March 31, 2008 @ 5:21 am | Filed under: Parenting
Parenting as a creative art:
But if the parents don’t model mature, loving ways of interacting, how is the child going to learn? I think some people see the word “love” and think “permissive, weak, mushy”. But honestly, it doesn’t break down that way, or shouldn’t. There is nothing permissive or weak or timid about allying with the child to help him to “become who he is”, who he is meant to be. There is nothing permissive or lax about letting go of the non-essentials and focusing on the essence. It is strength, not weakness, to focus on the good things and magnify those. Love is as Maritain said “wild and irrepressible”. It is deep and unique and springs out of who you are as a person, like any other creative art. It is generous and loves the truth, as he also says, but then you also have to remember that truth is not a sword to use to cut others down — it is a light that illumines and makes good things clear and transparent and sparkly. For some reason, it often involves laughter, at least in our household. Laughter (not the mocking kind) frees things up and dissolves barricades.
There’s much more, including a moving account of her husband’s tenderness toward their fragile infant in the NICU. The “my little werewolf” story reminded me so much of how Scott kept me laughing when Jane was in the hospital. As her golden curls started to fall out from the chemo, my brown-haired husband joked to his brown-haired wife that “we always knew she’d lose the blonde hair someday…just not this soon!” The nurses used to think we were crazy, but the laughter was what kept us sane and close.
Willa’s thoughts about laughter dissolving barricades and tension brought back another hospital memory. One of our favorite nurses, Theresa, was a young mother about our age (late 20s) with two little boys ages 3 and 5. She worked nights, and we often wound up chatting during the wee hours when all her patients, including my two-year-old, were asleep. Once she told me that she had almost administered her very first spanking the week before—almost. Her boys had done something (I don’t remember what) Very, Very Bad. Something Extremely Naughty and Highly Inappropriate. Surveying the scene of the crime, fury rose within their mother and she roared at them, “You deserve a—” She was going to say “spanking” but she saw the fear in two sets of big brown eyes and a pang of regret cut through the fury. Her sons had never been afraid of her before.
“—A—a SCHMANKING!” she finished the sentence.
Fear changed to bewilderment in the big brown eyes. “What’s a schmanking?” asked the five-year-old.
“It’s this,” said Theresa, and she scooped him up and tickled him all over. He shrieked with laughter and the three-year-old held up his arms, crying, “My turn! My turn for a schmanking!”
I loved that story then, and I love it more now, ten years and four children later. Don’t all our children deserve a schmanking now and then?
Here’s another nice post at In Need of Chocolate with a roundup of many of the books people recommended in my patience post comments, plus a link to an article urging parents to “take a week off from punishing” their kids and see what happens.
March 29, 2008 @ 9:02 am | Filed under: Parenting
I’m still juggling the various strands of discussion in the comments, on two posts now, and such thought-provoking remarks continuing to come in. I’m conscious of several questions that have been raised but not tackled yet, and while I’m pondering them (and seeking time to reply), I thought it might help if I teased apart the topic strands into separate threads. The unschooling thread is going strong in the knowledge post, and I’ve put together a number of your comments and questions about parenting below. Amy at Epiphany Springs and Elizabeth at Frabjous Days have posted on the respectful parenting topics at their blogs, too. (And other people as well, I’m sure; feel free to add your links to the comments.)
Also, Willa has written another very good post at In a Spacious Place addressing the shortcomings of the term “child-led” education.
Here, from the patience post, are some questions people had that others might want to try to answer, and some of the insights about respectful parenting. These are by no means all the good comments, nor even all the best parts of the comments they’re excerpted from. If you’re at all interested in the topic, I heartily encourage you to read through the whole comment thread. (more…)
I just spent all my posting time writing another really long comment in the patience/unschooling thread. Is it cheating if I post it here as well? (Cheating what, Lissa?)
Maybe not cheating, but nepotism perhaps. (Can nepotism apply to one’s own self?) There have been so many good, wise comments on that post, and I keep pulling excerpts to paste into a post—two posts, one on parenting and one on learning/unschooling—but the posts would be almost as long as that comments thread. Besides, excerpts are not as good as whole comments, in context.
This comment was a reply to one of many questions asked in that thread.
“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. (You can tell I’m not a moral relativist because I think moral relativism is bad.) 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 particular 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 Wendy was 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 (by the millions). 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 generation first (and maybe only) encountered opera in the cartoons. Ohh Bwunhiwda, 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!
Thoughtful and thought-provoking conversation continues in the comments of the patience post. There are two main strands of discussion: one focuses on parenting style, and the other on educational philosophy. Of course, those two topics are completely intertwined—not just in the comments, but in life.
I’m seeing a lot of incoming links to that post, and I wanted to direction your attention toward some of them. Willa’s reflection upon patience vs. acedia is a powerful read: “Is it possible that every morning God says, ‘Do it again!’ to the sun?” An excerpt:
I think the “bad kind of patience” that Melissa discussed relates a bit to acedia, or at least it does for me. Too often, I “serve my time” and endure what ought to be a delight. Thereby I lose the privilege of drawing closer to what I am intended to be. Thereby I close myself into a little box, limiting myself to finding delight in what I naturally have a preference for. Doctor’s offices are one thing, but when I am bored and restless spending time with my little ones, or impatient about having to deal with the 100th quarrel or need in a day, that is something else. Like Melissa, I should know better than to take these joys as a given. If Aidan taught me nothing else, I should have learned that these very repetitions are privileges of the greatest magnitude.
JoVE shares her thoughts on children and housework. Amy has some specific questions about dealing with the daily challenges of parenting; she also ponders, movingly, how “seeing beauty in every face” means looking for it in her own face, too.
I was going to reflect upon these and other incoming links, but my rugrats have awakened and there are bouncy balls whizzing past my head in every direction. Rose is comparing the bounce and arc of balls made of different substances. (In my experience, “child” outbounces them all.)
This morning Beanie came bouncing into my room and informed me that she had just won a game she was playing with Rose. The agreed-upon-beforehand prize? “A cuddle with you, Mommy, uninterrupted by the other player.”
Rose elaborated: “We wanted to think of a prize that everyone would like.” (This moment, the moment of announcing the contest results, was not the prize moment. Beanie seems to be planning to redeem her winnings later this weekend.)
The conversation about patience, peace, and parenting continues to unfold in the comments of Monday’s post. I haven’t had a chance to chime in yet today because of Good Friday, but I hope to catch up tomorrow. I so appreciate the thoughtful responses you are contributing. I had no idea this post would strike such a chord. Thanks for sharing your struggles and your insights. I think a lot of busy mothers and fathers get into authoritarian habits without examining where they’ve come from or whether they are really good for the kids. (This page has some great advice about how to change those habits, especially Pam Sarooshian’s post near the bottom.) It’s good that we’re thinking about this, talking about it, being frank.
My web host informed me there’s going to be a server change this weekend, so it’s possible (but not definite) that things will be out of whack here for the next few days. It’s a busy family weekend for many of us anyway. But rest assured that I’ll be continuing to ponder the questions and thoughts you’ve posted, and I’ll be back in the regular groove on Monday. Unless I’m busy being Beanie’s prize.
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!