misconceptions about unschooling, and choosing connection

I think many parents tend to view their kids as an extension of themselves, as an embodiment of their values, or evidence that they believe/do/feel the right things.. but that’s not really healthy or fair to think of kids that way.  they are unique beings from day one.

if other people think that your child not knowing how to do fractions yet or disliking their hair to be combed MEANS SOMETHING NEGATIVE about you as a parent, well, let them think. their opinions of you as a parent or of your children do not matter.

forcing your child to do something against his will is not going to foster connection and harmony between you. You are free to prioritize the relationship with your child instead of how society may judge you and your parenting, because of what your child knows, or how he acts/looks.

they’re dependent on you, absolutely, but they must be allowed to make their own conclusions in the world–with the “safety net” of our non-judgmental, unconditional love and support when they do make mistakes. too often we think our job is to soften every blow and “help” them make (what we believe are the) “correct” choices–but really we’re keeping them dependent on us–on others, experts, to tell them what’s right and wrong, instead of listening to their own inner guidance.

this is the underlying lesson of all forced schooling:

you are too stupid to know what’s best for you + what you need to know–here, let US tell you what you need to know

it creates a culture of dependency and docility.

if a child doesn’t want to learn to read, for example, we must trust that eventually they will have one or more experiences that convince them that, actually–it’d be so nice to know how to read–and then we can help them in the way that they want to be helped. what if they don’t? well, with something as universal as reading, i can’t imagine how it wouldn’t happen, truly. can you imagine any child wanting to be illiterate?

jokes aside, sometime before they reach adulthood, they will be interested–compelled–to want to know how to read. and that desire will fuel genius-level comprehension and fervor.

we all have the potential for genius–it’s less a state of being and more of a verb.

if something’s important, your child will recognize that. my son did it at age five when he really wanted to know exactly how to play his video games–so he delved into those manuals with zeal. other kids won’t take an interest until later–occasionally much later. but contrary to popular belief, reading young, or doing anything else young, doesn’t give a child any edge in life by the time they reach adulthood.

a child who reads at 2 and a child who reads at 11 will, all other issues aside, be impossible to tell apart by age 14. i read at age 2–and i mean everything, newspapers, greeting cards, etc. i’ve always been a writer and a reader. my German-born hubby learned English at age 16, from television, and learned to read English even later than that. he’s never cared for grammar, spelling, etc–jokes that he can misspell two languages. Yet he reads much faster than me.

it only takes about 100 hours of focused, dedicated effort to go from learning the alphabet to learning to read. desire is the key for results! a child that’s internally motivated and focused on something of his own choosing can learn almost anything, thoroughly and quickly. that is an experience that hardly ever happens in the current system, and is inhibited even in school-at-home situations.

kids are intensely interested in the way their parents view and interact with the world, but to reject the possibility that they may make different choices than we do (even before they reach adulthood!) is not choosing love and connection, and can become a huge problem in your relationship, especially if you present your opinions as “correct”.

for example, vegetarianism used to be a very dear value to me. i knew i’d never allow my children to eat meat–it was just unthinkable. then i met my husband, an omnivore–and we fought bitterly about whether or not our child(ren) would be allowed to eat meat. in the end, i decided that one parent eating meat and one parent abstaining was actually going to present a very fair set of choices to the kids–even moreso than both parents being veg or both parents eating meat. no judgment, no shame, no coercion.

i strive to uphold this in all my interactions with my kids now: no judgment, shame, or coercion for their choices. i don’t make things a battleground when i can choose understanding, curiosity, and connection instead:

“Tell me what you like about that chicken …”

I don’t agree with the idea that it’s “my house, my way” until my kids are 18. I think they need the freedom to learn from their own choices as much as possible–that way they’ll be even better prepared for missteps, because they’re able to learn from many of those as a child, under the safety of our roof, as opposed to having free reign for the first time at age 18 or 21 or later, whenever they move out into their own place.

whether it’s wearing short sleeves in winter (i bring their jacket, just in case), eating something that i don’t think is the healthiest choice, or buying the heavily advertised, pricey toy that i’m sure will break within two days of purchase, i let them learn lessons from these sorts of things as much as is feasible.

that’s not to say my kids run the show–but there are many situations where i CAN give them autonomy and relinquish arbitrary control without harming others, myself/them included.

Also–unschooling is about respect. Some people take that to mean that instead of kids being forced to respect the parents, as per mainstream parenting models, the parents defer to the kids… In my opinion that’s not sustainable in the long run or fair. Respect is extended to and encouraged between every member of the family–yourSelf included. Your freedom ends where another person’s begins–no one should have the right to bulldoze or disregard another.

it’s about continually striking a balance, modeling respect for others and for ourselves, and gently intervening when necessary. for example, my 13 year old’s desire to fight with weapons does not mean that he gets to do battle with unwilling participants! my 10 year old’s desire to sing doesn’t mean she should do it in the room where others are watching a show or listening to the radio.

find ways to say YES while accommodating everyone’s comfort and desires–not just the “squeakiest wheel”–and that includes yourself!

unschooling is a family affair–so pick up that hobby you’ve always wanted to start, or read the books that you’ve been wanting to read. do what makes your heart sing–reconnect with your own desires. not because it’s good for your kids, or because they might see you doing X and want to join you (“ooh, they might learn something!”)–but simply because it’s healthy for you to take care of yourSelf–body and mind.

choosing connection and trust over coercion and fear is the basis of an unschooling lifestyle.

My Journey to and Beyond Vegetarianism–Part 1

I’ve been a vegetarian for about 17 years–but I’m currently experiencing an inner earthquake of thoughts on health, ethics, nutrition and more–and I need to write about it.  The next few posts are going to chronicle my thought process and dietary evolution up to the precarious, interesting point of view I’m at now.

I first went veg as a teen, along with my mother, who was becoming veg again for the third or fourth time in her life (she had a habit of not staying true to herSelf in the face of ridicule or opposition from those closest to her).  I remember wanting Long John Silver’s chicken strips, and fish sandwiches from Burger King (we ate out a LOT), and then feeling so guilty after eating them.

I had collected a bunch of propaganda buttons with animal rights messages on them:  “Go veg!”, “Animals are our friends”, “Love animals, don’t eat them”, and so on.  I had one that was black and red with big block letters proclaiming “Meat is MURDER”.  I wanted to use that button too, but I felt like a filthy hypocrite every time I’d cave and eat meat again.  I knew I’d be inviting scrutiny of my choices by going “public” with my belief in a veg diet, but I didn’t care.

Finally, the summer after I turned 14, I succeeded with staying veg.  I felt so proud of myself–like I was really making a huge difference in the world.  I even went out with flyers and distributed leaflets a few times.  I organized a library display for our town, highlighting famous vegetarians–and drawing the connections between environmental, ethical and health concerns.  The next year at school, I was made fun of for my new choice, but I didn’t waver.  I also met a few other veggie kids, which really surprised me. I even organized a protest when the school’s science wing installed a new exhibit:  a real-life, dissected, spread-eagled cat.  I had to walk past that thing to chemistry twice a week, and it bothered me deeply.  I collected signatures and got the school paper to write a piece about why we felt it was unethical, and that we wanted it gone. We succeeded in getting it removed.  I wrote a piece on vegetarianism for my school paper, and also got a letter to the editor of a national magazine published that year.  The topic?  Animal rights.  Of course I included vegetarianism as an extension of that concept.

I initially tried to go vegan, but being an already-thin person who had a very sensitive palate, that didn’t last long.  I’d restricted my diet so much that I was hungry all the time, but refused (or couldn’t deal with the textures/flavors) of many healthy vegan foods.  I made peace with being an ovo-lacto vegetarian for the time being, and enjoyed many processed meat alternative foods along with lots of fruits, veggies, pasta and rice.

By the time I was 21, I had read loads of vegan ethics and nutrition books, and I decided that it was time to get serious about my health.  My animal-rights zeal that prompted going veg was now a shared focus with health and proper nutrition.  I decided to cut out milk and cheese (which I already ate only in limited quantities), and eat more raw, whole foods.  While I still ate processed foods without thinking much of it, I felt that my diet was congruent with my ethics, and I also felt that I was eating really well.

This was the status quo for about 2-1/2 years.  What I wasn’t yet aware of is that comfort is sometimes a form of complacency–and mine was about to get disturbed profoundly.

Here’s links to Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.

Raising Kids Beyond Religion: A Booklist

Yes, I said “beyond” religion. I am not a fan of the concept that there is only one right way, central to so many major religions. I’m very much a freethinker in that regard, and I raise my kids to be freethinkers as well. As a parent and as a homeschooler, I don’t want to shield them from the world–or religion. We approach religions of all sorts from a place of finding the commonalities, instead of focusing on the differences. I also want to offer my kids the opportunity to be culturally literate in terms of religion–to think critically about the information they get from the world.

Most importantly, I want them to be in touch with what they feel in their hearts, and whether any form of organized religion speaks to them. I don’t view beliefs as something external that one should try to conform to, but rather, something that is already inside oneself, waiting to be discovered and given words to.

Learning about different religions is, in my opinion, just one way to figure out if there’s a name for what you already know, feel, and believe to be true.

(Another fun way is by taking the Belief-O-Matic quiz, which sounds silly, but is actually a really in-depth and useful tool for the spiritual seeker or belief-questioner, to fine-tune and zoom in on their true beliefs.)
Got ten spare minutes? Why not take it?!

That said, it’s hard to find books that approach topics of values and morality from a non-religious standpoint. It’s even harder to find children’s books about religions that are informative but unbiased. Now, I’m a pretty big book nerd, and have been amassing kids’ books on spirituality and religion for over ten years now, so I’ve got a pretty fat stack of them.

To be clear–I don’t make my kids read these or any books. I don’t “teach” religion of any sort. I do, however, strew these books (and many other interesting things) across their paths–perhaps leaving them on the kitchen table, or in the bathroom, or in the car. I might do a random read-aloud, and they’ll gather round, or more often, be listening while drawing or playing with toys. That’s just how we do things, though.

So, if you’re new to this concept of introducing religion and beliefs to kids without expectations, this post includes some basic titles to start with. Some discuss general spiritual topics, while others are more historical and informative in nature. All are free of any “one right way” dogma, however; which makes them pleasantly readable for many religious folks, agnostics, atheists and spiritual seekers alike.

  • This first book is for the parents: Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion. I know it has the phrase “without religion” in the subtitle, but really, this book is not against religion, so long as nobody’s being forced to practice it. Parenting Beyond Belief is a book that addresses the concept and approach of morals, values, and beliefs in a conscious, thoughtful way. It purports that unexamined beliefs, whether religious or otherwise, are some of the most staunchly held, most inflexible and most difficult to uproot. If you already consider yourself a secular family, if you are “spiritual but not religious”, or if you just want a sort of roadmap on how to model ethics and values outside of any cumbersome religious pretext, this is an excellent book to check out.
  • One of my very favorite childrens’ books is Old Turtle. This book is gorgeously illustrated in watercolor, and very artfully put together. It’s enjoyable from preschool-age to, well, adulthood. The book is about an argument that began among all the animals and things of the earth, about what God is like. Each creature or creation believes that God is like itself–and therefore NOT like the others. It also touches on how we humans are prone to forgetting to see the connectedness around us, and instead focus on the differences and disparities. Old Turtle has spurred many thoughtful discussions in my house–and it’s also an award winning book.
  • What Is God? is a very thorough if somewhat wordy book, with one-page overviews of five of the world’s major religions.  It also touches on the concept of religious freedom, and the fact that some people don’t follow any religion at all.  It talks about what prayer is, and it focuses on the similarities among many religious beliefs.  It mentions that some people believe in many Gods, while others believe in one. What Is God? also talks about how you can try to “feel God” by thinking of the ways in which we are all “connected to everything”. I really like this book as a nice introduction to the idea that other people might have different beliefs and worldviews outside of a child’s own family. The wordiness might not appeal to very young kids, but I’ve read this to mine at 3 and 4 years old, and they were interested.
  • One Earth, One Spirit – A Child’s Book of Prayers From Many Faiths and Cultures is a lovely, poetic book with glossy photos–a compilation of many prayers, from short four-line couplets to page-long verses. The back of the book has a section of notes on each prayer, highlighting the culture or belief system they come from, and what they’re about. When we did handwriting practice, I offered this book for my kids to copy from. If they memorized a verse here and there while doing their copywork, that was great too. I especially like that One Earth, One Spirit includes prayers from Native American cultures, and less conspicuous belief systems such as Sikhism, Russian Orthodox, and Taoism.
  • The Golden Rule.  How much more is there to say? This book is full of amazing artwork, and a conversation between a boy and his grandfather about the Golden Rule:  Treat others as you wish to be treated. It mentions how this concept is found at the core of most major religions, and also the irony that there is so much fighting and disharmony in the world, despite people knowing about The Golden Rule. This book is appealing even for toddlers–an easy yet thought-provoking read.
  • On My Way To A Happy Life, by Deepak Chopra. This book is another of my favorites, because it’s written to show that we are each ultimately responsible for our own happiness, and that everything we encounter is affected by us. To me, this is a liberating and empowering line of thinking–for kids and adults alike. On My Way To A Happy Life includes seven principles or life lessons: Anything is Possible, Giving and Getting, What You Do Comes Back to You, Creating Peace, Growing What You Want, Be Open to Life, Your Place in the World. The whole book is written in verse; which might seem trite, but it’s well done–and the vibrantly colored illustrations are joy-inspiring just by themselves. This book does not talk about religion, but rather, a new way of looking at–and relating to–the world around us.
  • Meet Jesus: The Life and Lessons of a Beloved Teacher. This book, in all honesty, I have not yet read myself–but I have done a LOT of research and a lot of talking to other parents, trying to find a children’s book that is an accurate yet objective look at Christianity. Meet Jesus is the best one I’ve found thus far.  Now, for the record, I am not a Christian. I think that even in our secularized society, you can’t avoid coming into contact with Christian beliefs–and I would never try to prevent this. However, I think that it’s very desirable for kids to learn about Christianity in a historical, factual, non-proselytizing sense. Meet Jesus–if it really is what it seems to be–fills this glaring void in the realm of children’s books.
  • Muhammad, by Demi, is an amazingly-illustrated book about the life and times of the prophet who wrote the texts of the Koran, Islam’s holy book. Interestingly, Muhammad‘s body and face are not pictured; only his silhouette, as per Islamic artistic tradition. Scripts from the Koran and an account of Islamic beliefs are included–yet it’s written as a biography–very engaging and readable for both young kids and adults. I think this book is excellent as a starting point for dispelling myth and misinformation about the world’s second-largest religion.
  • The Legend of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching is another visual masterpiece by Demi. This book includes a short biography of Lao Tzu, who “may or may not have been born, and who may or may not have written the Tao Te Ching”–and it includes 20 passages from the Tao Te Ching, or “Way of Heaven”. The Legend of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching does not present a lengthy explanation of what Taoism is, but instead, the short, simple passages are allowed to speak for themselves.
  • Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha is a book my kids especially love. This is not a book about Buddhism, but a biography of the Buddha–which interestingly, amounts to the same thing. It’s a long, deeply engaging story even for adults, but also speaks to the younger kids. It’s broken into short chapters and is perfect as a bedtime read-aloud. The book talks about how Siddhartha was born into riches as a prince, and had everything he could dream of handed to him. Later, he walked away from it all for a life of poverty and suffering–and embraced it. The values of nonviolence, loving-kindness, and selflessness are embodied vividly and tangibly within Prince Siddhartha–not in a preachy way, but in a way that is easily identifiable and able to evoke emotion in the smallest of children.
  • The Ancient Celtic Festivals: and How We Celebrate Them Today. This book is more of an informative read than a bedtime storybook, but it’s nonetheless fascinating. It highlights the eight solar festivals of both ancient and modern Pagan traditions: Where they came from, what they signified, and how they are still celebrated today. This book discusses the nature-based roots of modern holidays, from Groundhog Day to Halloween. The Ancient Celtic Festivals explains how the solar cycle of the year was used to tell time, and why the sun’s cycle was intimately important to daily life 2000+ years ago. I love this book because it’s a technical “why-manual” explaining the Pagan wheel of the year, in practical and spiritual terms. The Celts are a common ancestor of many Europeans, and so their heritage is very much our heritage, as well.
  • All I See Is Part of Me. This book is an excellent story that describes a decidedly Pagan worldview. At its heart, Paganism is about recognizing the interconnectedness and blessedness of all things. All I See Is Part of Me highlights those two central, far-reaching concepts in lovely color-pencil drawings that have a dreamy, ethereal quality about them. It gently offers the concept that we are all connected, and everything is blessed, divine, beautiful.

I have lots–LOTS! more books to share regarding spirituality, both for children and adults–but this list should give a pretty good idea of where I stand and how I approach religion and spirituality with my family. I hope these books are helpful and enJOYable for you!

Living Deliberately Versus the Path of Least Resistance

“We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” –Gandhi

If your choices are not in line with your values, then you don’t really value yourself.  

What provocative statements these are for me!  A good word to sum it all up is “congruency”.  We won’t feel happiness or fulfillment in our lives if we are constantly in an internal conflict over what we do and say versus what we feel and think.
Are there elements in your day-to-day life that are at odds with the way you feel or believe?  Maybe you aren’t even fully aware or conscious of these conflicting feelings, but they will show up invariably as stress or irritation, reluctance to follow through, or simply depression.  To get through the daily grind, many people have had to dissociate themselves with their core values and emotions, sometimes for years.  
I recall having to do this to cope with school and life in general sometime before junior high.  I felt so bored and frustrated, and would rather have done just about anything instead of resigning myself to the pace and stagnancy of public school’s educational and social “diet”, yet I was not presented with any viable alternatives.  By the time I was seventeen, I was barely even aware I had emotions or opinions of my own.  I did what was expected of me, and followed the advice of my friends or my parents.  Even though those were often of opposite flavors, both were equally fruitless, diminishing paths for me to have followed.  
That year I had a vision of myself standing in a raging river, with my feet in two separate canoes, each drifting away from each other.  I was approaching the falls, and I knew that something had to change profoundly.  I took the path of least resistance and allowed fear and shame to rule me.  I entered a holding pattern–a placid, even joyful facade, with a deep numbness buried leagues beneath the surface.  I would not awaken from this paralysis for many years.  
I still have a long way to go before I am anywhere near to achieving congruency in my life, although I am light-years ahead of where I was, say, five years ago 🙂  My art is one of the many things that I simply didn’t allow myself the thought of pursuing.  I think I first spoke of wanting to be an artist when I was about four years old, and since then, everyone who was anyone in my life made sure to tell me about the “starving artists”, how people can’t really do that as a career, how it’s not really useful or necessary, not stable or respectable, and so on.  I have come to realize, however, that even if I don’t make another dollar with my artistic pursuits, even if no one “gets it” but me–I still need to allow myself a creative outlet for my own emotional health and happiness.  Otherwise, I’m missing on of life’s key points–at least in my own worldview:  Enjoyment.
Art aside, however, there are still things that I follow the path of least resistance on, and I am experiencing a feeling of tension about these things.  They are out of sync with my supposed vision and goals for the future, and they are holding me back spiritually–which is to say emotionally, socially, financially, and so on.  (It all comes back to Spirit, I believe.)  So why do I allow this incongruence?  Why does anyone allow this to persist in their lives, even when they are aware of the self-sabotage they are creating?  Maybe we are attached to the current situation more deeply than we are consciously aware of.  Maybe the fear of the unknown is more upsetting than the fear of failing to achieve our goals.  
Let’s take one familiar example:  Caffeine.  I have been fighting this battle for years, more often on the losing side.  However, I am even more aware now of how foolish it was of me to not conquer this issue years ago, because it would have been easier on me, and everyone around me as well.  Perhaps 10 years ago, caffeine was something of a mood lifter to me.  It was a nice extra, a boost to my day.  Today, it’s more of a need.  I feel like I can’t function properly–like I am below my baseline if I don’t have a cup of coffee in the morning.  Does that mean I should surrender and admit defeat?  Hell no!  However, this “below normal” feeling is what leads me to keep having that cup of coffee.  I don’t want to be an unproductive, whiny jerk to my family, and so I drink up.  In truth, my current circumstances reinforce the bad habit instead of my desire to overcome it, with fear closing the circle.  
I feel similarly about my diet.  I have been a vegetarian for over 15 years, but lately I have not made nutritional excellence my top priority.  I think about it, read about it, analyze my own rhetoric, but in the end, I don’t eat that healthfully–at least, not for a vegetarian! Worse, since I don’t want to give my kids the punitive “do as I say, not as I do” treatment, they eat pretty much the same way that I do.  My leading-by-example is pretty soft on this one!  Now, we are far from the “SAD diet,” (Standard American Diet, for those not up on veg-speak 😉 but there’s still loads of room for improvement.  
With regard to our diet, I think I am attached to the current situation in terms of feeling unable to afford a healthy diet (financial fear), and unable to commit to the extra time and planning required to eat healthfully.  That is a lame statement to make, but it’s all I’ve got!  I am right-brained to a fault, and I suck at time management.  I have fallen into a pattern of eating the foods of least resistance, and that is NOT in line with my long-term goal of optimum health, fitness and longevity.
In short, I’m no longer in danger of going over the falls, so to speak–but my life is largely following a path of least resistance in other areas.  This inner turmoil is going to increase until it’s louder than my own numbness and I will be forced to take action–either bravely toward my goals or away from my fears.  I am at least firmly grounded in one boat, but I need to pull out some bigger oars–or maybe a rudder!