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.

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What is unschooling?

First off, let me clear up any confusion by saying that we are not simply homeschoolers, but unschoolers. We have always been unschoolers.

I realize that for many people reading this, the confusion has only just begun!

Many people have no idea what unschooling is–and a lot of people think they have it all figured out, but are actually in varying states of misinformation. Even among homeschoolers, there’s a lot of confusion about what the point and aim of unschooling is, and what it might look like on a daily basis.

So I’m going to give you one perspective–my own.

Unschoolers tend to believe similar broad concepts about the nature of children and of learning, that set us slightly apart from other people. There are plenty of unschoolers who may disagree on some of the finer points, but the core beliefs are, in my opinion, fairly common ground:

Unschoolers believe strongly in the innate capabilities and curiosity of the human spirit from birth. We do not see children as inferior to adults, and we strive to treat people of all ages as primarily competent, well-intentioned individuals who possess sufficient internal motivation and drive to learn and grow throughout life. In short, we believe positive, life-affirming things about human nature, and we have (or cultivate) a large amount of trust in our children as people. We honor our children’s feelings, needs, and capabilities as much as feasible, and we strive to balance these legitimate needs with the needs of the rest of our family.

We do not use punishment or try to control our children, and we strive to create an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect in our homes and families. Of course we’re human, and we don’t pretend otherwise. Sometimes we yell, or lose our tempers, as do our kids. But when we’ve overreacted or are wrong, we apologize and make amends. Everyone in our family is deserving of mutual respect, and we work daily on facilitating cooperation, understanding, and love.

Unschoolers believe that absolutely everything–every interest and experience–has value, and that learning happens best when it’s not confined to a classroom or a book. We believe that the desire to learn is nearly insatiable, inherent in a child’s being, and if left to develop naturally (without the use of coersion, punishments, bribery, grades, gold stars and the like), it will flourish and continue throughout one’s life. Unschoolers believe that grades and rewards dampen one’s internal motivation to learn for the sake of wanting or needing to know. We believe that dividing life up into subjects – and then labeling some of those subjects as universally important to know, and others as trivial or irrelevant – is a terrible disruption and hinderance to the natural flow of learning.

The end goal of unschooling is to raise children adults who are “succesful” in the sense that they have the tools necessary to make their way in the world, of course. But there’s a deeper meaning of success that’s also applied here, versus what’s applied to society in general.

Unschoolers are more likely to measure success in non-quantifiable terms.

We want our kids to grow up knowing what it means to live for themselves. To be truly happy and fulfilled, however they choose to define that. To not be afraid to go against the grain in some circumstances, yet flexible enough to go with the flow in others. In short, we strive to give our kids the tools and the opportunities to be freethinkers. To carve out their own destinies instead of being bound by expectations or someone else’s life plans for them.

Unschoolers can and do do “schoolwork”, and they can and do go to college and beyond–if they desire to. They are much more likely to possess the rare gift of believing in themselves, instead of believing what others (“experts”) have told them about themselves throughout their childhoods. They have been trusted enough that trusting themselves comes naturally. They have been able to experiment and follow the threads of their interests deeply and often, and those threads are likely to lead to consuming passions with unique, marketable skill sets.

They are often in the uncommon position, by young adulthood, of being able to create abundance by following the natural flow of their passions, having boundless enthusiasm to learn new skills, and honing skills they already possess.

I will be writing much more on unschooling theory and thought in future posts. I have kept silent long enough–the world needs to hear about this.

Why I Don’t Like Rewards and Punishments

Gentle discipline. That sounds pretty progressive, right? Not spanking or hitting children IS still a pretty progressive concept in our society. In my opinion, it’s disheartening that we’re still not collectively as a culture at the place where hitting kids is just accepted as absurd, archaic, and wrong for any reason…

But I digress. This post isn’t about non-gentle discipline. It’s about the ways in which we are moving forward, but in very small, still-misguided ways. Not that I’m the perfect parent, as if there is such a thing–but I am willing to admit that there’s still plenty of room for positive change. I am willing to acknowledge the ways in which we (collectively and personally) are still held back from relating to our kids from a place of love and trust, instead of fear and control.

One of the things–tools, if you will–that parents often turn to, or use more heavily, when they are working toward a more gentle way of relating to their kids, is using rewards and consequences. “Hey, the kids did what I told them to, there was no yelling or hitting (which is spanking, don’t kid yourself), and everything is great!”

Well, yes. But no. There is much more going on with rewards and consequences than just the immediate behavior changes that are effected. For many parents, the question of whether rewards and consequences “work” is rather a moot point. We don’t care whether they “work”, because we are more concerned with the long-term behavioral and psychological consequences of using such techniques.

Incidentally, of course they “work”. Pavlov proved that with doggies in the 1890s–but I deeply question the integrity of behaviorism as a school of thought when applied to human beings–in other words, beings who are intrinsically motivated to think critically and to make decisions based on internal judgments, not external carrots and sticks. For more on this, please check out Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn. You can read the first chapter, which goes into behaviorism and why it’s not appropriate for parenting, here.

The thing is, the concepts of rewards and punishment are so ingrained in our culture and our thinking that it’s at first hard to see how it might be damaging. Think of it this way: We are putting out little fires again and again, instead of investing a lot of time and money to create a fire-resistant structure. And we’re neglecting to notice all the little scorched spots adding up…

I am not merely interested in changing the day-to-day behavior of my kids–and I believe that that’s all rewards and punishments really do. Behavior is really just a symptom of the way that the child is currently perceiving the world to operate.

Behavior is like the mushroom (incidental), while the essential substance of belief/worldview (which manifests behaviors of all sorts) is the mycelium–invisible, yet vast and essential. Just stamping out the mushroom won’t get of the mycelium from which it sprung.

Punishing “bad’ behavior might get rid of the behavior, but punishment does not help the child to internalize why the behavior is being labeled as “bad”–WHY he shouldn’t do it. He is learning that the adults in the world around him don’t like when he does X, so he learns to avoid doing x when they’re around, or until he’s grown up.

Or–perhaps just as bad–he learns that pleasing the people in his external world is what’s important in life, and he dissociates from or subverts those parts of himself that display as “bad” in the opinion of the people around him. Never questioning why x is “bad” is the first place, what circumstances make x “bad,” or whether x is indeed “bad” at all.

Punishments create a worldview in which the child learns to look to others for what’s right and wrong, and critically thinking about WHY things are the way they are is not emphasized. Even the laws of the land, ideally, are followed because they make sense, because there is a rhyme and reason to them that we generally agree with. We don’t all drive on the right side of the road solely because we’re afraid we’ll get a traffic fine or go to jail if we don’t.

There are plenty of things in life with natural negative consequences–we don’t need to arbitrarily create more of them to teach kids about actions having consequences. If your kiddo leaves his skates out in the rain, and they get mildewed, he will likely learn from that without any additional negativity imposed by you. He’ll have to scrub the mildew off, or the skates will need to be thrown out, or he’ll have to save his money or wait until you can buy another pair for him. He might miss out on skating with his friends for awhile, etc.

Incidentally, this is not the same thing as purposely cleaning up the rest of the yard but leaving his skates there to “teach him a lesson”. There’s a line between natural consequences and on-purpose consequences–and you also don’t want to miss an opportunity to be nice for the sake of niceness. Next time he might remember, and bring your garden tools in along with his skates, for niceness… Think the best of your child–giving the benefit of the doubt to him will teach him to do the same with others…eventually.

That’s not to say we should embrace and encourage tantrums at the grocery store–but we’d certainly do well to recognize that children don’t WANT to lose control, or make us angry, etc. If they do something that makes us angry, most likely they had a need that they were trying to meet (in their not-yet-developed, immature way), that precluded our opinion about what they were doing.

One caveat here, however–if there’s already a controlling/manipulative, adversarial relationship firmly in place, an older child might actually be retaliating with his behavior–i.e, trying to make his parents angry. By the time I was about 8 years old, I did sometimes try to make my parents angry–becasue I felt like I had no way to make them understand me, so i wanted to get back at them for making up arbitrary punishments and “consequences”, and never believing me when I explained the reason why I’d done something “wrong”. Kids can be hurt so much more deeply than most parents realize. We say kids are resilient, and they are, but that’s no reason to treat them as if their emotions are trifling.

We can apply this concept of whether the child is “trying” to make us angry to this common scenario: The two year old who tells bald-faced lies. You see them unroll the toilet paper.

“Did you just unroll the toilet paper?!”

“No,” they say.

Most parenting “experts” would say the child should be punished for lying AND unrolling the toilet paper, at this point.

Here’s an alternative interpretation of what’s going on, which I believe is much more plausible:

The two-yr old has poor impulse control (incidentally, impulse control is not fully developed in humans until somewhere between 18 and 22 years old), and also has a magical and/or very subjective (i.e. what HE believes is what IS) view of reality. He saw the toilet paper and thought it would be fun (educational!) to unroll it! Whee!

Then he saw your face and heard your tone of voice, and realized that he’d upset you. Ohh–oops. He wishes he hadn’t done it, so he says “No” when you ask him if he did it. He is responding to your question in accordance with what he *wishes* were true, now that he realizes he upset you. Further, the two year old knows fully well that you saw him do it.

So, it’s setting him up for confusion and asking him to displease you even more, when you ask him a question that he knows you already know the answer to!

It’s much more helpful to just clean up the toilet paper mess together and calmly talk about why we don’t play with toilet paper (it hurts trees, that’s not how we use it, it’s expensive, etc etc)–or even better, just laugh with your child about it–delight in his delight! Then, make sure the toilet paper is not available for playtime in the future.

I already hear the objections: “That’s not feasible/convenient for everyone!” But of course, nobody said that mindfully raising a child was going to be even close to convenient 😉

So we’ve talked about punishments and consequences–now, rewards.

I know, I know. When I was first introduced to the concept of rewards as harmful, I felt frustrated! I’d already come so far from hitting and yelling–even rewards are harmful?

“I give him chocolate, he pees in the potty! I let him watch TV with me for an hour, after he eats all his dinner! How can this be wrong?”

The research of behaviorist psychologists has found again and again that introducing rewards for certain activities actually decreases motivation for those activities, compared to before rewards were introduced. So even if we do succeed in getting rid of a negative behavior by offering rewards, we are actually reinforcing the desire to do something if, and only if, a reward is involved–still not addressing the underlying cause of the “bad” behavior.

I put “bad” in quotes because often we label behaviors of children as bad or good, when really we aren’t aware of the underlying reasons why a child is acting the way he or she is.

If we provide rewards for our children reading books, doing chores, or other “desirable” behaviors, then we actually dampen the natural desire and instinct of children, which is to learn and interact with their environments. Rewards interfere with the natural process, which is to derive joy from learning, helping, or otherwise participating in daily life.

I understand that offering rewards is a really hard habit to break! My mother raised me on a steady diet of “good job!”, presents for good grades, and chore charts–and it just created apathy and distrust.

“She said my drawing was awesome when I barely even tried. Does she really even look at my art? If I get a dollar for “doing the laundry”, what if I can’t fold the sheets? How much less can I get away with?”

Incidentally, it’s the same with grading work in school:

“If I know I can get an A with minimal effort, why waste my time doing more? If I don’t do the report at all, I can still pass with a B? How many days can I miss and still pass the class?”

These are the sorts of questions I think virtually every opportunistic teenager asks in junior high and high school–because schools especially train kids to focus on “getting the grade” rather than actually challenging their mind or pushing to learn and try new, difficult tasks. Hyper-focus on grades is a big part of the reason why I think our schools are failing. We are looking at education as a product to be prepared, instead of a process to be explored and savored.

If the goal in school is to get the grade, then minimal effort is going to be expended to achieve maximum grade percentage. Kids usually aren’t willing to risk a lower grade for going out on a limb and pushing themselves to improve upon their personal best. If they can get a 90% (i.e, a “reward”) with moderate effort and few mistakes, why would they risk getting a lower grade (i.e. getting “punished”)–even if the alternative assignment is more challenging, interesting, or mind-expanding?

Ultimately, what it comes down to is your underlying beliefs about human nature. Are we self-destructive, hapless beings who naturally gravitate toward negativity in our relationships with self/others/environment if not for artificial constructs keeping us in line (rewards, punishments, rules, laws, etc)? Or are we naturally self-affirming and growth-oriented, naturally inclined to meet our needs, and in need of only minimal, gentle guidance to help us learn to do so in ways that are respectful and helpful to the world/others?

I believe the latter, without a doubt.

What do you think?

Rethinking “TV-free”: Why I don’t censor television-watching

Earlier today, I was watching Disney channel with my kids, and we got to talking about childism in action on that channel. In particular, the show Good Luck Charlie. It’s about a “big” family (four kids), but the parents are self-absorbed, hapless idiots and they are constantly making comments that indicate that they would rather not have had kids. I am all for jokes and sarcasm, but IMO there’s a line that these shows cross, and I think it’s hurtful. Why do we want to perpetuate a cultural opinion of kids as a hassle or an inconvenience? How is that helping the relationships between parents and children?

These sorts of things are what my kids and I talk about as we watch TV. I think we get about 100 channels–maybe 200, I don’t know. We regularly watch less than ten of them. Personally, I think a lot of what’s on TV is garbage: disrespectful, overly commercialized, superficial, designed to get you to behave and think (and shop!) in certain ways that are not necessarily desirable, etc.

I don’t censor the things my kids watch, however. TV is a mixed bag. I want my kids to be able to discern programming that they feel comfortable watching for themselves, without my hovering and censorship.

I didn’t always feel this way. I was very limited in what I could watch as a kid. By the time I had my first child, I was very anti-TV/anti-media. I didn’t have cable in our home, and only allowed certain, approved-by-me videos to be watched. I was a big fan of books like The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life, which harshly criticize “screen time” of any kind, for kids and adults alike.

Then I discovered unschooling, and my thinking started to shift.

Once, when my oldest was 4 or 5, he wanted to watch Lord of the Rings with his dad. I did not want him to be scared–I knew he was going to see Gollum and get freaked out. But he REALLY wanted to watch, even when I warned him that it would probably be scary. (I also probably got mad at his dad for wanting to watch a movie like that before I’d put him to bed–which, if it had happened now, I wouldn’t be–but I digress. This was at the very beginning of our unschooling journey.)

Frustrated, I sat down and watched with them both for awhile, and my son sat there happily–until Gollum came onscreen. Immediately my son hopped right off the couch, turned to me and said, “Okay, I’m ready for bed now! Let’s read a story!” At the time, I was scared that moment had traumatized him, but actually he had been able to decide for himself when his comfort level was surpassed, and this empowered him. I didn’t say anything, didn’t “rub it in” that I was right. I just let him make his own conclusions about that experience, and we read some nice bedtime stories together.

Kids who are not allowed to choose for themselves what feels like *too much* will often sit through things that make them uncomfortable, against their own inner judgment, just to exercise their own autonomy! If you tell someone they’re too young or they don’t understand, they will often try to prove you wrong once given the opportunity.

If you help a child to choose their own comfort levels with media (and other things), without judgment or “I told you so”s, there will be collaboration, trust, and ultimately a strengthening of the child’s own inner judgment–calibration of his comfort levels. This is essential for growing up–yet many kids aren’t permitted to start this sort of self-exploration and learning until they’re teenagers or older.

Many unschoolers embrace TV, but many others, like Laurie A. Couture, have consciously and cooperatively chosen to forego TV and media. This article talks about her and her teenage son’s mutual decision to stop gaming and watching TV.

Incidentally, Laurie’s an excellent speaker, visionary, author of Instead of Medicating and Punishing, and a passionate advocate of children’ rights. Her whole blog is very illuminating.

Like Laurie, I am a big advocate of deciding things together (explained further in this article, by Alfie Kohn)–and for us, right now, that means we watch TV.

There are things on the TV that are really, really world-expanding, in a good way. My kids have watched things on TV and then ran off on tangents of exploration, reading, pretend play, and more–all from the result of a 30-minute show. We’ve watched cooking shows and they’ve learned about new ingredients, or different foods that other people eat. We’ve also gotten up and cooked what they were cooking! We’ve watched cartoons and talked about how animation works, and how drawings can be exaggerated to show emotion or character.

We’ve watched HGTV and talked about different design styles, or how homes can look nice but actually be falling apart, or dangerous, due to faulty construction. We talk a lot about advertisements–how they’re convincing, or stupid, or exaggerated, or what techniques they use to compel people to buy their product; why sales and offers work, and what the manufacturer’s motivation or goal really is. We might hear a reference that the kids or I don’t get, and so we google it, and that leads to other thought-tangents.

I am not a wealthy mom, able to bring my kids to Europe or on multi-state vacations five times a year. TV brings the world to us in ways that I can’t necessarily replicate in the real world–at least, not yet! The internet is amazing, because you can find exactly what you’re interested in.

TV is amazing because it opens doors that you never even knew you didn’t know about, until you caught 15 minutes of this or that show.. 🙂

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!

Evolution of a Homeschool Family–One Year Ago…

I wrote this about a year ago, at the end of one of my more zealous attempts at “traditional” homeschooling. I found it amusing and wonderful to realize how far we’ve come since then.

So at the moment, shocking as it sounds, we literature-based homeschoolers are taking a much-needed respite from all things “schooley”.

Several weeks ago, I managed to have what I considered an uncommonly good, productive, well-rounded homeschool week–but by the end, the kids were fighting, cranky, and acting like next Monday’s lessons were so abhorrent as to have already ruined their weekend.

Burnout had struck. Even the most seasoned homeschoolers have to recognize that burnout happens with kids too, not just parents. What to do? Well, I am older and more mellow than I was, say, five years ago, and so I didn’t agonize over how to get them to focus on their Shakespeare (or worse, try to force them to do it arbitrarily)–I just quietly told the kids that it was clear to me that we all needed a break from schoolwork for awhile. My analytical oldest child pressed me for more information: “How long of a break? Do we still have to do math? Can we watch Netflix tomorrow morning?” and so on. Now, I am much more of a “ride-the-waves-of-inspiration” type of person, and so I didn’t want to set an arbitrary “back to schoolwork” date.

Instead, I tried to shift my focus toward joyful, cooperative living as a family, and figured we’d hit the books again once it no longer felt oppressive. I realize this is probably where some readers may see my non-Christian viewpoint peeking out from under the piles of books. Shouldn’t I be cultivating a respect for authority and creating deadlines for my kids to adhere to? What if they never want to think about math again, and gorge themselves mentally on “junk TV”?

Well, first off, I think that’s a load of bull. “If I let that kid watch TV, he’d do it all day long.” Math is unavoidable, and sometimes pretty interesting, or pretty, or interesting…..and I bet it’s even on Netflix somewhere. Anyway, what harm can possibly come from trying to consciously attempt to live more joyfully? Everything else must necessarily stem from a place of joy, or else it becomes drudgery–if not worse.
Homeschooled or not, I don’t want my kids to have uber math-whiz brains in exchange for even a week or two of rotten childhood memories. Would you want that? Really? Happiness is the priority, and as important as a good education is, our familial relationships should not suffer for it.
One of Charlotte Mason’s key concepts was that of Habit Training. (For the uninitiated, here’s a brief concept overview) I’m quite sure we don’t do this in the way that other, more religious/conservative homeschoolers might–but the core concept of habit training drives home the point that school time is about more than facts and figures, handwriting and memorization.

It’s about the cultivation of our minds, and the growth and development of our relationships. We are not raising children, but adults–and so when confronted with a problem, be it burnout, or something more simple or serious, I try to co-create solutions with my children, instead of against them.

Today, with no limits or structure imposed, my 8yr old was talking about herds of bison in pre-colonial America, and happily working in a Handwriting Without Tears book. My 11yr old was playing and laughing with his little brother, and yes, we watched some Netflix. It was surely what Charlotte Mason purists would call “twaddle”, but if Hello Kitty brings us closer as a family, I’m cool with that. People before things.