Sunday, April 1, 2018

What Happened When My Kids Grew Out of the Easter Bunny

It's midnight, the night before Easter breakfast. Our annual nettle picking is done; half of the nettles already put up in the freezer and dehydrator. The special home-made, paleo, sugar-free eggs my kids require are waiting in the pantry. The paleo version of our Easter morning bread and various other goodies are waiting in various stages of preparedness for me to finish them tomorrow morning. I'll have all the time in the world, then, since no adults will be hiding eggs tomorrow, for the first time in fifteen years. And I prepared very little of this loveliness, myself.

We're a secular family, and these special foods, the family togetherness, and watching the children delight in their egg-hunt are the ways we celebrate this time of new life and the warmth returning. I used to spend days running myself ragged trying to get it all ready - without regret, but definitely with a certain amount of stress.

But my kids are teens, now. They declared they don't want to hunt for eggs, while all the grownups stand around and watch. It feels contrived, and I can see their point. Still, I ignored them at first, because I couldn't fathom that kind of overhaul of my tradition! But they persisted. They've known for years that the Easter Bunny wasn't out there, and that I was just keeping up the charade for my own entertainment. Just like with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, I always suggested that it was better not to look for faults, lest the magic disappear. Eventually I let them in on the secret: that there is as much joy in being the magic as there is in receiving it. I said one day they could become the magic too. I guess that day has come.

So I told my kids some hard but beautiful truths, today: I told them that I have a secret stash of egg-wrapping foils, that I am very sad about not getting to watch them hunt for eggs this year, and lastly, that it's as often their doting Opa who hides the eggs as it is me. They slurped up this information with excitement, and began planning their Easter. They spent all day inventing various flavours of paleo Easter eggs, and cleaning up after themselves! Then they spent all evening helping to clean the dining room in preparation for the big family gathering we'll have there, in the morning. They went to bed at eleven and excitedly coordinated their alarm-setting to facilitate their decorating plans for the morning. My kids have taken over Easter! And it's wonderful. I can't wait to see what the morning brings.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Cardboard Box Vending Machine!

Before I could get rid of this giant cardboard box, my kids hatched a plan to turn it into a vending machine. And over the weekend, with this unexpected device, they proceeded to make many many customers and bystanders exceedingly happy. So happy, in fact, that they had telephone interviews with the local paper, and created video compilations of their work.

The odd thing is that everybody seems to want to know how much money they made... and they don't know! They didn't bother to count. The net cash haul is somewhere around $20 for a couple of days of hard work, but that was never the goal. They just wanted to be creative, have fun, and make people happy. They frequently delivered cash to penniless customers, in fact, because it wouldn't be nice for people to feel left out. Quarters and dollars and fake plastic coins would appear in the mouth of the puppet, along with a surprise in the delivery hopper, or might even shoot right out of the coin-slots!

I would never have thought of creating a vending machine, never mind one operated by a generous seal (and sometimes dog) puppet, and definitely wouldn't have imagined it to be non-financially motivated. I loved their idea, and love to see my kids growing up and out in the world with their own ingenuity and making a difference, there.



Tuesday, March 13, 2018

We're Destroying Our Kids' Ability to Learn


I sit down with a new group of kids, their wide eyes looking up at me, waiting to see what we'll be doing for the day. It sounds idyllic, but it's not. As a teacher, this is my greatest challenge: to spark genuine curiosity in kids and adults who have lost theirs.

The first thing I'm going to do with these kids will shake them up entirely. I'm going to ask them what they'd like to do. "Well what is there to do?" They'll ask me. And I'll tell them there is everything. I'll tell them about all the fun resources we have, that we can go anywhere we can get to, do anything we would like to do, and that I'll support their adventures with materials, enthusiasm, and information as well as I can, as long as everybody remains safe and happy. They will look at me blankly. They won't even get up and look around. They won't know what to do with this information, and will start exploring the boundaries of the new idea. "But teacher, I thought we're going to learn about the environment." "My Mom said don't get my raincoat dirty." Etcetera. It's going to take a few days of freedom for these kids to simply understand that they have free will. It will take many more days of experimenting, boundary-pushing, accidents and tentative steps outside of their comfort zones for these kids to start doing the most natural thing for children to do: explore.

Exploration is how learning happens. It's how a baby learns to take its first steps, to eat, and to speak. It's how an artist, scientist or inventor develops anything new. Even when we've been taught the facts, we don't truly understand them until we've tested them. Exploration is how we develop as individuals and as a species, and we literally can't live without it. And so much of the way we're teaching, parenting, and entertaining our children is killing their ability to explore. We're crippling our children.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson points out in this fabulous lecture, kids are born scientists, and the first thing we do as they start wreaking havoc with their scientific exploration is to stop them, because the chaos is inconvenient for us. He also says "we don't have enough parents who understand or know how to value the inquisitive nature of their own kids, because they want to keep order in their households."

Well we parents were kids once, too. We were kids whose parents told us not to get our clothes dirty and frowned on us destroying the crayons, whose teachers reprimanded us for drawing in our workbooks, re-configuring the scissors, or for staring out the window at the leaves falling. We were kids whose curiosity was crushed and crushed and crumpled into tiny boxes so that now we find it satisfying to see things work the way they are supposed to work. And we haul our kids off the playgrounds and stuff them into cute little chairs with perfectly ordered science experiments just waiting for them, so we hope they'll excel at physics although we just denied them the greatest physics and social experiment of the day: the playground.

Our kids will grow up to watch flat earth conspiracy videos on YouTube because they learned really early that science is for people who sit in chairs and follow instructions and intrinsically they knew that was wrong, so they lost faith in science. They lost faith in themselves as scientists, because we did. We didn't celebrate their efforts to run so fast they disappeared; we told them it was impossible. We told them scientists could prove them wrong. We held science up as an impenetrable wall to stop their exploration, and we killed science in our children. Then, because their learning wasn't recognized, they lost faith in themselves as learners; as explorers; as intelligent. They lost faith in themselves. This has been going on for generations, and when are we going to wake up?

Our job as parents and teachers isn't to provide facts and order and schooling. Our job is to not have all the answers, but to just be busy exploring, ourselves. Our job is to let our kids find the answers we didn't even know existed. Our job, as Neil deGrasse Tyson also says, is to get out of our kids' way. We can, in fact, follow our children's curiosity and begin to break this terrible downward spiral our society is careening along.

It's going to take some patience, because exploration takes time. It's going to take patience, because exploration is messy. There won't be any time for classes and tutors and homework. Only life. And it's going to be one hell of a disorderly life. But an interesting one. And a rewarding one.

My eight year old daughter eating a bowl of cornflakes, pepperoni, snap peas, milk and lemon juice. It apparently tasted too awful for a second bite. A waste of food, which I would have attempted to avert, had I realized what she was concocting, but a self-directed experiment she learned a lot from, and never forgot. She is a wonderful cook!
Unschoolers, life-learners, de-schoolers and democratic educators are going there. Not fast enough, but it's happening. I can't wait to see where we go from here!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Unschooling Music

unschooling music by playing his own way
I come from music, through my mother. When I was little, music was how we lived. I knew how she was feeling by what song she was singing, or what record was in the player. We had to sing on road trips to keep her awake, and some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the floor surrounded by her and other musicians. She gave me music in everything.

So there was never any question my kids would have music. But how they had music has changed many times over the years and, like so many things, I've failed them many times along the way. Unschooling (like parenting; life) is a journey of failures and discoveries that ultimately lead to the rest of our lives. I thought I would share some of our music journey, in case it is encouraging to someone just hovering on a precipice of this crazy trip.

When my kids were little they were surrounded with music all the time, through recordings, through my constant playtime singing, through the songs I sang while I worked in the house and they were busy in another room, and through the many parties and group music events we attended with other folk musicians. Playing, dancing, or drawing in a room full of music was their happy place. This was our life and, although it isn't anymore, it was a wonderful foundation. No lessons, no expectations, just music, everywhere. We weren't even doing it for the kids - it was just our life, which meant, most importantly, that their everyday lives included watching their own parents engaging with music, and they learned how to do it. For that handful of years, I think we got it right.

There's plenty of evidence for the benefits of singing with babies. We even acknowledge the benefits of song and dance for young children, but sometime after our kids leave preschool, many of us begin to lose sight of the importance of music. As our kids get older and we become more and more concerned with their academic futures, music often becomes a skill to be taught in a regimented way, with little or no value given to the actual playing of music. After all, we say we play music; we don't work it. Music is meant to be played, and play is fun. Worse still, music sometimes becomes a leisure activity, and given little value in our school and life-plans. The older our kids get, the more music becomes either a leisure-only activity, or a structured academic pursuit. I destroyed music by allowing this to happen in my home.

My son loved violin. I mean he LOVED violin. He seemed to arrive in the world pre-programmed to desire a violin and to make beautiful sounds come out of it. So, his loving grandmother (the one who brought music into our family) bought him a violin, and also tried to teach him - with all the adoring love of a grandmother giving her own greatest love to her first grandchild. Somebody putting tape markers on his violin was the first offense - no matter how well-intentioned and lovingly it was done. The series of amazingly thoughtful and ridiculously talented and inspiring teachers he then had for violin and cello were the last straw. And I have to say - we chose teachers who truly taught to our son's wild and stringent standards of freedom and inspired genius. He adored them. He thought they were the coolest people in the world. However, he lost interest in stringed instruments.

Our daughter decided she wanted to become a singer, and took up the guitar. She took voice and guitar lessons with teachers who similarly listened to her desires and tailored their lessons to her own measured and regimented but highly alternative style. She had excellent teachers, and she learned a lot from them. But she also eventually declared her own independence, and quit her voice lessons. The thing about unschooling is, kids always have the right to quit. And mine take this very seriously.

Amazingly, although we apparently failed at providing music instruction, both of our kids still make music. My son plays accordion (the one instrument nobody tried to teach him), and has on occasion gone busking in the city. My daughter is still working on her dream of becoming a singer, performing in musicals regularly, and developing a fledgling YouTube presence. But it's not these public pursuits that give me hope. It's the quiet moments while they're working on puzzles and humming to themselves, or cleaning the kitchen while singing an extremely loud improv session, together. It's the way that when they play, music seems to work its way in. It's the way that their very best friends are happy to sit down and make music with them; that when we drive in the car, they sing. We sometimes speak in lyrics. It's not because I know these experiences are beneficial that I encourage them, it's because they make me happy. I was raised in a home where music was the expression of our lives. I hope my grandchildren will say the same thing.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

How the Things we Consume Change Us and our Children

When I was a new mother, my father told me that I took too many photos. He said my children knew the round circle of my camera lens better than they knew my face. While I accused him of hyperbole and suggested he look at the photos he took of me as a child, I began to notice my children's faces as I photographed them. Yes - that's my daughter, there. That is her questionning gaze, learning from my every move; learning that we engage through this black circle, that Mama smiles from underneath it, more to get her attention than to connect. She probably dreamed about that black circle.

When I played Minecraft, I dreamed in cubes. This was merely a comic moment in my life, until I recently began assimilating this memory with other things like the camera's place in my relationship with my children, their and my own relationships with media, now that they're teens, and my parenting in general. I've been thinking about how we process and synthesize learning, where the learning comes from (what choices we make about what goes into our mind), and, of course, how we're raising our children. Dreaming is one of the most important ways we synthesize the thoughts, emotions, and experiences from our waking life. Dreams often bridge the gap between our experiences and the creative solutions we come up with. In his 2017 article in UC Berkeley's Greater Good Magazine, Matthew Walker says that "During the dreaming state, your brain will cogitate vast swaths of acquired knowledge and then extract overarching rules and commonalities, creating a mindset that can help us divine solutions to previously impenetrable problems." So what goes in during the day gets synthesized at night, and then becomes a part of the thought-matrix we use for solving problems in the future. So maybe the fact that I now seem to paint on small square canvases, assembling them in rearrangeable grids, has come from Minecraft's influence on my subconscious mind. Minecraft may be the reason my art looks this way. Not a big deal, but weird. And worrisome, when I extrapolate this thought to the other things I put in my mind... and in my children's minds.

Everything we consume becomes a part of our subconscious landscape, and influences our decisions in the real world. Our brains are masters of adaptation, and our thought processes determine how the brain will change itself. In their 2016 article on FastCompany, Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane explain that "If you’re in a fight with someone at work and devote your time to thinking about how to get even with them, and not about that big project, you’re going to wind up a synaptic superstar at revenge plots but a poor innovator."

While all these articles I'm linking to are fascinating from a scientific perspective, what I think we need to be talking about is the decisions we're making about learning choices. We are always learning. Every single experience you have in your day, from the way you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning to the conversations you have with your fellow commuters, to the media you consume while on a work-break to the book you read before falling asleep becomes a part of the clutter that your brain will sort through and synthesize while you sleep. It becomes one of the things you subconsciously take into consideration when making every decision from what to eat for dinner to whether to run, walk, or dance down the street. We need to be mindful of those things we put into our brains, and equally, we need to be mindful of how we're raising our children.

What are we teaching our children? From the first seconds of their development inside our wombs, we've been influencing them.We tell ourselves that the curriculum they follow at school, or the homeschooling curriculum and schedule we so lovingly craft, or even the summer camps we send them to will be a part of their wonderful rich learning experience. And they will! But so will the way they witness our own behaviour at home. They too are always learning; always observing and internalizing and dreaming what they see into the physical structure of their brains. They know whether we work to solve hard situations, whether we listen to our partners or cut them down; whether we sweep our problems under the carpet or confront them head on; even the words we choose and the respect we have or don't have for each other will become the way our children solve their problems. Also, they will learn from the schoolyard as much or more than they will learn from the classroom. They will learn from the television, music, games, and social media that they consume. They will learn from the advertisements they walk by on the street, and the displays in store-windows. They will learn from the way the wind blows through the trees the way the deer hides but the crow doesn't, and the way the school-bus chugs as the driver turns the key, and the way the driver chugs his coffee. They will learn from the ways we make our decisions, which are influenced by the things we consume while they're not looking.

And I'm not advocating a lockdown of our children, here. Quite the opposite, actually. Protecting our children from life would only mean they develop few skills to consciously choose what they put into their own brains. Is it possible that as my kids play video games and watch online videos unsupervised they are changing their brains for the worse? Of course it is. It's probable that as my son builds his Minecraft fortresses to keep out monsters he increases the likelihood that he will choose to build fortresses (physically, psychologically, or emotionally) in his real life. It's likely that the more my daughter watches reality TV the more she looks at life as a competition, and success as defined by coming out on top of others. These are the realities of the world we live in.

We can't keep our children caged from the world, but we can improve the world, and because we and our children are part of a greater community, the more of us make commitments in this regard, the easier it will be for all of us to make the changes. The two most potent changes we can make, I think, are to make responsible decisions ourselves, and to give our children more agency. And neither of these is easy.

By making responsible decisions ourselves, I mean that we live mindfully. We need to think of what we are doing and why; to make conscious decisions. We need to ask ourselves 'why am I watching this violent TV show to relax'; 'why am I wearing makeup to feel confident'; 'why do I drink wine when I'm stressed or to feel happy'? And then we need to ask ourselves if these actions serve our purposes. We need to ask ourselves how we'd feel if our children made the same decisions (because research shows they are likely to). But more importantly, our children will see us making considered choices, and they are then more likely to do the same.

Which leads me to part two: Our children don't need to be sheltered, they need to be given their own agency. They need to be given the responsibility of exploring the world and making their own choices - even when it terrifies us (and I know it does!) If we let our children play the games they will play; read the books they will read, and befriend the people they will befriend, then they will see not only that the world is a vast and complex place, but that we trust them to manage themselves in that world. And if they've learned from our own modeling how to carefully consider their decisions and the things they put into their minds, then they are more likely to manage themselves well in that world.

I've been talking to my children all their lives about how what they consume will effect the way they see the world. And they still do things that don't seem healthy to me. Still, it's important that I give them the space to go out and experiment, trusting that they as well as I will make the best decisions for our own well-being.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Take Your Kids to See Your Childhood Memories

"So how many rivers in Tiel?" Grootmoeder asked me, from the driver's seat of her little car as we drove along the cobbled road of her town in the Netherlands.

"Three: the Waal, the Lek, the Linge." Despite having only spent a handful of weeks of my life in Tiel, where my father grew up and where she still lived, I had memorized these answers, because she grilled me often. I listed them because I knew that question was coming next anyway.

"Right," she snapped. "Which one did I swim in as a child?"

"The Linge, because the others are dirty."

"Yes. Which one is on the other side of that dike?" She pointed past me out the window at the grassy hill which I had not even realized was a dike, never mind that there was a river on the other side of it.

"I don't know? The Linge?"

"No of course not," she snapped. "It's just the canal."

Yesterday I heard on CBC radio that research shows the grandchildren of Italian immigrants seek more connection to their Italian heritage than their parents did: "The third generation, the grandkids, were way more interested in where their grandparents had come from and in learning to speak Italian and learning to cook Italian than their parents were," Sajoo explained.

The whole interview brought back many memories for me of the times my parents and grandmother took me to visit pieces of our family heritage. I remember my mother driving me past the house she lived in as a teenager, in West Vancouver, right off of Suicide Bend. Obviously, the name stuck with me, but each of the hundreds of times I've driven or bused past that driveway since then, I am connected to that bit of family heritage. I remember my father taking me past the house his family had lived in, in East Vancouver, and telling me about the zinnias his own grandmother grew in that small yard. I was surprised at how dumpy it looked, compared to the lush green beauty of his parents' current home. The way he told me about the zinnias made me think it had been trained into him like the names of the rivers in Tiel were trained into my mind by my other father's mother. 

my Grootmoeder's grave - image from http://www.onlinebegraafplaatsen.nl
We're finally planning to take our children to Europe, this year, and one of the places I want to go is to visit my Grootmoeder's grave. I haven't been able to return to the Netherlands since before she died in 2003, and I need this closure. Luckily, I know right where she is buried, because she has already taken me to her grave. In one of her famous educational tours, she took me to see the graves of her parents, and informed me that one day she would be buried there, too. I was a teenager, then, and thought the whole thing was creepy; the graves were ugly; and many parts of the cemetery were actually hideous. And I didn't want to think about her dying. I was happy to spend time with her wandering around the tiny graveyard looking morbidly for short lifespans and weird grave markers, but I didn't appreciate the lesson she was giving me. 

I suddenly realized last night that I could find that graveyard on Google Earth. I couldn't remember what it was called, so just looked for likely candidates in the town she lived in as a child, until I saw something I recognized... then "drove" past it on Streetview. Through more Googling I found a photo of her actual grave, where her own name has been added by my aunts and uncles under her father's name. None of this would have happened without my memory of that day she took me to see those graves.

It's important to take our children to see the pieces of our family history. It's important to share our stories. Even the upsetting ones. Kids can take it, and more importantly, they need to know, because it's their history too. I recently took my children past the apartment I lived in with my mother after she left my father. "Do you know where the apartment I lived in was?" I asked. And then we were driving past it, and my daughter said, "the one with the pool. Where's the pool?" She asked, craning her neck as we passed. She knows there's a pool but can't remember why she can't see it.

"Yes," I answered. "The pool is behind that hedge." My kids have never seen the pool but they know it's there, because I told them I fell into it as a baby, and floated back up again. They don't have the memories I do of the long walk to the laundromat, the smell of the soap and some nice man wearing white (these are vague memories; I was one or two years old). But they are coming to know their heritage. "And here we come to..."

"The Pink Palace!" They said. Yup. These may seem like mundane and odd things to pass on, but they're my stories, and they keep us together.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Can Unschooling Create Geniuses?

My kid is not a genius. Nope. Neither of my kids is a genius, in fact. I wish people would stop using that word.

This seems like a ridiculous thing to talk about, but it's about time. I have been told by so many people that unschooling is good for kids like my son, because he's a genius, or that they could never unschool because their kids aren't smart enough, or they themselves are not smart enough to unschool their kids. People tell me that unschooling is for geniuses. And I find this very discouraging because, first of all, neither I nor my husband nor my children are geniuses, and secondly, because it's shortchanging the rest of the world's children, who are also capable of great things.

Unschooling doesn't serve geniuses, nor does it create geniuses. Unschooling, practiced with care and compassion, gives room for the innate genius of every human to shine. That's all. And that's really everything.

In our society we teach children that conformity means success... but what our society considers 'real' success comes from being wildly different. Our dentist had something to say about this. He looked at our son's out-turned lateral incisors, and mused, "if you wanted him to become a movie star, you could get orthodontics to turn those back in. It wouldn't be necessary, other than to give him a perfect smile." He then paused a moment, and smiled, himself. "Of course, if you want him to be really famous, he'll need something to make him stand out, so you might want to keep them that way." We decided to let his teeth be the way they are, not because we want him to be a superstar, but because conformity is not a goal we have for our children.

Unschooling does for our minds and our personal development what my dentist's suggestions did for my son's teeth. It allows us to become our best selves. And by 'best' I don't mean 'able to conform and be better than others', I mean 'to nurture and follow our own interests; to fully become who we ourselves want to be, as individuals'.

So I have two kids. They're very different. One is frequently called a genius, because he is interested in physics and enjoys attending university lectures. And also, he's a boy. The other is a writer, actor and singer, and is currently in the process of writing and directing her first public musical, with support from professionals in the industry. She is never called a genius; just a "really great kid", and an "amazingly independent girl". Both of my kids have, in various ways, followed their passions more than most kids have opportunity to do. But the reason one is considered a genius has more to do with how he conforms to the mold of 'genius' (boy + physics) than with his actual personal journey. The word actually restricts him more than it celebrates him. He is also an artist, but somehow that fact seems to slip away under the banner of 'genius'.

Every kid has passions. We might not know what they are, especially if, through school or parenting or the media, they've been funneled into narrow beliefs of what opportunities exist for them. But they do have them. When my daughter was younger we knew she loved stories and friends. She eventually loved theatre, and we figured it was just another way for her to explore her vast social interests. Slowly those interests have solidified into reading, writing, theatre, music, and (still) friends. She's actually doing some pretty impressive things in the world, if I do say so myself. Does that mean she's a genius? No - she just has an opportunity for self-discovery and innate motivation that most kids in school don't have. Unschooling has allowed that to happen, simply because school and other expectations haven't gotten in the way.

The freedom that unschooling allows (especially in terms of scheduling) means that our kids have time to really explore their interests in the ways that suit them best. My son has tried out various robotics groups and programs, but generally isn't happy with kids his own age, so has now settled into a great robotics club with a bunch of middle-aged men. He goes once a month and hangs out with these guys, sharing robotic developments and materials and advice, and he's happy in a way that he never was in the more directed, kid-centred groups. He found his people! Similarly, he's happier sitting around at the University than in a classroom full of grade ten science students. So that's his place. Unschooling is allowing him to develop his interests in the way that suits him best.

Unschooling means having no expectations. For some kids, that is just the ticket they need on the speed train to success; for others that means quite a struggle to develop expectations for themselves, hopping on many trains and checking out many platforms before plunging into many different experimental journeys. But all of us need to, at some point, discover our own innate drive and passion, and I would rather my kids made this journey earlier rather than than later in life. Will my daughter become a professional singer or writer? Who knows? Will my son follow his immense passion for making art, or his immense interest in sciences? I surely can't predict this. I am endeavouring to give my kids the freedom to conduct their own journeys and to support them wherever they find themselves. That freedom, and the gift of self-knowledge that it provides, is the gift of unschooling.

So no - I don't think my kids were born geniuses, nor do I think that unschooling has made them geniuses. But the freedom of unschooling has definitely provided the space in their lives for them to become the best individuals that they want to become - in their own, unique ways. That, I believe, is a gift that every person deserves.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Taller Cake!

When I was a teen, my cousin told me that his father had promised to bake him a cake if ever he or his brother surpassed him in height. It was such a lovely idea that I told myself then that if ever I had children, I would make the same offer. Little did I know that my one-day children and I would all have auto-immune problems and that growing at all would be such a challenge. I am here to report to you that I have just baked the first Taller Cake. It means so much more than my teenage self dreamed it would.