Saturday, June 22, 2013

Faking It

I've been in a bad mood for a while now, at least nine days. The only way for sure to tell how long would be to start on January 1st and add 26 days over and over until I got to the date in June when I got my period and had one crabby day followed by four pretty depressed day where I couldn't get even mildly excited about anything and everything was meh, followed by a string of crabby and then rage-filled days. Yesterday, I was just throwing shit at the wall over and over in my mind's eye as I lied on my back and tried to take deep breaths. I was on such a hair trigger.

Earlier in the day, Max had asked me to look up something online for him. My opinion was that he whining-ly ambushed me with a request for a time-intensive and pointless task while I was in the middle of doing yard work which was desperately behind, and his opinion was that he had politely asked his mother to help him with something super important. While helping him, two of them got into a fight about (seriously) who had bit whose arm harder and left deeper marks and thus proved something about bravery. One of them was locked in the bathroom screaming while the other one was banging on the door and yelling insults. This all happened in about a second, and my sensible response was to throw my keyboard across the room and start screaming along with them. Or at them, really. Until, it dawned on me that I'm the oldest and thus the most able to control my emotions and I tried to get some order in the place.

I keep thinking that I was crabby this time last year (and I was), but then, I remember that I was crabby (or depressed) in January when I got back from Minneapolis and then again around Easter and probably on many days between those days as well as on many days between then and now. So, maybe I'm just crabby (or depressed).

Today was perfect though. We went to the reservoir and hiked down to our "secret" swimming spot and swam and hiked on rocks and climbed up another trail and explored the graffiti cave and went swimming again and did some fishing. And I barely worked but made all the money I needed to, and I just generally felt pretty happy and didn't really notice that the kitchen needed to be cleaned or that we all ate chips, leftovers, or fish sticks.

People who don't live with boys, or these boys in particular, have no fucking idea about the constant energy levels, and sometimes, when I'm having displaced anger, I get really upset with people who only have one kid or people who see a kid running and say stupid things like, "They'll sleep well tonight." No, no they won't. Are you fucking high? They have a limitless amount of energy which is both awe inspiring and annoying.

If we ride four miles to the BMX track, spend two hours riding up and down the hills, and then ride four miles home, they will maybe be tired for twenty minutes. Then, they will spend no less than three hours running in circles and doing back flips from the dresser to the bed. It's also impossible (apparently) to shut off the bedroom light without it involving a series of huge jumps from bed to bed until the switch is slammed down as they drop towards it mid-flight.

I'm really trying to make peace with the dirt and the action. The more distance I give the action, the harder it is to tolerate. If I'm spotting front flips, for instance, my life is easier than if I'm telling them to calm down and do whatever, but it's annoying. I can barely walk across a room without having someone catapult themselves on top of me. Oh, but so it is. When I don't feel like murdering them, I think it's pretty cool. On a bad day, there's probably a 90-10 (murder-cool) split, but on average, it's probably more like 50-50 (I'm not actually sure if I can quantify how often I want to murder the action out of them, maybe it's less, maybe it's more--they probably perceive the murderous contingent as higher than I do, and I should probably keep that in mind), but today was a 5-95 (murder-cool) split if I have to pick a number.

Maybe today was the first day of the rest of my month, maybe I'll get a few good days in until the vengeful 26 day cycle comes back around.

One of the reasons that I don't blog often is because I prefer to make a relatively cohesive statement (which is time consuming), and here, in these post-sun-hike dehydrated musings, I've ruined my well planned/partially-written-in-my-mind posts on boy action, moods that don't correlate with reality, and some other things, but at least I've reminded myself that the boys will always perceive more murderous emotions than I emit so I should try to emit fewer. And if all else fails, fake it.

That's really fabulous advice that should be cross stitched on a pillow. If you feel like murdering your kids, just pretend that you like them. Just fake a little love. It's better than throwing your keyboard at the wall.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Inner Voices and Casting Issues

Toward the end of my midlife crisis, my soul got older and fatter and sat down crossed legged; it felt very visual, very tied to that metaphor/concept.

In part of becoming more grounded and more comfortable there, I became engaged in a gradual but constant process of trying to be more okay with myself, with what we do, with the things that don't look like what other people are doing, whether it be the dirty carpet or the lack of artwork on the walls, and most importantly, with the flaws that the boys and I show.

Someone said today, "You're especially too hard on yourself." It was a really comforting sentiment to hear--because I interpret it to mean that I must not be as bad as I let myself think I am sometimes--and I can't tell you how much I appreciate the people around me right now.

I've thought a lot about inner voices the past few months.

When I started thinking about painting the living room, I thought, over and over, "I can't paint a room."

Really? It's four fucking walls, not brain surgery.

After a couple weeks of listening to that discouraging voice, I called my friend for the basics of painting and a much-appreciated pep talk (between that conversation and this post, she became a mother, and I am so happy for her baby that he gets to have this person who has been an encouraging voice in my life for twenty-six years as his mother), and I was off. It was easy, and it makes everything feel so much cheerier, but while painting, I tracked the voice I was hearing in my mind to two specific memories where that was said to me.

Regardless of how those lines were delivered, regardless of the intent of the speaker, those were the words that stuck for a long time, and as a mother, you know you have that potential. What you say to your children will become their inner voice.

Of course, there's always room for forgiveness, always room to say something kinder, to alleviate pain, to try to explain a joke, but you can't take it back. You can't take back anything you say, at least not easily.

Beyond what we say to each other, the way we cast each other is important too. For a long time, I was casting my kids as bad, and myself as a horrible mother--of course, I've also been looking at some of the voices that have explicitly delivered those sentiments to me as much as to the scenes where I just thought that was what everybody thought.

I'm always happy to jump in with my faults--it's just better to get them out of the way before someone notices and calls you on them, and I do the same thing with the boys. Yesterday, my neighbor was telling me how nice my son was, and then, I had to go on and on about what a fire-birthing-fuckstick he can be at times. She's like, "Your son is so nice and polite and honest and gentle," and I'm like, "Oh, wait until he loses his temper. He can get really angry and crazy."

Just, take the compliment and move on.

There are times when I lie in bed next to them and whisper nice things to them to try and undo some of the damage, but beyond words, I notice that the days I believe they are good, are the best days. The days I can distance myself from the voices in my head that make me feel like I need to cast them or myself in a certain negative light are the best days.

And a lot of that is about settling in, about not feeling that I constantly have to explain away some issue that someone may be seeing or that they may eventually see.

At least once, Max has said, "Can you hear me, or are the voices in your head too loud?"

He was referring to the captivating voices that make me not notice anything that is happening regardless of how near it is, but in the context of this, it underlines an important issue, the voices can be loud, and for three people, I have the potential to encourage their voices to be pleasantly loud or encouragingly loud. And in my own mind, I have the power to cast them as good little creatures rather than issues that need to be managed.

And so, finally, for my uncle who has said he likes kids' quotes and who deserves a prize if he's read this far, my favorite few things that these good little creatures said yesterday:

"I need a levitating shirt." --the sun-burnt one while crying in dramatic agony.

"You know what happens when you leave me alone with a sink." --the little one.

 "I'll just tell the cops I'm a seventeen year-old midget with bad knees. It'll be fine." --the free range one

"I need a new outfit for every day of the year. It's important to have style. I need to get my panache on." --the one who (please, god, please) is going to have an act a a drag bar some day

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Function Over Form

A few days after writing "No Rules", I finally realized (explicitly because I think the realization was already there implicitly in the text) that it is more important to be responsive to your kids' needs, your needs, the situation at hand than it is to abide by any rule or ideological paradigm.

Because I tend to be a fairly ideological person, this is a theme that I have to constantly revisit and relearn. Now, in unschooling, we are facing the same issue--but somehow, this time it's a lot easier for me to choose function over form. By many people's standards, that means I am no longer a real unschooler--I could care less about that. It also means that I have to foray into the world of mainstream education and hear crap touted about the importance of early reading and early intervention and other conventional ideas that really rub me the wrong way.

What is Unschooling?

Unschoolers really like to argue about this question. On the defensive, they say things like, "unschooling is not ignoring your children." I would argue that for some people, it may be. My neighbor came to me last year and said her kind and amazing and polite (my adjectives) son had been kicked out of another school, she was tired of drugging him to keep him compliant in the classroom, she was interested in unschooling, but she was worried that as a single mom working from home that she couldn't give him what he needed. My advice was that keeping him out of school where he could ride his bike and get bored and read books and watch movies would be a more positive experience than failing and getting punished at school. In this instance, I would say that she could ignore her son (to work) and it would still be considering unschooling.

Conversations like these--whether they are started on the defensive, a state many unschoolers seem to maintain because of their counter-culture lifestyle, or started because people love to crouch this movement in light and love and peace and rainbows and glitter and then judge other people when they don't--are a useful way to talk about ways to optimize the unschooling philosophy, but for the purpose of defining unschooling, they are not useful.

Unschooling is, just as suggested by the word, not school. In not being school, unschooling is not restricted by place (ie. it does not happen in a predetermined spot like a school building or at the kitchen table) and not restricted by time (learning is always happening). Disciplines (literature, history, math) cease to exist--this is not a new idea, Foucoult wrote about this. Learning moves from an exclusive reading-and-writing-based model to whichever model works best for the learner who is considered a learner (or even just a person) not a student, because there are no teachers. Learning happens for the sake of learning itself not to get a gold star or impress anyone or to beat another student. There is probably more that can be said, but hopefully, you've got the basic idea.

So, there is my form, the outline by which we have lived most of the last nine years. It has been fascinating. The things these kids have decided to pick up, the things I have learned about learning just by watching them, and the ways they have challenged me to move past my presumptions has been amazing, and I wouldn't change a thing about it.

Dyslexia and Unschooling

While reading about dyslexia, I couldn't have been happier that we have embraced such a different-than-most lifestyle. On any list describing a dyslexic person, insecurity is pretty near the top, and in every case, it is insecurity based on the fact that the dyslexic person, although they were incredibly intelligent, just couldn't make it in the reading-and-writing-based learning model that is used at most schools.

My kids have never had to face this. They have learned most things through observation, through watching videos, through experimentation, through being read to, and they have expressed what they have learned through mimicry, through conversation, through play.

As I continued to read, I decided that my older two children have all of the tendencies of dyslexics (and they have a 50% genetic predisposition for it), and if what I am reading and the many people I have talked to about are correct, the dyslexic brain does not learn to read naturally. Its bits (let's go with bits because I can't remember the technical phrase) are positioned in such a way and its processes are run in such a way that it does not have the ability to decode language in the same way that an average brain does. At the same time, the positioning of these bits lend themselves to strengths in areas like narrative reasoning, predictive abilities, and three-D imaging.

Unschooling is based on the idea that humans are natural learners. A baby who learns to roll and crawl and coo will turn into a toddler who will learn to talk and walk and jump, and that toddler will turn into a human who is interested in the world around him, who will tell stories and ask to be told stories, who will figure out how things work and build his own ideas.

Before the rise of the city-state (and if I've gotten tipsy around you anytime in the last ten years, you'll know how I perilously idolize hunter-gathers even though I try to argue myself out of it), it would have never dawned on anyone to read anything because humans were living in preliterate societies. There was no dyslexia because there was no reading. There may have been ways to distinguish whether or not someone had certain qualities that eventually down the road could have predicted dyslexia in their ancestors--or maybe all of the brains were dyslexic because the formations that favored reading hadn't evolved yet--clearly, I don't really know because I'm not an evolutionary brain scientist.

Although I'm not an evolutionary brain scientist, I am a mother, and we figure shit out, and I've figured out that in my opinion, my older two are not going to read naturally--their brains just aren't wired for that. (I can hear the unschoolers cringing here.)

Because the unschooling philosophy is so firmly entrenched in the idea that all people are natural learners, the community largely fails to acknowledge learning disabilities--unfortunately, I haven't read enough on any learning disabilities but dyslexia so I can only comment on that. I've heard many stories about parents who, rather than assigning their kid a label and intervening, wait until their kids learn to read haltingly at fifteen and never fully comprehends how to do it (mind you, illiterate kids are buried in schools all the time at a much higher cost, I would argue). This is where I break with this philosophy in order to favor function over form.

I agree that all people are natural learners, but I don't agree that reading is necessarily a natural pursuit. (Take any of the disciplines that I discarded above, and I will argue to the death (maybe) that learning about them is natural--even something like civics which didn't exist before the rise of the city-state is natural because people want to know what is going on around them--even if they can't read about it, even if they have to catch a documentary or listen to the news, even if they only want to know a smidgen about it, but I digress).

So, My children cannot read. They're only 8 and 9.5, and in most unschooling circles, that wouldn't be a problem. In fact, many homeschooled kids (and even kids who go to school) don't learn to read until those ages or later--I'm touching on so many counter-cultural ideas that it is tempting to go off on a explanatory tangent, but I'm trying to keep my train of thought--if you want me to extrapolate on something, just ask in the comments.

Many dyslexics are smart enough to memorize enough words that they can read for the gist of content (especially when they rely on their advanced narrative reasoning skills and predictive ability). However, many of these readers will always struggle when they encounter a new word, from what I understand, or when they have to read something that is very de-contextualized. I know too many adult dyslexics who cannot fill out the paperwork at the dentist, who cannot send a text message without grievous errors, who choose their professions because they absolutely couldn't do anything reading-and-writing centered or even anything that remotely included reading or writing.

I want my kids to grow up in an environment that plays to their strengths, to their interests. I want their challenges to be ones that are organically selected rather than ones that are arbitrarily forced on them by a set of state standards. However, we living in a reading based society. I want/need to ensure that they can read and write. This is critical.

It sounds simple when you write it. Of, fucking course, reading and writing is critical. But the schools aren't treating it critically when they only employ, for example, one special ed teacher who doesn't have the training to diagnose dyslexia, and many unschoolers don't treat it critically either.

In short, there's my philosophy, and there's where we're departing from it so that my kids can learn a critical skill. I would go on and on about the effing cost of the so-called-best programs and the well-trained tutors, but someone is calling my name.

However, I want to just say that although I have decided that I don't think two of my kids have brains that are naturally wired to read, I think that most kids can learn to read easily and naturally when they're ready. As I said above, by foraying into the conventional education arena for answers, I have to hear ideas that I don't like such as that "no kids learn to read naturally". Uh, I know tons of kids who have learned to read naturally, quickly, and fluently with no instruction (most at an age that is significantly older than the reading age that is pushed at most schools), and I hate hearing such disparaging comments about it. I think that sentiment underlines some of the fundamental issues I have with the whole teaching-learning model that most of us currently embrace.

But oh, well, live, learn, don't get too crazy about any one ideal, and carefully consider your koolaid...