Be Their Parent NOT Their Friend?

Something that has rattled around in my head for years is the line, “You’re the parent, not their friend.”

I was just reading a news article and someone was quoted as saying: “Your kids don’t need a 40-year-old friend. They need a parent.”

What a tragic dichotomy that one little line sets up!

Every single time that line has ever entered my head, it was leading me in the wrong direction. Every time.

What is a friend? I’m not talking about the schoolmates teenagers go out partying and drinking with. Not talking about the 5-year-old kid your child happens to play with at the park that day. I’m talking about real friendship.

1. a friend: one attached to another by affection or esteem

Knowing what I know now, with my kids grown, I strongly feel that that that one line, which permeates parental consciousnesses, should be quickly and actively contradicted and rooted out like a pernicious weed every single time it sprouts up.

Instead of “You’re the parent, not their friend,” substitute, “Be the very very best friend to them you can possibly be.”

Do your kids need you to be their “40 year old friend?” YES! Children do need to feel attached to their parents “by affection or esteem.” What better connection is there than by affection and esteem?

AND what’s more, parents need their children’s friendship, too. Some people seem to think there is something wrong with parents “needing” their children. They act like being mutually attached to each other means children have not become independent enough and parents are being a “burden to their children.”

A 40-year-old friend isn’t going to have the same relationship with a 5-year-old as his/her 5-year-old friends or 10-year-old friends. And parent-child friendships evolve over the years until they are, eventually, adult-with-adult friendships.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be your child’s friend. Do what it takes to earn their friendship—be supportive and kind and honest and trustworthy and caring and generous and loyal and fun and interesting and interested in them and all the other things that good friends are to each other. Be the best 40 year old friend you can be (or whatever age you are).

People use “I’m the parent, not a friend,” as an excuse to be mean, selfish, and lazy. Instead, be the adult in the friendship. Be mature. You’ve BEEN a five-year-old and your child has not been a forty-year-old, so you have an advantage in terms of long-term and wider perspective. Use that advantage to be an even better friend. You know how to be kinder and less self-centered and you know how beneficial it is to put forth the effort.

I can honestly say that my children and I are friends. I know they’d say the same. I’m not trying to act like I’m 18 or 21 or 24—I am 57 years old. They’re having a “Halo” party at someone else’s house tonight and will stay up all night playing video games and I’m not going to go and hang out with them all night and play Halo. I’m going to make a huge platter of deviled eggs for them to take over there, but I’m going to stay home and watch a movie with my husband and go to bed early enough that I’ll feel good tomorrow. I’m not 18 and I don’t recover as quickly as they do from a night with no sleep. I didn’t go to the midnight showing of the Terminator movie the other night, for the same reason. But I was certainly invited and welcome.

My kids are not spoiled brats because I’ve tried to be their friend. They hold jobs, they manage money, they make good and responsible decisions. We are very strongly “attached by affection and esteem.”

I wish I could wipe that expression out of everybody’s minds and replace it with “Be the best friend to your children that you can be.”

Principles of Unschooling

Frank Smith, on page 62 of his book, Insult to Intelligence, offers a “Learner’s Manifesto,” intended to tell schools what they should be doing to support learning. I noticed that it bore a strong resemblance to a list of unschooling principles and I rewrote it into that form. The following is my list of “Unschooling Principles,” and following that is the original “Learner’s Manifesto” by Frank Smith.

Principles of Unschooling by Pam Sorooshian

Learning happens all the time. The brain never stops working and it is not possible to divide time up into “learning periods” versus “non-learning periods.” Everything that goes on around a person, everything they hear, see, touch, smell, and taste, results in learning of some kind.

Learning does not require coercion. In fact, learning cannot really be forced against someone’s will. Coercion feels bad and creates resistance.

Learning feels good. It is satisfying and intrinsically rewarding. Irrelevant rewards can have unintended side effects that do not support learning.

Learning stops when a person is confused. All learning must build on what is already known.

Learning becomes difficult when a person is convinced that learning is difficult. Unfortunately, most teaching methods assume learning is difficult and that lesson is the one that is really “taught” to the students.

Learning must be meaningful. When a person doesn’t see the point, when they don’t know how the information relates or is useful in “the real world,” then the learning is superficial and temporary – not “real” learning.

Learning is often incidental. This means that we learn while engaged in activities that we enjoy for their own sakes and the learning happens as a sort of “side benefit.”

Learning is often a social activity, not something that happens in isolation from others. We learn from other people who have the skills and knowledge we’re interested in and who let us learn from them in a variety of ways.

We don’t have to be tested to find out what we’ve learned. The learning will be demonstrated as we use new skills and talk knowledgeably about a topic.

Feelings and intellect are not in opposition and not even separate things. All learning involves the emotions, as well as the intellect.

Learning requires a sense of safety. Fear blocks learning. Shame and embarrassment, stress and anxiety—these block learning.

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Learner’s Manifesto by Frank Smith

  1. The brain is always learning. We learn exactly what is demonstrated by people around us. Schools must stop trying to teach through pointless drills, activities, and tests.
  2. Learning does not require coercion or irrelevant reward. We fail to learn only if we are bored, or confused, of if we have been persuaded that learning will be difficult. Schools must be places were learning can take place naturally.
  3. Learning must be meaningful. If we understand, then we learn. Schools must change themselves, not try to change us, to ensure we understand what we are expected to learn.
  4. Learning is incidental. We learn while doing things that we find useful and interesting. Schools must stop creating environments where we cannot engage in sensible activities.
  5. Learning is collaborative. We learn by apprenticing ourselves to people who practice what they teach. Schools must stop trying to deliver instruction mechanically. If teachers cannot teach, there must be better teachers, not more tests and programmatic instruction.
  6. The consequences of worthwhile learning are obvious. We demonstrate the worthwhile things we learn by engaging in those activities. Schools, teachers, and parents should not have to rely on marks, scores, or tests to discover if we have learned.
  7. Learning always involves feelings. We remember how we feel when we learn and when we fail to learn. Schools must not treat learners like battery hens or like machines.
  8. Learning must be free of risk If we are threatened by learning, then the learning will always threaten. Schools must recognize that continual testing is intellectual harassment.

 

Game of SET

Game of SET

One of the best games out there for families to play together. Twelve cards are laid out on a tabletop and everybody plays at once. The goal is to find sets – 3 cards that have various attributes that either all match or are all different. The game is fast-paced and there is no waiting. It supports cognitive, logical and spatial reasoning skills as well as visual perception skills. There is a SET Junior version which is very well designed and fun. The SET website is great – it has lots of cool variations and even a section of mathematical research on SET. There are daily puzzles on their website. http://www.setgame.com

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7 Habits of Highly Happy Unschoolers

 

These are some brief notes from a talk I gave at the North East Unschooling Conference on August 22, 2013.

7 Habits of Highly Happy Unschoolers
(Based on “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Steven Covey)

Habit 1: Be Proactive
Don’t be stuck in reaction mode. Move on from reacting to: government pushing you around, parental control when you were young, bad school situations that you suffered yourself, or negative experiences your child had in school.

Being proactive means having the imagination and confidence to make your own choices. If you choose unschooling then remember that it IS a choice. You could send the kids to school like everybody else. Happy unschoolers recognize that they’ve made an alternative choice and it is up to them to choose how to carry through on it.

Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind
What is the point of unschooling? Figure that out for yourself – your goals won’t be the same as mine. How will you know if unschooling is “successful?”

Habit 3: Put First Things First
This is the habit that really really matters. It is practical. It means that every little or big decision you make today and tomorrow and next week should be based on whether or not it contributes toward your true goals. Don’t do things just because others are doing them. Don’t do things because they are expedient. Don’t do things because they seem urgent. Do the things that line up with your own principles – the ones you came up with as Habit 2.
Remember that keeping your choices in line with your own highest priorities will feel good and right when you do it – even when it is hard. This is what can guide you in handling the little things that come up in everyday life and it is all those little things that add up to the big things and your family’s quality of life.

Habit 4: Think Win-Win
Kind of a “duh” for unschoolers – we know we want to do this. But is also the place where many people get stuck most often. Remember, the idea is to develop a habit of looking for ways that everybody can win. If you are normally committed to being solution-oriented, then on those occasions when solutions elude you and everybody else (DO remember to ask the kids), then your family members will more likely be forgiving and accommodating.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
Listen, listen, listen. And then listen some more. Nobody ever told me that THE number one most important parenting skill is to stay interested, listen carefully, and not interrupt when your children are talking. Ask questions. Make sure your child feels thoroughly understood. Then respond with few words and lots of encouragement. Kids (and other people) will only really listen to you if they feel understood first.

Habit 6: Synergize
For unschooling families this means think of your family as a team. The very minute you get any hint of an adversarial relationship developing, work on that immediately. A feeling of being “in this together” is the critical element that makes unschooling wonderful and different than mainstream. How do you develop it? Support your family members. Model generosity. Invite a lot of collaboration in little and big ways. For example, in a grocery store ask the kids, “What do you guys want for dinner?” Get what they want. Ask, “Which check-out line should we get into?” Include them in these little mundane things casually and in the normal course of your day.

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
This is about self-care and also about continuing to work on your own understanding of unschooling and on creating a sweet unschooling life for your family. We can become complacent – but don’t do that. Instead, keep reading, learning, and stay connected.

Habit 8: Find Your Voice and Inspire Others to Find Theirs
Apply that to our roles as unschooling parents. It encapsulates what this is all about – finding our voice as we work on ourselves. We work through all our own crummy baggage and while we’re doing that our children grow and learn and, just as we find our own voice, we discover we are singing in beautiful harmony with the voices of our kids – voices we have inspired.

This is a beautiful idea that really resonates for me with the way unschooling has worked for me and my family.

I hope for the same for you.

Physical Activity

I read two posts today from moms comparing older daughters and younger sons – and in both cases the girls come off as easy and docile while the boys are aggressive and physical.

I’ve noticed that moms very often vastly underestimate the amount of physical activity their kids need and they think there is something wrong with their kids when what they really need is many more hours of physical activity.

My siblings and I played outdoors from morning ’til night, as kids. We ran and jumped and tumbled and skated and biked and climbed and dug and chased and roughhoused like crazy. I also spent many hours in water almost every single day during the summer.

On school days I walked/ran to and from school, had at least two recesses, a class physical education time (we played games like Capture the Flag, dodgeball, and Red Rover Red Rover), and a lunch break (I ran home for lunch and back quickly to spend time playing on the playground), and we had NO homework so the minute I got home from school I changed into pants/shorts because girls had to wear dresses to school in those days and ran back outside to play with neighborhood kids. Play consisted very largely of hide-and-seek, kick-the-can, stickball, kickball, a wide variety of tag games, mother-may-I, lemonade, red light green light, duck duck goose, and a TON of hopscotch. I roller skated and rode my bike and we had rudimentary skateboards (we took apart our skates and nailed them to boards). We had pogo sticks and slip-n-slides and hula hoops. We often went over to the school playground and played on the equipment – rings, slides, swings. We played foursquare a lot. My neighbor had a trampoline and we bounced and bounced and bounced.

Nearly every evening of my childhood I was physically worn out – very grubby and tired and ready to have some dinner, a bath, watch a little tv, have some stories or have mom or dad sing to us kids, maybe play with my sisters with dolls or something for a little while and often fall asleep reading a book.

And “I” was a fairly sedentary kid compared to many! I was a bookworm kid who loved board and card games.

Children haven’t changed – their physical needs haven’t changed – since the 50’s or 60’s. Some kids need more and others need less physical activity, but when a parent thinks a kid is “hyper” or “bounces off the walls” or complains about a kid’s aggressive behaviors and so on –  the parent probably has no idea the sheer quantity of physically strenuous activity that that child needs.

People these days will say, “He’s got soccer 3 days a week,” as if that is supposed to give him enough opportunity for physical activity. First, I love soccer for many kids, but it is a structured-by-adults activity in which a child has to control his physical urges for much of the time. He has to wait, stand in line, use the part of his body he is supposed to use. It is not at all the same as structured-by-the-kids-themselves play. And, a few hours a week is completely inadequate for most kids as an energy burn off. They more likely need a few hours every day.

Yes, kids are different. Not all kids want or need a lot of physical activity. Some will climb a tree and sit up on a branch and read a book for hours – not hang and swing and jump and balance. But ONLY the child can really know how much physical activity he or she needs and the child can only figure that out in the context of having plentiful free and unstructured time for it.

Boys, on the average, need even greater amounts of strenuous physical activity than girls. That they tend to be more aggressive has to do with hormones they experience even in the womb. Again – there is a big range and some girls have greater physical needs than some boys and vice versa – but moms seem to very often have a hard time with how physical their little boys are. The same can be true for moms of girls who happen to have extremely high physical energy needs.

Sometimes dads help the moms understand their boys’ physical needs, but when dads are busy working all day and it is mom who is home with the kids, boys can end up not getting their needs met and moms end up thinking there is something wrong with their little boys.

Of course all of this is made much worse by school, where all kids are expected to sit still much of the time. But homeschooling moms can have unrealistic expectations, too. And I think many of their sons suffer for it (and some of their daughters, too).

Training is Tricky

Sue Patterson, who has taken up the Unschooling Blog Carnival along with Cydney Romano, has been bugging me to write a blog post about their next month’s theme, which is “Animals.” I’ve been uninspired in spite of the fact that our family has a new dog, Persie, a small, female mixed terrier we rescued in late December from the city animal shelter. (She is named after Robin Van Persie, the soccer player, by the way.)

I think my lack of inspiration might be because the connection between unschooling and animals is almost too obvious. I mean, animals and unschooling seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Yes, of course, you can have one without the other – but boy, oh boy, are they good together!

Still, I don’t feel very inspired to write about all the great things kids learn from interacting with animals. I thought I could write about Rosie’s years of intense involvement with horses. Or, maybe Roxana’s deep, deep love for all things related to cats would be interesting. I could talk about Roya swimming out in the ocean among the dolphins and where that kind of experience has brought her today. These interests led from one thing to another and resulted in a tremendous wealth of opportunities for learning all kinds of things.

But, right now, we have a new one-year-old dog and we’re taking her to “puppy school.” So I’m immersed in thoughts of “training” and positive reinforcement. And I can’t help considering how this kind of dog training compares to how our children grew up. People sometimes talk about unschooling their dog. I think by that they mean they are kind and generous and give a lot of freedom to their pet and the dog learns without formal training. The instructors at our puppy classes might be a little surprised to discover how sweet a dog can be and how much it can learn if given appropriate and accurate feedback, but not formal behaviorist training. But I think this approach applies to some breeds far more than others. Our instructors are very into positive reinforcement – training dogs to do tricks using treats as rewards. I keep imagining training our children that way, thinking how silly it seems, and then I remember that this IS the way many people think of raising children. Well, many use negative reinforcement (punishment) and the more enlightened use positive rewards instead of negative consequences. This is the reason for gold stars and stickers and free pizza for reading 15 minutes a day and so on.

Of course, dogs DO respond to incentives, and so do people. Our instructors’ dogs are trained to do over 200 tricks. Could I, or would I want to, say the same about my children? If want my dog to sit and stay on command, I can train her to do that. It takes time, but it isn’t at all hard. I just have to keep rewarding successive approximations of what I want her to do and, eventually, she’ll do it when I tell her to do it. This is behavior shaping and it can work on people, too. Why not train our kids like we train dogs?

The answer is that we want more from our children than instant obedience, we want them to learn to use judgment and take initiative and, well, think for themselves. Training them with rewards may seem positive and at least better than using threats and punishments. It may seem easy and may get short-term results. But, good strong human relationships do not develop between parents and children when parents treat children like pets who need to be trained.

And yet, people do respond to incentives and behaviors do have consequences. Sometimes people say they are using “logical” or “natural” consequences to teach their children. These are typically euphemisms for a form of punishment – a way to “negatively reinforce” certain behaviors. This is the flip side of reward training. If a child leaves a toy outdoors and it begins to rain, the parent may call it a natural or logical consequence to leave the toy outdoors to be ruined. I call it mean and that is exactly what the child will think of it.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Relationship-based parenting is living in a household with each person giving and getting what they need, including support and encouragement and information. Parents take responsibility for being kind and generous with their children while their their children are growing into kind and responsible people, themselves. The parents do this by BEING kind and generous and responsible with their children. Children learn what they live with. Parents should also give good, clear, and accurate information to help their kids understand how the world works, but they can do that while being kind and helpful, they don’t have to create opportunities for negative lessons to be learned. “I brought your doll in out of the rain; I dried her off and I think she’ll be okay,” versus “You left your doll out in the rain after I’d told you 10 times to bring her in. It is your responsibility and I warned you so I left her there and now she’s ruined.” The first parent has just helped her child along the road to learning thoughtfulness, care of property, and kindness. The second parent has modeled irritation, impatience, and cold-heartedness. Which will the child learn?

Children are not pets to be trained, but young humans to be loved and guided with compassion and kindness. My dog seems to be enjoying her puppy school training sessions. She’s excited and eager. But my children would have felt manipulated, insulted, and controlled and would NOT have responded well.

Do you remember “Silly Pet Tricks?” I hate to mention it, because someone might take me up on it, but I can easily imagine a tv reality show called, “Silly Kid Tricks,” where parents are taught to use positive reinforcement to shape a child into doing some foolish-looking behavior. Let’s not go there. Let’s love and share and model and live our lives with our children and avoid trying to manipulate them into doing tricks for us.

Careful Planning and Instruction? No Thanks!

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) got me thinking back in the 1980s when they were strongly against early academic, and especially early reading, instruction. I took their arguments to heart, and my own young children freely played their way through their preschool years and were not given any type of early instruction. Instead, we created a rich and stimulating environment in which they could learn through play, experimentation, exploration, investigation, collaboration, and doing what brought them joy. And they learned. A lot. There was no stopping them. After that, school was a big disappointment. The very idea of school is that someone (usually some committee of experts) decides what, when, and how children should learn, and eventually the requirements filter down to a classroom where a teacher tries to inspire, cajole, or flat-out force the kids into learning it. WHAT a difference from the way my children had been learning until then!

My own thinking about learning was firmly rooted in the radical ideas of John Holt and A.S. Neill, both of whom I’d read before I ever had any children of my own.  Both argued for supporting children’s learning without curriculum, lessons, or other imposed-from-above methods by offering real-life experiences and encouragement and assistance to a child pursuing his/her own interests. I had managed to get my children into an cutting-edge public school which had ungraded classrooms and an unusual amount of freedom for students. There were no tests and no grades. Classrooms had learning centers and children were free to move around the room, working on activities of their own choice for much of the day.

So what was wrong? Why did I continue to be so dissatisfied with the schooling my children were receiving? Even while I spent my time volunteering at the school, working in the classroom, running PTA events, promoting “teacher appreciation” and school spirit, I was disappointed with the way my children were being educated. There were good times and bad, but, overall, I thought it was stifling, and I could see that it was slowly, but surely, dulling the children’s initial bright-eyed curiosity.

And then we simply stopped doing school. We pulled the kids out of formal school and we stopped worrying at all about lessons, teaching, curriculum, assessment. We focused on creating a joy-filled and stimulating family life in which the children could discover and follow their interests. They watched, read, listened, played, built, created, explored, investigated, experimented and learned. They talked and wrote and sang at the tops of their voices throughout the day. We spent days outdoors at the beach, in the woods, hiking, swimming, and relaxing. We spent days cocooned in the house, cooking and playing games. Life happened. Learning happened.

Now they are grown. And, maybe surprisingly in light of our unconventional choices, they are quite successful in very conventional ways including work, college, relationships, and hobbies. All three are leaders in their communities. They turned out just fine, thank you very much!

The NAEYC, which inspired me so much at the beginning of my parenting journey, seems to have moved in a different direction. In their position paper, “Where We Stand on Learning to Read and Write,” they state, “Children do not become literate automatically; careful planning and instruction are essential.”* I could not disagree more. Children DO become literate automatically in the same way they learned to walk and speak automatically, if they are given the opportunity. Careful planning and instruction are totally unnecessary and can do far more harm than good. What children (of all ages) need is a rich and stimulating environment with caring adults who engage with them and support them. A rich and active home life with attentive parents and books, games, music, conversation, and socializing among people of all ages, is ideal. Ideal!

Yes, in today’s society, most children will continue to go to school. But it is NOT ideal for young humans to learn in crowded classrooms with 20 or 30 other same-age children and one adult providing lessons decided on by committees who don’t even know these particular children. It could be made better, however, if the NAEYC and other professional organizations would put their focus back on how children naturally learn. Children who learn in a rich and supportive environment do not need to be constantly assessed and tested, for example. Children naturally challenge themselves.  They don’t want to be bored or frustrated – they want to learn.  If adults are paying attention and are responsive to children’s expressed interests, they will automatically provide appropriately challenging activities. When curriculum is planned somewhere else and imposed on children, it is almost certainly inappropriate to any particular child and children will respond by becoming apathetic or either passively or actively resistant. Then schools are dealing with many recalcitrant children, and a vicious cycle is begun in which schools try one method after another to force learning and children become increasingly resistant.

The problem is a very basic one. It will take a paradigm shift to solve it. The entire education system is based on a faulty premise and my family, and many others like mine, are the proof. The faulty premise is exactly what is stated in the NAEYC “Children do not become literate automatically; careful planning and instruction are essential.” This is just wrong and the more careful planning and instruction are utilized, the more difficult it seems to become to get children to learn.

Children do not need to be cajoled or forced to learn. The urge to learn is as natural to human children as it is to all other animals, and their learning can be equally joyful, intense, satisfying, and successful. Education “experts” are on the wrong track as they write and rewrite learning objectives, learning standards, or new “student learning outcomes.” They redesign curriculum and they test and test and test again, hoping against hope that the newest educational fad will be the one that works.
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*Here is a link to a summary of the NAEYC paper. I’m not recommending it, just citing it as the source of the quote I used. <http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/WWSSLearningToReadAndWriteEnglish.pdf&gt;

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