"you have to trust that the child will learn"

A nice article on unschooling making the rounds:

'You have to trust that the child will learn', Rosalind Rossi, Chicago Sun-Times

Unschooling is rooted in the ideas of education reformer John Holt, who said children are innately curious and will learn what they need to know when they need to know it.

That doesn't mean unschoolers won't ever take conventional classes.

Art enthusiasts may take art classes. Teens who want to go to college may take community college classes first.

Unschoolers figure out what they want to do in life and then learn what they need to get there. Advocates say they absorb material better by learning it when they need it.

One unschooling Web site calls the approach "delight-driven learning." Author Pat Farenga, a student of Holt's, calls it "the natural way to learn."

"This is the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work," Farenga writes in Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Unschooling.

One Northside Unschoolers mom was seeking an alternative to the test emphasis and heavy homework in her public school. Other unschooling parents may want to avoid labels schools put on especially active kids or late readers.

"The hardest thing for most people ... is that you have to trust that the child will learn," said Mary Griffith, author of The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World As Your Child's Classroom.

And, the token banal warning (do all these writers work with the same stock formula?):

"We don't know that children are innately curious. The question is open," Schubert [professor of curriculum studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago] said.

Could a person possibly be any more out of touch with the reality of childhood? And how sad that to even be able to consider the possibility, his own original desire to learn must have atrophied so much that he can only speculate about its existence as an innate human trait.

breaking out and open

Yesterday we went crabbing at Waldport. It was a beautiful day, warm, sunny, and not very windy in the bay. The kids went out on a boat and had a little adventure when the motor died and they had to be towed in. They thought it was great. We also put some pots over the side of the dock, but didn't get any there. All the crabs were farther out I guess, and several big ones were caught. (Not by me, I didn't get to go out on the boat.) Willow was not much interested in the crabbing itself, but the boys were fascinated by the crabs and wanted to be directly involved in all the aspects of crabbing. (If my mom were reading this blog, I'd have to be compelled at this point to reassure her that yes, safety precautions were taken. They wore life jackets and we were careful to watch that they didn't get their feet tangled in the rope.)

When I was a little girl we went crabbing once (I say "we", though I didn't participate, I just watched as a few adults worked) and I thought it was interesting but not exciting enough to want to do again and I don't remember being struck by the beauty of the coast. This time I found the pine and other unidentifiable smells ambrosial and the gentleness of the sun and sand and the fog and mist lovely. I saw a shiny metal rowboat, and had an intense sudden longing to take it out myself.

When I was a kid we didn't do these things. I thought you just didn't, unless you were special, maybe with some special talent or privilege or physical ability or because you'd grown up with it. Such things, like taking a rowboat out on the water, were unknowns, possibly dangerous.

A few weekends ago we had the treat of going out on a catamaran on a lake, so large it felt like being in a bay with the sea just beyond. It was beautiful. It felt like freedom. The person that owns the catamaran, my husband's uncle, is also a craftsman and that day we also got to see the amazing things he's done to his house. I hadn't know this about him before, so it brought home to me that yes, ordinary people really do just say, "I want to do this thing," and then they do it. They don't have to get permission from anybody. They don't have to know they're talented. They just do it because they have a vision and desire. What an inspiring thing, but how sad is it that it is inspiring, that it is not just already what I am, taken for granted.

I want to protect my children, be reasonable about safety. But I don't want them to develop a sense of cautionary inertia and be forty years old before they discover their sense of rightfulness in doing what they want to in the world. New things are wonderful for the sake of being new, and can develop into loved things, cherished things. I feel like I have so much life yet to live. I want for them that they will never not feel like that.


My kids have never resisted going to bed at night, because they get what they want, which is me. We sleep in a whorl of bodies, with my head in the center, two little girls to either side of me, one boy perpendicular to us, and the other parallel to us and adjacent to his brother. Before we drop off to sleep we talk. It's the one time of day that they have my full undivided attention. I'm not a get-down-on-the-floor-with-the-kids kind of parent (as my husband is) so this is important. We talk about the events of the day, and the kids' various philosophical musings about life. We sing. They each have their special songs. For Jake it's an Irish folk song that I've been singing to him since he was a baby. For Noah it's Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Wwillow likes a variety of standards; regularly she'll request Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, You Are My Sunshine, and I've Been Workin' on the Railroad.

Lately we've been saying the Ki-Aikido motto together.

Our motto:

Let us have a universal spirit
that loves and protects all creation
and helps all things grow and develop.
To unify mind and body
and become one with the universe
is the ultimate purpose of our study.

Four major principles
to unify mind and body:

One: keep one-point
Two: relax completely
Three: keep weight underside
Four: extend Ki

Then ensued some discussion about the magic (as they see it) of Ki. I was really tired, so I said, "let's just sing Jake's special song and go to sleep." Rowan started singing instead which was just heart-breakingly sweet, and we listened for a while. I said how cute it was. Jake said, "I know, I can't stand it! It almost makes me want to faint with joy!" Hearing that almost made me want to faint with joy.

Then we sang:

Our ship she's ready to bear away
Come comrades o'er the stormy sea
Her snow-white wings, they are unfurled
And soon she'll swim in a watery world.

Do not forget, love, do not grieve
The heart is true and can't deceive
My heart and hand I'll give to thee
So farewell my love, remember me.

Farewell my love, so bright as pearl
My lovely dark-haired blue-eyed girl
And when I'm crossing the deep blue sea
I hope in Ireland you'll think of me.

(The song is called Farewell My Love, Remember Me. You can listen to it here sung by Nancy Curtin.)

Honoring the need for privacy.

The midwife who attended my first birth was intrusive and interfering. The answer to that was simple enough, I thought: just find an unintrusive, noninterventive midwife for the next birth. I am fortunate to live in an area where birth attendants are not legally required to practice according to restrictive standards, so it was not too difficult to find a midwife who agreed to stay in the background while I gave birth instinctively.

This second birth was empowering and healing, which cleared the way for me to perceive a desire in myself that had been obscured by the trauma of my first birth -- that of simply being alone in birth. I did not consciously understand why I wanted to be alone; there was just a vague sense of not being fully comfortable with people who were essentially acquaintances in such an intimate setting. But I was so strongly drawn to the idea of giving birth in privacy, that when I became pregnant again I planned to give birth alone or with just my husband present. I was done with doing things for the sake of being a good girl and doing what other people expected just because they expected it, and ready to honor my feelings and trust that I felt that way for a reason.

The labor with my third child was uneventful and progressed smoothly. Toward the end we had an unexpected visitor knock at the door, a beloved relative. In my journal I wrote,
I couldn’t seem to form the words to tell her it was time to leave. I looked at [my husband], I could see him trying to guess what I wanted, and all I could do was think at him, can’t you tell? I tried telling myself then that it didn’t matter if she was here. When I began vocalizing loudly, she left the room, no doubt feeling that the sudden intensity of the labor warranted privacy.
Because of this privacy, I experienced for the first time being inside the "birth bubble" after the baby was born -- an altered state of consciousness in which one's focus is totally internal, visceral, felt:
It's what you feel when you're making love, or totally involved in creating a work of art. It's being fully inside something. You can't stay in it when distracted or self-conscious... which I had no compulsion to be. I was inside birth. I can't get over it. I wish I could never get over it, that I could never forget. I would relive those last few moments a thousand times over if I could.
A few moments later our visitor entered the room, laughing and crying. For Laura Shanley's article Laura Shanley's article, "Why Some Women Don't Want Midwives At Their Births" (Midwifery Today, Issue 62, Fall 2002,) I wrote,
It was the time following my daughter's emergence that should have been my husband's and mine alone. Suddenly there was this other person diverting my attention from the most amazing event of my life. Abruptly, without being able to control what was happening, I shifted from being inside birth, inside my husband's love, inside this timeless, holy intimacy, and stepped outside of it to acknowledge someone who was not inside it. It's a difficult thing to describe, and I'm afraid that because I don't describe it well it will seem to others like a small thing. It wasn't. It was glaringly, heartbreakingly huge.

[...] in the days after the birth I was overwhelmed with feelings of grief and rage. Now I knew what it was that had been wrong about my other births - it wasn't so much that they were made more difficult or the normality threatened (though this was certainly true) - it was that these people with whom I was not already intimate were not supposed to be there. In the days after birth, when one is more open and vulnerable than at any time of life except during labor itself, this hit me hard and deep.
The understanding of what I had lost was overwhelming. I remember initially feeling very alone in this -- it's not something that I had ever heard anyone talk about, so who would understand? -- and feeling a rush of gratitude and relief in reading that Jan Tritten, the editor and founder of Midwifery Today, had experienced something similar after her unplanned unassisted birth:
This few minutes was one of the most glorious high points of my life. [...] About 10 minutes later my dear partners arrived. The problem was that because they had missed the birth they came in chatting and excited. The energy and commotion pierced and stole my bonding time. I felt guilty for wanting them, my best friends, to go home. I could feel this critical time, our first hour of falling in love, slipping out of my yearning grip. I never recovered that first hour. It taught me on a cellular level how to behave when a new baby graces the planet. The birthing room is sacred ground. The first hour is a most holy time and space.
Spiritually and emotionally, the disturbing of this stage in birth can be wounding. But because the vast majority of women in this country have never experienced an undisturbed hormonal process in birth and the benefits that are specific to it, and because we have social back-up systems that can mitigate the negative effects to some degree, we as a culture have lost the awareness that the "birth bubble" naturally extends into third stage of labor, and thus have no basis for understanding that its disruption affects the postpartum period. Society in general is dismissive and antagonistic toward the idea that the circumstances surrounding birth have an effect on the mental, emotional, and physical health of both mother and baby, so that people who take measures to protect these things, like giving birth at home and in privacy, are assumed to be doing so either out of ignorance or lack of concern for the health of the baby.

Even so, many of us still feel intuitively that the ability to bond, mother, and care for a baby is directly affected by the circumstances surrounding the birth, and feel browbeaten into forsaking that because the culture around us rejects it as invalid.

My own experience, having given birth four times with varying degrees of privacy, from an intrusive managed third stage to a fully instinctive and private one, was that the quality of the experience significantly affected my confidence level, emotional state, and instinctive ability to mother, and that those things in turn affected the emotional and physical health of myself, my baby, and my family. I guarded my fourth birth and postpartum very carefully, and there were no intrusions, no conflicts, and no postpartum depression.

In the birth story I wrote,
It was the most wonderful thing to sit there naked and unselfconscious and just be, talking in low tones happily with each other and knowing it was all over and no one would bother us, we could just be with each other as a family and be fully in the moment with nothing to take us out of it, nothing out of place, in complete harmony. I felt incredibly awake, alert, and aware, and there was a stillness of time and clarity and a feeling of utter rightness that was present for the first time for me after a birth.

It was so very hard, yet now that it is all over I feel infused with emotional strength. No depression this time, no weird feelings. There has been nothing wrong to set them off. Everything about this emergence feels different -- it feels like it was finally the way it was meant to be.
It was such a simple thing, but sometimes the simplest things are the most profound. It made a huge difference in my ability to care for my baby as nature intended (and as a result my confidence as a mother,) in my relationships with my children and husband, and in my enjoyment of the newborn phase. I bonded perfectly and immediately with the baby, with a deep inloveness. It was also the first time I did not experience postpartum depression, and my joy and satisfaction radiated out to my family. I felt like finally this was what having children was supposed to be like. We as a family were experiencing what we were meant to, and it was very healthy and whole and spiritually right.

Anecdotal evidence aside, think about it: Most women in our culture do experience postpartum depression, delayed bonding, and difficulty adjusting to the role of being a mother. What if it is that way in large part because we create birth experiences out of damaging cultural myths instead of the mother's own intuitive and instinctive knowledge of what will best serve her purposes for health and wholeness? What if it is the norm that the negative psychological effects of doing so are not limited to one day in the life of the mother, but trickle out into her life in myriad insidious ways? And what if it doesn't need to be this way at all for the majority of women? What would be the ramifications for families and for society as a whole if more women were allowed to give birth normally, unhindered?

why birth is difficult

A letter to the editors of National Geographic:


In contrast to the widely held belief (stated in the article "The Downside of Upright", National Geographic July 2006) that birth for human females is difficult primarily because of the shape of the pelvis and size of the infant, I'd like to offer the alternative (and scientifically valid) view that it is management of birth that creates most of the difficulty we experience.

Normality in birth for all mammals is dependent on the unimpeded release of sexual hormones; stimulation of the neocortex interferes with the functioning of the primal brain that regulates these hormones. Our highly developed neocortex makes humans especially vulnerable to conditions that disturb hormone release. Most people recognize the difficulties a cat would experience if it were expected to give birth in the same environment the average woman does -- under bright lights, observed, touched, and directed by attendants -- yet strangely it does not usually occur to them that these things make the process arduous for humans as well.

The World Health Organization has stated that, "By medicalizing birth, i.e. separating a woman from her own environment and surrounding her with strange people using strange machines to do strange things to her in an effort to assist her (and some of this may occasionally be necessary), the woman's state of mind and body is so altered that her ways of carrying through this intimate act must also be altered and the state of the baby born must equally be altered. The result is that it is no longer possible to know what births would have been like before these manipulations. Most health care providers no longer know what "non-medicalized" birth is. This is an overwhelmingly important issue."

There are, in fact, very few cultures that do not disturb the birth process in some way, either for cultural or medical reasons. If researchers continue to look only at assisted birth, it will remain impossible for them to say to what degree physiology alone is responsible for the hardships modern women endure in birth. One valuable lesson from the natural birth movement, in which more and more women are being encouraged to birth without direct assistance and according to their instincts, is that it is a myth that the human birth process is inherently long and painful and that it is difficult for women to catch their own babies and attend to them directly following birth. Women who are allowed to give birth spontaneously and who are not inhibited or distracted by the presence of attendants tend to experience the physical process of birth very differently from their managed counterparts.

a fairy tale country

Imagine a fairy tale country that has a government based on freedom, democracy and basic human rights for all. Now, imagine that to prepare that country’s children for the rights and responsibilities of living in and contributing to the free, democratic society, the government institutes a strange practice: Beginning at the age of five, children in the country are confined for 13 years as hostages to a totalitarian institution run as a dictatorship. In that institution, children’s movement and bodily functions are controlled and regimented. Children cannot get out of seats or out of rooms without permission. Calls to parents are forbidden except in emergencies. Children have no right to question the validity of the curriculum, no right to critical thinking in deviance to the teacher’s agenda, no right to dispute or influence procedures for maintaining order and guidance. Children have no right to a curriculum based on independent study, or to have honored their own learning styles and educational needs and goals. The children can only go out and get exercise for 10-20 minutes once or twice per day, but that stops totally around the age of 10. Children are taught that the democracy exists, but are not allowed to take part in it. At the age of 18, children in that country are released. They are expected to be ready to function in society, advanced education and careers as self-motivating, free-thinking, innovative and assertive individuals.

--Laurie A. Couture,
Detrimental Schooling: How Traditional Education Harms Children & Society

the "late" reader

In November my 8-year-old son was just beginning to get interested in learning how to read. He would try to follow me as I read to him, and would ask what sounds certain letters made. Although we hadn't taken a phonics approach, he has gotten the idea from well-meaning family and friends and children's television programs that this is just what you do to learn to read. He quickly became frustrated to find that phonics doesn't always work and that you just simply have to become familiar with the sounds that certain groups of letters make, which often means memorizing whole words.

This frustration -- that learning to read wasn't going to happen as advertised -- slowed him down a bit, I think. But he's taken off again, and I think it's going to happen very quickly from here on out. Recently in a drive-through he read, "Please pull up to next window." The first couple of words he sounded out, but he read the rest quickly. He said he just guessed what the rest was going to say, meaning that he inferred meaning from context, which of course is an important element of fluid and fluent reading. Then he said, annoyed, "why isn't there a "the" before "next"? He was recognizing the individual words as well. The connections seem to be happening now, not just quickly, but lightening fast.

I've long believed that people learn best when they are truly developmentally ready, and that only they can know when that is, and that they will know when that is by virtue of it simply happening naturally, in the absence of coercion or unsolicited teaching. The only really useful thing anyone else can do is to provide opportunity and answer questions. This is not an easy thing to allow in a culture that goes apoplectic over a child who can not read by second grade. It's considered a sign either that the educational system is failing the child, or that there is something wrong with the child. I consider it a sign that the child is not ready, and that the educational system has failed him not in not imbuing him with a skill for which he does not yet have the aptitude, but in leading the child and those around him to believe that he was already or has become disabled. These late readers within the school system often never learn to read well at all; how we perceive ourselves affects who we are able to become. Society in general, however, refuses to recognize that and stridently insists that the reason they are poor readers is that there is one small window of opportunity for learning to read and they missed it.

Who is right? It would be very easy to find out.

cultivating the instinct

This morning while it was still dark out, comforting my daughter after a bad dream, holding her close to me, whispering, "It's all right, you're safe, I love you."

When you first have children, people will tell you it's not okay to have your children near as you sleeps. It's not true.

I didn't play "mother" as a child. I had no interest in or desire for babies, not when I was 16, not when I was 23, not when I was 30. I did not have it until I was at least in my mid-thirties, and only then after I had given birth twice and breastfed for nearly three years. I had crushes when young, but I didn't understand about sexual attraction -- meaning I didn't feel it -- until I was well into my third decade of life. I had sex for ten years before finally conceiving. Clearly I'm different from many women; the hormonal process of sexual maturation was delayed or maybe stunted in my body.

Why am I like this? I suspect that at least part of it has to do with my own start to life, with the fact that during my mother's labor I was flooded with her stress hormones -- she spent nearly 19 hours of painful labor alone in a stark hospital room, not allowed to move from the bed -- and that I was removed from her before labor was completed and kept from her for long after the birth. I did not receive the natural opiates, the adrenaline, and the oxytocin I normally would have. That I do not remember this is irrelevant; my brain was imprinted, my body's development set on a particular path.

When I talk about birth issues, and what the potential ramifications are of interfering with the hormonal process, often people pooh-pooh what I'm saying, or they get angry. They gave birth in four hours under bright lights, hooked up to machines, with strangers sticking their hands up their vaginas, why, the baby shot out so fast they almost dropped it! Or, they had a cesarean or traumatic birth or had their babies sleep in nursery for the first 24 hours and they bonded with their children just fine, they are deeply in love and perfectly psychically connected with their children thank you very much.

That's great, but obviously I'm not talking about these people. I'm talking about people like me, or somewhere else on the spectrum, but still on the other end from those whose bodies can forge right on ahead under the most adverse of circumstances, whose bodies are naturally swimming in hormones and for whom the evolutionary advantageous (up until the 20th century anyway) fight-or-flight response never kicks in.

This is why I give birth alone, why for me the risks of doing so are lesser than the risks of birthing in the presense of others (much less a hospital environment.) It's also why attachment parenting practices are so important to me, a book like The Continuum Concept so meaningful. Because I had little to start with in the way of innate mothering aptitude, having my babies close to me, from the first moments of life, literally *made* me a mother, in all that encompasses: the protectiveness, the bond, the affection, the desire to touch and comfort, the desire to breastfeed, the gentleness and compassion. These feelings are chemically induced; it is the hormones that produce them. And they in turn are mechanically induced by certain actions.

Robin Lim writes, "When people sit down to a meal as a family, hold hands, kiss, go for a walk arm-in-arm, make love, pray and yes, when women give birth, oxytocin is released. Each opportunity to experience oxytocin creates receptors, molecules of proteins that on a cellular level are binding sites for this hormone of love. In other words love lays the foundation for more love."

How much is enough? There is no doubt that emotional, social, and sexual development is affected by environment, but there may be quite a bit of leeway there depending on where you're starting from and what you're working with. Some people need all the help they can get, and one of those people is me; and I know this from experience, because I didn't always give birth under ideal circumstances, and I didn't always keep my children close to me. When I did, the differences were so pronounced that they were undeniable.

But I am a unique individual, and while I can speak in generalities about what human beings need, when I get down to the details as they apply to my own life, I know that my needs are determined at least in part by my particular biochemical makeup and psychological state. So I can't speak for anyone else, and I certainly can't judge. I can only know that for me, that ability to wake up in the dead of night and not mind, to have in my heart only concern, to automatically use my body to comfort and my voice to soothe, that is not something that came naturally. It had to be cultivated, and co-sleeping just happens to be something that helped me to do that.

the wilderness of intuition

Be brave enough to live creatively. The creative place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can’t get there by bus, only by hard work, risking, and by not quite knowing what you are doing. What you discover will be wonderful: yourself.” –Alan Alda

I found this at this blog, which I am finding to be a quiet inspiration.

birth day

Waking in the middle of the night to a "pop" -- my waters releasing.

Trying in vain to sleep.

Wandering aimlessly.

Leaning over the piano, swaying to a song aptly titled "It's Not Over 'Til It's Over".

Detachedly watching people wrestle with a faucet attachment so the birth tub can be filled.

Feeling self-conscious as the midwife sits in a corner of the room watching.

Yelling, shrieking, moaning, cursing.

The midwife says from her corner of the room, "The baby's coming."

Feeling the hair on his head, like seaweed floating in water.

Roaring as he moves down and out into the water, as water pours from the sky.

Holding him against me.


Waiting a long time for the placenta, and marveling at its shape: a heart, a good omen.

Sleeping, finally, this time with the long-awaited beloved one in my arms.