as published in Natural Parent magazine, New Zealand
Growing up in the 80s, the only time I recall hearing the word stranger was within a common remark made by grown-ups: “Don’t talk to strangers.” I didn’t think much of it. They all loved me; I took it as good advice. Strangers were people I didn’t know, and I didn’t feel a pressing need to talk with them much. Why was I being advised not to talk to strangers? Because of fear. There was a general cultural consensus that it wasn’t safe to talk to strangers.
Thirty years later when my own daughter entered the world, I contemplated one question more than any other: How do I parent from Love, not fear?
It’s a gigantic question. There is no one right answer. We each must choose to navigate the terrain of living — and parenting — from Love, one moment after another, one experience at a time, honoring our own truth. Yet we cannot choose both Love and fear at the same time.
Fortunately, our children present us with an unparalleled invitation to choose Love.
Do we want to teach our children to be afraid of people they haven’t yet met, or do we want to teach them to trust their own instincts? Having a fixed rule about not talking to strangers is parenting from fear. When a child is by default restricted from engaging with someone rather than expressing themselves naturally in that moment, the child is being taught fear.
Many adults, many parents, live from this place of fear. And it’s sad. People can be mean and scrappy. I get it. At 11:00 on New Year’s morning I was harassed by a drunk man who reeked of cigarette smoke, hurling out his breath and aggressive questions as he slumped over my seat on the city tram. I was disgusted. But that was the exception. Normally, people are decent. I feel highly confident in my own instinctual sense of whether someone is respectful, and I want my daughter to feel that too. It’s up to me to help teach her that.
We live and learn. Decades pass, parenting styles evolve. Never would I tell my daughter, “Don’t talk to strangers.”
Instead, as we move through life, I support her freedom to interact with people as she desires. A more reserved child, she often sticks to her own space, uninterested in engaging with anybody she doesn’t know. But when she smiles at someone and tells me, “Mama, he smiled at me,” I say to her, “OK, nice, it feels good to smile, doesn’t it?” Or when she asks, “Mama, why did she smile at me?” I say, “Probably because it feels good to smile. And probably because she is kind.” My mind doesn’t run off into a dark fearful forest, afraid she is going to smile at someone and the worst case scenario will erupt. And I guess that’s because I don’t want to live in fear. With children who are effusively outgoing, perhaps there are different ways to guide, or perhaps some of this flavor of guidance still applies.
In the past seven months living in Scandinavia, my daughter has had about 10 encounters with strangers that have built her self confidence muscles. Usually it’s on the bus or train, we’re sitting near someone, and they smile at her. She smiles back, then tells me about it. I give her space to have the experience on her own, without me needing to be part of the smile exchange, or the words they exchange… usually a question about whether she speaks Swedish.
No, I wouldn’t let her go off on the bus by herself at four years old. Yes, I stay close to her anytime she’s in my care because she has entrusted me as her primary guide and I take that role seriously.
Yes, there are creepy-ish moments like yesterday when a man with a belly bulging big out of his pants, Coca-Cola in one hand, smiled at her and she turned to me and said, “Mama why are his eyes like that?” Trusting my own sense of things, I waited a moment to casually look and see what she was referring to. I saw his gray eyes. There seemed to be sickness in them. When we got off the train I asked her, “What did his eyes look like?” She stopped, scrunched up her face, made her eyes beady and constrained, and said, “Like this.” She sees. She senses.
Children are tuned in. Except when they’re not.
Each child is their own masterpiece. Each child offers us an invitation to co-lead with that child, and no human being is always in-tune. So we dance with that too. Life was never said to be totally safe.
Yet building a child’s sense of self confidence, to trust their own instincts and sense of other people, is safer than teaching them fear.
Modeling plays a big role. Much of what our children learn about how to interact with others comes from what they see us do. And again, just as each child has his own personality, each of us parents has ours.
Two months ago while my daughter and I sat on a train, a mother (about 55) and daughter (in her 20s) boarded the train with luggage. Instinctively I moved over to make space for the younger girl who hadn’t found a seat. The two of them seemed open, with a unique effusive kindness about them. I felt it. So I started talking with them.
Their eyes lit up, as if surprised. Turns out they were visiting Sweden from Germany. We had a bright-spirited interaction for about eight minutes until my daughter and I reached our stop. I pulled out a business card, gave it to them, and the very next week the daughter emailed me. We’re Instagram buddies now and heck, who knows, maybe one day we’ll see each other again.
From a smile, to a thoughtful gesture, there we were talking.
Talking with strangers. My daughter never spoke up because she has her own style, yet she watched me, taking it all in with her brilliant young brain, making mental notes on how she might want to be like Mama and how she might not — yet headlining it all, she had an in-the-bones experience of joyful connection between people who had just met. We were strangers. Now we’re friends.
People are basically good. Let’s accept that. We’ve all got an inner jerk, and we are basically good. We are wired for Love. Fear is no good way to live.
Let us each interact with people how Love guides us to. When we see someone with a beautiful knit sweater, we can compliment them. Nothing lost. Let our children see us expressing kind words and gestures, untethered to the “watch out” past that restricted our urge to show Love.
When our children move through this world, may they feel free to fill it with a little more kindness. A smile can go a long way in brightening someone’s life, at least until the next smile comes along.
This is the first letter in my new monthly series, The Motherhood Letters, for Mothering Arts, an organization supporting mothers and babies in their first year postpartum. You can learn more about Mothering Arts here.
In the heavenly haze of the day you were born, your father and I held a clear dream. Before you turned five, we would live in his native country, Sweden, for at least a year.
It wasn’t just a cool place to go, where we’d play with gnomes and pick mushrooms and touch moss in the forest. Your grandparents lived there, they loved you, and we wanted you to really know them. We wanted you to learn your father’s native language and know his culture. Maybe one day you would want it to be yours, too. And so we left.
Early summer, seven months ago, you were four years old. It was time. A half year of intensive physical and emotional preparations behind us, we lifted off the shore near San Francisco and flew across the world.
Today marks seven months living abroad. Had I known the rigor involved in it all, I don’t know how I would have done it. The travel plans and logistics, that I could handle. But I never could have predicted the emotional and spiritual stretching required for me to lead and hold our family — and myself — as we have stepped into this dream. It was a big, bold move, one that’s helped me see why so many families who want to live abroad, may never do so.
Through our numerous moves and living from boxes, through navigating the city ferry, train and bus schedule, through figuring out what to wear in this new climate, how to keep my nose from painful dryness and get rid of my monthly migraines, through supporting your papa to spend more time with you here as he has so longed for, through researching where to take you for preschool and where to live, through month after month of being 5,000 miles from my dearest friends and family, you’ve held the bar high.
As my skin has grown pale in the long, cold, dark, wet winter, your spirit lights my life with color. Without words, you remind me...
We’re in this moment now, Mama, let’s climb this boulder! Oh, OK, right.
I can walk along this water’s edge without falling in, trust me Mama! Yes, OK, I can.
I don’t want to go to förskola [preschool] today Mama. I want to be with you. But I need time to… Yes, I want to be with you too.
Titta! Har kommer spårvagn elva! [Look! Here comes tram 11!] Totally! Here it comes, yes!
Presence, trust, foundation, delight. You keep them warm in your fleece-lined pink mittens. They’re at your fingertips every second, every day.
Your soul is a golden gem of giving, and by choosing me as your mama, you made my life a land of fuller possibility, adventure and courage. While pregnant, I knew that if I was fortunate enough to birth a healthy child, I’d be birthing a miracle. But I didn’t know just what a masterpiece you’d be.
Thanks for your daily reminders, your daily teachings, and for setting the bar high so I could become a more confident, humble and radiant version of me.
Love beyond the seas,
as published in the Natural Parent magazine, New Zealand
Idealism can be a blessing and a curse. To be at peace we must surrender our ideals at times rather than clinging to high dreams. Yet the imagination is a gift, and if we are in love with the human spirit — as I am — we ask ourselves which elements of society best honor the human spirit, and which do not. In this article I will leave out criticisms of school, its original design, and how it fails young humans and our future. Those critiques are not the best use of my writing. Sharing what I believe does serve life, is.
What I will assert is that all children are naturally curious. All children are born ready to learn, and homeschooling is a brilliant way to honor a child’s inherent beauty and wholeness.
Once led by religious families who wanted God to be central in their education, the homeschooling movement is now comprised largely of families who simply want their children’s learning to be natural. Less forced, more free.
Consider 30-year-old Tiffany Smith, who was homeschooled from 4th-12th grade and completed all her degrees, Associates through Doctorate, online. “My mom paved the way for child-led learning for me. She let me choose what I wanted to learn. I graduated two years early, valedictorian out of a class of 600 in our homeschooling program, then went on to achieve awards and graduate with honors for every degree. I am very grateful for my mom’s faith in me.”
On average, two hours per day are required for a homeschooled child to learn the subject matter. In school, this is found to be the actual amount of time spent learning subjects.
How about socialization? The myth that homeschooled kids are largely under-socialized is amusing to me at this point. Homeschooled kids overall do not lack social skills in contrast to schooled kids. In my experience, homeschooled kids often possess unusual levels of maturity in social scenarios, including a noted ability to interact with adults.
My own self-directed learning journey began in college when I stepped into a professor’s office in tears about something disturbing I had learned in his class. He listened attentively, said I’m not an average student and that I might want to write my own major. We opened the Course Catalog, I chose courses that were highly appealing and spoke to my strongest curiosities, and two years later I graduated with a BA in Social Ecology and Personal Ethics.
No, those two years weren’t easy. Charting a homeschooling path for our own children isn’t easy, either.
Most parents who homeschool their kids find themselves asking, every so often, Was I crazy to do this!? Yet quickly they bounce back to being 100% convinced it is the richest and most joyful educational path, worth all the time and heart, courage and vision it entails.
As with any rich topic worth exploring, it’s wise to keep an open mind and trade defensiveness for curiosity.
Conversations about parenting and how we educate our children can lead to divisive degrees of blame and other negative emotions and communication dynamics. School teachers and parents who feel judged or threatened by the idea or practice of homeschooling are a prime example. Yet it is possible to find teachers and parents with open minds, who accept that we don’t all need to see or choose like each other. Chances are, you will find open minds when yours, too, is open. That said, don’t expect to find these conversations easy at every turn. This is not the easy path.
I don’t want to paint an excruciatingly rough picture, and I also don’t want to portray homeschool life as “eating Bon Bons on the sofa all day.” One defensive school teacher mom voiced this remark and I mention it as a reminder that those who choose to homeschool are in the courageous minority — fast growing, yet requiring maturity to face ignorant perspectives like this, and then move on.
Thank goodness we are well supported by our own primal instincts and maternal intuition, by studies, and by a blossoming number of well informed leaders and organizations.
Turning to other moms is my Step Numero Uno when facing a tough issue or decision. Half of the time, that’s all I need. Where I live in coastal Northern California, there’s an abundance of homeschooling and the well informed open-mindedness required to do it well. When a mama friend isn’t enough to solve my problem, I reach for movement leaders and organizations with deep wells of wisdom and resources to share.
Wild + Free began as a small community of Instagram’ing mamas on the U.S. east coast and grew a ton in recent years. At the heart of W+F is the desire to give children a quality education while preserving the wonder, freedom and adventure of childhood. Recent articles released by W+F include Shaping Souls that Break the Mold, The Lost Art of the Family Walk and Nature Journaling the Human Body. “For as long as humans have lived on this earth, children have been schooled at home. Still, we homeschooling mamas often feel like pioneers forging a new path for the next generation,” writes W+F founder Ainsley Arment.
Feel the spirit? Pioneering requires great courage, so having a supportive community is essential.
Self-Directed Learning advocate Blake Boles quit his college astrophysics program to design his own degree in alternative education. Blake leads teenagers on international self-directed learning trips through his company Unschool Adventures, and is the author of three books including The Art of Self-Directed Learning (2014) and College Without High School (2009). He also wrote one of the most compelling pieces I’ve ever read on education: What Does it Mean to be Educated?
Thirsty for a deep critique of school? Turn to one of the greatest minds in the homeschooling movement, former New York State and NYC Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto, who wrote Dumbing Us Down and The Underground History of American Education.
Speaking in London on The Purpose of Education in 2012, Noam Chomsky rolled out genius reflections that may be tough for some to swallow yet will thrill anyone who is open minded and interested in the brave pursuit of an authentic life for self and child.
School reformer, youth rights theory pioneer and former classroom teacher John Holt (1923-1985) published several books including the popular How Children Fail and How Children Learn.
Numerous groups are available online for homeschooling families. Laura Grace Weldon’s Free Range Learning Community is one of my favorites. For bedtime reading without the glare of blue light escorting your dream state, her book Free-Range Learning beautifully explores the meaning and importance of natural learning.
Unschooling is a form of homeschooling guided by the learner, where self-chosen activities and life experiences of the learner lead the way. The Alliance for Self-Directed Education created a fantastic short video for those curious about what self-directed education means and why it’s beneficial for learners.
Most of the homeschooling parents I know are far-out passionate about providing a rich educational life for their children, one rooted in the most natural way young humans learn — based on interest, with freedom to play, non-coercively.
Yet for many parents who want to homeschool, it just doesn’t work out. For many families, school is an easier path for one reason or another.
Lifestyle and income play a huge role. Often in homeschooling families, Papa works at a paid job full time and Mama leads the homeschooling journey (on top of her other unpaid jobs). But this recipe doesn’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t work for my family. As with any path worth walking, this one requires a willingness to explore possibilities and see what works for you. Buying less stuff? That helps. Spending more time with our children sometimes asks that we be willing to downsize, live minimally.
Parenting is the big work of life. We are all doing our best. A mother’s intuition is one of a child’s greatest allies. After all, as Laura Grace Weldon wrote, Mother and Child are Linked at a Cellular Level. Humanity will become more clear of this in time.
Be honest about what you want. Find community to lean on.
In the words of former Waldorf teacher and homeschooling mother of three Melanie Heysek-Macdonald, “Do what feels right for you. There is lots to consider, and there are so many options for what’s right out there.”
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternal fan of Mr. (Fred) Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.