I Believe in Santa Because I Believe in Science

If you had never been diving, you might assume that islands float. Then you might learn that islands are, in fact, just mountains poking up from the sea floor. And you would be told that islands don't float. So what if you then found yourself on a floating island? Would you even recognize it as an island?

What if you learned to recognize life by our current earthly definitions, and then you went exploring on some distant planet and came home empty-handed, only because you were unable to recognize life in a different form?

What if you lost your beloved baby - the one who was real to you, even though your parents kept telling you it was plastic - and you cried every night and found no joy in your days for months, and nobody understood your pain because your definition of 'real' was not in their dictionary? Then what if you pinned all your hopes for finding your beloved lost baby on Santa Claus, and you wrote him a letter, but they told you Santa Claus couldn't find your baby, and sometimes real life just hurts, and then your Auntie and Nana colluded to replace your baby as a Christmas present from Nana, and she wasn't the same baby, and you gave her a new name, and the hole in your heart wasn't filled but you felt joy again, and you discovered that Santa Claus is real, and that Nana and Auntie are a part of him, and you lost a little faith in the world, but you gained a little, too? And what if you spent the rest of your life searching for answers and discovering all sorts of new ways of looking at things, because somebody let you make your own definitions instead of boxing you into their own?
These are the caribou that my daughter saw on Grouse Mountain. They were supposedly Santa's reindeer, and I told her that Grouse Mountain just wanted to attract more visitors by pretending they were Santa's reindeer. She went into the little hut there to visit the man dressed as Santa, and told me afterwards that she knew he was the real Santa because he was so nice to her, and he loved his wife, Jessica. And because Jessica was friendly, too. I told her maybe they were just nice people. It was shortly after this that she wrote a letter to Santa asking him to help her find her missing baby. To Santa and Jessica, and the two bored caribou on Grouse Mountain, thank you for giving my daughter hope.

Some people think science is about definitions and categories; rules and laws and putting things into boxes. I think it's about breaking open all the boxes.

Science is about opening our minds.

So what about "magical thinking"? I've been told many times that magical thinking harms our children, either because it sets them up for a huge disappointment, or because it leads them to believe things that are just not true. In allowing them to believe in things we have no empirical evidence of, we are lying to our children; leading them into a life of blind compliance. Further, magical thinking allows us to be taken advantage of due to the inherent innocence and vulnerability of belief in unproven ideas. Nobody wants that for their children.

But I believe that a lack of magical thinking does the same. It hobbles us to the chain of somebody else's empirical evidence or, even worse, as scientists it closes our minds and limits us to the ideas of our predecessors, unable to make advancements or explore new possibilities.

We've probably all heard Arthur C. Clarke's statement that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", and many renowned scientists who were once considered lunatics have experience with that. Of course many theories are eventually proven false, just as many supposed facts are also eventually proven false, and then many falsehoods are eventually discovered to be true. How can we navigate this confusing landscape of understanding with our minds firmly latched onto empirical evidence? We need a broad imagination and acceptance of our own lack of knowledge to learn anything at all.

The Critical Thinking Association states that 'magical thinking is the opposite of logical thinking'. I feel, in fact, that they are inextricably linked. Reason allows us to consider all alternatives for a given question and to choose those potential solutions that merit more exploration. Logical and critical thinking give us the tools to explore those ideas. Without any faith in the plausibility of those ideas, what reason do we have to explore them?

I've been exploring the idea of Santa Claus with my children since my son was three. That's when he told me that Santa Claus was coming. Not wanting to shatter his little heart too quickly, I asked him why he thought so. Apparently he "just knew". I told him that Santa Claus had never visited me (or him, for that matter), so I doubted that he would begin, then. I said I wasn't even sure Santa was real, and if he existed at all, he surely wasn't sitting in every mall in the country, and my son agreed. But some of those men might be very very kind and wanting to make children happy, so doesn't that mean they're doing Santa's work? Maybe. But what if there's no real Santa? I told him that the North Pole is nothing but water and ice, and he replied that there must be something at the bottom of the sea, or that people could live in the ice. And I thought, Who am I to tell him that's impossible? So I didn't. And Santa came. Because it's not my place to determine for my son what's real and not real, or to define the idea of Santa Claus based on my own upbringing or the popular standards. That year there were things in the stockings from me, and some from Santa.

I don't want to lie to my children, so I tell them the truth, which is that I don't know.

In the abstract from his research paper, Magical Thinking and Children's Cognitive Development, Eugene Subbotsky states that "...despite the fact that multinational industries (such as toy production and entertainment) exploit and support magical beliefs in children and many TV programs for children show magical characters, surprisingly little is known about the effects of magical thinking and magical beliefs on children's cognitive and social development. Is involvement in magical thinking confined to the department of entertainment, or has it also to do with more practical aspects of children's lives, such as learning and social communication? It is hypothesized that magical thinking does indeed positively affect children's cognitive development, by enhancing creative divergent thinking in children."

So what kind of world do we want to live in? A world where everything is untrue until proven true, or a world full of possibility, exploration and growth? I never believed in Santa Claus because I thought he was impossible. Now, as I explore the many aspects of him with my growing children, I am open to the possibility of him. I also partake of his magic, by participating. I and my children absolutely adore our sneaky little stocking-filling expeditions in the night, and we are all a part of Santa Claus. That joy is one of the gifts of keeping possibility open. Another is the knowledge that my children's minds are open, too.

Wild Art: Exploring Local History

I had the great fortune of exploring some of our local natural and historical sites with some 8-13-year-olds this week. Our home was previously logged and explored for mining, so there are artifacts from this time scattered all over the second-growth forests, here. We had six hours to explore, some useful and rugged gear, and enough food and warm drinks to keep us nourished.

The first stop was the lower Mt. Gardner mine adit. There are four such adits on the western side of Mt. Gardner, and this one is the most accessible, so it's where we began our day. Apparently the Bonanza adit was after gold, but obviously they gave up before getting very far. The entrance to the adit is full of a very deep and long puddle, which makes a great home for frogs and salamanders, both of which we managed to catch a glimpse of, as we entered the dark. Just a little further in we found a harvester (photo), and two pairs of giant mating crickets!

Eventually the rock floor emerged from the puddle, and we explored both forks of the adit with our flashlights. We found some interesting numbers spray-painted on the walls, and wondered about their meaning, and we found both ends of the tunnel had old broken chairs and wet fabric dumped in them. There were also used tea-light candles stashed all over the place, the remains of a cardboard beer box, and some other bits of garbage. The kids decided that people like to hang out in the mines, or possibly store their belongings there so nobody takes them.

Then we turned off our lights. This was a big achievement for those kids who had required two attempts to enter the mine in the first place, but they chose to stay and challenge themselves to brave the dark - and they did it! With the lights out at the end of the mine, it's so dark that we can't see our own hands in front of our faces. We can't tell the difference between eyes closed and eyes open. And when we're quiet we hear every movement of our bodies inside the rock mountain.

But when we sing? Well that's amazing. We began just testing out single sounds and single notes and ended by singing the Hard Rock Miner, together, before returning to the light. Being enrobed in the reverberating sound is an experience you'd have to try out yourself to imagine.

Then we headed into the forest!

This part of the forest is richly carpeted with moss, making it feel not just welcoming but also very peaceful and enchanting. Somebody who obviously feels the same way has built a stone circle in this area, and we found it a perfect spot for an earth meditation.

Earth meditation is something I like to do with people as a way of connecting with the environment we're exploring. We begin by stretching and relaxing into the ground, then closing our eyes and calmly observing what we feel and hear. Of interest is not just what we observe, but what about it. Where does the sound appear to come from? Is it near or far? Is it moving - where? What are the different feelings in and around our bodies? How are those feelings different from each other?

Then we open our eyes, and this is what we see. Well... of course it's a lot richer than this photo can illustrate. We look at the texture of the bark closer to us, and the difference between the needles up close and those that are farther away.

We compare the colour of the sky directly above with the colour of the sky all around the edges of our view. We look at small details and we look at the big picture. This photo can't do it justice, because really it looks circular, like a dome. Sometimes we see raindrops or bits of debris falling towards us and can observe perspective in real time. When we're finished observing and talking about what we discover, we simply get up and move on.

Near the stone circle is a fort that a previous group of kids began building a few months ago, so this group continued it. They also built secret caches for treasures they were finding, and began a large game of invasion and reconstruction between what turned out to be two distinct fort areas. Weapons such as this spear and hammer (right) were built and traded, and various forms of defense were invented as well. One that was new to me was a system of defensive lasers that could only be turned off by singing a very precise series of notes. If the "password" was sung correctly, the lasers would turn off; if not, the singer would encounter booby traps.

As the game evolved, it necessitated a couple of brief conversations about comfort levels for attacks, and the time needed to develop and repair, between attacks. Eventually this game petered out, and we went down the mountain in search of the old steam donkey.

During lunch time I was informed that all of these kids have learned the song Donkey Riding in school, but that all of them thought it was about a donkey (animal). Of course it's not, and we of the pacific rainforests are accustomed to finding the remains of steam donkeys in our wilderness, so we had a great opportunity to talk about that song! When you're "stowing timber on the deck" you're certainly not riding on a small equine, but rather a great honking steam-powered engine!!

Riding on a donkey!

A few meters away from this main boiler, we found the rusty old top of the donkey, as well as some old cable, and other metal parts. Eventually, over the rest of the day, we found many stumps with spring-board notches cut into them, and also one with spikes in it. We wondered whether perhaps that was close to the spar tree, as we also found a huge pulley, there. If you're interested to see all this gear in action, here is some old silent footage of Vancouver Island logging. Watch for the man cutting and preparing the spar tree, then installing the giant pulley, then you will see a clip of the loggers "riding the donkey" (this is what they're talking about in the song!), and finally you see them start to use it:

Of course all this excitement wouldn't be nearly enough. There is a great creek running through the area we were in, and it had to be explored! This creek offers a mini canyon, as well as a great tumbling section of rounded rocks and precarious logs for climbing on. We had many near-soakings and a couple of near boot-fillings.

The day wrapped up with a great game of witch's potions, cache-building, dam-building and water play.

We came out of the woods completely exhausted, but all having made discoveries that were unexpected, inspiring and engaging. I have no idea what parts of this day will stick in the hearts and minds of the kids I shared it with, but for me, it will be yet another day where I opened myself to experience and came home rich. What a perfect day!


Can Kids Learn Without Direction?

As an unschooling parent and a teacher I am often confronted with this question. People tell me they'd love to unschool their kids, or they'd love to sign them up for the programs I lead, but either they're afraid their children aren't capable of self-direction, or they're afraid their children won't learn the most important things.

Most Important
Let's talk about that. What are the most important things? Yes, the government has decreed a set of prescribed learning outcomes for each age group, but if you move to another jurisdiction, that prescription is likely to change, and yet the children on the other side of the country, the continent, and the world are learning valuable things, too. They're learning the things that make sense for them to learn in their own cultures and communities - the things that will get them where they want to go. And if it turns out they want to go somewhere they haven't prepared for? Well then they'll prepare. And all the learning they've done along the way will help them in that preparation.

So this week we read some Cree (Thank you Tomson Highway!). Not, perhaps, the most imminently useful language for this group of mostly white kids living in Skwxwú7mesh territory to be trying to get their tongues around, but useful? Yes! Learning any language at all is useful for learning others; learning to move our mouths in new ways not only helps with linguistic and physiological patterning, but also creates new neurological pathways. Growing our minds is what learning is. The next day we read in Dutch.

The Rule
Helping a friend to retrieve a dropped lunch bag.
Self directed learning means that kids determine for themselves what they do. Every few weeks I hear someone tell me that kids will get into trouble without rules. But in over twenty years of teaching, I have never had kids get into trouble.

The first thing I tell the kids I work with is that we have only one rule: You can do whatever you want, but please consider the effects of your actions and words, and help maintain a space where we all feel safe and valued. I underlined the 'please', because that's a very important part of the rule. That is the place where I hand over the reins. This rule is up to them; not me. I respect and value them as responsible individuals. I don't enforce. I only suggest.

Sometimes, when I hear things going awry, I gently ask if everyone is feeling heard, or if everyone feels safe. Mostly I say nothing, because the groups are small enough that the kids are quite aware of the dynamic, themselves, and able to mediate their actions as a matter of course.

Whatever You Want
One of the most challenging aspects of this rule is the 'you can do whatever you want' part. Kids who are new to this philosophy feel at best liberated, but at worst, terrified. It's a big thing to be expected to think for themselves. Those kids who feel challenged in this regard usually respond by testing my limits, throwing things, asking me a litany of questions like "so can I break this pencil?" or by feeling absolutely uncertain about everything, and often stifled by the uncertainty. But it does get better! Usually after a day to a day and a half of participation, those kids see the others getting creative, and begin to open up, as well.

And my response to those limit-testing questions? Yes of course you can break the pencil. Think about whether you'll be happy with the outcome of that, and whether that makes everybody else feel safe and valued, but maybe you're going to do something especially great with a broken pencil that you can't do with an unbroken one, in which case I encourage you to do it! I have broken pencils, myself! Usually they decide against such things; sometimes we make especially great things with broken pencils. And that truly is OK. I can't even imagine the many ways that particular lesson will benefit them - only that it will.

Opting Out
And when kids are especially comfortable with the rule, they do begin to opt out of things. This photo illustrates four of the nine participants in a recent camp I ran, working on the program for the play they were making, as well as two others drawing independently. The group decided to make a program for their play, decided how to go about it, sorted out who would create which parts of it, and got to work. The other five opted out, and either drew independently or played in the forest. Was one of these activities more valuable than the others? Not at all! We live in a diverse society; some of us choose to work in factories, and some choose to work behind computers. Some of us choose to work out on the land, and some in high rises. Some choose to work with our hands, some with our feet, and some with our voices. Some of these kids chose to make programs, and some to work on drama and social interaction. All of those are valuable.

Keeping Up Academically
Just after making an arrangement to rent costumes and props from a local thrift shop.
I know many people who are afraid their children will opt out of everything important, and be left behind. But what is 'behind'? How can we trust our own path if we don't know how to find it? Giving kids the responsibility of self-directing means giving them the ability to find and follow their own paths. It means giving them our trust and support as they venture into the world. They begin this journey at birth, and we cannot know where it will lead them, or what skills they'll need to discover for themselves along the way.

The kids I worked with this week didn't keep up academically, because there was no expectation to keep up with. During five days they met and learned to socialize and work with new people, they explored various wilderness locations, learned about local ecology and ecosystems, garbage facilities and local history, mining and silicosis, time-management, budgeting, creating and printing programs, conceptualizing, creating, and bringing to fruition a play, supporting others and themselves, utilizing community services and giving back to their community, meditation, religious variance and tolerance, many other things I can't remember... and Cree language. Maybe some of those things they can't remember now either, but the neural pathways have been laid. Some of these kids may go on to explore certain things more deeply, and some may flit over to the next week for a whole new set of unrelated engaging experiences. But deep within them has been nourished the idea that their own journeys have value.

Maybe kids don't actually need direction to keep up academically. Maybe they just need a space where they are valued and trusted, where their ideas are heard and respected, and where everything they do or don't do matters. Maybe they need to lie down on the surface of the earth and feel in their souls that the feeling of the ground supporting them, the wind above them, the thoughts running through their minds and choices they make for themselves are most important.

Grown-Up Play

Recently my sister Bree delightedly shared that she'd been at the beach building forts with our brother in law. Most of us realize, I think, how essential play is for children's physical, cognitive and social development, but what about for adults? Do we assume that once we reach a certain shoe size we stop developing? I certainly haven't. I feel like I grow every time I have a conversation; every time I cook or paint; every time I have to sit waiting in a line up and have a moment to tread in my own thoughts, and quietly observe the things around me.

Play is a time for processing prior information and experience, and it's also a chance for putting that cognitive processing into action. It's a time to experiment! We adults need that as much as our children do.

My brother is one of the most playful people I know. There's nothing contrived about it for him. It's just is who he is: always exploring; always growing.
So how can we encourage play in our lives? I am not naturally a very playful person, and am also very self-critical, especially when what I'm doing doesn't seem productive, in the classical western sense. So I need to remind myself that playing is acceptable. I also need to make space in my life and mind for play to happen. These are some of the things that help me:

Allowing: This is the most challenging, for me. Despite many years of practising this with children, and even in groups of adults, I find it incredibly difficult to just allow the ship of my intentions or expectations to go adrift, on my own activities. But when I do manage to let go, the world welcomes me with enthusiasm. Many of the best adventures I've had were those that happened when I stopped the car at a random spot and went exploring. My lack of knowledge or expectation about the place I was in allowed me to see with fresh eyes, to wander to new discoveries, to run with abandon into the water or the mud or the wind, and to look back on the adventure with delight.

Taking time: While it's absolutely possible to play on the go, to take small opportunities for delight, discovery, and exploration throughout a busy "work" day, I really treasure the experiences I've had that were unbounded by time. A whole day or a weekend is fabulous. But even just an afternoon is wonderful, too. The best way to find time on a budget, for me, is to pack up a simple dinner in the afternoon, and just go. So I'm only carrying one meal, and there are absolutely no obligations hanging over my head until the next day. I can go home and sleep whenever I want, so my time exploring is limited only by my own energy level. A group of friends and I used to go out to the pub after our adult ballet class and have a tequila. We called ourselves the tequilerinas. More often recently I seem to find myself at the beach with the family, usually some friends, and truly meagre dinner and fire supplies - and endless time. Sometimes I swim, talk, draw or sculpt in the sand or pebbles. Sometimes I find myself lying still on the darkening beach, taking time to absorb and contemplate the sounds and smells and feelings that surround me. And I don't deal with the wet towels until the next morning.

Redefining: The language we use really does make a difference to our ability to incorporate play in our lives. If we call something "work", we are less likely to relax into it; maybe less likely to enjoy it. Then again, if we call something "play", we may be less likely to value it. So for me there is a necessary balance of finding play in work - in allowing work to be fun, and in valuing play, everywhere I can find it. My friend Dave Pollard suggests calling intentional adult gatherings "Playshops" instead of "Workshops". I like it! I think I may try that terminology out this summer! After all, even when the gathering is intended to solve real world problems or develop very structured plans, the act of playing together helps us explore and find creative solutions, as well as helping us to relate to each other and the topic at hand.

Being intentional: Especially when redefining is difficult, I find that taking dedicated time for intentional play helps. It sounds like an oxymoron, to use a schedule or structure in order to go astray from patterns and expectations... but hey, sometimes I need that just to break out in the first place! Other people are the easiest way to lead myself away from my expectations: If I can get a friend to meet me at the beach I'm much more likely to stay! Taking a workshop (Playshop!) where play has an integral role (or is the entire purpose!) also is wonderful. Even taking time for individual exploration can be intentional. I used to take a few hours once a week to go out and photograph the vegetation throughout the seasons. This was different than the time I took for creative pursuits like writing and painting, because unguided exploration of the wilderness was essential to discovering new subjects to photograph. I probably spent about 5 minutes photographing for every hour exploring. And I climbed trees.

Now goodbye. I'm going out to play.

10 Ways to Encourage Explorative Learning

It's raining as I come home. I walk in the door to encounter muddy boots and wet raincoats, bits of leaf-litter strewn about the tiles. The house looks like a tornado passed through. There are drifts of paper-clippings littering the livingroom floor, somebody's messy chemical concoction on the table, a heap of magazines barely covered by a giant blanket-fort between the couches, upon the walls of which my children and various guests are playing shadow games. I want to snap at them to clean up the mess, and I confess it's really only the presence of their friends that helps me twitter, instead, in a sing-songy voice, "Hi lovelies! Would you like a snack?" I know intrinsically that this is evidence of a few hours very-well spent, but sometimes it's just hard. Sometimes I secretly wish they went to school. I have to remind myself, during moments like these, that this is the paradise we aimed for, and I need to appreciate it!

Some days aren't as idyllic as this one. Some days my impatience and frustration gets the better of me, and some days I forget my commitment to explorative learning. Sometimes I'm afraid, and sometimes I resort to workbooks, coercion, and distraction. I have to remind myself of the good days, and of the fact that eventually the house does (sort of) return to normal, and we do (sort of) have some order in our lives. That's when we seek out the chaos again. Alix Spiegel tells us that Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills, but sometimes I need to make a list to remind myself that what I'm aiming for is good and possible. Here's that list.

10 Ways to Encourage Explorative Learning
(complete with lots of excellent links you really should check out!)

Explore. As adults we often forget to explore. So it's good to be purposeful about it. We are some of our children's greatest role models, so if they don't see us exploring, why would they explore, themselves? When my son was very young, he told me that he would grow up to work on a computer. "Why?" I asked him. "Do you like computers?" At that point, he rarely was in contact with a computer. "Because I will be a Pappa, and work on the computer like Pappa does!" He didn't see any other direction for himself, and it's hard to stray from our own expectations. This was a good reminder to us of the necessity not just to explore, ourselves, but to be seen exploring. And of course, we benefit, too, since being curious not only improves our social lives and neural function, but also makes us happy.

Get creative. Dance, sing, paint, build forts, play drums on hollow logs, and tell stories. The key here is not to learn a craft, but to explore avenues of self-expression. These activities not only help us achieve psychological and physical health, but also help us reflect and develop deeper understanding of all other activities. Creativity serves to connect and integrate our cognitive, emotional, and physical selves, so that whatever we learn through exploration can be assimilated wholly. It's important, too, not to just give our children opportunities for creativity, but to be creative, ourselves. My husband makes time to play his accordion every day, and sometimes the kids join him. None of them have had lessons; they're just exploring, and in their own unique ways, they're all growing remarkably in the process.

Be approachable. Whether your kids want to know about sex, drugs, divorce, or the details of your bodily functions, try to find it within you to share. Obviously we all have our boundaries, but exploration includes a lot of mental processing of the taboo topics that come up in life, and if there's nobody trustworthy to ask about these things, where will our kids turn? I try very hard to be open with my kids, even to their embarrassment, I confess. But in return, they seem to trust me enough to ask the big questions.

Play. Have some supplies for open-ended exploration, but be willing not to use them, too. Sometimes even the greatest microscope can take away from the experience of just watching the insects live in their natural environment, and perhaps expanding on that experience with place-based creativity and play. And yes, of course older kids can play! There seems to be a misconception that play is essential for young children, but as we grow older we need it less and less. Play is slowly replaced by didactic instruction, goal-based curriculum requirements, and eventually a conformist adult life from which many of us struggle to free ourselves with workshops and activities that seek to help us rediscover our ability to play. Our children's lives don't have to be arranged according to curriculum; there are alternatives, and alternative ways to look at it all. Some schools are dispensing with subject-areas altogether.

Be willing to go the extra mile; be extravagant. Be your own, weird self. While things like healthy meals and good sleep are indeed essential, so is a bit of crazy wild freedom. Sometimes my son reads until after midnight on school nights, and I've found that it's better to let him be than to nag him. Sometimes we suddenly pack up and go for an adventure. Sometimes it's just a good idea to do something unusual. Sometimes we make mistakes and have accidents. Sometimes we get hurt, but limits are there to be tested; rules to be broken. That's how we learn to know ourselves and to self-regulate. In a world where children's freedom has declined, we need to provide every opportunity for our children to regain that freedom, along with our trust, and their own natural abilities to explore, learn, and self-direct.

Oops! This fall left Uncle Adrian muddy for the next few hours!
Get out in the wilderness. The recent popularity of Nature Schools is no fluke -- as our entanglement with technology increases we're becoming more and more aware of our psychological and cognitive need to explore the wilderness, as Richard Louv elaborates on, frequently. The wilderness does present some of the most basic threats and fears we face as humans. It is the place of woodcutters and witches, and more realistically, predators and precipices and ...epically deep mud. But these are just the most extreme of the many small challenges the wilderness presents to us, and each one of them is an opportunity for growth and discovery. Further, as we explore and learn to understand our wilderness, we develop an understanding of the interconnectedness of the ecosystem we're a part of, of our own bodies, and of our own intellect. We develop instinct, skills, confidence, and roots.

Develop roots. Carol Black says that "Every ecosystem in the world at one time had a people who knew it with the knowledge that only comes with thousands of years of living in place." And that knowledge takes time. It takes boredom. It takes getting out in the same old bit of forest that you got out in last week and the week before, and taking time just to climb a new tree; look at a new branch; hear a new character in the voice of the wind. This is how we develop deep connection and understanding. Obviously, frequent moving during childhood can not only cause significant health problems, but would also disrupt the process of developing a deep connection with a particular place.

Make time. A study out of the Universities of Boulder and Denver, Colorado has concluded that less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. I know many people who speak delightedly of their annual summer cottage adventures; the little fish that swam off the dock just outside the camp they attended every year. Summer seems to be the time we allow our children to explore, and for many it is the time of greatest connection; greatest memory-building. As kids, we were given time to explore, during the summer, and often taken to wilderness locations to do so, unlimited, and unguided. This was the time of building forts and escaping wild animals. This was the time of falling in love, deepening friendships, and writing in journals. During most of the rest of the year, school and extra-curriculars are so taxing on our free time, that summer becomes a beacon of hope for explorative learning. How can we expand on that, then? Wouldn't it be wonderful to explore all year? For my family, this means unschooling, and also limiting the activities we enroll the kids in, to ensure that at least a couple of days every week are free for completely free-range exploration time. It also means letting go of our own parental fears of missing out.

Give freedom. Let go of fear, and fear-based control! It's so important. Not much can be accomplished as long as we're harnessed by the fear of not-measuring-up, or of ((gulp!)) failing as parents. Most of us have ingrained in us a litany of must-haves and musn't-do's, not to mention the ever-present threat of losing our children to any number of academic, social or physical disasters. But if life wasn't full of danger, we'd have little need to learn. I would rather my children climb trees and fall a few times, than that they never learned to climb or to fall safely. We all fall. Let's do it well!

Accept. And learn to appreciate. Our kids are not going to embody the perfection we might have hoped they would. We won't create little geniuses by showing them Baby Einstein or even by following suggestions like those in this article; we won't have stress-free relationships with our teens no matter how hard we try, and we can't even protect them enough to save their lives, when it really comes down to it. Of course we should try - because we want them to know that we will always be there for them. That's the kind of security they need in order to flexibly explore their environments. But then, when they back off of the interests we thought we were nurturing; when they go to school and come back with seemingly new personalities attached... we have to accept them. After all, that is part of the security they need, too. Every day when my teenage son comes home from school I snuggle him. I find a time during the afternoon or evening to cuddle up close and listen to his stories. Sometimes he creates those times, himself. And he tells me things I didn't want to know. Sometimes I think he's testing me, so I'm careful to pass the acceptance test. Sometimes I think he just genuinely needs a sounding board, and I'm exceedingly grateful to still be that person, after all these years. That gratitude gives me the security I need to accept his developing personality, and for him to accept mine.

Let go of fear. The more we experience, the more precautions we learn to take; the more fear we develop and the more our actions are defined by potential unwanted outcomes instead of by curiosity. Kids don't have that safety net, but they also don't have that inhibition, and it allows them to explore more deeply, and in directions we adults may not otherwise go. Encouraging explorative learning is about getting down and dirty (often literally!) with whatever situation is at hand. Whether it's an unknowably deep muddy bog, a disturbingly dark cave, or a terribly upsetting subject of conversation, I try to be the safety net for my children and for the children I teach. I keep reminding myself that it's most likely going to be OK. I let go of my own fear on a continual basis, and try to keep the level of danger to what I feel in the moment is an acceptable level, knowing that they might fall, but that the experience will have been worth the fall. 

Consent: Teaching Innate Self-Worth

I've been thrilled to see the media attention to consent, lately, especially this petition. But I haven't seen a lot about how we, as parents, foster a culture of consent in the home. And yet I'm quite sure it's the biggest piece of the puzzle. It's extremely important to be given, as children and adolescents, the tools and language to ask for and give consent, but how do we ignite the fire of self-worth in our children, so that they are prepared and comfortable using those tools and language?

There is a lot in the media - especially in the pop culture our kids are consuming - that detracts from the idea of consent, so I doubt there's much we can do to effectively counteract that, other than to build our children up from the inside, so that their first instinct is to seek consent and protect their own interests.

So how does our parenting teach or devalue consent? How about this: "Give Auntie a kiss." That's not an invitation - it's a command. Or "...if you don't kiss me, I'm going to tickle you!" Upon which the child initiates a game of kiss-denying and tickling. Some kids like to be tickled, and as consent-seeking parents we're probably careful only to play games like this with those kids who want it... after all, they're actively kiss-denying in order to get tickled. But for me this begins a stretchy grey area where consent is a game. That's frightening, when scaled up to adolescence.

My kids and their uncle playing a favourite game: Present Feet!  Every time somebody says "Prese-e-e-ent feet!", everybody lifts their feet and laughs. There can be more bonding in such a simple game of copycat than in a kiss and hug. Five minutes spent attending and responding to cues from each other builds lifetime bonds. And just as the choice to lift feet at the cue is up to each child, so are the hugs and kisses that sometimes result.
Even with infants, we carefully learn to read cues: newborns will turn their faces away or close their eyes when overstimulated or uninterested, and generally it's seen as unacceptable to continue feeding, tickling, massaging, etc. when they're expressing a lack of consent. I read a great article about this non-verbal consent-seeking among children, recently: Teaching Consent to Small Children.

I like to think I've been pretty careful with requesting consent from my children with regard to physical and emotional issues. I try to be aware of their physical needs and wishes; now that they're older I ask before posting photos or details of their lives online, and I try to make the consent-seeking between their father and myself obvious, so that they can learn by example. But I fail, too - and frequently. The places my consent-seeking falls apart are when I'm rushed (for example, coerced un-gentle hair-brushing before we run out the door), and when I'm stressed, like when I nag them to go give hugs to relatives, or to do homework or clean their rooms. I threaten them: "We're not watching a movie until your homework is done"; "if you don't clean your room, then I'm phoning your friends' parents and cancelling their visit". At the moments I say these things, they all seem so reasonable, but at the core of these threats is a disrespect for my children's autonomy and self-determination. It's hard to change, but that isn't a reason not to.

Why do we subvert consent? Why do these things matter to us so much that we're willing to threaten or hurt our own children? I think it has to do with fear. Fear of failure, maybe, on my part, but also fear of rejection. If you're a sixteen-year-old boy just venturing into the dating scene, maybe you're actually quite afraid of being rejected. Maybe putting your arm around the girl you feel attracted to doesn't feel nearly as frightening as asking her first. But maybe we can help our children feel a deep sense of self-worth, so that they understand that a rejection of touch does not demean the value of either individual, or even of the relationship.

Consent is not only essential regarding physical or sexual touch; it's important always. It's important when our boss asks us to work late. She can ask, but she can't force or coerce. It's important when we give responsibility to others: if I intend to relinquish dinner duty for the evening, I need to ask my husband or kids ahead of time instead of just dumping the job onto them, without warning (guilty).

Obviously we can't always avoid the ways we affect others' lives without consent, but the many small ways that we seek and give consent do influence the more serious situations, and the many small ways we give our children the respect and autonomy we want them to demand as adults does influence their ability to do so.