Monday, July 27, 2015

How Do We Value Ourselves?

Originally published in the November/December 2014 issue of Home Education Magazine.

In our culture, it’s very obvious that we value certain knowledge and skills more highly than others. Namely skills that are academic and intellectual, communication skills, and social skills (somewhat less tangibly, seeing as those are harder to test). It seems everything else comes a distant second.

Schools are all about teaching academic skills to the exclusion of all else (though how good a job they do at imparting those skills is very debatable).

When we take school out of the equation in our own lives and families, we have the option, the opportunity, to take a hard look at what skills are valued, and decide to broaden what we personally value and encourage.

But are we taking that opportunity? Too often, I don’t think we are.

My family didn’t, or at least didn’t to as much of an extent as we could have. This isn’t meant to place blame on my parents; we’re each of us constantly learning and growing, and unlearning ideas that have a negative impact on ourselves and others. My parents did the best they could in the places they were at, and I’m grateful for it. But looking back, it’s very obvious that the skills they were most concerned with me and my sister acquiring were those taught in school. It was subtle, because it was unintentional, but that preferencing of academic skills, at least to some extent, was very much present.

It’s easy to find ourselves trapped in an invisible framework built out of concerned queries from friends and families about how kids who don’t go to school will learn math, and PSA’s about the importance of graduating high school, and parental insecurities born of what they themselves were good and bad at in school.

I think it’s important to look beyond that framework, though, to recognize the variety of important and amazing skills and strengths people can have, including skills that are definitely not taught in school.

My sister is a caretaker. She washes dishes and dusts and tidies, she likes doing yard work, and has increasingly been taking on odd jobs around the house that my father used to do (cleaning out the gutters and sweeping the chimney, snowblowing and mowing the lawn). She likes organizing things, works as the quartermaster in her Highland band, making sure every member is properly outfitted with everything they need. Her dream is to build her own house, a hobbit hole as she refers to it. She likes to take care of spaces, organizing and making things work.

This type of domestic work, work related to home care, is not exactly highly valued. I don’t think it’s an accident that this type of work (besides a couple of ‘manly’ chores) is generally coded as feminine, either, though that’s a whole ‘nother story.

It’s work that’s deeply necessary, often difficult, and that lives at the core of each and every one of our lives. We all need to eat, need to have clean clothes to wear, need to stay healthy by living in a clean environment. Even when we move past what’s strictly necessary in our current modern way of living, domestic skills often provide real enrichment: fresh food from a garden in your own yard, or homemade soap with your favourite scents. As soon as you move past the strictly necessary aspects of domestic skills, you move into the “artisanal.” Which, to a growing extent, is in. It’s trendy and popular to knit and make pie, at least for women.

We like cooking together.

But while the general movement towards a back-to-the-land and back-to-our-grandmother’s-skills can’t be a bad thing, I don’t think the movement is nearly broad enough in scope, as the majority of domestic skills are still being learned by girls and women only, and the trendiness only goes so far. These skills are still just considered hobbies, things women can do in their spare time. When it comes to the more mundane skills, they remain simply invisible: if they’re noticed at all, it’s probably just in an outdated sense of approval that the time honoured housekeeping skills are alive and well with some women, at least.

I believe the undervaluing of domestic work is reflected in how much money is usually made in such work outside your own home, and in who’s doing it (almost entirely women, and the majority immigrant and otherwise marginalized women). You can also see that attitude in what’s conspicuously not thought important enough to include in a modern school curriculum.

While certain select domestic skills might be valued when practiced by certain select people, they’re certainly not valued overall.

It seems strange that in many ways the most basic and integral skills needed to provide shelter and food are those valued least. Domestic skills, as mentioned above, but also trades, construction, and farming (which, even with the increased desire for organic and specialty foods, can be difficult to succeed at financially no matter what type of farming you're doing)... Some of these jobs, like select trades, do earn a lot of money (I don’t find it surprising that trades are also male dominated fields(1) as opposed to female dominated low-paying domestic work), yet they still lack a lot of prestige.

Money isn’t the only sign of value, of course, but in a capitalist society that values money over pretty much everything else (like the wellbeing of the Earth and the majority of people), how much money any given skill or knowledge set can make says a lot about what things--and which people--are valued most.

My sister is a caretaker. She takes care of people. Friends ask her for relationship advice, and go to her when they just need someone to listen. She told me the other day how much she likes helping out the newer people at her Ninjutsu dojo, and I’ve seen the amount of patience she has whenever she’s in a position of helping people to learn something. There’s been numerous times she’s stayed up late into the night and early morning talking to a friend or acquaintance who’s suicidal. She cares about the people around her, and is quick to step in and stand up to someone when she believes they’re being hurtful or inconsiderate. One of the reasons she wants to have her own land and build that hobbit hole is so that she has a place where loved ones can go when they need a place to be, no matter their financial situation. She cares about people.

And as you can probably tell by now, I really admire the skills my sister has a great deal. I admire her a great deal.

But it’s hard, as she confided to me recently, that the skills and strengths she values and cultivates in herself are not ones that are generally valued. They don’t make money, or at least not easily, which is all most people seem concerned about, and she’s left feeling like those skills, as much as her contributions have meant to so many friends and acquaintances, just aren’t good enough.

"There were no sex classes. No friendship classes. No classes on how to navigate a bureaucracy, build an organization, raise money, create a database, buy a house, love a child, spot a scam, talk someone out of suicide, or figure out what was important to me. Not knowing how to do these things is what messes people up in life, not whether they know algebra or can analyze literature." William Upski Wimsatt

This quote has always felt grounding to me, reminding me when I start to panic about my (lack of) math skills or feel that my knowledge of certain parts of history seem less than a schooled friend. A reminder that the most important skills are those that actually help us function in the world we find ourselves in. This can mean knowing how to make healthy and tasty food for yourself or for a crowd, handling friendships when they get difficult, doing taxes, raising money, supporting a depressed partner while not losing yourself, or how to get soap rings off of the sides of your tub.

All the things, big and small, that truly make up the day to day art of living.

As unschoolers, we have a tremendous opportunity to rethink what’s valued and what’s important. It’s hard to let go (or maybe more accurately throw off) deeply ingrained ideas about what learning looks like, what important learning looks like, and what should be most encouraged in children.

I think encouraging life skills can be as simple as de-emphasizing academic skills a little bit (messages everywhere are telling us that they’re important. Kids are going to get that idea no matter what!), and working to expand our personal definitions of what learning looks like and what skills it’s important for children to learn. If we actually believe that all those important real life skills are valuable, I think everyone around us, kids included, are going to see that belief reflected in the way we talk and the things we do. I also think it’s important to, in an age appropriate way, involve kids of all genders in every aspect of running and maintaining a household: cooking and cleaning and fixing and yard work and finances and pet care. Making things into “chores” is often unhelpful; instead, I believe it’s important to just live and work together as a family, including everyone in both day-to-day tasks and big decisions. Easier said than done, I’m sure (and I’ll likely be even more sure of that once I have kids myself), but striving for that cooperative state seems important, and when you can achieve it it really feels great. I know it’s what I’ll be striving for when I’m a parent.

It’s great if a kid finds manipulating numbers comes naturally, or starts reading at age three. But it’s just as wonderful if a child has a real sense of when things are out-of-place and likes organizing the house, or loves working with wood, or has a knack for growing things, or a seemingly innate sense of the right thing to say when someone is sad.

Emilie tending to the garden last summer. Our garden is much bigger this year!

These skills and strengths are every bit as important as academic skills, and if we can stop the knee-jerk reaction of thinking that intellectual work is somehow superior, if we valued the unique strengths of every individual around us, both children and adults, I can’t help but think it would be a better world.

Unschooling gives us an excellent opportunity to value those unique strengths, and encourage kids to develop all kinds of important, exciting, and nourishing life skills.

My sister is 20. I'm 23. We're both still figuring out a lot of things, still struggling sometimes. I'm deeply passionate about food and cooking, and though right now I'm just working hard to get my health to a place where I feel I'm able to work a "real" job, I remain excited about working in that field.

My sister Emilie was asked to be the manager and caretaker of a fledgling intentional community being dreamed up by her Ninjutsu teacher (as well as friend and sometimes employer) and others. Though the land isn't bought yet, her near-future "duties" would be to do a lot of the learning and skill-gaining related to sustainable building and gardening practices, something that a lot of the older working people involved with the community don't have the time to do. In the longer run, some of the things she'd do would be organize who was there when, bringing in and managing volunteers to help build it, and living on the land during the week when those who still worked in the city couldn't be there. Basically an opportunity that perfectly suits her desires and skills! I'm excited for her, and I'm hoping it all works out. Even if it doesn't, she's still striving towards her dream of homesteading and sustainable community living.

Which I guess just shows to me that there is a place for those skills, for people whose strengths and passions are less of the academic persuasion and more about the domestic, hands on, emotional, and "life skills" realms, even if they can be difficult to find sometimes.

There are many skills that help us function and succeed in this world, whatever success looks like to the individual. Some of them are academic and some are not. They're all valuable, helping us in different aspects of our lives, some of which will help with earning money and some not. Regardless, they're all important. They all contribute to making life better, making life richer, and helping us to take care of ourselves and those around us.

In valuing all skills, not just the school ones, we're helping kids do well in all different parts of their life, and opening up doors to a wider range of possibilities.

I think that's one of the most important, and personally exciting, things we can do as unschoolers!

(1) I say this based on the findings in Women in Non-Traditional Occupations and Fields of Study by Kathryn McMullen, Jason Gilmore and Christel Le Petit from statistics Canada, and Women and Education by Martin Turcotte, the latter of which commented that, out of six trade groups (building construction, electrical, electronic and related trades, food and services, industrial and related mechanical trades, metal fabricating, and motor vehicle and heavy equipment), the only one in which women are a majority was food and services.