the most wonderful time of the year

It’s back to school time… the time most parents love, and kids dread. Like, how sad is that, all these adults celebrating their children’s misery? Or at least something that seems to be causing a significant amount of stress and anxiety to their children. Anyway, we aren’t immune to all of the feelings that this time of year brings. We, too, want/need a break from caring for children sometimes. Our eldest also wishes that summer was not at an end, and that she didn’t have to go to school. We are trying to focus on helping her manage her anxiety and find solutions to her problems, however.

For M, though, she is spending the week with her mobile “school”, which is sort of an unschooling field-trip based program. From September through June she will spend Wed-Fri with her group and her teacher, exploring various parks and museums and community centers and fire stations and stores and beaches…. etc and so on. They bring a backpack with lunch, water, and a clipboard containing a pen and paper with an activity packet for further exploration and reflection on the day. I feel an enormous sense of relief, pride, and euphoria that instead of being virtually imprisoned in a classroom all day, she has spent her day doing this:


and this:


Yep, this is what her school days will look like… exploring creeks, and visiting and learning about rescued animals. Her teacher says, “She just loves the outdoors, animals, and nature!” Yes, she does. It’s definitely where she belongs. We also received a video of her today giving a presentation for the teacher’s camera about coyotes, and how she talks to them. She has a love of coyotes and wolves, among other animals. She has also made a new “best friend”, an 11-year-old girl who will be in her group! The mixed ages provides so many opportunities to learn and grow socially for children, and I couldn’t be happier to see the diversity in ages. There is definitely something to learn for everyone wherever they go… shoot, I wish I was going, too!

Who knew I’d ever be so jealous of my daughter’s “school day”???

for my daughter, my inspiration and my teacher

I have been on a journey to removing my daughter from the conventional education system since she was 2 1/2. Today, we are three days away from seeing that dream realized. My daughter, so full of energy that she has been diagnosed with ADHD, so sensitive to noise and light that she has been diagnosed with SPD, so in tune with her brain’s physiological need to feel the breeze, the soil, the rush of equilibrium as you jump or race through space, that she has been called disruptive, annoying, “special needs”, and wild (even by me), would have done so well in a hunter gatherer society, where the sensations of nature all around her would have given her a sense of balance and peace, where her energy and enthusiasm would have made her one of the most successful members of her tribe, where her curiosity and incessant need to do would have driven her to quick and easy accomplishment and satisfaction.

She doesn’t live in a hunter gatherer tribe. She lives in a truly weird version of humanity that has arisen in 3% of human history. (Written human history is 3% of anatomical human history.) She is, historically speaking, a completely normal homo sapien. She has not adapted genetically or physiologically to the last 3% of our biological history. She possesses completely normal biological instincts, as most children do, but unlike many children, she has not been able to adapt, in her 6 years of life, to a biologically weird culture. And so she is a biological norm, and a cultural anomaly. She is “wild”, and I, her mother, have failed to “tame” her. All of the supplements, occupational therapy, food restrictions, punishments, rewards, pressure, shaming, and leading-by-example in the world has not transformed her from her biology.

But it’s ok. I can’t change the culture or the society or the world that she was born into. I can step back and look at the big picture. I can take advantage, at every opportunity, of the scenarios in which she shines as a truly human mammal. Look at her on the beach, for example, running and digging and playing for hours. Not too tired, not too cold, not whining about sand or sun or wind. She has stamina, she has the ability to meet her own needs, she has drive, she has focus, she is kind, she is insightful, she is generous, she is in all her glory.

When you see children who do not learn well in school, they will often display characteristics that would be valued and admired in any number of non-WEIRD cultures around the world. They are physically energetic; they are independent; they are sociable; they are funny. They like to do things with their hands. They crave real play, play that is exuberant, that tests their strength and skill and daring and endurance; they crave real work, work that is important, that is concrete, that makes a valued contribution. They dislike abstraction; they dislike being sedentary; they dislike authoritarian control. They like to focus on the things that interest them, that spark their curiosity, that drive them to tinker and explore.

-Carol Black, “A Thousand Rivers”

My daughter is exactly as above. She wants to contribute to the real world. No amount of “Montessori work”, as brilliant and creative as it may be, can take the place of figuring out how to make a bridge out of sand, how to make cupcakes out of random kitchen ingredients, or how to keep a fire burning with leaves and sticks. She needs to play, and not in the cutesy way of driving little trains along little tracks, or assigning mother/father roles to baby dolls (although yes, she does that, too). She needs to play exuberantly, and with the force of her whole body. She can play this way all day, and she can because she must. She is driven to socialize and interact in every moment. You can sit her at a desk, but that won’t diminish her need to talk to and explore with another human being. This is how she learns and grows from her world. She is the fullest expression of what it means to be a young mammal. Observe and study young monkeys, young tigers, young dolphins, and you’ll see what I mean.

Is my job as a mother, then, to force her to comply with the trappings of this modern era? Should she be made to sit still in a circle, or at a desk, for hours on end? What will this achieve or accomplish, other than a sense of control for the rest of us? I must encourage and model kindness of spirit, respect for the boundaries and needs of others, and the ability to regulate oneself for ultimate inner peace. Yes, those must be my goals as a parent. And yet, my little human mammal has arrived on this planet to show me that this need not be achieved within four walls. She is at her most regulated, kind, and respectful when she is respected for who she is and what she needs. And what she needs is the type of environment where she will blossom into who she is meant to be.

My daughter, my teacher, my inspiration: In three days you will be released into this world. You will be asked to take control of your own learning and your own fate. You will be given guidance and leadership, but not force or control. You will become responsible for what you know, and how you know it. You will learn to regulate yourself in whatever way works best for you as a unique individual. You will find those places in which your caring spirit and your insatiable curiosity lead you to greatness.

You will bloom into your truest, most radiant self. I am humbled to be with you on your journey as your mother, your mentor, and your friend.

4 weeks!

Four weeks left of school for my little one! There are certain days that inspire me to enter the next year, without “school”, with passion and without fear. One of those days was Sunday, when my girl and I headed off to a new beach to see what we could see. We discovered a free children’s program led by park rangers, we got to see them feed the aquarium life there, a little tour behind the scenes of the tanks, and then out to the beach!

Making a new friend, working together, digging hands and toes and bodies into the natural world.

With my own eyes, I could see that play in this mud was worth 1000 hours in a classroom. The cooperation, teamwork, communication, sensory stimuli, engineering, creativity, knowledge building, and nature exploration was good for body, mind, and soul, not just mind. And let’s be honest… who can learn when their body’s needs, and their soul’s needs, are not also being met?

Running free, learning in peace.

As well-meaning and loving as the adults in my daughter’s school have been (and they have been so loving with her), nothing can fill a child with learning the way that freedom can. After school, my daughter is grumpy, sad, irritable, and tired with low self-esteem. After 5 hours straight on the beach, exploring freely or learning from rangers, whichever she chose, she was calm, regulated, confident, and happy. So, it seems to me, the choice has become a no-brainer.

Exploring the free aquarium on the beach. Learning happens all the time!

Not everyone has the choice, financially, or for child-care reasons. I’ve been given an incredible gift: an opportunity to give her the learning that fills her up, rather than empties her. We are taking it! Now, wouldn’t it be amazing, if someday, all children could access this type of education???

Anything less is not good enough.

taking the big leap

Today we withdrew my daughter from her private school for the foreseeable future. I’ve dreamed of homeschooling, or actually worldschooling, or real life education, since my daughter was two, but until now I’ve never had the means. With twins on the way, and with a two parent household, someone being home all or most of the day every day is finally a reality (and a necessity). And with a little bit of research into the homeschooling community around us, a lot of inner searching, much excitement, and some trepidation, we are giving it a try!

Even in the small, lovely Montessori private school that she has attended the past two years, I see my child suffering in a “school” environment. I see her growing sullen, reluctant to go to school, and feeling irritable and cranky after school, unable to focus on the activities she loves in the evenings. Why do children need to “recover” from school anyway? Because it’s work. Not good work, that you are inspired to do, but often drudge work. The school our girls go to really improves on public schools in a number of important and valuable ways, but when I looked at my very active, very impulsive, sensory processing-challenged daughter, I see a child for whom “classroom learning” is not the right fit, not right now. All of the authority that goes with a rigid schedule of academics and the crowd-control necessary for a peaceful group of 25 three-to-six-year-olds is a round-hold square-peg scenario for her.

And yet, we’ve been wavering because, well, we love the people at the school and appreciate the nurturing atmosphere that contributed so much to our children’s well-being. And also because we aren’t sure how we can possibly tolerate having this very energetic and sometimes difficult child at home 24/7. Actually, having her at home 24/7 is not even an option that she will tolerate.

The only way this could work is if we found some sort of outside programming that she could attend during the week to take the place of school. Something supervised but free-form. Something engaging and active. And so far, we think we have found a few very good options. Programs that take place all day, every day, in the great outdoors (thank you, California weather!). Programs that allow children to learn and inquire and grow at their own pace (goodbye to the reading level expectations!), while allowing for maximum movement and activity. And, by the way, it’s for a fraction of the price of private school tuition AND the occupational therapy required to fit my little square peg into that big round hole that is “school”.

But is it all too good to be true? What will it really be like, to drive her further, to have her around more, to balance homeschool activities with sister’s school schedule and two newborn babies?

We don’t know. It may turn out to be nothing like we hope, but I have a feeling it will be amazing. And I know that by taking giant leaps on faith alone, you sometimes find more joy than you ever could’ve imagined!

“but what about going to school???”

M is three years old, and already most people respond to the news of my upcoming travel lifestyle with one single question, “But what about going to school?”

What about going to school? She goes to school now. It’s fine. There are things she likes about it (her friendships and teachers) but there are more things she doesn’t like about it, and neither do I. Namely that she is allowed much less independence than what she can handle, and is subject to rules that exist to keep order but that don’t actually benefit her. She prefers not to go to school, even though she often enjoys the activities and friendships there. She’d rather stay home, though, which tells me that even at age three she finds her own interests, and the real world, more interesting than the artificial world created by school. She wants to go with me to the bank, the vet, and the grocery store. It’s easier for me to go alone, sure, but she truly enjoys “real life” learning and prefers it over simulated learning.

She’s extroverted, however, and seeks out friendships with her age-mates as well as with older children and adults. Today at the swimming pool she asked no fewer than five children if they’d like to be her friend and play with her, and they all said no. (I was an introverted child and probably would’ve replied in the same way, but it breaks my heart to see her heartfelt offers of friendship so primly turned down.) She really wants to play and laugh and bond with others, so I do wish that she could go somewhere that included children in a community-like setting, but without the institutionalized and formal environment. I wish we could find Sudbury schools where she could form  these friendships while also being surrounded by materials that inspire learning and creativity, but without the adults dictating to her what she should do with all of her time.

We may find some of these types of “schools” while traveling, but we may not. For now, I intend to seek out some home day cares wherever I’m working where she can go a few times a week for part of the day to play with and interact with others. We may find some democratic schools or learning communities that allow part-time enrollment. But once she’s five or older these options will be harder to come by, as almost all of the other children around will be in traditional schools all day, and Sudbury or democratic schools require full-time enrollment and high tuition.

I have no doubt that we will figure it out as we go. She may decide she wants to go to school and try it out. I’m not sure but I know it will work out… I just don’t know how many of our friends’ and family members’ heads will explode in the process if I have to tell them all that I’m not sending her to school!

disturbed, yet again, by school

Many kids (and parents) are getting ready for back-to-school on social media, and some friends who have 4 and 5-year-olds entering kindergarten are crowd-sourcing answers to some of their parenting questions. Issues revolve around how to ‘ease the transition’, and basically get their kids to not be so terrified.

The whole idea is kind of, well, terrifying. I mean, we’re so indoctrinated as a society to think that school is as necessary as showering and brushing our teeth, that we totally accept the fact that the vast majority of young children do NOT want to go to school and have terrible adjustment problems (stomach aches, behavior changes, excessive tiredness, “blanking out” after coming home, etc). We’re told “oh that’s totally normal, it’ll get better when they get used to it.” No one ever even ponders the idea that if something is that upsetting to that many children, maybe it’s not in their best interest???

I know, I know. I sound like the crazy one. About 100 people comment on posts like these advising not to “coddle” your child, they need to learn how to deal with life’s challenges, this will force them to socialize and make friends, etc and so on. As someone who grew up with very real anxiety and panic attacks, I vehemently disagree. Being put into a foreign environment, a concocted and unnatural social milieu, with no support, no life experience, and a total lack of ability to cope with extreme stress (as children naturally do not), is just traumatizing. You don’t have to force kids to learn by putting them through that. They will learn just fine without feeling distressed. In fact, they will learn more easily, and they will learn to love learning!

Life is going to deal many challenges and hardships to your kids without shoving them into something they aren’t ready for, not to mention something in which they had no choice. In new jobs or social situations we, as adults, at least have the choice to be there or not, and the option to leave at any time. Children are essentially imprisoned within the school building for a large part of the day, without any input as to where they would like to be, how they would like to learn, and which types of people they feel comfortable around. They cannot leave if they get overwhelmed. They cannot step out and take a break, or threaten to take their business elsewhere. They can’t even pee without a fucking permission slip.

So yeah… I’m not impressed with the way most of my facebook acquaintances think of their children. I’m not surprised, but I’m also a little outraged. Why do we do this to the people we love the most?

And also, yes I send my daughter to “school” and no, she doesn’t have a choice. So am just the world’s biggest hypocrite? I guess because I have no choice (single working mom who needs child care) she also has no choice. I’m not saying children should not go to school under any circumstances… not at all. Some children like their school and would choose to go. Some would choose to go but only feel comfortable in certain “types” of schools (Montessori, democratic, learning community, Waldorf, etc). Some would choose not to go at all. Some parents would take their child’s beliefs and opinions into account and still make the decision to place them into school. And some have to go somewhere while their parents work, and as parents we put them in the care of a school or person we hope will be nurturing and understanding and fun.

I’m just advocating for more compassion, more awareness, and more willingness to take our child’s developmental needs, personal preferences, and individuality into account.

unschooling: a matter of privilege

First, I will share a speech given by Astra Taylor at Pomona College about unschooling, liberalism, and the use of public school as a system that provides an opportunity to rise up in socioeconomic status:

As a progressive, or a liberal, I think this speech really speaks to the cognitive dissonance that occurs when one considers withdrawing their own children from a public school, and publicly denouncing the system as a whole. Liberals tend to view public school from the viewpoint of egalitarianism- equal education and equal opportunity for all. A child whose parents are struggling with addiction or other crises on a regular basis and do not provide the child with access to books, parks, or other sources of stimulation and knowledge will have a chance to acquire these at school. Despite my passion for unschooling and my disdain for institutionalized education, I still know that this is true, and that compulsory free school is still very much a necessity for a large part of our population.

The fact remains that unschooling is for the privileged few. You need two parents, one of whom makes a living. Or you need to be able to work from home or be independently wealthy or pair up with another family, etc and so on. If you desperately need your child to go somewhere affordable or free AND be in a learning-conducive (so-to-speak) space, you need to send your kid to public school. Waldorf, Emilia Reggio, Montessori, Sudbury Valley, and democratic or “free” schools are anything but free. Tuition can be as high as $20,000 per year per child, or at the minimum $10,000 per school year for the first child. Obviously, access to the “best” schools and education as far as child development researchers and experts on child psychology are concerned are currently only available for the elite, wealthy, or lucky.

One democratic school (no grades, all ages mixed, no standard curriculum, etc) that is tuition-free (mentioned in the speech above) is Windsor House School in Canada (British Columbia). I believe this type of respectful educational space should be the new compulsory schooling, publicly funded and if not mandatory, at least encouraged, so that those families who cannot provide unschooling at home are funneled into it.

Did I mention that I feel so lucky that in our very rural, small-town boondock area we now have a public Montessori school? Yes, it sucks that there is mandatory state-testing and grades, but still.