Monday, February 27, 2012

So, what are they learning?

At the end of my last post, I mentioned that children are learning all the time, and it's only a matter of what they are learning. When it comes to unschooling, I find that I don't have to get out the flash cards or set aside a specific time to "do academics." When I pay attention and connect with them in their daily play, I find out that they are getting all of the education they might need as they grow. Math comes naturally. Letters come naturally. Though they are still young, in a literature-rich culture, I assume that reading will come naturally. Perhaps one will learn earlier than the other or be more attracted to reading or writing or math or art or science or athletics than another, and this is also natural, based on a person's interests and talents. I'm glad to know that I will not be forcing my children to do something against their will based on my ideas of what is best for them. I believe that they will know what is best for them based on the life they live and what they grow to see is important in their lives. Of course, I give them constant feedback and my opinions, and I stop them if I think they are being unsafe or hurtful to others, but for the most part, I let them live the lives they see fit.

So, that brings me to something else children are learning all of the time: ethics. I try to make parenting choices based on a set of principles rather than based on "expert" advice or what others are doing. I want to Love my children unconditionally. I want to Respect my children as I would want to be respected. I want to model Authenticity to my children. In my daily interactions with my children, I try to ask myself what living by my principles would look like. This is a challenging journey, because it is vastly different from how I was raised, and from what seems to be popular. On TV shows, online, in magazines, and lining the parenting bookshelves, I find advice to control and dominate my children in one way or another. However, over time, I've also found a few books to support what I believe, discovered a community of parents who are on a similar journey, gleaned wisdom from older mothers' stories and pieced together an evolving collage of what I feel reflects my principles.

I try not to have a steadfast and extensive set of rules that my children have to live by, because hardfast enforcement of rules seems to be the antithesis of respect. Some parenting gurus advocate consistency of rules and consequences, but I believe this leads to more unfairness and resentment. If I were going to respect another human being, I would look at each individual circumstance and decide together with them what should be the right action. I recently received a traffic infraction over an honest mistake. I felt that the police officer treated me with respect, because he was kind and compassionate and offered advice on how I could clear my record if I chose to take that action. I did follow through, taking the opportunity to explain my circumstances to a judge, who then was able to look at my particular situation and clear my record, "in the interest of justice," as the paperwork stated. I don't believe that being just to our children means that we have to be consistent with our rules. I believe that being just and respectful takes their circumstances and understandings into consideration. This is constantly changing, and right action can only be determined by giving each person a chance to be heard.

I know that "consequences" are very popular, especially in line with the consistency of rules that I mentioned before. A lot of experts say that parents should set up a list of consequences that their children can depend on being executed if the child misbehaves, in order to have clear limits. Again, that does not give way to the gray area and flexibility of life. Do adults really live like that? There are natural consequences in life and there is usually little to no need to add another punishment on top of the suffering the child has already inflicted upon himself by his poor judgement. I have found that talking about what happened is far more effective at avoiding a future misstep than inflicting a punishment. For example, I assume that my children have the best intentions and do not mean to cause damage, so we talk about how we can avoid the same mistake again in the future. Children will learn much more when they feel their parent is their partner and friend rather than someone who corrects them. When they are being reprimanded, they will perceive it as an attack and become defensive. Human nature shuts down learning when we are in survival mode.

Rewards are very popular among parents who want to move away from spanking and other forms of punishment, having seen that reprimand can be negative and spiral downward, building walls in a relationship. Rewards seem to keep things positive and be just as effective as punishment in getting the desired behavior. But as an adult, I try to think about how I would feel or how I have felt by the underlying pressure to perform a certain way for a reward I did not choose or really have no control over. I am not particularly motivated to perform at my best under these circumstances. If I get motivated at all, the motivation wanes quickly. In the same way, when we get our children to perform for our rewards, perhaps also in an effort just to please us, their efforts are not whole-hearted, they learn to seek outward approval, and can grow resentful. This is not part of the curriculum I want to live in our house. Along the same lines, I am trying to move more towards genuine praise and compliments. One internal check I make is to ask if I am sharing my genuine pride and joy over their accomplishment, sharing in their pride and joy, or am I just praising them in hopes that they will repeat the behavior in the future?

As children are learning all the time, I do not want them to learn the negative lessons I've outlined above. I want them to stand proudly in their own power, loving themselves. I don't want them to learn that it's okay to use their power to control those who are weaker than they are. This is why it is so important for me to move away from these behaviors/parenting practices and adopt practices which reflect my principles and treat children the same way I would treat an adult. I constantly ask myself if I would treat another adult the same way. Would I treat my husband the same way? Would I want to be treated the same way?

Sometimes, when my children are acting very unreasonable (in my opinion), I tend to think that they don't deserve the same consideration, because an adult would not behave that way. But in reality, they deserve just as much compassion. If I were in a world that I didn't understand, in a situation that I was uncomfortable with, subjected to a set of rules I didn't find fair, burning with a fiery passion to experience this wonderful life, as children are, I'm sure I would get easily overwhelmed and behave inappropriately. And I would want my guardians to meet me at my level, guide me gently and talk to me respectfully, knowing that above all, I truly do want to do the best I can and contribute to this world.

Treating children with respect and compassion takes more time, especially in the beginning of change, and as I said in my last post, the world is moving at a break-neck speed, but I think this is a question of foregoing instant gratification for the long-term good. Even better, we can find gratification in knowing that the time we take with our children is the greatest thing we can do for the evolution of humanity.

May your life be filled with wonder!

Jolene  =)

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