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The Unschooling Mother He Needs
By Sarah E. Parent

playing with  blocksOn a journey from extremely traditional upbringings and an extraordinary evolution of our own parenting and educational philosophies, my husband and I are the free-living, life learning, gentle parents of two children who couldn’t be more different from each other.

The story that follows is one of the many lessons that have come to us from the first-born of our children, our six-and-a-half year-old son Elijah. He is pensive, analytical, calculating, sweet, soft-spoken, sensitive and self-directed. Elijah has never been interested in anyone else’s direction, encouragement or desires. Even as a toddler, he would not mimic or repeat sounds or actions for entertainment value or video capture. He is not here to entertain but to experience and his actions are rooted in his desire to learn or express himself. All of his learning has occurred entirely organically and any imposition on his focus or suggestion to alter his style has, to this point, resulted in immediate emotional rebellion or future refusal to partake in that particular activity lest he be further derailed or manipulated.

Here is an example, which took place at the very beginning of our decision not to school but before we discovered life learning. When noticing that his younger cousin could write her name (on the wall in marker, but she could write it, nonetheless), I held Elijah’s hand and tried to assist him with writing his own. The situation blew up into a full-blown battle of the wills as I held out an expectation and he exerted his will to be the director of his own learning path. He may have been barely four years old at the time and has only recently, over two years later, made occasional attempts to draw letters or words. He’s the reason, really, that we were drawn to unschooling from our previously paved route directly to public school. Through frustration and intention to connect in any way possible with this intensely inquisitive and focused child, my husband and I slowly tore out the pages of our haphazardly laid plan to parent and educate our children and began to understand them, not as “our children” but as the incredible individuals that they are.

We are still and, I am convinced, will always be learning from our children but also from the people around us if we are open to the lessons. About a year-and- a-half-ago, Elijah began to exhibit an interest in building with LEGO®. Feeling still, at this time, that I could support his learning by identifying interests and manipulating environmental circumstances such that he would be stretched to growth in these areas, I became aware of a local LEGO class and immediately (and without consulting him) signed him up for it. And so our story begins with me rushing him out the door to a LEGO class that, although he loved LEGO, he was not thrilled with attending. The word “class” is immediately off-putting for him because of his thoroughly self-directed nature. He enjoys structure when it’s predictably self-defined but is very uncomfortable with relinquishing control over the stops and starts of his activities. But he loves LEGO and, so I convinced him, this was a different kind of class and he would love it.

As we walked into the center, discomfort started slowly creeping into me. A friend of mine sat among all of the other mothers in the waiting area and there were no LEGO-aged children to be seen. Elijah was encouraged by the receptionist to join the children in an interior room down the hall and he, in turn, looked at me with the expectation that I would come along. Though he functions independently, it is important for his sense of security that I am in sight. And so, much to the surprise of the instructor and my friend in the waiting area, I went with him. I sat in a little chair at a little table surrounded by little people and would have been completely at ease if the instructor had been. It was clear that having another adult in the room was a new situation for her. I allowed her discomfort to heighten my own and began to feel hypersensitive about Elijah’s body language and his talking to me as she was trying to gain the group’s attention.

The class began with a directive to build a set of Olympic rings using the LEGO blocks on the table. Elijah looked at the drawing on the dry-erase board, examined the color sequence of the rings and, with great care, began to attempt to make circles with angular blocks. Shortly after they had begun, a warning was given that the time period for this particular assignment was almost complete. My son was not quite half-way through. I looked around at the other children- all of whom had either completed their “rings” or were almost finished. Some, of course, were more ring-like than others. Some required some additional tweaking as encouraged by the instructor. I began to try to help Elijah by letting him know that his time was almost up, handing him blocks and generally interfering with his concentration. Immediately, a second project was described and assigned while Elijah was determined to accomplish perfection with the original ring assignment. The instructor moved his ring project aside and encouraged him to work on this second project.

The resulting scenario was similar to the first but now coupled with the distraction of the incomplete first project that he was focused on completing. Anxiety was building in both of us. My inner eager-to-please student residing (apparently) just below the surface felt compelled to rush him along, became frustrated with his intensity and desperately wanted him to turn out a product that was pleasing to the instructor. I wanted him to shine because, in truth, society tells us that our children are a reflection of ourselves. This instructor would not celebrate the fascination in the process, the joy of building, the focus or the planning. What she was looking for was a finished product and we (we?) had nothing tangibly complete to show for the time that we had been there. I was relieved when my friend from the waiting area popped in for the last few minutes of the class to see how her kids were doing. I retreated to the corner with her for moral support regarding this frustration that I was feeling. What was this compulsion that I had to pressure rather than to support my child in this clearly uncomfortable situation?

The ensuing conversation centered on my current frustration with my son’s slow progress on the assignments and my desire for him to be able to keep pace with the other kids. In her response, she spoke of her own children and her own experiences and I awaited the wisdom that would reassure and support me along my path to continually seek and understand the heart lessons of my children. I was at odds with myself and, more importantly, with my child’s needs. My heart sank and tears welled as I realized that her stories were being spun into a thread that was completely foreign to my core beliefs as a gentle parent and life learner. She told me of the child’s need to be pushed in order to excel and of severing maternal ties so that they may gain security and self-confidence via forced independence. She pointed out that no other mothers were in the tiny classroom and that Elijah should be made to understand that his separation was an expectation from which I could be assured that he would achieve personal growth. She encouraged me to see that turning the learning aspect of life over to other adults was probably the answer for us so that Elijah could gain independence and confidence while getting the education that he “needs.”

My core felt darker and heavier as she spoke and I focused less and less on her words and more on not crying in a room full of LEGO and children. The support I had sought in redirection of my own insecurities had actually been aimed at capitalizing on them. The betrayal and enlightenment was punctuated by her final sentence, “Sometimes you’re not the mother he needs.” My son left the center with an even firmer disdain for classroom settings. I was left feeling hurt and bewildered.

I pondered her final words and the source of the hurt. Both of us felt so strongly about natural living and health. I had thought that the deep care and understanding of our children would have come to her along with the desire to care holistically for their bodies. I knew that my friend had differing parenting philosophies but I had felt that she respected mine. I heard her words over and over again in my mind and gradually felt a shift in energy. “Sometimes you’re not the mother he needs.” I knew there was truth in it but not in the way that she had meant.

So what is the truth? The truth is sometimes I’m not the mother he needs me to be. The overwhelming truth is that parenting is not about me. I become compromised by my own insecurities, my childhood desire to shine and to be recognized, the feeling that a finished product should be displayed such that others realize the brilliance – of this child, of this life. This situation is one of many that have created the tremendous discomfort and life change that often accompanies growth. Although we see each other only in passing now, I hold gratitude in my heart for this friend who held the mirror to me so that I could see myself and what it means to me to be Elijah’s mother – to truly consider each moment as a choice to support him. Thanks to her, these instances of insecurity are few and far between now. Her words continue to echo in me and act as a touchpoint during the times of instability and doubt. Anytime I feel myself waiver and take a downturn into self-consciousness, I hear those words, remember, and ask myself, “How will I be the mother he needs me to be?”

I recall a lesson from undergraduate nursing school. It was a chapter focusing on cultural diversity in which we were encouraged not to follow the Golden Rule – treating others as we would like to be treated – but rather that we should truly consider that particular individual (with regard to their cultural, ethnic, familial and personal needs) and treat them as they would like to be treated. I take this into account when I consider what Elijah needs from me as a mother. He needs support, patience, kindness, regard for his positive intent and disregard for the expectations of others. This is the kind of mother I will be – the kind that he needs to grow in the light of love and support, to grow and experience self-confidence, learning in joy and taking on challenges in his own brilliant way.

Finding Your Guiding Principle

What is a Guiding Principle?
A Guiding Principle for raising our children is imperative for a life driven by the intention to live a peaceful familial existence and support our children’s healthy, independent development. When challenges arise, the Guiding Principle acts as the crux to which we can refer to assist us in our communications or decision making and/or to help us get back on track when we feel that our parenting or relationships are just not going in a positive direction. Having a Guiding Principle keeps us centered in presence with our families fostering connected relationships through a constant awareness of whether our communications and behavior reflect our core beliefs and desires.

Forming a Guiding Principle
Guiding Principles can be used for any area of your life for which you care deeply and for which you wish to be present and accountable. In the consensual living/life learning context, Guiding Principles are useful as a foundation for familial relationships and the supporting of children as they grow and learn. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I want for my family?

  • What do I want for my children?

  • Are these desires pure and rooted in fulfilling meaning for us as a whole?

There are many answers to the first two questions. They are different for all of us but may be: happiness, freedom, financial security, etc. The last question will flush out your perfect truth. There can be only one true Guiding Principle by which your actions dictate the direction of your parenting and the ways in which your support the growth of your family.

Use and hone this truth as the basis for a statement a mission statement. This will be the most important statement in your life. How you choose to communicate and behave within your family to connect and support each other will be reflected in life outside your home as well.

Using Your Guiding Principle

Whenever life gets challenging, it is easy – though increasingly uncomfortable – to fall back into old patterns that cause disconnect and mistrust. Use your Guiding Principle as a touchstone often to assist you in brainstorming better ways to handle these situations to foster current or future growth. Write it down and post it in several places in the house so that you and those around you see it often. Use it as a mantra during tough days to see the light for which you are striving. In the often inconsistent world of life learning, our vision can easily become clouded with life situations that frustrate or overwhelm us. Having your Guiding Principle as a constant will assist you to align the life you lead with the result that you desire.

Here are examples of guiding principles for the raising of our children:

  • My own: “I wish for my children to grow and learn in freedom and joy such that they will always maintain the authenticity of their individuality without regard for social norms and stigmas. I believe in my heart that the way to happiness and positive world change is to encourage difference through support of each child’s personal needs and desires.”

  • My husband Chris’: “I wish to trust the children to make decisions about what they want or desire. I wish to provide guidance as needed and options for them to explore but never to exert pressure or direct their choices.”

Sarah Parent is the free-living, life learning mama to Elijah and Sadie who were seven and five years old when this article was written. Ten years of labor and birth nursing, mindful childbirth preparation, advocacy for women and families, which culminated in a master’s degree in nursing, clashed head-on with motherhood when the realization hit that money and degrees were no match for her sensitive, pensive son and spunky, wild-child daughter when it came down to where to spend her time. She and her husband Chris found whole-life unschooling and gentle parenting, traveling over bumpy roads of doubt and steep ravines of fear. She has found her voice in advocating for peaceful families and authentic children through gentle parenting and unschooling if only to support others in navigating those bumpy roads and ravines.

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