5 June 2014

A note of (probably unnecessary) clarification to my Waldorf readers

(This post will make almost no sense to you if you are not an avid consumer of parenting philosophies. Feel free to move along if you prefer not to hear the usual parcel of philosophical rambling and self-examination! It isn't compulsory to enjoy this kind of thing.)

Somewhere in the last two years, I have stopped calling myself a Waldorf-inspired Unschooler, and started calling myself a Radical Unschooler.

(Oh yes, I still believe there is value in labels - that there is use in finding the clearest most precise words to describe our interests, preferences, fascinations, and philosophies. Dissecting words and meanings and ideals has been part of my path, and helpful to me. If you want to know my perspective, I can offer a shorthand version in the form of a "label". If you want to know whether the jar in your hand contains strawberry jam or spicy tomato chutney, better read the label!)

Why did I drop the "Waldorf Inspired"? Am I still living a Waldorf-inspired life? Will you find a kindred spirit, a companion on the journey, or relevant ideas here if you DO consider yourself a Waldorf parent? It's complicated, sort of, and maybe. ;)

I was always a bit of a Waldorf-sceptic. Some of the philosophy strikes me as nuttier than the average fruitcake (sorry), and the guy himself was genuinely ahead of his time in some ways and a genuine ignorant arse in other ways (no, I'm not sorry). Even the ways in which he was ahead of his time are now frequently behind *this* actual time. Children have not changed all that much, but our understanding of them in terms of their capabilities and personhood has changed; and the world for which we are helping them prepare has changed beyond the imaginings of the very best of us a hundered years ago. I am not, and have never been, a follower of Steiner or of anthrosophy.

I owned all the Steiner schooling books though - in spite of not being interested in perfectly replicating Waldorf-at-home. To be fair, I did actually even buy a Waldorf curriculum and offer it - but my eldest was not interested and I was already more unschooly than Waldorfy. I was not prepared to push, control, or coerce. We had, and have, main lesson books - the children were, and are, free to use them as they wish to. There was, and is, a lot in Waldorf to love. The asethetic is, I believe, what draws so many people - and it's still a huge inspiration to my own arts and crafts. I truly love the physical beauty and simplicity in Waldorf-inspired art and design. It soothes my eyes and speaks to my soul.

There is also a lot of fear; and control, the eventual result of too much fear.

For the first few years of Jenna's life I was keen to be "in control" of the usual suspects as far as thinking was concerned - food, television, computer gaming ("educational" use would be allowed), bedtimes, clothing. I wanted a soft, sweet, simple life for her. Wooden toys, no branded or character clothing, minimal television. I wanted, I suppose, my own childhood over again. Nothing that jarred my personal sensibilities. And it worked, because for a very long time she didn't *want* anything outside of that. I heard other people suggesting that perhaps she wouldn't always have values and preferences that were so in line with mine, and I knew it intellectually but also felt that I needed to simply cross that bridge when we came to it.

I read a lot of gentle parenting advice and very gradually started to see a strong thread of "this is a nice way to force your child do what they will neither want to do of their own accord OR eventually learn to do without being taught". This pushed me back to the (more radical) unschooling boards, which I had previously read with an air of "are you freaking kidding me?!" When I occasionally came across radical unschooling, I felt genuinely pissed off. It jarred, at a deep level. Whilst also pulling me back to look, again and again.

The bridge, when it came, I almost didn't even notice. It came by stealth, and Jenna and I had almost a year of quiet warfare. She wanted more independance of movement, make-up, clothes I didn't believe were appropriate. It was sooner than I expected, and so I missed what it was I was facing - rebellion against my "nice" control. So, about two years ago, I was facing a choice. Which principle was more important to me? Which fears had a genuine basis and which were figments of too much reading? Would I honour my own thoughts about what was safe and suitable and pleasing above hers, and where would I draw the line?

When something makes me feel ragingly angry for no reason I can identify, it's usually something I truly *need* to properly explore and understand. I had already had the experience with elimination communication (nappy free baby): from "NO WAY" - to feeling strangely annoyed and picked on by the EXISTANCE of such a thing - to feeling like I couldn't get it out of my head until I tried it - to fully living it and thinking "no way - it works!" So when I started feeling like every radical unschooling thing I read was poking holes in me and deliberately insulting everything I believed, I shortcut the process and started cautiously saying "yes" more often. And more often.

My relationship with Jenna stopped being adversarial very quickly. She's still the child I'm most likely to get into an, ahem, argument with. We're very alike in personality, and both very stubborn, articulate, vocal, strong-minded, and passionate. Only, three years ago, we argued like parent and child (with me certain that I could force her to do what I wanted if it came to that, and her determined to resist me on principle because she was so determined not to be forced to do anything EVER). The irony! I started off trying to replicate exactly the parts of my childhood that I loved, and ended up also replicating the parts that I hated.

Now, we argue more rarely - more like best friends who wind each other up or strongly disagree sometimes, but neither feels they have the casting vote and neither feels oppressed by the difference of opinion. In case you're wondering, it's like that with Morgan too (and she's just as stubborn, albeit more quietly so). My parenting world has subtly shifted from being concerned with how best to pass on my values and bring up my children in a way that will produce perfectly moulded adults, to being concerned with how best to allow my children to develop their own values (and trusting that if mine do actually have value, they will be adopted without force).

So that's how I changed my mind, one yes at a time. I still love the feel of Waldorf - it's like a heart-pull to something that is wholly beautiful in its own way - but I'm intellectually convinced, and further convinced by experience, that for me and for these children control and coercion don't work (even "nice" coercion). I'm still constantly learning and knowing I can be a better facilitator, kinder, softer, sweeter, balance everyone's needs better, come to true consensus more often and more easily. I'm still evaluating on a case-by-case basis when, and whether, it is ever acceptable to control or coerce another human being. It is a thoughtful, involved, inventive, pragmatic, disturbing, and important question. I don't imagine I will ever have arrived at some perfect-parenting destination.

So, I feel that I have stepped out of a camp I enjoyed holidaying in but that was not quite home. The gilded cage still confined with lists of rules and should nots and oughts. Since it seems disingenuous to imply that I still consider my philosophy to be in line with Waldorf, and a lie by ommission to just drop mention of it without a word, I'm oversharing (again). I still love people in all camps and none, and love to hear their stories. I still find inspiration and much to interest me in some Waldorf resources. I may even still talk about Waldorfy things sometimes. :) I hope you still feel welcome here whatever your label, or lack thereof! Let's start again:

Hi. I'm an attachment parenting, radical unschooling, liberal, non-denominational Christian, pacifist, anarchist-leaning, imperfect, messy human being. Nice to meet you. Stay a while and share a story, a step on your journey, a cup of tea (or beverage of choice, dear Mormon friends and tea-haters alike), and a snapshot of beautiful ordinary life.

3 June 2014

A Road Less Travelled

Our little local post office is rarely open when it is supposed to be - the opening hours are posted up on the door but, if you arrive an hour after it's meant to have the shutters up, chances are you'll find all locked and barred. Since I have four small children constantly in tow, and run a small business, this is pretty much a weekly occurance: me standing outside the post office impatiently waiting the shutters opening, and trying to keep my small herd rounded up and away from the road. It is a collosal waste of time and a regular stress. Mercifully, the children never seem to mind taking little walks around the neighbourhood (though they don't like the waiting around)!

Yesterday, I was having a Long Day. Moments of tiredness and frustration were starting to add up, and all four girls were engaged in projects and resistant to the idea of getting dressed (benefits of unschooling: nobody cares if you do maths in your pants, or hang out upside down on the sofa watching a history documentary in your pjs, or play Myst in shorts and a distinctly breakfasted vest, or make mud pies in the garden in nothing but a smile). I labelled everything and took deep breaths and tried not to watch the clock.

Finally, everyone was ready to go and after some assorted whining (me) and sarcasm (me again) in the doorway about People Who Move Mum's Keys, we got out of the door and along the familiar three streets to get the parcels sent. The post office was closed.

I stood there, feeling the helpless anger bubbling up and panicking a little at standing out in the heat with the children bored and antsy. I wanted to have a bit of a stomp, actually. There was a bit of fallen wall on the corner, and I took the girls over to climb on it (broken walls are good temporary entertainment, no?) and quickly went over the options in my head. 

- Martin is in Leicester today, no way he can do it on his break. - If I take the kids home now, I will be grumpy and worried about the post, and they will settle back to what they were doing. - So I can't do that, because I won't be able to get them out again later. - If we wait here we will get heatstroke, the corner shop isn't even open to get water and I don't have so much as a sun hat in my bag. - Gosh it's hot! And just when I was complaining about it being so cold and wet this Summer! Of *course* we're out here on the street and not at home playing in the cool calm green garden. - If I post the parcels tonight then they're delayed *again* and Yarn Club is already late this month. - Argh! Can't go home, can't stay here. -

The alleyway next to the post office is a place we have stopped for years, and never gone down to see what is there. I remembered something Sandra Dodd once said in a conversation - about finding joy and new experiences right in your own neighbourhood, walking a different route, something like that. 

"Let's see what's down here, then!" Shaded by a hedge of blackthorn and hawthorn trees, graffiti'd and grimy but *new*, so we walked.

We found the train tracks. Unripe sloes. A rusty bridge. New routes to places we like to visit already. A park we have never been to before. Daisy chains. Long grass to lie in. And a little dog called Cookie who wanted to play.

We spent a peaceful couple of hours shaded by trees and exploring peacefully, and went back to find the post office open so I could send out Yarn Club. By the time we came out of there, the corner shop was finally open for ice-cream. A day of stress and pressure and minor annoyances turned into a day of joys and laughter and calm and finding learning everywhere.

The hardest thing about choosing joy is the choosing! The turning away from the litany of shoulds and oughts and fears and frsutrations, and looking for something else. The "joy" part is easy - the tiniest mustard seed of curiousity, and it becomes clear - the world is a huge amazing place, and there is always a new path to take, a new place to discover, a new insect to examine, a new friend to make.

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Edited to add: I can't find the exact quote by Sandra, I may be paraphrasing significantly, possibly attributing to her writing which was actually by someone else, or I may have been thinking of this. Wherever it actually came from in my reading and sharing, it was helpful to me in that moment. :)

Edited again (two months later) to add: I found it! Just now whilst looking for something unrelated! "
Sometimes it's just as simple as driving another route to the same old place, or going to a different grocery store than usual." - from a larger article about strewing.

2 June 2014

Generosity

Yesterday evening I got a gentle little nudge to think around corners. I was feeling frustrated and upset with myself for blaming the children over minor arguments about computer times. They are so used to needing to take pauses when playing, browsing, or writing, so that I can check in with customers and respond to messages. Mostly they are patient over it - and over sharing in general. The last couple of days, Morgan and Jenna have both wanted Minecraft at the same time, which has happened every now and again but has usually been resolved quickly without my intervention. But Morgan had clearly had enough of waiting.

Morgan is quite introverted, self contained, and serene. Her main preference is usually that everyone around her is happy, and I struggle not to constantly check that she is OK because the difference between Morgan happily going along with something and Morgan unwillingly self-sacrificing is very hard to see. She just isn't as vocal, or as verbal, as the rest of the family. I love her quiet serenity, but I find her hard to read. Sometimes I don't realise how much she has been giving way to others until she reaches her sticking point. When Morgan sticks, she really sticks. Like a solid little stone in the path of any plans anyone else might have had! (I'm not complaining, or concerned with changing her - she's awesome, and she just is who she is.)

Anyhow, I'm sure you can imagine how that all worked out. One laptop. No more talking: proper all out warfare. And I felt bad. Conflict between them always feels hard, but when they are both feeling extremely sensitive and stubborn over something and *anything* I do to help feels like taking sides, it really hurts. My first thought was, "Why can't they just think of each other?!" My second thought was, "Because they are both always having to wait and sacrifice over this one issue. The problem isn't that they don't like to share, the problem is that there is a resource we could ideally do with more of to go around."

I strongly believe that children learn to share best when they feel they themselves have enough. Primarily enough affection, attention, support, help, and respect. When a toddler wanted to be held so much I got touched out, removing myself more often made them cling harder, offering more of myself when I felt I had more to give allowed them to let go more easily after a little while.

But it has held true with everything else too, for us. When chocolate was a rare and grudging treat, they could not get enough - when we started to make food which I considered "unhealthy" available to them and they could access chocolate any time, they stopped eating much of it at all (other side effects included sharing their sweets more freely, and stopping before they had finished all of something). Since we have had a tablet, bickering over television has completely stopped (not that they never disagree, but now they are much more willing to think of a way around the impasse, give way to each other generously, and try to help the others get what they wanted too).

So thought number three was, "I *hate* that we can't just get them the things that would make their lives genuinely more joyful and easy." These are kids who, when we were really struggling for money, asked me to stop buying food for snacking rather than cancel a charity donation. They have had weeks when we mostly ate lentils, rice, and soup because those things were cheapest - and not complained. They are so damn lovely. And for most of their childhoods, money is going to be an issue for us as a family. Most of the time we live very happily and comfortably on not much - we choose to, because we wanted one parent to be available at home as much as possible. Then there are times when I feel selfish for being happy with not-much, and for having four children, and for staying at home with them - because I have exactly the life I best love, and yet they didn't get so much choice about it!

The gentle nudge came in the form of a friend saying, "If you asked, I would help." So I asked. And just a few hours later, a pound here, a few pounds there, my friends had bought us an extra laptop.

How's that for community, huh?!

Thank you doesn't seem nearly big enough. (I mean, I still haven't got over that time three years ago when Martin had just got a new job and we had a month without money and people kept bringing us food.) It's a step outside of a comfort zone to actually ask for help, especially when the thing I am asking for is something that is honestly more frivolous. We could live without it, and have been living without it for years. I have my own discomfort with consumerism, and ideas about material posessions being morally negative, and hang ups about talking about money. Yet none of these things are things I feel I must teach my children - either they will agree with me, or they won't. I would rather support them thinking issues through themselves, and help them to think clearly about their own values (not mine).

Overthinking is my thing, you know?

It boils down to something very simple, though. A whole lot of people generously love, pray for, think of, and give to my family as and when they are able. That generosity allowed me, this week, to generously gift my children with a tool they will be thrilled to use. And the kindness ripples out from there, as my family is touched and wants to touch others, as my children feel that sense of plenty and share with each other and people beyond our home. Kindness begets kindness begets kindness.

Thank you.

1 June 2014

Highlights of the week (and a half)...

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Well, it has been quite a full week. I'm still feeling out of sorts, but the kids are happy and busy and as crazy as ever. There has been painting and insect spotting and belly dance and stories, laughter and tree climbing and sleep overs and high tea with grandma. A lot of toys on the floor, a lot of dirty laundry, and just enough cups of tea.

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(Yup, there is a sister under there, "being a seed".)

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"Camping" in the play room. Aww don't they look peaceful?

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"We can see Wollaton hall from here!"

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Out for dinner with the extended family, and my favourite accidentally-funny-baby-expression of the week:

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And all in all, not quite enough sleep for all these hijinks!