Saturday, November 21, 2009

Nine days

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 that the kids are as a group quite sedentary, fairly withdrawn, spending an inordinate amount of time in front of the computer and precious little time contributing to the well-being of the family.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.


  1. Miranda, it sounds as though there are a lot of changes afoot at your home. We've btdt as a family. As it turns out, my kids do well with some structure, and as a family, we are all in a better place. My dh comes from a structured home and a structured way of life. The unschooling, while it was working well for my kids, didn't always work as well for him and that caused some friction. It's a long story that I won't bore you with here, but as it turns out, structure has turned out to be a good thing at our house.

    I, personally, have difficulty with imposing structure. I don't do well with the whole pushmepullyou scenario either, though I'm getting better at it. The first month that Alex was in school, he would come home and say he didn't want to go. It really that wasn't the case. He didn't want to go in the short term, but he was able to see that if he stuck with it, things would improve. So after a lot of worrying and wondering on my part, Alex asked me to be the strong one on his behalf and to 'make' him get up and go. So I did, cheerfully, each morning. But it was hard, really hard.

    I wish there were easy answers, but sometimes it's all by guess and by gosh, and we hope as parents that it's all going to work out. It sounds like you've found a system that's working for everyone. I'll be interested to read about it all as you go along.

  2. Anonymous6:24 am

    Very interesting... You've written about nudges before, and putting scheduling puzzles together...seems like this change is the next logical step, the flash of intuition that makes the pattern obvious.

    I've thought about this a lot, a lot, a lot, way beyond the scope of this comment. But we started homeschooling over a decade ago with a structure to our days: math, reading, music in the mornings, sometimes a picnic with Papa in at noon, outside time/playing with friends/art/other activities in the afternoon, supper with Papa, then night stuff like rehearsals, concerts, "movie nights", dinner with friends, or just watching the fire burn (better than TV, we said)...

    But we drifted, expanded away from structure because we had a flatness to our days too: the "essential" lessons were by no means onerous but I was not a happy camper with the general malaise and work slowdowns that seemed to have become entrenched in our house. I reached the end of each day disenchanted because it seemed that my the kids seemed happy doing the bare minimum, never getting to what I thought of as "the fun stuff". I'm content now with what's happening, a lot of collaborative creative stuff is going on right now with very little parental direction. But maybe the structure we started out with is still there unseen? My personal Waterloo is entropy ... the mess, the clutter: I have given up waiting for everyone to pitch in cheerfully when work needs to be done, to notice that the house is unlivable, and have begun cracking down on that big time: offering whatever help is needed,but making it clear that it can't keep happening, especially in the common areas of the house.

    Deborah (not "house elf"!)

    p.s. Had you not built the implicit foundation for "self structuring" all along, I doubt that your eldest would be able to juggle school, music study, and work the way she now does.

  3. This must be an interesting place to be in right now.

    I have internal struggles all the time about how to best support my child's learning. I love love love the idea of complete and radical unschooling. I really do. I often wish I could embrace it completely.

    And I honestly don't believe it would work for my child. For years, he's been an early riser. It doesn't matter what time he goes to bed, he gets up at the same time every day. So, I make sure he's got enough time to get a good sleep each night. He doesn't protest.

    And right now he's asking me to "make" him do his math. So, I'll say, would you like to do your math now? And he says, are you making me? And I say, would you like me to? And he says, yes. So I say, please do your math now. And he says, okay.

    It puzzles me but as long as he feels supported...

    And maybe it's still possible to live and learn joyfully at home with the playing field mapped out so everyone feels anchored.

    Good luck with this, Miranda. I'm interested to follow any developments along this new path in your home learning journey.

  4. Amanda11:37 am

    I see the Suzuki method as very highly structured, especially in the early stages, but (properly done) as promoting the development of children's independence and responsibility. Perhaps you could apply what has worked for you so well with music in other areas?

    If you haven't already come across it, you might also like to read up about the Swedish secondary school chain Kunskapsskolan. It started with a very radical model of no fixed classes at all, just self-study with teacher input when requested by pupils, but has gradually brought in a bit more structure with 15-minute weekly reviews with a tutor to review the previous week and set objectives for the following week, and also a compulsory one-hour weekly class in each subject. They came to the conclusion that adolescents needed that much structure to sustain their energy and motivation.

    But most of all, good luck!

  5. My girls definitely like a bit of structure to their mornings. I'm gone in the morning, so they have a printable list of morning chores, then I leave a note asking them to do a handful of other things specific to the day. I found it so interesting when I started that they wanted me to write that extra list and really looked for the things to do. I was just trying to make sure they stayed out of trouble and didn't spend their whole morning on the computer, but they can and do help me out in many ways and seem to enjoy it.

  6. I've spent half the day thinking about this issue, and how it relates to your house, and how it relates to my very different one.

    I keep coming back to the idea that part of what we teach our children is academic. It may encompass things like long division, HTML programming, violin, or Shakespeare. But we are also responsible for helping them learn things like self discipline, and respect for other peoples' opinions, the ability to follow directions, and the willingness to help those in need.

    So even if a more structured day -- or life -- isn't something your kids would each individually choose for themselves, there may be some valid basis for instituting it in your household, if for no other reason than to teach them that sometimes Mom and Dad need to feel that things are being accomplished.

    How does this apply in my house? Today I bought a table for Mandy's room. It's not Mandy's table; I bought it for ME, because I am REALLY REALLY REALLY SICK OF STEPPING ON LEGOS. And she's being required to use the table, not because she wants to, or because it will make her a better person, but because IF I STEP ON ANOTHER LEGO I AM GOING TO THROW THEM ALL OUT THE WINDOW. We're going to call this a lesson in structure and sensitivity to parents' needs, how's that?

  7. Miranda, I've been mesmerized with your post on mdc, and had to look here ,too. I'm the lady who started stalking you a couple of years ago (probably one of many! and comes here often when I am in need of some inspiration.

    I truly appreciate your bravery (I think it's brave, anyway) in sharing your story with all it's ups and downs. As I'm still trying to find that perfect mesh of what homeschooling should look like for us, I find your forthright thoughts refreshing and inspiring.

    You've addressed many thought/concerns that have lingered for me. I just wanted to thank you for that, and pray that you will find the peace and direction your family needs. I think of you as my pioneer, just busily paving the way for me.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. I find this so facinating because our family has really gone through a very similar evolution. Such a process,eh? I gave up adhering to a 'philosophy' to doing what my children seem to need. And, like you, I judge it by their happiness.

  9. You said "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?" "

    Thank you for this comment, it might be something relevant for me and DS and his current violin woes. I saw that edgy look he got when I asked him what we could do, and perhaps it was fear that I wasn't in control either.

  10. Anonymous11:06 am

    I read all your posts even thought my life is so different from yours. We struggle with structure and lack of structure. I want the kids to be less structured when they are at home and be able to be self structured like you put it. It never happens. I am the quintessential pushmepullyou parent. I loved that description. It causes so much conflict bc no matter what someone's needs are not met! It's such a fine line. I am walking that line with a child that loves violin, is doing well but hates to practice unless pushed....which I hate to do and do unwillingly. and round and round we go....!

  11. What a great post and awesome responses!! I am feeling as winter is on its way..something happens to my kids and myself....its not dread, because we enjoy winter...but we get lazy in every aspect of our lives. I love hibernating in the winter but it is not good for our family. I think its time to change things up a bit...outside or some sort of physical activity and some schoolish work and some chores before free time on the computer or even arts and crafts. I enjoy being flexible but it could be that my kids would like a bit more structure or routine in our lives. Your post was incredibly timely for me! I too appreciate your sharing!

  12. I commented above, but one more question: why the 9 day term. Just curious if there was any significance there?

  13. Shawna, the nine days was just until we knew we could schedule another meeting. A week would have taken us up to a day when four of us were in Calgary and two of us were home, so we stretched the week a little.

  14. Wow, just found this post - i have to say it makes me feel better about my insistance that I wont unschool . . .which is really hard since so many of the homeschoolers i really click with are unschoolers. But my parents definitely held family meetings where we kids felt like we were being asked to fix it for them, and i know we lied about how we felt because we were trying to figure out what they really wanted . . it was very confusing.

    I know i need structure and i know my 13 yo autistic bipolar son needs it . . i'm shocked when my oppositional 6 yo insists he'll never do work and then totally enjoys doing it after I make him. Even me - i was dreading getting back to the schedule after holiday break, but feel better when i'm doing it. Tired, but better about myself and the kids and the whole home.

    Anyways, hope you keep finding what works, and thanks for helping me accept myself for having a schedule!


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