quick hit: doing one or two things correctly

It’s been three weeks and three days since we were informed one of our children had been sexually assaulted.

Today, already, my life looks almost normal. I eat, and sleep (ish). I laugh with friends, I do the work I’m supposed to do. I keep my volunteer commitments and I keep up my correspondence. I hug and kiss my husband goodnight every night.

My husband. Last week I sat in a meeting with a counselor and listened to Ralph talk about his feelings, his struggles. I looked at him and remembered the seventeen year old boy I used to mercilessly taunt-flirt with at the Dairy Queen window, his strong, beautiful hands against the drive-through sill, chipped nailpolish and floss-bracelets. Twenty years ago! I felt that pang, something plucked in my chest, that bit of sentimentality. In that moment, looking at him in the shabby office chair talking to this woman, this counselor, this stranger, I didn’t want him to have to go through what he was going through. I didn’t want to have to hear his pain. I wanted to leave the room. I had that weak moment.

It happens.

I suffered so much three weeks and three days ago I thought I’d die. I was surprised how much pain I was in. I was horrified to find that the feelings-experience of my faith left my body – like a spirit upon physical death. I had many correct thoughts, and those kept me putting one foot in front of the other. “This too shall pass.” “One day at a time.” I even called the right people. But my feelings were simply struck from my body. I said it the other day to friends: “In the space of a few moments, my trust in the Universe was bitch-slapped out of me.” Those first twenty four hours, when I couldn’t eat, when I was out of my mind, I took apart every human being on this planet who came into my consciousness. I was judge, jury, and executioner. I had thoughts of killing. I had thoughts of dying, of eliminating myself.

Something saved me from making poor decisions. I knew it was selfish to act on these thoughts, so I let the thoughts come and go.

I prayed a lot.

My profound distrust was perhaps the worst thing, so far, about the ordeal. And here’s what’s nails-on-the-chalkboard type of horror, if I let it be: the fact I never want to have that experience again does not mean one day it won’t come visiting – again.

I talked to some pretty smart people to talk to. I talked to my first sponsor, and she listened, and gave advice, and called me “sweetie”, and told me I was handling this better than she would have thought. She told me something that I grasped to my heart. “This didn’t happen to you. Don’t make it about you. Your child will be your teacher.” This struck sanity back into my body. I knew she was right and I was wrong.

I knew things. Thoughts came that were sanity, and I grasped them. Like: I knew my husband and children were not responding with such severity. I knew that I was going through this in part so I could help someone else, later. I knew I would forgive all those involved, that the forgiveness would happen, perhaps not today but not so far off. What a blessing it is to know these things! Like a drink of water to a parched throat. I could know something even if I wasn’t experiencing it at the moment.

A friend of mine said to me, “[Your experience of forgiveness] is happening fast.” I told her – I’ve been practicing. When life was good, I practiced. I worked on forgiveness, grappled with it, prayed over it. I was willing to do what it took to understand forgiveness because in my life, forgiveness is equated to survival.

All that practice kept me from doing something rash, terrible, unkind, foolish, or destructive. When the time came I had a fall-apart that didn’t hurt everyone around me.

In my faith tradition we don’t so much pray in the supplicative tradition so much as we voice aloud, kind of, wishes or blessings. “May you be safe, may you be healthy, may you be happy, may you be at peace.” I have these wishes for all those in my life – for myself, for my children, for my husband. For the perpetrator(s), for the victim(s), for my friends. For the law enforcement involved, for the advocacy personnel and the counselors.

I have these wishes, this blessing, for all reading here. For the world. I wish you this safety without one part of me holding back. But if it turns out you are not safe, or that one day peril comes, well now I’m here for you. Because I got through it – am getting through it – breathing in and out, sober –

Hell, even with a tiny bit of dignity.

putting children in their place

Unschooling Beach
Unschooling Beach
Unschooling Beach

My children Phoenix & Nels – having a typical “school day”

“I have used the words “home schooling” to describe the process by which children grow and learn in the world without going, or going very much, to schools, because those words are familiar and quickly understood. But in one very important sense they are misleading. What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children’s growth in the world is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn’t a school at all. ” - John Holt, Teach Your Own

It’s that time of year again. At a meeting recently a few acquaintances of mine caught up and compared notes as to how much their schedule is uprooted when their children are out on summer vacation, and how the new school year restores order. I (innocently enough, I swear!) shared aloud, “Our lives don’t change that much, because our kids don’t go to school.”

Immediately: one of those awkward record-scratch-at-a-party moments. The atmosphere in the room abruptly shifted and the talk suddenly fell silent. Then one woman sternly corrected me, literally giving me side-eye as she admonished: “Your kids go to school. They just do school at home.” Everything in her demeanor and tone was one of chastisement, likely (I know today) originating from fear. Quick, immediately assure me of The Order of Things so we can go back to pleasantly talking again. Or something like that.

This would be kind of funny, except it happens to me almost without fail now that I no longer let people off the hook by offering them their own perceptions – that is, by using the word “homeschooling”. The cumulative effect of so many acquaintances and strangers repeatedly correcting me about our family life is surreal. That is, people are more or less constantly telling me we’re living our lives in a way we are decidedly not.

When we first removed our children from forced institutionalism, I was nervous – as anyone might be – about departing from the mainstream. Like most parents and guardians, I wanted to do the right thing for our family. I personally had been a “success” in public school and then at a state university – yet now in untrodden ground I allowed others to put me in the extraordinary position of homeschool apologetics (a position I am underqualified for). And for a number of years when casual conversation brought up home education, or unschooling, or life learning, I thought the adults we were talking to had honest and founded doubts about how children learn. That is, I thought these adults’ objections, questions, assumptions, biases, and cynical commentary stemmed from their honest desire that children be given the best educational opportunity possible (“The Conversation That Never Happens”Life Learning Magazine July/August 2010).

However as years have passed and I’ve had hundreds of these conversations, I have come to a much more unsettling conclusion. Simply put, many adults believe with every fiber of their being that children belong in school. Full stop. Whether school is that great a place or not is not really the main issue on the table. Most adults simply don’t have better ideas for kids. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s that they’re overwhelmed. It is precisely because it is so daunting to face our responsibilities of caring for vulnerable citizens – draining emotionally, mentally, and physically – that many adults don’t want the job (be it children, older, frail or sick people, or anyone marginalized or oppressed). When it comes to the child class, we find comfort in our cultural arrangement that children are second-class citizens for us to herd like cattle (although few grownups will want to own up to this bleak strategy in such a direct manner). If you threaten the correctness of this arrangement – by say, merely living as a radical unschooler and not closeting – many people become quite upset. True story.

If they’re honest with themselves, many adults simply equate compulsory schooling as a type of cultural hazing, a necessary evil, and in a weird way justified simply because it exists. School isn’t too great, or sensible, or effective – and every one I’ve met can elucidate on long lists of the ways they personally found it dissatisfying - but it’s just How Things Are. They had to go through it, so today’s kids should too. As an operating strategy, many adults don’t want children to have much better than what they themselves had (but again, good luck getting a grownup to admit this!).

This makes it sound like I think these people, or even most people, are terrible. I used to think that, kinda, but I was incorrect. I now believe these people are merely frightened and overwhelmed. I used to be one of those people, so I can relate.

Most adults believe we should do the best by children that we can reasonable manage. However this desire – be it altruism, spiritual principles, or evolutionary strategy – has been consumed to skeletal remains by a lifetime of cultural indoctrination and in many cases, deep-seated shame and resentment. Rare indeed is the adult who, upon listening to our family’s experiences (or those of other life learners) and after observing our children – thriving, vibrant human beings who regularly get praised and commented upon regarding their maturity, intelligence, and inner strength – suddenly says, “Well then kids don’t need to go to school at all!” It happens now and then, and at that point our conversation immediately gets about four thousand times more interesting than, “But what about math?” – or, when speaking to my children – “How old are you?” and “What grade are you in?” (and those latter questions reflect the typical patter of grownups who actually think kids are worth talking to – many don’t!)

I wish these conversations, the ones where we imagine better opportunities for children, happened more often.

But instead, I am met with the same objections day after day, and the days pile into years, until now there is a general sameness to people’s objections and self-labeled “skepticism” (read: cynicism – also, some commentary at “Unschooling for Haters [...]“). As this adult begins to tell me why we can’t let kids A, B, or C because X, Y, or Z would surely result, they are on a predictable quest within their own deep country – that of their ingrained social conditioning and heretofore unexamined biases. While they voice aloud their predictions on how unschooling won’t or can’t work, their mind simultaneously closes to what is before their very eyes: a family with many years’ experience unschooling, two children who’ve not been forced into institutionalism – and who can speak up for themselves – and our collective experience knowing many, many other unschoolers.

It’s been pointed out to me that in moving from childhood to adulthood we experience one of the only, if not the only, instances where we are nearly guaranteed to move from a position of oppression to a position of privilege. The truth of this is worth contemplating. Unless we are very careful and very wise and very dedicated, we reify what was so heavily imposed on our own little bodies and our own terrific minds. A sobering thought: I can tell you I have worked very hard over the past decade to actively strip adultist framings from my consciousness. And yet to this day if I’m feeling cranky I will command my child(ren) in a completely terse tone, expecting in some part of me their obedience, apparently believing in these moments that such demands are my right and responsibility. (Tangentially, my children know they can say, “No” without reprisal – most children cannot.)

If I have worked harder on this UNlearning, harder than anything else in my life, and yet the irresistible oppressive reflex still remains indelible within – where does that leave your average adult who has examined the implications of childhood oppression only a little – or not at all?

“We who believe that children want to learn about the world, are good at it, and can be trusted to do it with very little adult coercion or interference, are probably no more than one percent of the population, if that. And we are not likely to become the majority in my lifetime. This doesn’t trouble me much anymore, as long as this minority keeps on growing. My work is to help it grow. ” - John Holt, ibid

I have to leave behind my sorrow that so many cannot, or will not see things for how they are, built upon pessimism and fear; let alone try the work of living a different way. It’s not so much hard work as it requires, like all honest effort, a continued return to the work. Faithfully. Daily. Each day I return to my desire to do no harm. I return to my practice of allowing my fears to inform me instead of driving me recklessly. I return to knowing I have a responsibility to help my children – not an edict to [try to] control them. Days of that effort accumulate; over time I have a body of work and a new way of living. It’s not magic – but then, having a few years under my belt – it kind of feels like it is.

I see today that from the moment my children were born I was not willing to subject them to what I was subjected to. Out of that willingness grew action, and out of that action grew not only love and stewardship as I’d not experienced as a child, but another gift: forgiveness for those who raised me in the ways they did. I am truly grateful for the practice, as it keeps me from despairing when our deep commitment to humane family life is often labeled “fringe”, radical, and strange.

unschooling for Haters, especially my favorite kind of Hater, the “skeptic”

Wynoochie River With Friends

a typical day for my kids

Hi. I’m a radical unschooler named Kelly! Listen, I feel ambivalent about labels. On one hand they are helpful for the human mind to process; on the other, the human mind invariably dredges up bias and preconceptions the minute it can label a thing. That’s just how it is. As an experienced unschooler, I thought I’d flesh out many of my encounters with those who hear the term “unschooling” for the first, second, or third time, and the biases so many continue to hold on to.

If you stop reading in a few seconds there is one takeaway I’d like to leave with you: the term “unschooling” means different things to different people. If nothing else, if you go about your day remembering that whenever you hear that word, it could mean something different than what you’ve previously perceived, EXCELLENT. My job is halfway decently done.

I’m actually not going to write tons on what unschooling and autodidactic learning looks like in our family. I write a bit about how our lives play out here and on my personal blog. I’m happy to answer any specific queries you have. You can reach me best by email at kelly AT hogaboom DOT org.

I hope what you read here is helpful.

Unschooling For Haters, Especially My Favorite Kind of Hater, the “Skeptic”

or, how my family life is not all about YOU, but thanks for playing

I resent your choice of words. I’m not a Hater, but I am a skeptic. My cousin unschools and her kids are noisy/dirty/can’t read etc.

On balance, skepticism never helped me much. It didn’t make me smarter, kinder, nor gave me a roadmap to life. A lot of time my skepticism was actually just a barrier I put up because other people’s lives, ideas, strategies, or existence frightened me deep down in the pit of my gut (for me that wall-building action is part of… being a Hater). I understand it’s human to be frightened of the unknown but any strategy – including one of perception and thought – that I develop out of that place is usually a poor one.

Anyway I’m sorry but I think unschooling is irresponsible/neglectful/elitist/etc.

I think contempt prior to investigation is irresponsible. I think you should come to my house and hang out with my kids – or give them a call or email and talk to them directly – before you decide I’m neglecting them. As for elitist, this might make more sense if I didn’t passionately and consistently work with, and know of many other unschoolers who work with, many schooled children, and if we weren’t learning in a much deeper way how to participate in public life, rather than being daily confined to age-segregated institutional procedures. In short, any of these charges might make any kind of sense if unschooling didn’t, you know, work so well at increasing our sense of humanity and our experience of community.

(Oh, and I know you’re not really “sorry”. But, that’s cool.)

Well that’s just my opinion and it’s a free country.

I have a little experiment. Let me ask: is your opinion defensible enough you’d warrant it’s worth five dollars? I mean after all, your opinion influences the choices and realities of so many, and you’re deciding what’s best for like, tens of millions of children (in the US alone). So, are you willing to back up your opinion? Listen to Jeff Sabo’s talk addressing the hundred varieties of “it’s just my opinion and I have a right to have it” conversations he’s had. It will be money well spent. Promise.

I went to school and I turned out fine.

Really? Are you “fine”? I went to school too. I’m “fine”. I smoked for 17 years and I’m “fine”. Is “fine” what you want for your children? And mine? Do you begrudge the parents and carers who might want to explore beyond “fine”?

I went to school and I turned out fine. Kids need discipline.

If you can look deep, deep, deep inside your guts, inside your Knowing Place, and tell me you have absolutely no bitterness at the thought of today’s children having a better life and more freedom, autonomy, and opportunity than you had as a child, I mean if you can really dig in there and tell me that’s not even a tiny part of why you want to force kids into school, then I am willing to entertain that line of thought.

If you know that’s not a part of how you feel, please do read some of Idzie’s blog. She has a great resource, interviews with many grown unschoolers.

On the subject of compulsory schooling being requisite for character development; my unschooled children age eight and ten demonstrate more discipline, sense of self-worth, self-control, kindness, openness, interest, critical thinking skills, and social abilities than most grownups I meet. Full stop.

And briefly: discipline is an inside job. You cannot inoculate a child with discipline no matter how much you coerce, praise, blame, hit, scream at. You do, however, run the risk of creating a praise-dependent, risk-averse, and fearful person.

I’m glad I went to school. I learned blah blah blah

I’m glad I went to school too. I learned wonderful things there, including the experience of forced institutionalism for young minds and bodies. If things had gone differently, I’d probably tell you I was glad to have been unschooled; but we’ll never know, as I wasn’t given the choice to NOT attend school. I think it’s pretty cool my kids get to choose. I won’t be haunted I didn’t let them. My grandkids, should I be so fortunate to have any, will probably get more choices and more nurture still.

Addendum: I used to be someone who took a great deal of pride in my degree, my education, and my soi disant expertise. You know, having those letters before or after your name, having an office with a big important desk and stuff. When I had children I fully planned on raising them academically-achieving, clean and well-mannered, etc. Problem is, when you decide for another human being how they should spend every minute, and how they should act/look/behave (even if you don’t admit to yourself you’re doing this), there will be intensely unpleasant fallout. For everyone. I’m grateful I started to perceive this early on in parenting.

No one stripped my degree from me and no one can take away my accomplishments (real or imagined). Today I willingly relinquish the illusion my education, my position in society, and my privilege make me a better or more deserving person.

If I didn’t make my kid/forbid my kid to X, Y, or Z he would A, B, C (eg. watch TV all day, never bathe, ONLY eat cookies, et cetera).

Yeah. As an unschooler, I hear that stuff a lot. Often from people who don’t ask us if our children watch telly all day, or eat only marshmallows and white rice (they don’t, to either). Most fear-disguised-as-anger, handwringing, and pearl-clutching about unschooling or non-coercive/non-punitive parenting comes down to just a few issues. Screen time (computers and television), bedtime (on the adults’ schedule of course especially since a school schedule is required), hygiene, math worksheets, and food. I can tell you I’m grateful to have left behind mainstream schema on all of that business. My kids’ hygiene is fine, they are active, they eat all kinds of food, they get enough sleep, they have mad life SKILLZ, et cetera.

You’re saying I’m a bad parent.

I haven’t met a “bad parent”. I’ve met sick parents, parents who were lost and overwhelmed. I’ve met parents who’d entirely abdicated their responsibilities. I’ve met parents who chose their addiction over their children (usually not even knowing they were doing so). I’ve met parents who parented with strategies different than mine. I’ve met many, many parents. I’ve never met a “bad parent”.

You’re saying I’m a bad parent.

No, I’m not. Do you think you’re a bad parent? What, specifically, do you have doubts about? Are you seeking help for those or are you surrounding yourself with strategies of Ego-preservation? Why do you care what I think? Your opinion matters more than mine; if not, it should.

You’re making me feel bad.

That is not my intent. This is not all about you. If you can put aside this experience of persecution for a moment, understand this: if others hadn’t written boldly about this non-mainstream way of parenting and living family life, I would have never had a choice of my own to parent a way that has yielded tremendous dividends. I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to those people, and I’d like to pay forward to other parents and children. I’m sure you can understand.

Well this is all fine for YOU but I’m not ______ enough to homeschool (rich, brave, smart, educated, patient, etc).

I’ve met parents with disabilities, mental and emotional health issues, single parents, poor parents, impatient parents, chronically-ill parents, who homeschooled and/or unschooled. I myself used to think I could never hang out with my kids all day, good Lord I needed a break! I’m so glad I faced my fears; I had everything to gain.

I don’t have to defend myself to you or anyone else. 

Nope. You don’t. And you also have the option not to take the piss re: other people’s lives. If you were really relatively serene about your own parenting style, why would you need to pick on others’?

Listen. I’m not the unschool police. I don’t have the right nor responsibility to come to your house and see what you’re doing and hit you with a cat-o-nine tails. No one does. You might be beating yourself up a little but I can assure you I’m not beating you up. There’s nothing I can do about your skepticism and/or rudeness and/or ignorance and/or self-doubt, although sometimes I wish I could. Your judgment and your fears are affecting others’ realities.

Good luck!

 

the personal: how the fuck did i ever survive being a new mama?

This post is dedicated to my friend Kiara, a kick-ass mother.

Please No Thank You

A few years ago my mother announced she had a complaint. When she came over to pick my two kids up for the odd playdate (a less-than-once-weekly occurrence), they weren’t always fully dressed. “Can you make sure to have them in coats and boots in case I want to take them somewhere? It was terrible today as I wanted to take them on a walk and we couldn’t.” She was actually mildly pissed.

The blood rose in my cheeks as I experienced, lightning-fast, a series of emotions. Shame, because I failed as a mother, of course, by not having My Shit Together 100% Of The Time (and also, my small children’s Shit Together, that too is requisite), then a mixed-up flaring of resentment, impotent rage, and despair. The same old despair I’ve felt in every restaurant when my two year old’s happy laughter received glares, in every mom’s playdate group when women would talk about their duty to do all the nighttime parenting because, of course, their husbands did “real work” during the day and shouldn’t have to care for their own children at night, the same despair I’d hear when people sneeringly spoke of “soccer moms” and “housewives” and their opting-out and how it destroyed Feminism plus America, et cetera. I could go on.

The despair was so familiar it just made me tired. Here I was, 24/7 with two small children, working my ass off around the clock, around the clock, to feed and clothe them, often without being able to eat or take a crap by myself – let alone have quality private time to reflect and pursue my art and craft, or to read, or to watch some trashy television uninterrupted – and yet someone who comes over every two weeks to take my kids for an hour or two can’t be bothered to spend five minutes finding jackets and boots? What the fuck, mom? Don’t you remember having kids and having to do everything, all the time?

It gets better, because before I could say anything at all my husband assily weighed in. “Yeah, I notice sometimes when I get home from work the kids aren’t fully dressed.”

FUUUUCKK YOOOOUUU. Just: Fuck You.

That’s what I thought, anyway. What I said, I can’t remember. I think it was something like: if you want to go on walks with your grandkids, keep spare coats at your place. Husband, do you not remember your one year at home and how much work it was to care for small children, P.S. you only had ONE to care for at the time and you only did it for ONE year. I don’t remember what I said; I only knew I had the presence of mind to stick up for myself relatively politely. Because: yeah, it would be nice if the kids were fully dressed whenever was convenient for, you know, other adults, and if I was on that 100%. But it would be even better if other grownups understood that caring for babies and small children is demanding on every plane – spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical – and the primary carer needs as much help as he or she can get. Have a little grace, people.

You know, 99% of the help I received as a new mother- and I am not exaggerating here – was from other new mothers (and occasionally, some veteran moms). Full stop. Looking back on this I feel despair for how undersupported we were – and many of these women were middle-class and college-educated, with a variety of privileges, et cetera – and how this culture of “moms can do everything [& therefore they better damn will]!” stunts the humanity of so many who haven’t had the opportunity nor responsibility of 24/7 care of a dependent. Shit, during infancy and toddlerhood I can count on one hand the times a friend without children watched my kids for more than five minutes. And a father, without his wife or female partner helping – including my OWN father? ZERO. Motherfucking zero! My own brother and sister have never watched my kids nor hosted them for a playdate or sleepover, with one exception a few years ago when my daughter hung at my brother’s house for a couple hours while I caught up at a bar with a friend about to get married.

I know what you’re thinking. Well, those of you readers who are jerks, anyway. The world doesn’t owe me anything because I hatched a few kids. You’re right. The world owes me and my children nothing, I suppose. But then, the world didn’t owe you anything, either, when you were a baby and infant. Right? Good thing someone gave and gave and gave and gave, no matter how half-assed or whatever! Looking ahead, presumably the world won’t owe you anything should you live a long life and see your body fail with age, or should you become disabled or dependent in any way. Yup. Nobody owes anyone nothing, right?  What a lovely little world that is you’ve dreamed up.

What some of you other readers are thinking, is: new moms are goddamned heroes. And  they are! The women who helped me when I needed help, are the absolute keystones in my faith in humanity. The only regret I have – the only one! – is I didn’t ask for more help when I needed it. See, I was operating on that whole Self-Sufficient, Perfect Mom thing. It is an absolutely debilitating meme to live by, and the children involved suffer more than anyone else.

Now, I’m aware my experience isn’t universal (it is, however, visceral, as you can probably tell by my writing style here). I’ve had things easier, & harder, than others.

In some ways I’ve been rather privileged. I’ve always had enough to eat and always had a home. I was raised by a family that, while definitely idiosyncratic, demonstrated a lot of love for one another (and yeah, just so you know… I’m a lot easier on my mom and my husband, today, now that I respect my own needs more). I’m a white working class woman, married to a white man, the father of my children. I’m cis-gender and occasionally have passing privilege as middle class. I’m not physically disabled and I’ve had an actively invested partner, however brilliant or poor his strategies as a father have been.

But on the flip side, I know there are many new mothers out there who receive or received support from not only their partner but many people in the community – not just other new moms. I think this is far more rare than it should be, but I know that this is some women’s experience. And for several of the years I was parenting I also was battling the disease of active alcoholism – a subject for another writing some day – and the resultant and root mental and emotional health issues, which I will briefly say kept me in the veil of Self-Sufficent, suffering mama. In other words, I didn’t ask for nor accept help as much as would have benefitted me. I would have told you I was supported just fine. I would have told you I had it covered. I was determined to be a Good Parent and raise Good Kids.

My kids are ten and eight today and not a day goes by people don’t try to place their every behavior – and their education, and their clothing, and their social niceties or lack thereof – as an issue that should be addressed directly to me, their mother, because you know it’s All My Business to control, basically. And I say, No. I can’t live that way any more.

It is an act of radical feminism that I no longer allow people to push me around on this noise; that if someone has a complaint regarding my child’s behavior (which is rare), whenever possible, I arrange for them to discuss it with the child. It is an act of radical feminism that I “let” my kids go begging at my mother’s for food – which they do on occasion – because, if she doesn’t want to feed them, she has the right and responsibility to say “No” just as I have and exercise a similar right and responsibility regarding the other children in my neighborhood, when I don’t have the groceries or time to spare. It is an act of radical feminism I “let” my kids dress as they see fit, I “let” them cuss, and I “let” my kids have their own life, so I can watch it unfold and, when it seems needed or warranted, I step in to help them.

Because as their mother I am their nurturer, advocate, and Helper. I am not their Warden nor their Jiminy Cricket; they need their own conscience, their own spirituality. It is an act of radical feminism I no longer apologize for my children or for bringing them on this planet; it is a sheer act of Will that I don’t operate from this place. You think mothers aren’t indoctrinated with this? You’d be wrong.

I still don’t have the ovaries to send my kids on the Amtrak down to their uncle’s place in Portland and say, “Hang out with them for a few days, your future family life could benefit.” I still feel that sting of Obligation when I see the kids’ socks are worn-through because their father doesn’t track that stuff (because he knows I will). I’m not perfect as a mother, nor as a feminist.

I don’t resent the help I didn’t get – anymore. Honestly, I don’t. I just feel sad about it. Sad my family and friends – and larger culture! – couldn’t do better, because they were scared and self-protective and selfish. Sad about my inability to ask for help, because I was full of pride and fear. I’m sad about my history, but no longer ashamed or angry. Today one thing I can do about my past – hustling my ass to be the Perfect Mother and never letting my kids make mistakes, nor allowing myself this courtesy – is help other children and carers, especially mothers. I can open doors and smile at them and show compassion when their child is melting down in the grocery store. I can tell them, You Aren’t Imagining It when they tell me they feel unsettled, overworked, and under-appreciated. I can tell them, obliquely or directly – you don’t have to apologize for being a child, or a mother who cares for a child.

Not on my account, anyway.

Creepitude!

My mom “nurses” a creepy alien baby at the Art Festival.

"Do Your Job"

My son & I.

Film Feministe: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?

It's racially refreshing!

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? (1967) . spoilers.

A plot synopsis: Old-line liberals Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) have raised their daughter Joey (Katharine Houghton) to think for herself and not blindly conform to the conventional. Still, they aren’t prepared for the shock when she returns home from a vacation with a new fiancé: African-American doctor John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). While they come to grips with whatever prejudices they might still harbor, the younger folks must also contend with John’s parents (Roy Glenn Sr. and Beah Richards), who are dead-set against the union.

I was born in 1977, ten years after this film debuted. Interracial marriage has been legal, if not necessarily sanctioned or socially-accepted, my entire lifetime. I am white and I have lived on the West Coast my entire life, in mostly white environs (tempered a bit with Latino and Native American non-white families). I was raised by a soi disant “progressive” family and the subtle (and less subtle) internalized racist, patriarchal, heterosexist, and adultist attitudes typical in these kinds of families. While not relating entirely to the social class of the Drayton family – “self-made” upper class – I could relate to the “old-line liberal” family values they were imbued with.

Besides my family environs, I was raised in a so-called “post-racial” America. I was taught in school that racial issues were mostly a thing of the past. You could look up these troubles in a book, then shut the book and you didn’t have to think about it any more. I was taught not only a colorblind approach to solving problems, but also a colorblind way of looking at the world (I’ve written a tiny bit about that before). I was taught being called a “racist” was shockingly hurtful, hurtful enough we defensively denied any such charge rather than approaching it with openness and curiosity. Our own white privilege required that other people were “racists”. Any suggestion we might have these attitudes was met with staunch (or angry) defensiveness. I was raised in an era where people sneered at the concept of “political correctness”, a backlash that, curious enough, continues today.

It wasn’t pretty, but it’s where I came from. And for a few minutes, I want to talk about the film a little bit.

Popular film critic Roger Ebert says a lot of good things about the work, and I agree with much he said. (My advice? Stop reading, watch the film, read his review, then read mine.) Like Ebert I also didn’t find the contrived deadline all that contrived, given the framework and usual limitations of cinematic storytelling (although I could have used at least one character pointing out that, indeed, everyone involved had been given ample time to make their mind up about the issue at hand, i.e. their lifetimes leading up to this evening). I didn’t mind the “perfect” Poitier character although I think roles like this deserve some examination within our cultural context.

Along with the contrived plot “deadline” comes the contrived grouping, within the course of the evening, of several duos and trios of all the involved individuals – the domestic worker, the family’s spiritual counselor, both sets of parents, and the intended bride and groom. The movie moved through several of these conversations as each character stated his or her case – in formal language or the most familiar private talk – to one another. Again, this contrivance irritated me far less than what, as it came to pass, it left out (more in a minute).

Now unlike Ebert, I found the study scene between Jr. and Sr. Prentice not only unobjectionable, but absolutely beautiful. I grant the validity of Ebert’s points that within the film one father (the black one) is framed as “lesser” than the other (the white one). However, it is the moment between parent and child that moved me. To me this scene captured the boldness and heartbreak at the moment a child deliberately turns aside from the values of a dearly-loved parent, to make his own future. As both a grown child and a parent myself, this scene – the one my brother cited to me the other day, inspiring me to view the film – hit me in the gut. I’ll transcribe a bit of it here, where Prentice (the son) speaks in refutation to Prentice (the father’s) stated – and very real – sacrifices:

“Listen to me. You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life? What do you think you’ve been doing?

“You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got… and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me.

“Let me tell you something.

“I owe you nothing.

“If you carried that [mail] bag a million miles, you did what you were supposed to do, because you brought me into this world, and from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me. Like I will owe my son, if I ever have another.”

Now if only - if only – the film had managed a similarly spirited conversation where (white) daughter Joey puts her (white) father – the lynchpin in the romance – in his place.

The film generally contained a lot of incredibly human moments – and some wonderfully frank conversations. The performances were at turns subtle and lovely, then dramatic and heavy-handed. Hepburn was, of course, beautiful and glamorous, and her campy but rapier-like sendoff of a rude coworker was a bit of gooey deliciousness.

However, there was something that bothered me about the film, and that was the capital-P patriarchy, which is not challenged by the work – except in the abovementioned father and son impassioned talk, where a black father is chastized – one iota. For one thing, despite the above plot synopsis’ error, both the daughter and the two mothers are for the marriage. They are the voices of gentleness, passion, and optimism, but at the same time, the film lets us know it is not their voices that are going to count.

And along this line, every single character’s opinions, feelings, and interactions brings us to the film denoument, except one crucial interaction – the father Drayton, put in the position of deciding his daughter’s future happiness – and his daughter herself. And at the end of the film we have a speech: the Old White Dude that gets to decide everything, and gets to bless everything (or not), and sums up everyone’s feelings and dresses down every individual there (including telling his daughter to “shut up”), going on at lengths as to how he’s been insulted. Finally (and predictably) he gives his twinkly-eyed pedantic blessing, everyone sighs in happiness at this wonderful wonderful man, and he shouts at the black domestic worker to get dinner served. This is, literally, how the film ends.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed much of the film. I thought it refreshing and funny (the daughter’s early line, “He thinks you’re gonna faint because he’s a Negro” made me laugh aloud), human and sweet. But in a film meant to be socially significant, loving, and even a bit sappy, we’re still firmly reminded of who sanctions, and should sanction, our future, progressive or no: big white daddy.

So tell me. Is that how things really are?

I welcome feedback; email me your responses if you’d like them published them here. kelly AT hogaboom DOT org.

posted without comment, re: Salon. OK. Maybe a TINY bit of comment.

2 Chocolate Milks

Chocolate Milk!

I was cited in an article on Salon today discussing home education (“Home-schooled and illiterate” by Kristin Rawls, Salon.com March 15, 2012). In the interests of informing any advocates or interested parties regarding unschooling, homeschooling, alternative education, parenting, etc. – as well as friends and readers – here is the entireity of the exchange between myself and the author.
 
I received this email on March 2nd 2012, which was I believe mostly copied and pasted:
 
So, thanks for agreeing to talk to me.  I only know fundamentalists who homeschool, and I’m willing to admit that, for that reason, I’m a bit biased against it. I would do it myself in certain cases if I had children, but I’m skeptical of homeschooling or unschooling as a “movement.” I’ve only spoken with Christian fundamentalist or former fundamentalists who were homeschooled in Quiverfull families. They tell me that their parents had an extreme fear of any government oversight whatsoever, and now think their parents’ fears were overblown and gave them a warped view of the world outside their small communities. This article is about what kinds of regulation homeschoolers actually have to deal with, notwithstanding the paranoia about it on the Christian Right.
 
1. Could you tell me a bit about the type of state oversight that you have experienced as an unschooling parent? What were the requirements? Did you have to do portfolios or list a curriculum? What about standardized tests?
 
2. Do you feel that the oversight was overly intrusive in any way? If so, how? Was it merely annoying bureaucracy? Or did you experience it as more ominous than that?
 
3. In brief, why did you decide to homeschool?
 
4. In hindsight, what do you view as some of your successes and/or mistakes as a homeschooling/unschooling parent? And what kind of impact did these have on your kids’ education?
 
5. Some homeschooling parents neglect their kids’ education. I’ve heard horror stories from the Christian homeschooling movement over the past few days. One girl was functionally illiterate when she entered the public school system at 16, and there were no disabilities that made learning difficult for her. She was just fine once she got into a rigorous educational program and caught up. One woman tells me that there was very little emphasis on education at all since homemaking skills were viewed as the most important education for girls. She never got past pre-algebra, which I remember doing in the sixth grade. So I’m very curious – have you seen any of this kind of neglect happen in the secular homeschooling world? If not, do you think it could happen in the wake of new stressors (moving around, illness in the family, etc.)? How do you guard against getting overwhelmed by life and letting education go?

 
6. Given the kind of neglect that many in the Christian homeschooling world experience, what kinds of regulations do you think should to be in place? Should a home educator have a college degree? A teaching degree? What kind of education or training is needed? Should curriculum be more strictly regulated so that, for example, young earth creationism doesn’t replace science? And that Bible-reading and home economics don’t take the place of academics?
 
7. Have you ever been investigated by the legal system for truancy? I’ve heard of a few cases of this involving Christian homeschoolers, but I wonder if it happens to other homeschoolers as well? Have you ever known anyone who was arrested or jailed for neglect involving homeschooling? Christian/secular? How do you feel about the current state laws in place to investigate neglect? And do you think conservative Christians’ fears of investigation are valid or not?
 
8. Have you ever had anything to do with the Homeschool Legal Defense Association? Does this organization serve non-Christian homeschoolers in any capacity?
 
9. LOGISTICS: What state(s) have you lived in while homeschooling? How many years did you homeschool, and through what grades? I assume it’s okay to quote you by name since you write under your real name?

Here’s my response:
 
Hi Kristin,
 
Wow, what a complex and multifaceted topic! This would be best discussed in person over coffee. But, you know, you’re in NC and I’m in rainy PNw, so there’s that!
 
I’m going to decline participation in the questionnaire, but thank you for emailing me. I do have a few things to add which you may or may not find useful.
 
First, homeschooling and unschooling mean vastly different things to different families who self-identify as such. Those of us in the so-called alternative education world are used to being treated with a broad-brush, unfortunately. It’s always my hope a more nuanced piece might emerge in the MSM, but so far that’s been rare.
 
Like yourself, I too had not only anti-homeschooling bias but a deep fear of religious fundamentalism and an erroneous belief state institutions could and should stamp it out. And, ha, I also remember the revulsion I first felt when I read the term “unschooling” (as in, I remember the room I was in and everything – years and years ago!). Myself, college-educated (chemical engineering) and a straight-A student who would’ve said I enjoyed school had you asked, “unschooling” sounded like dirty hippie neglect (I’m not trying to be offensive… I had an unkind mind at the time. Also, I was raised by hippies. In a bus with planets painted on the side, and everything.). Hee. I was also under the erroneous impression that unschooling (or life learning, or autodidacticism, or whatever label is most fun to use) was a “movement” or a new trend; it’s not.
 
So I can relate to a lot of where many people come from, when they write me.
 
Secondly, the 2010 Swidler article I referenced in my article (“a blueprint for courage”, which you seem to have read at least parts of) - http://www.naturallifemagazine.com/1002/unschoolers_re-imagine_schools.htm - addresses some of the concerns you sent my way via Twitter, and also fields typical objections self-labeled progressives/liberals have to home education. Swidler’s article also cites some of the culturally-popular myths in the US – specifically that alternatives to compulsory schooling are primarily religious families (and religious home ed families are, of course, the Boogeyman), and that those who do not send their own children to institutions have therefore turned their back on schooled children and schooling families. Like I said, the topic is complex, and Swidler’s is one piece that’s kind of a go-to seminal piece for those new to secular/progressive home ed.
 
Additionally, I found a few authors tremendously helpful in overcoming my own anti-homeschooling/anti-unschooling bias. Idzie Desmarais’ blog, http://yes-i-can-write.blogspot.com/, and Wendy Priesnitz’ work (easily available online) are two of my favorites; today I have the privilege of working with these women. I’ve written for their publications as well as a few others, full disclosure, although I am not paid to do so.
 
If you are serious about learning more, there are so many resources on the internet. My advice is, don’t sell yourself short, and read the best of the bunch! :-)
 
If you’re interested, I am @kellyhogaboom on Twitter, and @underbellie as well (more social wellbeing stuff than personal tweets). My kids are on Twitter as well – you can always write my daughter @phoenixhogaboom – who turns 10 today, yay! – if you have any questions as to her experiences! I get a laugh how many grownups enjoy talking amongst themselves about what’s best for children. :-)
 
I saw your tweets on Rush [Limbaugh, re: Sandra Fluke]… and a few others alluding to his latest public comments. Do I even want to KNOW what he’s said this time? #assery *headdesk*
 
Good luck in writing your article! :-)
 
Kelly
 
***
 
No personal communication thereafter.
 
***
 
Ms. Rawls got two things wrong about me in the Alternet/Salon piece. One, that I was “irritated” by the exchange (I wasn’t). Two, that Underbellie is a “popular home-schooling blog” (it’s neither a popular blog nor a home-schooling one!).
 
And finally, anecdotally, obviously I am not addressing the Salon article’s content here, for a variety of reasons. What’s funny is, a few minutes ago the kids and I were at Homeschooling Sports at the Y – populated almost entirely by religious home educators, and tons of kids laughing and playing – and I was really amazed at all the curriculum-talk there. Kinda funny in juxtaposition to the Salon piece.
 
Hello new readers! I actually haven’t written much here at Underbellie regarding homeschooling and/or autodidactic education and/or unschooling, but I write about our day-to-day lives quite a bit on my own blog – kelly.hogaboom.org.
 
Toodles, my lovely readers!

a blueprint for courage

ed. note – I receive no compensation in any form for links provided here or at my journal, kelly.hogaboom.org.

Phoenix +  Harris = Lurve

We are only a few days away from moving from our two bedroom rental into a larger one. The new home features lower rent, a reduced utilities bill, and sits next door to my mother’s house. My husband, children and I are happily painting, cleaning, and preparing for our new circumstances. That said, I have a fondness for the house we are leaving. I am enjoying its relatively serene space all the more as I come home after an evening painting, scrubbing, and trying not to over-think, over-plan, or over-worry.

It was in my early days in this current home I first found the motherlode of support for raising children in the autodidactic tradition (or as I shall shorthand the practice here, “unschooling” or “life learning”). And as we pack up the place, those memories are exhilarating in the recall – but now comfort-worn by my years’ experience, and my gratitude to the many individuals who’ve helped, and continue to help, along the way.

My husband and I started our children early in the tradition of institutional education. We’d taken part in playschools since the kids were nine months and two weeks, respectively. We were one of those, “give your kids every advantage” families – like most parents or carers are, regardless of what particular strategies they employ –  so we continued in the tradition I was raised in, believing academic success and so-called “socialization” to be the two brass rings of Good Parenting. We also believed it was our civic duty to participate in public schooling. After all, I’d had a pleasant enough experience in school, and I had the straight-As and the engineering degree to support my “success” story.

Playschool was fun for most everyone in the family, but by the time I was volunteering twice-weekly in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom (as it happened, I was the only parent who did) my views on institutionalized and compulsory education were changing. I perceived many hazards and shortfalls and, increasingly, I intuited fewer advantages. As for tangible, culturally-supported motivations – such as a second income to say, pay our bills and/or have running cars, let alone provide me with Social Security – even these did not outweigh my increasing desire for a different life for our little family. It would actually be an overlong article were I to list the many things I found lacking in (first) the public school, and then, as I investigated further, any compulsory schooling model within our reach (let alone the lifestyle required, which I could write pages on). Ultimately I came to a mindset of, YOU make your case to ME as to why I should require my kids to school. So far I’ve not heard a compelling answer nor experience an unmet need, and I’ve listened intently to many arguments over the years.

So in 2008 we stepped out of the relatively comfortable, and culturally-supported, public school experience. At first it was a bit harrowing as, since I’m the Mommy, I was tasked with TEACHING MY OWN CHILDREN, horrors. I had binders full of lesson plans and a Google Calendar set up with subjects we’d cover. Most people left me alone about the venture or even praised me, figuring I was, basically, smart enough to go about it (I only footnote here my culturally-afforded privilege as a white, working-class, college-educated cisgender married woman with a university degree, a home, and no visible disability). With my husband’s enthusiastic support and participation we dove into the “brave” world of homeschooling.

At this point I’d been exposed to the concept of “unschooling”, but it still sounded like a craven mess to my ignorant yet somehow biased thought-life. However as the kids and I did our thing, I became less and less satisfied with the very school-y model I knew how to employ to instruct my children. As I see it, the model I knew is typical and two-fold. First, we tell our children what to think, believe, and parrot (within a narrow range of “acceptable” beliefs and thoughts, all the while giving lipservice to freedom and “critical thinking”). Second, we motivate them using praise and its counterpart, emotional pain – in other words, “you can’t eat your pudding if you don’t have your meat!” (it’s true, if you look deep enough into what is really happening). Initially as a homeschooler I wasn’t doing much different than the enterprise I’d removed our children from, even if the environs were a lot healthier in most ways.

It was at this time I found, somehow, Wendy Priesntiz’s publications Life Learning Magazine and Natural Life Magazine* and began reading there – as well as many authors and blogs referenced, and the books, articles and blogs tangentially-linked to those. At the time, specifically with regards to Priesnitz’s pieces, I found validation of truths I’d felt deep inside since I was a child. To wit: that “absorb, regurgitate, & be graded” methods of education were superficial and ineffective. To wit, that children shouldn’t be treated as cattle nor capitalist fodder for the United States’ edifices of consumerism and consumption (forces I like to jokingly reference as Jack Handey’s monster: “trampling and eating everything it sees”). To wit, my suspicion that what  many adults wanted a great deal from children was to be able to control their movements and especially their behaviors and especially their thoughts and beliefs. Deep-down I knew it wasn’t possible nor intelligent to demand “respectful” behavior from children while we robbed them of their agency and basic human rights (these demands for “respect” yield spoiled fruit; I’m reflecting on last year’s bullycides and the many angry and frightening responses from grownups; also the recent public cheers when a father publicly destroyed his “disrespectful” daughter’s laptop with a firearm). The fact adults scream – and hit – for “respect” from children is something I occasionally feel a sense of deep embarrassment-by-proxy about.

All of these things – things I “knew in my knowing place” – were given voice by someone thousands of miles away, with decades more experience. I can’t fully express the excitement and possibility that began to open up for me those few days. Those experiences were a cornerstone as I continued to read and relate with other authors, professionals, parents, carers, teachers, and adults with an avocation and passion for our children.

The exercised right to raise one’s children without putting them in an institution continues to draw fire, myriad subtle or blatant slings and arrows. Most of these arguments, primarily, reduce down to our culturally-indoctrinated reflexive desire to control children’s lives, emotions, thoughts and expressions, and physical movements. The latest anti-homeschooling piece referenced in my tweetstream comes from Slate (“Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids”, February 16, 2012), trotting out the “if you’re progressive you owe it to society to put your kids in the public school system” argument. And you know, this was a view I once held myself not so long ago, so I relate. In my case, Eva Swidler’s piece in 2010 was seminal in articulating the fallacies inherent in the argument that participating in the system with your child’s fulltime lived reality is the only ethical thing to do (after all, there are many ways to support schooled kids, even if you do not have children or your children do not attend school – and Swidler’s eloquence, I might add, addresses this beautifully). Other good refutions have emerged recently, specifically challenging the popular concept that compulsory state-run schooling is a major ameliorating force fighting socioeconomic disparities and systemic oppressions.

The expectation of, and massive mainstream pressure to, institutionalize children is a new experiment in terms of humanity. But from the beginning I’ll bet you’d find this argument of civic duty: “You owe it to _____ agenda to participate [in this exact way]!” Personally I think many who frame forced school attendance for children as the only way to be civic-minded and ethical are merely, if they were to examine their root feelings, scared. Arguing that home educating parents are cloistering their children and telling their children who exactly to trust is not only a logic fail in one way (as if sending them to school without right of veto isn’t telling them who to trust), but also fails on an even deeper level – because children actually decide who to trust, as much as some people don’t want to admit this (I trusted School, by the way… the problems I later had are the subject of another article). Many won’t entertain the concept children have the capacity and the right to have a regarded and significant voice in their own daily lives. And dare I say, those most fearful are likely those of us with a series of gold stars attached to our name by virtue of the educational system.

My children’s forty hours a week times thirteen+ years is pretty important to me – and to them. When I find the institutional proponent who speaks of children as anything other than chattel (or cattle), subhumans (check out popular language describing teenagers if you’ve the stomach for it), requisite products and/or extensions of our own values, or capitalist investments, I’ll listen all the more intently. Most proponents operate from the perspective children are second-class citizens, that we know what’s best for them, and they couldn’t possibly learn if we stopped relying on desks, tests, and doled-out potty-breaks.

I provide my children, and the schooled children who frequent my home, with safety, emotional and physical nourishment, and a great deal of autonomy. And the practice grows up some pretty good kids.

Look, my theories that articles such as the latest on Slate, or examples like the vitriolic and lengthy tirade “HOMESCHOOLING IS CHILD ABUSE” (actual title from a self-identified college professor), are primarily fear-based? I could be incorrect. What I can say with confidence is I was a school-achiever and school-believer – and I was fearful at first. I was scared to commit to the supposed “huge” responsibility of educating my children. Scared of relinquishing (the illusion of) control by exploring, by merely entertaining the idea of, autodidactic family life. I was scared of not playing the “more income=more happiness” game, even though my logical mind told me we had a roof over our head and enough coal to burn. I was scared of doing something different than the herd and having my family life interfered with by the State (that’s a founded fear, by the way). I was scared of being told I wasn’t doing what “everyone else” thought I should (again, a founded fear, also reinforced by school, incidentally).

Mostly I was scared of giving up (the illusion of and) the practice of Control.

I look as deeply as I can into articles regarding children’s education and parenting, and those are the fears I see.

I live in gratitude for those who went before me and mapped out a blueprint for courage. As we pack up this home to move to another, the memories are pretty sweet.

***

“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” – Audre Lorde

A Free Service
Coffee Date w/Emily

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* both helmed by Wendy and Rolf Priesnitz, with over thirty years’ experience in the fields of life learning, writing, social activism, and publishing. Full disclosure; I’ve written a few pieces for these publications, including one published here – “the conversation t hat never happens”.

part 2 (.Tenderness.)

Nels, Pensive

Few insights gained in the last twenty years are so securely established as the realization that what we do to children when they are small – good things and bad things – will later form part of their behavioral repertoire. Battered children will batter others, punished children will act punitively, children lied to will become liars themselves, protected children will learn to be protective, and respected children will learn to respect others weaker than themselves.

- from Isa Helfield’s paper “Poisonous Pedagogy”, International Conference on Women and Literacy, January, 20011

***

About three weeks ago I wrote about the limitations of the Good Parent model – the Good Parentâ„¢ who raises the Good Childâ„¢ – and the suffering these concepts necessarily inflict (briefly, on everyone – but especially women, children, babies, families with disabilities, those living in poverty, and any marginalized group or minority).2

I’ve thought a lot about how I needed to see the subject through. I want to edify, instruct, and help – not merely deconstruct and analyze – so a follow-up seemed necessary. The task is not simple. See, I’ve been elaborating on better models for parenting and better village practices, from the general to the specific, for some time now. I can say with authority the ideas I express, now matter how clearly and circumspectly and appropriately I put them forth, upset a lot of people. Our culture is so built on the necessity of child-as-second-class there is an immediate and vitriolic response to those of us who challenge these edifices. I’m reminded of a quotation I recently read by Dresden James, British novelist and scriptwriter: “A truth’s initial commotion is directly proportional to how deeply the lie was believed.” This, in short, is why people get so angry if you identify “spanking” as merely a special word for the practice of hitting children. This is why if one writes about the abstention of domination in parenting strategy, people trot out very old, unimaginative, and tired-out examples of “What if a child tries to run into the street?” and “Why don’t parents control their children in restaurants?” This is why so many try to frame any discussion of best practices for children as a cultural war between parent vs. non-parent, even though it is absolutely not (many parents enforce unhelpful and authoritarian – and failing – models of child-stewardship while many without children have some of the best and most creative ideas for a better society), which inevitably creates a rather terrifying and depressing cultural concept of “every man for himself” – an ethos singularly toxic and horrifying to thrust on our young ones as we wholly do.

I’m tired of some of  these rather predictable conversations, and I’m disappointed in individuals and groups that should be doing better. This site was started as a social justice project within the blogosphere, but the current grassroots activist field therein has been an utter disappointment – and that’s an understatement – in discussing the rights of children and our responsibilities toward and treatment of the child class. Children are not “choices” (as so many other normally-astute activists frame them) but are a part of all of us; furthermore our commitment to bettering the world means recognizing they are our most vulnerable, most exploited, and suffering populations, across all racial and socioeconomic groupings, faith models and belief systems, class strata, and community models. I’ve discovered many social activists if not most are not willing or able to commit to a greater intersectionality in their efforts (probably because they don’t want to examine their own adult privilege).

So today I’m going to speak to a rather small group, I think. Those who already know we’re failing – who already see the “boiled frog”3, the troubling results of our practices invested on children. I’m speaking to those who know we need to do better but aren’t sure exactly how. I’m speaking, mostly, to parents/carers who feel haunted and amiss – and to compassionate and intelligent adults who care about our future. I’m speaking to those who want to parent their hopes, not their fears, and the non-parents who are ready and willing to be a part of this.

I’m going to talk about Tenderness.

We don’t much value tenderness in our world. It’s one of those optional and circumstantial things, an occasional indulgence rather than a commitment to a way of life. We think of tenderness as a feeling, not a practice – something akin to the experience of affection. But tenderness is an exercise, a way of life, and functioning in our larger communities I might call it a discipline. It only improves with practice and wisdom.

When it comes to children many like to talk about the Real World (whilst they work at creating or supporting singularly artificial institutional environs for said children, like compulsory schooling). And of those who invoke the looming spectre of this Real World, many are ready with talons out to dash apart an enthusiastic practice or promotion of tenderness. You see, in their worldview “soft” or “permissive” parenting will result in a Failure in the Real World (or Spoiled Children). Usually those quick to criticize don’t even bother reading, with any critical or considered analysis, the most humane and deeply rugged practices put forth by stellar authors, thinkers, and spiritual teachers. Critics of more humane treatment of children create strawmen (sometimes straw-hippies, ha!) as fast as they can to tear them down. Their words are filled with deep-seated cynicism, pain, anger, and fear.

Of course, in the longest view, how we raise our children – and we are all raising the children around us, whether we admit it or not – is instrumental in creating the Real World. We have been doing a fairly poor job, as shown by our failing educational system, the endemicity of youth anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression and suicide (the recent bullycides4 have called attention to some of these very serious problems) – and just the garden-variety symptoms of misery I see in so many children today: duplicity, unhappiness, suppressed authenticity, and fear.

Besides, even if we were to pretend this rather dismal “hard guy” view of You Need To Learn To Cope in the Real World wasn’t a perpetuating cycle of dominator culture5, poisonous pedagogy6, and a rationalization of sadism7, “tough love” parenting strictures actually countermand healthy functioning and growth in children – in other words, we end up seeing more aggressive, angry, fear-based behaviors and children who learn very quickly to behave differently depending on who’s watching or Who’s In Charge (as opposed to growing their intrinsic moral center)8. We are, in short, growing Bullies and those who will be hurt by them – not compassionate citizens and heroes.

Most parents/carers/adults want children to survive. Whatever my differences from USian mainstream parenting practices, we have this in common. It’s my view and experience that treating children with tenderness and protecting them while they are under our care prepares them supremely for the nasty aspects of this Real World (that is, if you believe Nature didn’t screw up when she built us, the most successful ape on the planet) and in fact positions them best to be the change we need in this world.

Many parents, carers, teachers, and adults without children intuit the need for better models for child-caring than our recent history affords; there are swelling movements, sometimes fragmented, to reclaim humane parenting and save not only our children but ourselves. You can see this burgeoning awareness in communities that align themselves with principles of Consensual Living, Non-Violent Communication, Natural or Authentic Parenting, Attachment Parenting, Attraction Parenting, Radical Unschooling, Life Learning, and Autodidacticism, etc. Still, even well-intentioned adults have a hard time releasing models of coercion and control with regard to children: hence you see discussions of “positive discipline” and “gentle discipline” (in other words, for example, a rejection of hitting alongside laboriously-crafted defenses of “time-outs”). These concepts of “gentle” discipline make no sense or at least are only cosmetically or by-degree different from those who use more loaded or violent words, strategies, and physical responses. Discipline is discipline and there’s nothing gentle or positive about it; that is, an authority big and strong and (to most children) scary who will Have Their Way whether they sugar-coat it with words like “bummer” or enforce by a systemic removal  of “privileges” and loved possessions or time spent doing the things they want to. “Discipline” has nothing to do with safety – keeping our children safe and occasionally keeping others safe from our children – but it is an almost universally-accepted lie that it does.

Authoritarian and authoritative parenting (more hair-splitting of dominator culture) are exhausting battlefields we lay out. The skirmishes are grim or heated and brief moments of triumph are soon eclipsed in bouts of fear and shame and anger and confusion. Eventually our children move across town or the country or the world. Walls are set up. Parents are left lonely and uncertain and brittle. Children are left wounded and have cut themselves off from their parents; children, now grown, carry childhood injuries. They have lost even the desire to repair the lost connection with their parents.

Authoritative/authoritarian parenting propagates suffering.

But tenderness is life-changing.

From here on in this piece I’m going to refer to parenting, but really the concepts can be applied to any adult in relationship with a child.

What is tenderness? Tenderness is a spiritual practice: for those few individuals who do not believe we have souls, I suppose one could call it a logical one as well as it generally serves our health and herd relationships. It’s hard to articulate the practice of tenderness in a thorough, quantified way here in a short article; spiritual and humanist teachers have written entire tomes on similar concepts. I identify with concepts learned through studies of Christian and Buddhist works so my practice and concepts around tenderness are thus informed.

Briefly and significantly with regards to caring for other human beings, in the pursuit of the practice of tenderness I first must acknowledge my own suffering. I must – at least temporarily – abandon my scripts of blame and rehearsed anger and recrimination (note I am not offering a judgment on the validity or invalidity of such scripts) and instead simply see my suffering for a moment, with clarity, feel the shape of it – observe it and see it is not Me (“I” am who is doing the observing). This is the beginning.

Now for many if not most of us, our suffering is often such we cannot simply wish it away or banish it. Yet our suffering is at root of why we cling to worldviews and behaviors that are dysfunctional – and harm others. This is deeply relevant to the practice of parenting as the relative helplessness (enforced legally and socially in almost every way) of our world’s children puts us in power positions; we inflict deep damage. This is both an awesome and a scary responsibility, and one reason many are fearful at the thought of having children or even disgusted by the idea (such individuals also often want to believe they can just “opt out”, that they aren’t in fact participating in the larger village of child-rearing by their silent support of the status quo). On the other hand, this mission can be incredibly transformative; it is why, for some, having the care of another human being, a dependent – often their own child, but not always – can be the catalyst to a spiritual awakening unlike any they’ve yet experienced.

When we have the presence and space from our mind’s rehearsals of suffering and anxieties – that’s when we are best equipped to care for another human being (and not just children, either). That space is the fertile ground for the beginnings of the practice of tenderness.

When we parent from this place we respond to our children’s needs while having a longer view of our job as parents. This is such a tremendous gift, and I wonder how many parents and carers experience it. Instead I believe, most are familiar with the tension-wire feeling we have at all times or that can be activated at any moment (sitting in a restaurant, we haven’t eaten all day, our two year old begins making happy noises, the table over shoots the very familiar toxic glares, our stomach knots, “not again”, our acute awareness of how unwelcome we are here and in the entire public sphere until our children sit still enough and are quiet enough for everyone else). Ugh. I’ve been there. It sucks, and as I’ve said before, ultimately it is our children that pay the price as we lash out, restrict them, suppress them, require Obedience and Submission, hit and shout when “no one’s looking”, work ourselves ragged in the culturally-supported ritual of performing Good Parentâ„¢… and so on.

Yet parenting from a place of tenderness and Presence has the ability to lift these experiences, as incredible as this may sound, to transform them. Parenting with tenderness involves a deep-seated sense of unshakable joy; it involves my awareness it is my child I am with and the world around us in its chaos and coarseness and anger and fear, is just another presence in our day, nothing personal, not a boot to crush me (try as it occasionally might), powerful – is it? Time and time again my smile, which begins deep inside me, in my stomach, and emerges from my Being, I smile at the next table and I smile at my child (and I help my child) and I smile at my hunger (which may go unsated, for now) and I smile (with sadness) at how many adults react with such anger and fear to small children – and my calmness has soothed everyone – myself, my child, sometimes even, but not always, the angry customer at the next table. The trick is, you can’t fake it. But when obtained, it’s real.

Parenting from a place of tenderness keeps me strong for the times my children suffer or make mistakes and the times these events surprise or hurt me – or others. It is not “turning off” my instincts or alacrity or my loyalty to the rest of the human race, it is going deeper within myself where I find an indomitable ground, a strong woman, not her first rodeo, a person I like very much indeed as it turns out. Therefore some of the old fretting worries surface like they always have – Why is he/she doing this?  Have I failed as a parent (mother)? What’s wrong with him/her/me? - but instead of the anxiety, fear, anger, and confusion I’ve typically experienced in the past I often feel calm, alive, aware – even amused. As author Eckhart Tolle relates after a disturbing event at his then-workplace long ago, “There was a brief shifting from thinking to awareness. I was still in the men’s room, but alone now, looking at my face in the mirror. At that moment of detachment from my mind, I laughed out loud. It may have sounded insane, but it was the laughter of sanity, the laughter of the big-bellied Buddha. ‘Life isn’t as serious as my mind makes it out to be.’ That was what the laughter seemed to be saying…”

Parenting with tenderness means trusting the process of growth; it means giving love and support and assistance instead of withholding it or provisionally doling it out in order to coerce children into “better” behavior, like the Operant Conditioning experiments performed on rats (sadly, many, many adults do this by rote to children). It means folding a crying child into your arms and not believing the thought (formed out of fear and narrowness) that their emotional display is “babyish” (over time, this thought coupled with negative judgment will not come at all… and what a beautiful experience for me to have left it behind!). It means over time seeing your child and their suffering with deep compassion and intelligence and depths and calm, not identifying with the phrases “throwing a fit” or “having a tantrum” (imagine my surprise and delight when this awareness began to evidence itself in my experience with other grownups!), nor identifying with the fear that would have you rush to “fix” their pain. Parenting this way, or beginning to anyway, has resulted in more peace and happiness in my home – and “better behaved” children – than I would have thought possible.

Parenting with tenderness means not looking over our kids’ shoulders for the accolades of others (or the label of Good Parent) as we hustle them to the Accomplishment – reading, writing, riding a bike, “please and thank yous”, multiplication tables, straight As, Miss Congeniality – but being with them as they set their own goals and helping them in every way we can and watching with amazement what they can do (not watching what we can make them do).

Children have or develop, when nurtured and not exposed repeatedly to the trammels of adult privilege – or exposed as little as possible anyway, innate reserves of intuition, wisdom, compassion, righteous outrage, brilliant humor, fair-mindedness, and a capacity for forgiveness and love that rivals any bodhisattva. Tenderness and responsive, considered stewardship of our children will not only raise wonderfully-adapted and “well-behaved” children (promise!) but will also promote our own healing. Tenderness and nurture assist our children (because much as a doctor does not heal our body, rather our body does the work – children grow themselves) more than any artificially-prescribed “boot camps” parents/adults convince themselves are necessary9. To paraphrase author Naomi Aldort (and I wish I had her exact words here) – adversity is good for children, but not when organized by those whose job is to nurture and protect the child. I have seen this bourne out in our own family life countless times – countless.

Tenderness is meeting a child at their expressed need; tenderness is rejecting our arrogance when we attempt to direct what our children need, or what they need to be rescued from (the oft-maligned “helicopter parenting”), rather developing the extraordinary presence and observation and longer, more spiritually-centered awareness so many children find incredibly nurturing (my own father had this gift, despite much idiosyncratic coarseness). When we are in tune with our children, they will ask us with clarity (or we will be able to see with clarity) when they need our help. To my surprise, it’s been less often than I’d have imagined.

Tenderness is the only thing that has given me a compassionate awareness of my previous mistakes; after all, I could have heard all the well-reasoned and logical arguments in the world for more humane parenting but my mind could have dismissed them (as inconvenient or only for the “privileged few” or as naive or simplistic) – had I not been open and seen the suffering I was inflicting on these beloved children. Tenderness is the part of me that has, over the years, acknowledged the personhood of my child at the soul-level (or whatever you’d call it) – not merely a foil for my own ego and Expert status10.  Acknowledging my mistakes – instead of clinging to my dung pile11  - I have gained humility and wisdom (and hope to gain more). Our children will experience our improvements as healing, if they are not too far hardened to us. And on that account, it’s never too late to attempt to restore harmony between us.

And here, I would like to say a few more things about my own family.

The other day I heard my son Nels set up a cry and he came into the living room. His face was flushed and his eyes were full of hurt. His sister had bit him. Their skirmishes are increasingly rare; thus for one to proceed to such a level was surprising. Even as I opened my arms I knew something was wrong for my daughter, for her to hurt him thusly (not that long ago, before my husband and I began a deeper awareness of gentleness, a fight between my children that escalated to this level would be more commonplace and we’d have Laid Down The Law on them, more shame clouding up her own inner sense of justice and betrayal, obfuscating her integrity in a scary and humilating lecture…).

But now, in this moment, my son buries himself in my open arms. His bite is angry-looking indeed. But in less time than it takes to settle on the couch together he has stopped crying. My mind is calm and I am sad for his pain; I empathize without anxiety. Untainted by the fear and anger his sister’s behavior would have triggered in me only a short time ago, I have an awareness I must talk to her and we must try to discover what is wrong (which I later do). I have another moment of clarity: the wrongs the two commit against one another along with any redress will ultimately have to be navigated within their own relationship (in other words, I will not seek to force insincere apologies). My son soon hops down, his body language and spirit calm, fully recovered. He kisses me, his face tear-streaked and warm, he tells me he loves me.

Tenderness is making the time, later, to speak to my daughter Phoenix. She and I are sitting in her closet. She is silent and suffering (sadness, not anger), out of the reach of my loving hands, but she is stoic. I ask her if she wants to know what I think. She tells me Yes. I say, “I think you feel bad about yourself as a person.” “Yes,” she whispers. I say, “Part of this, maybe a lot of this, is my fault. I’m sorry.” After a beat I say, “I’d like to help you feel better about yourself. Would you like my help?” “Yes,” she says, again, and then slides into my arms. We sit for quite some time in calmness and I stroke her hair. I am sorry for my mistakes in the past but I am here with her now instead of there. After a while she makes a joke about her father, cooking dinner in the kitchen, his efforts coupled with much noise and clamor. We laugh.

Tenderness is my son in the car last night. “This is my golden apple. It is precious,” he says, as he smells its fragrance and holds it in his hand for along while. Later, he carefully eats it to the core and set it aside on a napkin so as not to mess the car upholstery. Later still, he tells my husband and I he wants to tell us something something. He says, “I know I always change my mind, and I’m sorry for that. But I regret coming on this car trip. I wish I’d stayed home and played.” (He is six years old.)

Tenderness is my daughter, as I type, from the living room: “Mom, can you please help me?” She asks. I come into the living room. She directs me clearly and with confidence (she is setting up a huge, messy living room fort for herself and two friends). “Thank you,” she tells me when I have finished assisting her, and I return to my writing.

Tenderness is a bit later as the house full of kids gets a bit rowdier. My daughter pops her head through the door and asks, “I’m sorry, are we being too loud for your writing?”

Tenderness is in our mistakes; tenderness is me seeing the children have poured too much milk and the half-full bowl sits on the counter and I am troubled as my mind goes to grim realities of grocery monies and I, exasperated, tell them to please try not to waste food. The kids smile and share the rest of the bowl of milk, drinking it up, standing in the kitchen, laughing. I apologize (which is accepted) and I ruffle their warm sleepy hair and I think how much smarter they are than I.

Tenderness is in our mistakes: tenderness is later at night when my husband, at the end of his ability to cope, very tired, snaps at our son and our son cries; our daughter puts his arms around him immediately and comforts him. A few minutes later my husband puts his arms around our (now calm) son and says he’s sorry.

Tenderness is my son sliding into bed with me this morning. I whisper, “Are you okay?” and he says, “Yes,” his entire Being infused with the knowledge of Self, security, and love provided for him. Tenderness is holding him in my arms while he falls back asleep.

Tenderness is the root – the only solution that will save our children, and will help them save others. It can help save us, too.

You are free to join us.

“You don”‘t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Martin Luther King

  1. You can read the whole piece here.
  2. “Hi. My name is Kelly. I’m a recovering “good parent. (part one)” at underbellie.
  3. “Boiling Frog”, Wikipedia entry
  4. “Bullycide”, Wikipedia entry, with references
  5. “Dominator culture”, Wikipedia entry
  6. Poisonous Pedagogy on Wikipediamore cultural implications
  7. See Study – half of high school students admit to bullying at CNN
  8. See “Spanking Makes Kids More Aggressive: The Research Is Clear” at psychologytoday.com; followed by “Spanking in the U.S.A.: a sad state of affairs and why spanking is never okay” at child-psyche.org and the typical backlash against anyone who speaks out against hitting children, followed by the tired-out “but I turned out fine!” single data-point anecdotal refuting and unwillingness to make the conversation about something larger than Oneself
  9. See Love and Logic, a well-intentioned mess with many levels of Fail, built almost entirely on the (false) principles that parents MAKE children, not that children grow themselves despite our attempts, for good or ill, to help or hinder
  10. “On Seeing Children as ‘Cute’” by John Holt at The Natural Child Project
  11. “The Worm”, an allegory

Hi. My name is Kelly. I’m a recovering “good parent”. (Part 1)

Part 2, here

"No Child is Born a Criminal", video clip

Camila Batmanghelidjh

 

“No Child is Born a Criminal” at The Guardian, 3 minutes and 48 seconds.

If you read nothing here or only have time to skim, I ask that you please watch this video.

I used to not get upset by the “bad kids”/”bad parents (mothers)” talk. Because I knew I was a Good Mother™ with Good Kids™ – see, I could “prove” it by their manners and how I could get all stern in stuff, in public, and make them “behave”, and get everyone’s approval, and then I could prove how I wasn’t one of those BAD parents, ew! It worked out really well!

At least… in supporting Oppression in our culture.

And… It actually didn’t work out for me, or my kids, very well at all. More in a minute.

See, one day I saw how harmful the whole business is. And now? I’m just done.

It’s hard to escape deep-seated child-hate, yes even when we are socially steeped in the myriad kinds of suffering that results. I’ve seen child-hate crop up loads (well, more than usual) recently in the articles regarding the recent publicized bullycides1 – probably because, to put it succinctly, bullies still scare the hell out of us.

We cannot continue to tolerate violence, that is clear. And yet our fear and suffering are often hand-in-glove with the very factors that create tragedies like these. When our strategies come directly from responses of fear and anger and deny the humanity of perpetrators and the reality of the forces that shape these tragedies, they are are often ineffective and/or further perpetrate the very things we are afraid of: some of us hide, some of us want to be the ones with the bigger stick to beat the bullies down in the name of justice.

These incidents of bullycide are enraging and upsetting, the culmination of a terrible series of events, adults in power who’ve let children down, children who’ve made mistakes and committed wrongs against one another, oppression and fear, damage, death, destruction. The stories are hard to read2 because we think of our loved ones – or ourselves. They are hard to respond to with good strategies because many of us relate, having been on one side or the other of bullying behaviors (usually both at some point) and we are damaged from these experiences. Many of us have not healed from wounds inflicted during our childhood. We remember with righteous anger or trembling fear these horrible things that happened to us. We want to speak out, to voice our pain. The pain and anger are so loud in our blood we sit down and start typing away. We walk amongst others with our gut in a knot of pain.

As the legal aphorism says, “If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have the law on your side, argue the law. If you have neither on your side, pound the table.” It is really easy for many to pound the table about bullies, about “assholes” and “psychopaths” (when children are younger you hear them called “Devil’s spawn” and “brats”, my parents used to call me “Little Hitler” when I was two!). It feels (momentarily) Good and Right. Does it help? Hmm… Does it further perpetrate harm? You might not like my answer, which is: Yes.

And the fact so many even well-intentioned adults don’t realize any participation in Dominator culture is exactly what creates and reifies bully culture and oppression is just – for me – devastating.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about these subjects over the past week. How would I write about it? What or who would I address? How could I discuss the poor strategies many grownups persist in (which need to be addressed) without denigrating the feelings of Fear and Anger these grownups have (which are entirely valid)? How could I differentiate the role of good leaders – who employ effective and holistic strategies against the abuse of power – with those who (mostly) “pound the table” – without disrespecting the feelings and experiences of the latter group?

The answer is, of course, to reflect on where this starts for victim and perpetrator: childhood.

So here, reader, is when I begin to talk about childhood. And here, perhaps, is where you may no longer want to read on. Because I’m not going to be writing to those who have not done their homework as to whether the child class is an oppressed group in our country (short answer: they are, and across all races and genders and socioeconomic classes etc).3 To further argue the subject is exhausting to me, personally, just now, and I have been let down by so many activists who do not engage in this work or take it seriously as their own activist subjects, seeking support for their own personal brand of social justice without seeing the limitations therein.

I am going to talk about childhood a bit, and here is another thing I’m not going to discuss: I’m not here to address the feelings and angry accusations of those without children who claim they aren’t “allowed” to weigh in on parenting or child behavior4 or the accusation that all those who parent children reject out of hand the experiences, feelings, and thoughts of those without children. Don’t misunderstand me: these feelings of minimization felt by those without children are important; indeed I have discussed them, though not yet at length, before5. I’ll likely write on the subject again.

The truth is of course it isn’t really a parents vs. nonparent thing anyway. Framing the issue of child oppression this way only obfuscates and ensures the continued oppression of mothers and children. It also means the best efforts and research in anti-oppression work regarding the child class is ignored in favor of shouting matches where everyone feels entitled to weighing in on with their “expertise”. And, sadly, those without children who have deep-seated anger regarding child behaviors have more in common with many parents than they might realize; much like racism and homophobia, none of us have escaped internalized child-as-second-class-citizens worldviews; instead we must work to undo them. Sadly, many if not most parents daily devote their work as the Long Arm of the Law, doing their best to “guide” (meaning coerce, control, beat, etc.) their children according to oppressive strictures.

And with that last I am – finally! – going to tell you who I am writing for, today.

I’m writing to other Good Parents™ who know it isn’t really working.

I’m writing those who already have those squicky feelings about how we frame children and speak about them and treat them. I’m here to speak to those who already know the problems of bully culture do not start in a vaccuum. Those who’ve felt uneasy when they see parents/carers cockily strut their, “I’d never let my kid such-and-such” or “I’m raising my kids right”, etc. stuff – the kinds of statements parents are so culturally-rewarded for saying (and talk is cheap). I’m writing to those who were smart and “strong-willed kids” (hi!), intelligent enough to see the “I’d never let my kid blah-blah-blah” is a road that only leads to two destinations: the person with the stick and the person being hit with the stick (remember, the person doing the hitting always feels righteous in the moment he/she is doing so, for whatever reason including Good Parenting and Concerned Citizen).

I’m speaking to those who’ve either not been damaged so much they cannot disengage from their personal history (for whom I have much empathy; some of my friends who most adhere to authoritarianism in parenting were themselves abused and maltreated horribly – one of these friends gives thanks for the beating and abuse at the hands of her mother – it kept her “safe” from worse things – but admits she is too afraid to have children herself as she knows she would likely be unable to not abuse them; naturally this person also supports corporal punishment of children even as she does not want to be the one who “has to” do it) or who’ve healed enough to be ready to do their part and Help. Sadly, there are too many who are – for lack of a better phrase – wounded. They aren’t yet ready to join to make a better future. I suspect many are scared and angry about the vulnerability of the child class and do not want to take a real hard look at what’s going on.

At root like a cancer our culture perpetrates poisonous worldviews reified generation upon generation. Most grownups believe kids will go astray unless we force values into them, like opening their throats for ill-tasting medicine “for their own good”. I used to believe this myself, even if I would have resisted such a grim characterization. Thus, many parents are afraid to relinquish control. Why wouldn’t we be? We know how severely we will be tasked and blamed (especially mothers6) if our children fail, or hurt other people, or wreck something, or say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Our strategies may be poor or not good enough but our drives are quite honorable: we don’t want our children to get hurt; we don’t want them to hurt others. We want to be Good Parents™. All most of us know are oppressive edifices that employ Control models. Many of us as children were told “sit down and shut up” – and rarely did anyone defend us or stop the diminishment and/or abuse – so much we grew a thick, leathery skin so we could deny how much it hurt. We merely, now, breathe a sigh of relief to have left it behind us. Now we’re in charge (or we SHOULD be, it’s our place and prerogative).

Never mind that Control doesn’t really “work” – for anyone. Sure, it seems to function well at first (or looks like it). We tell ourselves Control is what keeps our kids from running into the street and being killed by a car (this, along with the “loud children in restaurants”, are the two most oft-employed examples used to justify adult privilege). Make no mistake: we are responsible for our children’s safety, entirely at first, diminishing as they grow and learn to care for themselves. But so many of us go astray; as our children grow we shift our Survival and Safety drives onto our need to control child behavior, as well – an error socially-enforced, and one that doesn’t necessarily evidence itself immediately. Thus we can make our children (most of our children) toe the line and say “Please” and “Thank you”. We lap up the praise we get for “good kids”. When we hear other parents (mothers) dissed – for feeding their children “junk food” or, alternatively, for being “control freaks” about “healthy food”, or for not being involved enough, or being over-involved – whatever the Parental Evils of the day are being lamented – we breathe a huge sigh of relief because it’s the OTHER parent (mom) who sucks, not us. See, we know how to raise our kids in proportion. We make sure our kids have the exact right manners/diet/values/foodstuffs/education etc. They aren’t talking about US. In my case, the razor-thin line to walk in feminine perfectionism was dialed up all the more acutely once I embarked on Motherhood; and I know I’m not the only mother who experienced this.

Still, for a while we try to keep up the effort. We have successes and they dull us to the truths deep within our bodies. We have the “well-behaved” kid. This feels so good! Sure, sometimes we’re uneasy… when someone says something horrible and we recognize ourselves, and some of the unaviodable Truths of parenting, and we feel that little earthquake that informs us how much pressure it really is. So we say something. Usually mildly. Then we hear: “Kelly, I’m not talking about YOU, you have good kids, you’re raising them right.” I’ve heard it so many times. When my kids were younger it felt good. See, I was doing it Right. If the kids slipped up I’d only have to nip in and employ a little control. A little pruning.

And it feels so good until you’re under that lens – until it’s your kid who has the audactity to, you know, be a child, and hit another child, or wander over to another table in a restaurant (if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard the “horrible kids in restaurant” anecdote… I’d be able to buy my own restaurant!), or loudly proclaim a preference in public, or break down crying in public (and we all know how well that socially enforced suppression-of-unwelcome-emotions thing works for grownups!) – and then?

Then. Ouch. You want to know what happens? Let me tell you, you probably won’t like hearing it. Then we are crushed by all the judgments we’ve held against those other parents (mothers) who were Doing It Wrong. Then we’re alone – yet on display as Failure. Then we maintain the thin-lipped smile or brittle “in control” mommy mantra. “I”ll talk to you when you can speak nice.” “You need to quit this fit right now.” “1… 2…. 3…” We call our child a “brat” and shake our head (from our own fear and anger and as a performance for the other adults watching, the other adults putting the pressure on to “control our kids” – or maybe they are primly “not saying anything” but judging, and don’t think we don’t feel it). Then we hold it together and then, safe in the car, or in our home, we scream at our children. We hit. We say horrible, horrible things to them.7

Then, all the cultural pressures are rained down upon: our children. Literally the most vulnerable group in society.

Don’t worry. We don’t scream and hit our kids in public – if we are Nice White Ladies (or whomever) and that’s part of the training that is. Thus all those other people going about their day, they don’t have to see the fallout. You’re welcome; another service of Not Inconveniencing You, brought to you by the Kyriarchy, penalty paid by the little ones.

And the cycle continues.

If you don’t think this happens you’re only kidding yourself. You don’t need to be a parent to start caring about it, either.

Me? I had to stop being a Good Parent™. I was hurting my kids too much – and I was suffering not only from the Perfectionist mantra but by the awful knowledge me, I, was hurting my own children, a stark bottomless awareness that caused me more pain than I could have previously believed possible.

So yeah, I’m no longer a Good Parent. I intervened early enough to begin providing a better future for our family; I’d like to believe I’ve begun undoing damage. My children are now safe (safer). They are happier. I am happier. My husband is happier; our marriage has improved. I am moving through the pain inflicted on me as a child and more amazingly still I am moving through this with my mother (the author of much of my pain as a child). My children have given us another chance; and we’re giving them a better one.

And this? Is why I write.

Many who read my work know we are now life learners – sometimes called autodidactic homeschoolers or radical unschoolers – that we live consensually8, and that we do not “discipline” our kids. And I understand – well, I sure do understand now that I’m some years in! – since this is my field of study and my lifework, that the concepts of consensual living, life learning, radical unschooling, parenting without discipline are terrifying, confusing, and yes, even enraging to many. I get that they scare and upset many people. Those of us who employ it are called “crazy”, “loony”, “abusive”, “neglectful” or “sheltering”, “elitist” or “low-class”, “too intellectual” or “backward”. And you should hear the things they predict for children being raised in homes like these.

Those who say these things do not ask us how it actually works (but I like to believe some of the Good Parents™ reading here just might start to). We do have strategies; we do have a body of evidence. We have advice that does not require all parents follow the exact lifestyle tenets we do; improvements can be made in all circumstances. And we know eventually some people will catch up. Me, I’m waiting for them when they’re curious. I try not to think too much about what their children might be going through – unnecessarily.

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “˜Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”‘ To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother”‘s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers “” so many caring people in this world.- Fred Rogers

My kids are going to be Helpers. They already are, and they’re pint-sized.

That’s who children really have the potential to be; if we treat them right.

That’s the solution to invest in – for bullying, to stop the wrongs being committed, for compassionate, intelligent, strong, firm, direct intervention, for leaders, for joy.

Trust us. Join us.

I used to be a Good Parent™. But there is hope, even for that.

Next week: Part 2.

Mentioned/Further Reading:

“Dancing between the tables: on the personhood of children” at Raising My Boychick.

“Bullies = bullies, children =/= sociopaths and other simple equations” at mymilkspilt.

Choice quote from the excellent “Children Take Up Space (and Notice When We Don”‘t Notice)”: “Children take up space, and when we don”‘t notice them, they hurt. It isn”‘t just a mother”‘s issue to let you know that. Children notice that we don”‘t do enough to give a damn about them, whether they know about social justice or not (some of them do, mine does). It hurts them. It should hurt more of us to realize this.”

“shorter, cuter, more honest people” – including in comments the typical “terrible children/parents in restaurant” derail, 400 of ‘em – at Feministe.

“I’m a Good Wife” at mymilkspilt

“My Child Takes Up Space” at womanist-musings

Mothers for Women’s Lib; I recommend adding this excellent site to your feed reader as it does not update often.

“Kids: screw ‘em” at Pandagon. Those who think only individual breeders are solely responsible for the holistic well-being of their own children have a lot in common with rigorous pro-lifers.

“How Children Learn Manners” by Naomi Aldort. This article was the first to expose me to unintended but unavoidable fallout of “manners” policing and enforcement when foisted on our children. Shortly after reading and discussing this with my partner, we stopped prompting our children. P.S. while I’d like to keep this article free of the justification of our parenting strategies by the “results” of our children’s behaviors I also know this kind of article challenges many people – who respond by predicting children will grow up total “sociopaths” without such “common sense” socialization. Thus I will point out our children, 6 and 8, evidence consideration, empathy, and social behaviors of saying “please”, “thank you”; they do not curse in public spaces, they make eye contact, shake hands, introduce themselves, and listen to others.

The Natural Child Project – better ideas for parenting

  1. “Bullycide” google search
  2. “safety” at kelly.hogaboom.org
  3. There’s already wonderful work being done: for some 101 you can read here at womansrights.change.org; in addition “The Adult Privilege Checklist” is a good start. The short essay “The Blank Page” offers much incredible insight: “Almost all so-called educational activity is pervaded by a notion of direct — and therefore violent — adaptation by the child to the adult world. This adaptation is based upon an unquestioning obedience, which leads to the negation of the child’s personality, a negation in which the child becomes the object of a justice that is no justice, of injury and punishment that no adult would tolerate. This adult attitude is so deeply rooted in the family that it is applied even to the child who is greatly loved. Furthermore, it is intensified in the school, which almost always methodically enforces direct and premature adaptation to the necessities of the adults environment.” Finally: read “Are Children An Oppressed Class?” at genderacrossborders
  4. This is entirely countermanded by the experience of those versed in US/UK/AU parenting culture: for instance I threw a rock on Google and immediately found a great example of typical child-hate made public and much “weighing in” on child-raising; “Entitlement-Minded Mommies” also earns points for the oft-trotted out “horrible child/parents in restaurant” trope and large doses of child-and-mother-and-grandma hate – kyriarchal perpetuation across three generations!
  5. One of my first pieces here at Underbellie regarded ways parents/carers can foster better relationships with their friends without children (“Breeding, or how not to be an inadvertant jerk” in the UB archives); incidentally, not only has my parental experience been saturated with lots of “weighing in” on my parental performance by many, many people, but I have indeed sought out those who have valuable insights, including those without children who it should not need to be said, were once children themselves. My favorite friend to discuss all things child-rearing related (besides my partner) has no children; several of my favorite authors with respect to parenting strategies do not have children. Et cetera.
  6. “I Blame The Mother”
  7. “and hours later I’m still thinking about her” at my blog
  8. That really does mean something – it’s not just an empty New Agey phrase: consensual-living.com

quick hit: parenting, television, & the culture of moral imperative

parenting, television, & the culture of moral imperative

Parents: Rotting children's minds - because we can!

In a post on Free Range Kids today, Lenore put up a two-author set of observations regarding children’s television programs vs. adult versions. Even today, kid fare typically involves heroes and heroines engaging in awesome adventures, out in the world battling villains or running a business or tromping through the woods in their group of friends. In contrast, switch over to the grownup news and one is inundated with a series of condescending and scaremongering fables regarding the deadly threats to our helpless/profoundly inept/continuously threatened children such as Lightning-Fast Ninja Pedophiles That Lurk In Every Corner,  swim goggles, third-hand smoke, and those family sticker decals on the back of cars (oh hai, BTW I’m totally not making these up). Lenore goes on to add it kind of irks her because here the kids’ TV programs are showing kids adventuring while actually actively encouraging them to stay inside and sit.

And you know what? These are good points and fair ones. I feel a little sad for kids today, because they are disempowered and their grownups are being misinformed, scared, and hounded (I should know: letting them go out and about is something a lot of people aren’t too keen on and it’s actually (often) swimming upstream if you advocate for their freedom to do so).

But perhaps inevitably the post of Lenore’s is soon followed by a bunch of television-apologism. You know, TV is actually quite good sometimes, parents need to watch with kids and not use it as a “babysitter” (what a load of crap, the Evil-Lazy-Parent-and-their-Terrible-Henchman-TV construct; more later), etc. etc.

And then: people who don’t watch TV are head-in-the-sand ostriches raising Special Snowflake jerks (“hi!”).

Ah yes, television. Much like our cars and guns so many USians cling fervently and blindly to this holy institution at all costs. Commentor Donna had this to say about parents who ban television:

I actually find banning TV [...] this need of parents to provide this perfect sanitized world for the sensitive little snowflakes living in their houses. Nothing remotely negative should enter their lives. Can”‘t go outside because you might get kidnapped. Can”‘t keep score because Snowflake might get her feelings hurt. Mom and dad can”‘t drink wine because Snowflake will see them. Can”‘t watch tv because you may see a commercial and not achieve your fullest potential seems to fit in there just fine.

Here’s the thing. We don’t have a television. But you’re never going to hear me dissing parents and carers who do.

I have sympathy for television-owning families, because – basically – they’re often being told they’re Assholes if they so much put their fingers on the dial (yes, I know most TVs these days don’t have dials).  Like so many messages in our mediastream, parents and carers are told unless they Do It Perfectly they are completely Ruining Everything (kids and country).  So I choose to be charitable; I believe these feelings of externally-implanted guilt are primarily responsible for the ire and defensiveness leveled against the non-television crew (“hi again!”), thus creating another village casualty where there could be useful dialogue. So thanks, media, and your many ZOMG AMERCIANS WATCH FOUR THOUSAND HOURS OF TELEVISION A DAY AND THAT’S TURNING THEM ALL INTO HEADLESS FATTIES!!11! “human interest” stories.  Because even though plenty of us know plenty of perfectly fine people who watch (sometimes plenty of) television, it’s pretty hard to not feel pressured and second-guessed we’re (once again) letting our kids down (and, Earth to Brent, most parents DO worry, it’s part of the whole Responsibility gig). Our parenting culture consistently makes sure to kick us in the gonads regarding any vulnerability, even creating vulnerabilities where there otherwise would not be (makes ratings! sells ads!).

We don’t want a television set in our house for about five or six decent reasons that make up enough of a Good Reason to decline (and seriously, do I need to defend our choice at all?). The concept this makes us “unaware of American culture” (as another commentator puts it) falls pretty dern flat. As anyone who knows me knows, my family is just about the last family one could accuse of an isolationist lifestyle –  yes, despite our choices to homeschool and eschew the boob tube (or is it “bube toob”?). My children, Special Snowflakes? Doesn’t ring a bell, Butchie.

Another thing that immediately occurs to me is what a double-edged blade this parenting-judgment stuff is. As a family without a television set, we nevertheless do in fact watch pixels move around a screen for personal entertainment – either through rented DVDs or Netflix Instant on our rugged multi-purpose home computer. And you know what?  I let my kids watch plenty of grown-up fare I am all-too-aware other grownups would think me heinous for allowing. In fact my daughter now and then sits with me to watch one of my favorite (excellently rendered, graphic and crass) satires: “Reno 911″. Believe me I understand this is an “adult” (funny how that term applies to something so obscene and full of buffonery of every stripe) program. It’s kind of maddening that I feel culturally hemmed-in; public screeching over “teacup” kids who are sheltered would apply to my family and our homeschooling/TV-eschewal; so would the judgments against the opposite-end-of-the-spectrum Evils, “neglectful” parents who have no standards about what’s appropriate for young children.  The funny thing is in both choices they are absolutely intentional and were made with my heart and mind and gut.  I could wax on regarding both (please do email me if you have to know); but since this isn’t particularly a Hogaboom-apologist bit I shall not go there for now.

And then, finally, let’s talk about those “television babysitters” because Man! Those people are just Horrid! Really? Really? You know, most of the time television is used as a babysitter it’s not because a parent doesn’t care about their child or is too lazy to hang out with them or has not gotten the message that “We” think TV-babysitting is a Bad Thing. Parents use television as a babysitter (when they do) because raising kids is hard (and you’d be surprised how little help many parents have), and some parents have three jobs and are trying to go to school and a terrible ex who isn’t paying child support and maybe a host of other problems that I don’t have to live with, so I am not so quick to judge them and more quick to want to help them at their point of need (which is, just to be clear, somewhere distant from a bunch of Haters Anonymous weighing in on their suckitude). By the way, Every Parent Ever has made choices that weren’t that awesome for their kid at one time or another. That’s why we need to support one another and be honest with one another, instead of heaping on liberal ladles of ooey-gooey shame.

So again, the message, in case you aren’t getting it loud and clear (and if you’re an involved parent I know you are): you should always be aware you could do it better, and if you don’t do it better, tsk tsk your kids will suffer.

I hope it’s clear at this point that my deliberately-no-TV household is not a dictatorial construct ALL ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE and their choices. Or, as Lenore’s post commentator Uly aptly responds in part to the ZOMG-you-television-free freaks comments:

As far as cultural awareness goes, I think you can get that without actually *having* a TV if you don”‘t want one. Now, before people jump off half-cocked, I said “if you don”‘t want one”. If you, as an individual, don”‘t think your family would benefit from a TV ““ don”‘t have one! You should absolutely not have something in your house you don”‘t want.

If you think TV is fun, and it”‘s worth it for a few programs, you enjoy watching TV with your family ““ get one!

Yeah, that? That’s a bit of the voice of reason, or the voice of, let’s not be jerks about this.

And perhaps more importantly this comment alludes to a fact we don’t always remember: no really, we are the boss. They are our children, our joys, our trials and our responsibilities. This means we should be open-minded and adhere more to the children and the family (or where our heart is) than the strictures of a culture that often doesn’t have our best interests at heart and is going to tell us we’re doing it wrong no matter how we’re doing it.

One slightly more personal point about television: at least once a month someone tells me they want to give up TV but they “can’t”. If I wasn’t honest and up front about the fact we don’t have television and why we don’t (which you notice I’m not touching on here because it’s not the point), and what we do instead and how much we like it (especially not having the monthly bill!) I wouldn’t be providing the families who are interested in booting television with assistance in doing so. TV is the “norm”, but that doesn’t mean those of us who don’t have one should keep quiet for fear of public censure or hurting Its feelings.

But you know?  Most of my friends have television, and they and their progeny seem just as “fine” as my kids do to me. Our lack of television is about as prescriptive for other families as the lack of me eating a Twinkie at this moment indicates I think your preschooler’s sample of “junk” food dooms you to the Parental Purgatory of Ruinous Shitbird-ness.

Parents/carers, go easy on yourselves. And one another.

Photo credit x-ray delta one on Flickr