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.