Doesn’t Mean We Have To

April 18, 2013 § 11 Comments




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The past few days have been swirling wind of activity: Two pigs dispatched, copious amounts of sausage made, innumerable trees and other plant species stuck into the just-thawed soil, friends visited and visiting, two piglets procured, and a small land clearing project commenced. We are in the season of seemingly inexhaustible energy, and since we know it can last only so long we intend to milk it for all it is worth. There is perhaps nothing better than that feeling, of waking up to excitement over the day’s list of tasks, of drifting off each night with a half-peck of dirt under the fingernails and your neck itchy with sunburn.

It is my great fortune to pass the majority of my days in the company of my family. Every morning we do chores together, and eat breakfast together. Every noon we gather for lunch. In the late afternoon, chores again and then dinner. On most days, there is at least one farm or home-related project that involves the four of us. It would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that we always operate as a cohesive team, because of course we suffer no shortage of uncooperative and downright obstinate behavior (and that’s just on my part).

Don’t get me wrong: There are days when we move through the world in four separate orbits, tending to our various individual tasks and responsibilities, and coming together only briefly, for a quick meal or to confer on something or another. Likewise, there are times when I want nothing more than a little peace and quiet, to be left the hell alone to do my thing, free of the clamor and commotion inherent to young boys. Or our young boys, at least. But the truth is, these days are the exception, rather than the norm.

I am often struck by the extent to which twenty-first century American life fragments families. Oh, sure, there is plentiful rhetoric about “family values” (which seems to have become some sort of code for a particular set of values relating to a particular religion), and valuing our children, and so on. But like so many of the things America claims to be and to stand for, these things have been reduced to platitudes, because of course the truth is most families simply can’t survive in modern America without fragmenting themselves. Both parents up early and off to work, the children up early and off to school so they can learn how to navigate the world as the miniature adults they are expected to be, and then after school extracurricular activities to ensure they don’t have a moment of time to just be. Or worse yet, the screen as babysitter and entertainer, with the average school aged child now spending a full 53 hours each week gazing into a pixelated faux reality that bludgeons and overwhelms their senses to the extent that the real reality of the natural world beyond the screen no longer has the ability to captivate. Its wonder and beauty lost to the manufactured hyper surrealism of fantasy.

In his book Dumbing Us Down (which you should read, if you haven’t), John Taylor Gatto writes “Two institutions at present control our children’s lives: television and schooling, in that order. Both of these reduce the real world of wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice to a never-ending, nonstop abstraction. In centuries past, the time of childhood and adolescence would have been occupied in real work, real charity, real adventures, and the realistic search for mentors who might teach you what you really wanted to learn.” Gatto wrote these words at least a quarter century ago, and the control he speaks of has only become more pervasive since.

I know that we are incredibly privileged to be able to make the choices we do regarding how we educate our boys and how much time we are able to spend together as a family. On the other hand, I see the choices other families make – mostly regarding money and debt and simply believing the prevailing cultural narrative of our time, which is that it is perfectly normal for families to exist primarily in separation from one another, rarely working toward a common goal, or toward the completion of a project that demands collaboration and cooperative problem solving and simple empathy for one another.

Sometimes I think there is an assumption that the way things are – and here I’m speaking of this dominant cultural narrative that tells us so much about what we should want and do – is the way things should be. Sometimes I think we don’t stop to consider that just because something has been, doesn’t mean it should be. It doesn’t mean we have to.

§ 11 Responses to Doesn’t Mean We Have To

  • Rachel T says:

    Hear hear! It takes a lot of courage and faith to buck the dominant cultural narrative, especially when you have children, and when those children have loving grandparents who wonder how their math education is coming along, and you hope it’s OK when these words fly from your mouth: “the kids are happy, they’re learning how to entertain themselves with their large swaths of free time, how to be bored and then how to let the boredom lead to curiousity, they’re learning to follow their own unplottable timeline, without pressure and scoring and competition. They’re learning the local birds and plants and how to care for a garden and butcher an animal. What they know can’t be measured in the same way it would if they were in school. But they’re learning the value of following their own hearts.”

    ps: I’ve been forwarding your posts to my husband because it helps to feel less alone when you’re bucking the dominant cultural narrative, and to hear it from someone other than wifey.

  • jsiegel115 says:

    If there’s even a family at all. You’re right on many levels, but (and I know this would be another post entirely) many families– aren’t. I work in a school office part time and the number of “families” that are fractured is just insane. Custody battles, boyfriends, girlfriends, this parent can’t have this kid on that day, that one can’t come within 100 feet of so and so, you name it. I live in “regular” suburban-rural NY, too, not the inner city. The drama isn’t central to one type of area and not another–it’s pervasive to the American people as a whole.

    I think the very family concept is disintegrated–most people just don’t stay together anymore. We’ve become a culture of “I give up”, and the children suffer. And yes, those families who are still families are only such in the meanest sense of the word. There is very little “family” in family anymore.

  • Jeannie says:

    Excellent post! What a great way to go into the weekend.

  • Amy Robertson says:

    Listen! I LOVE John Taylor Gatto. And John Holt. And Ivan Illich. (And Wendell Berry, too, really.) All the deschooling fellows.

    This post really speaks my language. We’re in the city right now, somewhat fragmented, but we came from farms previously and hope to go back (but on our own) in a few years.

    Sometimes when I’m out with my kids at say, 10 in the morning, working in the garden, walking the dog, I really feel the strangeness of it all. In the city it’s so palpable; there’s really nobody else around until after 5pm .

    Anyway. Keep on writing. Thanks for the encouragement.

  • Doreen Frost says:

    Wonderful post…wonderful glad I happened upon your site :)


  • Rachel G says:

    Thank you, thank you so much for this post. I’ve been saying for years how spending so much time away from the ones I love the most has never made sense to me. I’ve struggled with this for so long and when I’ve attempted to express this instinct to others in my life, the most common response is shrugged shoulders and a tired sigh. It makes me sad to see such resignation, and it’s disheartening how contagious that mindset seems to be now.
    But I do truly want to thank you for your voice. I’ve been following your blog for a bit now, and I read your post about how your wife feels about it. I would offer that I think of it as a way of reaching out, and that I find comfort and encouragement here, as I do on Amanda Soule’s beautiful blog. As CS Lewis said (in one of my favorite quotes) ‘We read to know that we are not alone.’
    So thank you for your courage in sharing your voice. It is a light.

  • ncfarmchick says:

    I, too, forward posts such as this to my husband as he appreciates your viewpoint as much as I do. Last year, he chose to take a job working from home for much less money but we wouldn’t change a thing. We are together every day and that is priceless. Thank you for another inspiring post which speaks so close to our hearts!

  • Melanie Bettenhausen says:

    I am often told I need to take a break from my kids, to get away. I work full time. Isn’t that enough time away from them? I am happiest in the evenings or weekends when we are turning the compost and working in the garden. They are so happy when they get to learn new things, build their skills and achieve mastery. I admire that you have made choices that allow you to spend so much time with your kids. The dominant paradigm doesn’t even consider that an option.

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