“Every Face I Look at Seems Beautiful”

March 17, 2008 @ 8:26 pm | Filed under: , , , ,

I’ve been thinking through some things in emails (and offline) lately, and I wanted to bring some of those thoughts here. It has to do with patience, a good kind and a bad kind, and their relationship to happiness and learning, especially unschooling.

My children think I’m a pretty swell mom, but they know all too well that I have my faults. If you asked them, they would say (if they weren’t too loyal to rat on me) that my greatest fault is impatience. They’d be right, at least as far as my relationship with the kids is concerned. Impatience comes from frustration, (or does it lead to frustration?), and I think we all know that what spills over from an impatient person’s frustration is scolding, or nagging, or sharp words. Impatience is what you feel when people aren’t doing what you want them to do: it’s a frustrated desire for control.

When Jane was two years old, in the hospital fighting leukemia, people used to constantly compliment me for my patience. Other parents, nurses, doctors—I heard it from many people and it always puzzled me. I didn’t feel ‘patient,’ not in any virtuous sense. What I felt was a keen awareness that my days with this child might possibly be numbered, and I didn’t want to lose a single one of them to a bad mood. I wanted to savor every moment with my baby girl, in case I didn’t have many moments left to savor. So I gladly, gratefully, spent hours playing playdough with her, or giving her i.v. pole rides in the hallways, or holding her while she slept. You don’t need ‘patience’ to live through moments like that.

And through the years, I’ve held on to that sense of ‘savor this moment because it is precious’ with my kids. But I cannot deny that as the years passed, and as more children joined the party, impatience elbowed its way into my heart, my words, my actions. I can almost pinpoint the moment I changed, or at least the moment impatience boiled over into sharpness. Rose was three years old, and Beanie was a baby; we were at a lake beach near our home in Virginia, and I got stuck. Stuck trying to leave the beach, with an unhappy, sandy Bean crying on my hip and a bag slipping off my shoulder, and an intractible Rose straining to pull away from me, her heels digging into the wet sand, wavelets lapping at our ankles. We needed to leave. Jane was already halfway to the parking lot (and too young to be there alone). I couldn’t put the baby down without getting her wet (again), and I was out of diapers. Rose refused to budge. I felt helpless, completely held hostage by a stubborn toddler. I had to scoop her up under one arm like a football and carry her, screaming and squirming, back to the car.

I say “had to,” but I’m sure I had other options. It didn’t seem like it at the time. We were there with friends—the dad friend would, in later years, recall that episode with glee, the day he “saw Lissa lose it.” Why I didn’t holler to him to stop grinning and pick up Rose, I don’t remember. I am quite certain that either of the mom friends who were present would have been happy to help. They probably offered to, but what I remember about the moment is that sense of helplessness and frustration.

Moms of small children can run into that feeling often. What it is, really, is a feeling of being out of control. Loss of control is scary. I dealt with it well when the loss of control was due to illness, something out of any human being’s power to alter. But ah, it’s when a person, or people, especially small people who are “supposed” to obey their mama, are flouting my attempts to control—that‘s when impatience comes in.

People who try to control other people often find themselves feeling impatient, or worse. The reason mothers (to single out one kind of person) scold or fuss or nag or criticize their children is because they are trying to bring a situation back under control—that is, to make things go the way the mom wants them to go.

When I had three or four children each wanting to go a different direction, that’s when I got impatient. That’s when I became a mom who scolds. That’s when I stopped savoring every moment, only selected moments.

That’s when I started to wonder what had happened to the patient mommy I used to be. I used to be so patient—I would think that all the time, forgetting that in the days when people remarked upon my patience, I hadn’t felt like patience came into the equation at all.

I think when we talk about patience in terms of a quality we don’t feel like we possess (“I used to be so patient”), we are talking about a kind of patience that isn’t really a virtue at all. That kind of patience is about enduring the present moment until a better one comes along. It’s a gritting-one’s-teeth-and-getting-through-it state of mind.

It’s how many of us endured countless hours of our lives in school. The kids who didn’t patiently endure were the ones labeled troublemakers. Patient endurance is how most people get through hours in line at the DMV, or (to poke my own self here) the interminable waits in doctor’s offices. There is no moment-savoring going on in that kind of patience. In fact, often ‘being patient’ really just means ‘being quiet and not making a fuss’ while resentment or irritation is churning underneath.

I think the reason people tend to be less patient with their children is because they can in fact exert some external control over the children—as opposed to the doctors who keep us waiting, or the complicated beaucratic systems directing the flow of traffic at the DMV.

But “exerting control” by nagging, scolding, lecturing, ordering in a drill-sergeant’s bark—these are actions that, sooner or later, will do harm to a relationship. Nobody likes being nagged, scolded, or lectured ‘for their own good.’ I sure don’t like it, I know that much. It’s a complete violation of the Golden Rule, isn’t it? Treating children the way we’d like to be treated if we were in their shoes means finding other ways of dealing with those out-of-control moments.

I think for me, the shift back toward a better way began when I drove the kids from Virginia to California by myself. Rilla was six months old, Wonderboy three. Scott had already started his job out here, and he would have flown back to drive with us but I talked him out of it. If he came along, we’d be on the clock; he could only take so much time off work. If I drove alone, we could amble, stopping as often and as long as the kids needed to—which turned out to be very, very often. I had to abandon myself to the flow of the trip: letting go of the desire to control every move we made. We wound up having a wonderful time, the six of us, and I think a big part of the reason is because that 2700-mile journey was about taking each moment as it came. They were moments worth savoring, and savor them I did.

Not that there weren’t some bumps in the road. There were (are) still five children, not all of them always wanting the same thing. But I found that being mindful of the difference between ‘taking care of’ and ‘controlling’ (or trying to control), and being determined to appreciate the present moment, not just try to to ‘get through’ it—those attitudes eliminate impatience. Really. And then the bumps in the road become part of the grand adventure, challenges to be tackled, puzzles to be solved. It’s so much more satisfying to be creative and fun than to be frustrated and stern.

There is another kind of patience, a good kind. It’s the quality that allows a mother with ten places to put every minute to sit in the driveway drawing chalk figures for her toddler, or blow bubbles until the whole bottle is gone, or take half an hour to walk down the block, admiring every dandelion and ant that catches her little one’s eye. It’s the patience that plays a game of Monopoly with an eight-year-old until every last dollar is in someone’s pile, the kind that listens with interest to a detailed recounting of the latest phone-book-sized Teen Titans collection. That kind of patience isn’t about enduring the present moment until a better one comes along. It’s about enjoying the present moment for exactly what it is, with gusto and gratitude.

There’s “patience in suffering,” too, of course, and while perhaps that kind isn’t about enjoying the present (painful or sorrowful) moment, it too involves a willingness to accept the present moment for what it is. People who are patient in suffering tend to be people overflowing with gratitude for all the other things in their lives besides suffering. This is a very great virtue, and I think it grows out of the peaceful sense of appreciation for what is, now, as opposed to a longing for something different, something better: it’s the good kind of patience all grown up.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all this in conjunction with unschooling, which is a whole way of living that embraces the present moment, rejoices in what is good about it. Unschooling says: this day, this encounter, this connection of ideas, this moment between us—this is very, very good. Unschooling begins with a dismissal of the kind of experiences that a child must “patiently endure” in order to be “educated,” but it is more than that, more than a rejection of one way of being. Unschoolers see everything in the whole wide world as interesting, connected, something they can learn about. (Scroll halfway down at the link and you’ll see why I linked that page in particular, though the whole site speaks to the point.) Instead of patiently (or impatiently) enduring the long wait at the DMV, an unschooler might look around, notice things, think about them, wonder how and why. Why are all the people sitting in the back two rows in this waiting area, but are scattered among all the rows in that bank of seats over there? What kinds of jobs do the people waiting in line have, and was it hard for them to get time off to spend a weekday morning here? When did the old cameras get dumped in favor of digital cameras? Why are the walls a glaring white instead of something soft and soothing like in doctors’ offices? What is the ratio of DMV employees to customers? Is customer the right word for a person in line at the DMV?

Of course I’m not saying that unschoolers are the only people who approach life this way. Harvard professor John Stilgoe, the author of that book I’m still reading: he gets it. He sees what’s interesting in power lines and telephone poles and manhole covers. He has made these things interesting to me. Reading that book is making visible—even beautiful—all sorts of things that were ugly or invisible to me before. The other day I looked out my windshield sideways down a street and saw, for the first time in my life, how the rows of of drooping wires made a spiderweb against the sky: lacy, delicate, lovely.

It reminded me of Philip Isaacson’s book Round Buildings, Square Buildings, Buildings that Wiggle like a Fish, which showed me ways of looking at buildings that made every building interesting to me, made me see the artistry and story of the Brooklyn Bridge, the white clapboard church, the green glass skyscraper.

I’ll never forget reading, in college, Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and how one of her students said that after taking Betty’s drawing class and working on portraits, every face she looked at seemed beautiful to her. The drawing lessons taught her to really look at people, and when she did, she saw beauty everywhere.

I know I’m going all over the place here, but in my mind these things are all connected: this way of really looking, really seeing, noticing what is interesting and important and even beautiful about things many people whisk by without noticing. And what I can do for my children is refuse to fill up their lives with things they must patiently endure until a better moment comes. I can savor the moments as they happen, and give them the time and space to find what’s interesting and beautiful in every face the world shows them.

As I was writing that last sentence, Beanie appeared in front of me with a big smile and a present: a bracelet made of safety pins linked together, each pin shining with green and blue beads. “It’s for you, Mommy,” she breathed, so proud and excited. “Jane showed me how.” How patiently (the good kind of patience) she must have worked to slide all those beads in place.

I never noticed before what a work of art a safety pin is!

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125 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Laura Jones says:

    Thanks, Lissa. You have no idea how much I needed to read this today — regarding parenting but also a host of other things. It was like chatting on Lisa’s porch over a cup of tea. Just hit the spot!

    Sending you lots of love and a great big hug,

  2. temptabo says:

    Wow, thanks Lissa. I so needed this. I’m new to unschooling but it should be easy. I’m having trouble with the ideas that I will make mistakes and that has to be OK. This was beautiful. Thank you once again.

  3. JoVE says:

    That was beautiful. Thanks for articulating it.

  4. Activities Coordinator says:

    Thanks. I was needing to see the bright side of Strep Throat. Maybe it’s an opportunity to study biology. Or it could be an opportunity to study subtraction (the amount in the checking account minus the doctor’s visit MINUS the cost of medication…). I see it clearly now. The possibilities are endless. 🙂

  5. mamacrow says:

    oooo, THANKYOU for this. Now, what interests me is I know there are some days I get lost in that ‘frustration’ and others where I’m truly savouring the moment and to be honest, I know that the two days are nearly identical (objectively speaking) so why is that I react the first way sometimes? (thankfully less times than I react the other way)

    also – hooray, I’m not alone! it’s often me who’s stopping the kids as we go down the street ‘cos I find EVERYTHING interesting!

  6. Jennifer says:

    Wow, you really put into words the elusive magic of unschooling. I’m saving this one to read on days when I need it.

  7. WendyinVA says:

    Printing this out so I can read it when I’m feeling the need to control everyone and everything… Thank you!!

  8. Jeanne says:

    So much to respond to here, but I’ve spent my allotted time today, so I’ll just note this quickly. There are levels to this thing Stilgoe sees in power lines — and I think it is connected with patience as well as a way of seeing. The other day my 10 year old looked out the car window and said, “Mom, look at the spider web shadows the power lines make on the road.” Sure enough — not only had he noticed the power lines, he had noticed the pattern of their narrow dark arcs on the road! He is a child easy to be impatient with and who often finds difficulty in being patient himself. But if he is able to show me these shadows, and I am able to be still and see them, there is hope for both of us, that we can see, that we can savor.

  9. Michele Quigley says:

    Thank you Lissa that was truly beautiful. You know, I used to think I was a very patient person…until I had children. LOL!

    I do so like the John Stilgoe book. I am highly right-brained and remember so well thinking this way as a child. Somehow as an adult with many cares and concerns I became less this way. By only by habit it seems because when I can relax and let go it all comes back to me. 🙂

  10. Jen says:

    I have really enjoyed reading your blog, and in fact it has become one of my favorites. I love your idea of unschoolers at the DMV, and, being an extremely impatient control freak, I promise to try it out at the dentist next week 😉 Thanks!

  11. Kristen L. says:

    This is a beautiful reflection, Lissa. I get asked about patience all the time from readers. The struggle with impatience is so universal to motherhood, and I think more needs to be written about it.

    And like Michele Q., I always considered myself a calm and patient woman….until I had children. 🙂

  12. Becky says:

    There must be something in the air 🙂

    I just read this post before coming to the Bonny Glen,


    I was just telling my husband this morning, as we had breakfast in the kitchen while the older two kids played Canada-opoly in the living room (a continuation of their last night’s game) and the youngest kept darting between his room and the kitchen, showing us his ever more elaborate Lego airplane, that if they went to school in town, they’d be sitting, awfully sleepy, in a classroom after enduring a one-hour bus ride. And probably not too primed to start learning anything “formally” either.

  13. Sandra Dodd says:

    ” really looking, really seeing, noticing what is interesting and important and even beautiful about things many people whisk by without noticing. ”

    My kids say I’m easily amused, but as it has all unfolded, they are too. Whether it’s nature or nurture, we freely share the little things of the day. I found a stick that looks like a cyclops. It’s on the kitchen table. I dug up a magnet with little particles of natural iron sticking to it. I could have flung them away.

    Finding Beauty (in my yard). I like that post. Here’s a similar one, for reasons you’ll see, more recently: very brief tour of my back yard
    and some food photos added later…

    Holly, 16 and unschooled always, has said several times she really likes going to DMV. There’s one pretty near our house. She’s been as her brothers got permits and licenses, and she’s been for her own permit and license, and went with her boyfriend to transfer an out of state license and found out its not so easy!

    She can learn and have fun anytime, anywhere.

    When I got to the part about “Outside Lies Magic,” I stopped and ordered the book. It will arrive Thursday. I’m reading “Vermeer’s Hat,” which is about the connections found in the 17th Century paintings of Vermeer, from Delft, Holland. I bought that because of a review in Entertainment Weekly.

    Letting go of expectations about what sources are good for what makes all sources potentially fantastic!

    When I had three children under six, I sometimes had to carry two while one walked, and it’s hard! I have several times picked one up against his will, but I always found soothing words and touch and consolations when we got to the stopping place, and pretty easily made him (it was often Marty, the middle one) better and happier in no time.

    I’ve seen a parent coax and coax and discuss with one child while the other two get more and more irritated and the coaxee isn’t too impressed either.

    When people tell me I’m patient with my kids, I tell them it’s FUN to be with my kids.

    When people say I’m patient with new unschoolers, I tell them it happens when someone really wants to get it, and I know what benefits there will be to the children and the family. I’m working on a new page:
    Spouses. It’s not finished, but there’s a photo of me and Keith (and some other couples) there.

    And when people say I’m NOT patient with new unschoolers, it’s that I’m not patient with people who are determined not to even try to understand it.

  14. Sandra Dodd says:

    Sorry that last link didn’t work.

  15. Amy says:

    Will you come to my house and mentor me, Lissa? LOL, no wait, I want to live where you are (my favorite city in the world 🙂 ), so I’ll bring my whole brood to your house. 😉

    Seriously though, thank you for this. When I’m alone, I’m extremely patient. I can while the time away, happy as a clam, enjoying the moment – even at the dentist, even at the DMV. But add my kids to the mix and WHAMMO I don’t know what happened.

  16. Melissa Wiley says:

    It’s funny, Amy, I don’t feel like I could mentor anyone because I have so much to learn myself. (Not that anyone ever stops learning, not even the wisest of mentors.) People could probably learn more by watching my mistakes, seeing what *not* to do, than from following my example. Look at the pages and pages of curriculum reviews I filled up this blog with before I finally decided to commit to unschooling. It has been a long, slow transition. It was hard for me to finally admit that while I have loved Charlotte Mason’s ideas *in theory*, in practice we have always come to a place, sooner or later, where I see the kids’ enthusiasm waning, saw them “patiently enduring” because they love and trust me. (That’s the point at which I have always ditched the plan, as I’ve written about here many times, because I have always been clear in understanding that people don’t learn when they’re not interested.)

    With the one child (so far) who is not the type to patiently endure, I began finding myself in more and more conflict. And I don’t want that, don’t want an adversarial relationship with any of my children. I had to really think deeply (and long, this has been months in coming) about it, about relationships and control and the golden rule and peace, to come to a place where I feel like I GET it, I understand something about relationships that was eluding me before. (Maybe I understood it better when I only had one child, a child who got very sick.)

    In my first post about the Stilgoe book I said the book was transformative. It really has been, for me. Seeing the message of unschoolers like Sandra in this totally different context–it got through to me in a new way. I had been reading a lot about motherhood and joy on sites like Sandra’s and Joyce Fetteroll’s, and reread CM and others whose ideas I’ve respected, and I had a lot to think through (am still thinking) about how unschooling and Catholicism work together. I kept coming back to the golden rule, how we ought to treat others the way we want to be treated, and it struck me that very few parents treat their kids the way they, themselves, would like to be treated. This was a few months ago, and then I started reading Outside Lies Magic, and things came into sharp focus for me. My religion says to treat other people the way I would like to be treated: unschooling, as understood by Sandra and Joyce and others, is a way of living that out, day by day, moment by moment, with the people I have the most contact with. My religion says to “count it all joy,” every moment, even the tough ones, and to give thanks in all things. You can’t be thankful about things you don’t notice; being more observant and seeing something of interest in everything, everywhere is what lets you count it ALL joy. Ooh, I’m squeezing too much into too few words here! Anyway, I guess what I am saying is that after spending a lot of time closely examining certain sets of ideas (Waldorf, CM, others), the principles that make the most sense to me in terms of the real people I live with and the doctrines of my faith are those articulated by unschoolers. Not that I haven’t learned a lot from other sources: I have. And I’m glad to have read and thought about everything I have read and thought about. 🙂 But the idea that made a real and practical difference when applied has been understanding the distinction between patiently enduring (and putting others in a position to have to patiently endure) and savoring the moment. It’s a mental shift. I no longer grit my teeth to hold everyone in check until we get through the grocery store: I take the kids to the grocery store for an adventure. I’m not impatient with them because I’m busy *being* with them. I’m not worrying about whether they’re “behaving” because we’re engaged in an experience together, talking to each other, sharing observations, noticing interesting things. It is radically different from the old “okay, now everyone be good and stay close to the cart, and we’ll get through this as quick as we can.” Some people feel that way about math, but we never have. For us it has been the errands, the doctor appointments, the business of daily life. As I had more kids, I had more of that business, which meant more and more of life was being “gotten through” instead of lived.

    I have always cherished and celebrated (including here on the blog) the moments of connection, discovery, and fun–the difference is, now they last all day. It sounds too good to be true, but it isn’t. Being connected is better than being controlling. Being interested is better than being bored. Being fun is more fun than not being fun! 😉

  17. patience says:

    Wonderful, inspiring. Impatience is one of my major flaws (sigh, yes I have several major flaws) and I know it is about control issues. I get into a tizzy even just waiting five minutes for a bus. And yet, like you, I draw gasps of admiration for my patience from those who don’t understand that what I’m really displaying is gratitude and love and truly feeling the blessing of the moment. What I now need to grasp is that even the difficult moments, the moments when someone is annoying me, are blessed too.

    Lissa, won’t you take a quick plane trip over here and do an unschooling consultation for me? 😉

  18. Melissa Wiley says:

    Patience, here’s my consultation:

    Moving a Puddle by Sandra Dodd

    Outside Lies Magic by John Stilgoe

    This post and others by Willa at In a Spacious Place

    (It would have been more fun to deliver the books in person.) 😉

  19. Amy C. says:

    You wrote: I never noticed before what a work of art a safety pin is!

    Another book to add to your list: The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski . . . fascinating and delightful.

    I too picked up the Stilgoe book from the library today . . . I’ll enjoy reading it “with” you.

    And thanks for the reflections on patience. They were beautiful, and such a good reminder for me. I’m especially working on being patient while we try to get out the door for the (few) scheduled events we have . . . this is the hardest thing for me, and I know my hurried mood diminishes the excitement about the event to come. I know that getting there is half the fun . . . guess I just didn’t realize that, with little ones, getting to the car is half the getting there. 🙂

  20. Hannah says:

    Thank you so much for this — I’ve never left a comment before although I read your blog on Google Reader, but I found this so inspiring today as it speaks to the our highest ideals as mindful, or aspiring-to-be-mindful, parents.
    I hope you develop this further in future posts! Specifically, I found myself wondering, when you mentioned the difference between patience and exerting control — any examples of how this applies in those moments that ARE frustrating, and hard to enjoy? Like when you’ve asked your 4-year-old six times to clear her dishes from the table, or to brush her teeth, and she’s just lying on the floor??? I hate the overpowering nag that wants to, and often does, leap out of my mouth, but it’s hard to find a more connecting, genuinely patient (yet appropriately authoritative) way …

  21. Melissa Wiley says:

    “with little ones, getting to the car is half the getting there.”

    LOL and amen to that!!! I swear, nothing brings out the Frankenmommy in me like the getting-ready-to-go rush. My friend Eileen told me about a book called, I think, Margin (there’s another one for our list), which talks about how much of the stress in people’s lives is due to a lack of enough margin–he talks about margin with finances, a safety cushion, but the part I was interested in was about “margin of time,” allowing enough time (REALLY enough) to make transitions, to get ready, to get places. I tripled my “getting ready to go” margin and that (when I stick to it) makes a world of difference!

  22. Meredith says:

    Excellent read, and I’m totally loving the Stilgoe book too, so many good points! You have the best way of saying the things that are the most important, hugs to you!

  23. christie says:

    I’d noticed that you were somewhat absent for a while. I was wondering if you were working on a new book. Hopefully you are, but I can now see you were re energizing your blog a bit. I love the remodel, and this post is proof that you are still thinking the big thoughts and taking the time to share them. For that, I thank-you.

  24. Jeanne says:

    When you begin thinking about what you learn from that one child who “isn’t one to patiently endure,” doesn’t that give perspective as to why that little soul was sent to you?

    How much less far I might have come without this child to learn from.

  25. Amy says:

    Lissa, if you see someone checking your website from the same ISP over and over again in the next week, it’s me — reading and rereading this post and the replies. 🙂 You are discussing something I don’t quite get yet, but am *desperate* to have after 10 long years of searching and praying for it and taking my kids down with me. I think I “get” how to do this with schooling (or unschooling as the case may be) but I have a total disconnect when I try to merge “enjoying the moment” with being the authority figure I believe parents should be (and think my kids Who Will Not Be Controlled seriously need – maybe that’s my mistake – because we seriously butt heads over this. I think they need a heavy hand because they don’t listen/learn, but even that doesn’t work, only causes problems). But I am totally against “unparenting”. Who knows, if I get a free hour for thinking (ha ha) maybe I’ll try to blog my thoughts on it. If I have any! 🙂

  26. Amy says:

    Monopolizing your comments 🙂 to say “I’m with Hannah”who posted in the looooong time it took me to finish my comment — this is my problem (or part of it). I know the AP party line of “be creative, make it fun” but multiply that by 5 kids and I start to twitch and honestly, get very resentful that I have to jump through hoops all day just to get my kids to do something. I grew up with the impression that kids should do things because their parents said so! LOL

  27. Kathy says:

    Your words have revived me at a much needed time. There is much to absorb and sort through. My joy has trickled away lately but your words help me to unravel *why*. Grace and peace to you and yours.

  28. Michele Quigley says:


    It’s really NOT about jumping through hoops but rather being present and available to your children. I don’t say yes to everything but I WILL listen and entertain the idea and my kids know that and feel confident to ask. I’m not an “unparenting” advocate either but being in authority doesn’t have to mean being in control or being what we imagine as “authoritarian”. Jesus is our best example of this. He was Lord but he came to serve not to be served. If I can remember this in my role with my children things go much better. I am here to facilitate their learning, serve them in their needs etc. I don’t give in on non-negotiable issues (the three year old cannot play with the stove!) but I am trying to constantly be open to what will better help them learn, discover who they are and become the person God created them to be.

  29. Penny in VT says:

    Gorgeous. Positively gorgeous. Thank you!

  30. Meredith says:

    Lissa, I have been thinking about this post ALL day, friend!! It’s so good to have you BACK :))) I like Michele’s quote about Jesus, I need to remember the serving part more often when I’m ready to blow!

  31. Penny in VT says:

    Melissa! You are changing lives (3 that I can count in my own house alone) with this post! I keep rereading it and gaining more and more courage to let go of all that… that… whatever it is that needs letting go of!

    Please (please!) keep posting about unschooling and the nuts and bolts of your days and how the tide is staying low – you are such an inspiration to me!

    Thank you times a million billion gazillion!

  32. Amy says:

    Michele, I loved your last line – I need to focus more on that: ” I don’t give in on non-negotiable issues… but I am trying to constantly be open to what will better help them learn, discover who they are and become the person God created them to be.”

    Maybe it was just the specific example you used, but it seems like you are talking about the positives, like when your kids come to you asking to do something, and my problem lies more in the times that have already gone downhill by my children’s “childishness” – when I’ve nicely asked more than once and my child is still arguing, or disobeying, or demanding (is it just because I have girls? Is this all over emotional girl stuff? LOL). The jumping through hoops I’m talking about in those cases are the “positive parenting” (I mistakenly labeled it “AP”) injunctions to try to gently convince the child to behave. Be creative! Ask the child to be an elephant to clean up their room with their trunk! LOL Problem is, I still have 10yo’s who like to argue and not obey, and the elephant thing doesn’t work anymore. 😉 Nor does it work on the current almost 3yo. *This* is where I get impatient. I’m tired and have no creativity left, and I just want my kids to be nice to each other, to obey me, and to be happy, darn it! LOL! 🙂

    I have been greatly encouraged by these comments, however, to realize that A) most moms have their impatient times, and B) I’m a better mom than I think because I already DO many of the positive things people are saying. Yay me! 😉

    I love the discussions that go on in your comment section, Lissa! You always have such wise readers, present company excepted, LOL.

  33. Kay says:

    Reading that book is making visible—even beautiful—all sorts of things that were ugly or invisible to me before. ….

    Watch AUGUST RUSH!! We just did. You will also hear the world in a new way. It falls right into Stilgoe’s book of observation! It was my sons movie pick for the night. It was great.

    Now I will go back and reread your post and the line up of comments.

  34. Cici says:

    wow! this has been really eating at me lately – since the birth of number 3 (all of them about 2.5 yrs apart) a little over a year ago i keep asking myself when did i change? how can i get that “patient” person back? the mama who took long walks without stepping on cracks, watching ants, collecting everything?

    now i see i really can blame my one year old. ha! just kidding.

    the “business of life” is truly what gets to me. bread baking – i’m there. sewing – bring it on. other cooking, glueing, glittering, reading, writing, math, coloring, drawing, dancing – i am so there. but the grocery store? the trip to the library? drug store? doctor? long car rides? bleh bleh bleh.

    i love the last lines of one of your comments – “being connected is better than being controlling. being interested is better than being bored. being fun is better than not being fun!”, and michelle’s advice, too.

    so many words to say “thanks”

  35. Rachel29 says:


    Thank you so much for this. As a committed unschooler, who went through many a phase of trying to be like everyone else, because for some odd reason I thought I should (odd because I have never been a conformist type), I loved every word of this post. Lately, I have been bolstering my commitment to unschooling on a philosophical level by reading Alfie Kohn’s Punished By Rewards, and Ellen Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learning. I find I need reinforcement sometimes, even of the things I *KNOW* are true…like the books above or by Holt, Gatto, back issues of GWS, Sandra’s site, and your blog are all places I go to remember why I am an unschooler.

    God Bless,

  36. Melissa Wiley says:

    i love the last lines of one of your comments – “being connected is better than being controlling. being interested is better than being bored. being fun is better than not being fun!”

    Rereading that, it sounded to me like something from Sandra’s site, and may very well be a paraphrase. There is a LOT of helpful writing there on parenting.

    Amy, I was thinking about your comment at the dr’s office this afternoon (and how different from dr visits a few short months ago! Rose and I speculated about the purpose of a curious fixture beneath the skylight in the waiting room, which led to her mentally designing an entire dream house as we sat there…I’m glad to report her dream house has a room for me in it 😉 )…Far from being unparenting, I think parenthood a la unschooling requires being a lot MORE engaged than the controlling kind of parenting. It takes more time and energy (at first? when they’re little? when you have a bunch?) to think about how you’d want to be treated if you were the child in that situation (each different situation) and to act upon that than it does to issue an order. Now of course if you issue the order and the child doesn’t comply, you’ve got a power struggle to deal with and I think that is the most exhausting and time-consuming situation of all. And such bleak rewards: bad feeling between parent and child.

    my problem lies more in the times that have already gone downhill by my children’s “childishness” – when I’ve nicely asked more than once and my child is still arguing, or disobeying, or demanding

    OK, this is really important stuff to talk about. I don’t have all the answers, not by a long shot. But I’m keenly interested in working toward them.

    One trap I think parents fall into is the worry that if we don’t instill certain habits now, the children will grow up to be lazy/inconsiderate/selfish. But it reaches a point where you realize you’re doing all this nagging and lecturing or even punishing for what? So that they’ll be nice people when they’re older? But does anybody EVER listen to nagging or scolding and think “wow, that lady is so nice!” I would rather be nice right now. And the fact I couldn’t escape, when I really dug deep and thought this through, was that no matter how noble my intentions, no matter how “nice” and full of love my desires, THEY did not think I was being nice when I was scolding. And (golden rule again) I really like people to be nice to me. 🙂 So if they didn’t think I was being nice, I wasn’t following the golden rule.

    Does that make sense?

    When I started rethinking how to handle conflicts, a shocking thing was how immediately and drastically the number of conflicts dropped. Oh, this is turning into another big long explanation and maybe it should be its own post. I have to finish up now anyway, but we’ll come back to this. There is so much more to say. But where I was going right now was that I think a lot of times, we moms get mad because we feel like our kids ought to do what we say. And we forget how much we resent being told what to do ourselves. I’d so much rather be asked. So one little easy shift was to stop TELLING and start asking, and not to be annoyed or disappointed if they said no. They love to do things for me, when there are no sour consequences for choosing not to.

    But I’m MASSIVELY oversimplifying here (writing in such a hurry), so I’ll hush for now. Someone else’s turn!

  37. Sandra Dodd says:

    -=-I’m not an “unparenting” advocate -=-

    I don’t know anyone who is. It’s a common insult and common misconception, though, because it’s used by people who want to belittle and dismiss unschooling without even looking at it. It’s a boogeyman. I’ve never known a single “unparenting advocate.”

    -=-i love the last lines of one of your comments – “being connected is better than being controlling. being interested is better than being bored. being fun is better than not being fun!”
    -=-Rereading that, it sounded to me like something from Sandra’s site, and may very well be a paraphrase. -=-

    It’s something on my site now, because I added it to the random quotes generator here:
    http://sandradodd.com/unschooling (upper right)

    -=-my problem lies more in the times that have already gone downhill by my children’s “childishness” –=-

    Whole and Real (mature or immature?) That’s something I wrote just lately, about the state of my children.

    I know unschooling can sound crazy, but it’s not. And it can sound lazy, but it’s not. What’s crazy is working long and hard to gradually but solidly destroy the relationship between parents and children. Some of the damage school does can be done at home, but where can the children go for relief “after school is over”? There is much sorrow in trying to “make children learn.” There is much joy in learning along with them.

  38. Melissa H says:

    Lissa, Thanks for this–I came back to read the comments tonight but I was thinking of the original post this evening when my 2 year old was being especially 2 🙂 She would not eat, protested the bath etc. Inspired by your post, I took a moment and really thought about how she would want to be treated. Golden Rule. I did ask her to sit at the table with us (she ended up snuggled in my lap) but didn’t force her to eat. We ended up skipping the bath. She was crying and I finally asked her if she would rather have a bath or go right to bed. She asked for bed (!) but she happily agreed to a teeth brushing. She fell sound asleep after half a book. She must have been soooo exhausted poor thing.

    Anyway, long comment, I just wanted to thank you for all the crying you saved us this evening. I was a little bit amazed that I could have a rational discussion with a distraught 2 year old but that saved us all a lot of grief. And really, she’ll probably get clean tomorrow 😉

  39. Amy says:

    I hope I didn’t make it sound like I think unschooling = unparenting. Far from it! But I *do* personally know several people who I think “unparent” – they do exist. They’re not homeschoolers though. 🙂 I would say at least one of them is an “unparenting advocate” – the rest may just be working from a lack of knowledge/support/time/care?

    Lissa, I hope you do write more on this! Solve all my life’s problems and hit on what to do when YOUR needs clash with their needs, when each child “needs” something different and opposed to each other, and oh, what to do with my 2yo, LOL!!

    Thanks a million for starting this conversation. 🙂

  40. Jeanne says:

    Just to come along with some book recommendations — try Kurcinka’s book on Kids, Parents, and Parent Struggles and Faber/Mazlisch’s book on How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Also, Kenison’s Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers In a Hurry. Three very different books, but those of us seeking patience and connection might find the blend to be an effective and inspirational trilogy. If you can only read one – Try Mitten Strings. No, wait, try How to Talk. No – it has to be Power Struggles. You get the picture — these are valuable books!

  41. Betty says:


    Would you mind more contemplation on this subject? I have often wondered at how patient and engaging I used to be a room of 4-6 year old while I taught Sunday School at church. Why can’t I be that way at home? I blame so many things–the housework, the appointments, etc… I dreamed of starting over with another child to do it right and to read all those toddler books that I sped through with my 3 children under 3. To have a chance to savor it all again.

    So, God blessed us with another baby. There’s a 6 and 8 year gap with the other children. At first it was such a babymoon. She was so pleasant and compliant and happy. I felt my heart overflowing. I even thought to myself, “I’m finally getting the hand of this parenting thing.” Then she turned 2.5 yrs old and became a teenager almost! She is very active and demanding of attention, and moody. I’m struggling to juggle homeschooling and housework, and appointments, and everyday life with 4 children each needing something different from me and a husband with his needs too. I get impatient. I cringe to hear myself become Sgt. Mom. Those toddler books remain unread on my shelf. I have lost something in the busyness of these years.

    I think what I “hear” you saying is that there is another way to deal with these things. We do have an option to react or respond in a different way.

    I tend to go from one extreme to the other: making sure everyone feels good and that there are no conflicts, at times being weak to the point of allowing something that is not really in my children’s best interest just to avoid conflict to saying no to everything and acting like everyone is in my way and not enjoying the journey. When I say yes too much, I find that sometimes it’s out of not wanting to deal with whatever issue is at hand and I have seen this in my 4yr old start to back fire in some ways. I have also done the opposite and start to lose it when I sense that I’m losing control. I hate becoming Srgt. Mom. I struggle to find a balance.

    Aren’t there times, though, where we do have to be tough moms and stand in the path, lovingly, to do what’s best in the long run for our children? Isn’t this real life? We have to brush our teeth, there’s no compromise on this, for example.

    Unschooling is something that is new to me, I do pray for your patience with me as I try to understand what this looks like fleshed out. In the few examples I have seen, the parent’s main goal seems to become their child’s buddy to the point where there’s no real authority in the home, where the kids don’t know their limits, and the children have what appears to me an unnatural arrogance in talking with other adults. These are probably unusual examples, but the are the only ones I’ve seen.

    Somewhere there is a middle line, a balance. There’s a guy Mark Hamby who talks about being a shepherd. Shepherds LEAD their sheep, they don’t DRIVE their sheep. This is what I want for myself and my home. I’m not sure my dh is on the same page with me yet.

    One thing that used to be said about me is that I knew how to be childish with children and get down on their level and endear them to me. It pains me so much that this is not true of me now for the most part. I want to recapture that and find balance. Someone does have to cook dinner, someone has to maintain some sense of order that I think children really crave as well, but does it have to be done in a scolding way? It’s all I know though. I’d really like to do things differently but feel a little helpless.

  42. Amy says:

    Good point about the shepherd – but don’t shepherds also have a sheep DOG that runs around the sheep “keeping them in line”? Where’s my sheep dog? I want a sheep dog. 😉

  43. Rachel29 says:

    This is shaping up to be one of the coolest and most useful discussions I have been in on in a while. I was reading the post of the mom talking about why she was such a good Sunday school teacher, so patient and understanding, and why she can’t be that way, as much, with her own kids.

    It got me to thinking about how I have always wondered this about myself. I teach CCD classes in Summer and am so wonderful to those kids. I have come to 2 conclusions.

    1) I know my time with them is limited to a few hours. So, I must think to myself, “Rachel, you can suck this up and be fabulous for a few hours.”

    2) They are other people’s kids and I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. I want to be seen as nice and respectful of someone else’s kids. Along with this I noticed that I am usually so cool with friends having VASTLY differing view points from me. BUT! When it is my own family (ie: husband and kids) I get really upset. As if they are an extension of me and their beliefs are going to reflect on me.

    So, once I articulated these 2 conclusions, I realize that I had missed the boat. I needed to flip some of my thinking around. *My* kids are the ones spending all sorts of time with me and *they* are the ones I need to be nicest too (ie: exhibiting the Golden Rule).

    What is interesting is that in a prayer group I am in we were discussing the the Golden Rule is really interesting in that in the Christian tradition it is skewed to the positive and in other faith traditions it is skewed negative. For example in many other faiths the idea is put forth: Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself. It makes sense. I am not suggesting that it’s wrong, it’s just limiting. The idea is don’t be mean, don’t steal, don’t etc… But in the New Testament, it was taken a little further. It was not don’t do bad stuff, but instead, *do good stuff* *DO* unto others as you would have them *DO* unto you.” Taking this to it’s conclusion, it involves more action than inaction. It is easy enough not be a jerk to people in hope that they won’t be a jerk to you. Kind of preemptive. But to actively be nice to someone being a jerk to you is really hard.

    This is where mindful parenting comes in (and for any of you out there espousing Christian beliefs the ability to exercise virtue) because you can have an 11 year old losing his cool with you over this or that, and the kicker is not to lose yours (which is frightfully easy to do…at least for me!).
    Because, when I think about it, when I am losing it, I *don’t* need someone to start yelling at me if I am yelling. I, most likely, need love and calm.

    Also, I hate being told what to do and I instantly rebel…even at 41! I need to feel and know that I have come to a decision or action myself. How on earth can I expect my kids to be different. Heck, one of them is really complacent. It’s his nature, one is a total rebel (a little of mom? hmmm) and the other is 50/50. But even the complacent one gets peeved if I am trying to control him. He’s just lots better at hiding his anger.

    John Gatto once talked about the genius of Western Spirituality regarding Christ’s policy of non-coercion. In that Jesus would say “Follow me” and you made the choice to follow him or not. I am a “practicing Catholic” I am really into Church teaching. But this is stuff that took me a large chunk of my life to come to and joyfully embrace. I actually was a screaming anti-Catholic most of my life. If someone told me I *had* to use NFP, I would have balked. But when I read about and came to understand it’s importance to me and my spiritual life I happily embraced it. This all comes back to TRUST too. Man, is it hard to trust that one’s kids will find their way in this world sometimes…because it can sure seem like a scary place.

    In a weird way, I need to kinda see my kids as not mine. Really, they aren’t. They are themselves. They are unique, unrepeatable human beings, I just happened to have helped get into this world. They have been entrusted to me to love and raise. Maybe, if in ‘acting as if’ my kids were someone else’s, I could come around to being less of ‘shrew of mom’ sometimes and more of the ‘coolest mom ever’ most of the time (which was once said to me by a CCD student) in my approach to parenting.

    UGH! Who ever said that being a mom is absolutely the *hardest job* you will ever love, was right on the money.


  44. MelanieB says:

    What a great discussion. I’ve got a couple of random observations to add.

    Rachel wrote: “In a weird way, I need to kinda see my kids as not mine.”

    I’d amend that further: They aren’t mine, they’re God’s. That’s the realization that has helped me the most as a mother when the going gets tough. My kids don’t belong to me, they belong to our heavenly Father. He’s entrusted them to me for a time and given me the tools (graces) to raise them; but I owe it to him to raise them as his sons and daughters. I need to recognize their freedom and their dignity as persons who are not extensions of myself. And at the same time I also need to recognize that God has placed me in a position of authority over them, that I have responsibilities to them as a parent and that if I neglect those duties I am failing
    to do the task which God has entrusted to me.

    Also along the same line of thinking, I sense that many other moms are, like me, a bit uncomfortable with finding the balance between being loving and being the one in authority. I see it in those who fear that unschooling may lead to “unparenting”.

    There are times when we feel a tension because we know that doing something unpleasant now will be what is best for our children in the long run. It’s like getting a shot. I hate to see my baby cry, and yet I know that the pain is only temporary and the benefits of the immunization outweigh the sting.

    I’m thinking especially of this passage from Hebrews, in yesterday morning’s Office of Readings, which seems to be at odds with doing unto others as we’d like done to us:

    “You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons:
    “My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.”

    Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards.

    Besides this, we have had our earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not (then) submit all the more to the Father of spirits and live? They disciplined us for a short time as seemed right to them, but he does so for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness.

    At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”

    I totally agree that we are called to apply the Golden Rule, to do to our children as we’d have done to us. But here’s where I think it can get sticky because I think often we have an overly-simplistic
    reading of the Golden Rule. Sometimes I do want others to do for me that which I may find most unpleasant at the time. I absolutely hate being corrected (who doesn’t?), no matter how gentle the one who is doing the correction. And yet in retrospect I’m often glad that my friend didn’t let me continue to make a fool of myself. Likewise, I want God to correct me when I go astray and yet I know that sometimes his corrections are not pleasant.

    As St Paul says right before the passage that I quoted, “In your fight against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” And here’s the crux of the matter: as Christians we are not called to always be comfortable. Martyrdom is not pleasant or pretty, the cross is a bloody mess. And yet we are called to embrace it. And so I know that we do need to find ways to teach our children to embrace tasks they find unpleasant. And we need to correct them when we see them falling into sinful habits. We must discipline with love just as God our Father does, but children need discipline in order to learn how to resist sin and, as St Paul reminds us, at the time it is administered it will be a cause for grief and not for joy. As parents we are tasked to look at the larger picture. We can see further than our children can and so we can see when the path they are walking will lead to grief, even if it seems pleasant now.

    So it seems to me what has been missing so far in this discussion is an acknowledgment of the temporary pain and grief it sometimes falls upon us to bestow upon our children. I’d like to see more teasing out of this tension: keeping in mind the Golden Rule, how do we discipline with love? How do we bring grief to our children in a loving manner while keeping in mind the ultimate joy to which we hope to lead them?

  45. Amy says:

    Thank you Melanie! You put into words what I’ve been thinking on this topic for a long time. It was brought into light when I read some things earlier today along the lines of “Would you do it if your husband said to do something I thought was crazy/useless like scrubbing the garage floor?” Ummm, YES, I would do it, because my husband is the head of my household (God given authority) and I would trust that he had the best interests of the family as a whole at heart, even if I couldn’t see it at the time. In the same way I believe we’ve been put in a position of authority over our children – not to lord it over them, of course – but still I believe in the end my children should trust that I have their best interests at heart and obey – doing what they don’t *want* to do, or accepting discipline from me when they don’t – because God put me in authority over them.

    I need to tie this in better to what Melanie said, but my dd wants to make muffins. 🙂

  46. Amy C. says:

    So many thoughts brewing all day from this discussion . . . I’m counting every commenter here among my joys . . .

    Like Betty, I too struggle with the idea of balance and unschooling. With my family, I often feel like I follow our joy to the point of our peril. For example, yesterday was a lovely day full of connections and exploring and creating and reading in which I truly felt present to each of my children. However, not only did the dishes go unwashed and the laundry landfill grow and the grocery shopping go undone, but in being present to one child, I sometimes overstepped the limits of myself and the other children, delaying food or naptime or other requests so as not to “cut off” the curious child. Once I have a hungry or tired kid on my hands, I realize that I’ve created the negative situation by not guiding the gang into a transition. Lissa, your point about margins of time helped me think about this problem in a new way (I think my family may need to live in the margins!), but I’d love to hear more about how others find balance.

    And Melanie, your comments about the Golden Rule’s relationship to correction are great food for thought. I was thinking today about how I want to be treated when I need correction, and I don’t think I really know the answer. Certainly I want compassion, but beyond that, I think I want different things at different moments . . . sometimes I want to be corrected right away so I can get back on track, other times I want some space and solitude to figure things out for myself. And I can’t help thinking that how I want to be treated isn’t always what would be best for my growth as a person. So it is a sticky question.

    Keep talking, friends . . . I could “listen” to you all day!

  47. Amy C. says:

    Rachel said: In a weird way, I need to kinda see my kids as not mine.

    On a very concrete level, a friend suggested that, when my kids’ behavior is bugging me, I try to think of them as someone else’s kids. Often, their “misbehavior” would seem harmless if you saw someone else’s kid doing the same thing. It does help me regain perspective. (Funny side note: when I mentioned this idea to my dh, he actually thought I meant that we should act like the kids aren’t ours. He was looking forward to being able to step away and look around disapprovingly for the “parents” of the little miscreants.:))

  48. Melissa Wiley says:

    Melanie, I hear what you’re saying, and there is an extent to which I agree, but I think when you look at how mainstream discipline methods really play out–what real effect they can have on relationships–I don’t see them as a reflection of the loving relationship God wishes to have with his children. This is hard to articulate, but I’ll try.

    You said, “But here’s where I think it can get sticky because I think often we have an overly-simplistic
    reading of the Golden Rule. Sometimes I do want others to do for me that which I may find most unpleasant at the time. I absolutely hate being corrected (who doesn’t?), no matter how gentle the one who is doing the correction. And yet in retrospect I’m often glad that my friend didn’t let me continue to make a fool of myself.”

    But I do think the “gentleness” of the correction is the key point. If I’ve done something wrong, have hurt someone, I most definitely want to be corrected so that I might have the opportunity of making things right. I don’t want to do wrong. But if the friend is stern or angry with me, or blisters me with her speech, or is sarcastic, or lectures, or does something to “teach me a lesson” (it’s hard to imagine adults doing this to other adults, but I’m thinking of ways parents commonly react when their kids have done wrong–and as I write this, I know it’s not at all the kind of discipline you are suggesting, but I’ll get to that point in a minute; right now I am speaking about the kinds of “correction” I have witnessed other parents give their children, and have (to my shame) given my own children at times in the past)–that was a long parenthetical, so to catch up the thought, I was saying that if a friend were to “correct” me in any of those ways, I would most likely recoil with feelings of defensiveness, anger, rebellion, humiliation, or indignation. My own sense of remorse and desire to make amends might very well be dwarfed by my moral outrage on being spoken to “like that.”

    So I think the “no matter how gently” is a key phrase in what you’re saying. If the friend says, “Honey, you know I love you but what you did was totally uncool,” my reaction is going to be very different.

    I’ve seen lots of discussions about the parenting aspect of unschooling (including quite recently on one of Sandra’s lists, and interestingly the golden rule came into that conversation too, though my own little golden-rule epiphany was before that conversation took place) and what I see from the people who are advocating a more peaceful, mutually respectful kind of parenting than mainstream discipline-based parenting is a complete openness with their children about certain things being not okay, not cool. They aren’t giving the kids a pass on inappropriate behavior (again–I know no one has suggested that in this discussion; I’m just developing a point and I’m afraid it will take me a while to get there!). They are being frank, and calm, and forthright about how other people are likely to react if a kid does such-and-such.

    So I think there’s an agreement here that certain behaviors, certain actions are not okay. I see, too, a parallel in what we Catholics talk about as parental authority and what unschoolers describe in other terms, such as “it’s my job (as the mom) to make sure that everyone in this family feels safe and peaceful here.” (One example, used regarding a situation in which siblings were fighting.) Other kinds of parental authority: it’s my job to make sure my kids don’t break other people’s stuff, or that if they do we replace it; that they don’t hit people, or call someone mean names, or running and shouting in the art museum. It’s my job to be frank with them about the laws of this country, and the (natural) “laws” of decency and fairness. It’s my job to let them know when something is not ok.

    So far I see total agreement between the golden-rule discussion we’ve been having, and the points you raise, Melanie. (And by the way, I meant to say: thanks so much for your thought-provoking contribution to the discussion! Glad to see you here.)

    You ask, “So it seems to me what has been missing so far in this discussion is an acknowledgment of the temporary pain and grief it sometimes falls upon us to bestow upon our children. I’d like to see more teasing out of this tension: keeping in mind the Golden Rule, how do we discipline with love? How do we bring grief to our children in a loving manner while keeping in mind the ultimate joy to which we hope to lead them?”

    Well, here’s where I think it’s necessary to be very specific. You could say that when my friend tells me gently, “Honey, you were totally out of line,” she is bringing me grief in a loving manner–but she is not really bringing me grief, she is bringing me truth, and the grief arises within me from my own sense of regret for my wrong actions. That’s different, because it changes the intent. As parents, we don’t want to bring grief to our children; we want to bring them truth.

    Sometimes truth causes the hearer to feel grief (remorse), and that remorse is a very good thing when it generates a resolution to make amends and to not do wrong again. “Discipline” comes from “disciple,” which means “learner,” and you could say that to discipline is to teach–in the sense of making apparent a truth the other person may learn from. You can’t *make* anyone learn anything. You can make information available, and someone who is interested in it will “learn” it, or learn from it.

    I can make information about “what you did was not okay” available to my child, but if I’m delivering it a stern manner, or with physical pain, or shaming words, the child is not likely to be “interested” in learning. The child is going to be interested in doing whatever he can do to make the pain or shaming end fast, and then in retreating.

    For these reasons, and on grounds of such practices contradicting the golden rule, I have come to believe most mainstream “discipline” methods are damaging. And I know what a hot topic this can be.

    So–I said earlier that it was necessary to be specific, but I’ve been mostly general so far–how DO you handle the specific situations where you have to “correct” a child? Or the situations Amy suggested above, where you’ve asked or told the child to do something and she hasn’t done it? Let’s be specific. Of course it’s hard, because every single situation depends on a hundred small details: the age of the child, the state of the child (hungry? sleepy? run ragged from errands that day?), the nature of the task or inappropriate action, who else is around, so many things.

    But I guess I can see two categories of situations: 1) child doesn’t do what parent tells him to; and 2) child does something that isn’t OK (hurts someone, takes something not his, etc).

    In the type 2 situation, I can say from our family’s experience that “discipline” in the sense of scolding (and I don’t mean yelling, though there has been some yelling in my career as mother too, I won’t deny it) or issuing consequences–we NEVER called them punishments, always talked very rationally about consequences, but (interestingly, and tellingly) the kids ALWAYS, every time, referred to it as punishment–discipline of that sort was not good for the relationship. I can’t put it any more bluntly, or humbly, than that. I have read many books about “gentle discipline,” but going by my personal experience with three children (I am not including my two youngest, because I didn’t “go there” with them)–and in the end, my personal experience is all I have to go by–it didn’t matter how calm and sweet and loving I was in administering a consequence. Punishment (let’s call it what it is, like the kids do) divided us, put me on one side and my kid’s heart on the other. It set up a power dynamic. I know God is omnipotent and “has power” over me, but he gave me free will. He lets me make my own choices and lets me deal with the consequences. He doesn’t turn me loose to fumble through life on my own; in countless ways he provides information (truth) and help; but I can’t think of any single encounter-with-God a person experiences that is analogous to a parent grounding a child, or taking away the child’s toys, or making him write lines, or lecturing, or spanking. Honestly, I’ve been sitting here for the longest time trying to come up with an example, and I can’t. Certainly some bad things might happen to me if I do wrong, as a result of my own actions, but I don’t anywhere see God saying “you were bad, here’s cancer” or “you did wrong, so you’re going to have to do without your favorite things for a while.” (If I do certain types of wrong, the state might say I have to do without my favorite things for the term of my sentence.)

    Try as I might, I don’t see where in real life God dispenses punishments. Sometimes our actions have consequences, but that’s not the same as a punishment. That’s cause-and-effect.

    As I understand the doctrine of hell, even THAT is not a punishment. It is a state of being cut off, forever, from God, as a result of deliberate and willful rejection of Him (or of natural law, the innate sense of right and wrong, ethics, fairness, hardwired into all people whether they believe in God or not). (And now we’re veering into theology and I’d rather not take this discussion into Protestant vs. Catholic theology vs. other belief systems.) Hell is not a “you were bad, so I’m going to make you suffer forever.” Hell is “you divorced yourself from Love, and without Love existence is nothing but suffering.” I hope this is making sense. Hell is not a punishment. I only brought it up because someone might say God doesn’t punish until after we die, and then if we were bad we go to hell. If some people reading this disagree and DO think hell is a punishment, then we’re probably not going to find common ground on the parenting thing either. (And before I leave this touchy topic, I’ll just say that I know the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the phrase “the punishments of hell,” but in context I truly and wholly believe that is not meant in the sense of “you were bad so now you’re getting punished,” as if God is brandishing a whip. It’s a cause-and-effect consequence, a natural consequence if you will, rather than an *administered* consequence, which is to say punishment. If the Catholics among us want to hash that out elsewhere, we can do so, but I think it’ll kill this discussion.)

    OK, so if not punishment, then what? Frankness, mostly. Calmness. Removing a kid from the situation, if it’s a case of kids fighting, or one kid being mean to another, or other similar situations. Again, here’s where it gets hard to be specific without specific situations to address. But I guess the short version of my long point is that I think “parent punishes child” does harm to the relationship. We can talk about that more, if you want.

    As for the type 1 situation, where child doesn’t do what parent has told him to? Well, this could be very long too because again it needs to deal with specifics. But what I’m learning is simply to “tell” less. It sounds counterintuitive, I know it does; but in practice it is making so, so much sense to me. I ask rather than order. I say “would anyone” or “would you mind” and if they do mind or no one will, I don’t go all heavy-sighs on them. Most of the time, when they have a choice, they choose to do what I’m asking. It’s free will, I think.

    But I’ve talked about needing to address specifics and I haven’t addressed some of YOUR specifics (Amy, Ana Betty), like brushing teeth. It’s such a big topic. I’ve been writing for an hour and I have to go. More later, but others please chime in too.

  49. Michele Quigley says:

    Melanie I so agree with what you have written. I guess I didn’t think it was missing from the discussion because I felt like it was a given. But then I realized it maybe wasn’t for everyone so it’s good that you brought it up.

    I agree that children need discipline but I know in my house there are plenty of opportunities for it without my needing to add to it. There will always be things that MUST be done, cannot be allowed, will be expected and yes even suffered. It is part of life. Correction, even if done gently, is generally not pleasant. But it does not have to be more than necessary either and perhaps this is where I find the most struggle. If I give in to my inclinations and let myself become impatient then that shows in my discipline. It is easy (for me) to fly off the handle and it is tempting because it generally produces a fast and desirable result. Or so it seems. But what it really does is put a crack (even if only a tiny invisible one) in the structure of my relationship with that child. They have certainly learned what not to do (if only not to get mommy to the breaking point!) but has it been effective discipline? No, not really and it’s not worth it. The short term obedience brings long term fracture.

    Not that it has to of course we will all fail and this is where I have found my children to be so willing to forgive me when I have fallen and apologized for it. Love surely does cover a multitude of sins and it is what I tell myself all the time.

    But like everything else in our lives there needs to be a balance and I have found that putting too much structure and discipline into our learning makes for some very surly and discontented children as well as mom.

    I had to stop and ask myself “Why isn’t this more fun?” “Why can’t it be?” Life is already hard enough there are already so so many restrictions that my children have on a daily basis so why not let them be more free in their learning? I had no answer for that and it was in letting go of some of what I thought were the “must dos” of education that things became better, more peaceful and more harmonious.

    And I have seen in the long term with my older kids how the things that we didn’t do formally that we “missed” they are always able to get when they need it. My 2nd oldest was pretty well unschooled through high school. I let him follow his interests and he spent a lot of time reading and exploring things that interested him. I wasn’t sure how that would turn out and I got afraid and we went back to more structure with the other kids. But what I see now is how my son who was unschooled through high school is doing so well in college now. How he works hard to get good grades and spends hours and hours working on his assignments because it’s what HE wants. Not what I imposed on him but what he realizes is important to his future. It has been a real eye opener for me and made me really start looking again at what’s going on and seeing how here I was again trying to control everything.

    OK this is WAY too long and I have rambled all over the place so I apologize. I’m glad for this discussion as there have been so many great comments as food for thought!

  50. Michele Quigley says:

    Lissa wrote: “I ask rather than order. I say ‘would anyone’ or ‘would you mind’ and if they do mind or no one will, I don’t go all heavy-sighs on them. Most of the time, when they have a choice, they choose to do what I’m asking. It’s free will, I think.”

    Yes exactly! This is what I do and it has such a different effect than when I rattle off orders. And oh it can be so tempting to give that sigh when no one offers to help (Charlotte Mason warned against using those sorts of methods and it’s always stuck in my head for some reason) but honestly it’s so rare now that no one will help.

    I have seen the benefits of this most especially with my 11 yr. old daughter and 13 yr. old son who will regularly ask if there is anything they can do for me. And every night when they go to bed my 13 yr. old will say “thanks mom for everything you did for me today” and he will always specifically name a few things.

    But oh we are far from living this perfectly and that frustrates me so because I can see it and I can see the results but I give in to my selfishness and everything falls apart that quick! Argh!

    Sorry for the back to back posting – just had to comment some more after Lissa great reply!

  51. Rachel29 says:

    Melanie B,

    You took my statement about seeing my children as not mine to where I wanted to take it and totally forgot (I think you can see I was going there LOL) which is that my kids do belong to God.

    Though, if Ireally and completely absorbed and understand that, would I treat them the way I so often do? Absolutely not! What I have used as an *excuse* for authority has been nothing less than being obnoxious. Really. I am just being honest. Many people think I am a great mom, but I see real room for improvement!! 🙂

    I think what folks are having a hard time with, as this discussion morph, is the idea of authority in parenting vs. authoritarianism in parenting.

    I had a very good friend say to me, when I explained unschooling, that she was worried that my kids would grow up without discipline. I tried to explain that discipline comes from discipleship and when one sees that connection then discipline is finally divorced from what people really mean which is punishment.

    My husband and I are in authority over our kids, but how often that authority is abused is ridiculous. I am not referring to corporal punishment…I am not into that. But I am talking about when I yell, or nag, or belittle, or coerce. I *know* there are better ways to get peace and harmony in my home, yet, I can be the biggest sinner here because I don’t choose that better way. I let my temper, or tone of voice, or choice of words, get the better of me and it just stinks!

    And I totally understand the moms here who are worried that unschooling can somehow turn into unparenting…and maybe for some it does. I know I have read some posts from very interesting people that really *seem* to be letting their kids run amok. Interestingly, though, I am thought by many to be that kind of mom, which I don’t think I am at all, so that is why I said *seem*, because I could be missing something.

    I digress, what I am trying to say is that discipline is most often something that is exemplified by one to others. Those others follow the example. If I yell, rant, push, controll, nag…*what* am I really teaching my kids? *What* are they really learning from me?

    This is all very tough stuff to work out, but very much worth the work. I first read about unschooling in Mothering magazine and then Growing Without School magazine (how I miss it) and loved it right away. But just like my Catholic faith, sometimes the theory is alot easier to understand, but the practice far more difficult to live.

    Working it out here in Atlanta,

  52. Rachel29 says:


    This quote from your most recent response is just beautiful and perfect:

    “As parents, we don’t want to bring grief to our children; we want to bring them truth.
    Sometimes truth causes the hearer to feel grief (remorse), and that remorse is a very good thing when it generates a resolution to make amends and to not do wrong again. “Discipline” comes from “disciple,” which means “learner,” and you could say that to discipline is to teach–in the sense of making apparent a truth the other person may learn from. You can’t *make* anyone learn anything. You can make information available, and someone who is interested in it will “learn” it, or learn from it.”

    You summed up what I was trying to say far better than I did. Thank you.


  53. WendyinVA says:

    This discussion has kept me up at night! Melanie articulated my initial reaction far better than I was able to, which was why I didn’t attempt it. 🙂 Thank you, Lissa, for your response. And Michele, for yours. *This* is the kind of mom I want, so badly, to be. Why is it so hard? I grew up swearing I’d never over-react or yell at my children, and yet I do. *How* do you change?

  54. Meredith says:

    SO many good thoughts here. For me it is truly important to remember that each of my children at their different ages respond to my parenting in vastly different ways. For example my almost 3yo will push me to limits that NONE of my other dc ever did, so my fuse is quite short with him. Hardly ANY of my “disciplinary” tactics work for him ;( so my dh and I are having to completely re-think how we work things out with him. Mainly it’s just a ton more love, snuggles and attention on my part (and his dads) to create an environment for him where he’s not constantly hearing NO all day long from me (sheepish look here). It’s certainly a learning curve as it is for all my dc and I tend to get better results and more cooperation when I’m not scolding and asking instead. Wish it were as easy as it sounds here :)) Lissa, I love everything you have conveyed and everyone else here too for that matter. Unschooling is becoming much more clear in my mind as THE approach we tend towards much more regularly than anything else these days!! Blessings to you all!

  55. Jeanne says:

    More books!

    Barbara Coloroso’s Kids Are Worth It: Giving Your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline. Coloroso describes the differences between permissive “jellyfish” parenting, authoritarian “brick wall” parenting, and (I think she uses the word authoritative for this next one) “Backbone parenting.” That last one is strong but flexible.

    Alfie Kohn: Punished by Rewards

    I really think that examining the whole behavior modification approach to reward/punishment is what many of us have to go through to reach “the next level,” where we maintain relationship without losing our ability to lead/mentor our children.

    Mary Griffith’s new book on Viral Learning also reveals her conclusion that her family had a “cooperative” approach rather than being anywhere on a permissive to authoritarian scale.

    Great discussion!

  56. Eileen says:

    Oh, Melissa.

    This was just plain inspired, and exactly what I needed to read today. I wish I had more time to go through all the comments right now, what a wonderful discussion to be a part of (or, at least, for me to listen to!)

    When I grow up (if I ever manage to), I wanna be just like you!! (And I’m not even kidding!!!)


  57. Michele Quigley says:

    Lissa wrote: “And before I leave this touchy topic, I’ll just say that I know the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the phrase “the punishments of hell,” but in context I truly and wholly believe that is not meant in the sense of “you were bad so now you’re getting punished,” as if God is brandishing a whip. It’s a cause-and-effect consequence, a natural consequence if you will, rather than an *administered* consequence, which is to say punishment.”

    This is theologically sound. It is perfectly proper to say that God does not send anyone to Hell but that in fact we choose it by turning away from Him. It is the natural consequence because existence without God’s love IS Hell. Look what the CC says here in 1861 “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it CAUSES exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.”

    Not wanting to kill the conversation here with theological discussion but really just wanting to say that I think you are spot on with the cause-and-effect thing. In regards to the idea of God being so gentle with us oh my yes that’s so true. That’s our model isn’t it? Love and Mercy are His name!

    And it’s interesting to note that I have known people who believed that the difficulties in their lives were direct punishments from God and yet that thought has never warmed their hearts towards God. It only left them feeling sad and alone.

  58. Rebecca says:

    Wow. What a great discussion and one that is so timely for me at this very point in my life.

    Lissa and Michele, I appreciate the side discussion of hell/punishment. I recently read (unfortunately I’ve forgotten where or I’d quote correctly) that hell is the absence of God, which is why it feels so horribly like an “imposed” punishment. It is a punishment, though not from God, more from our own choices as I understand it. I heard it explained in the same way that darkness is just the absence of light and that cold is the absence of heat. Neither darkness of cold exist in and of themselves, but are really just the absence of their opposites. (Not sure if that is making any sense.)

    Anyhow, as I mentioned, I am at a turning point in my life where I am reevaluating my parenting/discipline of the children. With my oldest child, I was very mindful of him and treated him respectfully. This allowed him to form his own conscience, to begin to determine right from wrong and to understand that his actions had an effect on the people around him. For example, if he said something that was hurtful, he could see in my eyes that my feelings were truly hurt but I did not lecture him or yell at him (as, sadly, I have come to do too often with my other children). I do believe the gentle approach is so much healthier and more effective.

    It seems that my parenting journey is coming full circle. I have “tried” everything these past few years, every ridiculous suggestion out there in hopes of gaining cooperation, only to find that none of them work as well as simply being truly present, cheerful and respectful to my children. I chose to forgo the positive approach a few years back because I was just so physically tired and kept hearing from so many “experts” how I needed to lay down the law. As you mentioned, Lissa, it often does take more time and energy to parent mindfully but the rewards are far greater. Unfortunately, I formed the habit that I would yell or threaten punishment of some sort when I was angry and that has been a hard habit to break. However, I am determined to do so for the sake of my relationships with the children. I am simply going to look at it as a habit that needs relearned rather than beating myself up about it.

    Only recently after the kids had been fighting all day, I resorted to having my boys write a page of lines about how they would be kind to their siblings. I sent them to their room and literally threw the paper and pencils on their floor, thinking my theatrics would make a point they would not forget. Sadly, I was right. They won’t forget it. They will always remember the times their mother lost her composure and the feeling they had when someone belittled them into compliance. Those tactics might work in the short term and gain the quick obedience that I am looking for but I believe they damage the long term relationship that I have worked so hard to build since birth.

    I am encouraged by St. John Bosco, who helped raise so many very troubled boys, many of whom were common criminals. If he could do it with reason, religion and kindness, I do not see why I should not give it a great effort with my own children of more positive circumstances. His other example that is worth mentioning is that he was often found in recreation with the boys. He played games, sang songs, provided opportunities for the boys to learn useful trades. It comes as no surprise to me that the boys naturally wanted to please him as they were so happy in the presence of someone so fun and full of life.

    Well, I had better end this now as it is getting quite long. Thanks for the great discussion, ladies.

  59. Steve Walden says:


    Good grief, I thought I’d never stop scrolling to the bottom here! I just wanted to let you know that this post was the best I’ve read anywhere in months, maybe years. I even said so on my blog. It was really that good.

    God has been trying to teach me as much through my disability and the lack of control there. I’m learning. It’s not easy, but I’m learning.


  60. Marsha says:

    Hi Melissa!

    I found you through Steve’s blog. GREAT post. I’m afraid I am a frankenmommy at nighttime… but I am going to submit this comment and go make up a bedtime story for my boys.

    Thanks for the encouragement to seize the moment and to practice what is the most difficult for me– PATIENCE!


  61. Sarah R. says:

    Lissa, I so love the posts you do like this, and I so needed to chew on patience some more. If ever I homeschool (and I seem to NOT be able to NOT do it – my oldest is just about at the age where I shall have to officially decide), it will likely be in part due to the wonderful writing you do about it and the tips you share. That’s not to sound like a freaky “#1 fan” (think Stephen King’s Misery), but rather to thank you for taking the time to share, and to open so many doors and windows and rabbit trails to someone who just would have never thought of them otherwise.

  62. peacemom says:

    I love this discussion. I”m going to post a question or two later when I have time, but for now I will suggest a book…

    Playful Parenting by Laurence Cohen.

    I love this book — it is very in tune with Alfie Kohn — and filled with ideas for keeping things light and joyful and fun. Discusses the child’s NEED to PLAY and be PLAYFUL and have PLAYFUL PARENTS. I highly recommend it and am going to go find it now and reread it.

  63. Blair says:

    Thanks so much, Melissa and everyone, for this wonderful discussion. It is perfect for me right now as I’m trying to organize my thoughts and my life at this stage of parenthood (children are 5, 3, and 3mos)!

    I wanted to throw out some real-life examples that are very pertinent to me right now because that’s the way I come to understand these concepts.

    Example 1: 5 yr-old child does not want to leave a fun location (park, store, friends’ house, etc). It is bedtime, naptime, mealtime, etc and we need to leave. I can give kind minute-warnings until we leave, think of something fun to do at home, and ask politely, but child will not comply. I (usually) end up gently carrying kicking and screaming child to the car. Sometimes I’m laughing because of how funny it looks. What can I do differently here?

    Example 2: Children don’t clean up after themselves. I’m probably guilty of not modeling this from the beginning. Toys and paper are strewn everywhere. I can bribe (“We’ll go to the park when it’s clean”), help, or threaten, and it’s still a huge ordeal. I try to get rid of toys and organize better. I have a hard time working in the learning/schoolroom because I can’t handle the mess. Do I just continue to ask nicely like a broken record and let them live with the mess? Clean it up myself?

    Example 3: This is about unschooling in the early years. It is very appealing for me because I tend to be lazy and disorganized and detest schedules. My five year-old loves workbooks and she’s the one who begs to “do homeschooling” while I’m trying to nurse the baby, organize the house, etc (I’m on an organizing/cleaning streak right now). Do those of you who consider yourselves “unschoolers” still use workbooks, textbooks, or other established curricula? I probably need to read more on this concept, because the answers are probably much deeper and longer than could be typed in a blog comment section! Feel free to point me somewhere with links! I, like some of the other commenters, have not really experienced well-adjusted unschooling families and would love to learn more.


  64. Mary Beth Patnaude says:

    Thank you for this post! I was already at the point of “boiling over” often most days, before baby #5! Now I find there’s just not enough hours in the day to get ANYTHING done. I am very upset with myself, and the way in which I find myself relating to my children. It’s nice to know I’m not alone! It’s easy to look at others and think “she has it so much more together than I do”. That’s why I love your blog (not that I get to read it too often these days)!

    Happy Easter to you all!

  65. Rachel G. says:

    I can’t express how much I needed to read this right now. I will be coming back here to re-read it again and again. I don’t know how I became this nagging, yelling, threatening, shaming mom, but it is something I NEVER wanted to be and it has been causing me a lot of sadness lately. Not to mention that it is completely ineffective as far as “getting the kids to listen,” as well as being so harmful to our relationship. Thank you, Melissa, for this post, and thanks to everyone for the discussion here.

  66. patience says:

    Oh my, this is just amazing. I wish I had time to read through it properly but I must be available for my child in about three minutes. I wanted to add something to the conversation though. It probably fit in best about twenty posts back, so forgive my belatedness!

    I have a very strong-willed child. When she was little, everything was a struggle between us. One day, I realised I was expecting her to fail all the time. I expected a fight at every transition time and with every request I made. I knew that my perspective was making our relationship and lives negatively-focussed. I hated the kind of mother I was.

    And so I started deliberately setting us up to succeed. If it was time to go out, the shoes got all excited and her coat sang her songs. If I wanted her to do something, I spent about half a minute thinking of a really fun way she could go about it, and presented it to her cheerfully. I got her into bed by racing her there. I told her troll stories while she cleaned her teeth.

    It sounds like I used a lot of energy, but actually I was using a fraction of the energy parenting had taken before – and now it was all positive energy. I began to feel better in myself, which made me more energised and enthusiastic about parenting. And I became happier with my dd, which meant that it became a matter of course to treat her in this cheerful playful way. Pretty soon I no longer needed to put thought or effort into it, as it became a natural way of life. Our expectations turned around and all our conflicts disappeared.

    Some times she will make a mistake – never from wilful disobedience – and I must “discipline” her. But I almost never scold. At least I try not to. I can tell she is aware when she has done something thoughtless. Usually, all it takes is an “oops” from me, or a quiet small acknowledgement, or gentle help to fix the problem, and she is made aware of her error without being shamed.

    Way back before I started parenting like this, I thought it would be all too much trouble. I also resented the idea of having to “jump through hoops” and “give in” when she ought to be “doing it my way because I said so.” The practical reality however is that MY life is so much better now. I am happier. I have an easier child to parent. It was a *sensible* move to make. As well as being a beautiful, good move.

    I’m not saying this way is right for everyone. And I’m not saying I am any kind of perfect parent who never gets cross. But the method really has worked for me.

  67. Silvia says:

    That was wonderful!

  68. Heather says:

    Thank you so very much for writing! I printed this post for my husband to read and we both are inspired to work harder at being mindful of our beautiful boys. Thank you!!

  69. kim says:

    JOve brought me over here today. Just in the nick of time. Patience lapses were occuring frequently. I think when life outside the kids gets stressful it can be easy to let that patience fly out the window sometimes and that is the last thing that should go. Thanks for the reminder.

  70. kristen says:

    Patience is not my strongest point either but this post reminded me that the times that I am most guilty of being impatient are when we are running late or overscheduled. It helps if I am organized beforehand and I don’t overschedule. Just a note to myself! Thanks

  71. mamacrow says:

    a note on workbooks – some of mine love them too, so I get them sometimes, on request. Then let them use them when the want, and do as much as they want – the temptation was to ration them, which didn’t work!

    unschooling – or our brand of it – is for me, self directed learning, so if a child wants to pursue the work book experience, why not?

    another helpful book – Raising our Children, Raising ourselves, Naomi Aldort, about validating emotions.

  72. Willa says:

    “It’s how many of us endured countless hours of our lives in school. The kids who didn’t patiently endure were the ones labeled troublemakers. ..There is no moment-savoring going on in that kind of patience. In fact, often ‘being patient’ really just means ‘being quiet and not making a fuss’ while resentment or irritation is churning underneath.”

    I just reread your post, Lissa, looking for the “bad kind of patience” that you mentioned at the beginning. I am glad I did look because this part is really convicting.

    I’m one of those who got through school by just checking out mentally. As much as possible I just wasn’t there, because being there was practically intolerable.

    In raising my kids I don’t normally “take control” by trying to run my kids’ lives, but by simply withdrawing mentally into my own little world while keeping an outside appearance of involvement.

    That looks like patience but it isn’t, not really. It’s a bit more subtle than visible impatience and control maneuvers. So I’m glad you pointed out that side of it.

    I remember mentioning it once on Sandra Dodd’s unschooling list, and she replied to it and put part of the conversation up here

  73. Elizabeth says:

    Melissa, Thank you for this discussion — I have a question and a comment. Question, How are you handling math and music as you move more towards unschooling? How do you handle teaching those little day to day disciplines that no one really likes to do but simply must get done?

    The comment I have is about this kind of more friendly playful parenting that Melissa is describing so wonderfully — I think we have to be careful not to interpret a nicer style of parenting as “my child must never cry or be upset.” I think the goal should always be thought of in terms of my own actions and attitude towards the child and make sure those are consistently respectful and even playful and fun. Because frankly, children are going to cry and be upset and have tantrums sometimes no matter how carefully you plan and how respectful you are, right?

    For a really simplistic example, half the time I take something away from my toddler that he’s not supposed to have he’s perfectly fine with me taking it away, and half the time he has a tantrum. But every single time I can control how I act — I can either see him with the forbidden object and say “I TOLD you that you’re not supposed to play with that, and yell and snatch it away and send him to his crib for daring to touch something he knows he’s not supposed to touch.” Or I can be calm, even though I have to interrupt whatever 12 things I’m trying to do to go and stop him, and say calmly “This is not for you to play with” take it away and give him something else “this is for you to play with.” And if he has a tantrum, I can tower over him and yell at him to stop screaming or put him in his crib or I can pat his back and say “I know it’s frustrating but you may not play with X, when you calm down let’s try to think of something else for you to do.”

    Anyway, I think it’s also an attitude of “we’re all in this together, let’s try to help each other out,” instead of “I’ve got this house/homeschool to run and you’d better be a well-oiled cog.”
    ok, said toddler is waking up now. forgive length of post.

  74. MichelleW says:

    I so love these ideas, and I am so happy that they work for so many of you. I tend to be pretty laid back and it works just fine with my younger two children, but I cannot allow myself to really let go with my oldest.

    He is 10, and up until 3 months ago could not read. This was not just a problem for him, it had become a problem for everyone. By the time a child is 10, illiteracy is a handicap. He could not read directions, labels, etc. There was just too much he could not do for himself.

    Three months ago I decided that my laissez-fare attitude was doing more harm than good and I set up a regimen of intense reading lessons and practice. He was not thrilled. After 3 months of tough work he is reading. Last week I caught him reading for fun.

    I have been very blessed by this discussion, and I take away lots of very very good advice and timely suggestions. I just also feel that I would be doing my children a disservice if I went completely unschooly on them. Or maybe I am understanding the whole thing incorrectly?

  75. Amy C. says:

    Blair wrote: “This is about unschooling in the early years. It is very appealing for me because I tend to be lazy and disorganized and detest schedules.”

    This made me laugh because these are the very reasons I fear unschooling! So many days we wake up with no concrete plans at all, and though on the best days that can lead to all sorts of fun and togetherness and learning, on many days it leads to lots of random and fleeting activities and a feeling that none of us (myself most of all) is ever spending the time to figure out what’s truly valuable and do it. I’m personally very undisciplined about balancing what needs to be done and what I want to do, and it’s an ongoing source of stress. To me, so much about unschooling makes sense, but I don’t know if I can handle the work involved! I know this is yet another tangent, but I’d love to hear more on this . . . are successful unschoolers just naturally more disciplined, or more goal-oriented, or more something that I’m not seeing? I don’t know if that even makes sense, but I don’t have time to further refine this thought and feed my family tonight, so I hope someone understands my ramblings . . .

  76. Meredith says:

    Amy, this rings very true with me too. For me I need to remember that I can be in control of ME, and let the strewing and the ideas flow for the kids to discover. If I need to be super organized to make this happen, then so be it, but I am trying not to require them to be super organized unless it is helpful in what ever their pursuit is at the time. My oldest ds is fascinated with electronics and robotics, technology etc, so I provide the books and any necessary links for him to peruse and then tell me about, but I don’t expect him to organize it in any sort of fashion, I only help him to articulate what he discovers to me if he wishes to share it. Make sense. Unschooling is not really what we do, but I sense the need to allow ALOT of freedom in our learning together where it is not strictly mandated by me. I have a long way to go I’m afraid, but it’s helpful to know others are working through all this too! Lissa thanks so much for this venue, it’s golden 🙂

  77. Michele Quigley says:


    Yes, that’s how it works for us! I have to be the organized one. I have to be the one who strews and plans (and can be willing to let go of those plans). Who signs them up for classes and suggests activities they may be interested in. And that’s not every day but there has to be some of this or I start to feel like I am being lazy and I flounder and they flounder and tempers start to flare…

    It is work but that’s OK, it’s my job. Is it technically unschooling? Probably not but then I never claimed it was. 😉

  78. Melissa Wiley says:

    Yes, Michele, exactly: strewing is an active occupation. Sandra Dodd has a good quote somewhere about how when people ask her “how much time” unschooling takes compared to school, or school-at-home, and she cringes because–oh hang, on, let me go find the quote. OK. Here, from this page: Building an Unschooling Nest,

    “Once someone was asking how many hours she should spend with her child, or something, and I said at least as many hours as she would’ve been in school, counting transportation, and there seemed to be some shock and surprise in the audience. So that made me want to say (I didn’t, but should’ve) TWICE as much time as she would’ve spent in school. Because honestly, a child shouldn’t lose the mom-time she would’ve had at night and on weekends, should she?

    The shock probably came from someone who thought those hours would be teacher-style hours, of being stuck in one place doing something not too fun. That vision can only come from someone who hasn’t looked into unschooling enough to know that the best unschooling hours are fun, natural, real activities. They needed to learn more about learning.”

    That’s a short excerpt from a longer quote. Very good page.

    OK, I had a major, major revelation this weekend. It should probably be its own post, and maybe I’ll pull it up into one when the thought has matured a bit. But it was a real flash of understanding. I was thinking about how I’ve moved, quite happily really, between these two ideologies, Charlotte Mason and unschooling, and have at times identified more or found more sense in one paradigm over the other–even though they are radically different.

    It’s a dichotomy that has worked for our family, most of the time, in that the kids and I have had fun in our periodic (generally short) immersions in CM-style lessons, and as I’ve said before, I always shelved the CM schedule as soon as any kind of glazed-eye factor entered the picture. The kids’ love of learning has always, ALWAYS, been more important to me than fidelity to the Charlotte Mason philosophy.

    But I’ve been (for months, really–you can see it in Lilting House posts from last spring and summer) pondering deeply WHY I have, always, in the past, inevitably drifted back into a CM mindset at certain times of the year. Why such a strong pull in two opposite directions, with CM on one side and unschooling on the other?

    And I suddenly GOT it. But let me just say here that I’m speaking for myself only, about my experience, and not making a sweeping statement to apply to everyone, everywhere.

    What I have grasped is that the Charlotte Mason ideal appeals to the schoolgirl *I was*. It’s the kind of school experience I wish I had had, the kind I yearned to have without knowing how to articulate it, back when I was having an entirely different kind of school experience.

    In high school, I wrote a big long story all about Plumfield, Mrs. Jo’s school from Little Men. I went through some kind of time warp and wound up at Plumfield and went to school there. And as an adult reading CM’s work, I found Plumfield again. In those descriptions of happy, busy mornings spent with great books and nature study and poetry and art and music and all the things I love best, and long afternoons free for personal interests, I found a vision of school as I would have loved it, myself. IThe schoolgirl inside me leaps at the prospect of that kind of school life.

    But the mother in me, the grownup Lissa watching her own kids learn and grow and live, sees something beyond the ideal *school* experience. Unschooling is outside school, bigger than school. It doesn’t need to be the ideal best-possible version of school. It is something broader, richer, more rife with possibilities. And so I think, if I am reading my heart correctly, that my movement between two ideologies (and it has been almost completely a very happy process, this seasonal shifting–everything I have blogged is absolutely true; my children and I have had great fun with our tidal learning lifestyle, though of course we have foundered sometimes and I’ve swallowed a fair amount of water in my day)–I was saying, my attraction to both CM and unschooling has to do with the two parts of me: the schoolgirl I was, and the mother I am.

    The mother is the stronger part of me, and she reads her children well, and places a high priority on their joyfulness. And I think–though it feels like going out on a limb to say it, and I certainly mean no disrespect or implied criticism of those friends for whom the CM philosophy is more than a means of offering balm to the soul of an inner schoolgirl–I think that having identified the source of the attraction to that ideology, I am now able to let it go. My inner schoolgirl is satisfied. Here, in this house, we’re doing something that is other than school.

  79. Michele Quigley says:

    Yes! Lissa’s that it! All these years and all my CM research later I see it exactly that way. Actually I remember thinking that years ago –that if only I had had a school experience like I read about ala CM. But I didn’t and try as I might to replicate it here it always falls flat. I love the ideas and principles. I draw much good from them and won’t abandon them but. . . the details of it all are not how it plays out in real life here -not long term anyway. That’s OK I like where we are going and so do my kids.

    I LOVE the quote from Sandra Dodd. So that really IS unschooling huh? Who knew? Not me. LOL am I clueless or what? I can see it now, poor Leonie is probably shaking her head. She’s been talking about strewing for YEARS. What can I say? Sometimes you just don’t get it right away. 🙂

    Thanks for the great conversation!

  80. Jo says:

    Thankyou girls for this great discussion – it is gently weaving together the threads of my thoughts lately. After fourteen years of parenting four children I have begun to see that fear is behind every control-freak moment I have ever had. Fear of what the neighbours will say, fear that the children cannot possibly get it right without me, and that I will be judged for that, fear that our lives will descend into chaos without me holding on tightly to the reins…fear of course which is all about me, and not at all about the children. There has been a perpetual struggle between the bad angel and the good angel; irrational fear on one side, trust and love on the other. And looking back I regret every moment that I gave in to fear and made those children do what I wanted them to, merely because it would look better – change out of outlandish clothes, complete a workbook, join in the activities at our Home Ed group (oh, how I wanted those other mothers to know what a ‘good’ mother I was). I am slowly learning to trust, to gaze into my children’s souls and see the unique and peerless beings who reside there, whole and perfect in every way. And yes, I say this as the mother of a three year old who spent ten minutes screaming on the bathroom floor tonight because she didn’t want to clean her teeth. And sometimes I forget, and I yell, but when I don’t, when I look at her through her screaming and see her brave, rollicking little soul clear shining through, that is when we connect at a level deeper than the everyday, and when the good angel gives me a nudge and I cover her with kisses instead. And one day, when she is at some moral crossroads, or in an emotionally dark place, I want her to remember the mother who covered her in kisses, not the mother who yelled.

  81. Jo says:

    Oh yes, and after that I cleaned her teeth, and then she cleaned mine!

  82. Meredith says:

    Lissa, you hit the nail right on the head my dear!! I have always been drawn to the CM method for many of the same reasons you mentioned, for ME though, not necessarily for my children. Duh! It’s interesting how as a parent I now have to look at things through their eyes and try to see clearly. It isn’t always easy but letting go of the pressure to perform (like Jo mentions above) makes it alot easier to allow learning to actually happen. Back to the Golden Rule of how do I want to be treated and shouldn’t the dc be given the same respect in their ability to be able to learn. Yeah!!!

  83. WendyinVA says:

    OK, I think I’m having a harder time with the academic part of this than the mom part.

    I get letting go of trying to *control* their behavior through yelling and demanding and instead being more respectful and playful. I’ve seen a big difference just this week in my dc’s attitudes and in the general atmosphere of our home, just with the little changes I’ve been able to make so far. It is wonderful…

    I can’t wrap my brain around the academic part. I’ve read lots and lots about unschooling, and have at times in the past considered us unschoolers. For the last few years, though, we’ve been more structured, maybe because I’ve never been able to resolve the following doubts:

    Does unschooling mean we give equal weight to everything our children are interested in? For example, is reading a Star Wars novel (which my 10yods is now doing, aloud, for his 8yo brother) just as valuable as reading, say, Scotland’s Story? I know I must be missing something, but it seems like relativism to me to say that it is. Is that where strewing comes in? And if I strew things *I* want them to read or watch or play with, is it still unschooling? Or is it that just by living my life, doing the things that I value, they will be exposed to them by default? Kind of like CM’s idea of atmosphere?

    My second big stumbling block is tradition. As Catholics, tradition plays a big part in our lives. I know that Catholicism is a universal faith, and that each person is unique and has his or her own calling. But Catholic education (our intellectual tradition, not necessarily ’50s Catholic school education) seems to be classical, historically speaking. How does that reconcile with unschooling?

    Thank you for keeping this discussion going, Lissa. And thank you everyone for your comments. They’ve all been so helpful! I truly do want a joyful childhood for my children, and I want homeschooling to contribute to that joy.

  84. Jeanne says:

    Strew classically, but understand that children are also drawn to what they need academically. My son has been on a Hardy Boys kick. I’m not crazy about it, but he is 10, and I see it playing a part in his developing reading fluency – and also playing a part in his budding interest in being a writer. The plots are easy to analyze, the characters so predictable and broadly drawn. He constantly compares this to the richness he finds in the *real* novels we continue to read aloud together, and believe me, he knows the difference. But Hardy Boys is expanding his vocabulary and capturing some part of his *boy-mind* – not to mention being a catalyst for discussions about the time/culture in which the books were written and so on. Meanwhile, I was strewing with some G.A. Henty audiobooks, and he’s recently completed listening to Beric the Britan, the one about the cat in Egypt and one other (I can’t remember – they are all more classically-oriented – get the Jim Weiss versions) — and he’s related a zillion things in our conversations about those books. Let’s see – one was a discussion about archaeology and one was something about Roman history.

    So, the Hardy Boys books and Star Wars are twaddle — but they (HB Books) give him (some admittedly also old fashioned!) cultural referents, some practice at zipping through easy books, and further building of a framework to put literature in.

    When middle son became firmly college-bound, he went from classic novel to classic novel because it met his “college goal.” He gets it, despite having had the freedom to read a wide variety of literature as well as the classics as a kid.

    And so it goes with other *subjects* as well.

  85. Meredith says:

    Wendy, the academic part is where I get hung up too, sigh…I HAVE noticed however, that if I can try to be excited about what I’m strewing even if it’s a historical classic (fiction) or something that we’re all reading aloud together that I try and let their tangents go from there without being controlling. I also have a Hardy Boys lover right now, and I think it’s great. One of the best things is to just suggest, and see if it sticks. Although I’m still trying to figure out how to not REQUIRE things like Latin and Math because I’m pretty sure they are all gaining so much from these assigned subjects. Reading books is NOT an issue for us thankfully 🙂 Any thoughts here for me???

  86. JoVE says:

    I’ve got a different take on that academic part and maybe it links in with Lissa’s comments about the attractions of CM. My daughter loves it if we learn stuff together. She is interested in art. I knew nothing, really. I found some books and we learned together. We have been to lots of art galleries and we figure stuff out about art together. Great fun. Not really strewing, but getting in there and learning with her.

    I have “required” math, mainly because I think that her dislike was due to what school did to her and I knew that she could love it and see the beauty in it. We went down some wrong tracks but we have now found materials that work for her and she is excited. We are using Challenge Math and the lst chapter is calculus (she’s 10; it is a middle school book; it is pretty basic calculus but no, that isn’t what is expected). She is so excited to get to that point even though it might not be until next fall or winter. And she asked if Daddy and I did calculus. When I told her that her dad had never done calculus, she said “Maybe he could learn with me.” big grin on her face.

    I think the key is to get out of the mindset of what do I know that I have to pass on to the kids and get into a mindset of how can we learn about fun things together. Start by finding one thing you would like to learn and find some resources to help you do that. Who cares if the kids learn along with you. But make sure they KNOW that you are learning stuff, too. That learning isn’t something we force on children, but something we all do. It is just part of life.

    And that brings me to the link with Lissa’s thoughts on CM (which others echoed). If that was the school experience you wish you had, then there are probably things you never learned or read or did that you wish you had done. It is never to late. Don’t do them because you want to live vicariously through your kids. Do them for yourself. Maybe the kids will join in. But keep your eyes open for cool things they suggest, too.

    Jo’s post on fear also resonates. And I think doing this is scary. Because it starts to feel like we aren’t doing any work. And as adults we aren’t supposed to be having so much fun. Why not?

  87. Penny in VT says:

    Another wonderful resource (and I’m sure many of you know about it) is Pam Leo’s book about parenting through connection and not coercion. You can find it at:


    and you can find her at http://www.connectionparenting.com

    And thanks for all the great comments – what a great collection of thoughts and ideas! 🙂

  88. Meredith says:

    Jove, I am right there with you on learning stuff for myself, we DO do that here daily, I just can’t get to the “let them figure it all our for themselves” mindset. I’m sure it’s a personal issue of how much trust do you put into your children and their ability to learn. I’m not afraid that they won’t learn, I know they will and I want to be right there with them the whole way!

  89. Melissa Wiley says:

    But unschooling isn’t leaving them to figure everything out all for themselves. The parent is really active and connected. Yesterday Jane taught me some stuff about economics (she really likes the Whatever Happened to Penny Candy book). Later she showed me how she figured out how much she owed me after I paid for some of her stuff at the drugstore. She wanted to repay me out of her allowance, and I’d been rounding down, but she took the store receipt and figured out the cost of her items plus tax on her non-food item (the receipt told her there was no tax on the candy she’d bought), and repaid me the exact sum. Then she wanted to show me step by step how she’d figured it out.

    Beanie is heavily into nature books right now, like the Usborne Book of Nature and that big book of nature science experiments, can’t remember the name right now but I’ll look it up later. She told me all about how worms lay eggs. I never knew that wide band around the middle of some worms was where the eggs are! And it moves slowly down the worm’s body until it drops off. Cool! Someone told me a long time ago that was where the worm’s heart is, and I never thought to question it until Beanie set me straight.

    You are so present and connected with your kids! I can’t imagine you’d be missing out on any of the fun. 🙂 Not that I’m putting the hard sell on you 😉 –I just wanted to clarify that point about letting them figure it out for themselves. Strewing, being alert to their interests and finding ways to help them immerse in what interests them, discussion, watching movies together, reading books together, taking walks together, sitting down with your sketch pad and maybe someone joins you, the sewing & embroidery interests you & Violet share, playing games together, cooking together–it’s all stuff you’re already doing!

    I used to read Our Island Story as part of our CM lessons. Jane and Beanie (but not Rose) still ask me to read that. It’s a ripping good yarn so far–a whole bunch of them, actually. Jane and I still read Plutarch together at her request because we have LOVED deciphering it together & discussing its big ideas. But there are other books I’d been requiring that I bailed on when I started really unschooling, because the interest just wasn’t there.

    Eek, we’re late for piano because I just commented away my margin time! 😉 Forgive the hasty reply!

  90. Jeanne says:

    Unschooling is definitely NOT a Let them Figure It Out Themselves mindset. O! It would be so much easier if it were, LOL! I do think this is commonly thought, so I understand where this comes from.

    My children are so open to my guidance, participation, presence, learning-alongside-ness, even my agenda-setting on occasion – but it is not a control or mandate. I must also be open to THEIR guidance, participation, presence, learning-alongside-ness and agenda-setting. It only works if it is a two-way street, if I am allowing myself not only to influence their studies, but to be influenced by their studies. But I definitely am in there NOT leaving them to figure it all out by themselves.

    Hhhmm, let’s see. I think that the thing is, we tend to see these things as OPPOSITE (say, unschooling and parent-directed home ed, whether that be CM, Classical, Waldorf, Unit Studies, whatever) — so when we are doing the more-structured-parent-directed thing, we think we have to move to this whole other island if we want to be unschoolers. But the truth is – we need not relinquish our parental-ness nor leave our children to figure things out on their own — as it would seem if the model is one of “oppositeness.” There is, instead, a cooperative model of learning where we’re not requiring one another but we’re INSPIRING one another — and helping one another to learn and think and find resources and be interesting people.

    It is very hard to understand how this will “kick in” if we don’t require certain things. But I’m here with older children to say, when they are parented/educated this way, they beome “goalschoolers” themselves. I didn’t expect my then 14 yo college-bound kid to come up with what would be the equivalent of high school studies — I listened to his goals and gave him direction and resources and feedback and insight.

    An e-quaintance of mine and I are having an email conversation about something tangential to this, regarding being parents of older (teen/young adult) children, and she said to me today, that to have influence, we must give up control. If we do not give up control, we will have neither control OR influence. Of course, I’ve heard this before, but hadn’t put it so precisely in the context of my adult children in additional to my young ones, but I see the wisdom in her pithy statement.

    And in my own heart, I feel fear when I try to work on this aspect of myself and my relationship with much older kids – but I feel greater fear at the prospect of total loss of influence, and I see that she is right. So, I’m glad I have practice at giving up control – because it looks like I’m going to continue to want opportunities to have influence in my children’s lives.

    Wasn’t this supposed to be easier?

  91. Meredith says:

    Yeah, I guess that’s the “radical” side of my thinking about unschooling, it’s not warranted here! I know it really isn’t letting them figure things all out on their own. We have actually been drifting on the tidal currents of an unschooling lifestyle for a few years now, thanks to Lissa and her sweet metaphors 🙂 You weren’t being hasty at all Lissa, and I know you know what we’re all about. I do believe that for Me personally the “giving up control” is the hardest (and I’m hard-headed at that)!!

    We really are immersing ourselves in the two-way street that you mention too Jeanne. Right now my dd and I are on an Ivanhoe kick and we can’t seem to let a day go by without sharing something or other from our Louisa May Alcott’s we have going. Right now the three older ones are saying an Easter Mass and doing a Baptism with Bitty Baby, how’s that for creative kids 🙂

    I a not unhappy about our school and lifestyle situation, just trying to understand how a more relaxed way of learning happens for the rest of ya’ll! I LOVE everything you all have had to say, thanks for listening to my fears and again thank you Lissa for this awesome venue, you’re a dear!

  92. Sandra Dodd says:

    This is something called “The Deeper Effect of a Child Learning to Read: Confidence”
    To the mom who did a three-month reading blitz, what if the child was about to learn to read then on his own, and now he’s lost that chance forever? (That’s what the article is about–the huge benefit of a child figuring it out.)

    I think to refer to Star Wars, Hardy Boys, or anything as “twaddle” is too much judgment of children’s needs, interests and desires. It’s not too much if you want the child to turn around and decide which of the parents’ interests and concerns are twaddle, but the more respect you show for your child, the more respect he will have to give back. http://sandradodd.com/respect

    I didn’t know either of those things would happen (the confidence from reading or the overflowing with respect) until I saw them. I thought unschooling was more about academics than parenting, when my oldest was five and six, but I’ve kept learning all those years.


  93. JoVE says:

    Jeanne, that is so well put. I, too, wonder where people get that idea that unschooling doesn’t involve active parental participation. And I think I agree with Sandra that the nature of that participation might be what is not being understood. Reading to and with your child regularly, doing puzzles together, looking at things, are all participating. We, as parents, don’t have to follow an “approach” like phonics or memorizing sight words or whatever. We can just share the love of books with them.

    I find it hard to see the outcome as “figuring it out for themselves” because the kid isn’t there on their own trying to decipher this pile of books in isolation from a bunch of other people that read and otherwise engage with books with that child. But they don’t do it in a teacher/school way with the aim of “getting the child to read”. They do it in a collaborative way of enjoying the moment.

  94. WendyinVA says:

    Thank you Jeanne for helping me sort out my thoughts, and Sandra, for those last two links. And Meredith, for sympathizing. 🙂 And Lissa, again, for starting and hosting this discussion and putting up with my persistent thickheadedness. 🙂 You all have given me a lot to mull over.

  95. kristen says:

    So many insightful comments-they are a blog in their own rite. It has taken me a long time to just do what we do and not try to box it in with a name. Because as soon as I say we are this, than I see that we don’t fit that mold and then I begin to tweek our lifestyles to fit that mold and that doesn’t work. We seem to be much more unschoolers than anything else but my kids have bed times and other limits that my husband and I impose. But it works for our family. We struggle when we try to do things by others standards. We all need to do what works in our own families.

  96. Melissa Wiley says:

    Wendy asked, “Does unschooling mean we give equal weight to everything our children are interested in? For example, is reading a Star Wars novel (which my 10yods is now doing, aloud, for his 8yo brother) just as valuable as reading, say, Scotland’s Story? I know I must be missing something, but it seems like relativism to me to say that it is. “

    That depends on what you mean by valuable, and by relativism. Relativism in this context sounds bad, like *moral relativism*. But I don’t see how it could be moral relativism to say “this bit of knowledge is just as valuable as that bit of knowledge.” Valuable for what purpose? In what context? Here are some things of value I see in a boy reading Star Wars aloud to his brother:

    learning to read with inflection (useful in many professions)

    gaining deeper understanding of dialogue including how to punctuate it, how conversations unfold

    deeper understanding of pacing, rising action/falling action, conflict, character development, description, subplots, metaphor and imagery (all very valuable in my profession!) 😉

    deepening of bond between brothers; warm happy memory for them, shared knowledge for games and in-jokes

    experiencing the good feeling of doing something nice for someone, discovering the joy of charitable acts

    science stuff about space, planets, gravity, engines, weapons, etc

    Star Wars usually conveys a message that is decidedly NOT moral relativism: good is good, evil is evil; good fights evil (and prevails: hopeful message); it’s not ok for a good guy to do something bad even if he has a good reason (ends do not justify means); even the worst of bad guys can repent and try to make amends

    other Star Warsy themes are the importance of working as a team, playing off each other’s strengths; perseverance; sacrifice

    And probably a lot of other things I’m not thinking of.

    Of course, it doesn’t have to be either/or with Star Wars and the Story of Scotland (not that you were saying it did; I’m just developing a thought)–both books might capture a kid’s interest at different times, or at the same time. Jane had a three-year Boxcar Children passion; she read that series so many times she could identify all 100+ titles by number. At the same time she was reading lots of books from the classics lists. If there wasn’t something valuable about formula fiction, there wouldn’t BE formula fiction. No one would buy it; it wouldn’t get published. There is something deeply satisfying about reading a story that unfolds in a reliable way. It’s comforting, but it can be exciting, too, knowing that the next twist is due and making guesses about the plot, puzzling out the mystery or solution to the conflict.

    And in a way it’s impossible to put a value on knowledge because you don’t know WHAT you’re going to need to know in the future. (If you don’t know it already, and a pressing need arises, you’re going to learn in a hurry. I knew next to nothing about the War of 1812 when I was offered the Charlotte books. The first book was set in the middle of the war, and I had four months to write it. And historical accuracy was imperative both to the publisher and to my sense of integrity. So you can bet I took in an enormous amount of knowledge at a rapid pace!)

    I think it is so, so hard for all of us who were schooled to break down the boxes that school put knowledge into. School has to decide what information to present when, and to whom. It says “this is important for all people of X age to know.” (But though it can present the information, it can’t guarantee that all the students will wind up “knowing” it.) School says that certain knowledge is more valuable than other knowledge. But you know what? Knowing how to fix a toilet would have saved me a lot of money, but school never presented *that* potentially valuable knowledge. I can draw really pretty circles with a compass, though. I’ve had more plumbing problems in my life than occasions requiring perfectly round circles.

    In typing class I learned to put two spaces after every period. That was a valuable piece of information when I took timed typing tests for temp agencies during college. Later, when employers needed word processors instead of typists, I had to “unlearn” that habit. Only one space after a period, in computer typing. Knowledge that formerly had value became disadvantageous. Circumstances change.

    The value of knowledge *is* relative, isn’t it? “Is this important” depends on “for what?”

    That isn’t the bad kind of relativism, moral relativism. It’s practicality.

    I place a very high value on beautiful prose and well-crafted fiction. I value some types of poetry (Elizabeth Bishop) over others (Hallmark greeting card). Hallmark sells millions more greeting cards than Elizabeth Bishop sold books. And yet, I say her work is “better” (a relative judgment) than a Hallmark card. I say it, and I believe it, and I can tell you why, syllable by syllable. But it’s possible that my grandma (if I still had one living, that is) would be far more moved by the sentimental lines on her birthday card than Elizabeth Bishop’s rapturous meditation upon a very ugly fish.

    Another way to think about it is: who is learning more–the kid who is passionately interested in Boxcar Children, or the one who is patiently enduring Great Expectations?

    (That same child might, however, find herself captivated by Great Expectations a few years later–her appreciation of suspense fiction having been honed by dozens of Boxcar Children books.)

    Charles Dickens knew the “value” of words—he got paid by the word. When he read his own work aloud, he stripped out most of the adjectives; he’d just put them in to pay the bills. 🙂

    We (having been well schooled) might say that classical music and opera are “more important” or “better than” cartoons. But most of the kids in my generations first (and maybe only) encountered opera in the cartoons. Ohh Bwunhiwlda, you’re so wuv-wy…Yes I know it, I can’t he-e-elp it… 🙂

    My kids discovered Strauss through Tom & Jerry. I discovered Strauss through That’s Entertainment!

    To come back to the question: do we give equal weight to everything our children are interested in? I think yes, we do. School has to decide what to present how, and in what way, but at home, we don’t. We aren’t bound by a calendar year or test date. We don’t have to squeeze knowledge into someone else’s boxes. Way leads on to way!

  97. Sarah N. says:

    I’ve been reading this blog for a long time. I’m not sure if I’ve ever commented but I had to jump in now. I’ve been doing so much thinking about parenting and discipline and schooling since reading this post. Thanks so much Melissa!

    One thing that I’ve realized about myself is that once I fall into the mode of shouting mom (which I do far too often, I’ve got a short temper and lots of control issues), it’s hard for me to pull myself out. It’s almost like an addiction. If I scold my kids in an ugly tone of voice once, I’m likely to do it ten more times in a short period of time. What I’ve got to figure out is how to get “addicted” to being in the moment and enjoying where we are and treating my daughters with respect. I’m not at all sure how to do this but I’m working on it.

    I have a question for Melissa. How do you get any writing done when you are living in the moment and really enjoying your kids? I’m also a writer but I can’t get any work done when I really feel like I’m in sync with my kids and really being present with them (I’ve already given up the standards I’d like to have for housework and other family management so I can’t steal much time from that). I feel like I have to choose between working at all and being able to have our family life the way I want it and maybe I do but I’d really like to be able to do some writing since I love doing it and be present with my family without having to completely give up sleep or evening time with my husband. How do you do it?

    I’m really enjoying the comments on unschoolers. Unschooling is not something I ever would have considered for my family until recently. I’m a scheduler by nature even when it comes to vacations and weekends. Unscheduled time is a challenge for me. It makes me feel antsy. But I’ve seen all the cool things my 4.5 yr old has learned as she’s followed her own interests and reading blogs like this one makes me want to think more about it. But like others have mentioned I’ve seen only negative examples in my community where the kids have too few limits and the parents are giving very little guidance so I need to read more about the type of unschooling being discussed here.

    In response to Melissa’s most recent comment about the value of different types of learning, I wanted to share a link to a great article I just read about series book but I can’t find the article. If I do find it, I’ll post it as soon as I do. The article which I read recently probably on a kidlitosphere blog discussed the benefits of series or formula reading for kids and why they love it so much.

  98. Jeanne says:

    Just to clarify for Sandra and anyone else who might have read it this way — my referring to Star Wars and Hardy Boys as twaddle was meant to be a CM reference, sort of tongue in cheek and sort of in an effort to identify with folks who are struggling with the notion of “is this as valuable as that?” – not my personal opinion.

    If it were, sigh, I wouldn’t be currently reading a forty year old library copy of Clue in the Embers. : )

  99. Leslie in Springfield says:

    I think that sometimes the toughest part of following a more child-led path is that it means giving up so much earlier the illusion of ensuring our children’s futures. If you follow a directed educational path, be it public/private school or a specified method of homeschooling (classical, Waldorf, CM, a store-bought curriculum, whatever), you get to feel as though you are providing what your children will need when they reach young adulthood. When they head off to college or choose a trade, they’ll be ready. We choose those options, I think, partly because we’re looking forward to the time when we can bask in the sense of a job (educating our kids, preparing them for adulthood)that is well done. We can keep the illusion going, generally, until they “graduate.” Then our children, who have become young adults, begin the real business of choosing for themselves– college majors, careers, spouses, etc. Inevitably, there will be things for which they aren’t ready, for which their education (however good) didn’t prepare them. Sometimes they may make choices we’d rather they didn’t and sometimes they may suffer painful consequences. We realize that we couldn’t control enough in life to guarantee our children the sort of future we envision for them. Child-led learning does away with that illusion of “control = good future” earlier, and it can be terrifying. What if they don’t learn enough math to become a ??? What if they lie about all day reading “twaddle” and that’s all they ever want to do? There are so many opportunities for worry (at least at my house, LOL). Those worries can become true *even with* a more conventional-style education. We just don’t have to see it until later. We can hide. With an unschooling mindset, we can strew all kinds of wonderful materials and at the end of the day/week/month/year might still have to acknowledge that interest in whatever subject we held dear has not yet been ignited. Maybe next day/week/month/year. Maybe not. We have to take that leap of faith so much earlier. The leap of faith that says, my kids will know *how* to learn what they need and that’s really all I can give them. As Lissa so eloquently pointed out, some of the knowledge we acquire in our “educations” turns out not to be the correct knowledge down the road. New things get invented that weren’t dreamed of when we were being “educated.” The same will be true for our kids. Will kids from an unschooly approach be less equipped and prepared than those from a more conventional approach? My head says no, but I do struggle with it.

  100. Melissa Wiley says:

    “One thing that I’ve realized about myself is that once I fall into the mode of shouting mom (which I do far too often, I’ve got a short temper and lots of control issues), it’s hard for me to pull myself out. It’s almost like an addiction. If I scold my kids in an ugly tone of voice once, I’m likely to do it ten more times in a short period of time. What I’ve got to figure out is how to get “addicted” to being in the moment and enjoying where we are and treating my daughters with respect. I’m not at all sure how to do this but I’m working on it.”

    Sarah, that’s an apt way of putting it because I *am* finding there is something kind of…I’d been thinking of it as “intoxicating” about the challenge of seeing how long I can go without blowing the patient-and-nice thing. I mentioned in another post today that it has become sort of a game and I find myself waking up every day eager to play it. 🙂 I made it three weeks without a single scold or nag. And then totally blew it on the way home from a Target expedition that fell apart in the checkout aisle. :/ (This was early last week, right after I’d posted about how much better shopping trips were since I’d shifted gears!)

    But the rest of the week was great, even when it wasn’t, if you know what I mean. I’ve come to terms with the reality that when there are five kids, it’s almost impossible for everyone to be happy at once. I find that the more easy-going and sanguine I am, the less of a big deal those moments are when one child is upset because things aren’t going the way he or she wishes.

  101. Kathryn H says:

    Thanks, Melissa, for pointing out this discussion on the yahoo group- I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading it!
    Too many different issues to comment on- it’s still all swirling around in my head, but I have been thinking about all this so much recently so it was really a Godsend to read others’ thoughts. All the talk about how we react to our children, about discipline, and joy…it reads like my own H/School diary of the last ten years. I, too, feel as though I’ve been through just about every incarnation (Montessori, Classical, CM) but all the while what has been missing? The truth that is doesn’t matter what ‘style’ you use- things will not ‘work’ and there will be no joy unless the relationships are right, and that is ultimately down to YOU. So much to think about and work on!
    BTW, I have six boys aged from 12 down to 2 and a new baby due in June . Have alwasy homeschooled but alwasy feel like I’m just beginning 🙂

  102. Kez says:

    Wow. Just wow! I have just found your blog and this post really speaks to me. I am guilty of bad patience, and of impatience. This post has given me a lot to think about.

    Homeschooling mum in Australia and wanna-be writer

  103. Ren says:

    Wow…what a great discussion, even though I came in a bit late apparently.:)

    First of all, loved your post. It’s got a lot of sparks firing that I need to write about now. Thank you.

    I just want to respond to the comments about “relativity” and how unschoolers value all interests;
    That’s the crux of the entire issue for me…VALUE. How can one human choose for another human what is valuable? My parents certainly didn’t think interests I had were valuable, yet I’ve created my entire life around those interests today…including the way I make my income.

    It was valuable to ME,that’s all that mattered. If a comic book or spongebob or World of Warcraft or (fill in the blank here) sparks a child’s interest,then it’s valuable to THEM and at that point, we have the choice to honor their interest or invalidate it. Doesn’t change how they feel about the thing (though they might fake it in front of you in order to gain approval) but it does change how they feel about themselves.

    Having your interests put down or judged as “less than” is hurtful as a child. So yes, every interest my child has is valuable, even when *I* don’t always share the passion.:)

    Now I need to go let my thoughts settle and simmer because I have SO many things to say about my own journey with the topic of “patience”. Good stuff Melissa.

  104. SabrinaT says:

    What a great post. I was just talking to my husband tonight about how much I wish I had his patience. He spent the better part of 8 years deployed. He has been home now for 2 years and he takes time for EVERYTHING. He told me earlier today he is trying to enjoy every single minute he gets with our boys, because he understand all to soon he will be deployed again. I am learning more and more each day it really isn’t about the destination, it’s about the trip.

  105. Maria P says:

    I totally love this post.

    Funny that I read it today and I’m in the process of writing about how important relationships are to learning….

  106. alecat says:

    Greetings from Australia!
    I really enjoyed reading your accounts of patience. I hadn’t thought of the differences in quite the light you have put it, but you are absolutely correct.
    I’ve linked your page through our homeschooling forum to share with others. 🙂
    Thank you for your wisdom. 🙂

  107. Yvonne says:

    I guess I’m reading this late. I discovered you only a few months ago and am wandering through your posts as I have the time and the need. With 6 children and an unexpected 7th on the way, I’ve been pondering much, panicing over all, and parenting horribly for the last few months. Your words here bring a peacefulness to me that I have lacked lately and that my dear unborn needs. Thank you.