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A Kid in a Candy Store

You’d think I had been out of the country for 20 years with the amount of salivating that occurred at the grocery store yesterday.  It wasn’t just any grocery store though; it was an amazing little coop in my hometown that has expanded into a beautiful butterfly of a store.  And so, I walked through it, drooling all over myself and throwing FAR too many things into my shopping cart.  Because organic kale.  And cashew cheese.  And teff torillas.  And personal care products that don’t contain a myriad of endocrine disrupting chemicals.  ENDOCRINE DISRUPTING CHEMICALS [sighs and then rolls eyes at self].

And then I looked around me and at my reaction to such things and went WOAH.  The store was full of super hip hippies (if I had a better word for it, I’d use it, but I don’t, so I will).  And I was in heaven.  I was like a damn kid in a candy store.  Were these my peoplePart of the confusion was a result of my hometown all of a sudden feeling like Portland or Fairfax, CA (strangely, two of my most favorite places)… all hip and shit.  Hip people who grow their own veggies.  Hip people who consume hemp and chia seeds rather than resource consuming meat.  Hip people who only buy locally and make their houses out of straw bale.  Hip people who care about the planet they live on and the impact their choices make. 

You see, where I’ve been for the past few months (Shenzhen, China) is most definitely NOT full of super hip hippies.  Or anything that resembles a hippie for that matter (though, you do occasionally see a dreaded, shoeless, napping on the ground Chinese guy around – and they all look eerily similar and oh so out of place – we still haven’t figured out the mystery – YOU don’t happen to know, do you?).  I often feel like I’m [one of the] only one[s] barking about the atrocious air/water quality and lack of clean/ORGANIC produce (though, I should mention, China has a more restrictive policy on GMO’s than many western countries).  In those short months, I think I forgot that I’m not in fact [one of the] only one[s] who thinks about these things.  Had I forgotten what my people looked like?  I looked down at what I was wearing.  No super hip hip bag.  No super hip rustic cowgirl hat.  No dreads.  An arm full of bracelets, yes.  No super hip locally made skirt.  No handmade leather sandals.  Fresh out of river bun, yes.  No basket for my produce.  No bag AT ALL, disposable paper bag used.

Here’s my deal.  I care A LOT about all of these things, but I still kind of want to barf on myself when I reflect on my deep entrenchment in these very much elitist problems (i.e. those who have enough to worry about the details).  I start to think of all of the suffering and malnourishment and turmoil occurring across the globe AND THEN, in the next thought, I think about how totally TERRIBLE it is that I can’t find raw honey and organic produce in China and I’m like… “come on hunny, stop your bitching.  Relax.  Your kids aren’t going to die if you put white sugar in the quinoa, rice flour scones this one time”.  But then in the same reflection, I see the connection between feeding ourselves in a sustainable [healthier] manner and our planet, as a whole, becoming healthier [sustainable].  LOUD and CLEAR.

SO, when I look in a mirror at myself, I get a little confused.  Am I a super hip hippie?  Were those my people?  I tend to live in shades of grey, so I think that the answer is yes!, depending on which day you’re asking.  Most days I can find the resolve to live out my convictions (you can read about them, as well as our carnivorous children, here), but dammit, some days I just want a brownie or worse yet, barbequed honey pork.  It’s true.  Sometimes, I eat pork.  Have you ever been to China?  Let’s just say they’re pretty into pigs over there (I wrote a bit about it, in a post that kinda makes me feel like a broken record, quite a while ago, here).  Point is, it takes A LOT of self discipline to live out ones strictest values ALL of the time, and well, I have two young kids, so sometimes, breaking down is merely a matter of survival (if you actually read the last linked post, now you understand the broken record bit).

What I DO know is that I very much took for granted living in the land of plenty (i.e. California), where you can find fresh, seasonal produce 12 months a year at a farmer’s market.  Where you could taste test a different store bought nut milk every day for a month.  Where there are more natural personal care product companies than cigarette brands.  Where micro brews on tap and organic, fair trade coffee beans are the norm.  [Where the water fountains flow with coconut water and the streets are paved with vegan chocolate chips.]

This isn’t my first travel rodeo, yet this is the first time I’ve been confronted by such a strong yearning for the goods that blossom in the land of plenty.  Perhaps it’s partly because I’m more effected by my environment now that I’m traveling with kids, perhaps partly because it really is difficult to access clean food stuffs in China.  Perhaps it’s just because I’m a hip, hippie.

At any rate, as you see below, we’re smuggling boat loads of plenty back with us, so we should be set for a while few weeks.

Public, Private, Home, and Un… Which SCHOOL is for you?

School has long been on my mind.  As our oldest is nearing her school years, this question has become more and more prominent in my thoughts.  Applying for preschool felt like college, mostly due to the fact that we were living in San Francisco, where preschool is EXTREMELY competitive.  But, also because all of a sudden, I was confronted by SOOOOOOO many different educational philosophies/choices.  Thus, I did what I (and millions of other moms) do, I researched.  I learned about Waldorf, and Maria Montessori, the roots of Reggio Emilio, and coops.  I read Beyond the Rainbow Bridge, The Montessori Method (by Maria Montessori), and all about Rudolph Steiner.  We started at an amazing coop in the city that wove together bits and pieces of all of these philosophies, which the little gal just couldn’t hang with… 35 kids somewhat chaotically owning the place was too much for her to handle.  And we also moved.  So then, after moving to a smaller town with fewer choices (thank goodness), we settled on a Montessori preschool that was very nature based.  At the time, it was between this school and a Waldorf based preschool, and even though I was more drawn to the Waldorf school, I felt that the Montessori environment was best for her.  With that said, I’m still not sure I totally believe this or whether either choice would have really been more beneficial for her.

And that’s JUST preschool.

On we’re trooping through her toddler years.  She’s now at her second Montessori school (another move – to China no less), and LOVES it, mostly.  Which I’m now using as the gauge of success – if she’s excited to go, it must be a good fit, right?  And even though she occasionally gets separation anxiety and it takes multiple rounds of 4 hugs and 4 kisses, teary eyes included, to get her through the door, she’s happy when we pick her up.  Our focus, honestly, right now, is the language exposure she’s getting through school.  Yup, we’re sending her to a Chinese kindergarten [preschool].  Before you say, woah, I should qualify that by telling you that her main teacher speaks very good English.  So yea, that’s preschool.  And I think we’re all content with how this portion of her education is/has progressing/ed.

BUT, in the very not so far off future, we’re going to have to consider a whole new variety of education… her real school years.  Dun, dun, duuunnnn.  Here’s where our heads are at (no, I’m not a two headed monster, those heads would be that of mine and the Daddy-Man).  We BOTH were raised in fully conventional school systems and fully participated.  We both had lots of friends, good relationships with teachers, [I] participated in many group sports/activities (Dad spent most of his adolescence skateboarding and on the fringes of conventional extracurricular activities), and we both were on the honor roll.  HOWEVER, when we think of putting our own children through this system, we both begin to question.

And then we [I] analyze.  What is it about that school system that we don’t want for our children?  For starters, it’s the curriculum and the method of delivery.  Ask me about the American Civil War or what a possessive pronoun is… or don’t, I can’t remember.   I read a highly frustratingly polarized but totally credible book, Punished By Rewards, for a class I recently took.  While I could smirk until the cows come home about many of his examples, the basis of the book is refreshing: children don’t develop an innate desire to learn in conventional settings because they are more focused on the reward (the gold star, the grade, the praise) than on the learning.   And I certainly can identify.   I crammed, I memorized, I regurgitated, I got straight A’s, and then I forgot it all.  Then I went to college and although this type of learning did cut the mustard 60% of the time, it didn’t work 40% of the time and I ended up with sub-par grades that have been a great detriment to me in pursuing further educational and career goals.  Oops.  And while I don’t want to use anything or anybody as my excuse, I do feel like coming out of high school, I was not mentally or emotionally prepared to put in the energy required to pursue my career.  There are things that you don’t learn in a conventional school system.   I was also 17 and from a small town; I’m sure it was caused by both the chicken AND the egg.

At any rate, in addition to the actual education provided by the conventional system of schooling, is the socialization provided by the conventional system of schooling.  Like I said, I participated in many activities, had many friends,  and might even say I was part of the cool crowd [insert barf here].  Moreover, my closest friends now are the ones I’ve had since high school.  HOWEVER, I still had to deal with being a teenage girl living in a world of judgmental, fickle girls and I think we can all agree that THAT, is not a fun world.  Well, you may be thinking, that’s the real world hunny, and it develops skills that children are going to have to take with them through their lives.  Is that REALLY true, though.  First and fortunately, teenagers do grow up (most of the time) and lose their arrogant/entitled/insecure behaviors and while yes, it’s true that you’re always going to have to deal with a-holes in life, as an adult with puberty behind you, you’re naturally better equipped to handle said a-holes.  And I’d argue that an adult who didn’t have insecurity drilled into them through teenage socialization would be even more equipped, with natural self confidence, than one who had been beaten down by her peers in adolescence.  That was my experience and not something I’d like to do over again… which translates into not wanting my children to experience it, either.

Back to elementary education.  Conventional school systems are forced to use a one-size-fits-all approach, with no room for outliers.  Understandably so.  In the ever increasing world of budget cuts, teachers must perform more efficiently with less resources and more children.  But I don’t want my kids to develop the skill of cramming and regurgitating.  I don’t want them to grow up with a narrow perspective of the world.  I want my kids to be free thinkers, who are able to confidently trust themselves and their creative ability to solve problems.  I want them to think outside of the box.  I want them to change the world.

SO, if not conventional public school, then what?  Below are the options, in order from safe/known to radical/unknown.

Public Charter:  Based on an alternative educational model.  Dependent on location.

Private:  Expensive route (and 99.9% sure not the one for us).

Home:  Flexible yet structured.

Un:  Brave and somewhat unchartered route.

Much of the choice boils down to unique life circumstances (how are the bold letters working out for you, does it feel like I’m a game show host presenting the next prize?).  If, for instance, we were still living abroad and didn’t have access to an alternative public charter, we’d be more inclined to homeschool.  However, if we ended up in the US, close to a public Waldorf program, we most likely go that route.  And when I say homeschool, I say so with a lump in my throat.  I NEVER imagined that I would homeschool my children, for lack of gumption/energy/passion/general wherewithal to provide my children with quality education.  But, but, but, as life has progressed, having a certain amount of flexibility has become an important component in our lives and one that we’d like to maintain.

Flexibility is the next major reason for steering away from a conventional school system.  This flexibility has played a central role in the fact that I haven’t worked since the first monster was born; I haven’t yet set in on something that was worth sacrificing it for  (have you ever seen Revolutionary Road?  Well, ending up in the suburbs with careers we don’t like and a life I’m not happy with makes me highly anxious- though I am not AT ALL implying that suburbs mean misery).  And YES, I am extremely grateful that I’m even able to think that way (i.e. being a single income family – clearly, I realize that many families do not have the luxury of this type of thinking).

So, school.  There is a pretty incredible network of both public Montessori schools AND public Waldorf schools in the US.  To me, the key behind both methods is enabling children to tap into their inherent desire to learn, on their own individual terms, in hopes of developing free thinking adults who are better equipped to confront their world, whatever that may be.

As for private schools, I don’t think we’ll ever have enough money to feel good about dropping 15-25K/year on elementary education, though if we were loaded, there are many schools I’d LOVE to support.

That brings us to homeschool.  To reiterate, a lump in my throat.  Doubt that I can actually teach my kids, fear that they won’t get what they need, anxiety that I might loose it in the process.  BUT, let’s assume we could achieve a wonderfully harmonious home schooling environment where the kids were thriving.  Where they could sleep in until 9, during growth spurts, when their body needed extra sleep.  Where we could take off for long weekends to participate in field studies and learn from the real world.  Where they wouldn’t be forced to learn at the same speed as the 30 other kids in their class.  Where we could dedicate a few hours per day on school and spend the rest getting dirty outside.  They’d still get the same type of knowledge learned in conventional school, but on their terms.  But what about their socialization, you ask?  This is, quite likely, the homeschooling skeptics number one ammo.  And one thing that actually doesn’t worry me about the prospect.  I trust that we’ll continue to be social enough people that our children will learn the ropes of how to be a human being in the world without us having to manifest or force it.  Furthermore, if we continue to travel, they’ll be exposed to far more social rhythms by the time they’re 10 than either of us did until well into our twenties.

Now, raise homeschooling to the tenth power and what you’ll get is unschooling.  A radical choice, indeed.  I’ve recently come across dozens of traveling families who have chosen to blaze their way through this path and I’ve got to say, they’re inspiring.  The idea behind unschooling is that by just actively being part of the world, with parents who are 100% engaged in the lives of their children, that kids will naturally learn.  Sure, it probably won’t be at the pace of a child who is learning through a conventional system, but by the time they’re 18, they’ll most likely have similar skills and knowledge under their belts and arguably, skills that the conventionally schooled child doesn’t possess.  Lee Stranahan, an unschooling Dad, wrote a great piece about his experience at the Huffington Post.  Another inspiring unschooling family can be found at Raising Miro.  I found this quote by unschooling advocate, Sandra Dodd, that I thought was simple and effective:

There is a Sesame Street book called Grover and the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum.  There is a “things under the sea” room and a “things in the sky” room, but still each room is just a room in a museum, no windows, everything out of context.  Then he opens a big door marked “everything else in the whole wide world” and goes out into the sunshine.  There is unschooling.

At any rate, while I quite love the idea of unschooling, I think it may be too unstructured for our traditionally trained minds.  I also believe that this option very much depends on your lifestyle.  For traveling families who are constantly exploring and engaging with new places and cultures, for instance, I can see how unschooling could be a good fit.  I’m sure that I could find plenty of great examples of families who unschool in a multitude of environments and be plenty inspired.

As with much of our life at the moment, the destination is unknown and open.  At this point, the same goes for what type of learning environment will best suit us.  There are many options; more than one of which, I’m certain, can provide our children with just what they need.  And who knows, maybe they’ll end up in a traditional public school.  Life is constantly evolving, as am I, as are our children.  What is right in this moment, may not be right in the next and it’s the least I can do to stay flexible and open.

What are your thoughts on schooling?  Will your kids go to traditional schools?  Could you ever imagine homeschooling?  Tell, tell, tell!