Monday, October 24, 2011

Making Your Own Rules

This week's guest post is from the fabulous JJ Ross, who has worn many hats including academic, secular humanist, and unschooler. She shares her thoughts about parenting beyond the advice of others.

This is the first in the series "Good Advice / Bad Advice," with a new post every week from now until the end of November. --LN
As a young academic enjoying early success in a very public career, I never expected to find myself expecting, never aspired to nor prepared myself to be a mom. By the time I was belatedly (at age 35) a mom, my own mother hadn't lived long enough to see it and to give me motherly advice.

What to do? My panicky default was to dredge up and derive what my mom and her generation must have expected of themselves as parents, based on my own upbringing as a good little girl from the mid-fifties to mid-seventies. So without realizing it at the time, I gave myself some very good advice -- and then very seldom followed it!

Clean your room, clean your plate, brush your hair 100 strokes, eat an apple every day. I did these things automatically and so much more, accepting without question that one must dutifully do them or die, as necessary as breathing. Later I learned cultural rules from no curlers in public to no white after Labor Day, and religiously respected them too. Yet my firstborn and her little brother did none of this, ever. (Well, except breathing.)

And early potty training, early to bed, early to rise? Ha! I was like Alice as a mom, oh-so-conscientious but my heart wasn't in what passed as middle-class parenting advice. Honestly, I never cared that much (except of course about the breathing) so why would my kids?

There were endless other givens in how I was parented and the advice I drew from those days, that laughably failed to take, in parenting my children -- from supper every night around the table as a family to limited television/screen time.

It turns out even the biggest thing I grew up doing as automatically as breathing -- School -- didn't matter that much. I went early and often, kindergarten at age four, skipped a grade, teacher's pet, loved schooling and stayed with it straight up through my doctorate and made a career of it! My kids, on the other hand, never did school, not a day of kindergarten nor school-at-home -- indeed we "unschooled" -- yet now the firstborn is chomping at the bit for her doctorate. She's in grad school at age 21 and easily might be younger than I was at 28, when she is hooded.

And School was not easy for me to let go. I was a professional public school expert. My specialty was curriculum standards and behavioral objectives, bulletin boards and charts and stars, pluses and minuses, credits and awards, diplomas and disciplines.

I was actually an elementary school principal once upon a time, on top of all sorts of school policy, library-media center and administrative roles. But that was all when I had no actual children of my own and wasn't expecting any.

Confronted with the reality of individual children we made from scratch, from stuff around the house, who we found infinitely more interesting than any system designed to control them -- well, that was the end of my very good advice to myself.

I can’t take credit for having understood this at the time, but it turns out that all those behavioral conditioning fixations as if children were pets to be trained, really don’t matter much either way. I didn't get it at the time but as Favorite Daughter says now, "ALL the advice is bad advice!" What matters is health and happiness, right now.

My health and happiness both as child and as adult, wasn’t predicated on being parented to do all those things. Bedtime, dinnertime, never mind church every Sunday -- I did them all on schedule, on demand, and I’ve been happy and healthy. My children’s health and happiness hasn’t suffered from NOT being parented to do all those things. They didn’t do any of it, and they are just as happy and healthy as I ever was, if not more so.

I am now almost as old as my mother was when she passed away, the week after I told her I was expecting her first grandchild. So I feel old enough (in the perhaps undeserved comfort of having come through largely unscathed) to give advice to new moms! All that advice I reconstructed from my own childhood parented by my mother's generation was loving advice, sure, but love focused on controls and compliance and cleanliness and order, love as boundaries and limits, literally love by the rules. Duty, guilt, reward and punishment.

Not very good advice, I think now. The advice I got from slightly older and much wiser unschooling peers beat it by a mile: love your kids without limit!

This is not trivial; this is building the relationship you will have in a few years and during a time of life when most parents lose that closeness and honesty and confidence . . . If you restrict TV now, will you try to restrict them  from the things they want when they are teens, too? It won’t work and everyone knows it, but parents don’t know what else to do. They act like they can control their teenagers, but that is so obviously not true; teens whose parents are restrictive will often put themselves in much more risky situations than otherwise. Start trusting them now if that is the relationship you hope to have when they are teens. . .

Christopher Hitchens with late-stage cancer writes about writing as someone acutely aware every article could be his last. I think I had the benefit of similar perspective as an older than average mom whose own grandmothers and mother were already gone, parenting not for decades in the future but for each day, every day.

So here is my very good advice -- to remember that what I care about without limits, every day in every way, is for my children and their father and me, to be happy and healthy today, now, not just in some gauzy possible future but here. Together.

And tomorrow or soon enough when I'm gone, that's my best shot to be what they will remember.

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