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!
The other day I posted a link to this article about Harvard professor John R. Stilgoe. The article made me want to read his book, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. I’m only a chapter in, and already I can tell this is going to be one of those books I have to post a lot about as I’m reading it. It’s transformative.
[Regarding his courses at Harvard]
“…I refuse to provide a schedule of topics. Undergraduate and graduate students alike love schedules, love knowing the order of subjects and the satisfaction of ticking off one line after another, class after class, week after week. Confronted by a professor who explains that schedules produce a desire, sometimes an obsession, to “get through the material,” they grow uneasy. They like to get through the material.
“I explain that the lack of a topic schedule encourages all of us to explore a bit, to answer questions that arise in class or office hours, to follow leads we discover while studying something else. Each of the courses, I explain patiently, really concerns exploration, and exploration happens best by accident, by letting way lead on to way, not by following a schedule down a track.
“My students resist the lack of topic structure because they are the children of structured learning and structured entertainment. Over and over I explain that if they are afraid of a course on exploring, they may never have the confidence to go exploring on their own.”
“Learning to look around sparks curiosity, encourages serendipity. Amazing connections get made that way; questions are raised—and sometimes answered—that never would be otherwise. Any explorer sees things that reward not just a bit of scrutiny but a bit of thought, sometimes a lot of thought over years. Put the things in spatial context or arrange them in time, and they acquire value immediately.”
This is exactly what I’ve enthused about when I write about the connections my kids have made—I get so excited about it; it amazes me to see what they put together in their minds, and where the subsequent discussion takes us. It’s how I learn best, and live best, too.
In a post a while back I quoted Sandra Dodd on connections:
“Learning comes from connecting something new to what you’ve already thought or known.”
She has a connections page on her website (well worth your time to explore). At the top is a quote from Heraclitus, circa 500 B.C.:
A wonderful harmony arises from joining together the seemingly unconnected.
Yesterday, perched in that tree outside the library, Beanie looked at a sign on a church across the street and said, “Mom! The Black Douglas!”
The sign said “E. Douglas.” It reminded her of the story of The Black Douglas (a Scottish hero) that we read in James Baldwin’s book Fifty Famous Stories Retold. She giggled and said the sign should say “B. Douglas.”
The Baldwin book is a great one for connections. When we see rocks poking up from beneath the waves out at sea, Bean calls out, “The Inchcape Rock!” We have a whole long-running family joke spinning off King Alfred and the cakes he burned while daydreaming military strategy. The joke kind of blurs into my kids’ very, very favorite Gunther children quote, uttered by a young Margaret at dinner one night: “Mommy, my burnt corn is cold!”
(One of the many reasons I adore Alice. She’s my kind of cook.)
Last weekend the girls were watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Tom was conducting an orchestra in the Hollywood Bowl (and beating down an eager Jerry who wanted to help). Jane wanted to know what the music was. I thought it sounded like Strauss, but I wasn’t sure, so I (what else) Googled it. Sure enough: it’s the overture from Die Fledermaus. We looked it up on Wikipedia and read about the opera, and we watched the overture on YouTube. Which led to viewing other songs, mostly sung by the famous coloratura Edita Gruberova, who is famous for her Adele in Fledermaus and who also played the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, which (if you want another Alice connection) is the song my cell phone plays when she calls me because it always reminds me of her daughter Theresa singing the aria around the house. And from there way led on to many other ways, and these connections will keep popping up in years to come, linking to something else.
Oh, I just remembered writing about this years ago, how I love that we call it “linking” when a topic on one web page connects to a page somewhere else.
“Way leads on to way,” of course, is a quote from “The Road Less Traveled.” But unlike Frost’s traveller, who, “knowing how way leads on to way,” doubts life will ever bring him back to this crossroads in the wood where he has chosen to take the less traveled path, the paths unfolding before our connections can and will be revisited and explored endlessly, in different ways, all through our lives. And like the paths in the wood, where wind and light and leaves and wildlife are always altering the landscape so that the path changes from hour to hour, our mental landmarks are changed and built upon and nuanced every time we revisit them.
Another funny connection: I had read much of the first chapter of Outside Lies Magic to Jane yesterday—it’s one of those books you just can’t keep to yourself—including the parts quoted above about Stilgoe’s students being uncomfortable working without a clearly defined linear schedule. This morning I asked Beanie to do a job for me, and I was explaining it step by step— overexplaining, evidently, because Jane laughed and said, “Gosh, Mom, it’s like you think she’s a Harvard student.” Heh.
“Exploration,” says John Stilgoe,
“is a liberal art, because it is an art that liberates, that frees, that opens away from narrowness. And it is fun.”
Yes: it is so, so much fun, and that is why I write these posts all chattery with excitement over this or that connection the kids made today. (Or that I made myself!) I know I get carried away, but that’s the point, isn’t it, that way leading on to way has carried me away? And yet—and yet—I think we are at once ‘carried away’ and made more fully present in the now, more rooted, by these relationships between ideas about things past and future. The joy of connection makes me want to celebrate this moment, this brief encounter with wild-haired child and broad-trunked tree, bus going by, sign on church wall, Scottish warlord creeping over the tower wall and startling the English soldier’s wife who has just put her babe in arms to sleep by crooning that the Black Douglas won’t get him. Child, laughing, shouting “Dinna ye be sae sure aboot that!” across the courtyard outside the library. How can I not celebrate this freedom?
I always appreciate it when someone who isn’t familiar with the real whys and hows of homeschooling takes the time to try to get a handle on the subject. That’s what Elizabeth of Table for Five has attempted to do, after encountering a few of us wacky homeschooling folks here in the ClubMom blogroll. Since Amalah linked to Elizabeth’s post and mine in her roundup today, I thought I’d further the discourse by responding here.
I don’t know why this topic gets me so worked up. Whether or not someone Homeschools their kids has no bearing on me, or my family at all. I just know that whenever I read a description that starts with “So and so is Homeschooling her four children…”, I wonder, why?
I could write a book in answer to that question, but for now, I’ll restrain myself and just give the short answer: Why not?
It’s a great way to live. We’re just like other parents: we want our kids to be happy and informed and decent and pleasant to be around. We want them to grow up to be good people who can take care of themselves and others, fulfill their obligations, love and be loved, and enjoy the work they do to earn a living or care for a family. And, having pondered and researched, we’ve come to the conclusion that home education is the right way for our family to pursue those goals.
Sometimes it strikes me as funny that in many fields (business, technology, medicine, to name a few), the ability to think outside the box is seen as an admirable quality, an asset; but people who think outside the box when it comes to educating their children are often viewed with some suspicion.
Amalah jokes about skeptics assuming homeschoolers “are turning their children into anti-social, overly-sheltered hermits,” and joking aside, I think that’s actually quite an accurate characterization of the skeptics. A lot of people do think that. It’s a misconception that makes some of us chuckle as we watch our children run around with a passel of (not necessarily homeschooled) kids at the pool, the playground, the dance class, the karate class, the soccer team, the…you get my drift. I’ve talked about this before. Most homeschooling bloggers have, at one time or another.
But I appreciate Elizabeth’s openminded attitude. She acknowledges that she “didn’t realize how many different alternatives there are to traditional schooling” and seems to be making an honest effort to educate herself about the possibilities. I think the huge range of options often comes as a surprise to people. A lot of folks hear “homeschooling” and envision dining rooms converted to mini-schoolrooms, with a cursive alphabet poster above the chalkboard on the wall, two or three little desks in a row, and a big round clock ticking off the minutes as Mom (that’s Mrs. Mom to you, kid) gives a spelling test. And that scenario does exist, in some homes—but it is just one of myriad possibilities, and probably not a common one, truth be told. An awful lot of homeschooling happens on the couch, in the garden, in the car, at the concert, in the kitchen, at the museum, in the library, across the dinner table, at the beach. We are out and about; we’re busy in the world; we’re learning from doing and digging and smelling and reading and encountering. We are mix and match; we are taste and see; we are get your hands dirty; we are amble and dash; we are show and tell; we are watch and listen.
Elizabeth mentions a few of the many educational methods—Charlotte Mason, classical ed, correspondence schools, Montessori—and there are of course many other options as well. I’ll return to this topic in a future post. For now I want to focus on some of the other questions Elizabeth raises.
…I do have to question whether or not the education a child receives as a result of some of the more alternative methods of homeschooling will translate into an ability to handle college, or life in the working world. Should a child really be allowed to decide for themselves how and when to study, or whether to study at all? What happens when they get to college? I know none of my professors ever wanted to “observe” me and then allow me to choose for myself what to study. Won’t these kids have a hard time transitioning into a set schedule of classes and subjects?
It sounds here as if Elizabeth is referring to unschooling, which is a hard word to define but generally boils down to allowing kids to follow their own interests rather than telling them what they must learn when. Unschooling generates a lot of controversy even among homeschoolers; many structured, scope-and-sequence-following homeschoolers express the same concerns as Elizabeth. Unschoolers have thoughtful, reasonable answers to these concerns, and they have practical evidence of success as well. Autodidacts do very well in college because they enjoy learning and are used to taking responsibility for their own education. Nowadays, many college admissions offices recognize that home-educated kids make exemplary college students: they are eager, articulate, and self-motivated. Also, one mustn’t assume that an unschooler never encounters a schedule or classroom until his first day of college: these kids are taking classes at community college during their teen years; they are doing internships or volunteering at the the animal shelter, the newspaper, the nursing home, the ballet studio. They are running their own landscaping businesses and home bakeries. A non-traditional schedule doesn’t mean they don’t keep any schedule at all. Giving a person freedom to choose how he will spend his time doesn’t automatically mean he will waste it—far from it.
And what happens when they get their first job? Are there employers who give their employees a choice of which report to write first, or whether they should return a client’s phone call or take a walk outdoors first?
Well, yes. Lots of them. All the employers I’ve ever known actually preferred their employees to be self-motivated, to be able to juggle a variety of tasks without being walked through every step. As a staffer at Random House and HarperCollins, I had a big ole pile of work—manuscripts to read, reports to write, cover copy to write, filing to do, writers to call, copies to make, galleys to proof—and my boss sure didn’t tell me what order to do them in. That was part of my job: knowing how to prioritize. And how about now? My job is to hit my deadlines. No editor is looking over my shoulder, tsk-tsking when I leave the computer to play Scrabble with my kids. Or how about my mother? She works out of her home office for a company in another state. She can decide when to call the client, and when to take a walk. As long as she meets her obligations, everyone’s happy. Self-motivation, like innovative thinking, is an asset.
What I find most interesting about concerns like those Elizabeth has shared is that the doubts about the wisdom of home education seem to contradict themselves. On the one hand, there is the worry that the parent is too controlling, sheltering the children from contact with different ideas; and on the other hand, there is a fear that the children are not controlled enough: they are given too much freedom to choose their activities or structure their own time. Perhaps the reason such self-negating concerns arise within a single mind is because there are so many ways to educate a person, so many ways to live. And most people’s concerns do seem to have more to do with social and cultural matters than educational issues. Almost everyone acknowledges the advantages of one-on-one or small-group learning experiences. No, most people’s misgivings are about social issues that really have more to do with parenting styles than instructional methods. In any event, I think open and rational discourse can lay such misgivings to rest, and so I appreciate it when people like Elizabeth ask questions and go looking for the answers. If there’s anything a homeschooler approves of, it’s autodidactism.
Updated: The discussion continues in the comments—some great stuff there, like this remark by Julie:
“What I think helps me understand educational choices the best is trying to get behind the criteria we use to make those choices. If we believe that we aren’t naturally inclined to learn, won’t be interested in science or math unless someone requires it, if we see foreign language as a college prep hoop to jump through rather than for the joy of speaking to natives of that language, or if we consider mythology and classic literature too difficult and boring for the average kid apart from requirements, we will think homeschooling a risky proposition.
“However, if we begin by examining all the things we eagerly learn as adults, how we teach ourselves about politics, religion, cooking, gardening, accounting, writing, painting, parenting, biology (sex and child bearing), and more due to our keen interest and time to learn unhurriedly, we might be able to trust or imagine that kids would flourish if given a similar opportunity with involved parents who invite the world into their homes and share it with their children.”