catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 20 :: 2005.11.04 — 2005.11.17


Slaying the monsters

Instead of being my mother?s child, I am my children?s mother. (Sandra Dodd)

For four days there were hundreds of us, all meeting in a conference center just outside of St. Louis. We attended funshops and lectures and hung out in the pool and the hallways. There were infants in slings and grandparents who were helping out with the children?and all the ages in between. This was the 2005 Live and Learn Conference, a gathering place for families practicing ?unschooling,? a homeschooling philosophy of natural learning.

There were no questions about curricula, but lots of other questions and answers about learning, living and doing?doing Celtic knots, doing letterboxing, doing business, doing music, and hundreds of other interesting, engaging things. There were conversations among all ages until the wee hours. As far as I know, despite the sheer numbers of excited children, there was not even one spanking.

But this is not to say that everything went perfectly smoothly. The noise of the playroom, right off the main presentation area, was especially problematic?some people had trouble hearing the speakers, and worse, the smaller children were occasionally overwhelmed by the bigger children, playing harder than the space and circumstances allowed.

In talking about it, the adults realized that our job was to offer more for these noisy kids instead of asking them to be less?less noisy, less rough, less rambunctious. Certainly a large part of unschooling is giving kids the information they need to act appropriately in a hotel, as opposed to their backyards or the playground?if we are going to support learning through living in the real world, we better make sure that the expectations of the real world are very clear. But we could do something in addition to discussing this behavior?we could channel it. Next year we could offer a funshop geared towards the kind of play that these kids obviously needed to do, a funshop specifically for pretend play.

?Just? Pretend Play

Now the ideas flowed for this new funshop?how about creating props, maybe out of cardboard boxes? Maybe the props could grow and evolve over the weekend, eventually forming a box city or tunnel or castle. What about improv games?having small groups perform for each other, perhaps even creating a short piece for the talent show?

I thought again of the older kids who had been playing in the playroom, brandishing a bit of toy train track for a sword and jumping off of tables. I thought of my own son, who can play a game of pretend Pokemon for hours on end, never running out of directions and details to pursue, with very few props. And I remembered my childhood self, needing hours in my room for pretend, as a way to process the events of my life and to try to imagine what could come.

I had to laugh at us, this bunch of unschooling parents, knowing in our hearts and minds that ?children learn through play,? and that free children such as ours especially have not forgotten how to play. Yet still we worried about not having ?enough??enough structure, enough materials to work with, enough direction.

Some cloths and capes, a few play items like wands and staves, the hotel tables and chairs and maybe a few sheets to drape into forts ? this was all we needed in the way of materials. What we needed ?enough? of was enough adults and teens who honestly liked children, who would listen when the current adventure was described in play-by-play detail, who would re-direct when tempers flared, who would help get a cape tied and a belt buckled, and who would give suggestions only when needed and with the lightest of touches. What we needed ?enough? of was space ? a big room set aside so that the noise and action wouldn?t bother others.

If you know a child who engages in free, imaginative play, you know what this means to the child. It is one of the most fulfilling things my son does in a day, and it helps him process the many learnings of his young life. The ideas, the worlds that live and float around in his head/body/psyche are as large as they are nebulous ? they simply must be acted out with jumps, leaps, pretend karate moves, and intricate strategies and plans. The more stress he is under, the more he must have real, interactive free play. Performing in a structured situation is an example of the kind of thing that causes this stress?so are large crowds. Play, in its purest, freest form, is release. It is exactly what my son and lots of other children will need during a conference that is fun but busy and full of new experiences.

And that is exactly what we, as the caring adults in their lives, will try to provide.

What really frightens me is that I nearly missed this need for play in my son. There was a time, just a few years ago, when Fisher was learning to pretend to be somebody he was not. It was not a playful pretend game, as he so often engages in now. He was forced to be an actor in my play, while I in turn acted out from my childhood.


There were so many things I was going to do differently as a parent. As is so common for me, I was going to think my way into being a different kind of person, into living a different kind of life. The gap between thinking and acting has always been difficult for me. I had studied the qualities of the ideal parent, I had dreamed of the ideal childhood, and I had studied human development and learning theories for years. So I believed that I knew how to structure our lives so that our children would be ?

Happy? Confident? Aware of their connection with a deep source of love and affirmation? Yes, all this and more.

I wouldn?t have ever had the gall to say it, but perfect is the word I?m looking for.

When Fisher was in school, I knew it was going to be hard. I remembered my own experiences, my own feelings of being lost and confused. And if I was honest, I was not doing this for my son, as much as I was reacting hard to my own childhood.

To the time that I took off my favorite new jacket because I got warm playing tag on the playground?and accidentally left it by the side of the building.

To the times I forgot my lunch.

To the time I fell asleep on the bus home and missed my stop.

In each of these instances, having an understanding adult to help me would have made all the difference, so that?s what I tried to provide for my son. I helped him find the lost-and-found. I drove him to school and made sure he had lunch.

My fear went deeper than these basics, though. There seemed to be so many times in my childhood when I was enjoying myself, living in the moment, doing what I needed or wanted to do?and it turned out to somehow be wrong.

So I committed myself to helping Fisher ?win? at the school experience. He could read and write by kindergarten, but it wasn?t the academics that worried me. It was all the other stuff?knowing when he could ask to go to the bathroom, and when the teacher would say no. Knowing where to find his gym shoes. Finding kids to play with at recess who moved at his dreamy pace.

I volunteered in his classroom, but I also ?volunteered? in his life.

One cold winter day I stayed after school and helped Fisher go down the ?big slide? on the playground, hoping that would help him keep up with the other boys in his class. Even as he got cold and wanted to go home, I ?helped? him more.

When he was slow at putting on his snow pants and boots in time for recess, I followed the teacher?s suggestion and had sessions at home during which I timed him and tried to help him hurry. (And I chalked up his frustration and tears at these sessions to general fatigue, and not to the pressure of trying to live up to what I wanted.)

I thought I was helping, but at the end of his kindergarten year, I got a wake-up call. One of his fellow students noticed Fisher daydreaming while working in class?the student looked at me, looked at Fisher, and said, in an exasperated voice that perfectly mimicked my own, ?Focus, Fisher! You?ve got to focus on what you?re doing!?

I took another look at the ?help? I was giving, and how, despite my best intentions, it was turning out to be entirely unhelpful. This time I was planning for everything and then some?and I was still doing wrong, while trying to do right.

It was not long after that we found unschooling. Maybe it was time to try living in the moment again. Even if it was the wrong thing to do, at least we?d be enjoying ourselves.

Holding the Tension

Nearly all of the learning theories that I read in college support the philosophy behind unschooling. No educator that I know of would argue against internally motivated learning as the best kind of learning. Because I believed so deeply in unschooling, once I discovered it, I was guilty of doing that unrealistic, idealistic thinking-my-way-into-a different-place thing again. I was guilty of thinking that it was going to be more perfect than it is.

Not surprisingly, our lives are deeply imperfect. The imperfections are not problems as much as they are tensions. There is a tension between our free, ?rejecting the system? lives and the fact that my husband works a very corporate job to support us. There is a tension between our commitment to simple abundance and the clutter and mess that comes with real learning and exploration. There is a tension between spending my time getting support and information on my unschooling message boards and spending my time being present with my children.

One of the most difficult tensions lies between our commitment to peaceful parenting and the very real anger that sometimes comes with growing as real people.

What has become both frustrating and fascinating recently is to see the vestiges of both my parents? anger within my own behavior. For years I thought that the difficult sides of my personality were most like my mother?s?wonderfully resourceful and clever, yes, but sometimes leaning into impatience and sarcasm. I was my mother?s daughter in the years that I committed to pushing Fisher through school, victorious and ?winning.? It?s funny, because I didn?t see it that way?I thought I was doing the things she didn?t do, and being better because of it.

We?re so often acting out different sides of the same issue.

It is only recently that I can also see my father?s anger in me?the way he gets hyper-logical and very proper when he argues?none of which can hide the tinge of panic in his voice, panic at his own anger. In a recent argument I noticed that my hands were drawing precise and finicky imaginary lines on the table?tentative boundaries that I clearly feared I would not be able to hold and enforce, that I clearly feared were wrong to draw in the first place.

In the end, I see all of us?my mother, my father, I, and also my younger brother? struggle with different sides of the same issue. Being right. Trying to be so right that we will never get hurt, that our families will never get hurt and that nobody can find fault with us. Knowing all the expectations that could ever be put on us, and making the right decisions about them, and meeting the right ones.

But what if we?re wrong?

Slowly, I am learning to incorporate the tensions of our everyday lives, much as a stage actor incorporates the tensions of her character?holding it within, acting from its center. I am learning not to be afraid of the tension?I am learning that it sometimes comes with living in the moment. That ?not knowing for sure? feeling, it turns out, is what life is actually like.

And sometimes slaying a big hairy monster helps.

There are still times that my children are relaxed and feeling happy and connected?until I am grumpy with them, caught up in some shadowy expectation of a clean house and a healthy picture-perfect dinner. But I am becoming more aware.

It happens more frequently that I am able to put away the Windex and pick up the Pokemon food. My son has shown me that we can pretend to be heroes and monsters for our own enjoyment. He has also shown me that we don?t have to pretend to be someone we?re not in order to fit in with others. And somehow my son?s imaginary world is showing me a clearer view of reality.

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