Friday, October 26, 2012

Over-Parenting: Are we helping or harming our kids?

Documentary Recommendation: Hyper Parents and Coddled Kids
(Link at the end of this post.)
Markus and I watched this documentary this evening, and it brought up a lot of questions and considerations for us.

We try so hard to let our children know that (almost) anything they may choose to do with their lives is acceptable to us, but is that just another form of coddling? When my son tells us he wants to go to university early - and preferably MIT - we tell him that we can't afford to send him there, but that maybe he can look into UBC. Now, because he's 10 and we've never sent him to school at all, yet, we're looking for an assessment for him so he can prepare for his goal of getting into university early... are we allowing him to set his goals too high? Are we setting him up for failure? Should we encourage him to experience failure?

My daughter wrote a blog she called the "Economy of Joy" and actually did a huge amount of work on researching and developing her ideas. Then she just abandoned it and wanted to write about her life, instead, and stories for other kids to read. And I said - yes, I actually said - well you have subscribers on your Economy of Joy blog; don't you think you should continue that, too? Oh my goodness, Emily! She was a 7-year-old girl! Is her responsibility to her blog readers more important than her whim? Of course not!!

We feel we have to balance the risk of becoming "helicopter parents" with the risk of not helping enough. (These are my husband Markus' words.) Where are the answers? We want them to feel inspired and fulfilled, and therefore spend every penny we make trying to support their interests. Should we pull the kids out of their programs? They may not go to school, but they take dance, private music lessons, art, wilderness exploration, and theatre classes. Soon we'll add electronics mentoring to the mix for our son. And to make matters worse, there is now such a thing as a "standing play date" -- when did this come into existence?! This means that our kids have the blessed opportunity to be assured of visiting each other once a week! Well... that is... once a week except when that standing play date time gets usurped by a special meeting or performance from one of the paid-for weekly activities...

When I was a kid I just went home with somebody, after school, some days. And sometimes I even called my Mum to tell her where I was. Sometimes I just met somebody partway home from school, and we'd build forts in the woods or catch frogs or roll old tires around. I didn't have to have my parents plan it weeks ahead of time! I've tried to encourage my kids to phone friends for visits, but they are met with busy schedules and requests from the friends' parents to speak with me and organize something for a later date.

When I was 10 I was often home alone for a few hours while my mother was out, and really it was normal at the time. Last week I decided to leave my 10-year-old son home alone for 2 hours while I went to babysit the current show at the local gallery, and I left him these simple instructions: "Just please stay home and don't do anything dangerous." After his rather brutal Swiss Army Knife injury last spring, I suspected he'd learned his lesson and would keep safe while nobody was there to help him.

I went to the gallery, and I did not call him. Until my nerves got the better of me. Which, by the way, was a full 10 or so minutes into my sitting of the gallery. No answer. Could he be ignoring the phone? No! I called again. No answer. Could he have gone outside? It's OK, Emily. Don't worry. He'll be safe. Maybe if I just call many times in a row, then he'll know I'm worried and come answer the phone... No answer again. And again. I called at least every 20 minutes for the full two hours, and also tried calling my parents' house (which is beside ours), in case they had seen him and could just confirm that he was still safe and living. No answer there, either. Well... of course they might not be home. I called my sister in law to see if she might just pop by and check on him, but... no answer there either.

By the time my gallery shift was up I was in such a panic that I did not stop for the dinner groceries, but went directly home and into the door, calling his name. I nearly tripped over a very prominently set-up box, upon which he had written "I went out. To the medow." in very large letters. I ran to the meadow. I ran all over the nearby park, telling people I met on the way to please send home my sweet long-haired son if they saw him, calling him in every way he might hear, and checking the ground under likely climbing-trees for unconscious children. By the time I ran home again I was out of breath and clenching the worst knot of tears and dread, and just nauseous from fear. I passed my Pappa in his garden, and he called out nonchalantly, as if he knew exactly what I needed to hear, "Tal's at our house; we just had lunch."

I ran to "Opa and Nana's house", where the gently dramatic sounds of synthesized-pipe-organ were streaming from my son's little fingers, and my Mum met my stricken face with a confused smile: "Are you OK?"

"No!" No I wasn't OK at all, although my son clearly was, and I burst into the most terrible tears. The pipe-organ ceased and my son came to my rescue. He gave me a big hug and I apologized - through sobs - for crying. "It's not your fault. I'm so glad you're OK. Don't worry. I'm sorry..."

And once I'd calmed down he looked very plainly at me and said. "I'm sorry Mama. I left you a note but I guess I should have updated it after I got home again."

Oh no, Tal. It's not you who needs to be sorry. It's me.
But I'm working on it.
Here's the documentary, on CBC. I highly recommend it:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Desperate Times

Disclaimer: I am completely qualified to write about this in the same way that everybody is entitled to an opinion. I'm not claiming any moral, educational, or societal high-ground, here, but this matters to me so I'm saying it. I do welcome your comments and criticisms.

In her Huffington Post article, Fixing Our Schools, Not Drugging Our Kids, Lisa Belkin writes:

I left the room thinking, If the ways of a classroom don't work for more than 50 percent of the students, then the problem isn't with the kids, it's with the system.

In the same way, if the ways of the school system doesn't work for a subset of children that have to turn to medications to fit in, isn't the problem with that system, not with the children?

Of course it is. And that is the easy question. Next: what are we -- as parents, as educators and as society -- going to do about it?
This article is a reaction to Alan Schwarz' NY Times article, Attention Disorder or Not, Pills to Help in School. But while obviously the increasing prevalence of chronically medicated kids (I know quite a few myself) is an issue in our society, I think the problem, as Belkin states, is far deeper than that. So how can we solve it?

Tal and his friend Ethan at our weekly (F)unschool outing, where we go out in the world and learn about everything. This is due to the open conversation policy: We talk about everything that comes up. No holds barred. And we do it in the rich and fascinating wilderness where life's issues play out in real time.

My feeling is that although many of us turn to homeschooling and unschooling as a solution for our children, it simply isn't a good permanent fix for the problem. We're just removing them from the system and in many cases trying to replicate various parts of it at home, with far fewer resources. Yes, we manage to keep them safe from a lot of the societal flaws that are often accentuated when giant groups of kids are kept all day in institutions with little-to-no adult or real-world influence, but because of our culture's taboos and prudish (yet really quite raunchy in the back corners) way of life, we still can't include them in our life. Few people can practically bring their children to work. So many arts and culture events are serving alcohol (and therefore designated 19+) that the options for children are limited*. And let's face it. A lot of our 'adult' pastimes are so repugnant that we would never want our children to witness them. So why are we doing these things? Why? Why can't we feel fulfilled by creativity, social engagement, and any other activities that we would be proud to bring our children to?

I am not trying to malign the teachers and administrators who, for the most part, work tirelessly with often frustrating shackles and genuinely difficult problems to overcome. And yes, I am aware that various school boards across our continent are endlessly trying out new programs to administer something better to the children whose lives are in their hands. Oh -- did I say administer? Well fancy that. So I did.

But we have to do better. Much much much better. And it can't come within the current system.

What we really need is a complete societal change; a shift in the way we view our interactions with children. We need to see them not as vessels to be filled, nor as forms to be molded, nor less competent people to be 'cared for', but as valuable and essential contributors to what we generally consider our 'adult world'.

When we separate their world from ours, or give them objects, input, and experiences that are geared for children (or 'youth') then are we really giving them a foundation that enables them to be integral to our society? Are we giving them a way in or teaching them that they are not welcome? When we exclude kids from our world, then how can they learn the values we hope to pass on? Or is the truth that we are not living the life we hope they inherit? And if not, why not?

It really would take a massive change in the way we live for us to be able or willing to welcome our children as part of our society. But it's about bloody time we did.

*As an aside, my family is apparently featured in a new film which we would have loved to bring the children to. One of the producers called us and invited us to come see the film. He told me that my family, and especially my daughter, feature in one of the most heartwarming segments of the film, and he hopes we enjoy it. The Occupation premieres this weekend. But guess what? It's at the Rio Theatre. They're serving alcohol. And the kids can't go.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Man Who Planted Trees

Throughout my childhood, I assumed this was a true story. It's not. But it's so epic; so important; so fundamentally right, that maybe somehow in the mythos of our culture, it can still achieve something of truth in our hearts.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Are Homeschooled Kids Weird?

I currently host a weekly teen drawing group at my studio, which of course includes Tal, since drawing is one of his passions, and he's finally a bonafide pre-teen. They're not all homeschooled, but definitely a bunch of free-spirited and creative kids (no wonder, when you remember they love art enough to ask their parents to put them in this rather quirky and serious mentoring situation). This is what makes the group such a success - open-minded kids and a willingness to explore.

And mostly, they make me happy.

Here's a photo from yesterday's drawing group. I had the kids sitting opposite each other working with charcoal to explore the lines and shadows of each other's faces in their sketchbooks. I suggested they try drawing with their fingers instead of straight charcoal sticks.

The boy on the left is 13; Tal is the youngest, at 10 and there were 3 girls sitting around the table, as well. And I said "you don't necessarily need to be drawing a whole face; you could just play with it. Like only work with the nose, for example."

And the boy on the left said "Only draw with our nose?"

To which I of course smiled, and said "whatever you like!" And he did. And so did Tal. Great hilarity and smudging of charcoal ensued, and they made lovely portraits of each other, while some of the girls looked on, perplexed, and one created the blackest hands possible. The boys discovered that chins are a particularly useful drawing tool to get the texture of hair. This was only this group's second drawing session, but I can see we're going to do fabulous things!!

Then this morning I was sent this article from a fellow homeschooling parent: "Are Homeschooled Kids Weird?"

It's a great, simple article, and I do think it's an important subject. My son is no stranger to criticism, having chosen to wear his hair long and loose throughout his life. It's mostly adults who malign him for it; kids just mistake him for a girl and then apologize when they're corrected. Adults often tell him he should cut his hair or actually refuse to believe he's a boy (yes! multiple times!). So he's exceedingly careful how much of his weirdness he lets show. My daughter, on the other hand, is totally unbridled in her creativity, going shirtless in the city, taking giant flailing leaps in her Irish dancing class, while everyone else stands stiffly at attention, and flatly telling her friends about the various social conventions that just don't concern her. I love that she's proud of her uniqueness, but this isn't about self-esteem. This is about evolution.

Simply, how can we expect to evolve if we are just following the status quo? How can we dance with ingenuity if we are chasing pre-defined success or expectations? Nobody expects ingenuity; it just is. And I hope more of us are open to this crazy dance, to popping open these gifts of the unexpected and letting them mess up our plans!