Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Potluck dinners and finding the middle ground

I had to work this morning and Chuck had an all-day meeting, so my mom stayed with the kids for the first time in months. Fiona was quite okay with her which was a pleasant surprise. When I got home I helped the kids get some lunch. Erin and Noah did violin and piano practising respectively and then it was time for them to head out to art class. Erin balked at first. She pulled out the familiar whine: "But I didn't get to do anything today." Meaning, all she'd done was play since she'd got up at the crack of 10 or whatever.

In the past I reacted to the "get to" part of that statement defensively, perceiving an accusation. I assumed she meant "I wasn't allowed to" or "you didn't provide me with the time or opportunity to." Erin has a dreadful tendency affix blame onto others for anything in her life that doesn't make her happy, so she probably did actually mean to imply that it was my fault, that I somehow prohibited her from doing anything worthwhile or memorable. But that's not actually what she says, and reframing this complaint, if not to her, at least in my own mind, has been helpful.

She, and the others too, often don't "get around to" doing the things they wish they would. They have a tendency to get locked into one particular activity and resist the transition to anything else. It can be K'nex, snowman-building, imaginative Playmobil play, quest games on the computer, acrobatics in the living room, a bath, you name it. Worthwhile stuff, to be sure. But they stay at it so long that they really do regret not fitting other stuff in their day. They get mad at themselves for not "remembering" to make cookies, which is what they call it if I ask them if they'd like to make cookies three times and they say "not now, later."

The ability to enjoyably pursue any activity for as long as it holds the kids' interest is really what drew me to unschooling in the first place. But, especially with Erin, probably because she's the oldest and the most ambitious at this point, I'm noticing that the tunnel vision she gets while engaged in an activity is a problem for her. I wonder whether she needs someone to help her disengage from time to time and maybe structure her life with a bit more formality. And so I wander back into the middle ground between top-down schooling and child-structured unschooling and take a look around for something that makes sense right now.

Someone on an e-mail list I'm on put forth the metaphor of the potluck dinner. "I'm not fond of potlucks. My kids never eat anything at a potluck, being far too busy doing other things. Once the potluck is over, they'll chime "What's for supper? I'm starved!" " This is my kids too, and I think the metaphor explains where I'm at right now with unschooling.

Sometimes simply "strewing their path" creates an immense, chaotic potluck dinner situation. There are so many possibilities and so much freedom that they don't eat and later wish they had. That's what today was for Erin.

I've got picky eaters for kids. What works best for family peace and balanced nutrition is to put a small selection of healthy food choices on the table at mealtime and let the kids load their own plates. Maybe I should be doing a little more of this when it comes to education with the kids, especially Erin. I don't mean sitting her down at the table and saying "okay, time for school; want to do math or grammar or spelling or handwriting?" I mean asking her if she'd like some help setting up some goals or guidelines for herself, some help structuring her days and sticking to the structure.

Today Fiona turned 1. She's got what we think is a hip inflammation. After learning to walk around Christmas she was walking everywhere, but then suddenly stopped 5 days ago. She wouldn't bear weight on her left leg and it was mighty sore if manipulated. We Xrayed her and the films looked fine (needed to rule out an occult fracture and developmental dysplasia of the hip), so we're assuming she'll be back on her feet in another few days. She's not in any pain when crawling or sitting, so we're happy to just watch for now. I still worry a bit; she's getting lots of hugs. She loves us to sing "Happy Birthday" to her, which we've been willing to do about 20 times already because she's doing the ASL sign for "more".

Tonight we'll help her open some simple gifts, eat some fruitcake, finish the practising, and hopefully have a relaxing pre-bedtime family time for a change. Noah's been asking for "happy time in front of the fire together before bed" but his physical energy level (and Erin's too) has been getting in the way. I'm tired and wanting to get to bed before they're ready to settle down, so I nag them into pyjamas and announce I'm too tired for anything other than a short story. Since I'm up at 7 and a couple of times through the night with Fiona, I need to head to bed before they do. We'll try again tonight.

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