This book reminded me that it's possible to trust kids to make the right choices, that if you discuss things with them and give them respect, they will be respectful. Children are wise and kind and lovely, they are not ignorant and rude and needing to be controlled.
One issue I have had with how I saw "radical unschooling" was that I didn't like anyone saying there is one right way to unschool. Every family is different, and I saw unschooling as a way of meeting the needs of each family in whatever way works for them. Radical unschooling, however, seemed to have a narrower definition and a lot of rules to follow in order to "do it right". Rules like: no bedtimes, no limits on candy or TV, no telling the kids what to do, ever. These were not things I felt like would be advantageous to our family.
I still have an issue with unlimited junk food and TV. They are both designed to be highly addictive, and both are pretty much bad for you. We don't think it's reasonable to eliminate sugar--they go out in the world and want to eat what their friends and family are eating, and we don't make a big deal about any of it. Also, the kids have a huge supply of Halloween candy that they enjoy organizing, counting, and collecting. They currently have a deal that Nik & I came up with (after reading this book, in the future we will come up with these arrangements with the kids, not for them) where they get 1 hour of screen time each day, and they can trade it for up to 3 pieces of candy if they choose to. Although they have total access to the candy, they never eat it inappropriately, which I think shows that they feel the arrangement is very reasonable. It gives them a lot of control over their choices each day. I know that Loki likes having a limit on candy, because it ensures that they won't run out before next Halloween, and that is an important goal for him.
I'm not ready to let go of the restraint on screen time. It's something Nik & I will have to explore with the kids in the future. I grew up on sitcoms, and I feel that between school and television, that was many years of my life wasted.
The other issue I had with radical unschooling was that it seemed like parents were expected to give up their responsibility as parents. (And, yikes, to give up control.) To frolic with the kids instead of making sure their teeth got brushed, to follow every whim of the child instead of teaching responsibility. What this book has reminded me, though, is that you don't have to make top-down rules in order to teach anything. The only thing rules teach is that kids can't be trusted to follow their own intuition, planting the idea that children are bad and will go astray if left to their own devices. In addition, they grow up worrying about breaking rules, or if they're not particularly keen on following rules, they worry about getting caught. Neither state enhances your parent-child relationship in any way.
Rules from a position of power are always for the grownup, and only give the appearance of being effective. What works in the long term is coming to decisions together; if our kids help to make informed decisions about how something is to be done, how a toy is to be treated, what to eat, or whatever, they are going to feel better about the whole thing, rather than looking for a way around the rule or feeling resentful for being told what to do.
So if it's not the parent's job to create and enforce rules, what's left for us to do? Is this not just a lazy parenting method? On the contrary, this parenting method is about saying yes to our children, and most of what children want from us is our time and attention and love. This is important work, and it's not the "easy" way. It feels right for all involved though. So often when we make a rule that gets broken, or when we have a plan that the children won't go along with, people are left feeling like bad parents or bad children. What is the use of creating this feeling in your family? Parenting a Free Child reminds us that we need to be trusting partners with our children, that it helps to be close and loving, that being friends with your kids should be our greatest aspiration rather than something to avoid in order to maintain control.
My plan from here is to avoid making arbitrary rules, and when a change or a decision needs to be made we will discuss it together and do what makes sense. My goal is to reassess every "have to" as it comes up, and redefine it. There are so many times each day when Nik or I will declare that we as a family "have to" do something. Our kids trust us, only occasionally grumbling about stuff we make them do but always going along, so we feel like our current methods mostly work-- but reading this book has made me realize that our lives could be more joyful, loving, and free if we make less decisions for our kids and discuss things with them more, as the rational, loving, reasonable, caring people that they are.
Beyond issues of control, this book really reminded me of another aspect of parenting: just loving my children... watching them be who they are without judging or correcting; letting them grow without determining their path; trusting.
I didn't realize how liberating it would be to embrace these principles. I mean liberating for me, not just for the kids. As a small but poignant example, this morning as Odin ate his toast he called to me while I was in the bathroom, saying "I didn't want the crust on my toast!" Well, in the past I would have considered it my job to remind him that he should really be eating his crusts so we don't waste food, bla bla bla. I have always thought it was ridiculously picky for kids to not eat their crusts, and have a hard time with that behavior in my own kids. However, Odin always resists compulsion. It's one of his greatest strengths, and one of the biggest sources of my challenge in parenting him. Here is my liberation. I don't have to compel him to do anything. It's OK if he chooses not to eat his crusts. It is better that he feels responsible for his own choices in life, not forced by me to do what I have decided is right. So this morning, after reading and discussing the ideas in Parenting a Free Child, I answered Odin with an idea rather than a "should". I said, "Can you eat around the crusts, then?" And you know what? When he was left to make his own decision, to work it out for himself what he thought was right or yummy, he ate those crusts.
Coercive or controlling language backfires. With Odin it is readily obvious. He walks away, closes up, or tears up when his freedom is infringed upon. My older son, Loki, is less obvious about how this coercion bothers him, but I know the resentment builds inside him. He tries to do what we want him to do, because he likes us, but it gets old always doing what you're told! What kids really need is for us to want them to be themselves, to just support them in that, and not try to form them to our own molds. This is something I am finally getting; we are all learning all the time.
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4/ 5Oleh Mellow