So I Let It

IMG_4130We drove home from the Davy Knowles concert in Northampton late Wednesday night, the stroke of midnight nigh and many miles still to go, the boys crashed out in the rear seat in that folded-over way of sleeping children, my window cracked to admit an invigorating rush of air. I generally don’t mind driving, though my capacity for long, late hauls is waning with age, and as I drove I thought (and not for the first time, good lord no) about my obligations as a parent. Because although we’re all huge fans of Davy and of live music in general, there’s no way I would’ve driven so far to see him of my own behest. (Though we did end up in the front, at a table that was literally pushed against the stage, and we did end up meeting Davy, which for us was akin to meeting someone truly famous, like, I don’t know, one of those people who go on TV and stuff. And the concert kicked ass. So there was all that)

And so as I drove I pondered yet again the fine line between facilitating my children’s interests and flat-out spoiling them, a line I can’t quite seem to nail down, the damn thing seems to be always moving this way and that, depending mostly on my mood and general sense of magnanimity, which is itself an inconsistent beast.

I do believe that in general our society has become overly child-centric; there seems to me too much focus on our children’s development, too much capitulation to their whims and fancies, and, frankly, way too damn much coddling. I think partly this is a response to our very understandable fears about our children’s economic futures, but I think it’s also a response to a largely-unrecognized hole most of us have for a deeper and more meaningful sense of community. In other words, we focus so intently on our kids because we need them to be the community we’re otherwise lacking.

I’m pretty sure this is one of the potential pitfalls of home education; that in our well-intentioned efforts to facilitate our children’s interests, we go overboard, and in the process diminish the very sense of self-reliance so many of us home educators like to crow about. No doubt this happens in a schooled environment, too, but of course my children don’t go to school, so that’s not what I know or spend too much time thinking about.

As many of you know, Heather and I spent a bunch of time in conversation this spring, working an audio-based workshop about our respective journeys with home education; it’s launching real soon. One of my favorite of these conversations was one we had about “averageness,” and how there’s something to be said for honoring averageness, for teaching our children that it’s ok to not be or feel particularly special, and to understand that they’re really just a part of something much, much bigger than themselves. It was a much more nuanced conversation than that, of course, but that was the gist of it.

After we had this conversation, I remember thinking about how many homeschoolers fall into the trap of comparing their children to their school-going peers, eagerly pointing out the ways in which they compare favorably, as if that were some sort of proof of something. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this, too. And really, it’s understandable: I think homeschooling parents often feel on the defensive, as if they have to prove the merits of their approach, in no small part because skeptics so often demand they prove the merits of their approach. And I think homeschool parents feel as if their children are a reflection of themselves. I mean, every parent feels this, but I suspect those of us who’ve chosen to educate our children at home maybe feel this more more acutely. Of course, this is a trap, too, because our children are their own people, and I suspect we’d do well to worry less about what their behavior and choices say about us as parents, because I think that the more we worry about this, the less capable we become of letting them find their own way, in the process learning how to muddle through the occasional shit of life the best they can. Which is a pretty darn valuable skill, when you think about it.

Anyway. I’m not sure where I’m going with all this. Like I said, it was late, and I was driving, and my mind was free to wander. So I let it.

Also, I wanted to let you all know that I’ll be leading an intensive homesteading workshop at the NOFA Summer Conference next Friday. I’ve done versions of this workshop before, and it’s always been a blast, and a great opportunity to dig really deep into whatever folks want to dig deep into. Please come if you can!

31 thoughts on “So I Let It”

  1. “… I pondered yet again the fine line between facilitating my children’s interests and flat-out spoiling them…” Yes. All the time. I do make a feeble attempt (over and over) to reconcile this by convincing myself that as a parent who home educates, I’m pulling double duty. There is truth to that, so not sure about the need to convince myself, but that’s what I do. And if all we provide (or don’t provide) is well intended, offered up from a loving place, and is meant for their betterment and overall growth, not to merely placate a fleeting want (not that those are all bad), well, then I guess there could be worse parenting. I don’t know.

    I still think about the story of you guys driving to the guitar shop and how that experience played out. How easy to not have seen the necessity of venturing out that day, but then look at what transpired as a result? Great connection; seeds planted. That’s the good stuff.

    As for muddling through the shit of life… Couple of weeks ago Emily decided last minute to hop a bus and travel three states away to the DNC. Naturally, I was thinking of all sorts of things that could go wrong and wanted to protect her, talk her out of it. But I didn’t. Because as much as things could go wrong, things could also go right. So off she went. Over the course of one day she managed to transfer buses in NYC, hail cabs, navigate Philly, exchange words with Westboro Baptist Church (!!), attend protests and other events. Then the “occasional shit of life” arrived as she lost her wallet stuffed with cash, her bus ticket home, her IDs, bank cards, insurance cards, the credit card we had given her in case of emergency (ha!), and all manner of life that a person keeps stashed in their wallet. That kid stayed calm, dug deep, and managed to get home with just a few bucks in her pocket. And wouldn’t you know it, a stranger found her wallet with all its contents and mailed it to her a few days later. The shit showed up and she muddled through just fine. Better than I would have, actually. There gotta be a few lessons there, right? I so wanted to talk her out of going to Philly and experiencing the chaos of the DNC. Even at 18, my instinct is to coddle, but life is better for all of us when I don’t.

    (Sorry for the novella, you know I dig this stuff.)

    1. I’m just starting out with homeschooling and a newbie to this parenting business (oldest child is 4) but I think your last line “…my instinct is to coddle, but life is better for all of us when we don’t” is bang on! I’ve been doing lots of reading about letting children make their own mistakes, letting them try things on their own even though they may get hurt and I can already see the benefit to that. I have been making it a habit to try to sit back and not intervene when I take my kids to the park. My instinct is to go help my child climb some of the structures or even hover in case he were to fall but I have noticed that my kids do much better when I am not there right behind them. My two sons love to see how high they can climb and the 2yr old can keep up with all of the older children to the amazement of some of the neighbourhood parents. I’m not saying that I’m being a better parent or anything but I have noticed what a difference it has made in their confidence level when I let them fail and try again on their own. I have noticed that some of the other children, who’s parents are always hovering or right there to catch them, are not so confident in their own abilities and wait for someone to help them. Sorry for the lengthy reply to your comment on Ben’s post! Just some thoughts!

  2. How apt! This morning I was driving home from dropping our (homeschooled) daughter off at “Beautiful Sweaty Girl Camp” – a two day mountain biking clinic, when my mind wandered to the stack of endless bills that I need to pay today. In thinking about that, I was contemplating the idea that possibly we indulge our child with too many opportunities. I pondered that if we didn’t spend money on outsourcing educational genres that we feel less capable of teaching, we might have more money to cover the expenses of life. But you know… we are allowing her to explore in safe ways. We are cultivating her recreational interests. And it’s not as though she didn’t contribute. She saved money from her quail and duck eggs sales to purchase a helmet and riding gloves. She traded in her two-sizes-too-small bike toward the cost of an appropriately sized one. Plus, maybe this will build a foundation for a healthier lifestyle than we were taught to engage in; at the very least it will offer her a hobby where she can let her mind wander and reflect on life’s intricacies.

    I am very guilty of comparing homeschooled or unschooled children to publicly schooled children. I do think it’s because I’ve needed to be on the defense for so long (to our family and friends) about our decision to school at home and the merits of such. Especially after hearing about my daughter’s day yesterday, it solidifies our decision that this is the correct path for us. Her handlebars fell off her bike and she couldn’t steer. She had to stop in the path, holding up the the rest of the crew momentarily, while trying to figure out how to solve this hiccup. One (public schooled) girl said, “Geesh! You’d think you could move out of the way.” *I’m not sure where she thought she could go anyway, because they were riding as a group and needed to stick together.* Meanwhile, one of our home-schooled acquaintances stopped, grabbed a wrench and came to help repair the bike. Now, it’s not as though I expect to shelter my kid from rude people for the rest of her life, because I know that’s impossible. It’s moments like this, however, that make me grateful for the helpful and encouraging and polite attitude that homeschooling fosters.

    I can also find solace in knowing that I am capable of facilitating these off the farm and out of our home learning occasions for her benefit, not mine. Listening to many of the other parents in the parking lot, who were dropping their kids off, they cannot stand to be around their children in the summer. They fill the summer with camps just so that they can get a break from their children. As if the 7 hours a day, 180 days a year wasn’t enough time away. Soon the kiddos will be grown and gone and they’ll wonder where the time went. I won’t!

    Thanks for the great read this morning! I always look forward to your blog in my inbox!

  3. I think the vast majority of parents struggle and fail ti nail that bastard line most of the time. I know I do.
    The comparison of pampering our kids and lacking community struck a nerve. I really think you are onto something there. However if focussing on our kids is done to replace the lost “sense of) community, then how does our “throw them into the dumpster, when they become demanding”- attitude toward our elderly fit in? How does the general lack of connection with our parents fit in? Maybe we try to compensate the one with the other as well?
    Letting my kids be their own people really means pushing my boundaries as I see them choosing their own way and I have to let them, teeth gnashing and all.

  4. My four (home/unschooled) sons are aged 26 to 35: they are all grown and gone. Pampering our kids? Looking back from this perspective I wish I’d done more of it. Except I wouldn’t call it ‘pampering’ but rather ‘showing my boys that they are loved, that they really matter, by giving them everything (things, experiences, attention, personal space and time) they want / need that was feasible. If it’s feasible, it’s not indulgent, and to deny it, just for the sake of not being indulgent, is just meanness and will be seen by the child as ‘not-love’.

    “we focus so intently on our kids because we need them to be the community we’re otherwise lacking” and “there’s no way I would’ve driven so far to see him of my own behest” – oh yes! I find myself now in a head space where I am having to force myself to go out and meet new people, and to learn how to go places and do things on my own. As an introvert who lives on a bit of land in the countryside, my children and their friends and their parents have been my community for decades, and now they aren’t – well, not much. And although I am an introvert, I still need community a bit! And music – my sons led me into music, and were my ‘excuse’ to indulge. For a couple of recent years, I drove two hours each way to a jazz club with one of my sons, to listen to two hours of music, a couple of Wednesday nights a month. He can’t do that anymore so I don’t go. My soul longs for it, but I don’t know how to go alone to a bar at night, nor do I feel I deserve the indulgence of all that time and petrol.

    And there we are, back at indulgence again. Is it indulgence? Or is it showing your children, or yourself, that you matter. That if they / you want something enough and it’s feasible, then why not?

    1. Thanks for your reply Cally:) Maybe you’re right… I appreciate your words. I am an introvert too and I have gone to concerts by myself before (because none of my friends liked the music I liked:}) I found that having a drink in my hand helped for some strange reason (except it was coffee and not alcohol). Plus if most of the people are drinking (if it’s a bar), they will probably be oblivious to you unless you’re a good listener and they can pour out all their problems:) I get stuck in scenarios like that (Myer’s Briggs type ENFP’s will corner you, take over your life and make your head spin), which can be solved by a sudden need to use the bathroom and not returning to your seat….

      1. The meaning of life – 42. The solution to life – coffee and bathrooms. Hey, sounds good to me. 🙂

  5. So much to think about here (as usual with your posts.) I would add a third possibility as to why some families are very child-centric. Some parents may be trying to undo what was done to them as children, either by their parents, officials, peers, society, whatever. In the process of unlearning a lot of things we parents were taught in our own childhoods, we try valiantly to help our children not learn those harmful things in the first place. We spend an enormous amount of time learning new ways to communicate, new ways to guide and lead, new ways of being which may be completely foreign to the way we, ourselves, were parented. This takes a LOT of energy and focus and certainly leads to the children being the focus of the family. Maybe this is just a version of the desire for community you speak of as family is our first and most intimate experience with community.
    Of course, I am not speaking hypothetically here. I should insert “I” into “some parents” above because this is my path in many ways. However, I am grateful that this post reminded me that when I was a teenager, my Dad stood in line for hours and hours to buy tickets for my boyfriend (now husband) and me to see Metallica so I wouldn’t skip school to do it myself. He did this knowing nothing about them and probably wouldn’t have approved if he had but he did it anyway. And he is someone that you would never in a million years associate with indulgent parenting. So, it is a fuzzy line for all of us, it seems. Thanks, Ben!

  6. Ugh. I’ve coddled…my daughter is sort of a wimp. It’s my own fault. Lack of community? Hell yes. Lack of family, lack of everything. We have been the poster people for the broken down American nuclear family. For 5 years it was just her and I, me trying to figure out what being a healthy normal parent even was, trying to make up for that and her lack of PEOPLE, on top of being weirdos for homeschooling, not watching tv, etc. Each day I try to uncoddle her, toughen her up….she just learned to swim this week at age 8 😦 I can’t help but think whatever it is you do with your sons, it’s perfectly fine. Your ahead of the game, stop worrying. My daughter just learned to swim and your kids can survive out in the woods by themselves for weeks. Jesus!

    1. Tricia. Don’t compare your girl to others – just see her growth. Don’t beat yourself for doing the best you can in imperfect conditions, just keep doing the best you can each day, and remember, everyone has shitty days. Don’t try to toughen her up, just show her you love her and show her you have faith in her, and give her opportunities to succeed and fail and grow, so she learns to believe in herself. You say you lack ‘everything’ but you have each other – just hang on in there. Much love from the other side of the world.
      (And just look at your Etsy shop! How gorgeous is that!)

  7. In general, I think that parents are obligated to raise their children in a manner that will prepare them to be self-sufficient, responsible, adults.

    One of the things that irks me the most about present day society, is that it is generally acceptable for young people to engage in unprotected casual sex with multiple partners and feel little parental responsibility for the resulting offspring.

  8. I had an eighty something year old college professor named Grant Hulet when I lived out in Utah for a few years in the early 90s. Whenever a student went up to him all nervous about an assignment he would say “Just muddle through it.” That stuck with me all these years. I could use to practice it more often. Thanks for the reminder!

  9. There’s a wonderful movie out at the moment called Captain Fantastic – homeschooling/off the grid family and amazingly done

  10. I’m a friend and fan of Eric Zencey, (teacher, author, great person) who lives in central VT. At a book-reading he as asked how he came to feel so confident in his writing and his life. His answer: “my mother told me I was special. And she always added: but no more than anyone else.” That zone of practical love which supports both self-esteem and humility….

  11. Ben, only so long, and our kids will be in the driver’s seat, and us, with our little old selves snoring in the back. 🙂

    I am currently reading an excellent book by Julia Gippenreiter “How to Communicate with your child” (written in Russian, not sure if avail in English) in which among other things she points out how children learn. How a child who has opportunities to work, explore, (or enjoy a concert!) alongside adults and be helped by an adult learns more and becomes self sufficient faster than a child who is merely left alone – e.g. “do it by yourself, be tough, you are big enough, I don’t have time for this now!”. Since we do have smaller nuclear families, smaller ‘communities’ it is only natural and logical for parents to spend more time with children now, when in the larger communities it may have been grandparents, neighbors, uncles.

    I had been pondering about your latest post, this one and the one on children playing outside, as I spent 3 months in the Baltic republics in Europe. There, the society would be rated as not so “child-centric”. There, newborn babies are left sleeping in strollers alone by the store fronts while mom goes inside to shop, perhaps because people feel safe doing it, knowing that passer by will alert of the crying baby, perhaps because mom believes it is more important to shop in peace than wake the baby. Kids over there roam the streets of towns starting age 3 and 4. At 5, they run over to the local store for milk and bread when mom is busy with housework. There, I felt like my American ‘spoiled’ kids were years behind in this ‘self-sufficiency’ for they still want me to be at their side at all times. Community often comes with its bitter flavors too. There is much blame and shame:” why can’t you be like others, what will people think, why can’t you do it all by yourself, don’t be such a baby, boys don’t cry.”… No matter how independent those street roaming children appeared to be, every time I talked and played with them, their little eyes lit up with such happiness, as if it was one of such rare occasions when someone was finally paying any attention to them, and they felt after all, important. Yes, perhaps in this country we had fallen to the other extreme of over-importance. Over-importance that comes from compensating inner unhappiness and brokenness.

    In my humble opinion, there is never too much true love you can give a child. Only with healthy loving attention they will learn empathy toward others. And they let us know very clearly when they are ready to ride by themselves.

    Enjoy your kids. Enjoy their enthusiasm. Wherever it takes you.

    1. Your description of the Baltic reminds me of my childhood growing up. That was 60 years ago when I was 5 running to the store for mom. How did we get to this place? Maybe somewhere in the USA there’s still a place like I experienced and like you describe. The little corner store and other things have mostly vanished. It’s really a shame. I thought this guy’s perspective was interesting. Brian Kaller. Writes for Grit among other things.


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