lack of routine, disordered home, lack of nutritious foods, lack of limits and boundaries, lack of contribution by all in the home. I have nothing against the occasional junk food, video game playing, Doctor Who marathon, late bedtimes, etc. I do have concerns about kids being unconnected to others in the family and who are not having basic needs being met around good sleep and nutrition. I see a lot of angry, frustrated and self-centered parents out there, who complain constantly about their self-centered child, yet they fail to see how they are fostering this behavior in the home. This sort of parenting seems very permissive, neglectful and plain old lazy to me.
Let me be clear, we don't have a carved in stone bedtime, and we tend to be up a bit later than many, but we do have a routine, a general bedtime goal, and an expectation that we all get quality sleep. Also, when we are up, we are up together, not apart. No one is watching TV alone in another room, for instance. I think TV is a useful and entertaining tool that too often is reviled, but it's also an event in our house. No one is watching a Doctor Who marathon alone, we're watching it together. The same is true for movies. As far as food is concerned, Alex and I are responsible for providing healthy food and snacks. It's our job. We don't leave the kids on their own to fend for themselves. This doesn't mean that they can't cook or bake or make a sandwich, it means we are present, we eat together, we make sure that we don't head for the woods for the day without a packed lunch, and expect that the kids can wait until late afternoon to eat (or mooch off of another family), for instance. As far as chores are concerned, we expect, yes, expect, that we all pitch in as a family to keep the house tidy, well-ordered, organized and clean. Alex and I do the bulk of the work, because, again, it's our job to provide that for our children, so that they have safe landing spot. The kids do, however, know that they bring their laundry downstairs each day, that their beds get made along with a whole variety of household tasks that need done each day. This doesn't mean that we have a chore list, because we don't. It doesn't even mean that we all skip around, whistling while we work, with blue birds serenading us while we clean, either. But we all know that we are capable of maintaining the home and we all enjoy the results of the labor, so we participate willingly, so there's no conflict or arguing over tasks.
Manners and etiquette seem to be a big evil no among permissive parenting types, as well. I've never understood this. Why anyone would want to intentionally set their child up for social failure is beyond me. And I'm not talking about persnickety manners like no wearing white before Memorial Day or use only certain types of forks to eat your salad, here. I'm talking about how to conduct yourself as a guest in someone else's home, or how to eat without grossing out the entire dinner table, much more simply, how to treat others like you want to be treated. (Or as our friend John stated today, look at every single person you encounter and mentally repeat the phrase, "I am you." Observe how that changes how you feel.) Genius. So yes, we expect please and thank yous, the offer of help, graciousness, and you know, eye contact, verbal responses (sadly lacking all too often in the permissive parenting world.) Again let me be clear--this goes both ways--parents above all, need to express manners, as that is how we model how we want to be treated. Which brings us to those other evil concepts: boundaries, limits, and respect.
One of the best things I ever did in my quest to be a better parent, was take Pam Leo's parenting course. I already had a hunch that it wasn't respectful to order my kids around, let's say regarding household chores, but Leo gives us tools and language to put that concept to work. For instance, I participated in a eh hem, discussion recently that had one side arguing that it was always wrong to have expectations around chores, in this case, unloading a dishwasher, and one side saying it was reasonable, even respectful to have those expectations. The example scenario was if reading a book should be withheld from the child by the parent until the dishwasher was unloaded and whether this was cruel and unusual or not. However, using Leo's example of respectful dialog, here's how I said I would handle it.
child: Please read me this book.
me: Yes, I'd love to read you a book, just as soon as I unload this dishwasher. If you are willing to help, we can get to your book much faster.
This results in respect, limits, boundaries and kindness for both parties. No one is coerced, no one is neglected, no one feels conflict. The notion that this sort of dialog is harmful to a child is absurd, to me. The argument I heard was that the clean house was about the adult's needs entirely, not the child's, so it was controlling to expect help from the child. What? Sure, I think if the parent is yelling and ordering the child, that's a whole other extreme, but if it's done with respect and expectations on both sides, I think that's a great meeting in the middle.
During this discussion, I was told that expectations are the mother of all disappointments. Really? How about the mother of all goals, successes, feelings of safety, feelings of being loved and cherished? A child growing up with a parent that expects nothing of them must be a very lonely, lost child, feeling all sorts of abandonment, rage and neglect. And expectations go both ways. My children expect that they will be able to turn on lights, have clean clothes, have healthy food. More than that, they expect to be loved, be honored, be cherished, be nurtured, be guided, be respected. We chose to have our children. We can't put on blinders and assume that they can fulfill all their needs. We can't ignore that they need to know where the boundaries lie so that their world isn't just one vast, endless, lonely expanse of whatever. It doesn't mean we are authoritarian, dictator parents. It means we are interconnected, respectful and above all, mindful. It's hard work that will never end, but it is our job as parents. Yes, our children are individuals with individual needs and lives. But they are lives interconnected to ours, or should be, and we have a responsibility to let them know they are neither inconvenient or on their own. We unschool. We learn and live, and we do it together, hopefully by meeting the needs of everyone involved.