Supporting and Nurturing the Mother-Artist

Nurturing the Mother-Artist

When I was pregnant with my eldest daughter, I was a textile artist creating large-scale, multi-fiber installations. By the time my second daughter was born, my experiments with color and texture had expanded to include light, which led me to incorporate stained glass into my work, and later to abandon the textiles. For the next few years, I constructed lamps and panels in a variety of studios, including a storefront beside a motorcycle shop, a kiosk in a field that was part of a crafts village, an artisans’ co-op in a former fishing shanty, and later, our townhouse kitchen. None were ideal for a young mother with toddlers, especially since my chosen medium involved glass shards and soldering lead! What had I been thinking?

I began to realize that I was being called a crafter rather than the artist I aspired to be, and that some aspects of the art world were unfriendly to someone who was a mother-artist. And the logistics of shows and material-buying trips were getting complicated, even with my husband’s support. Even though he and I were equally sharing the parenting role and he was prepared to support my art in terms of income generation, I began to think a change was required, especially since our daughters would be learning without school. So, somewhat reluctantly, I opted for a safer and more flexible life of writing and editing. (And I do realize how privileged I was/am – at least I had a supportive partner and wasn’t a single mother trying to juggle everything by myself.)

I have never gone back to doing art. (At this stage, I’m struggling to re-learn how to knit!) And I can’t say I’ve ever really regretted the choice to switch my creative focus. My mothering has most definitely enhanced – even defined – my writing over the years. I also doubt I would have made any more money as an artisan than I have as a writer; artists and writers – like mothers and other caregivers, male or female – are marginalized in a capitalist world.

The decision, which turned into a home-based family publishing business, seems to have been a good choice for our life learning family too. We integrated the business into our family life fairly well, although we didn’t grow it as quickly as our ambitions wanted, in order to spend time nurturing our school-free daughters. (I don’t use the term “balance” because I don’t think there was any….) I loved working alongside our daughters. They learned a great deal about life and business – and creativity – from participating in our work. And our employees were hired with the understanding that pausing to help a child spell a word or play catch was part of their job description. So life has been good.

However, when the light shines through one of the very few smaller pieces of my work that have survived four decades and many moves, I find myself wishing that I’d been able to find a way to continue developing as a glass artist. On other days, I wonder if I would have been a more prolific and creative writer if I’d had at least some time to myself when my daughters were small…and been able to find a community of fellow writers. I wonder if father-artists change careers when children came along, or if people wonder if fatherhood has changed their work. And would my work (and, yes, my work as an unschooling advocate too) have been more accepted if I weren’t classified as a “mother-artist?”

Now, there is more support for the mother-artist. I recently came across this wonderful Artist Residency in Motherhood designed by Pittsburgh-based mother-artist Lenka Clayton to empower artists who are also mothers. I’ve often thought about how wonderful it would have been if one of those artisans’ markets or co-ops in which I was involved forty years ago had been dedicated to mother-artists so that we could have worked together to assist, support, and inspire each other. And this experimental creative space for mother-artists and their children in London, England seems like just that thing. The model is too late for me, but I hope it inspires other solutions for nurturing the mother-artist.

And, in the end, mothering is an art too, isn’t it?

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Connections are the Solution to Life and Learning

Connections are the Solution

“Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health.” ~ Wendell Berry

The philosopher Aristotle introduced the principle of holism in his treatise Metaphysics, where he wrote, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” The actual term “holistic” was coined by South African soldier, statesman and scholar Jan Smuts in the early 1920s. His definition was, “The tendency in Nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts, through creative evolution.”

For clarity, I prefer to use the word “wholistic.” But either way, we mean the consideration of the whole and the interconnections between the parts of the whole. Alternative medicine practitioners, for instance, adopt a wholistic approach to healing, which emphasizes the emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical elements of the patient, and treat the whole person rather than just their symptoms – that is, they realize that a person is more than the sum of their parts.

This idea of interconnectedness has been the foundation of my company Life Media since my life and business partner Rolf and I launched it in 1976. We promote a wholistic approach to family life, based on the understanding that everything is connected and, therefore, alive – hence our use of the now much-abused word “natural” as part of two of our magazine titles (Natural Life and Natural Child) and word “life” in another (Life Learning).

As I prepare the articles for all our websites, I try to be conscious of the need – in our disconnected, disjointed, and highly specialized society – to remind ourselves of how the various aspects of life are woven together…education into health, shelter and food production into recycling and parenting, and so on. And, within education, the things we call “subjects” are not at all separate entities, but interconnected parts of the whole of human knowledge and should not stand alone with disconnected labels.

I see our artificial distance from Nature – as something out there, rather than something that includes us – as a large part of what ails our society. Nature has become an abstraction, and it’s not just our children who suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Our lack of connections with the natural world allows us to forget our place in Nature, our dependence on it, and the interdependence of all its parts.

The interdependence between natural processes and human ways of living has been called “ecological literacy” by systems theorist Frijtof Capra and environmental educator David Orr. Lacking this ecological literacy, we have created processes and ways of living that are destroying the ecosystem’s ability to support human life. Increasing our ecological literacy is allowing us to create the tools to make the transition to sustainability…providing we also cultivate the will to put the knowledge into practice.

My hope is that we can learn from the despair of climate change and economic disaster, and gain inspiration from Nature’s respect for limits, from its resilience, and from its ability to regenerate. There is hope in our understanding of the importance of interdependence. And there is healing in nurturing the “green shoots” of our connections and re-connection with Nature. My dream is for us to find the connections in our lives; I want us to trust ourselves and our children to natural learning, and to supporting ourselves, our families, each other in our communities, and our planet.

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Dear Media: I’m Anti-Schooling, Not Anti-Intellectual

Anti-schooling, not anti-intellectual

It’s that time of the year where I live: Kids are going back to school. Those kids who aren’t following the crowd back to school are used to fill the media’s need for novelty.

I don’t do media interviews about that anymore.

I got tired of explaining the irrelevance – and the actual harm to learning – of things that schools and our popular culture present as necessary to life and learning. That includes (but isn’t limited to): defining certain topics as academic and others not; one-size-fits-all curriculum, and study topics and programs that aren’t originated by the learner; testing, grading, marks, and diplomas; power and control by the privileged; age segregation; coercion and compulsory attendance at school.

I got tired of explaining that being anti-schooling does not mean I’m against public education or publicly supported learning. I got tired of explaining how we could divert the resources used to pay for all the above aspects of schooling into abundant and stable public support for libraries, museums, science centers, learning centers, art galleries, maker spaces, and any other places that people can freely use for learning.

I got tired of explaining that it is possible to be anti-schooling and not anti-intellectual. None of this fit the shallow needs of the media. I don’t do media interviews anymore.

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Experiential Learning is Children’s Work

Experiential Learning is Children's Work by Wendy PriesnitzChildren’s ability to practice experiential learning through day-to-day living is the foundation of what happens in democratic schools and unschooling homes alike. Part of that experiential learning is kids doing real work in the real world, motivated by their own real interests and goals. It is not pseudo work where kids are “allowed” to “help” adults or where they pretend to do real work with the aid of toy tools.

Unfortunately, there are few places where children can experience the adult world in that way. Most children – and even many homeschooled ones – don’t have nearly enough opportunities to be with adults who are doing their own thing in the real world and not, as John Holt once put it, “just hanging around entertaining or instructing or being nice to children.”

The working world of adults is not very accessible to children because we fear they will get hurt, get in the way of or slow down production, or abuse or break the equipment. But in my experience, that has not been the case. Take my own family as an example.

Our unschooled daughters Melanie and Heidi (now in their forties) grew up living, learning and working in the midst of our busy home-based publishing business. They had access to all the tools of that business and never abused them. They mimicked the careful manner in which we used those tools and respected them as necessary for making our family’s living. More importantly, they used those tools in creating their own businesses, which we respected in return.

There are many opportunities for children and young people to learn in and be of service to the real world and, at the same time, participate in experiential learning. These include volunteering with community organizations, participating in their parents’ businesses or at their workplaces, working for pay or as apprentices at neighborhood businesses and running their own enterprises.

Although I don’t want to romanticize the past or ignore abuses against children, at other times and in other places, children had or are given the opportunity to do real work at their parents’ side, as well as on their own accord, and to be involved in the life of their communities. In our more complex society, this same type of opportunity and respect for children’s abilities is still possible if we all share a sense of responsibility for helping develop the minds and attitudes that will lead us into the future. Today, no one has all the experience and information necessary to prepare young people for a rapidly developing future. But we can share our skills and experiences with our children or take on other people’s kids as apprentices in order to pass along our knowledge and attitudes.

That sometimes may involve the adults sorting out the mindless bureaucratic requirements from the necessary safety concerns. Kids need the sense of accomplishment that comes from being trusted with a real job to do in the real world. They benefit from the increased self-esteem that comes from participating – at whatever level – in a functioning group.

Everyone benefits when kids develop the confidence that accompanies being in control of themselves and of their surroundings. And they don’t need the sort of “protection” that results from lack of adult trust and preparation and that keeps them sitting on the sidelines and away from meaningful work.

Aside from safety, there are other reasons for sidelining children and preventing experiential learning from happening. Showing respect for a child’s developing skills takes patience. Doing a task ourselves is usually easier and more efficient than allowing the time needed for a child to do it. Children’s results might be not good enough for the satisfaction of perfectionist adults. And some people just underestimate what a child can do.

However, personal empowerment begins with realizing the value of our own life experience and potential to affect the world. Our children deserve the opportunity to be part of – and learn from – the daily lives of their families and communities.

Portions of this post are based on an essay that appears in the book Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier.

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Lazy Learning

Lazy Learning

Lazy Learning – Interest-Based Learning is the Opposite of Lazy

Few things seem to trouble parents more than the possibility our kids might be lazy. I guess it’s the legacy of that old Puritan Work Ethic – and you don’t have subscribe to any particular religion to suffer from it! Like our current style of public education, which is based on it, the belief that hard work makes you a better human being dates back to the Industrial Revolution. That attitude might have been a useful tool for factory owners trying to make their employees productive, but it can actually be counterproductive today, when working smarter and more creatively are keys to success and happiness.

Funny, then, that our education system still embodies the Puritan Work Ethic. In school, learning is work, and anything else is being lazy. Children’s time is regimented into study periods and programmed in pursuit of “learning outcomes,” and even their out-of-school time is scheduled for homework, tutoring and more lessons or organized activities. Parents and educators mistrust anything that looks like inactivity or being lazy, and bustle around trying to motivate our kids to “find something useful to do.”

Unfortunately for these children, work for its own sake – or because somebody else tells you it’s good for you – just doesn’t make sense. The long hours school students are forced to spend memorizing, cramming for exams and doing homework seldom produce much real learning. Some kids are luckier – and arguably better educated – because they are part of a growing movement dedicated to the realization that learning doesn’t have to be work and that children don’t have to be forced to learn. As unschoolers, their curiosity is trusted to do the job.

My family was part of the birth of the modern unschooling movement, four decades ago. When Heidi and Melanie were children, they didn’t attend school. Nor did they see learning as work. They didn’t use a curriculum or workbooks, nor were they graded or tested. They learned math, reading, writing, science, and geography in the same way they learned to walk and talk. Their learning was experiential and inquiry-based, led by their interests, needs, and curiosity. They explored, investigated, asked questions, experimented, took risks, got ideas and tested them out, made connections, made mistakes, and tried again. It was a rich and joyful way of life, with knowledge and skills picked up both purposefully and incidentally, guided by their innate need to participate in, explore, and make sense of the world around them.

A lot of what they did day by day looked like playing or daydreaming…or like being lazy. In our society, play is the opposite of work. As products of that Industrial Age-induced work ethic, we think of work as unpleasant, something one does during the week in order to afford to play during the week and summer vacation. We have made education into an industrial process, where facts are stuffed into people like so many sausage casings. And that, of course, is work. We have turned a potentially joyful experience hateful with our schedules and rules and structure. And we have confused our children, who are smart enough to know the difference between the challenge of doing productive work and the numbness that results from busywork that doesn’t accomplish anything.

The basis of unschooling, on the other hand, is that children are born to be curious, independent, active, self-directed learners, and will remain that way if school doesn’t dampen their natural curiosity about the world by turning learning into something unpleasant into work. Children don’t naturally think in terms of math or reading being “hard;” we create those feelings if we force them to learn these skills before they are developmentally or emotionally ready, or before they are interested. When people memorize something without truly understanding it, they haven’t really learned it. When a skill is mastered in the context of an interest and need experienced in the real world, it is truly learned. It might look like “lazy learning,” but it’s actually real learning.

Melanie is now a conservation horticulturalist who runs a native plant botanical garden that is part of a university environmental sciences center. Heidi is a graphic designer and musician. They pursue their adult lives with the passion, joy, curiosity, and self-reliance that were hallmarks of their unschooled years. Their “work” is fun, and they continue to learn about the world as effortlessly as they did as young children. I think that’s evidence of a successful education and a successful life…and all a parent could wish for.

A version of this essay first appeared in Life Learning Magazine.