Today has been a bit of a strange day. I went, for the first time, to the toddler Steiner group after intending to do so pretty much since Ava was born. And I came away somewhat surprised, a little bit disappointed and little bit relieved.
We do a lot of talking, and even more reading about Unschooling. We talk to other families, we talk on forums, it is on our minds always. But I’ve always wondered if the Steiner school was maybe the one exception to my growing disillusionment with all things school. Every time we go to a fair there I am reminded of how magical and creative it is. I think I had made it the last bastion of hope in my mind when it comes to schooling. I half-expected to come away today thinking, ‘Well, that’s settled then, Ava must go here’.
But quite the opposite happened, and in fact I knew – that heart of hearts, pit of the stomach kind of knew – that today I had lost my last sense of school as somewhere with any possibility of my children going to.
Sounds…extreme, I know, but it felt kind of huge. Don’t get me wrong. The group was mostly magical and lovely, gentle and sweet. But something just did not sit right with me, and it’s really not a thing that was a fault of the group, or even the school itself. It’s simply that it is still a school. It still exists to teach, to provide a certain structure, certain rules and certain expectations.
Somewhere along the way, certain things about Ava, maybe parenting in general, have become apparent. I know that, for example, groups are not really her thing. I’m not sure they’re mine. I’ve heard others say similar things (usually other Unschoolers). There is something about the idea of attending a group – whatever that is, a singing, or dancing, or art group – that doesn’t feel very natural at this age. I can’t put my finger on what it is exactly, other than, to borrow other people’s response, it seems as if in fact Ava can sense a kind of structure present that she is meant to adhere too, and something in her stiffens up somewhat. She knows there are expectations in the air, she knows that all of a sudden certain things are expected of her too, and she doesn’t much like it.
(I’ve gone to many groups over the years, some of which I’ve enjoyed, but I know I learn better when it is just me and a book, or me and another person)
There’s always been a part of me that has thought maybe it’s worth persevering, maybe it will be beneficial in the long run etc. But that’s just not what feels right to me. I am not trying, explicitly, to be an Unschooler, but I keep finding myself in the same ballpark with the same people. I keep finding myself having the same kind of conversations with my friend, sharing the same observations about our daughters, who have had a pretty similar experience so far, I would imagine, and who are very similar in nature and temperament.
I am just not sure about groups – not at this age – maybe not for years to come. I’m just not sure if they’re beneficial to anyone other than adults, or certainly older children. That is, no doubt they ‘teach’ children certain things. But until a person can choose, with full knowledge of what they’re getting into, to go to a group or class, I’m not sure it’s the right thing. Not for us, anyway.
If you came into my home, you might think we were hardcore Waldorf homeschoolers. We have a lot of wooden toys, a seasons table, creative things everywhere, dressing up baskets, felted objects, wooden blocks and …etc, you get the picture. There is a great deal from Steiner philosophy that I like, and am inspired by (although the more I think about it, the more it seems that it is almost entirely the creative side.) I very much don’t agree with certain things, specifically the religious background and the fact that there is still an element of hierarchy present that poses conditions and expectations on children and their behavior.
So this group was very lovely, and certainly lovely for me – lots of lovely parents to talk to, and a very warm and welcoming group leader. Aside from the people, I’m a little disappointed to admit that something felt…too unnatural. And I think what it was was simply that, however lovely and gentle and sweet, there was still a kind of forced routine and rhythm which I didn’t feel was necessarily going to benefit Ava. Do I think she’d learn to stick to it, learn to do certain things at certain times? Maybe, yes. But do I want her to? Not really, no.
And it was this way because, in essence, like almost any group you go to, there is an out and out ‘purpose’ to it. There is a point. You go to learn something, to progress as it were. Whether that is in learning a specific song or learning to sit still during snack and song time. But what I didn’t take into account was that I felt a sort of rebellion against that – I could see that Ava at points wasn’t entirely happy. The songs we sang in transitions were lovely but certainly had a kind of sad tone to them and Ava really dislikes sad music, so of course, she got quite sad. She didn’t like that in the middle of playing with some stones and baskets she had to tidy away and do something else.
And I know most people would say that learning there is a time and place to do something is important, but you know…that’s really not how I feel, not at this age and not in any kind of forced way. It just doesn’t sit with how we parent and, I suppose, how we unschool. As our group leader pointed out, as gentle and free as the playing is, there is most definitely a strong structure behind it. And that, right there, is where I start to go, ‘Uh oh, not for us, not for us at all’
I remember reading an early post by Amanda Blake Soule about how there were lots of things about Waldorf education she loved, but certain things that made her feel really uncomfortable. That’s just how I feel. The group was so very lovely, in its way, but it also had a very definite underlying structure, and at 2 years old, hell, at 4 years old, I think Ava can navigate most things on her own way, without being coerced, however gently, into doing anything.
Perhaps it made me all the more uncomfortable because it was done in such a gentle way. One of the things I’ve always disagreed with in Steiner philosophy is this idea that a child should not be given too much choice, or have the burden of making certain decisions. I understand that, but that’s not Ava. She wants to be consulted on when she wants a snack and when she wants to stop playing, and Howard and I both feel she should be, at all given points. I suppose because our parenting really revolves around the idea that just because she is our child doesn’t mean we own her, or have any special rights over her life.
I felt like, whereas normally, I might say to Ava, ‘Okay sweetheart, I know you want to keep playing with those animals, but we have to have a bath now’, and it might follow that we had a conversation where I would be able to reason with her in quite an upfront way, I couldn’t really do that there. Also, I’m not sure I even agree that there is a time when, if a child is playing happily for example, she has to stop and get a snack because I or anyone else has decided so. What if they’re not hungry? What if they were really invested in some creative play? At the end of the day, is it not just another form of conditional parenting to tell your children they must do something or other because you have decided it is time?
Don’t get me wrong, there are things we do tell Ava must happen or things we do expect and don’t expect, but they are all based on what is, at core, an altogether unconditional model of parenting, and that in itself is a very Unschooling mindset that we can’t help but fall into.
There are already so many times in any given day that she will have to go along with whatever I’m doing, that I don’t feel I need to add to that. At two, we don’t expect her to stay at the table longer than she wants. What we expect is that, by seeing us enjoy ourselves and partake in an everyday ritual of family dinner eating, she will want to join in. She will want to be a part of that. We encourage her to eat her dinner with us, and more times than not, she does. But sometimes, if she is not hungry, she wants to get down and play with her kitchen or dollshouse. In that instance, we can either force her to stay, ensuring she is not only upset, but possibly develops bad associations with dinner time and maybe even food itself. Or we can understand that she is two, and therefore does not want to sit in a situation which might not be stimulating for her, when she could be doing something on her own that is.
That is not a view shared by many parents I know, and I totally get why. But the thing that has really won us over on thinking of Ava as being capable and free to choose what is good and best for her most of the time is that, without exception, it has worked so far. She rarely rebels, or acts out against things we ask of her, even when she doesn’t want to. Sure, sometimes she does, but mostly she is extremely amenable and just wants to get on with things in much the same way we do. I’ve always believed that the more reasonable we are with her, the more reasonable she will be, and that’s how it has panned out thus far. (I am aware she is two, and perhaps we will go through a very rebellious, or tantruming phase, but so far, this has been the most amazing age yet, with very little conflict and a growing sweetness and compassion in her personality)
It’s both a relief and a disappointment to feel this way about the Steiner school and I’m quite sure it is indeed a good school. The issue is that it is, of course, still a school. And apparently I no longer feel at home in any kind of structure like that. I know Ava doesn’t either. Gosh, it appears we really are Unschoolers (I just don’t think there is any going back now) Howard laughed when I explained all this to him. Both of us are uncomfortable with school in all its many guises and certainly for Howard, the idea that school should be based on an underlying religious system is massively corrupt and faulted. I agree. And the religious elements of Steiner philosophy are definitely not ones we adhere to, even if they are only present in small and somewhat unnoticeable ways in the school system.
I think we will keep going for the last two groups to see how we find them. It may be that Ava gets used to the general expectations and enjoys it. If she doesn’t, then we may have to give it a miss. I’m not completely anti-structure, but I am always going to be uncomfortable when that structure does not come from within. The older you get, the more you live ‘in the world’, the more you make compromises. That I understand. But I think having a strong sense of what is your own personal structure, what works for you, for example, ensures that you will end up in a job or a college or living a kind of life that actually works for you.
(I recall a most surprising and inspiring talk given by the Rector of the high school I went to, in which he said that at least half of the students who had applied to go to University should reconsider, and should really look at whether or not it is what they wanted, whether it would suit them, or whether in fact their life was something different altogether, could take them an unknown, different route they had not yet even considered.)
It may be, for example, that if we let Ava sleep in whenever she wants, she will discover that she is through and through a night person, and like one Unschooler I know, will end up working in a job that allows her to work through the night instead of day. It may be that she discovers she wants to spend most of the day outdoors pottering about in the garden, rather than be in a classroom, or learn from workbooks or teaching aids. So she’ll be a gardener, or any number of other things where she can do just that. The more freedom she has now, the more I think she will have a chance of genuinely enjoying life, of choosing life options that are for her, not for some generic idea of what a person must and should do in order to fit in.
I understand why so much of what we think and act towards children is based on an idea that they must learn to fit in and adapt to the world (although it’s hard to even accept this since each of us has such a different and unique view of what ‘the world’, or society is), and that structure is important for healthy development, but for me, for us, that structure comes from an ongoing and stable sense of what family and home is, which is at the centre of everything we do. It comes from the small and daily rituals we partake in, the lovely expectations of what dinner or bath is, what we do in the evening, what we do in the morning. It is not set by anything external or anyone else, and nor is it non-negotiable.
It is always up for negotiation, because all members of the family are treated as equals, with equal rights and, God Forbid, equal say (I can see the how much this would irk many of the people I grew up around who had a strong sense that children should simply always respect their elders and that ‘parents knew best’ or what have you, largely related to a very traditional Christian model which I totally disagree with and which was always, always based on conditions which had to be fulfilled)
I just saw my friend who is also unschooling her Littles, and it was interesting to see we’d had the same experiences so far. Whenever we tried to teach or in any way (even gently) force our daughters into doing something or learning something, they both responded by switching off and wandering off to do their own things. But leave them to it, and they were happy, calm, and so responsive. At one point, they wandered off to the garden to play with some gross, dirty water, without their coats. It would have been easy to insist they stop playing with it, that they put their coats on, or that they come in since it was pretty cold. But they were just getting on with it, watering the plants, Ava following Ivy around in adoration and awe and Ivy playing so kindly with Ava. We sat by the doors and talked like excited drunkards about how we were going to accomplish this Unschooling life we have imagined.
And they came in when they were cold, and we wiped their hands and they were fine. Later Ava told me all about playing in the garden with Ivy and watering the plants. ‘Ivy stay with Ava’, she half asked me, breaking my heart with how much earnest love she has for this amazing little girl we’ve been lucky to know.
She is so happy when she is simply allowed to be, on her own terms. And even though our days may appear unstructured, I feel like she understands something about family and home that she carries with her, that gives her a sense of stability that allows her in turn to be a calm and gentle little person, and to experience the world at the pace she wants.
Yesterday we spent the late afternoon reading stories in bed and eating snacks. She wanted to read her favourite fairy book over and over again (it is a rather beautiful pop up book that she knows almost off by heart). ‘Titania is queen of fairies Mama! Look at bootiful bootiful blue mermaid’…and then when we get to the page about the different elements, I tell her that she is a Sylph, because she is an air sign, just like Ezra might be a salamander because he’s fire. Sometimes, sometimes I’d like to hide that book so we don’t have to read it for the twentieth time that hour.
But this morning, we woke up, and had the following conversation:
‘Daddy in shower’
‘Yes, Daddy’s in the shower. Do you want to go see him?
Yes. Daddy did a sneeze. Shower is a girl but Daddy is a boy’
‘Mama is a girl but Ezra is a boy’
‘What is Ava then?’
‘Ava is a Sylph. A bootiful air fairy’
Why not? She is, she is a beautiful air fairy. I’m glad she knows it, too.