We had a family meeting a little over a week ago. It was a more significant meeting than usual, because Chuck was part of it: he wanted to express some concerns he's had about how people in this house are choosing to spend their time. These are concerns I share, though I tend to see more of the 'good stuff' than he does, and have spent a lot more energy learning to look at the apparently-not-so-good-stuff through different lenses. I look at these same issues through the lens of unschooling, of autonomous learning, peering far outside the box, seeing the occasional breathtaking efficiency of learning driven by authentic engagement. I have quelled most of my concerns through years of studiously nurtured trust and big-picture viewing. But the concerns were still lurking under the surface of my mind. And so when Chuck put them into words I thought "Wow, he's expressing some interest in how things work around here, and he's saying a lot of things I've felt over the years." I figured he ought to say those things out loud to the kids -- partly so that they know he cares about their learning and growing, but mostly so that we can all understand and take into account his frustrations, concerns... and feelings.
The main issues ... that the kids are as a group quite sedentary, fairly withdrawn, spending an inordinate amount of time in front of the computer and precious little time contributing to the well-being of the family. The creative chaos which has in the past spawned such amazing things as HTML websites coded from scratch, stop-motion animation, the vast imaginary Euwy World, deep conversations late at night about the ethics of war and how to nurture friendships, well, these days the creative chaos isn't as creative. The activities we used to do together don't happen much any more. Since the older kids have been able to stay home alone they've pretty much mostly done so. Concerts, hikes, shopping trips, errands, social visits -- once they became optional the kids stopped coming.
And overall they don't seem to really feel that good about themselves. They have good intentions and fine ambitions and solid values. But when it comes to actually doing virtuous things there's always tomorrow. There's not a lot of bubbly joy and energy in evidence around here. There's a certain amount of inward-turning and detachment from family that one would expect during adolescence. That accounts for some of it no doubt. But it seemed to go deeper than that. There was a lot of aimlessness and 'flatness' for lack of a better word. And a prevailing sense amongst the kids as well that a lot of worthwhile stuff that took just slightly more energy than playing on the computer wasn't being got around to.
I've put a lot of work into supporting the kids in self-structuring. We've gone over this ground a lot in family meetings, at learning plan meetings, in casual discussions. There's a weird paradox that often arises in such conversations. A kid would say she wanted structure, and would like me to create it for her, and administer it, somewhat forcefully, but I should allow her to decline if she really didn't want to comply with the structure. And I should also take the blame if the refusal is habitual and I eventually gave up trying to administer the structure. I feel like a pushmepullyou -- asked for structure, reviled for giving it, refused over and over, and then blamed for not giving it forcefully enough.
Collaborative problem-solving can be a great thing. But maybe there's such a thing as too much of it. Sometimes kids can listen to their parents say "do you have any ideas on how to fix this problem?" and instead hear "I'm your parent, but I don't know what to do -- can you fix things for our family?" Understandably that can provoke a lot of unease, anxiety and discomfort. Kids shouldn't have to bear the full responsibility of stuff like that. (And of course they didn't -- but I think maybe they perceived it that way on some level.) Sometimes I think the pushmepullyou response I got when trying to support the kids in self-structuring was their way of saying "Sheesh, mom, you're the parent! I don't want to have to tell you how to be a parent -- just do it."
We reached a bit of a stalemate at our family meeting. There were no lines drawn in the sand, but there were six people standing in different places on the sand not sure what to do to find some common ground. The kids didn't have any suggestions on how to remedy / appease / co-operate / change or try something new.
So I basically instituted a unilateral experiment with parent-imposed structure. The experiment would last nine days. Bedtime 11 pm. No computer time until daily responsibilities have been completed. Daily responsibilities include household work of various sorts (i.e. chores) and a selection of parent-administered tasks derived from the kids' self-designed learning plans (a.k.a. homeschooling).
There were some initial moans of protest. There were a few tears on Day 1. By Day 3 the protests were gone. The bedtime rule was lauded by the very same boy who had moaned at first about no more all-night gaming jags. By Day 5 children were saying "I like this system." By Day 7 they had all decided it should stay in place after the nine day trial. Perhaps with some tweaks, but basically as it stands.
Years ago I would read on homeschooling message boards comments like this: "I'd love to unschool, but my son really thrives on structure." Unschooling seemed to be working beautifully for us at the time, but I would chuckle and think to myself "If my kids were the type to thrive on structure, how would I know?" Maybe it was kind of like Fiona's eyesight -- she was profoundly far-sighted and couldn't see properly, and had no way of knowing it because she'd never seen anything clearly.
I'm not chuckling any longer.