Monday, August 2, 2010

Guest Post: Answering Negative Questions Doesn't Need to be a Priority

I'm away right now (this post was scheduled, not published immediately), so I'm happy to have something to share on this blog even though I'm not here.  A big thanks to Michele for this post, the last in this summer mini-series of guest posts!  I love hearing Michele's perspective on things, and she's also the only one of the recent guest post authors whom I've been lucky enough to meet in person!  Enjoy. :-) 

Nothing is more important to me than my relationship with my children. That includes your expectations. ~Jenna Robertson

When Idzie first asked me to write a post for her blog, I had lots of ideas running around in my head. I started out writing about 5 different posts, but each one either seemed forced, too fiery or just not quite 'me'. I ended up writing a sixth post, but two days before I was going to send it to Idzie, Jeff Sabo (, had to go and have a guest post ( at Jean Dorsey's blog and of course, it had to be about the SAME THING my post was about. Procrastination 1, Michele 0. So, after realizing that the subject of not being a perfect parent and NOT striving to be one, had been presented but not exhausted, I rewrote my post and here it is.

When we find that we're going to become parents, whether for the first time or the fourth time, many people will find it necessary (almost as if by some unwritten law) to give us all kinds of advice (especially when we ask them NOT to). This advice can easily be accepted/disregarded with a polite nod and smile or a simple, "Thank you, I'll give it some thought", but what can't be easily shrugged off: Questions.

People will ask you every question under the sun. It all starts with that one friend asking you if you are really having a cup of coffee when you are two months pregnant and then reciting to you ten years of research debating the effects of caffeine on a fetus. Next thing you know, people are lecturing you about how risky (or brave, in some cases) you are to be planning a homebirth and they are also equally amazed and horrified at some of the details ("you're going to do what with the placenta?"). Then there are questions about how long you plan on breastfeeding and advice about your answer (often horrible misinformation that can lead to an abrupt end to breastfeeding) and talk about which kind of diapering is better for the planet (cloth, disposable or those newfangled hybrid ones). Of course, you can always ignore these questions and not answer them, but for some, that makes life even worse than just being brutally honest about things.

But, what really kills are the non-verbal questions. When other parents use their eyes and body language to question your every move as a parent. You can feel their eyes like daggers when you are at a store and your child is pleading for something (some special/favorite type of food or toy) and you can't find it (all the while you are trying to console your child and explaining that you can drive to another store and look -- three stores later EVERYONE is finally happy): "What a spoiled brat. She needs to just take him home for causing such a scene. How can she promise to take him anywhere else?". You see them stare at you at the library because you are 'letting' your child read a 'questionable' comic book: "Really, you think that is appropriate for a seven year old?". You almost gasp at the look of horror on their faces when you are at the playground and your child is on top of the 'big toy' doing a tap dance and singing at the top of her lungs (they might even use their words as well and say, "I can't believe you let her up there."): "Are you crazy lady; don't you know that she might fall?". Out of the corner of your eye you catch your neighbor rolls her eyes or raise her eyebrows when you tell her grandson that he doesn't have to say, 'thank you' or address you as 'Mrs. So & So': "Is that how you teach your child manners?". There are too many of these to list them all.

We sometimes find ourselves second guessing our decisions when these things happen, when our choices or beliefs are questioned. It's no different for us whole-life radical unschooling parents: "Do they NOT have a bedtime?", "Surely, you at least limit their screen time or monitor the content of what they are watching/playing/surfing?", "Don't you get tired of picking up after them; shouldn't they be made to 'pull their weight'?" and "Is that anyway for you to 'let' your child talk to an adult?". It can be hard to remain calm and respectful (especially if these don't come naturally to you) when people make judgments on you based on how you parent (even more so when your child DOES something dangerous, harmful or insulting).

Unschoolers get a lot of extra criticism and questions when we fall short in the areas of being respectful to our children. We are not perfect and many of us were raised in some of the most traditional, mainstream and punitive ways, so we were taught to do things the exact opposite from how we are striving to live. We make mistakes, yet we know well enough to apologize to our children and our partners for those mistakes (or 'learning-takes'). Our friends and family can question our ability to parent well or question our decision to be radical unschoolers when they see or hear of us struggling or doing something less-than respectful to our children. They might say or think: "You are the one who wanted to be all, 'love and light and freedom' with your kids.", "Can't you see that he's running all over you? You just don't make accommodations like that for a small child.", "I thought you said you don't yell at your children because it's mean, not respectful and can make them fearful?", "Yeah, I can see how well this is working out for you. I would NEVER let my child do/say that." or "Is this what unschoolers do; let their children cry and scream when something doesn't go their way?".

It's hard to be a parent and each of us is doing the best we can in the present moment. We can always let hind-site teach us about ourselves and others and how to strive to be better parents. We also understand that being human is difficult and that every child and adult out there is doing the best that they can in the present moment. Life is what it is and we need to accept that before we can strive for change. We can't let the fears of other people or the expectations of others hinder us on our journey as parents. Perfect is something I (none of us) will ever be and that's okay with me, because I know that I'm doing the best I can AND that I'm always striving to be a little bit better.

The next time you are being negatively questioned by someone about your parenting and unschooling, remember that what they think and have to say means nothing if it doesn't aim to help you be a more tuned-in, peaceful and respectful parent.


  1. Wonderful! I feel pretty much the same way. This post spoke to be because this week I have had to deal with this. Thank you for the thought provoking post. It was much appreciated.

  2. I think that as parents it is important to raise children so that they are considerate and polite. Teaching a child that he doesn't need to say 'thank you' is teaching that child he doesn't have to show appreciation or common courtesy. That is wrong. Children are not the centre of the universe and the sooner they understand that the better for them.Unschooled doesn't mean unmannered.

  3. @rfs: It is important as a parent to *be* considerate and polite, if that is the kind of child we want to raise. The way to teach manners is by using manners with children. If we make a habit of thanking them—or thanking others in their presence—when we appreciate something they do, they will learn to express thanks when they feel appreciation. Otherwise, if we force them to say "thank you," they're just doing it to be obedient, rather than out of genuine appreciation.

  4. @rfs: I don't believe that you can make children considerate, polite, or appreciative, but you can show them what it looks like and how it feels by providing authentic experiences. You can tell them about cultural expectations for behavior, so they'll know and can make decisions, probably based on their desire to fit in with society. Believing that we must enforce this suggests that children wouldn't want to be polite and considerate.

  5. Thanks for this post. I needed it. Was not my best parenting day.

  6. Thanks for the comments. I absolutely agree that we can not force politeness or consideration or common courtesy on anyone but that we ourselves can model these and state our expectations when our children are behaving rudely- and hope for the best.

    If you allow your child to be disruptive and rude to others just because they've made that decision to do so,I think that is a problem.
    I don't mean we have to keep harping on every opportunity to be polite-that's not authentic.
    I do think that we need to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated.
    The author of the post is correct in noticing that people are quick to jump onto unschoolers when their children might not be acting in 'socially acceptable' ways. But there is a difference between worrying about what people will think and genuinely respecting other people.
    I say, don't worry about what people will think about you-it's the long run that matters. Be more concerned about the future adult you are in the process raising.

  7. @rfs for the sake of space, the situation was not described. However, not making a child say 'thank you' is NOT incorrect in my world and is in keeping with my principles. I might suggest that it would make a gift-giver/favor-doer happy if s/he was told 'thank you', but I'm not going to insist on my child saying empty words or words that might be empty.

    In my post here, I was referring to a neighbor who literally forces her grandson to say 'thank you' to the point of tears. I'm not going to stand there and 'put up' with that. By saying, "you don't have to say, 'thank you'", I am telling that boy that I understand him, I don't care that he's not internally motivated to say 'thank you' AND that I don't think he's being rude. I'm also telling his grandmother to chill out and realize that I appreciate the smile and Joy that I see from her grandson MORE than a forced phrase.

  8. @Neely & @My Feminine Mind I'm glad this post was helpful to you!

  9. Great post Michele :)

    Re: saying "thank you", Heather had a great post expanding on that a few months back. I think this will clarify what Michele was trying to say:

  10. After years of more traditional parenting, then moving slowly into the less structured approach of unschooling....I have to say that people will question your methods regardless. The main thing is that you are coming from a place of internal conviction of what is best for your child/children. Great post, Michele!

  11. @Jody you are absolutely right about people questioning your/any parenting, especially if you are having 'problems' (whether they are real problems or things others see as problems).

    However, many of the traditional-parenting minded people I know (who are aware of Unschooling) are quick to point to Unschooling as the root of an issue/problem/struggle (though they point to Unschooling as the root for the extra feel-good moments too).

    Much of the same rings true from reading comment after comment and blog post after blog post by traditional-parenting minded people online about Unschooling. They fear it, swear it can't work for them and as soon as an unschooling parent has a problem or is struggling in some fashion (even fairly unrelated to his/hers children), they say to that person (directly or indirectly via a blog post), "see, I told you that Unschooling wasn't going to work..."

  12. Thanks for this post. I had a rough day yesterday with my spirited boy. Everything is exciting to him - everything! And, his quiet, gentle older brother gets overwhelmed - his baby sister gets trampled. I have trouble balancing what to allow -when to intervene, etc. We worked it out - we ran outside - we hunted bugs - but we also did some fun puzzles and drawing-type activities. I try to allow them some parent-free time, and when I feel I need to hang out with them, I do. Sometimes, I get frustrated regarding how other people react to my boy (should he really be doing flips off the diving board - is that safe? He should say thank you - he SHOULD stop running - he ALWAYS talks too loud....). I completely appreciate your conviction, Michele - you ability to stick with what you think is right for your boy. Again - so glad I read this post.

  13. This came at a good time for me too. Apparently Everyone thinks I should put my son back in school this year, even people I didn't expect to think so. And I have been questioning how good of a parent I am especially because I am a single parent--we have zero contact with my son's father--and sometimes it is just plain hard! All who think I should put my son back in school say they suggest it for My sake, like it's the "easy" choice. Ha! And then creeps in the whole social thing...UGG!

    Anyways, thanks for the post!

  14. @Sherri Thanks for the kind words and I'm glad the post was timed right for you. I do have strong convictions, but don't let that fool you into thinking that I am ALWAYS strong or that I don't have moments when I cave in to the negativity swirling around me.

    @Sara Being a single parent is hard (I don't have first hand experience, but I do have single-parent friends) and to combine that with homeschooling is even more difficult in some ways. I do get the appeal on the surface to send kids off to school. You'd get all day to yourself, can clean, work or go to school yourself! BUT, you don't get to BE with your child(ren), school creeps in and controls every aspect of your lives (when you can sleep, when you can vacation, when you can go to the doctor, when you can celebrate certain holidays/birthdays, etc) and it adds A LOT of unnecessary stress (grades, behavior, supplies, functions, parent-teacher meetings, etc).

    If you can find a way through support of friends/family to continue keeping your son out of school, do it!

  15. Michele--
    I tried to explain to others how putting my son back in school would seem easy on the surface...but really not so easy for the reasons you point out (and more!). When my son was in "regular" school in kindergarten, our lives revolved around the school schedule. Never enough time to sleep, to play, to cook a real meal, to just simply BE! And yes, not to mention the school "discipline" standards that invaded our was too difficult for my son to switch back and forth between being free to express himself at home and constantly being told to basically shut up and fall in line at school, and to have to deal with "behavior charts" and bribes and all that nonsense!

    I am looking to just hear some other voices (not that I should Have to but...!) of support; it makes it easier to keep going.

  16. This post was also timely for me. I had a rough week with my MIL telling me how my kids needed to be in school, she's definitely one to blame everything on the unschooling (well, to her homeschooling, she doesn't know unschooling). Then, last night we had a rough night at a pool party. Kira freaked (tired, hungry, mean librarian, lots of big cool summer toys she couldn't have) and I was calm for a while, but, unfortunately ended up getting mad and yelling. Which, then scared Luke and so now I had two crying kids plus felt like shit. I know all the families around me were thinking about how Kira was reacting to not getting what she wanted. They didn't know the whole story. Thankfully, I was able to set all that aside and apologize to the kids.

    Oh and we are switching libraries!

  17. @Jennifer Uggh. I've had those days and I'm sure I'll have others like them, but like you, I can regain my composure and make things right.

    NOBODY knows the whole story, but you and your child(ren), even if you relay all the details to another, it's not the same unless *they* were there and it was happening to *them*.

    @Sara It's totally natural to want to hear other voices who are on the same path or going through the same things as you are...we ALL need that from time to time.

  18. About the Thank You issue, that one has been irking me lately. My son is 19 months old and well aware of the meaning of the word. He says it willing and without being asked in most instances where something is done for him or given to him that he appreciates.

    So, when he chooses NOT to say Thank You, I absolutely do not force him...or even remind him to. I feel that he is interpreting the situation in such a way that Thank You is simply unwarranted...

    For instance, the other day we were waiting in a check out line. The older woman checking us out spoke quite belittling to Kaius and then offered him a candy. As he reached out for it, she WITHDREW it demanding a thank you...Kaius stared at her completely not understanding what she was asking...why should he say thank you without receiving said item? He wasn't even aware of what the item WAS yet? And yet, it was worth a Thank You?

    In this instance, it was belittling and disrespectful to Kaius for her to expect a Thank You. I calmly took the candy, gave it to Kaius, and told her sometimes he just doesn't say Thank You. She then went on to harp that I needed to teach him thank you for the rest of our interaction.

    I notice a LOT of instances where Thank You is simply used as a powerplay on children...

  19. @Lyndsey "I notice a LOT of instances where Thank You is simply used as a powerplay on children..."

    Yep! AND, so is, "tell me/what is the Magic Word?!". I have always told Elijah to answer either, "abracadabra!" or "I'm sorry, I don't BEG for things."