One of the most disheartening things I came across during my years of homeschooling was the notion that children are helpless, incompetent, and will not learn unless they are instructed in a school-like manner. A recent post by Idzie Desmarais pointed out the folly of this viewpoint, and got me thinking.
I was not unschooled like Idzie, so coming to a place of trusting and respecting children wasn’t simple. I am by nature a worry wart, so I faced plenty of challenges. Tree climbing, for example, would set me on edge. Nothing was worse than a body of water. I won’t say I didn’t indulge my fears. I deep breathed and watched like a hawk, keeping my eyes on my kids from a distance, but I didn’t stop them. I reminded myself of my husband’s words (“They don’t want to get hurt, either”), and kept my anxieties to myself as best I could, because they were my problem, not my kids’ problem.
This was years after reading John Holt and learning the truth of his words for myself with my oldest kids. While it waned considerably, my tendency to worry, obsess, and try to control my environment was too deep rooted to go away. Call it nature, nurture, personality combined with personal history, whatever. I call it me. It’s part of who I am, something I have to accept and work on every single day.
Over the years I learned that the more I owned my issues, the more I was able to let go, trust my kids, and enjoy life with them. Spending time with other slow homeschooling parents assured me I wasn’t the only one experiencing this. Working to understand ourselves also grew compassion, helping us to be better parents and people.
When we feel fear because a kid isn’t reading yet, or anger because they haven’t learned math, or shame because they displayed a lack of knowledge about something someone else thought they should have known, if we examine those feelings, more often than not we’ll discover they have little to do with our kids and more to do with social pressure and expectations, our own formative experiences, or our own hopes about what we want our kids to be like. When we clear those things out of the way, the space between us and our kids gets smaller. We feel closer to them. We have fun with them. We see them for who they are, not who we want them to be. We appreciate their unique intelligence, sense of humor, curiosity, and interests. And we learn to trust them. Because we were brought up in a culture that doesn’t acknowledge the abilities and ideas of children, trusting them doesn’t come naturally for many, so it really is a learning experience, or perhaps an unlearning of deeply embedded messages.
It does get easier. Watching my children grow unfettered felt at times miraculous and profoundly healing. Eventually I was able to completely let go of false narratives, like the notion that in order to learn children must be taught, or that they can’t understand complex books or ideas. By letting go I saw for myself how capable my kids were of performing meaningful tasks and undertaking serious study of things they cared about. I also observed other young people in my community learning and flourishing in their own ways and in their own time, and I was fortunate enough to develop relationships with them in writing groups and book clubs I facilitated, so even when the reflexive worries did surface, most of the time I could swat them away without much trouble.
I also found that processing my own emotions and reactions sharpened my mothering instincts. When my first child was born, I was a young mother who fully intended to listen to everything the child development experts said. When my daughter was in nursery school a revered expert came to speak and told us never to let our children in bed with us. When I said my daughter came into our room in the middle of the night, I was advised to put a lock on my bedroom door. Instead of pushing away my own experiences of feeling abandoned and ignored, I pushed away the scare tactics of the child development expert, who warned of all kinds of dire outcomes if I didn’t heed her advice. By listening to my own truth, I was able to stick with my instincts, which shouted loud and clear that if my daughter needed cuddles in the middle of the night, providing them would enrich us both.
Honing those instincts helped a lot as my kids grew older, because part of my role as homeschooling parent was to get out of their way while not being clueless or absent, sort of like the role my midwife played at the home birth of my youngest child. She appeared to remain on the sidelines and do very little. She allowed us to have our own experience, but her presence was vital. One of the best tools to accomplish that kind of non-intrusive presence was observing my kids, interacting with them, and knowing them well enough to steer the ship in directions that were beneficial.
Telling stories about kids that are competent, capable, and trustworthy is a great thing, but from what I’ve seen, most of the time it doesn’t begin to break through the conditioning in most people’s minds about who kids are and what they need. I can’t tell you how many times, for example, I heard people say, “Oh, but your kids are special.” Sometimes, people will be thoughtful enough to want to know more, but even that curiosity and openness can’t lead to the deep knowing that those of us who have been blessed with years of trusting relationships with kids have acquired. Part of that is because of how we segregate adults and children and deprive adults, even teachers, who have to evaluate, grade, and constantly direct children, of the opportunity to be in real relationship with kids. Many people can’t tolerate having children around, much less learn to appreciate and trust them.
So maybe the next time you or someone around you feels or expresses a worry or opinion about the competence and trusworthiness of young people, try asking why. Why do I feel that way? Why do you think that? Be ready to be open and non-judgmental about the answers. Seek knowledge to build change, and evolve. It’s a process that’s worth the effort.