Friday, October 11, 2013

Yes


If you've ever read a word I've written, you probably have figured out that I have a firm belief in the benefits of helping our kids make their own decisions in life. That concept is easy to say, easy to write, and easy to talk about – but it is far more difficult to actually live. We want to be sure that we're doing all we can to make our kids safe, productive, thoughtful, and loving people, so we try every trick in the book to ensure that they grow up just the right way. Of course, if we're paying attention we soon realize that there is little we can do to control how kids turn out, and that they can and should develop their own sense of how best to thrive in the world. We help, and facilitate, and hope, and model, but control is pretty illusory, I think. 

Because that's what I believe, I figured out pretty early on that I would much rather find a way to say "yes" as much as possible, rather than say "no" as an automatic default response. Why? Because I hoped that my kids would see the world for all its wonder and possibility, and then find their places in the world in accordance with how their passions fit in with that world view. In short, I wanted them to see a world of open roads instead of clearly marked, standard streets with plenty of dead-ends. The more you say no, the more they hear it, and the more they expect it. The boy who cried wolf becomes the parent who cried no. If no is your default, even when you muster a yes, kids can assume that it's conditional or hedged in some way.

Early this year, my son Kade informed me that he was going to use his allowance to buy dress clothes. I could have told him that was a waste of money, or questioned his motives, or simply indicated no in any one of a number of other ways. Instead, I said "awesome, what are you going to buy?" And he bought a few jackets, a bunch of ties, a couple of fedoras, and a brilliant green bow tie/vest combo. And he looked exactly the way he wanted to look, for his own reasons – and therefore looked confident and amazing.

A few months after that, he began spending most every waking hour working on card cuts, flourishes, and tricks. I easily could have looked at that time as wasted, and said no. Instead, I looked at it as time spent in the pursuit of something he loved doing, which should nearly always result in an enthusiastic yes.

He then began showing me every single move, every trick, every card-related thought, usually several times a day. I could have easily said no, not now, I've already seen that, I don't want to, or some other way to indicate the fact that what he was doing wasn't important to me. But it was important to me because it was important to him, and so I said yes.

He brought cards with him everywhere. I could have said no to that, I suppose, but if I had it would have been a simple reflex, because no answer other than yes makes sense in that case. So, I said yes.

He stopped strangers at parks, restaurants, store lines, and a ton of other places and offered to do tricks for them. We did choose to say no to parts of this at certain times, out of respect for people who were working or simply chose not to participate. But far more often, we said yes and allowed things to unfold in whatever way they might.

And then, earlier this week, we went to see Penn and Teller in Las Vegas. Kade dressed in a suit and bow tie, and brought his cards with him. Penn came out to the audience, took one look at Kade, and invited him onstage to help with a trick. When the show was over, Kade waited patiently for Penn and teller to become available for an autograph, and then performed one of his awesome card tricks for each of them. It was an amazing night for all of us, but especially for Kade – he got to go on stage with and perform for two of his heroes.You can check out one of the videos here.

When he bought his suit and his first deck of cards, he had no idea that he would be able to perform for Penn and Teller – that never even entered his mind either as a possibility or a goal. But because of yes, he was ready when the opportunity presented itself. It would be easy to say that all of the times we said yes led directly to him performing tricks for Penn and Teller, and that we therefore did a good job. I am proud that we said yes, for sure – but not because yes led to Penn and Teller. Yes builds confidence to experiment and explore the world. Use it for that, not because you think it will have a good outcome. Peaceful, connected parenting works best when we throw out "outcomes based parenting", and focus instead on the benefits of letting go and fostering exploration, regardless of whether it leads to something that we would value – because it always leads to something that the child values, in one way or another.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Work/Life Balance in an Unbalanced World



It always happens gradually. You spend a few years at school, get a good job, meet the right person, get married, and progress in your career. You work hard, with some long hours and periodic travel. It’s hard to balance a meaningful relationship at home with your increasing responsibilities (and their accompanying stress levels) at work, but with some sacrifices here and there, you’re able to make it work most of the time.

Just as your life at work becomes more complex, though, things begin to change at home, too. Maybe you buy a house or adopt a dog, putting demands on your time and on your energy. Perhaps you start a family, adding a whole new set of rewards and challenges. As your children  grow, not only do their demands increase, but your desire to be with them – to coach and guide them, to love them, to enjoy just being with them as they develop into remarkable people – increases with each passing milestone.

Sound familiar? It does to me. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Defending the Status Quo

About two weeks ago, my friend Bob Collier posted an article on Facebook that he had found somewhere written by an "expert" who was attempting to defend spanking. Bob added the following comment, which I found simply brilliant:

"I've always found it interesting that spanking is promoted as a means of disciplining children by people who are thereby demonstrating that they have no discipline themselves. Most odd."

Indeed. When I shared this quote on my Facebook page, one of my "friends" chimed in with several vigorous attempts to defend spanking. The crux of his argument was pretty simple. Allow me to paraphrase:

"I was spanked as a child, and I turned out fine. Kids need to be disciplined. How can you possibly justify NOT spanking your kids? Stuff happens to kids; it's their responsibility to get over it."

I'm sorry to say that my response to my former Facebook friend was somewhat less than sparkling, but it sure was honest. Actually, I'm not sorry to say that in the least.

Interestingly, the same thing happened just the other day, as I posted some pro-spanking comments I had found that simply disgusted me; most of them were in the vein of "kids need this, what possible reason do you have for not spanking them?" After I posted this, one of my friends jumped to the defense of spanking. Cooler heads prevailed on that one, but the fact that both of these incidents happened with a week or so of each other got me thinking.

Should I really have to defend my decision not to spank my kids?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Guy on the Plane



Most people assume that if you enjoy being around people, if you are gregarious and charming and outgoing, that you must be an extrovert. However, by strict definition an extrovert gets their energy from being with people, while an introvert gets re-energized by being in relative solitude. While I am comfortable being with just about anyone in any situation, being an introvert means that I can't do it for long. I can get overwhelmed quickly, and need to escape just for a little while so I can charge my batteries.

When I was working in the business world and traveling frequently, this was a real struggle for me. When you travel for business, there is an expectation that you will basically jump right off the plane, drive to the office, and immediately engage. Because I'm an introvert, and because my business travel always involved being engaged with people, I developed a bit of an anti-social attitude while traveling. I don't make eye contact with the security people, I don't joke with cab drivers, I don't smile at pretty ladies (although I will usually smile at kids) and I never, ever, EVER, talk to strangers on a plane.

Except for one day in the fall of 2010, when I was traveling to Boston for the Northeast Unschooling Conference.


For some unknown reason, despite the fact that I was reading and under headphones, the gentleman next to me decided to strike up a conversation. I looked at him, and it was like looking in the mirror; he was obviously a business man of some type, dressed in khakis and a button down dress shirt, with his little blue blazer and briefcase and laptop and copy of Harvard Business Review highlighted and tabbed in all the right places. I could have just ignored him, I suppose, and perhaps I should have. But I also thought that if I made small talk for a few minutes and seemed unapproachable enough, he might leave me alone.

His questions started out gently and I survived the conversation fairly well until he asked me why I was traveling to Boston:

Jeff: "I'm speaking at a conference."

Random Business Guy, eyeballing my unshaven face, shorts and sweatshirt: "Umm, what kind of conference?"

J: "It's a parenting conference, focusing on education."

RBG, peering down the nose of his glasses and turning to face me: "What, like a public education conference, college prep or something like that?"

J: "No, it focuses on homeschooling actually."

RBG, apparently intrigued: "So, are you presenting curriculum or something?"

Uh oh. Tipping point. Here we go.

J: "No, actually it's about unschooling."

RBG, apparently repulsed: "What the hell is unschooling?!?!"

At this point, I was sincerely regretting my decision to respond to him, choose that seat, board that plane, and make that trip. Although I have had this discussion many, many times, I am usually smart enough to avoid having it when I am in a confined space 7 miles in the air - where I cannot escape. But I put that behind me, and gave him my best child-lead-learning-conscious-parenting-living-in-freedom-public-schools-are-failing-don't-you-love-your-children-won't-work-for-everyone-but-it-works-for-us speech. It was, in my humble opinion, brilliant.

RBG asked me a few questions about curricula, and college, and rules, and control, and then pronounced "There is no way I could ever even think about doing that."

J: "Really? Why not?"

RBG: "Well, because I want my kids to go to school."

J: "Why?"

RBG: "So they can learn what they need to learn so they can do well on the SATs."

J: "Why is that important?"

And on and on we went. RBG went through the chronology of his children's life: good grades, the right subjects, SATs, college, job, marriage, house, children, and retirement, sketching out all of the things that needed to happen in order for his children to be successful in the world. Under normal circumstances, I would have said "Good for you," gone to the bathroom and stayed away for a while hoping that he would forget about me. But there was something about this guy that was so familiar to me, something that lead me to believe that I had been in his shoes not very long ago, that lead me to a very different reaction. I asked him a question.

"You are defining success as monetary, and material, with college being necessary for success and good grades being necessary for college. Do you like that definition? If not, how would you define success in a perfect world?"

He paused for a long time. Several times he started to speak, then hesitated, looking out the window or down at his shoes. I could almost see his wheels turning as he struggled with a question which is critical to our happiness but rarely, if ever asked. Eventually he started to speak:

RBG: "I would want success to be measured on how happy I was, on how I spent my time, on my values and interests and passions. I would throw out this idea that we need the American dream, and probably redefine the dream entirely."

J, sensing an opening: "By that definition, are you successful?"

RBG, wistfully: "Of course not. I wasn't raised that way."

J: "Okay. And how are you raising your children?"

RBG: "Wow . . . the way I was raised, I guess."

J: "Why?"

RBG: "Well, I guess I never really thought about it."

I wanted to hug the poor guy. It was clear that he got a bit more than he bargained for, and that he had some things to go think about.

But the point of this post really isn't the long-term future of RBG. The point is that so many parents never "really think about" the parenting choices they make. They don't always pause to think about what success means, what is necessary and what is arbitrary. They think of restrictions and obstacles, instead of alternatives and possibilities. They focus on the way things were or the way things should be, not on the way things are or the way they could be. They let moments pass by, tipping points in which they could engage with their children but do not. The moments turn to minutes, hours, days . . . and you get the picture.

In short, they don't parent consciously, they parent on autopilot.

When you're single, living a life on autopilot may be unfortunate, but is not likely tragic. When you're married, living on autopilot will likely create some long-term problems that can be challenging to overcome. But living on autopilot when you are a parent can be downright destructive.

Parenting is, hands down, the most challenging thing you will ever do. It is scary, troubling, enthralling, and exciting. It requires long hours, Herculean patience, trust, and thousands of other skills and characteristics that our kids deserve and demand. As such, it absolutely requires – REQUIRES – us to do so much more than simply go through the motions, checking the block at each milestone and focusing on achievement. It requires us to think with our head, lead with our heart, question, learn, listen, and stay in the moment whenever possible.

Regardless of our philosophies on parenting or education – unschooler or not, attachment parenting or not, or anywhere in between - parenting really only requires one thing. It requires us to consider our choices and the impact those choices have on our relationship with our children as well as on their futures. It requires that we parent consciously, purposefully, thoughtfully. And regardless of what choices we make, parenting requires us to "really think about it."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Our First Unschooling Conference

It looks like the Sabo family will be able to get to two unschooling conferences this year. We're still decompressing from Life is Good, and are beginning to start gearing up (yes, that's three qualifiers in one sentence) for Wide Sky Days in San Diego in September. Every time we go to a conference (WSD will be my 11th) we are happy to bask in the warmth of old friendships and revel in the possibilities of new ones. But our comfort at conferences does not negate the fact that the first one we went to, Live and Learn '06, almost scared the crap out of me.

Have you ever been to a conference? Are you uncertain about going? Is your husband or partner resistant? I know what that's like, and it can be scary as hell - but so incredibly rewarding. Read on.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Thanksgiving Day

Today is Father's Day. An entire cottage industry has been developed to make it easy for us to revere our fathers on this special day; you can easily shower your pop with cards, shirts, hats, mugs, meals, movies, and anything else you want to celebrate the amazing dad he is. And of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with treating your dad in an extra special way on any day, let alone on Father's Day.

Personally, I am uncomfortable with a day of gratitude or reverence just because I am a father. Maybe this is because I feel like I am respected for being a dad - and for being me - just about every day anyway. Maybe it's because I don't really like celebrations that are forced to occur on only one specific day a year, as though we need the calendar to tell us when we need to be appreciative. Or maybe - just maybe - it's because I think Father's Day is less a day in which others should celebrate me, and more a day when I should be celebrating the children that have made my life so very special.

Yes, that's it.

Today, as most days, I am thankful for all of the opportunities my children have given me. I am thankful for the times that I:

Stayed up with a sick baby, because it gave me an opportunity to experience compassion and empathy.

Drove around at 2:30am with a baby who could only sleep in the car, because it taught me how to be more selfless and how to sing songs that even a baby would enjoy.

Wiped butts, cleaned out cotton diapers, and washed dirty clothes and sheets, because it allowed me the opportunity to demonstrate that nature happens, that it is all okay, and that it is nothing to fear.

Sat on the floor in the bathroom for hours with the shower running for steam so my children could breathe easier, because it allowed me time to connect and hold them close.

Used my shirt to wipe a snotty nose, because it showed them that their comfort is more important than a shirt.

Wiped away blood with my hands, because they hate the sight of blood and being hurt is bad enough without having it make you sick.

Cried tears and sobbed, because it gave me a chance to show them that I am human and need comfort too.

Laughed in ways small and large, often until I either fell to the ground or cried, because it helped them see that it was okay to play with me.

Stayed up later than I wanted to and slept on the couch with a child who wasn't ready for bed, because we always had fun and learned to respect each other.

Fell asleep holding a little hand or with a small head nestled in the crook of my arm, because it's good to remember that even the most loved children can always use more.

Read the same book, told the same story, or watched the same video for the 37th time - even if it's Casper Meets Wendy - because it meant a lot to me that they still wanted me there to do it with them, even after 37 times.

Went back to the counter for 6 more packets of ketchup, because it's only 30 steps but at least 10 minutes of smiles.

Kissed away tears, because another excuse to kiss is always a good thing; that time will pass soon enough.

Interpreted children's art, because I learned to see things that weren't naturally visible to an adult's eye.

Played with play-dough, because it lead to conversations and connections that we talk about to this day.

Made Bacondogeronis or mac and cheese, because it's what they wanted and kids should get what they want as often as possible.

Drove to three stores at 10:00pm to get ice cream, because it taught me patience and demonstrated that their needs were valued.

Listened to the TV on volume 30 and on volume 10, because little ears hear different than big ears and it's good for the big ears to be reminded of that once in a while.

Listened, said "yes", played, touched, breathed . . . because they needed me to.

In short, I am grateful that my kids all seem to still want me around to love and talk to, and that they love me in way that works best for them. Forget the cards, the presents, and the restriction of gifts to the third Sunday in June; I'll take the benefit, the exceptional privilege, and the overwhelming joy of being a Dad every day of the year. Thanks, Kai, Kade, and Annie, for making my life the most amazing one I could have imagined. I love you.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

To College, or Not to College

If there is one central theme through all of the posts I have written, it may well be a call to action for all parents to spend some time thinking and learning about what kind of parents they actually want to be. It is easy to merely parent the way society expects us to, the way were raised ourselves, or the way we see on sitcoms. But parenting, of all pursuits and endeavors, really requires that we make conscious choices and decisions. To do that requires that we learn, watch, listen, and grow. There is no more important role than the role of a parent, and we cannot merely switch ourselves onto autopilot and go through the motions.

As a father and as a writer, I have addressed issues like co-sleeping, spanking, letting kids "cry it out," learning, and a host of other traditional parenting paradigms that should be addressed in order to avoid switching on the autopilot and try to be the kind of parents our kids deserve. Now I need to address one more - college.

Friday, March 23, 2012

2,890 Steps

Last night, just before twilight, my youngest son and I decided to walk to the local convenience store. It was a pleasant night (if a bit cool from the recent snow) and there were plenty of people out and about. I was wearing a red hoodie, my favorite sweatshirt that I've worn for years. I counted the steps - exactly 2,890 from the end of our driveway to the store and back.


As we were walking, my mind wandered from thought to action and back again, as it always does. My son and I spoke for a while, about skating and movies and gaming and what we would do this weekend. During the periods of silence, my thoughts wandered from thinking about my spouse to what I would make for dinner to what I would do at work the next day. Like most people, we were mostly occupied with the trivial thoughts of our day - decompressing, dreaming, hoping, praying, judging, relaxing. Being.

As we walked, the wind picked up and I put my hood on. It reminded me that Trayvon Martin was also wearing a hoodie when he was murdered last week. I tried to imagine what was running through his head as he walked to the store for his Skittles and iced tea. Was he thinking about homework, what subjects he liked to learn and what subjects bored him to tears? Was he thinking about or what he was going to have for dinner, hoping that his mother would make him his favorite meal? Was he thinking of his girlfriend, excited and uncertain like every other teenager in love?

Monday, March 19, 2012

The White Man's Burden

NOTE: This post was published in the online magazine Multicultural Familia. There are numerous thought-provoking and game changing articles there, in addition to a number of pieces on the Trayvon Martin case. 

In late January, I was on a business trip to east Texas. If you have never been there, let me say that east Texas is not, in general, an area of great economic diversity and wealth. Far from it, in fact; in many ways, that part of the country is one of the poorest I have ever encountered. As I was driving along a lonely stretch of road between Dallas and my destination, I passed a sight that I will never forget. There was a trailer park by the side of the road. There were several sheriff's cars and a large tow truck with a flatbed, and it was clear that they were there to repossess a dilapidated mobile home. The family was crying, wailing really, as they sat on the dirt next to a small pile of their remaining possessions. There were many other families gathered around, all Black, trying to console their neighbors, trying to reason with the repo man, and, I can assume, trying to figure out where they fit in to this heartbreaking situation. I was struck by this scene for many weeks afterward, trying to make some sense of what I had seen.

It's a hard thing to talk about sometimes. I see the hopelessness of poverty, but I am not impoverished. I see the inequality on educational opportunity, but I am well educated. I see the inherent travesties of judgment and racism, but I am as white as white gets. I see the pervasive misogyny in the media and among our politicians, but I am a male. In the end, no matter what I think or how I feel, I am a middle-class well-educated White male. It is easy to say that because of this, I do not suffer, I do not feel, I do not grieve. But to say that would be wrong, because we are not speaking about injustices against me, we are speaking about injustices against humanity. I have a right, a calling - perhaps even a responsibility - to feel saddened and enraged and motivated to do something to affect some degree of change.

The horrifying - and blatantly racist - case of Trayvon Martin has brought this to the forefront for me recently. If you are unfamiliar with the case, please read about it before continuing. The basic gist is this: Travyon was a 17 year old black male who went to the store for some Skittles, and was followed - perhaps hunted - and gunned down by a Hispanic neighbor (initially thought to be White) who deemed him "suspicious." The mostly White police have thus far failed to charge the murderer. This is not the first such case ,and will not be the last. In some ways, I have become immune to the headlines; like an addict, I have built up such a tolerance for injustice that it takes a mountain to even prompt a major reaction. It's easy for me to simply scan the headlines and say "hmm, another Black kid was gunned down, no big shock, crazy world" and move on to my comfortable life. Like most people.

But for some reason, this case hit me harder and caused me to examine my thoughts and ideas about injustice, particularly racial injustice. In many ways, we have come so far when it comes to race. In other ways, we have not even come close to resolving some of the issues - driven underground into subtle racism by the intent of our legal system to legislate racism out of our society - which currently threaten once again to divide us. Let me show you what I mean.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Reading the Signs

Yet another incident where a parent gets nationwide attention - and significant accolades - for treating their child in a way that is overbearing, rude, and ineffective. Great, just what we needed, another "hero" for parents who refuse to fight with all of their strength to find a way to treat their kids better.

In this instance, a son got some bad grades and was acting up in school, a fairly common occurrence given the facts that school sucks for most kids and one of the strongest influences on teen behavior is a need for attention and affiliation with other people. In this case, the Dad made him stand on a street corner with a sign that said "I got three Fs . . . blow your horn if something's wrong with that." The other side of the sign asked driver's to honk if the saw something wrong with him being a "class clown."

Here's what I like about this. The parents were paying attention to their child's behavior and performance. They stayed with him while he wore the sign, to ensure his safety. They seem genuinely concerned for his well-being overall, and they obviously love him. And the boy seemed genuinely contrite and apologetic.

Today.

That's the problem really - that an action like that can start from a good place, with loving parents, trying to help someone succeed. But then it quickly devolves from such humble beginnings into something humiliating, exactly the wrong correction for someone who likely just needs the acceptance of his peers. It quickly devolves into something that may achieve conformity, exactly the wrong reaction to someone who's spirit may soar by being independent. It tries to teach respect by being disrespectful. It tries to teach hard work by being simplistic. It tries to teach the value of excellence by being mediocre. 

Will it change his behavior and performance? Yes, probably, at least in the short term. After all, who would possibly want to be so publicly humiliated, not only on a local street corner but in the living rooms of everyone in the US via the nightly news? But parenting for the short term is a dangerous game for so many reasons, not the least of which is this simple fact - as a parent, you're less responsible for raising a child than you are for facilitating the development of a young person into someone who is healthy, happy, inquisitive, positive, and filled with love. An education is important, I get it - whether in school or out of school, formal or informal, with or without curriculum and goals and measured outcomes.

But education is only a part of the whole. Education imports knowledge, but knowledge can only be used with inspiration, motivation, spirit, desire, passion, love, interest, and a host of other qualities. All parent have the opportunity to help their children develop these qualities so that they can take this goodness with them for the rest of their lives. I can't tell you how to do it, because our families and our lives are different. It starts with love, trust, engagement, and a willingness to cast off your own baggage and work at understanding what kind of parent you want to be.

While I cannot tell you how to help your children develop these qualities which are so important to their long-term well being, I can tell you how to make it harder. Shoot their laptop. Send them a poem telling them that you'll stalk them and be their worst nightmare. Humiliate them in public. You might win the battle, but you've lost an opportunity to help your kid in the long term.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Some Kids Have Choices, But Some Don't

After the recent uproar about the asshole Dad who chose to teach his daughter a lesson by shooting her laptop, I was very grateful to see so many parents speak out against behavior that is abusive or coercive. Once again, it sparked the debate about the benefits of spanking and this general notion - which is the ultimate fallacy - that we can coerce or punish or manipulate our children into doing what we want them to. Of course, we can condition our kids to obey for a time through physical or emotional means, but only for a time. Eventually, they will grow up to make their own choices and all of that effort, all of that abuse, all of that pushing your children away from what they want into what you want will come home to roost in the most disturbing and horrible of ways.

The issue here is how we treat our kids. As parents, we have choices. Will we choose love, peace, cooperation, respect, and then model that? Will we choose to teach, to guide, to facilitate, to support? Or will we be allow our kids to be victims of our own baggage, using coercion and threats and punishments to get OUR way and enforce OUR ideas, thereby modeling a whole other kind of behavior? We're not perfect, we will fall and fail at times, but if we operate from a place of respect and love it stands a good chance of being returned.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gratitude

This Christmas, we're getting guns.

Okay, that's a crappy lead in. But I once heard that in journalism school, they teach you to start with a short, provocative sentence to grip the reader, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Yes, we're getting guns. Simply put, I have one kid who wants to shoot targets, and another who wants to hunt. In some ways, we're preparing for the inevitable zombie apocalypse and need to be able to practice our double tap. In others, we're wondering what happens if the country declares bankruptcy, I lose my job, and we have to eat squirrels and rabbits and such. And yet another reason - if you've ever fired a weapon on a range at a target, you know how challenging and fun it can be. So, we're getting guns.

This past weekend, we toddled off to the gun store to see if we could find ones that the boys would be able to handle. The store was packed with people, and the line at the gun counter was several people deep. When it was our turn, young Levi behind the counter showed us several different types of rifles and pistols with great patience and humor and gentle pointers. Of course, we weren't actually buying the guns that day, just looking, which made the fact that he spent 30 minutes with us pretty amazing. When we were done, and Levi thanked us for coming by, I pulled out an old phrase that I thought I'd abandoned years ago:

"Guys, what do you say to Levi?"

The words almost made me throw up before they even came out.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Penn State

I have to confess to being in a state of shock over the horrifying events that have been revealed at my alma mater, Penn State. Ten days ago, I was blissfully enjoying the fact that our football team was having a good year, and that the finishing touches were being put on a state-of-the-art hockey rink. I wondered when Joe Paterno would finally hang up his cleats. I regularly emailed and facebooked with fellow classmates, grateful for the time we had together on a beautiful campus. I practiced many of the skills I learned in my two years there, and reflected on the fact that State College was where my sons went sledding for the first time, my oldest child went to Kindergarten, and our family suffered great adversity that strengthened our love.

And then, gradually and shockingly, came revelations of a 12+ year history of abuse and cover-up. There are plenty of places to read all of the sordid details, so I will not belabor them here; by now, they are well known and most of you probably know more details than I do. For the purposes of this post, I am not going to disrespect you, the victims, or myself by saying that these things are "alleged"; they happened, and we all know it.

One of the most disturbing things about this situation, for me personally, is what I do NOT feel. I am horrified, appalled, disgusted, saddened, angry, betrayed, disappointed . . . . but I am not, on the whole, surprised.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Seven Years, Seven Months, Nine Days

I think it was Winston Churchill who once said, when speaking about Russia, "it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Yep, that describes me well enough. Compassionate, but capable of blunt judgment. Supportive of the right to express views, but intolerant of some. Peaceful, yet capable of frightening violence. In short, conflicted and enigmatic, just like the rest of us. But I try not to feel badly about it, choosing instead to drink from the wisdom of Walt Whitman:

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

My contradictions, my multitudes, are often kept at bay through reason and patience and a general state of inner calm and acceptance, which usually serve me quite well. But sometimes . . . sometimes I see or hear something that transforms all of the world's gray into stark black and white. Often, it involves children - demeaning them, hitting them, or the horrific abuses like we see unfolding at Penn State. Sometimes, it involves politics. Right now, I find myself fired up about the Occupy movements.

I saw something on Facebook the other day about a planned Occupy protest in the Midwest. The person who posted it added a short comment below the link: "Time to get out the steamroller." My negative reaction was swift and strong, and much deeper that I thought it would be. Like many people I have been following the Occupy movement from afar. I am angry about the impact of the government/business relationship on the 99%, and I support the right of people to stand up and say "enough is enough." But I also see firsthand the erosion of personal responsibility on this country that has little to do with corporations, and I wonder if the protests will be effective or simply snub out in a kinder of apathy like so many other modern American protests. And I have been struck by my own personal choice on involvement - believing in the movement, but unwilling to risk activism because I am afraid of losing my job/house/car. Sad, but there it is. So it has been interesting to watch.

But when I saw that steamroller comment, I was pissed. Cities are driving the protesters out of public places, police have in some cases acted with brutality, the media and corporations have been scornful or dismissive for the most part, and millions of Americans believe that the Occupy protesters are being unpatriotic and un-American.

And that, my friends, is where I call bullshit. Let me tell you why.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Myth Series #3: Kids Need Structure

We've seen it hundreds of times. A parent enforces bedtimes, against the obvious will of the child. The days are planned carefully, with enriching activities scheduled out by the minute. Playtime is defined and controlled and scheduled. Many of the things a child does in a day - from when to arise to what to wear to what to eat to who they interact with and what they do - are presented in a tightly bound package that sometimes gives the illusion of free choice, but which in actuality removes almost all aspects of the child's free choice from the equation. Sometimes it looks like this; sometimes it is less severe. And, of course, sometimes it is even more restrictive that I have illustatred here. And if the child goes to school, it is even worse.

When questioned, parents and educators who work with their children in this way rely on a simple catchphrase to support their decisions: "Children need/want/thrive with structure." In many respects, I don't really disagree with this statement; I have seen for my own eyes that many kids do like structure, and thrive within it.

But . . . . as a sometimes public speaker, wannabe writer, and frequent pontificator, I have come to believe over the years that our choice of words has deep meaning. As such, we need to be careful about the words we use, how we define them, and the meanings that they convey. I DO believe that kids need structure. But when people say this, I think they really mean something very different.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Myth Series #2: Kids Need a Parent, Not a Friend

I've been at this whole conscious/gentle parenting thing for a few years now, and I have heard just about every possible criticism of my parenting style from people who are convinced that more traditional methods are the way to go. Some of that criticism has been predictable and easy to deflect, like comments about bedtimes or educational choices. Other swipes have been harder to deal with, like spanking and forcing food choices. But of all of the comments I have received, the one that perplexes me the most is this one, Myth #2:

"You're supposed to be their parent, not their friend."

Hmm. Well, I certainly don't argue with the first part; I mean I am indeed supposed to be their parent, no doubt. But the second part? I don't know. I'm not sure why I can't be both, or at least behave as though I want to be both. In fact, I think I can be both---not because it sounds nice or seems cool and new, but because it doesn't make sense to me to approach it any other way. But this myth is so strong, so pervasive, that it is a particularly thorny one for many parents. After all, this one speaks to a base, fundamental question: What is, in fact, the role of a parent?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Big Disclaimer

A few months ago, a friend of mine wrote a blog post about unschooling and parenting, and as sometimes happens they received some really negative - even nasty - comments. This is not unusual; I've gotten hate mail plenty of times, especially when I try to tackle the most mainstream parenting topics like spanking and chores. I have no problem with debate per se, but my blog is about my opinions, beliefs, and values. I don't see the point in arguing or debating about values, to be honest. I have been a parent who uses physical intimidation, yelling, coercion, and a host of other methods which now repulse me because I believe they are unfair and damaging to my children. I researched and made conscious changes to become the parent I am - not perfect, but gentle and thoughtful. That works for me, my partner, and my kids. And so I write about it. You can change my mind or my thinking about politics, religion, and a host of other things - but I know what kind of parent I am, what kind I want to be, and why. No one is likely to change my mind about that, so what's to argue about? My beliefs are mine; if you don't like them, don't read them. The internet is filled with people expressing their opinions, and when I encounter people expressing opinions that make me upset or angry, I close the page and move onto something more joyful.
When my friend got those nasty comments, I happened to be reading an amazing book by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called "Of Men and Mountains." Douglas was raised in the mountains of central Washington, and was able to stay connected to nature throughout the remainder of his life. One particular passage struck me, especially in light of people who seem to seek situations that make them angry or frustrated.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Myth Series #1: I Can Control How My Kids Turn Out

For those of you who don't know much about my background, let me simply say this: I like control, in a variety of shapes and sizes. Of course, in my mind that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially given my history. I spent several years coaching and playing ice hockey, a game which, despite the way it is perceived, is one of structure and discipline. I have two college degrees, which while they did not involve all that much brain work, certainly required discipline and control to complete. I served nearly eight years in the Army, a quintessential example of control in action. And for the past 12 years or so, I have made my living in the world of business, surrounded by spreadsheets and data and facts which had to be analyzed so that detailed plans could be written and followed. So for me, in my life, and in my circumstances, there is a place - and a need, actually - for control.

Over time, I came to realize that control in some aspects of life doesn't necessarily translate well to others; for proof, just ask my first wife. When I became a parent, I began to see some interesting distinctions between controlling processes and controlling people. I came to understand that a process, as an inanimate object with no sense of purpose or thought, can be controlled in virtually any circumstance. But a person? Well, that's a whole other story. People think, they feel, they have their own goals and dreams and ideal outcomes, and as such can be resistant to being controlled, even guided, in ways they don't identify with. Influenced? Perhaps. But controlled? No. Not that knowing that stops us from trying, mind you.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Running: A Love/Hate Story

Later this afternoon, Ginger and I are beginning a "Couch to 5k" training program designed to get us off of our asses and get healthy-ish. We are not classic runners by any means, but it is important to note that we were both in the Army at one time and were extremely fit. In fact, we first met while on a Saturday training run along Monterey Bay, and running was part of our lives for the first year or so we spent together. After spending the past 12 years exploring and growing (physically as well as spiritually, sad to say) and focusing on spending time with our kids, we are moving into a mode where we'll focus on improving our health so we can actually spend more time with our kids, rather than keel over suddenly while trying to climb up the two big stairs that lead to our front door. OK, it's not really that bad, but it will be great to experience the thrill of running and pushing our bodies again. We'll train - veeeeery slowly and methodically - for the next two months in preparation for a 5k race we'll run the day before Hallowe'en. If we're still alive and able to walk, we'll run some more after that.

But as much as I am looking forward to getting into better shape, and as much as I am looking forward to the peace and solitude of running, I do have some small hesitations. There are some really inconsequential things, like maybe needing new shoes and concerns about how my left knee will hold up since it seems to enjoy living a life of luxury with it's little scars and zero cartilage. But the real concern?

I fucking HATE running.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The "Art" of Raising Children

A couple of days ago, I received an email from someone who stumbled across my blog through a thread on Mothering magazine. They made a lot of nice comments, which I appreciated, but near the end of their email they said one thing that has been nagging at me all weekend:

I'm trying to mold my child into being the best that he can be, but I'm finding that raising a child is more an art than a science.

What an intriguing thing to say. In some ways, I definitely agree; I mean, there is certainly plenty of artistry in parenting, at least more than there is science. But molding your children is something I struggle with. I mean, a child is not a piece of clay to be molded at your desire into your ideal image or any other one. These and other metaphors - some artistic, some not, and most of them seemingly non-threatening - are woven all throughout mainstream parenting culture. While they do provide us with some ready sound bites to describe what we're going through, however, there are no metaphors that accurately capture what I try to do as a parent.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Changes, Big and Small

What a crazy couple of months! The earthquake and nuclear problems in Japan, the death of bin Laden, a stolen election in Canada, and a ton of other across-the-board craziness and tragedy around the world that makes it hard to stay in a positive frame of mind sometimes. I'm not exactly certain what a hand basket is, but at times like this it's easy to sit back and feel like we're about to ride one on a trip straight to Hell.

In times like this, it can be hard for me to avoid lapsing into cynicism. Some people may refer to cynicism as "reality", but I remain convinced that there is just a staggering amount of beauty and good in the world. It's hard to see sometimes, because bad things seem to happen on such a macro scale while good and beautiful things are, well, more localized. So when we look out and around, the bad may seem to be omnipresent; it is only when we look closer, to our own families and friends or within ourselves, that we can begin to feel centered enough to see the beauty and goodness of the world.

The question for me is how to take that micro beauty and turn it into macro-sized feelings that we can share with many others. How can I help someone else see the positive side of an issue? How can I help someone else see things more consciously? How can I help people help others, so we can start a movement to be the change we wish to see in the world?

Or more appropriately, how can we do this for each other?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In Mourning

A few days ago, the terrorist Osama bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces at his hideaway in northern Pakistan. In the US and other coalition countries, it was a time for much reflecting. Bin Laden had been leading a small group of dedicated terrorists on a campaign of violence for many years before the horrific events of 9/11 brought him and al Qaeda into the forefront of American consciousness. Some 2,977 Americans lost their lives that day. The heart of our military complex was pierced, and arguably the most identifiable of American symbols was destroyed in America's most important city. More than that, virtually every American was forced to confront some basic facts about our security and our standing among the nations of the world. As Americans, we are raised to believe that we are invincible, that we are right, and that we have a responsibility to keep the world safe from a wide variety of ideologies that we believe to be evil. The events of 9/11 gave us pause to question.

I watched the events of 9/11 in utter disbelief. I was uncertain if it was over, frightened for what it meant for our country, and alternately proud and embarrassed of the voracious displays of "patriotism" that so many Americans, led by our government, undertook in an effort to put the world on notice that we would not be cowed by terrorists and would fight back at any cost. I hugged my kids a bit closer that night and for many nights afterward, hoping that the world might someday return to one of relative balance and security.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Just One More

Last weekend, my oldest son and I watched Field of Dreams. I've seen it, or pieces of it, probably ten times or so over the years. It's a pretty magical movie, and the last 15 minutes usually leave me a teary-eyed mess of blubber for a little while afterward.

One of the central themes to the movie is the idea of making dreams come true. In one part, the main characters meet an old man named Archie Graham, who got to play one game of major league baseball but never got up to bat. Archie's dream went unfulfilled, and while he lived a very satisfying and amazing life he still spent time wishing that he had just one more chance to get a hit.

That got me thinking about the idea of "just one more." We hear or see "just one more" in a lot of different places. Country songs talk about having "one more day with you"; Luther Vandross sang about one more dance with his Father, and Archie Graham pined to stare down a major league pitcher just once. On their deathbeds, people talk about the "one that got away" or their need for just one more kiss, one more night, one more sunset to watch with their loved ones. And when that fails, they sometimes fall to their knees and pray to their God to give them one more chance.

Just one more. It doesn't really seem like we're asking for too much, does it? But the problem with asking to receive "just one more" is that in order to receive it, someone else often has to give it. To get one more kiss, your lover must be there to give it to you. To get just one more dance with your Father, your Father has to be there to dance with you. And to get just one more chance to to stare down the pitcher, the pitcher has to have the ball and the other players need to let you in the batter's box. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. We simply cannot control whether or not we get "just one more" anything.

But we can control how many "just one more"s we give to other people.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Life of Milk and Honey

A few days ago, my friend Laura posted a very interesting question on Facebook: What will you one day admit to yourself? That really got me thinking about a topic that's been pinging around in my brain for some time. You see, for me the answer to her question is pretty simple. I am afraid that someday I will admit to myself that I did not have a universal sense of compassion for people that I come in contact with. On the whole, I consider myself to be a pretty understanding and compassionate person, but I am not above a simple, quick, unfair judgment when I encounter someone who, for whatever reason, pisses me off. Maybe they were rude to me, or maybe they were rude to their kids. Maybe they confronted about something that made me uncomfortable, or cut in front of me in line. Or maybe they just see things differently than I do. Whatever the reason, I can be pretty quick to dispense with someone sometimes: jerk, asshole, jackass, bad this-or-that, you name it.

But in my heart of hearts, I enjoy helping people. I cannot help someone if I judge them rather than respect them; I cannot help them if I assume negative intent instead of positive intent; and I cannot help them if I cannot offer them compassion. The point is this: how do I - or you, or anyone else - change from a place of quick and perhaps unfair judgment, to a place where we can take a breath and try to be more compassionate? As I was thinking about how to come to grips with this in my own life, an example from my past came to mind that may just answer my question.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Earning Your Stripes

For the past few years I have been writing about what I strive to be - the best Dad I can be under whatever circumstances are rearing their ugly heads within any particular moment. Like most parents, some days I think I have it absolutely nailed; my partner, kids, and I are operating in perfect sync for hours, days, or even weeks at a time. Everyone is mostly happy, everyone is mostly connected, and everyone's love tanks are mostly full. Other days are much, much harder. My imperfections seem magnified, and things that would normally roll off my back choose now to attach themselves to my doubts, fears, and insecurities. On these days, I am not patient, I am not connected, and sometimes I just am not very nice - and obviously, then, not the best Dad I can be.

Despite the fact that I've written for the past few years about how being imperfect is both understandable and okay, I still beat myself up a bit on the bad days. You'd think I would have learned by now, but life is simply not so neat as to always be reflective of steps forward, or even staying in neutral. Sometimes life is a few steps back, as well.

Today was, in some ways, a step back for me - or it felt that way, at least. The compassion was hard to access today, the patience was stretched thinly, and the usual playful spring in my step was more like a dutiful clomp. As I sit here getting ready to say goodbye to another weekend, I'm trying to think of why the day went strange. Although it could be any number of things, I think I put my finger on it. And it's an old, familiar theme.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

I'm Still That Dad

Last summer, several natural/connected parents I know - and by several, I mean over 100! - started an impromptu blog carnival. The theme? "I'm that Dad/Mom." I was thinking about this earlier today, and decided to give it a refresh to see if I'm still the Dad I think I am . . . and in the hopes that I am now even better.

I am that Dad. I am that Dad who goes swimming when he is tired, because he knows that he'll get more energy as soon as he hears his children's laughter. I am that Dad who makes a hot dog smothered with bacon and pepperoni at 2:00am, because it's what sounds good to his child right now. I am that Dad who will sit in a coffee shop and play Monopoly for three hours or until I lose, whichever comes first, because when I can be patient I can learn new ways to have fun. I am that Dad who goes to three stores to find their favorite ice cream when they lose one too many rounds of Mario Kart, because ice cream heals more tears than words do. I am that Dad that sometimes stays up all night to watch anime because one of my sons just needs to share something new with me. I am that Dad who can usually drop what he's doing and follow someone outside to catch a frog, play nerf wars, or try to get a football stuck in a tree, because "sure!" is always easier for young ears to hear than "in a few minutes." I am that Dad who says "yes" when my youngest wants to buy a zippo, because he really isn't very likely to burn down anything too important. I am that Dad who can wipe a butt with a smile, because wiping it with a frown sucks for both of us. I am that Dad who is never perfect, but who tries his best every day to stay connected with his life, because I am not perfect and have no desire to pretend to be so. I am that Dad who is honest and real, despite my warts, because my kids will all have warts and I want them to grow up without fearing them. I am that Dad who is unafraid to sing loudly with the windows open because life should be celebrated in freedom; who is willing to have his toenails painted, because all little girls need to be able to paint outside the lines; who will wrestle seven kids at once in a public park, because it's okay to get a public ass-whooping every now and again; and who speaks in his Monty Python voice while walking through a nice restaurant, because people are way too fucking stuffy and I don't want my kids to think that they have to be that way when they grow up. I am that Dad who will wrestle to help get out energy, cuddle to help get out tears, and play imagination games to help get out laughter. I am the Dad who loves my kids enough to question the status quo behind everything from our education system to traditional parenting styles to my own abilities and struggles, because my kids deserve that and so much more. I am the Dad who cries at certain commercials, because certain commercials are touching and we all need to recognize the value of a good cry. I am that Dad who will stand in line for 30 minutes to get the perfect donut, because everyone deserves a perfect donut. I am that Dad who strives for the perfect balance of calm and playful, stable and crazy, honest and compassionate, active and chill. And I am the Dad who knows that he doesn't know best about much, except for about the fact that his partner and kids are simply amazing.

I am THAT Dad. Still.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Defending the Status Quo, Part II

Earlier today, a colleague and I were discussing the reasons why some workers just seem unable to perform well in their roles. Now, I've been in HR for some time and I can tell you that most leaders truly care about the reasons why people do or do not perform up to standards. But as many times as I have had this conversation, it usually ends up with us talking about things like personal responsibility, accountability, and a basic understanding of the relationship between actions - or inactions - and consequences. Really, it's just basic human behavior, and 15 years in HR qualifies me to play pop psychologist now and again, apparently.

The conversation today reminded me of another similar conversation I recently had with someone outside of work. We touched on all of the same themes, but this person said something that really set me on my heels: "The reason these young people don't get it is because they weren't disciplined enough when they were kids. Spare the rod, spoil the child, I say. I spanked my kids and they turned out just fine."

Now, setting aside for a moment that no child who is routinely spanked ever really turns out "fine", the comment itself - and the voracity with which it was delivered - really set me back. I must have had a "WTF" look on my face, because the person immediately said "What, you don't agree? Are you one of those 'Now Johnny, Daddy really wishes you wouldn't do that' kind of guys?"

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Myth of the Lazy Unschooler

A few months ago, Ren Allen and I had the opportunity to do a joint presentation at the Northeast Unschooling Conference entitled "Unschooling Myth Busters." It was very fun; we tackled myths such as TV, video games, bedtimes, socialization, and motivation, among others. It never ceases to amaze me just how many unschooling myths are out there, especially considering the fact that virtually everyone in the world was unschooled long before formal education systems came along. In my mind, unschooling is neither new nor radical; it is completely natural and has been in our world since the dawn of man.

Still, the idea of unschooling seems "new" and "radical" to many people, particularly when compared to the more established and traditional form of public education. As with anything new, the ideas behind unschooling have seemingly earned a special place in the darker hearts of many people, and unschooling itself has been reserved as a special target for people who want to hurl vitriol and disgust upon it. Normally I don't mind that too much; I understand that not everyone agrees with my views and that sometimes new ideas can be threatening, causing people to lash out. You can call me stupid and shortsighted and irresponsible all you want, I can take it. But call my kids The L Word and you'll have a fight on your hands.

What is The L Word? Why, it's "lazy" of course.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hmm . . . Good Question

You would think that after three-plus years of writing some 175,000 words about unschooling and conscious parenting that eventually, just maybe, I would develop the ability to avoid conversations in which people feel the need to question my sanity about how I raise my children. You would think. Most of the time, that is the case; I am able to calmly respond about the positives aspects of my choices and leave the questioner feeling heard and respected. But sometimes, every now and again, someone asks me a question that I have heard 63 times and I just cannot contain myself. A couple of days ago, I had a co-worker ask me a question that put her square in my sights.

The question itself is innocuous enough, and I don't think she meant any harm. She merely asked "At what point will you put your kids back in school?" Simple, right? Right. But like most questions, this one has both a short answer and a long answer. The short answer was "It is not my choice to have them in school or out of school, it is their choice; if they decide to go back, I will support them. That's how this works."

The long answer is here.

Monday, April 4, 2011

There is a Bed, a Family Bed, Where Everyone is Sleeping

Recently, I went on yet another business trip. Fortunately, this was the first business trip I've made in some time, almost a year if memory serves correctly. I have traveled several times a year over the past ten years or so, sometimes more, sometimes less. On this latest trip I actually tried to write down a list of all of the business trips I have taken as a way to pass the time during a long layover. I stopped at 25, unable and unwilling to think about it anymore.

Like everything, traveling on business has its good points and bad points. On the positive side, I get the TV all to myself and it is pretty quiet. On the negative side, I get the bed all to myself and it is pretty quiet.

Ahh, the bed. I always sleep really poorly when I am away. Part of it could be that I have a TV right in front of me to waste away the time. Part of it could be that most hotel beds are pretty uncomfortable when you get right down to it. But the real reason? Because I am sleeping alone, without my family near me, and I am definitely not used to that.

When we found out that we were having our first son, like most parents we immediately hit the bookstore to begin trying to soak up sage parenting advice to guide us on this uncertain journey. We weren't necessarily looking for information that was popular, or traditional, or "scientifically proven", whatever that means. We were looking for practical information that made sense to us and rang true in our hearts. In the end, we came up with an overall philosophy that many people may think is pretty out there in terms of how far away it is from traditional parenting. We decided against formula feeding, against circumcision, against vaccinations (eventually), and against disposable diapers. Or, more appropriately, we decided to breastfeed, to keep our sons whole physically, to inform ourselves about the risks and rewards of vaccinations and adjust accordingly, and to wash our own cloth diapers. After doing our research and searching our hearts, these decisions all made sense to us. But there was one other choice we made that has been as rewarding as it has been controversial---the decision to share a family bed, or co-sleep, with our children.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Disapproval

Last night, Ginger left the house late to help a friend for a few hours and I had the chance to just hang with the boys as they were beginning to wind down a bit. I always love doing this, but because I am often at work most of the day the opportunities come few and far between. I love the rush of coming home from work, as we compete to connect and enjoy each other as quickly and thoroughly as possible. We'll move from quick "hello!"s to playing games, watching games, going outside to play, wrestling, looking up funny videos on YouTube, or whatever else suits our fancy. Usually, we'll break for dinner and clean up, and then re-connect for a while before I have to toddle off to bed. But when I go to bed at 10:30 or so, I miss the calm that comes when the "Daddy's home" rush is over . . . and it is in these calmer waters that I can really observe my children, getting to know a bit more about their hopes, dreams, fears, and uncertainties, while they relax and settle in to routines that I do not always get to see. When I get to do this, I see them in a light that most other people will never come to know.

I like to think that I see my children for what they are, and not for what they are not. We have made hundreds - thousands - of choices over the past several years all designed to fit that maxim. All of those choices - from cloth diapers to no vaccinations to family beds to unschooling to no bedtimes or media restrictions - have been made with our eyes wide open, and with our hearts open even wider. We've researched, lived the other way, learned, watched, listened, laughed, cried, been frustrated, worked through it, and come to the place we are now - ever evolving, to be sure, but in a place that works for us and our children given the hundreds of variables that go into painting our family dynamic. As such, I firmly believe that there is no one who knows any better about how my family should live than I do (except my partner and kids, of course). I think that most people who have consciously chosen the way they parent - regardless of what "way" that is - are convinced that they know what is best for their family.

But that sure doesn't stop people from trying to point out that what we are doing is wrong.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Toy Store of Life

If you're reading this, you probably know that I love being a father. I knew in my early 20s that I would enjoy being a dad, but I also knew that I needed to settle down a bit first - not only so I would be more patient and present, but so I could really enjoy what I knew would be the most heart-enriching journey of my life.

Day by day, my two sons and beautiful daughter continue their explorations of themselves, their worlds, and their lives. Sometimes, they explore in steps both gentle and tentative, sometimes in giant blind leaps both frightening and confidence-inducing. And while I pride myself in living in the present as much as I allow myself to, I do sometimes find myself cycling through rich memories of their younger years. Today, as I sit on a plane bound for Vancouver and dear friends, I am thinking about toy stores.

Visits to the toy store were regular and comforting with each of my children, the boys more so than Annie, as she preferred movies and parks. The first few visits to the toy store with the boys were a joy for me to experience; a small child, surrounded by a virtual cavern of shapes, and colors, and sizes, and textures. The tentative first few steps to approach the things that caught their eyes and their hearts, starting out quickly, then slowing on approach to seemingly savor the last few moments before they got to touch. The plaintive looks back at me, hoping to see the welcoming and reassuring smile that they always received in return, with a soft "Go ahead, babe, it's okay." And finally, little fingers, reaching, then touching, then grasping, then moving the toys around in ways not invented until that very moment. And of course, the smiles, and the giggles, and the visible relaxation of a body and mind in perfect concert in pursuit of pleasure. And I would stand there, and listen, and watch, and support, all the while thinking to myself the same soothing thought: "parenting is the most perfect job in the whole world."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In It for the Long Haul

A couple of weeks ago, there was a maddening thread on one of the Yahoo! unschooling groups that began, innocuously enough, as a discussion about TV. As people chimed in attempting to be helpful, and some people dug their heals in attempting to fight back, a couple of distinct camps came into being. The first camp, the one which I definitely consider myself a part of, seemed to believe that unschooling is journey of letting go, in which we gradually come to trust that our children will turn out the way that they are supposed to turn out - not the way we would choose for them to turn out, necessarily, but the way that they choose to turn out based on their own spirits, interests, abilities, and world views.

The other camp, which was fairly small but surprisingly vocal given the fact that it was on an unschooling list, came from a very different tack. These few folks were of the opinion that children should be able to learn and experience what they want so long as they did it within the parents' value and belief system. Now, I get that, I really do. I remember when I believed that, when I felt that I truly had so much amazing perfection and control over my children that I could actually assure an outcome just by willing it to be so. Over the years, I came to see the truth - not yours necessarily, but ours - that not only is it dangerous to impart our own preferences onto our children, but it is also nearly impossible to do joy with permanence and joy.

Why is it dangerous?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Please Don't Hit Me

In 2009, there were 123,599 reported cases of physical abuse of children in the US, most perpetrated by adult parents or caregivers. Keep in mind that these were the reported cases, ones in which someone took the time and effort to file a report with the proper agencies, or one in which the children themselves were able to speak out. No one knows for sure how many cases went unreported. Also keep in mind that these 123,599 cases are only those for physical abuse - medical or other negligence cases are not included (although there were 569,575 reported cases in those categories.)

For now, let's focus on those 123,599 cases. Without taking you through the math, I'll simply say that each hour, fourteen children in this country are abused physically. Fourteen kids in the time it takes you to surf Facebook and check your email. One kid every time you go pee. Two or three kids in the time it takes you to wait in line at Starbuck's for your latte. One hundred and twelve kids - that's 112 - every time you go to sleep. And again, those are just the cases that have been reported.

Physical abuse can take many forms, of course. Some kids are punched, some are kicked, some are burned with cigarettes or stabbed. I think that most rational parents - emphasizing the words most and rational - would agree that doing these types of things to kids is flat out wrong and abusive, with significant negative long and short term impacts on the abused child. That's easy for most of us to wrap our heads around, I suppose.

And yet so many parents, seemingly thoughtful and rational, continue to spank their children.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Suicide

Here's a sobering statistic for you.

Every two hours, a teenager or young adult commits suicide in the US. Every two hours. That's 12 each day. That's four or five while you're sleeping, every single night. That's one every time you watch a movie. But for every teen that makes the choice to kill themselves, many thousands consider it but choose to stay alive. Some 60% of high school aged teenagers have considered suicide; 14.5% of them actually made plans. That's 900,000 kids who have made actual plans to kill themselves. That's 100 kids an hour.

That's about 100 kids too many.

If you are sad, lonely, depressed, hormonal, rejected, overwhelmed, angry, frustrated, lonely, or any combination of the above, please understand that there is hope. Don't believe me? Well then let me tell you a story.

If you're reading this and don't know me, let me take a few minutes and introduce myself. I am a 44 year old man and I live in a small apartment in Corvallis, OR, with my wife and two pre-teen sons. My daughter lives six miles away, but is old enough to be out on her own. I grew up in a lower middle-class home in Connecticut; I was an only child, and for much of my life both of my parents worked outside the home. Growing up, I played a few sports passably well; I am no athlete by any means. School was fine for me until 7th grade, when I realized that having cool friends was more important than grades. I spent the rest of my school years taking drugs, hanging out with friends, and doing anything I could think of to avoid going to school or doing schoolwork. I stayed like that until my mid-20s, when I got tired of not having any money or any prospects, and decided to join the Army. I spent almost eight years on active duty; while I was in, I got a Bachelor's degree, met my wife, and had our first son. Since I got out of the Army in 1999, I have worked a succession of jobs, mostly in Human Resources and Manufacturing. We had another son, moved across the country twice, and lived in poverty for a few years while I got an MBA degree. The past ten years have been amazing, filled with love and adventure that I never dreamed possible. As I sit and look at my life now from all angles, I love what I see. I have a roof over my head, money in my pocket, healthy and happy children, a partner who likes and accepts me, and abundant love from my family and friends. I have all of the stuff - physical, material, and emotional - that I could ever need. People like me for the most part, and I have many talents that I enjoy sharing with many people. I am at my happiest when I am around children and teenagers, laughing and playing and watching. I smile and laugh at least five times as much as I frown and cry. There are some things that I wish were different, and many things that will change over time. But because I am fundamentally happy with my life and with myself, by almost every definition of the word I consider myself successful.

I think that when most teens see a successful adult, they often think see the end result with no idea about what journey the adult may have taken to get there. That perspective is understandable; after all, so many of us simply take things as they are with little thought to how they became that way. But even the most "successful" adults have not lived a land of milk of honey. Even the adults who have had every conceivable advantage have had miserable periods in their lives, times of self doubt and worry and confusion about how they fit into the lives of other people of the universe as a whole. I know I did.

So, why am I telling you all of this? Quite simply, when I was between the ages of 12 and 22, there were many, many days when I was ready to kill myself.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Notes from the Corner

On the way to work this morning, I was thinking about a couple of kids I know who are almost completely emotionally cut off from their parents - or, more appropriately, how the parents have cut the kids off themselves. This just breaks my heart, because it simply does not have to be this way. As adults, we have our own unique perspectives on how we interact with our children, and it is often difficult to view our own actions with a critical eye or listen to criticism from others. We want things for our children, we have goals for them, we have desired outcomes in mind, and we want things to go our way because the wisdom of our own experience tells us that we know the best pathways through which to overcome life's obstacles and challenges. Misguided though that may be - after all, much of the control and impact we assume that we have is actually illusory - it is, at least, noble to wish the best and easiest path for our children. But the danger is in focusing so much on these ends that we choose means that create gaps instead of bridge them - often just at the precise moment when our children need to be able to trust in our unconditional love.

When I see emotional distance between parent and child, it is often because a parent put it there. Somewhere along the line, they put up a wall that separated the child from the parent's love. Sometimes this is by withholding the love or making it conditional on "proper" behavior. Sometimes it is simply by being distant or unavailable. Sometimes, sadly, it is caused by some sort of physical reaction or abuse that leads the child to want to stay as far away as possible.

As I was thinking through these things, I began to wonder what a child might say or write to their parents about emotional distance. Maybe, if they still cared and had enough concern left, they would write it in a letter. And maybe the letter would read something like this.

Dear Mom and Dad -

Monday, February 21, 2011

Teach Your Children Well

Okay, okay, put your hands down and retract your tongues if you have a strong reaction to the title of this post. Take a deep breath . . . in with the peach, out with the green. There you go. Let me explain.

For several years, I have advocated the importance of a parent allowing a child the freedom to learn what they want, when they want, and how they want, without the parent being focused on "teaching." After a few fits and starts, and with a bit of work, many parents can get to a place where they understand the value of allowing that level of freedom, and are able to trust their child's decisions even if it appears that no learning is taking place, at least when viewed through a traditional school lens. Once you are able to stop being an impediment to learning for your children and start being a resource and enabler, it becomes easier to see the growth and development of not only what they learn, but the ways and frequencies with which they learn it. It is amazing, wonderful, liberating, and simply enjoyable.

But sometimes we forget that our children may need something slightly different.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Why We Unschool

It occurs to me that it has been quite some time since I have written a post about unschooling. I'm not really certain why that is. Maybe I have written so much about it that I ran out of things to say, or perhaps I just have so many other things that are on my mind right now that I haven't really even had time to give the matter much thought. After all, as I wrote yesterday unschooling isn't something that I am, it's something that we do. The longer we've been at this, the less I have come to see unschooling as a choice and the more I have come to view it simply as a set of principles with which we live our lives. That said, every once in a while I think it's a good thing to step back and examine why we make the choices we do, if for no other reason than to ensure that we are parenting consciously and avoiding the mistakes of living our lives on autopilot. So this morning as I was on my way to work, I began to have an internal dialog and challenge why I think we have made this choice to unschool.

The first reason is pretty simple. Our kids love it and respond to it, it works for them, and we believe that their opinion on how to conduct their childhood is just as important, if not more so, than ours. And if they came to us tomorrow and said that they were ready for school, well, we'd support that to. More on that topic another time.

But it's more than that. For me, the reasons we unschool are founded on some of our basic beliefs about how people learn, and then what they do with that knowledge. When I view our choice in this way, four key points come to light.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Stereotypes and Labels

As I was sitting down pondering what to write about, a situation came up at work that I had to break away and deal with. As I was working through a few problems, a co-worker said something to me that left me completely startled:

"What, do you think you're special? You're not."

Most of the time I am the quickest person in the room with a sharp, argument-closing comeback. But this was one of only a handful of comments that has ever left me literally speechless. And like each other time that has happened, I had to spend some time thinking about why. What was it about that comment that hit me so hard that I was unable to snap back? Then, at about 3:47am today, it hit me.

I'm NOT special, at least insofar as I am entitled to be treated better because of my education, experience, job title, or salary. But I AM special in virtually every other way. I am different, I am quirky, I am moody, and I am sometimes a giant mystery wrapped up in an enigma. But I AM special, and there is no one quite like me anywhere in the world. And while I am not entitled to anything because of my job title, I do deserve to be treated well for who I am inside.

We ALL do.

But that doesn't mean it always happens that way.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Blind Trust in Education

Wow, have I had a frustrating morning! Work has been fine, no worries there. Home life is beautiful, and although the cats were simply ghastly all night long there is no frustration there, either. No, my frustration has very little to do with what I have in my life, and more to do with what I do not have - or, more directly, what I cannot find. You see, I spent a good deal of time today looking for something that simply does not exist in any useful, cogent form.

I was looking for data and statistics on the changes in funding for arts, guidance, and physical education in our public schools.

I'm a pretty good researcher, and care enough about education to know exactly where to look. There are a number of really useful data and info sites out there (this one is my favorite), but there is no real way to quantify budgetary changes in specific programs on a state or national level. You can find information on how much states and districts spend in categories such as "instruction", "transportation", and "special education", either on a total or per-pupil basis; you can even map that against the types (grants, taxes) and sources (Federal, state, or local) of funding, which is cool if not particularly instructive. If you search hard enough, you can even find information about particular programs in particular districts - for example, the school districts around Dallas-Fort Worth average a 419:1 ratio of students to guidance counselors, against a recommended ratio of 250:1. But what I was looking for simply was not there. Really, in some perverse way, I did not expect it to be there.

But I would have liked to have seen it. You see, I have a theory. It's controversial perhaps . . . but I just think I may be onto something.

Friday, February 11, 2011

"I Don't Love You Enough"

Yesterday, I wrote a lovely piece about the dangers of following parenting "doctrines" too closely. In that post, I mentioned that there really are a lot of different ways to parent, based on the variety of circumstances and beliefs inherent in any particular family. While I have my own opinions about cloth diapers, breast feeding, co-sleeping, and TV restrictions, I also recognize that there are millions of brilliant parents with healthy, happy kids who do not share my views. That alone indicates that there is more than one way to skin a cat, as it were.

But there sure are wrong ways.

What does "wrong" parenting look like? Well, I have an opinion on that, believe it or not. I listed a few examples last year in this post, but I could probably sum it up by saying that things like physical abuse, guilting, coercion, lying, arbitrariness, and screaming/yelling/belittling would fall into the bucket of things that make my stomach turn. So imagine how pleased I was to see the following post on Facebook yesterday from an old friend who I actually think is a very good mom:


PROMISE TO MY CHILD: I will stalk you, flip out on you, lecture you, drive you crazy, be your worst nightmare & hunt you down like a bloodhound when needed...because I LOVE YOU! When you understand that, I will know you are a responsible adult. You will NEVER find someone who loves you more, prays for you more, cares about you more, and worries about you more than your parents. Re-post if you love your child.

"Re-post if you love your child." No, I don't think I will.

There are so many things about this post that disturb me, but let's take them one by one.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Parenting Playbook

Some of you know that I was in the Army for a little less than eight years. But you might not suspect how good I was at some of the Army things I had to do. I was an expert marksman with a rifle, pistol, and grenade (I know, you're thinking "how hard is it to be an expert at a weapon that destroys anything within a five yard radius"). I was really great at setting up defensive fighting positions. And, with all due humility and candor, I was just fabulous at land navigation. You could plunk me down in the middle of a forest or jungle somewhere, in an area completely unfamiliar to me, and with a compass and a map I could get just about anywhere I wanted to. I could use the local terrain, calculate the declinations, and understand the subtleties of contour maps to interpret exactly where I was and plot out the safest and quickest route to my destination.

At least, I could do all that if it was light out.

At night, I was pretty much useless. I had tremendous feel for how to navigate through what I could see and touch, but when I could not see it I had no underlying process to rely upon the help me make the right decisions. The soldiers who excelled at night navigation were those who understood and followed the established processes, who used the same approach every time to apply logic and procedure to situations in which I could only use feel. It was impressive and intimidating, to say the least. Ultimately, because most troop movement occurs at night, the folks who excelled at night navigation were more valuable than I was. In that situation, their adherence and trust of the navigation process and doctrine was the best way, even with its limitations.

In other applications, though, reliance on doctrine can be restricting and dangerous. Take parenting, for example. Gathering information, ideas, and best practices helps us open our eyes and minds to all sorts of ideas we never would have thought possible, which is great. But when our choices become strictly dogmatic and unwavering, well then things get interesting.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Well Then, Allow Me To Retort!

I am always grateful that anyone takes the time to read what I have written, and when they also take the time to comment, well, that's just an added bonus. Of course I would love it if everyone simply agreed with everything I say, but if everyone agreed with me the world would be a very weird place - and I would have nothing to write about. So as much as I love the feedback that supports my views, I also love the feedback that challenges me to think and write more clearly, or to reconsider the validity of thoughts.
Once in a while I write a post that stirs someone to the point where they want to send me a private email about it. I guess that yesterday's post was one of those times. I didn't see anything controversial of even challenging about the post, but one reader latched on to something that I needed to sit down and consider for a while. To paraphrase, the feedback was something like this:

"You write about how your kids love life, and how you give them so much. I would love my life too if I got to do whatever I wanted all day long, with a parent around to wait on me hand and foot. Yep, if I got to choose what to do, when to do it, and who to do it with, with no consequences whatsoever, I'd probably meet your perfect definition of childhood."

Now, once I let my blood cool a little bit, I had to think about how to approach this note. In all candor, there were several possible approaches I could have taken. First of all, my kids don't "get" to do what they want, they "choose" to do what they want and we do our best to support those choices within the confines of attempting to meet multiple needs of multiple people. Second, the opposite of "get to do" is "be prohibited from doing", and I work hard to ensure that I never say no arbitrarily or reflexively. Of course, I do not wait on my kids hand and foot; I do things for them because I want to or because it is helpful to them, but I don't do everything - and when I ask them for something, most of the time they will do it because they have seen small acts of kindness modeled for them. And to suggest that my kids act without consequence is ludicrous; everything they do has a consequence of some type. Our consequences, however, are not punishments - they are simply the natural, logical extensions of what is, with the parent alongside them to coach and support them through.

I could easily have approached my response in one of these ways, and if I looked hard enough I'm sure that I have written about each one of them in depth before. But these issues were not what struck me; what struck me most was this:

"I would love my life too if I got to do whatever I wanted . . . "

Yes, that is precisely my point. You would love your life if you could do what you wanted, because most of us would never choose to so something that did not bring us joy or relief. And yet, we all do just that to some extent. Now, I could write forever about how and why parents should pursue what they want; I think I already have written about that several times, too. But I'm more concerned with the kids in this case.

I can only assume that, as parents, we want our kids to have a better and easier life than we did. You can define "better" and "easier" in a variety of different ways, but I think that a "better" life means a happier life, a life that you enjoy, a life that is fun, a life that gets up every morning and pulls you into it even when you think you'd rather not. If I don't have one of those lives myself I can make changes to get there, but I may have a ton of reasons why I shy away from doing that much work. I may have to sacrifice my possessions, my security, or the way I am perceived in order to pursue a life that I would love. But kids . . . . kids don't have that baggage yet. They can choose joy and fun and happiness without feeling like they have to sacrifice anything to get it, because they're often not as intellectually invested in the trappings of life - their sole interest is in living and enjoying it.

When my kids grow older, I hope they never say "I would love my life too if I could do what I wanted." Instead, I hope that they do love their lives, that they are pursuing their passions, and that they feel unencumbered by convention and compassion for people who are unable or unwilling to make choices to pursue joy.

Monday, February 7, 2011

It's Only Fair

It's 10:30pm, and it has been one heck of a day. You did not get nearly enough sleep last night, and work was just draining. The entire day was taken up with helping other people fulfill their needs -a customer who needed a gentle hand, an employee who needed help with a problem, a boss who needed his ego massaged, and so on. But after that is done, you get to come home to your refuge, a place where you can escape the alternating stress and drudgery of the working world and sit back for a while and have your own needs met. And what do you come home to? A spouse who needs a break, a house that needs to be cleaned, meals that need to be prepared, and kids who either need you to engage 100% from the second you walk in the door or want nothing at all to do with you until you've made them some food. So you grumble . . . and you get the things done that need to get done. But there is no sense of gratitude, no evidence of any appreciation for the day you had or the sacrifices you made, no "please" or "thank you" - just a sense that your family feels that they are entitled to sit back and let you serve them with no thought for you or your needs.

Sound familiar? That is not my life . . . well, at least not exactly. But I can remember a time when I was stuck in a sense of what I got out of parenting, focused on what was "in it for me." I needed to cook and clean . . . I needed to play "on demand" . . . I needed to get them a glass of hot cocoa or a waffle at 2:00am, and then I needed to clean it up. But when was it my turn? When do I get to have something for me? When do we get to the point where my kids are grateful for what I do for them each day, where they thank me for it and begin to take some responsibility for their own well-being? Isn't that only fair? I sacrifice so much, give so much of my time and heart, and I deserve to be listened to, obeyed, and thanked for those sacrifices. It is only fair.

Or is it?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Beauty of HALO

I played Halo Reach the other night. I'm not one for "shooting or killing" games necessarily, but there is something about Halo that makes it fun. It is a game filled with tasks, missions, and rules. It requires that you learn about various movements and techniques, and become familiar with weapons. But there are also modes in which you can simply run around, chase other people, and experiment, with no goals or ideal outcomes. In short, I really enjoy it; it is flexible enough to simultaneously be entertaining but not overwhelming.

Over the years, we have become supporters of video games as a great, fun option for our kids. I don't ever recall evaluating video games for their "educational" content, like I did with TV, and I never really paused to consider whether or not video games would be - or could be - harmful for my children. But it is precisely this consideration that gives many parents pause.

Most parents who resist, passively or actively, allowing their children to play video games do so for one of two reasons. Some people believe that the behaviors and actions depicted in the games are inappropriate for the children, due to "mature" content such as violence. Other parents simply believe that video games have no redeeming educational value. I get those arguments; in fact, I used to rely on the first argument when I restricted my on children from the internet, TV, and video games.

For the first parent, concerned about exposing their children to violence in a world that really has more than enough violence as it is, I simply say "I hear you." But I also say that if you believe that you can shelter your child from the darker aspects of our world, you are sorely mistaken - unless you plan to lock them up in a box.