There are many things we can only know when we're "in it." In the experience of it, tasting all its flavors close-up. Parenting has been this way for me.
Without question, parenting has been the most rigorous work of my life. Physical elements are part of it -- the diapers, nursing and social planning -- but the big-huge-colossal-galactic part of the work of parenting isn't tangible, visible, or often even name-able.
It is emotional work. It is spiritual work. It grows us, stretches us, calls out the parts of us that want to emerge. Our greatest learning and growth can live inside our parenting, when we let them.
Before I was a parent, I thought a parent could provide everything their child needed in terms of guidance and wisdom. Once I had a child, I realized this is untrue. While much guidance can come from a parent, each child needs more than one parent can offer.
I've seen it in my friends' children. Eyes and hearts longing to know love from all the adults around them. I've seen it in my child, her sense of inner trust expanding when she is parented by someone other than me or her father.
Once while camping, my daughter was about 20 yards away from me, playing with friends. From where I stood, I could see she needed something but I also knew there were parents closer to her who might help. I felt a longing. Within my chest, I hoped those parents would help.
And they did!
I felt relieved. My daughter got her need met and I didn't have to meet it. Someone whose values and ways I trusted, helped her out. Through this, my daughter grew more trusting of the world — that people would take care of her, not just her parents.
Weight lifted off my shoulders, trust grown in my child, plus a strengthened bond between my child and that parent. Multiple wins!
Not all parents are open to letting other parents guide their children. I've had my heart gently broken by a close friend who didn't want me to connect with her child when the connection was "corrective." She only seemed to welcome me when I was coming from sweetness, affirming her child's strengths — not when I saw something unloving in her child and wanted to offer guidance. It hurt. It felt like I got cut off, not being allowed to fully express myself in friendship with her child. It felt like I wasn't trusted, or that she was scared.
Some parents want a lot of help from others. Some want none. What I am suggesting is that we open ourselves to welcoming help. Parenting can be exhausting and it doesn't need to be so bad, when we can allow support from those willing to offer it.
If someone guides your child in a way that doesn't feel trustworthy or aligned with you, step away from that person's guidance or ask if they're willing to hear input about your values and ways. This dynamic of giving and receiving parental guidance to other people's children is never 100% free of messes — life is messy.
Talking with your child about the varied guidance they receive can be a great learning experience too. "Uncle Adam uses fear to try to teach you things. Does that work well for you?" for example. Or, "You feel supported by Grandpa, don't you?"
High five to you for opening yourself to receive more support and to let your child grow in his/her sense of living in village.
I sure appreciate it, every time one of my friends leans in to guide my child. It's like a relief tattoo on my forehead! Except, it doesn't hurt. (Thanks, friends.)
It was evening.
We sat in your living room and as you do every day, you watched the evening news.
Summer time in California meant every other story was about wildfires. Then came the reports of shootings.
When the guns, blood, police sirens and faces of black American citizens flashed on the screen, I asked you to turn off the sound because my daughter, your 7th grandchild, does not know what a gun is and I don’t want that horror present in her awareness yet.
You turned off the sound, and then it happened again. Another story about another shooting. This time you were a bit annoyed when I asked you to turn off the volume. You said, “Someday she’s going to have to learn about reality.”
And I get that you see that as reality. I’ve been through this before with another family member.
Deep sigh from my Mama Bear heart.
This is a letter to you and to millions and millions of people in our culture who would feel the same way you did in that moment. Annoyed, like I am privileged and should be teaching my child about shootings and other violence already.
Simply put, and with love and respect for you, I have every right to differ and I do.
Just as somebody might choose to use a gun to protect their child, I choose to use my instinct and powerful voice — and my ability to select what she is exposed to — to protect mine.
Back up with me for a moment. We all get to choose what we read, what we watch on TV or if we watch any at all, where our information and education comes from… Yes?
That’s worth asking. It’s worth considering. Otherwise, we’re just going with the default. Is life meant to be lived by default?
The news most people watch comes from big business corporations. Let’s not get elaborate here, this is simple. I don’t want news that is chosen and delivered by a big corporation and I don’t want my daughter receiving news from a big corporation either. Our news comes from smaller entities that we find trustworthy. It’s a simple as that. We want to expose ourselves to trustworthy information that affirms the life-honoring values within us and teaches us how to create a kinder, more loving world. You choose your news, I choose mine.
It’s important to recognize that what you call reality isn’t the reality I live in. Yes, I sound privileged to a lot of people. Yet we do not all live in — we do not all experience — one reality.
We all get to make 1,000s of choices daily that culminate in different “realities.” But absolutely, and with great sadness I say, we do not recognize this freedom inherent within us. We see ourselves as imprisoned, each of us in our own way.
Life is sad and beautiful, as a dear wise friend once said.
I choose to expose my child to the violence in the world in those moments, one by one, when it is time for her. When we are ready. That’s not up to anyone else to decide.
How can we dampen the ever-sprouting, sheer joy of a child? Children are here to play, feel safe and loved.
My child is not here to fix the problems in the world right now. She is here to grow and blossom as a healthy citizen who will, one fine bittersweet day at a time, get to know the horrors of the human experience in more detail.
For now -- and may it forever be my foundation -- I teach Love.
I teach her that we all have different skin colors because we come from different parts of this life-giving, colorful planet. I teach her that when she feels pain, and when a friend feels pain, she can show love. I teach her kindness. I teach her how to communicate with her words, not with violence. These are tools she’ll need to lead to a world with less shootings to report on the news.
You are a beautiful father and I wouldn’t trade a single thing for the fortune of having you as mine. I’m glad we can share how we feel and see life, and keep showing up to love each other through it all.
Your youngest daughter,
Originally published in Natural Parent magazine July 12, 2018
Recently in a greeting card mailed to me by a wise and long-time friend, she wrote that I “more singularly identify with being a mother” than any other mama friend she has. My initial inner response was, Oh great, am I weird in yet one more way in life? Does that mean she thinks I’m boring now? Have I gotten lost in the dance of mothering, and given up on my other passions?
Within moments, my little self-doubt voices dissipated. Her words then struck me as a powerful invoking of reflection about the last five years of my life.
Let me call myself out, to begin. Curiosity is powerful in relationships and I have not yet asked this dear friend what she meant by “singularly identified”. Letter writing is a slow exchange, more spacious than talking or texts, and my next letter to her will include a question seeking to understand what she expressed from her bold, loving heart.
According to standard definitions, I could interpret what she said as this: I am more remarkably, extraordinarily, and exceptionally identify as a mother than any other mama friend she has. Sounds like a big, kind compliment, right?
My friend’s bold way of showing me love in her letter left me with a feeling of pride about how I mother. Her words felt like a spotlight on a stage where I am dancing the awkward, passionate, indescribably rewarding dance of being a mama. So that is what I will respond to here, as I know many of you reading this have your own way of shining in your very own mothering stage.
On the surface being a mother is all about playgrounds, naps, tantrums, cuddling and a giving-up of self.
Right beneath it, there appears a mountaintop presenting to a mother some of the richest and most fertile personal expansion terrain available in life.
It has been said our children are our greatest teachers. To actually experience this in life can be fascinating, blissful and grueling at times. We can pay money for meditation retreats and gurus, yet our children offer astounding spiritual lessons for free on a daily basis. Children are the original gurus.
And I’m up for that. My religion is Love. In this life I want to shed all my layers of fear and bloom open to what Spirit, what Love, has to offer. Bring it on, little guru.
So it isn’t surprising that life hasn’t let me detract substantial attention from this opportunity in order to “make” other things happen, since my child was born. While I’ve tried to create a stable income flow, I’ve instead seen a path dotted with seemingly random creative output, unstable income and no clear sign of what’s to come. When we are trying to force something to happen, it is a pretty clear sign that it’s not meant to happen right now. It’s just not time.
In a way, motherhood has swallowed me whole. I have allowed it, though, feeling the briefness of this sacred encounter. Years fly. My guru won’t live with me forever.
My top priority is being the mother I am meant to be. It appears the priority is my child, but equally the priority is me giving her the all she deserves… Me welcoming the extraordinary and unmatched opportunity of being spiritually stretched and widened, that she presents to me. It is about me being the fullest version of myself that I can be, expanded by the presence of a being who I love as much as, dare I say, God. Or so it feels that way.
To the friend whose handwritten words led me to this helpful self-reflection, I extend my deep thanks. You see me from a perspective I value. However clumsy and grumpy I may sometimes be, I like who I am as a mother and as silly ol’, perfectly imperfect me.
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.”
As Christmas approaches, I am being courageous and communicating about something important to me, even though it’s a bit awkward and out of my comfort zone. Being courageous in communicating about things that are important to her is what I’d want my daughter to do — so shouldn’t I model this courage myself?
In giving myself permission to communicate this with you and others who I care deeply about, I ask that you first and foremost keep in mind that: 1) I love you, 2) I value you and all the ways you are generous with our daughter, and 3) this is nothing personal about any one person, including you. It is simply an expression of our family values — something we genuinely believe in — and I trust that you will receive this in a spirit of curiosity, with an open mind and a warm heart.
Here’s what we’ve noticed.
Whenever our daughter receives a lot of presents, she feels overwhelmed. It’s like her nervous system is frayed, and she can’t seem to appreciate or focus on any one thing. It’s as if she would prefer quality time rather than a lot of presents. It’s as if she is — without words — asking us to “step up our game” and show her how meaningful life can be without material excess.
She is fortunate. We are fortunate. And we’re grateful. So grateful that, in fact, we want to extend our gratitude into a family challenge to focus our time and attention more on laughter, music, conversation, cooking together — rather than having a holiday that is swimming in stuff.
We want this for our daughter, so that her holiday memories are rooted in the sharing of love. Yes, presents are usually given with love. Yet — they can also easily overwhelm children, and there is a growing movement among parents who recognize this overwhelm and want to teach their children how to live with less stuff. And less debt.
We also want our daughter to know that this living planet we call home — Mother Earth — is our life support system, and that we honor her future on it. We want her to know that buying more stuff is not good for the planet we love — which is her home.
My wish for our daughter is that she receive one very special gift from her family at Christmas. When we sit around our tree on Christmas morning, we would like her to revel — with attentiveness, presence and joy — in one very special gift her family has come together to purchase for her. We want her to feel what it's like to thoroughly appreciate and enjoy one gift. The magic of presence.
Trust me, if you want to be part of this gift I will be sure she knows that you are, as is anyone else who contributes to make it happen.
This year, we’re still on the case 😉 investigating what one “big” thing she would like for Christmas. Maybe it’s ice skates or a sled, or a day in the snow with a friend. Maybe handmade doll clothes. If you would like to contribute, please let me know.
If there is something special that you want to give her, let’s do it at a time when we can be with you, outside the holiday rush perhaps over a peaceful dinner, spending quality time enjoying the gift of your generosity and the huge blessing of your love in our lives.
(also published in Holistic Parenting Magazine, spring 2017)
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a lifelong letter writer, Love-based leader and eternal fan of Mr. 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.