Tag Archives: parenting

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?

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

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.

What’s Wrong With Natural Living?

What's Wrong With Natural Living?

Natural living – along with organic living, green living, and other renditions – is increasingly popular around the world. Many people are realizing that we have the right to a clean environment, that the planet is in danger of becoming uninhabitable unless we take better care of it, and that we can’t easily trust corporations and their handmaiden governments to provide us with clean air, water, and food. Consequently, we are also understanding the interconnections among the various aspects of life: Natural living comprises what we eat, how we make a living, where we live, how we get around, how we educate ourselves.

Providing information and inspiration for natural living in its broadest sense has been my life’s work. Natural parenting, natural living, natural learning…those are all topics you will read about on this blog and in the magazines I own and edit. The business is forty years old this coming fall. But natural living is, unfortunately, as controversial as it has ever been.

Now, the word “natural” would seem to be a straightforward offspring of the word “nature.” But it has dozens of meanings and sub-meanings. It’s used in mathematics, economics, science, music, computer programming, childbirth, sociology, medicine, education, and, of course, marketing. In current usage, it also has many synonyms, including reasonable, appropriate, proper, expected, innate, inherent, lifelike, realistic, legitimate, habitual, normal, healthy, native, simple, non-artificial, genuine, unadorned, real, authentic, unstudied, unaffected, and straightforward.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that it is a controversial word. For years, it has been especially problematic in the prepared foods industry. In relation to food, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it in this way: “Involving no artificial or man-made ingredients, chemicals, etc.; ecological, organic; spec. (of food and drink) containing no artificial colorings, flavorings, or preservatives.” That definition makes it alluring to marketers. According to the market research company Nielson, packaged foods labeled “natural” outsell those marked organic by a substantial margin. That’s why a survey by Harris Interactive found that eighty-three percent of the U.S. public would like to see the government define the term, something their government has not done.

But aside from all of that, there are some things that just are natural. For instance, you’d think that a parenting practice as natural – and proven to be healthy – as breastfeeding would be immune from the controversy over the word “natural.” Nevertheless, last week, an article in the journal Pediatrics urged health professionals to stop saying that breastfeeding is natural, arguing that doing so gives the impression that natural parenting practices in general are healthier than, well, whatever you call the other kind.

In the article, Unintended Consequences of Invoking the “Natural” in Breastfeeding Promotion, Jessica Martucci and Anne Barnhill, Medical Ethics and Health Policy researchers at Penn Medicine, wrote:

…we are concerned about breastfeeding promotion that praises breastfeeding as the “natural” way to feed infants. This messaging plays into a powerful perspective that “natural” approaches to health are better… Promoting breastfeeding as “natural” may be ethically problematic, and, even more troublingly, it may bolster this belief that “natural” approaches are presumptively healthier.

Further, they think that the use of the word natural should be curtailed in general, claiming that it is associated with such “problematic” practices as home birth, homeschooling, and the rejection of GMO foods, and that natural parenting movements are contributing to the decline in vaccination rates.

Now, I know quite a lot about those natural living topics. They are, after all, the raison d’être for Natural Life Magazine, Natural Child Magazine, Life Learning Magazine, and Child’s Play Magazine. In fact, the researchers Martucci and Barnhill wrote directly about the problematic likes of me in a separate guest commentary at Philly Voice:

It doesn’t take much internet digging to find some of the potentially problematic implications for a public health campaign built around an argument that ‘natural’ is better. A search for ‘natural living’ turns up a variety of sites devoted to natural parenting. Parenting blogs and natural news sites often discuss practices and ideas ranging from home-birth and consuming the placenta after birth to homeschooling, breastfeeding, and homeopathy. But these are also spaces where one might expect to run across writers and commenters expressing concerns about the necessity and safety of childhood vaccinations and the promotion of immunity through ‘natural’ disease and healing processes.

They went on to warn:

Studies have shown that anti-vaccination sentiment tends to overlap with reliance on and interest in complementary and alternative medicine, skepticism of institutional authority, and a strong commitment and interest in health knowledge, autonomy, and healthy living practices.

Yep, they nailed that part! Encouraging educated skepticism of institutional authority underlies all of my work. Now, I don’t know for sure whether or not the researchers were funded by Big Education, Big Ag, Big Pharma, or its little sister Big Formula. But, whether or not you believe that breastfeeding is a sort of gateway drug to other ”radical” natural parenting practices, I smell something very much like corporate influence. And in my world, even the faintest whiff of that gives me more confidence in my own way – in the natural living and learning way.

In a Natural Life Magazine article entitled Natural Reflections: What Does the Word “Natural” Really Stand For? Professor of Environmental Ethics Gene Sager noted that:

The natural life today is natural in a new key: to act in harmony with Nature, we need to take a well-informed, consciously conservationist approach. I have emphasized the ideas of “well-informed” and “consciously.” In a sense, we have become watchdogs on guard against greedy corporations, sluggish governments, and a public manipulated by marketeers and the media. All this requires constant vigilance and effort.

All of those players can be seen in the controversy about the use of the word “natural.” If it wasn’t such a compelling idea, Sager’s “marketeers” wouldn’t be as attracted to its use as they are. And, on the other hand, there wouldn’t be the concern about it being over-used by those of us who can think for ourselves.

For me, the bottom line in all of this controversy about natural living and natural parenting is this: Don’t pay attention to what anyone else – a marketer, a corporation or its representative, a PhD researcher or scientist or another a member of academia, or any other self-described expert – thinks or instructs you to do. These days, they could have a vested interest in persuading you that there is something wrong with natural living. So do your own research, trust yourself (and your children), and follow your own instincts. You might end up agreeing with what you are told. Or not. But I have found that Mother Nature is as trustworthy a guide as any.

Adultism: The Last Frontier of “isms”?

Adultism

I want to talk about adultism. It is one of many “isms” in our vocabulary – racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and so on – which address discrimination on the basis of things like ethnicity, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, age, and physical abilities. Many of us try to overturn these “isms” in our own lives and in the broader culture. But adultism is one “ism” that isn’t so often dealt with – even by progressives. In fact, I think that it may be the last frontier of “isms.”

In our culture (and many, if not most, others in the world), adults have a special status of control over kids. Adults make decisions for children (their own and other people’s), create rules that govern children’s day-to-day lives, and generally tell kids what to do. That often manifests in ordering, yelling, directing, preaching, disciplining, demeaning, embarrassing, questioning, patting and other touching without permission, yanking, ignoring, and referring to children in the third person.

This behavior isn’t usually undertaken with abusive intent; indeed, most adults wield power over kids because they assume it’s their duty, as well as their right. Adults are thought to be entitled to these behaviors on the assumptions that they are superior to children and young people, and that they know best what’s good for the younger generation.

Scratch below the surface, and you’ll find that this sort of adult disrespect is inherited. It’s how we were treated as children by our parents and in our schools…and how our parents were treated by the generation before that. And it’s reinforced by other social institutions like churches and medical systems, as well as by laws. The context of the adult-child relationship in our society is power, hierarchy, mistrust, and coercion.

One of the places that adultism manifests itself is our education system. Most people believe that children and young people must be made to go to school or else they won’t learn. So we have created factories in which children are processed and warehouses where they are stored until it’s convenient for adults to have them around. Getting rid of the factory model of public education challenges not just our assumptions about how children learn, but a variety of agendas related to adultism and other sorts of power.

I wrote about this in the introduction to my book Challenging Assumptions in Education – From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society:

“By our very use of words like ‘teaching’ and ‘schooling,’ we seem to accept the idea that some people at the top are doing things to other people farther down the totem pole. Public education reflects our society’s paternalistic, hierarchical worldview, which exploits children in the same way it takes the earth’s resources for granted. That is no way to help children grow up into compassionate citizens who think independently and participate in the life of their communities and countries.”

Arguing against adultism is difficult. Giving up power can make people fearful and leave them feeling threatened. They think “unschooling” means unparenting, and life learning means uneducated. But life learners are at the leading edge of an important attempt to broaden the definition of childhood, to respect children as whole people who are functioning members of society…and to improve our education system along the way.

Since we are already living the opposite of adultism, I believe that we life learners can contribute to the defeat of adultism by being conscious about how we speak to (and about) children, and by how we treat them.

Letting Unschooled Kids Learn

Letting Unschooling Kids LearnOne of the things that confounds me about some definitions of unschooling is the idea of allowing or letting unschooled kids learn through their own experiences. It is a definition that I read often. Sometimes I think an unthinking slip of the tongue/keyboard is the culprit; sometimes it appears that people have yet to completely come to terms with relinquishing control of their children’s learning process.

Do we really believe that we can let another person learn? We are all learning, all the time! That is part of being alive. Learning is inevitable; to prevent someone – especially a curious child – from learning is virtually impossible. So to say we are allowing or letting our unschooled kids learn in a certain way (via unschooling) is confusing, oxymoronic, and sometimes even patronizing. What we really mean is that we’re allowing children not to attend school (because that, by law, falls under our domain as parents or guardians) and facilitating their learning through life. Mere semantics? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s basic to a complete understanding of unschooling.

Let’s pursue that. Within schools and out, most people believe it is important to manage and control children’s learning, to channel it in the direction certain adults think it should go.

Schools do it in an obvious way, using curriculum based on a roster of subjects that has been created by separating out and organizing various topics that are supposed to be learned in a certain order, at a certain age. And, then, schools test children to be sure they can regurgitate the information they’ve had spooned into them. (Kids do learn at school, of course, and not always what is on the curriculum!)

But here’s the thing: Even though unschooling is supposedly the inverse of schooling, many of us are tempted to try and meddle with our children’s learning process, especially when it’s not progressing as we expect it should. However, defining the school-free life as letting kids learn on their own (either fully or in some instances) undermines their personal agency and the partnership between children and adults, which is at the root of unschooling / life learning. So I believe that one of the first things we need to get over as we deschool ourselves is the notion that we could control our kids’ learning – that we’re letting them learn in a certain way, even one where they ostensibly choose what to learn and when.

As life learning parents, we can provide love, trust, respect, safety, support, encouragement, mentoring, suggestions, inspiration, companionship, and answers to questions. And we can try to do all of this in a respectful manner that avoids condescension and the assumption that children only learn what they are taught. For me, that involves remembering who is in control of the learning process. If we really trust and respect both the process and children, we will develop comfort with having kids in the driver’s seat regarding their own education.

There is a Buddhist saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” That means that when we’re ready to understand (to learn, as we say), or to embark on a journey that we’ve been thinking about, we will. Things that others say, observations of our environment, passages read in books – they will all come to our attention as opportunities to make things “click.” As life learners, we define “ready” as when interest, curiosity, and need are present, rather than someone else doing that for us.

So if you find yourself thinking in terms of unschooling as “allowing” or “letting” kids learn in a certain way, please think about what independent learning and autonomy really mean. And remember that we can’t let a child learn any more than we can stop her from learning.

I’ve written more fully about “allowing” unschooling kids to learn in this article for Life Learning Magazine. And this article describes one mother’s effort to support her son (but keep out of his way unless asked) as he pursued his choice to learn a difficult skill.

There are also some articles from Life Learning Magazine on the website that relate to children’s autonomy and power in a broader sense. On that same article index, you’ll also find articles about what is possible when adults relinquish the notion that we are letting our unschooling kids to learn.