One day I woke up and realized I’d been doing almost everything “parenty” all wrong. Okay, so it didn’t happen all at once like that but indulge me in a bit of creative license.
Once things have turned around and are going so well, it’s easy to tell people stories like the one I shared in Part 2 about my 17-year-old son’s unprompted and sincere apology for being short with me the other day. To someone still trying to find the magic formula for perfect parenting (full disclosure: I don't have it), I worry that I sound like I’ve had it all together for so long and the environment in our house is some unattainable bliss. I know when I was starting to examine Peaceful Parenting and Radical Unschooling, that’s how I felt. I spent a lot of time thinking things like, “What the hell do you mean ‘Stop struggling?!’ How the hell am I supposed to get them to brush their teeth when they don’t want to AND stop struggling?!”
So today I want to share some uncomfortable truths about where my family was before I stopped struggling and started – well – just loving my family. I’m going to share these things because people like me need to know there is a better way, a happier way. I don’t want anyone who is still struggling to read me gushing about my wonderful kids/hubby and assume that we started in an easy place and that they can’t get to where we are.
I’m going to resist the urge to explain the awful logic that led to each of these mistakes. I have a lot to confess and if I also explain this post will be even longer and more agonizing than it already is. Everything on the list to follow has a story that could be a post on its own, and at some point they likely will be.
1. I spanked my sons with a spatula when they were little.
Whew! I’m just throwing that one out there to get it over with and I have to say, it hurts. Just like spanking advocates advise, I did it calmly while explaining that I loved them but they needed to understand that bad choices have bad consequences. I am literally nauseous and my eyes are filling with tears just writing this.
2. I cared a lot what other people thought of my parenting.
Back then I thought it was “what they thought of my kids” but really it was about me. I wanted people around me to see that I could take toddlers through the toy store who didn’t throw fits; who knew better than to throw fits. If they did anything at all that might have earned a dour look from the old lady at the checkout, I made sure to discipline them loudly for all to hear. I was terrified of being seen as a bad mother with out of control kids and I allowed my concern for what those people thought of my parenting to have a greater impact on my behavior than what I wanted my relationship with my children to be.
3. I was an intellectual toy snob.
I’ll never forget the first Christmas my now-husband spent with us. We had married in November so we could be settled as a family unit in time for the holidays. As we shopped for gifts for our 3 and 6 year old boys I stuck to the V-Tech and learning sections. Suddenly, Micah came around the corner of the aisle in a Darth Vader mask with a voice changer and growled, “Can we please buy just one fun thing?!” I was reluctant. We didn’t have much to spend and I wanted the kids to be always learning. Back then I thought that only meant reading the “right” books and “making math fun.” I shudder to think what our home would be like without the relaxing influence of my darling hubby.
4. I thought if the kids didn’t have it “as bad” as I did, I was succeeding as a mother.
This one really baffles me, because my mom had it much worse than I did. Some of the things done to her would cause nightmares. But in the aftermath of a fight with her that was devastating to me, she would sometimes say bitterly, “You don’t have it so bad. You should have had my mother.” And I would just seethe with the injustice of that remark. I would think, “Being better than a woman like her doesn’t make you a good mother.” How is it that I was able to adopt the same bullshit justification that so enraged me as a child?
5. I vocally detested the things they loved.
I’m a reader. I love books and I totally bought into the idea that books are somehow superior to other things like video games, movies, or TV shows. I used to limit the kids to an hour or two on the computer each day. Then I had a scheme where they could have “electronics” like computer or TV for as long as they spent outside because I also believed the outside was superior to the inside. I’d tell them to go outside, get off the computers, and they’d always need to get to a save point and it would take longer and longer and they’d be whining and crying about having to do anything other than the game and half the time I’d totally lose my shit and be yelling about how I would throw every fucking game and computer in the fucking garbage if they didn’t get off NOW!
6. By the time I found Radical Unschooling, my sons were 9 and 11 and neither of them wanted anything to do with us.
They fought with one another constantly: brutal physical altercations that would sometimes end with the younger being choked or the older being bitten until he bruised. Hubby and I had a four-year-old daughter by then and she seemed to be the only one in the house they liked, but they fought with each other over her attention as well. The younger, now a middle-child, became so unhappy that I seriously considered therapy. I would hear him crying in his room but he wouldn’t share with me what was wrong. I was afraid he would try to hurt himself, but also afraid to stigmatize him in his own eyes by taking him to someone. My eldest was so self-contained it was disturbing. I spent a night sleeping outside his bedroom door after he threatened to run away, terrified he may have found someone online to help him “escape.”
It was probably 3 months into that final stage of misery that I found and immediately embraced Radical Unschooling. I had already abandoned any kind of physical “discipline” years before, but my need to control hadn’t gone away. I genuinely believed that controlling children was the bare minimum of parenting.
This was the first group of people I had ever encountered who claimed control was not necessary. They claimed to have happy, helpful, generous, kind, well-behaved children without rules, without artificial limits, and without a system of reward or punishment. I guess there’s one more confession to make:
I didn’t actually believe it was true. I didn’t believe that kids would learn without teaching or that they would become respectful without rules delineating what respect is and consequences for not following them. But I think deep down I knew that it was the constant tethering of their spirits that made them angry and bitter toward us. I showed hubby what I’d found and we decided to give it 6 months. For 6 months we would loosen our grasp and see what happened. At the time my greatest fear was not that they wouldn’t make it into a good college or have a great, lucrative career; my greatest fear was far more immediate: Suicide.
From the time he was a baby, my now-15-year-old has had this incredibly infectious laugh. He would erupt with complete abandon and you would just have to laugh right along with him no matter what. For a span of months that laughter was gone but it’s been back for years and I never, ever get tired of hearing it. I also never forget how close I may have come to losing it forever and how lucky we all were that we made the decision to change our family dynamic so drastically.
Well this has been a brutally honest post to write and brutally long for you to read, I’m sure. If you’ve stuck around this long I thank you and invite your comment. I hope you will follow so we don’t end our time on such a low note. In my next post I’ll address the small, incremental changes as well as the big decisions we made that allowed this story to end so much more happily than I would have believed 6 years ago was possible. Today all three kids are happy, bright, inquisitive, well-rounded, well educated for their ages, polite, generous, and demonstratively loving. At 10, 15, and 17 they spend time with us voluntarily and share with us things they’ve learned, games they’ve played, and goals they’ve achieved. I’d love to share with you how we got there in spite of the confessions above. If there's anyone else you think might enjoy our journey, please resteem.