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.

a parenting meditation on acceptance

I accept that my child is loud.

I accept that I do not like noise, and my child is noisy. This will make me uncomfortable. This will trigger sensory defensiveness in me. This will mean that I have to find ways to cope with her loudness, as well as help her learn to discern when and where to NOT be loud, as well as to encourage empathy in her so that she knows when to back off. I accept that this will be challenging.

I accept that my child is rough.

I accept that this will also trigger my sensory defensiveness. I see that she is sorry when her rough movement causes me pain, and I see that she is embarrassed and ashamed. My job as a parent is to help her modulate her rough behavior so that no one gets hurt, and to help her find the appropriate outlet for her proprioceptive needs.

I accept that she will ask for boundaries by pushing my buttons.

My job is to hold those boundaries firm with love, modeling calm and anger management. I accept that I will often fail at calm, loving boundary-holding, and will dissolve into yelling. I will then attempt to model repair, and an attitude of perseverance toward bettering myself.

I accept that she is impulsive.

I accept that she will do things that a child several year younger would do, but probably not a child her own age. I accept that this part of her brain is still developing, on track, but behind most of her peers. I accept that I will have to repeat myself more often than not. I bear witness to the fact that although it takes time, she does learn to do things that must be done. I accept that I will sometimes be overcome by frustration with this.

I accept that she won’t always be able to do what her peers can do.

I accept that there are some things my child cannot do yet that others her age can, like sit still at a restaurant or for a show. She may not be able to take group swim lessons because she can’t yet follow all the rules. She has to be supervised at times that other children do not. I accept that I will have to make accommodations for this, even as I see that in her own way, she is maturing and reaching the milestones she’s meant to reach. I accept that I will feel anger, disappointment, resentment, and most of all, fear, when she is unable to keep up with her neurotypical peers. I accept the responsibility for my own feelings and my own expectations, which are not hers, but only my own.

I accept that she is exactly who she is, and who she is meant to be.

I accept that the challenges presented with parenting her are gifts of growth to me. I accept that by not fitting into a prescripted developmental timeline, she has brought me with her outside of the box, to explore new paths together. I love her for this. I appreciate her for this. She is a unique expression of the divine. Her energy is her gift to the world.

the madness of children

Over the weekend, I broke. The loudness, impulsiveness, defiance… being ignored, talked back to, forced to clean up after, disrespected… it was too much. I felt like I was swirling down a drain. I could barely talk to or look at my child. The life-force had been sucked out of me, and there was nowhere to go to recharge or recover. So, I went to bed at 6pm, and then went back to bed with my daughter later.

I tried to do better the next day. I didn’t do a lot better, but I did do better. And I’ve suffered the mom guilt thing ever since. Why, when I love my child more than life itself, when I study and memorize respectful parenting texts, when I intellectually know how to do better, do I not do it all the time??? What is wrong with me???

Ironically, this is the question my daughter asks herself every single day, all day long. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I stop myself every time? Why didn’t I think things through? Why is it so hard for me to listen? Why do people get so angry at me? Why can’t I be “good”?

So, as a mom, I’m here today, doing my best. Apologizing and owning my own shortcomings with my daughter. All morning I made a herculean effort to be less short-tempered, to not yell, to not storm off. She could only find one shoe. She wanted chocolate candy for breakfast. She crawled over the middle of the seats in the rental car. She wanted a jacket. Then didn’t want it when she had one sleeve on. She wouldn’t go into her classroom because she hated the shoes she was wearing because we couldn’t find the other shoe she wanted. On, and on. And I kept saying, “I’m trying so hard not to lose my temper. I love you and I want you to know how much I love you. I’m frustrated by this but I’m trying not to yell. I want to have a good morning together.” Over and over. And somehow, the morning was a little better for it. Not because she did what I wanted in the end (she wore the shoes she didn’t like, but complained the whole time, she didn’t wear the jacket, she crawled over the seat), but because I didn’t throw gasoline on her fire. So the fire was smaller and easier to recover from.

My daughter is my spiritual practice. She pushes me to practice what I preach. She insists that I never stop growing. Her existence forces me to mindfulness. I’m grateful to her in every way.

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!

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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?

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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.

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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.

the day that Montessori broke my heart

At 2 1/2, my daughter began her Primary cycle in Montessori. For those who aren’t familiar with the “grade levels” in a Montessori school, Primary is a three-year cycle generally for ages 3, 4, and 5. The last year in the cycle is the “kindergarten” year. I hoped I was doing the right thing at the time, and her first primary teacher was so kind, gracious, patient, and nurturing, that I was instantly a Montessori fan. The hands-on approach to learning, very tactile, and the freedom of choice that the children had, it all won me over. In California, we found yet another classroom with nurturing, loving teachers who devoted themselves to my daughter’s well-being. And I assure you, she is not the easiest kid in the class, with her sensory needs, high energy level, and emotional outbursts! How could I not love these special adults who took my daughter under their wing and loved her for all of her wonderful qualities???

In the background, I was reading everything I could find on self-directed learning, and of course that led me to John Holt and Peter Gray. Unschooling became my secret dream, but Montessori was still so much better than any version of public school. I wished I had learned subjects like math in the Montessori way. I saw the hard work they put into developing the child’s social and emotional skills, and I valued the tight-knit community.

Then one day, at an introductory night in her new Montessori school, my daughter took out a work and placed it on a rug. It was a bowl full of little plastic animal figurines, meant for a sorting task of some kind. But M, being 4 years old and full of wonderful imagination, began to play with the animals, making up a story line and lining them up. The teacher came over, quickly, and corrected her. She said, “that’s not what this work is for” and showed her how to do it “correctly”. That was the moment, the moment I knew, that even though Montessori was full of wonderful ideas and wonderful people, it wasn’t quite hitting the mark. In fact, in that moment, it really missed. I can’t accept that there is only one right way to use those animal figurines. Or that the sorting activity had any more importance or relevance to my four-year-old than the activity she had devised from the material all on her own.

That was the day that I knew, without a doubt, that I couldn’t be completely satisfied with Montessori. And, as my stepdaughter transitioned into first grade, and the at-home work began to start slipping into our evening life, I felt more irritated. The sacrifice of free time, play, and family life felt like a detriment to learning, a hindrance rather than a help.

So when I start to second-guess my decision to put my daughter in purely self-directed learning programs, and take her out of the school building… I remember that moment, and I know it’s right.

my mental health, a work in progress

Lately, parenting has been harder than usual for me. I can never tell if I’m having a hard time, therefore my daughter is as well, or if she’s having the hard time, and I’m incapable of finding a deeper well of patience to draw from. My frustration level with sensory-seeking and defiant behavior feels to be at a low. Meanwhile, we’ve all noticed a ramping up of these behaviors at home… louder, rougher, repetitive behaviors… a driving need to make a mess… a knee-jerk “no” reaction when reminded to do something routine, like wipe up a spill or put away a dish.

I know other parents of special-needs and/or trauma-affected children can relate. There are just times when I feel woefully inadequate at coping with it. I’m very sensory-avoidant, and I have a loud, rough, high-energy child. This can sometimes result in my shutting down, rolling into a prickly ball, and yes, yelling at my kid all day.

I really hate yelling at my kid. I feel out of control. I feel taken over by rage and sensory-overload, unable to behave the way I know I should. Or even the way I truly want to. It doesn’t feel like me, and wow, I guess that’s exactly what she feels like when she’s out of control!

The thing is, I feel so at a loss as to how to change things. Naturally, I want her to just be different. You know, just stop making noises, just stop yelling, just stop making messes. That would be easiest for me. But she can’t do that, so how do I cope? How do I get my calm back?

How, how, how do I enjoy being a parent again???

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!