It was one of those days when I doubt every parenting decision I have ever made. I’d scolded the kids into getting ready for school, just like I had scolded them into bed the night before. I drove them before me with my words, herding them into being in their assigned places before time ran out. It was not how I wanted to interact with my children. It was not how I wanted the pattern of our lives to go. But that’s how it was that morning, and the school drop off was accomplished.
Back at home I sat down to read my list of blogs and was unexpectedly stabbed right in the guilt. A woman I admire spoke of how she perceives many other moms as being at war with their own kids. Is that me? I wondered. I don’t want to be at war with my children, but the morning and the night before had certainly felt like a battlefield. I looked at my own behavior and I did not like what I saw. How could things be different? Why was it so stressful?. The tension was created by the looming deadline. I had to get them to sleep, so that I could get them up, so that they could be to school on time. Without the deadline I could let them get up on their own schedule. Conflict would be reduced.
There is a type of home schooling called unschooling. The theory behind it is that children are naturally curious. They are interested in new things all the time. The unschooling parent’s job is to provide materials and help for the children to pursue their own interests. Because the children are never forced to learn things that they are not interested in, they remain excited about learning and eventually they get around to learning all the educational skills they will need.
I love the idea of unschooling. I love the basic trust in the amazing nature of children. I’ve seen how it can work. My son Link did not learn to ride a bike for a long time. All my efforts and stress and worry did not overcome his fear. As he passed his 8th & 9th birthdays, I began to fret that he would be teased by his peers. But the spring when he was 10, Link just got onto the bike and rode. If I had just trusted him to get to it, I could have saved all that stress.
On the other hand, I remember that same Link at age two and a half. He was enrolled in an early intervention program because he was not talking. More than just not talking, he was not even understanding most of what was said to him. He did not even have the concept that pointing was a good way to indicate things that he wanted. I remember sitting with him in class. I had a cup with a black dot on the side. I dropped an M&M into the cup. Link wanted that M&M, but had no clue what I expected of him. I took his little finger and touched it to the black dot. Then tipped the candy into his hand. It did not take many repetitions before the concept of pointing clicked in his head. A whole new world opened up to him. Both our lives got easier because he was able to point out the things that he wanted.
Would Link eventually have learned how to point on his own without me taking his hand and forcing it to touch the cup? Perhaps he would have. Perhaps I should have just trusted that he would get there on his own. But leaving him to muddle through on his own when I could see something that would make his life better felt wrong. That experience taught me that sometimes my job as a parent means that I must require my kids to do things that they see no use for. When I do, I get to witness the moment when suddenly they get it. Their world becomes a larger place and new possibilities are opened to them.
Two days prior to the day when I scolded my kids off to school I was listening to a friend of mine. She was talking about her children and how September is the saddest month of the year because they go off to school. She loves having them home and misses them when they are gone. I looked around and other parents were nodding. Yes. Everyone silently agreed. This is how good parents feel about their children. My problem is that I don’t feel that way. I love my children, but I am glad to send them off to school. I am a happier, calmer person when I have regularly scheduled time alone. That way when they are at home I can give them more focused attention. It makes sense. I know there are other parents who feel the same way that I do. But I can’t help feeling that wanting your kids home all the time is a better way to be. It is a better message to the kids to say “I want you with me” than to say “I need to be away from you.”
I suppose the result is the same for both me and my friend. Our kids all go to school, but I’m happy about it while she is grieved. Neither of us debates the need for kids to be apart from us. There are lessons that kids can not learn if mom is standing right there. I tell myself that by sending them to school I am giving them the chance to stand on their own and to be strong. I treasure my quiet spaces in the day and try to make it up to my kids when they are here. Yet part of me worries that the home schoolers and unschoolers are more right than I am. That they are valuing their children more than I do by devoting themselves more thoroughly to guiding their children’s education.
On the afternoon of the scolding day I did my best to pay attention to each child. I handed out snacks, and listened to chatter, and mediated conflicts. Most of the conflicts included Gleek who is high energy and is working through some tangled up emotions right now. I watched her and remembered that I wanted to find a class as a useful outlet for some of that energy. She loves bouncing around and she loves music, so a dance class seemed logical. But the typical glam jazz or ballet class is not right for her. She isn’t a pink sort of a girl. Her favorite clothes are black. She needed something a little more quirky.
I went online to search for alternatives to jazz and ballet. The offerings were limited. I found an Irish Step class that met 30 minutes drive to the north. I also found an African Dance class that met 30 minutes drive to the south. Either one could be a very good thing for her. I stared at my screen, trying to figure out how I could make one of the classes work with everything else in our schedule. I tried to figure out whether the two hours per week strain would be worth the benefit for my child. Would it be an amazing turning point for her? Would it give her a focus that would make everything else easier? More likely it would become another scheduled deadline that I would have to herd everyone into meeting. Or it would be something we felt guilty about missing.
I stood up and stretched. I’d spent 40 minutes on the dance class search. During those forty minutes Gleek had come to ask things of me twice and been turned away. She had no idea I was looking up stuff for her. It was just mom on the computer again, so she had to get her own drink of milk. It struck me. Instead of spending the time looking up dance classes, what if I turned on music and danced with my daughter? What if I took those thirty minutes I’d spend driving her to and from lessons and instead gave that time to her at home?
In theory a class gives me a break while teaching skills to my child. The reality is that by the time I drive home from dropping the kid off I only have about 20 minutes before it is time to go back and retrieve the child. That space in the middle is not long enough to do anything but wait. The skills Gleek learns in a beginning dance class are ones that I am perfectly capable of teaching.
It was a beautiful epiphany. I could picture my daughter and I laughing and dancing with joy in a weekly shared hour. Unfortunately the vision foundered upon reality. I am already over scheduled and stretched to my limits. What happens when the dance time coincides with an older child’s homework crisis? What about the day when I’m so tired I’m ready to sit down and cry? Is the answer really to expect more of myself? I expect too much of me already.
I stepped away from my computer and looked down the stairs to where my kids were romping in the family room. I thought again about trusting my kids. Are all my efforts to parent perfectly a lack of trust that they’ll learn their own things at their own speed? Do they really need all the classes, and stressing, and running around that I do, or am I just sucking the joy out of our lives by pushing when I should be waiting? Is it my responsibility as a parent to decide what’s best and guide them through it? Do I give them space or draw them close?
At bedtime on the scolding day, I spoke with Gleek. She had a thing she was confused about. It was one of those issues where the answers are not clear cut. I told her that it was a topic which still confused me and so all I could offer were my thoughts without any real answers. Gleek’s eyes got wide and she said: “But I depend on you to tell me what’s right!”
Yes child. So do I. I expect myself to know all the answers. But I don’t. No one can. The best we can do is muddle through and make decisions based on the information we have.
My head is full of dissonances about parenting. It is hard. It is even harder when I see people I admire make different choices than I do. Then I doubt myself and I long for the ability to do things over. I can see the value in lots of opposing theories. I see value in both unschooling and in pushing; in keeping children close to home and in sending them out to grow; in scheduling lessons and in leaving time unstructured. All of these things can be either good or bad for a particular child. In fact they can change from one to the other as the child grows. The best I can do is try to quiet the noise in my head and feel my way forward one step at a time.