Is unschooling / homeschooling only for the privileged?

Hey Kelly!  I think you know by now that I admire your work, and I have a great deal of respect for home/unschoolers.  One thing that concerns me is that I haven’t seen much discussion of privilege in the reading I’ve done on home/unschooling.  I realize that many people give up a LOT in terms of material items/income, “free” or “adult” time, or a career path in order to ensure that someone is home with the kids, and present for them.  But what about those who are, for example, single parents, or who are poor, and must work outside the home to keep everyone fed?  Even our family might be an example – our situation isn’t that dire, but for right now, for many reasons, it doesn’t seem like US/HS would be feasible for us.  I guess in an ideal world, there might be a solution for those kids – some sort of community-based, small- group environment, where families band together to share ideas, expertise, and time.  Do these situations exist?  At one point, we were in talks with a few other families to create a sort of shared, nurturing learning situation, but the logistics got very complicated and it fell through.  Anyway, excuse me for being all over the place here, but I was wondering what your thoughts were on this.

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I am not an expert on privilege, class, or social movements. What I write here is based only from my experiences. As you know, we’ve “given up” a lot to unschool. But I am also not here to tell every human soul that they should, or that they have to, or that they can, et cetera.

Every now and then I hear the charges that home- and/or unschooling communities are only populated by the privileged classes (and therefore a “bad” thing), or that these home educators do not address privilege from within their communities. My friend Idzie agrees on this latter point, and makes the call-out for unschoolers to take these issues up more often. I find myself in agreement with Idzie’s points – all of her points, because shouting “privilege!” at a fringe movement can be a double-edged sword (more in a minute).

All home- and unschoolers who read here who operate from a place of less privilege*, and who are working your asses off, I pause to let you have an *LOLsob* moment, that is if you even have time to read this piece.

But let’s address these points, because I think they are important.

First, I’m going to write about my experiences in this field for a minute, not so much this particular comment. I find it interesting that homeschooling and unschooling get put on the moral chopping block by progressives who claim these institutions are failing social justice in some way. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around an assertion the “institution” of unschooling is failing marginalized groups more than the aggregate realities of the institution of compulsory schooling. As for the community, not that it’s a monolith, well I do not think the unschooling community takes action on privilege any less than the general population. In fact if anything I see more community involvement and passion for social justice within unschooling families, than I do in the general population (or perhaps that’s just the unschoolers I hang out with). I see a little discussion amongst home- / unschoolers about privilege, and just like discussions with the general population, they are lively, passionate, and occasionally annoying or hurtful. I don’t see these conversations as being any less enlightened than the general population’s strategies, either. Again: just my experience. Your experiences with your unschoolers may be different.

Of course, all parenting realities are influenced by privilege. Many parents with kids in school spend their energies trying to effect improvements for their children or their child’s school; most do not take on the larger cause of educational and social inequities. Notably, many of the progressives who I’ve seen voice anger or angst about unschooling or homeschooling and privilege, either don’t have children at all, or have children already privileged in terms of race, socioeconomic, health, family support, heteronormative family structure, neighborhood safety, and the school options available to them. Et cetera. “Privilege” accusations, in some cases, begin to feel like a red herring.

However, I will always support the discussion of privilege and oppression, and even more so action-based strategies, within any group I find myself allied with, a member of, or sympathetic to (this goes far beyond education and parenting, for me). On a personal note, even more than discussion at a macro level about systems and socioeconomic realities, I enjoy working with families on a one-on-one basis for them to have more of the family life they want. More on that in a minute, too.

There are a few problems with painting home education as necessarily privileged and therefore suspect and exclusionary. Claiming “unschooling=privileged folks” erases the many realities and lives of diverse unschooling families: single parents, parents with disabilities, parents battling addiction or illness, working-poor, queer parents, non-heteronormative families, trans* unschoolers, unschoolers who are women, parents without career-wage and security, unschoolers with children who have special and/or medical needs, or unschoolers of color – to throw out a few groups of dedicated unschooling communities and families.** Not only do we erase these individuals and their experiences (insulting!) – we perpetuate the problems of inequality by doing so. We  should be going to their blogs and published works and discussions and digging deep, because they can tell us more about the problems with schooling and/or unschooling than someone in a position of relative privilege can!

Eva Swindler’s article “Re-imagining School” – which I know I’ve posted here before – is one of my favorites for the unschooling or homeschooling family who is realistic about socioeconomic inequalities. If there’s anything you read, stop reading my piece and go read hers. She also, notably, addresses the cultural cry that public schools can be trusted to look after the interests of the oppressed. They can’t, and they don’t. In fact, many families who’d be supposed beneficiaries of the so-called “social equalizer” of public school have found homeschooling to be the best choice for them from the perspective of their personal values and their financial situation. From a perspective of race, schools often are inflicting grave harm on children and families of color. When white progressives claim home education is a “privileged” choice, they are erasing the heartbreaking or at the very least difficult decisions so many non-white families have had to make; they are at the very least are ignorant (willfully or no) to the realities of families of color.

Then there’s the aspect of “your social justice cause isn’t as important as other social justice causes” that just makes me, personally, very sad.

“I […] get extremely frustrated with the reaction from radical and social justice type people who are not unschoolers, which is more often than not “only privileged people can unschool, so it’s privileged and horrible and selfish to do so, and no one should do it.” I feel like this is another example of how little children and teens are valued and respected, because with most oppressed groups, at least in words if not actions, [social justice] and radical peeps are quick to talk about concrete changes that should be made, yet when it comes to kids in school, it’s just a reaction of “oh well, it kind of sucks that they’re being indoctrinated with the tenets of the dominant culture, and that’s not very good I guess.” – Idzie Desmarais, Thoughts on Unschooling and Privilege

I’ve seen what Idzie is talking about, here. Social justice proponants who claim a need for intersectionality are often ignoring the needs of the child class. Worse, they often react in a hostile fashion when called out on adultist behaviors, or they suddenly lose their passion, fervor, curiosity and interest with regards to human rights and will hand wave with a, “Well that’s too bad for kids but that’s just how it is” mindset! It can be very disheartening to observe, to say the least. That apathy for the child and teen class – that apathy regardless of whatever educational philosophies we align ourselves with – is a bigger problem for educational opportunity inequalities than the practice of home/un-schooling. Here is what I’d call a true minority, and what we need more of – social justice activists dedicated to the rights of the child class.

Now to speak on something I know only a little about, but can merely relate from my own experiences in the community I live.

The original comment here asks about options available for those who want to homeschool, but do not have significant economic privilege or who do not feel safe in doing so (how “safe” a family feels to unschool is something I’d love to talk about in great detail at some point). Frankly, our law and the cultural and institutional schooling complex are not on their side at the moment. You can take responsibility for your kids’ homeschooling in every state; organizing any formal entity gets very tricky real quick and runs the risk of government interference – although people do it successfully of course. So when you ask about community options, this obviously depends on the community. Homeschool co-ops and creative solutions are real and on the rise, but they are not available everywhere (so: start one! LOL).

Like many unschoolers, I had to find my community, and my mentorship, online. I also had to find my balls. It took time. We initially looked into private school options but there are only two here – one, economically impossible for us, and the second, Pentecostal and extremely religious. So in a very real sense, we ended up unschoolers in part due to our lack of options. Other factors of safety and opportunity were at play in how we started out, as well. At first we were cirriculum-based homeschoolers in part because I was frightened if anyone “found out what I was doing” and reported me to Child Services – a nightmare I didn’t feel equipped to handle, at my level of newbie and with the illness I was dealing with.

I am an experienced unschooler now and I write in order to give those, espeically those in difficult situations, the roadmap should they want to pursue a different path than the mainstream. Many who could afford to, with no more financial discomfort than my family, choose not to. That’s fine with me. It really is. I only write about those because there are OTHER reasons people choose not to unschool, and I wish those were discussed more often. Anecdotally, although I am not legally able to offer homeschooling services to anyone, even if I am not making a business out of it, I have offered many parents our resources – meaning our food, our home, my time and energy, our washing machine, et cetera – as a homeschooling/unschooling option. None have taken us up on this, so far – even parents with children in significant distress at school.

Economic privilege or lack thereof is not the only factor in why people don’t homeschool, although it is often framed as such.

If someone wants to unschool but find themselves a victim of circumstance and “can’t” unschool – whether the obstacles are real or imagined is not my business – my heart goes out to them. I am not going to judge them, or say they don’t love your kids as much as I love mine, or anything like that. I am not going to tell them to do without things and “make” it happen. I am not going to claim they should go without material possessions, or food security, or health insurance, or running cars, or Social Security, or a savings account, or all the things we’ve done without.

I will help anyone who writes with anything I might be able to help with – if they want my suggestions. We have worked our asses off to unschool and that’s one reason I write about it – to help those who need help. That’s it.

In the meantime, some thoughts for those who do home- or unschool.

I have come to see how hurtful it is for some parents to be told, or to believe they are being told, that they should work JUST A LITTLE HARDER, that they should sacrifice JUST A LITTLE MORE, to do what’s best for their children. It seems many parents already feel at the end of their rope, or just barely getting by – in terms of all sorts of resources, not just financial ones. No one can be shamed into anything good and long-lasting – and that includes a parenting style or a lifestyle. I want to be an oasis of kindness and compassion and assistance, not another egoic entity needing others to see things my way. This is a work in progress – meaning I can’t claim perfection – but it’s one I undertake every day.

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* Seriously. Maybe as a working class (or working-poor, depending on who you believe) family of four I should write more graphically about the bounced checks, the pile of collection-center bills, the many times I’ve been dissed for having kids in public spaces during normal business hours, the times we used water out the neighbor’s hose (with her permission!), what it was like unschooling while battling alcoholism and illness. No wait I have written about that, it’s called “my blog”!

** I’d love to see more on non-custodial unschooling and step-parent-as-primary-carer unschooling. Add in the comments who YOU’D like to hear from!

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #9

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the ninth installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it.

This is item #9. You can find item #1 here, #2 here, #3 here, #4 here, #5 here, #6 here, #7 here, and #8 here.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. A picture from this evening: on an 8 o’clock walk, Phoenix and Hutch pause and goof around. Hutch is RARING TO GO, out to the mile long semi-wild loop we call “The Flats”, just a few blocks from my house. The kids and Hutch get to here every day; usually Ralph or I (or both) also take the dog this way later in the day.

Happy Pup + Happy Daughter

#9. Parent my hopes, not my fears. Works brilliantly.

I parented my fears for many years. I thought about writing in a general way to cover lots of ground, but I’m worried these Ten List posts are too general. So let me talk about something specifically. Manners and so-called “socialization”.

For years I tried to parent my kids to be “polite” and well-mannered. I know that sounds good on paper, right? But unfortunately, “manners” were required at the expense of my kids’ authenticity; and, to be honest, at the expense of my own. Specific social niceties were required years ahead of when it was reasonable for a child to develop them. These behaviors were essentially enforced, rather than looked at as something they would naturally learn if I modeled them; what I like to call the long view of compassionate parenting. You know those annoying adults who give your three year old child a treat and then sing-song, “What do you saaayyy?” (meaning: This was not actually a gift, YOU MUST THANK ME FOR LIKE AN ANGRY AND CAPRICIOUS MINI-GOD I DOLE OUT CORN SYRUP BLESSINGS)? Yeah, I basically went along with that. “Say ‘please’,” I’d order them. Like a douche.

I sold my children out.

Oh, not every single time of course. And hey, weren’t my intentions good? It’s something many parents do, if not most (if you seriously think I’m judging, you don’t read me too closely). Today I have compassion for my former strategies. I wasn’t just culturally-trained to parent my children this way; it was also a family lifestyle. I certainly came by it honestly.

Yet, parented this way myself, I had not only resented it, but I’d learned the wrong things. I remember going out to a restaurant and one of my parents was so servile to her perception of the waitstaff’s time schedule that often I did not get to order the food I want, rushed through my selection I’d be forced to eat something I didn’t want. I wasn’t treated like an adult would be. Well into my adulthood this same parent did the same thing. A couple years ago she apologized to the waitress when I asked, perfectly politely, for an ice tea refill. “Excuse me, may I have a refill on my ice tea?” I ask. “Sorry!” my mom winces and calls out at the waitress. TRUE STORY.

This sort of thing was not an isolated incident, but hopefully it serves. I didn’t like being parented that way for about a dozen reasons. One, I learned as a child I was less important than an adult. I always knew this was bullshite, but I didn’t seem I had many people to back me on this. (Later, sadly, I would treat my own children as “less than”.) Two, I often felt like my parents, in particular my mother, would sell my ass out to meet some kind of approval from a perfect stranger. I hated my mother for needing that kind of approval from others. I hated her for not being in my corner. If your mom’s not in your corner, who is?

I’m happy to tell you today I no longer carry that hate and resentment; my mother’s need to get approval is none of my business. But releasing the resentments of my past does not mean I don’t remember how it felt and the reflexive responses I developed. Namely, being a people-pleaser. Saying “I’m sorry” for stuff that wasn’t mine. Caring more about “polite” and “nice” than kind, compassionate, and authentic. Saying “Yes” to stuff and coming to resent the person I’d said Yes to. Twisted shit.

Years ago I read an article by author Naomi Aldort entitled “How Children Learn Manners”, which fully articulated what I didn’t like about the way I’d been raised and the way, de facto, I kept treating my own kids. This article blew open everything I couldn’t fully articulate as a child. I’ve sent it to parents now and then who struggle with this issue.

I began to parent my hopes. I began to stop demanding my children perform in public. I began watching my own behavior and talking to my husband more about the problems in our previous approach. We figured if we modeled civility the kids could learn it (we were right).

I wasn’t perfect at this – specifically relinquishing controlling behavior. Old habits die hard. There was this weird gap too where I hadn’t learned to address my kids’ deeper issues effectively, but was determined not to be scary to them in public, and there were times I was caught amiss and the kids were too. (Here’s a great, gory story you’ll love.) I went through doubts and fumbles. But I am so glad I stuck to it.

Today I have no regrets. My children are kind and considerate. When they say Thank You, they mean it. They have well-developed consciences. Two days ago I came home and the children hadn’t done the dishes as they’d said they would; when my eight year old walked in from taking the dog out he said, “I apologize mama, for not doing the dishes.” then he did them. Stuff like that. The system works.

The truth is, it is rather easy to bully one’s children into being “well-behaved”, but it is not a lasting model, and there are so many negative side effects, as I’ve written on at great length in many other writings. It isn’t the issue so much but the methodology; I was parenting out of Fear. Fear they wouldn’t be nice and that it would reflect on me. Yup, I didn’t want to admit that to myself, but that was just about it. Talk about being self-absorbed!

Today I can parent out of Hope. Not even hope – Faith. I absolutely know children grow up on their own terms, and are best served being treated well and being around adults who treat all people well, big or small. I know it because I’ve seen it. I’m passing it on here, so maybe you’ll believe in it for long enough until you see it for yourself. Maybe you can have some Hope until you get your Faith.

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #8

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the eighth installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it.

This is item #8. You can find item #1 here, #2 here, #3 here, #4 here, #5 here, #6 here, and #7 here.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. A picture from this evening: my kids horsing around, skateboarding and fortune-telling. At far right you can see the corner of our rental’s porch, covered in some kind of outdoor carpet and inundated with enough cat piss to be seriously disgusting. Oh and by the way, this is many hours of play today; my children love each other very much.

New Boot Goofin'

#8. Remember my job is twofold: to make my job obsolete, & help my kids have awesome memories.

This post may seem redundant. After all, I wrote a bit a couple days ago about what kinds of parenting I’ll be glad to reflect on, and what I might be less glad to remember. I have a few more words about keeping parenting in perspective.

Our children are the authors of their own lives. Once we know that, and commit to helping them, we can stop letting our minds be run by “experts” and stop letting every magazine article or parenting guru or next-door-neighbor invoke our insecurity. It doesn’t take a particularly organized, well-groomed, college-educated, perfectly-devoted, etc. etc. mother (or parent or carer) to know what one’s child needs. Sometimes their needs baffle us, or frighten us. Sometimes they are screaming and we don’t know why. Sometimes we sense they are unhappy, deeply so, maybe for days or months on end. As they get older it can get scarier. Maybe they’re cutting themselves or showing signs of very troubled relationships or drug or alcohol use.

The day we throw up our hands and pretend we don’t have a right and a responsibility to help them is the day we let them and ourselves down, profoundly. Sadly, I’ve seen it happen time and time again. I’m not saying you have to be perfect – please, PLEASE read my whole many-year blog if you want to see Imperfection in action – I’m saying that there are always mentors, there is always prayer and meditation (if you are earnest and don’t find it objectionable), there is always community to help. Have a bad day? Cool. What do I do with my bad day? These days, for a little while at least, I’ve been able to forgive myself and dust off my knees and get going. I operate not out of self-pity, fear, and anger, but out of gratitude, humor, and some degree of humilty. String a few days together like that and this parenting thing can become a joy no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.

I have the privilege of living in a home with my children and being able to give them my time. My time and my unconditional love are job #1. They will have plenty of adversity in their life and I am not frightened of it. My job is not to shield them unnecessarily; but also, not to organize the adversity for them. It is sad how many parents and carers are locked into doing just that.

I’m a bit hesitant to post a list several parents assembled on the ways we organize adversity for our children: “How To Screw Up Unschooling”. The list is helpful enough; but one thing I know is that parents often beat themselves up very badly and sometimes don’t even know they’re doing it. Parents expect themselves to be so-called “perfect” parents (mothers are pressured a great deal especially) and again, may not even know they’re doing it. The list – which is not at all confined to those who identify as “unschooling” or pro-unschooling – can be used as a series of life-changing opportunities. If you like, print it out without looking at it and have someone else slice it up into stack of slips. Work on each little scrap of paper for a week. Go easy. Be kind. Prepare to have your mind blown. It’s that fun.

Children are resilient. They shouldn’t have to be, but they are. Nevertheless, don’t let “children are resilient” be an excuse to continue ignoring that voice deep within that tells you how you are mistreating them, or how you are mistreating yourself (and therefore, them).

The real question is, are we resilient? Are we able to admit, “I’ve been doing _____ for a while now and I don’t want to do it any more.” That is the beginning of admitting we are faltering and being that much more open to asking someone for help. We are not the first person to be confronted with what seems like an impasse. Believe me, tangentially, as an alcoholic and a survivor, this process holds deep meaning. I can tell you that saying, “I’ve been doing _____ for a while now and I don’t want to do it any more” is a perfectly good start. Maybe you don’t know how you’ll ever change your reality, your habits, your circumstances. I’m here to tell you change is possible and the construct of No-Choice is an illusion and a choice in and of itself.

Admit where you’re living a way you no longer want to. Trust another human being and ask for help. You have only a better future to gain.

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #6

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the sixth installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it. 

This is item #6. You can find item #1 here, #2 here, #3 here, #4 here, and #5 here.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. A picture from 6 o’clock: my daughter has just asked me if I got dog biscuits for our dog, and I took a few pictures to stall my answer, which is no, not yet. I’m going to get some soon, promise.

My Daughter Asks A Hard-Hitting Question

#6. Parent the way I’ll look back on & think, FUCK YEAH. For me this means relaxing more, judging less.

When my daughter was very wee – I may not have even been pregnant with her younger brother – I took her out on the streets of Port Townsend with me. It was beautiful out after a refreshing rain. And even though finances were tight while we lived there, I always worked hard to make sure my kids had quality footwear and raingear (my mom often bought their winter coats each year, for which I am grateful). On this day I’d dressed my child to play in the rain comfortably. She had boots and a raincoat and wee mittens and she was fed and she was dry in her diaper and we were going for a walk. Crossing the street she wanted to splash in a puddle a few feet out of our path. We veered off, her little hand in mine, and she made a satisfying jump and (to her mind) a massive SPLOOSH in the puddle, and she was happy as shit.

An older man passed us in the crosswalk right as my daughter completed her gleeful stomp and splash. I looked up and our eyes met. He smiled and said, “Good mama.”

I want to be the parent who does what my kids need me to do.

I am not going to look back and be glad I yelled at the kids for making a mess, or glad I bitched at them about how we couldn’t afford X because it was so expensive, and enforce all of MY money anxieties aloud or by my tacit behavior. I am not going to be glad I pressured them from the sidelines to be MY kind of athlete or to be the best in gymnastics or swimming; I won’t be glad I exercised my will to get them to impress coaches or to beat other kids’ performances. I am not going to be glad I “managed” their relationship with their grandmother(s) or their father or the neighbor kids, that I made sure they thought and acted the “right” way. I am not going to be glad I cluttered up their schedule with activities and treats to compensate for my bad moods or feelings of personal inadequacy.

I am going to look back and be glad I tickled them late at night when everyone else was asleep and we were dissolving in giggles. I am going to be glad I watched monster B-movies and ghost-adventures with them, I am going to be glad I took long walks to nowhere out in the woods or along the beach, I am going to be glad I made all their favorite foods and made some of my own favorites and shared with them how to do those things, when they’re interested.

I am going to be glad I spent the time helping them clip nails and brush teeth and take baths. I am going to be glad I took a few minutes to recognize that their first visit to the doctor’s or that their vaccinations are a big deal for them, and to be Present for them during this. I am going to be glad I take the time to find out what their interests are and why, and not offer my opinion if I don’t “get” video games or the latest pop star they’re into or their personal clothing style.

I am going to be glad I bought them everything they need to do their art or have their fun, within my absolute best abilities to get them these things. I am going to be glad I sewed them their favorite clothes and their unique and beloved Halloween costumes. I am going to be glad I let them have as many sleepovers, as many trips “froggin'” at the railroad tracks, as many s’mores and outdoor fires, as many bike rides to new parks, as many ice cream cones on as many summer days, as many of their favorite comic books as I can afford.

I’m going to be glad when I take care of my needs – not require them to – and then I give and give and give without thought of return.

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #5

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the fifth installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it. 

This is item #5. You can find item #1 here, #2 here, #3 here, and #4 here.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. A picture from this afternoon: my children cleaning up the play/bedroom upstairs. Within about ten minutes the beds were tidied, linens in the laundry, Legos put away, floors vacuumed, and costumes and stuffed animals bundled away. The kids also vacuumed the large bedroom and my sewing room. No threats, bribes, or coercion were employed.

Housework; Upstairs

#5. Allow myself to suffer public discomfort for a few minutes; stop parenting in a reactionary fashion.

I’m going to get down to brass tacks and say it: there are very few emergencies in public that require us to step in forcefully with our children. Full stop. And yet, we do it anyway. For many of us, it becomes a way of life. It isn’t the handful of times they run into the road at age two, when most people could easily understand a deeply-frightened parent grabbing a child and striking the child’s bottom. No. It becomes our way of life. We grab their arms or yell at them or perhaps, even more sinister, we impart consequences, many not necessarily violent, and build a world so fearful for them they are petrified to make mistakes in public. We do whatever we can to coerce them to behave well.

I have so much empathy and sadness for how this starts for so many. Maybe it starts at age six months when the infant cries in a restaurant and we capitulate to the glares of those who think children do not belong in public spaces; resentful, embarrassed, overwhelmed, and full of congested shame we flee the restaurant. We skip our meal, we women (usually) who sleep little and don’t eat enough and are overwhelmed and often ill-supported; we make sure no one is inconvenienced by our young child. And there it starts.

Sooner or later comes the day we are too tired and too overwhelmed and we don’t leave the restaurant and our kid cries and we think, “Fuck it.” Perhaps we hate our child. Perhaps we hate the world. We feel the disapproval of strangers or father-in-law or whomever but we cannot bring ourselves to march out that door and abandon our rights; nor can we cope with our current reality. Sadly, our parenting skills decline. Sadly, our child – sensing she is not welcome in the cafe and she is somehow disappointing her mother or even incurring her mother’s wrath – is left frightened and defenseless and without an advocate. This becomes a way of life; feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, resentful. It becomes a problem we cannot name but we feel it’s effects.

Our children suffer the most. Not the stranger in the coffee shop or the father-in-law. Not even us, although we suffer a great deal. But:

our children suffer the most.

And they learn how to parent their own children; and they learn how to manage those who need help. That is, they learn to MANAGE them. Or to try. They cannot tolerate the pain and suffering of others; they cannot tolerate their own pain and suffering.

If there’s anything I could take back, it’s the time and time again I parented in a reactionary fashion (I sometimes call this “reptilian parenting”), caring more for my reputation and for my kids’ “good behavior” than parenting according to a long view of what parenting is really about. And that is, briefly, this: as my children’s parent it is my job to keep them safe – and for a time, to keep others safe from them – and to nurture them and to be their advocate and helper.

It is not my job to make sure others approve of their very existence and/or my parenting or any particular episode of my life.

I have little patience for those who call the practitioners of punitive parenting “monsters” or some such, who loudly call spanking “child abuse” on internet forums. Certainly hitting someone smaller and less empowered than us is abuse, full stop. But someone being called a “child abuser”, her ears will close up. You have effectively tapped the shame she’s been feeling. She will stop listening. She will hate you. She will feel more lost and alone.

It is very unlikely she will stop hitting her child. She will not know where to seek help.

There are many who believe punishment is the right way of things; but these people are not monsters. They merely believe in a strategy I myself do not support, but they have come by these beliefs through intense indoctrination. Even so, there are few parents and carers who don’t feel pangs of conscience when they punish their children. Calling these parents or carers names, shaming them, will effect little change, no matter how briefly exhilarating it is to rehearse righteous anger.

When you call them names you are demonstrating YOUR inability to tolerate other people’s suffering.

In any case, so many out there vilify and call parents names that I can relinquish this right. It’s being taken care of by other parties.

It is never my intention to shame parents or carers who read here. I have not always been skilled at being careful, and I have my own biases and prejudices I may not be aware of. But hopefully I am better today than in previous writings.

I have a few closing remarks.

If you yell at your kid, give them a “time out”, count to three (repeatedly or once), hit them, scream at them, pinch their arm, cold-bloodedly smile while planning to later remove their most precious precious thing EVER when you get home, employ “natural and logical consequences” – in short, PUNISH them, do something to them to elicit emotional pain – and EVERY parent/carer has done this

– if you do any of these things:

DON’T PANIC. I’ve done them all (well, except maybe the “count to three” thing). I don’t do them anymore. If you want to stop, it’s possible. It’s a beautiful way of life, and it works. My children’s character, empathy, strength, loving nature, self-control, and care for other human beings is testament to a better way. I write here to help people who want to learn how to parent non-punitively; or rather, those who want to unlearn mainstream schema of punish, mold, “correct”, coerce.

It’s possible and I’m happy to help any who want it.

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #3

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the third installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it.

This is item #3. You can find item #1 here and #2 here.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. So from this afternoon: my children play in the beach. I posted lots of these pictures at my Flickrstream today, because as I went through them, each one showed the kids’ delight at being in the water, which they dove into without hesitation the minute we hit the sand. I couldn’t pick a favorite.

Unschooling Beach

#3. Find mentors for something I’m new to & stay open. Very much worth the time!

Dedicated to my mentors… too many to list! Here are a few I talk about here: Wendy, Cheryl, Kathee, Sylvia, Jennifer, Charla, Linda.

A mentor is strictly defined as: an adviser. That’s it. What’s the difference between a mentor, a leader, an “expert”, an elder, a caring friend, a smart co-worker, a member of your mama’s group, book club, or poker night buddy?

I define a mentor as “someone who has something I want”. That is, they have a quality I want, and they have a quality I currently don’t have. I’ve had many such mentors. One woman had experience in the field I needed help in. One had an immense amount of faith, and a spiritual strength I’d never before witnessed in person. One had forgiveness that astounded me. One had loyalty that took my breath away. One had bravery and vulnerability despite incredible odds. One had generosity that surpassed understanding. One had leadership in the field of helping others.

A mentor should be willing to help me without regard for return. A mentor is willing to take time for me, even if the help is just an email response. A true mentor won’t take ownership of my life, nor try to force an outcome, or make my behavior requisite for their approval. They merely exist to serve. Sometimes, often, a mentor is also a friend. But they don’t have to be.

I have responsibilities in this relationship. It is my responsibility to recognize a mentor’s limitations. It is my responsibility not to hold them accountable for my difficulties. It is my responsibility to be mindful. It is my responsibility to receive from the mentor what she is capable of delivering. Some mentors can provide me skills in one area but not another. I don’t go to the hardware store for oranges, to use a phrase I recently heard.

I have been on the mentor side of the relationship, too. I have had the honor of assisting others and I try to employ the principles listed above. I do not require reciprocity in any form: financial payback, blog hits, a certain kind of friendship or alliance with me when my life has troubles. To the degree I can help others, I give it freely.

My responsibility as a mentor is to be kind and gentle, and to let people have their own problems. My responsibility is to listen as deeply as I can and to not project my own persona onto theirs. My responsibility is to be mindful.

The benefits I receive by being able to help others are immeasurable and profound.

Despite the world being full of caring friends, fun coworkers, loving family, elders, leaders, and “experts”, a mentor relationship is hard to find. It is worth it to consider who could mentor you. I’ve learned the most valuable life skills through my mentors. I owe them a great deal of gratitude and I take time to express this gratitude. Any quality I have today, that you admire, tell me about it – and I’ll tell you who helped me with it and how.

Ten List: Things That Make Parenting Easier, #1

A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on ten lists I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it.

Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. So from today: here’s my daughter Phoenix. She’s going to grow up to be a Furry, I think. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That. #LOL

Phee

#1. Stop judging other parents; stop being self-critical. Both are self-obsessed behaviors.

“Stop judging” usually runs into one of two quagmires right off the bat. The first is, “What do you mean don’t judge, we all make judgments, I have the right to decide what’s best for myself/my family/my kids,” blah blah blah.

So about choices. Just this week I’ve chosen many times over, at any given moment, whether to clean my house, play with my kids, work volunteer hours, cook homemade fare, build my garden, pet or walk my dog, exercise, have a date with my husband, visit friends, sew, write, rest. Et cetera. Each time I chose one thing I couldn’t very well do the others. This is life. It happens.

So let’s drop the pretense. We all discren and we all make choices. We’re all doing the best we can on any given day, and we all make mistakes. No one is free from making mistakes, from having wrong perceptions, from being driven by fear and anger. We can only demonstrate our will, our uniqueness, or what Viktor Frankl called “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” in how we respond to our anger, fear, our mistakes. Some of us have a sense of humor, humility, and openness about these things; some of us, less so. I’m hoping this post restores or imparts humility, humor, and courage. These are all traits accessible to every single human being.

There’s a second speedbump in mainstream culture when we talk about unlearning judgment. For those of us brought up Nice White Lady  (*raises hand*), we interpret the pop-culture mag articles about not-judging to mean merely the outward appearance of civility. In other words, “keep your opinions but keep them quiet, merely dropping hints in public, and finding those who’ll share in your hatred and judgment when you want to be more open about it all. OUT LOUD judgment or judgment voiced in the wrong company is Mean & Nasty, a social gaffe.”

Just: No. Keeping nasty comments to yourself is a start; but it’s the inner voices that will hurt you and then necessarily, hurt others. Those perceptions and judgments will construct pitfalls for other parents, for children, and for yourself. You will fall on the sword you install. Every time. And P.S., you aren’t making things easier for others when you live this way. This didn’t used to occur to me. It matters to me, today.

My experience informs me that judging other people (and finding them inferior, worthless, “bad”, et cetera) is our Ego’s response to Fear. That’s it. It’s that basic. I don’t like formula-feeding moms because I’m upset to think of babies who aren’t getting the best upbringing/nurture/nutrition etc. I hate pro-lifers because they oppress women and their hate frightens me. I can’t stand Christians because I was hurt by my family/the church and they’ve made me feel inferior! While I relate, I understand, and I’ve been there, for me a Fear-driven way of life is not a quality way of life.

Our strategies need never be informed by Hate and Fear; they are more intelligent and skillful when they are not. It’s kind of sad that when it comes down to it, many of us are trying to save our own skin, or telling the world, “I can’t deal with the suffering of others, so everyone needs to behave.” Once I recognize these drives within myself the whole thing falls apart and I can proceed with a great deal more intelligence, compassion, kindness, strength, and courage. To be honest, when I realize this is where I come from, I usually have a laugh about it and talk it over with someone.

I don’t have an antidote to Fear to impart here. Personally, I had to have a spiritual, moral, mental, and emotional breakdown, and be built back up brick-by-brick, which is where I found faith – I discovered the possibility to live a spiritual life. That’s just me, though. It actually wasn’t as bad as it sounds. OK, it was pretty rough. But I’m here today and today I have Faith. Faith has enabled me to participate in the world, to change the world for the better when I can. I no longer need to put myself in a box, to not be friends with so-and-so because she does this Naughty thing, to stay up late being Right on the internet, to Other other people. Et cetera.

If you don’t like the concept of Faith or spirituality, by all means substitute ethics or principles or values. Do not allow my experience and the rituals that help me, be an unnecessary impediment to your life.

One thing helps me here is fluidity. When I see a father scolding and yanking his son’s arm, I don’t think “What a monster” today. I know that man is all out of better ideas. It hurts him to hurt his son but he has no better option. I’ve been that harsh and hurtful parent. I can walk up to that man and say, “Can I help you?” I can let him know I see him hurting someone and I won’t let it continue, but I see him hurting too. I don’t have Fear like I used to.

I have a dear friend who found the St. Francis Prayer very effective. She told me it kept her from practicing all her bad habits and allowed her to supplant them with better ones. The prayer reads:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

It is very brave to live this way. Many cannot bring themselves to do it. I am not a Catholic, but I find this prayer to be a wonderful reflection. These principles help me to minister to others, instead of building up my Ego and my sense of righteous indignation. When I see something that makes me angry (in other words, that frightens me), I am less likely to go on the offensive with MY way of seeing things, MY practices, MY life. Today I know I am not helping others when I clobber them with my judgment, words, and actions, and when I put the nail in the coffin of being Right. These new strategies (relatively new to me, anyway) have helped me a great deal. I can ministrate with kindness in public, and feel compassion and experience Presence. When I am troubled by something, I can respond with more clarity. If I need to, I can talk with an understanding friend who has less Ego at stake than the so-called offending party (or the person, edifice, or principle that disturbed me). Egos shouting at one another, well, we all know what that looks like.

I didn’t change quickly, or all that happily. It cost me a great deal to live the way I used to. Ultimately I found resentment, judgment and fear made me too sick. Just: very, very ill. They make me ill today if I rehearse them.

I hope you’ve come to see that judging others and self-criticism go hand and hand. It is not possible to live with one but not the other. Both are steeped in arrogance. Both only seek to grow the Ego, the Self, the personality. They do nothing to reduce our anxiety, increase our usefulness. If nothing else, know a thought like, “I’d never be caught out like that,” “I wouldn’t tolerate that from MY kid”, “what shitty parents”, et cetera is going to hurt you later. There is no if, and or but about it. It’s going to hurt you later, and it hurts you today, even if you don’t know it. It hurts other people too.

It really is okay to say, “This scares me, and it hurts me.” It works wonderfully to say this, to know this, instead.

Tomorrow: Tip #2, Do what feels right but is scary. A mistake here & there is better than a stifled life.

“You’re not in trouble. We don’t get into trouble here.” – my daughter Phoenix, to a friend

Today my friend Wendy tweeted an article by Norm Lee, the author of nopunish.net. It was just my kind of thing – a brief history and analysis of the school system.

I’d been thinking about Norm Lee just recently. On the seventh of March, 2010 I sent him an email asking to subscribe to his newsletter. Five days later I received an email from him. It read, in part:

Okay, you’re included on the nsltr list. you happy? For the week following your email, I haven’t been able to do a lick of email work – AND IT’S YOUR FAULT. Engrossed as I’ve been with reading your stuff, I’ve kept wondering if there is an end to this wonderful tunnel of love & freedom. Lovit, lovit, lovit! Where did you get the devotion-to-kids, the insights, the compassion, the courage to be so open and vulnerable and brave the brickbats that are inevitably visited upon anyone as free? I’ve worked on it for more than the last half of my life (I’m 81), and I just get stronger and more dedicated. But then, I’m a trained Buddhist (Bodhisattva), with 40 years of daily meditation practice, so slings and arrows are just slings and arrows, nothing personal, nothing more.
 
I believe I love you. (So much for training in detachment.)

I remember how I felt reading this email. It was kind of a Big Deal at the time. First, I felt glad that someone out there in the Ether, an experienced parent and grandparent at that, supported my husband and I in trying to raise our kids without coercion and violence. There was light at the end of the tunnel, there was a mentor saying, “You can do it!”, and that meant a lot. Because believe me I am surrounded culturally and personally by adults who either flat-out denigrate these aspirations or at the very least, have a complete ignorance as to how to live them or what life is like when you try.

I appreciated Norm’s support; but I also knew I wasn’t where he was at – and I envied him. His sentence, “slings and arrows are just slings and arrows, nothing personal, nothing more” stuck with me. Ever since. I knew what he wrote was true for him, and I knew I wanted it to be true for me. It was a truth in my head but not in my heart. At the time I had recently received my first “anonymous” hater online. And despite handling it okay, maybe, I perceived other people’s opinions of me mattered too much. While critics, either directly criticizing or implicitly shaming, had sometimes helped me a great deal, I also knew they could upset my little happy-rowboat. It’s not an exaggeration to say I let other people keep me awake at night.

Today I also know slings and arrows are just slings and arrows. I know it is nothing personal. And I know it in my heart. My change didn’t come from Norm’s email and it didn’t come entirely from practicing Buddhism (although both of those things helped) – and it didn’t come overnight. My life is very different now. It’s a wonderful thing.

It is possible to arrive at this place; and having arrived, to practice the principles that give us this grace.

As for non-punitive parenting, I still get it wrong sometimes. But I get better and better at leaving that way of life for others. Sometimes I get a few days in a row being a nurturing, present parent. Today I’m content with my commitment to the practice, and I’m grateful for those who do better than I. They are my mentors.

Today there is not much a critic can say to upset my rowboat. Thank you, Norm, and the many others who’ve helped me and continue to help me.

i’m grateful for cancer

I know I recently wrote a bit about my father… this piece, however, was written a while back, at the request of the editor of Grays Harbor College’s zine.

I’m grateful for cancer
by Kelly Hogaboom
Originally published in “The Diversifieds”, Grays Harbor College Aberdeen WA, Spring 2012

Happy Father's Day, Dad

Caption: My father and I, Huntington Beach CA

My father was first diagnosed with cancer in 2000. I remember where I was when my mother told me – I was eating a white fish sandwich and fries at, of all places, the Southshore Mall food court. I was stunned to hear the news, although even in that split second it wasn’t the spectre of Death and Doom I sensed. I was shocked, sure, and over the next eight years I’d experience a lot of sadness and sorrrow. But I don’t remember being frightened or angry.

I learned so much during his illness as he received treatment and surgery, then went into remission. During this time I discovered much about him, a lot about my family and friends, and a great deal about myself. I took time out of work when he’d have his first radiation, his first chemo, then his surgery. I travelled to be with him. I do not know how glad he was that I did this, but over time it made me more centered, stronger, calm in my convictions that if I was a welcome presence for someone, I wanted to there for their big journeys. And, thankfully, he was there for mine – I remember he had a fine new growth of hair for my wedding, some months off chemo. That day we all celebrated his life and that of my new family.

Don’t get me wrong, there were disappointments along the way. His illness had been missed a full year before by a doctor who dismissed blood in his stool. I think my mother might have been angry about this. I accepted things as they were – for the most part. Sometimes my mind would churn on the “What if…?” I remember this mind would also hook on strange yet strong desires – like that he could live on and be there when my children graduated high school. Why this particular milestone, I do not know (funnily enough, they’re homeschooled now anyway!).

Always Bitchy
My father, during one of innumerate rounds of chemo. The staff were always so kind and professional.

During this time my grandmother in California fell very ill to a stroke, and my experiences with grave illness were very much with me. I packed up my new husband and baby and we flew down to be with the family, despite some protestations of my employer. She died after five days and I grew all the more. I was living life, not avoiding its terms.

My father’s cancer returned, this time blooming throughout his body. Again: chemo, pills, appointments. He had to stop long-distance running, a passion he’d excelled at since we’d moved to Grays Harbor. In September of 2006 he called us where we were living – Port Townsend, Washington – and let us know there was a job opening in Aberdeen that would be appropriate for my husband. I’m smiling as I write this, because my father rarely called me for any reason. We knew we was asking us to his home, asking us to bring our small children and spend time with him before he left.

When my father died in August of 2008 I was with him. My mother and I nursed him at home with the help of hospice. This too had its surprises and challenges, but it was deeply satisfying work. On August 22nd I stroked his hand and held him and spoke, only a little, and calmly, as he struggled through his last breaths. I felt brave and very Present, filled with transcendant love, shining bright within my body out through my fingertips. When he finally drew his last breath my mother jumped up to make a phone call. It was as if I had all the privacy in the world. I put my head on the bed and cried sobs from the very heart of me, the deepest I have ever cried.

After he died, many expressed sentiments. Some seemed to understand my mind, many did not. A surprising number couldn’t bring themselves to visit, or speak to us at all. I learned a lot there, too.

Brevity prohibits me from listing the many things I learned along the way from my father’s illness, treatment, and death – and especially that year and a half after we moved to be close to him, when every day I saw him I was filled with joy, a knowledge of how precious he was to me. It wasn’t remission or pills or chemo that gave me these things, although I am grateful such options are available to those who want and can have them. But cancer gave me these things, that enlightenment, that knowledge of how deeply I loved, the ability to slow down and savor our time together.

I could write so much and the many moments of deep satisfaction and awareness this process afforded me. But it is not necessarily afforded everyone – my journey was not my father’s, nor my mother’s or brother’s, and they may have very different experiences to report. When it comes down to it, this is what I believe: the journey my father took is one we all take – in some form or other – and I am grateful I do not experience anger about this. Just sadness, and then: gratitude. Life is an incredible blessing and experience.

Kelly

Forgiveness is possible; loving others in a way that works for us

All comments on this post will be moderated.

Welcome to the Spank Out Day 2012 Carnival

This post was written for inclusion in the Second Annual Spank Out Day Carnival hosted by Zoie at TouchstoneZ. Spank Out Day was created by The Center for Effective Discipline to give attention to the need to end corporal punishment of children and to promote non-violent ways of teaching children appropriate behavior. All parents, guardians, and caregivers are encouraged to refrain from hitting children on April 30th each year, and to seek alternative methods of discipline through programs available in community agencies, churches and schools. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

***

Mid-summer of last year I shakily drove my new (to me) car to a friend’s house. I’d made a desperate call just a few minutes prior and she could hear that I was in need of someone kind to talk to. I knocked on the door and was welcomed into the home of this friend and her partner, both women very dear to me. I sat on their comfortable couch in the soft summer light, ready to compose myself to tell them what was wrong – and instead burst into shuddering sobs.

I’d just come from a meeting in a self-help group. Over the past few months I’d been recovering from the shame and misery of my past – including, in my own words, “the worst shit I’d ever done”. The worst shit I’d ever done, what does that mean? Well, we all know deep in our Knowing Place what these things are, and my worst and your worst aren’t going to be the same. I have a share of immoral (by my own standards) acts in my past. But for me at the time, the “worst things” weighing on me were the things I’d done, or hadn’t done, for my children. I couldn’t shake the thought that while other adults could choose to play in my playground or leave me be, my children were hostage to my bad behaviors. This thought had haunted me to this very summer day.

So in my self-help group I had named some of my mistakes aloud. I briefly related that I regretted yelling at and hitting my children (in an commitment to truthfulness and yet a simultaneous masochistic act of self-criticism, I’d refused to give myself an “out” by calling my behaviors “spanking”, “swatting”, or “paddling”, etc). I started to talk about my freedom from this guilt and shame, and the help the group had brought me in this regard.

But before I had finished speaking, another woman turned to me in disbelief. “For spanking your kids?” She asked in astonished contempt. I paused, surprised at an interruption – rare to unheard of in this group – and went on talking.

As soon as I finished speaking – on a larger point than my parenting, or so I thought – this woman immediately launched into her own narrative. In a most articulate fashion she listed every justifiable reason to hit one’s children and make sure they know who is boss, and why. The world is a hard place. They’re going to learn on the streets if they don’t learn at home. Your kids will blame you later if you don’t discipline them. Anyone who criticizes can fuck off. “CPS can show up and I’ll beat their ass.” Et cetera.

I sat on the sofa and listened. The oddest feelings crept up on me. As she went on – seemingly for ages! – I knew I was feeling – something. I knew I was unhappy, but I didn’t know what else I was going through.

At the end of the meeting we closed and said farewell. I was still confused, but I smiled with a genuine shining love for this woman, the love I feel for all members of the human race today. I knew even though she was addressing me, she was telling me about herself. I knew she had a heart and mind and love for the children she was raising. Perhaps she’d heard what I had to relate and would reflect on it later. I knew she was stressed. I knew I had nothing to give her in this moment but love and compassion.

A few minutes later, I got in the car. I drove a little ways before bursting into tears. Minutes later I’d made my phone call and sat weeping on my friends’ couch. After I had a good cry, the cry I needed to have, my friends and I talked it out. And when I tried to explain how this woman’s words had hurt, but my own words failed me, my friend said firmly and kindly, “She told you to do things that don’t work for you.”

***

I was spanked growing up, but I don’t cite those experiences as particularly painful. The physical aspect of my childhood punishments weren’t as humiliating and confusing, for me, as the emotional and spiritual dysfunction. Besides spanking, I remember only a few other humiliating episodes involving physicality, such as my father throwing a glass of water in my face when I was a teen, and my mother slapping me across the face about that same era. Neither of my parents ever apologized to me for these actions, and I have no idea how deeply, if at all, my parents felt regret, remorse, or shame for these actions on their part.

I have forgiven them, and that forgiveness has been a gift to myself.

I’ve maintained for some time that there is little difference in our “punishments” or “discipline” of our children, as long as we are trying to manipulate them out of our own fear (however deeply our own fears are hidden from us). Last year for my post for the Great Spank-Out I wrote,

“[I]n my opinion there is little to no concrete differences between the following: hitting (also called “spanking”, “swatting”, “smacking”, or “beating”, depending on your culture/family), yelling at, scolding/lecturing, grounding, removing toys/items as a lesson, “natural and logical” consequences (applied at the discretion of the parent/carer in order to groom for desired behavior or eliminate undesired behavior). On the flip side of the coin, praise and rewards are perfectly complimentary to this type of punitive/manipulative parenting schema – and those “carrot” (as opposed to “stick”) systems are relatively common too.”

Although I believe there are more similarities than differences in the above-listed strategies, I also believe every child (and adult!) has the right to relate to themselves and others which strategies hurt, and why. In other words, what was painful for you might not have been as painful for me, and vice versa. What matters, as parents or carers, is we honor our responsibility to our children, instead of deciding our will for them be made manifest. What matters is we forgive ourselves and change. What will make a great difference is if we can forgive those in our past who hurt us. It may make all the difference in the world.

Imagine my intense gratitude when five months after I wrote this post I heard a talk on this topic from Harshada Wagner, a yoga meditation instructor I respect and admire. In his guided meditation, “Living Wisdom: Releasing Shame” (August 29, 2011, at yogaglo.com), Wagner said the following:

“The good news and the bad news about shame is this:
 
“The good news is it’s not our fault. We can blame our parents for a lot of our shame.
 
“The bad news is that our parents aren’t here, and our parents aren’t going to be able to take away whatever it is that we have taken on. We’re going to have to do that ourselves.
 
“Of course, I’m kidding. It’s really Good News, and Good News.
 
“It’s good news that it’s not our fault. Everyone has a certain degree of shame that we carry around that keeps us from really shining. And it’s actually good news that the sources of the shame, if they were on the outside, aren’t the ones that can take it away. Because it puts that responsibility, but it also gives us the ability and the privilege and the freedom to work out what we need to work out.”
 
[…]  
“Almost every child is punished with emotional pain. It sounds very harsh, but let me just spell it out. When a child makes a mistake, when a child has done something that the parent doesn’t approve of and the parent wants to get the child to do what they want them to do, they will withdraw some kind of privilege until the child does what they want them to do.
 
“Why is that? What is the parent drying to create there?
 
“You parents watching this, please don’t take offense.
 
“When we do that, we’re trying to create emotional pain in the child. ‘You can’t go outside until you do your homework.’ ‘You can’t eat your dessert until you eat your vegetables.’ These are very benign sort of punishments. ‘Go to your room!’ … And then it gets harsher and harsher, all the way up to, some of us were actually slapped, or screamed at.
 
“But whatever the punishment was, was made to make us feel bad, as a way to learn a lesson. Even if our parents didn’t want to hit us physically, they wouldn’t feel like we had really gotten the message, unless we were sad. Our favorite toy was taken away. Our video games were denied to us.
 
“A really smart little kid, you know if they said, ‘Jimmy, you’re only five years old, you shouldn’t be playing with matches,’ and little Jimmy was really sharp and said ‘You know what, you’re right. I’m only five, what do I know about playing with matches. I could burn down the house down. You’re so right. I’m too young to play with matches and it’s dangerous. Thank you, mom and dad for the feedback. I really appreciate it. I’m going to take this on, and really make sure that I don’t play with matches any more. Thank you so much.’
 
“No, it wouldn’t go like that. If a child was that bright, was so smart, most parents would still not be satisfied until they grounded him or smacked the matches out of his hand, or yelled at him and frightened him in some way.”

Wagner’s entire meditation, which I have since earnestly recommended to so many, resounded with me deeply last September, and continues to today. All parents, even the best parents, attempt to apply emotional pain to their child to get their child to do what they want. We may do it reflexively or we may do it deliberately with some thought ahead of time – or, as is most likely, we do both. We may do it for noble reasons or for selfish ones – again, we likely do both. Some of us can know we are doing this to our children and desire not to – yet we still do it, to whatever degree we do. A lifetime of training, and our own fears and resentments and anxieties, have created a habit energy hard to dissolve. Progress can be made, but I’m unsure if perfection can be achieved.

I also know the child has a right to her own experience, and tuning into her experiences is as important, if not more so, than time and energy spent building and defending and tearing down and rebuliding and obsessing over our strategies, or those of other people.

The woman in my self-help group who told me I should beat my children had what seemed like the absolute noblest of intentions in advising me such. Briefly: she is the matriarch in a black family, raising her own nieces out of familial necessity while living in an urban, drug-riddled and economically-depressed environs. She is battling her own disease of alcoholism and she has an unsupportive larger family. If you can see deeply at all, you can have compassion and understand where she might be coming from.

As I heard in group the other day from an older man: “I had to come here to this group to learn things. I had to learn to stop hitting people. You hit people when you’re afraid.”

You hit people when you are afraid.

And the parents, carers, or those without children who attempt to put themselves in a false position of separateness and superiority with regards to the topic of disciplining children are also acting out of fear. Compassion, kindness, and gentleness are needed – not more recrimination and words spoken in anger.

This upsetting conversation last summer, and the discussion with friends afterwards, were very helpful. I was brave to be honest and vulnerable in a public way – about my worst shit. And after I spoke, someone directly challenged me with every possible good argument to punitively parent my children – even as she spoke and I felt sad, the amusing image of a little cartoon devil on my shoulder popped into my mind. But the truth is this: I could not parent my children this way and be okay with myself. I had never had this ability. So, I part ways in strategy with this woman. I can speak my mind and relate, from the heart, my experience as child, then parent – but I am not in a position to play God and I cannot follow her home and force her to see things any particular way.

I have not seen this woman in a while, but I hope she holds me in love and kindness the way I hold her. I know that this is possible, even in the most controversial and personal of topics. It is possible when we practice love and compassion – for all beings.

***

Spank Out Day 2012 Carnival hosted by TouchstoneZ

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