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Making Peace With War Birds
Unschooling when your child’s interest doesn’t interest you

by Suzanne Malakoff

peace with war birds

I encourage my children to follow their interests and to learn as much as they can before they form opinions or beliefs or make decisions. And I believe it’s my duty as a parent to provide the resources they need or the means to gather more information – at the very least, to help them find what they are looking for.

It’s easy to be supportive when your children are interested in what you’re interested in or are curious about something and their discoveries lead to your own learning and amazement. It’s difficult to be supportive when your child picks up on something that you don’t like – that you may even find repulsive. But curiosity is genuine and not allowing that interest may have the opposite effect of sending your child off in what you think is a better direction. Interests come and go as kids grow, but that’s not always easy to trust.

My son Aaron likes music, so he has a guitar and a metronome and lessons. I love listening to the music that comes from his room when he’s practicing. Sometimes I pick up the guitar and give it a try to see what I can remember. My daughter Natasha rides horses. When I was a kid, I couldn’t have a horse, and I didn’t get to ride much, so couldn’t say no when we were offered one. She also gets lessons. I enjoy reading all the horse magazines and books she finds. Sometimes I get to ride.

But my son Eli has a passion for war birds. From WWI Sopwith Camels to the latest, loudest, turn-on- a-dime jets that are kept just thirty miles from our home at Joint Base Lewis-McChord when they’re not flying the skies of Iraq or Afghanistan. I don’t like military machines. I’m one of those moms who doesn’t allow guns and gave in only to squirt guns. I’m a pacifist. Maybe I’m an idealist. And I like my quiet. I wish we didn’t live in fly-over zone.

Eli’s focus lately has been WWII. He comes home from the library with stacks of books on planes and tanks; he reads WWII soldiers’ memoirs and is obsessed with Pearl Harbor and the Enola Gay. He reads to me from all those books – lists his favorite killing machines, their wingspans, their wheel sizes, carrying capacity, landing and maneuvering abilities. I rarely ask for more information or follow up with questions or ask if I can borrow one of those books. I change the subject or remind him of the other things he needs to accomplish that day.

This past Father’s Day, he asked me if we would take him to the annual air show — a gathering of military geeks with every branch of the military represented from several eras in the sky and on the ground. Weren’t the occasional fly-overs from the base enough? Didn’t I take him to the library to get the books? Didn’t I do a good job of pretending to be interested?

I told him to go ask his dad to take him. His dad said no, no way was he going to that thing, it was a stupid idea, and anyway it was on Father’s Day and that was his day and that wasn’t how he wanted to spend it. Eli’s head went back – almost imperceptibly – but it went back, feeling that door slam in front of him. I knew then that I would take him. I heard then in an undercurrent of his interests, at the very base of his request for a day at the air show, the questions he was probably really asking: Do you mean what you say when you tell us to follow our interests, will you treat me fairly, and will you always love me, no matter what?

Of course, I will always love him no matter what, but I could not in any way, shape, or form imagine having a good time at this show. And what would we see and hear while we were there? Would he learn anything positive or useful? Maybe some history, but how would that history be represented?

On the day of the show it rained. I hoped it was a sign that we weren’t meant to go, but Eli grabbed his coat, handed me the umbrella and headed out the door.

We walked through the parking lot behind a guy who wore a t-shirt that sported a military unit number and the year of his tour of duty in Iraq wrapped around a skull, bloody and pierced by a lightning rod.

“Would you wear a shirt like that if you joined the military?” I asked him.

“I’m not going to join the military,” he told me. “I just like the planes.”

“Even knowing what planes like the Enola Gay were used for, you still want to see a B-52?”

He had been walking several paces ahead of me, keeping his eyes on the airfield. At my question he stopped and turned to me. “You know the Enola Gay was a B-17. B-52s weren’t around during WWII. There’s one like it here today. I’ll show it to you.” Pure Eli. Full of facts, always unassuming, always wanting to share his knowledge, but never superior in his knowledge.

Once inside the gates, I heard my name and felt a touch on my shoulder. My friend Sarah was also attending the show. She told me she had come to bring her 80-year-old father along – he had so wanted to see the show. He’s loved planes all his life, she said. When he was a young man, it was his dream to learn to fly. He was all set to start pilot training through a government program when the US entered the Second World War, and he was rounded up with his friends and sent to a Japanese internment camp. And now, here he was, watching every plane with the same intense passion as my son. Lesson one, part one of many possible parts: The U.S. and Japan are no longer at war and much has been forgiven. If a man who spent the war in a prison camp could enjoy the planes because they are planes and he would have liked to fly regardless of what happened to him in his youth, then why couldn’t I settle down and try to enjoy them, too? Eli got it immediately and turned away from my desire to discuss this in depth to make sure he got it.

Lesson two came as we began to wander the airfield. Or maybe it was more of a reminder because I know this, but forgot about it when Eli first asked to come to the air show: He likes events just because they are events. He wants to experience everything that’s on hand. Some kids go to the fair just for the rides – he wants to see the shows, wander the exhibits, eat the food, watch the crowd, get caught up in the buzz. This proved to be true for the air show, too.

First we made our way through the trade show in the hanger, grabbing free candy from the tables and examining all the models from the hobby shops. We ate junk food and watched planes and helicopters make incredible maneuvers over the airfield.

Then we walked through a re-enactment of a WWII field camp where everyone was decked out in authentic garb and equipment. It looked just like what I’ve seen in every movie, right down to the torn and dirty t-shirts under the uniforms. And these guys knew a lot about the equipment in the camp, the clothes they wore, and the conditions these camps often existed in. Our home- and community-based learning includes talking to experts when we have access to them and here we were, smack in the middle of a history lesson. Sounds simple enough, but this possible opportunity eluded me when Eli asked to come here.

Eli was there to see the machinery and experience the show and get some one-on- one time with a mom who had openly given more support and approval to guitar playing and horseback riding. He isn’t interested in wearing cult-like skull and blood t-shirts. He’s fascinated by the planes and the other machinery and the history. He understands that WWII was a vastly different conflict than Vietnam or Iraq – the confusion over those, the controversy. He knows what the Enola Gay was used for and thinks it’s horrific, but admires the plane, the engineering. He’s been learning tons on his own without any prodding or homework or curriculum.

When my kids were younger, they simply mimicked my opinions and sensibilities. I wasn’t born with my attitudes about life; I grew into them, and they are still changing. Eli’s interests, regardless of what they are, will help him learn and make informed decisions and attitudes that aren’t born of ignorance.

I had a great day with Eli, who is really a gentle soul and, I believe, an old one. He’s comfortable in life, talks easily to people, isn’t rattled by new settings. It’s like he’s seen it all before. On some level, it’s all familiar to him. I’ve never shared my thoughts with him on this because he would find my thoughts a bit flakey; we’re souls from different eras. He once called his sister a peace freak. I told him I was one, too. He said that was okay – I would probably like the air show anyway. He was right, I did. And I’m grateful for all the time I got to spend with him that day.

Suzanne Malakoff and her husband raised three incredible kids who always unschooled by learning at home in their community in the Pacific Northwest. She earns her living working as a communications specialist for a non-profit research and advocacy group focused on a clean energy future, and feels lucky to have wandered into to such important work. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, gardening, spending time with her kids and animals, and getting outside whatever the weather. She has published several articles and essays on a variety of topics that include natural learning and parenting and is currently working on pieces of fiction.

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