Schooling, unschooling, homeschooling

One thing that really annoys me about unschoolers is their need to take every little thing they do with their kids and turn it into Who Unschooling is Awesome. “I went to the science museum with our kids today! #unschooling”

Wow. I take my kids to the science museum, too. Does that mean I’m unschooling? Am I an unschooler now? Bob Blow takes his kids to the science museum, too. Does that make him an unschooler, too?

Then again, this is something regular, run of the mill homeschoolers do, too. “The great thing about homeschooling is that you can just go on field trips to learn about things. Like we’ve been learning about animals, so we went to the zoo! It’s so hands on! Homeschooling is awesome.”

Non-homeschooler can then reply, “Oh! I take my kids to the zoo, too! So I guess I’m homeschooling, too! Hahaa.”
And the homeschooler frowns. This was not what they meant at all. “No no no, you send your kids to school, so you’re not homeschooling when you take them to the zoo. You’re just…going to the zoo.”

It’s a matter of definitions, but also a territorial issue, too. Homeschoolers want people who send their kids to school to know how awesome they are as homeschoolers. They want them to know that yes, they, too, could homeschool. But as soon as the non-homeschooler points out that the things they do are hardly exclusive to homeschoolers, the homeschoolers immediately get defensive and try to mark out boundaries as to what makes them special. And more importantly, what makes them better.

It’s the same with unschoolers. They know that on the surface it looks like they aren’t doing a whole lot with their kids. So they end up pointing out every little thing that happens as the learning that must be going on in that moment. And, boy, does it get annoying. “Outside splashing in the puddles! Kids are learning physics! #unschooling.” Wow I wonder how long until they use that to derive the Pythagorean theorem all by themselves! My kids splash outside too! The difference is…I just call it playing. Sure, they might be learning something, too, but they’re also having fun. No need to dress it up.

I’ve started having fun with the labels. Whenever I hear someone talking about unschool this, homeschool that, or how they could never do either of the above, I like to tell them I couldn’t either.
Because I couldn’t. There’s no way I could structure my childrearing around just one of those things. We have our structured learning times (“homeschool”), sure, but I also give my kids lots of time to follow their own interests (“unschooling”). My kids also go to German school, Finnish school, PE class and art (“school”). We divide our time between all of those because all three of them have merits. Parents teach their kids, whether they want to or not. And you’d probably have to tie them up and leave them in a darkened room to prevent them from learning things on their own.

Which brings me to those “homeschoolers” in California who did just that to 12 of their 13 kids. “We need more homeschooling regulation!” people are now screaming. “Homeschooling should be illegal!” Except…well, California is actually quite strict when it comes to homeschooling. Except…they weren’t homeschooling when the abuse started. Their oldest kids went to public school in Texas and former classmates remember them being thin and smelling bad. They were dirty. And still, no one did anything. They fell through the cracks simply because there are so many cracks for children in abusive families to fall into. They’re so lucky one of them worked up the nerve to save themselves because, in the end, you’re the only who can.

But…on the other hand, there has been discussion among homeschoolers I know as to what level of regulation they would deem acceptable in order to prevent homeschoolers from falling through those cracks. In order to prevent educational neglect from occurring. The short of it was…there is none. Homeschoolers want to regulate themselves. They don’t trust the state to educate their children, why on earth would they trust the state to make sure they are actually educating their children themselves? It doesn’t help that the government spent so much time trying to keep homeschooling illegal or that they see homeschooling as competition or one way they lose money (state funds are distributed according to pupils enrolled). Nor does it help that homeschoolers watch the amount of their property taxes flowing into the public schools, which they benefit from and can’t opt out of.

But I’ve noticed whenever people are left to regulate themselves or self-police, they usually don’t. We excuse things in ourselves that we would never tolerate from others and that is a problem.


I am THAT parent

I am not one of those parents, I’ve always told myself. I’m not helicoptery. Sure, I homeschool, but I’m not one of those moms who dislikes activities that are drop off. I don’t hover in the corner, raising my hand and insisting on participating in things right along side my kids. I don’t co-opt their projects, knowing that I can do them better. I wish I lived in a place where my kids could go to the store or library unaccompanied and I wouldn’t get arrested as a result.

I’m also not a Tiger mom. I don’t insist on my kids playing instruments, doing 100% on all their activities and work. I don’t send back drawings I consider to be less-than what I’ve seen them do in other ones. I have my standards for them, but I don’t see them as being insane.

I’m not, I tell myself, that parent who is convinced the sun shines out of their kids’ asses. I know my kids can do wrong. I’ve seen them do it. They aren’t going to be the next Einstein. Simple statistics shows that is unlikely. They will most likely grow up to be your average adult, maybe an above average adult if I’m really lucky.

But…we insist they go to both German School and Finnish school. They need to be trilingual. It’s the minimum. On top of that, they take art class. I have them enrolled in both rock climbing and swim lessons and find occasional fantasies of them joining a swim team or rock climbing team. Maybe they’ll get good enough in it to become recognized nationally! They’ll compete! Everyone will know my kids are amazing. Maybe they can do a spelling bee and win it! And since they’ll be homeschooled people will be impressed!

Aside from that, we’ve spent lots of time and money on Alpha. He’s been in both occupational therapy and speech therapy as we try to get his fine motor skills and speech ability up to snuff. He still has trouble catching balls and I’ve mentally crossed any sport involving that of my mental list of things he could be good at. My Beta almost certainly needs speech therapy as well. While going through phonics with her, I discovered she can’t say “ng.” Her “r” needs help. Her s sometimes goes out her nose. She’s on the never-ending waiting list for physical therapy because she’s knock-kneed and in-toes both feet when she walks. She’s not terribly impaired, but she could stand to fall over a bit less.

Each day my kids have their work they need to do in writing, grammar, spelling, math, handwriting, German, and science or history that they need to do and I proceed through their lessons with the determination of someone who is not going to move on until they get it, god dammit. We’ve just finished world war two in history, but since it’s my favorite historical period we’re still reading books in it. We’ve read the Upstairs Room, A Thousand Tracings, another picture book whose name I’ve forgotten, and are in the middle of Number the Stars. After that, we will read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes before moving onto reading other things. In the car, we listen to the Economist or one of our numerous audiobooks that are supplementary to whatevery books we’re reading that are also history related. Right now, it’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I’m probably enjoying it more than the kids since I’ve never read it before. We only listen to music when I’m too tired to properly follow a narrative.

I’m considering private swim lessons simply so that I can save time and get all the kids (I wish) into one half-hour semi-private lesson, even if it does cost me $55 per kid per half hour lesson. Then we could cram all our sport activities into one day and save time.

On the drive home from one of our many activities, it hit me. I am that parent. Not a helicopter parent or a curling parent or a tiger parent. I am a concerted cultivator parent. I tend over my children like an OCD gardner rummaging through the leaves looking for predatory insects and picking off any signs of blight, ready with a nourishing spray or fertilizer should I find they need that edge. All with very little guarantee that it’s necessary or will make a measurable difference in the long run.

Is it worth it? I’m not sure. I know homeschoolers who are much more relaxed and when asked what they’re up to, simply respond that they’re still working on reading. Internally I scream, “YOUR KID IS TEN! If you’re still working on learning how to read, it may be time to get a reading tutor or some sort of external help!” I can’t tell if I’m extreme or they are. It tell myself I’ve chosen the middle way: they do a few hours of proper work each day, have some extra curriculars and then lots of free time to pursue their own interests. I have no idea if this is accurate. As a homeschooler, you have no readily available peer group by which to judge yourself. You’re pretty much floating alone in an ocean by yourself, assuming your the normal one.

I just spent the last week playing civilization 6. Fine, not the entire last week, but probably most of it. As soon as homeschooling and other obligations were done, Alpha and I (but mostly me) played. It’s the first time in 7 years I’ve played computer games at all and holy crap now I remember why. It’s hard to break away from it. You feel compelled to continue just a bit longer to see what happens. Yesterday as I approached the final turn, it started feeling more like an obligation to see it through than fun. My son and husband were both eagerly waiting to see what would happen after the last turn. Nothing much; I came in 4th place on settler mode. I’m not too upset. It was my second game on there. The first one I had no idea what I was doing and spent about 50 turns just wandering around aimlessly before I figured things out. And in my second game I totally dominated in religion, converting three other civilizations to Buddhism. Go me!

My son currently has a game set up with Teddy Roosevelt. He wanted to play America in the worst way, so here we are. Only problem is he can’t get a great person to help him start a religion and he has so much faith built up! I can’t figure it out. He said, “Maybe I can’t get a religion because the US is an atheist country.” I had to correct him. “This US is not an atheist country. It actually has one of the highest rates of religiosity of all western countries. What you mean to say is that the US does not have an established religion. The government isn’t allowed to support religion and we believe very firmly (or should) in the separation of church and state.”

I’m tempted to start another game simply to show off all I’ve learned now and see if I can win. But to be honest, I can’t do the minimum necessary for another week. I think my husband is getting tired of always seeing me playing, too. He tells me he’s glad I’m enjoying it and I’ve been in such a good mood, too, even if I don’t get much sleep, but “I wish I could play this game so much.” Indeed, when his sister was complaining about how busy she’s been in this last year while getting her master’s degree with two kids with her parents, her sister and her husband’s parents helping watch them and both of them going to daycare while she didn’t work and her husband worked one job, he wouldn’t stop asking how she didn’t know what busy was. “We have four kids, homeschool, have only one kid in preschool part-time and have two and a half jobs between the two of us.” Aside from the occasional babysitter, we don’t have anyone coming by to help us with the kids. We are very, very busy. I have to remind him that he’s the one who moved and had he stayed in Finland, he might also enjoy the benefits of having family close by to help with the kids.

I had evil plan to enroll the kids in ski camp over winter vacation. It’s three days and I thought Gamma would be in preschool for two of those. “That means, honey,” I told my husband, “we will have two days with just the baby at home. It’ll be like a vacation! You could take off from work and do whatever we want!” We were so excited.

Then I looked at his school calendar and my face fell in disappointment. His preschool is closed that week! He’ll be home! No vacation! No break. It was crushing. I’ve rallied my spirits since and reasoned that, just like summer camp in the summer, even having the two oldest kids gone results in a much quieter house. And when do I get a chance to just hang out with Gamma and he gets to be the oldest kid? Not very often. It could be a good thing for him.

And maybe, just maybe, I can sneak in some civilization. This time I’m going to play Gandhi and aim for total religious domination. Because I find that terribly entertaining.

The Cycle of Gardening

Spring: We’re going to plant an awesome garden this year! We’ll get so many veggies and melons and tomatoes and herbs we won’t have to buy any produce! We’ll save so much money!

Fall: What a fucking waste of time! I’m a horrible gardener! I spent more money than I saved and I should have just gotten a damn job instead. I’m never gardening  again
Winter: Oooh a seed catalogue!

Rewriting “Frederick”

Have you read the book Frederick by Leo Lionni? If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the heartwarming tale of a group of field mice who are preparing for winter – all except Frederick, who is just sitting there collecting the sun and the warmth instead of nuts and grains to eat in the Winter. But this pays off because he warms the mice with his imagery and poetry once the food runs out in the bitter cold winter. It’s a commentary on how artists aren’t useless I guess – though I’ve often wondered why Frederick couldn’t collect the sunshine and warmth along with the nuts and grains, thus saving the field mice from starvation, but whatever. It’s not my heartwarming picture book.


At any rate, I’ve been on a winter rodent killing spree. My main aim is rats, but those have proved either more elusive or less numerous than I thought. I’ve been mainly catching field mice.

So the new version of Frederick goes like this (bear in mind I’ve only read the German translation of the English, which I’m now returning to English and condensing):

In a stone wall next to a field lived a family of field mice who were busy gathering nuts and grains for the upcoming winter – all except for Frederick.

“Frederick, what are you doing?” asked the field mice.

“I’m gathering the sunshine and the warmth, the blue skies and the green grass, for the Winter is cold and grey.”
Whatever, the other field mice thought and went on gathering stores of food. Eventually, the weather turned colder and the field mice retreated into the stone wall. For a while, they had plenty of food and were merry. But after a while, the food stores ran out and the weather grew colder. “Frederick, what about your stores?”

Frederick gathered them around and warmed them with this visions of warm weather and blue skies and enthralled them with his poetry.

But as the winter wore on, they grew hungrier and eventually ventured out of their wall to the nearby farmhouse in search of food.

The farmer saw their tracks and placed traps by the wall. One by one, he picked off the field mice as they left in search for food. All except for Frederick, who starved to death.

The End.

Finished with Finnish? Considering Future Options, pt 3

So my in-laws have come out against us continuing trying to get our kids to speak Finnish. This is a surprising development because 1) They speak Finnish 2) They are Finnish 3) They’ve raised multilingual kids, so they’re familiar with the struggle.

But, in their opinion, Finnish is a pointless language. Nobody speaks it except for the five million people living in Finland. It would make much more sense, according to them, for us to just concentrate on German and English, both of which are much more important languages internationally.

Part of me feels like this is the Finnish low-self-esteem expressing itself again. Finns have a long ingrained sense of “our country will never be as important as all those countries around us.” Their culture? “We don’t have one. We took everything we have from the Swedes.” Their language? “It’s very hard to learn.” Their food? “It’s awful.” At the 100th Anniversary of Finland’s independence party we went to, everyone had to talk about what they liked about Finland. What followed were muttered responses about the nature and, uh, the education system while the uncomfortable reality of none of the people there actually living within the Finnish nature or its education system.

But Finns do admire the Germans. My husband told me this story about a consultant he met who was in Finland consulting to a Finnish firm. All the recommendations he would make, they would just ignore and tell him that those are American ideas and they would never work in Finland. Then the consultant found out that Finns really admire Germans. So when introducing changes, he would preface it with, “I know this German firm who does this.” And the Finns would nod and agree to the change because hey, those Germans! They know how to get shit done! When Finland won independence, they originally wanted to import a German nobleman to be their King. They didn’t though; they probably realized it’d be cheaper to just be a republic. A lot of Finns are still upset the Germans lost world war 2. I’m not joking, though I wish I were. Maybe they’re just even more upset that the Russians won.

So from that perspective, it’s not exactly surprising that my in-laws are more supportive of their grandkids learning German than Finnish. But they also point out that the kids’ German is so much better than their Finnish. And it is. At this point, they will have to learn Finnish as a second language because their knowledge of it is so poor it can’t counted as a first language anymore. A lot of this is due to my husband’s inconsistent teaching of Finnish. He speaks it to them, but not enough. He doesn’t sit down with them enough to really enforce it. And even worse, when they don’t understand something in Fnnish, he’s resorted to speaking to them in German to get his point across. He’s actually put forth the idea of dropping Finnish and just having both of us speak German to the kids, which is a horrible idea. His German is worse than mine and while I’m technically fluent in German, as the kids have grown I’ve found my German to simply not have the vocabulary necessary to keep up with them. I have to use English anyway for homeschooling, but even if it weren’t for that I would need to use English. This makes my husband very unhappy because if he can’t do Finnish, he’d at least like for them to learn German. So I have to keep reminding him that German isn’t my native language. And while it may hold a very solid place in my heart, my vocabulary is lacking. It is much, much harder for me to maintain speaking German with the kids than it is for him to do Finnish…simply because Finnish IS his native language. Even if the kids don’t understand it, if he would just keep up with it and take the effort to build up their vocabulary, they could learn Finnish.

So sure, we could drop Finnish if he really wants to, but absolutely under no circumstances do I want him to do German.

Whether his parents realize it or not, keeping Finnish has a lot of benefits, aside from the fact they’re Finnish citizens. Unlike German and English, Finnish is not a Germanic language. Its grammar is so wildly different, it really forces your brain to think in different ways and they would benefit from that alone.

So in the short-term, we’re keeping all three. My husband is putting forth more effort with Finnish and has actually sat down with them twice a week to do Finnish for the past two weeks and the kids have actually used Finnish in those times. We have some other plans afoot to increase their Finnish exposure (labeling things in Finnish, copying our Finnish language DVDs so they will work in our van). And we’re keeping a short-term stay in Finland in the cards because no matter what we do, the best way for to learn a language is to live.

Comparative Insecurities

A few years ago, I flew cross-country to attend the wedding of one of my close friends from high school. At the reception, an older woman approached me and two other high school friends. “So, you guys went to school with Samantha?” We answered yes. “And you’re still friends?” We answered affirmatively again. “Wow that’s so neat! So what are you guys up to these days?”
The first friend answered. “I’m in the final year of my surgical residency.” Positive comments followed.
The second friend answered. “I have two years left on my MD/Ph.D.” Very, very impressive.
Then it was my turn. The set up could not have been better, I thought with internal mirth before replying cheerfully, “I stay at home with my two kids.” A moment of awkwardness followed before the woman embraced me with a warm hug and congratulated me on my choice and told me how wonderful it was. Not being a huge hugger, I accepted her hug as best I could. The four of us chatted a bit longer: her son had recently graduated from our old high school, was attending college in Washington, D.C., they lived on the same cul de sac as Samantha. Upon parting, she gave me another hug and told me, “I feel like we’ve formed a real connection!” My friends slightly avoided my gaze.

The whole situation made me feel unexpectedly awkward. I felt like I was being pitied and for the first time since becoming a stay-at-home mom, the thought occurred to me that my position in life might be something worth pitying.

Truth to be told, my group of friends from high school was a very high achieving one. I’m the only one among us who doesn’t have a master’s degree. Among our ranks, there are 3 medical doctors (and is the aforementioned MD/PhD), one PhD in Biology who is now a professor at a college, a masters in geophysics working for a large oil company, a social worker, and a CPA with a master’s degree and probably some other degrees as well. She likes to collect them. I’m proud to know them and I love to tell people what all my high school friends are up to and I know that they’re always down for interesting conversations.
Not only am I the only one without a master’s degree, but I’m also the only one who has more than one kid. I have exactly one friend with one kid…and then I have four. I’m the outlier in that respect. I’m also the only one who graduated with her Mrs. degree, which I didn’t even know was a thing until I heard the term in a movie. I got married when I was 22 and my husband was 24. If we hadn’t needed a visa in order to live in the same country, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten married so young, but we we were sure enough of our relationship for it to seem like a good bet. I had my first kid at 24 when most of my friends were still working on their master’s degree, and I’ve been a stay at home mom ever since. T

One day when I was puttering around doing my normal stay-at-home-mom-with-four-kids-who-homeschools routine, I found myself wondering what one of my former middle school friends, Jessica, was doing. We had been pretty good friends through freshman year, but we grew apart in sophomore year and didn’t really talk much the rest of high school. I remember when I went over to her house once freshman year and we spent time leafing through various girly magazines like Seventeen. It was boring. I remember looking up at her and being surprised at seeing her completely engrossed in her magazine. How could she find it so interesting? I can even remember one of the articles/ads I saw in it: a shampoo for people who’s hair was always at its best two days after washing that you could use every day to get that every other day effect. But…why?

At any rate, I decided to look her up and see what she was up to these days. Thanks to Facebook, I quickly found her. She’s married. Cool. She has two kids. Neat. Still living in the Bible Belt. Better her than me. She’s a stay at home mom, too. She has a blog. I clicked on the link immediately and started reading.
Her blog had unfortunately been defunct for about a year, but it was pretty successful when it was going on. She had nearly 800 followers. But as I read it I became more disappointed. It was a mommy blog.

Pot calling the kettle black? I know. But it wasn’t my type of mommy blog. It was that type of mommy blog where many of the posts are pinterest-esque craft ideas or start out with “I was given this product to try out for free, but received nothing else and was not required to write a positive review.” Where they have guest bloggers from other related blogs who offer their advice. One such post featured her friend with four kids (Hey! Me too!) and how she manages to keep control of the dishes. Disappointingly, her post did not consist of:

How I manage my dishes

Instead, she discussed how with four kids, she served a lot of dishes from one big platter and did this and that. Oh. Okay. I just shove mine in the dishwasher and start it. Beta cleans out the dishes and Gamma cleans out the silverwear. I load.

There were a few posts about her daily life, but most of it was of the style that was meant to increase readership and, presumably money. It was so boring. And I was disappointed. No interesting discussions, thoughts or observations. Just “make these paper bags into cute reindeer for a teacher’s gift!” Seriously, just give the teacher a $50 gift card to Amazon. He or she will appreciate that more.

But that’s probably her idea of boring. I guess I don’t have to wonder why we grew apart in high school, and I realized that she wasn’t just reading those teen magazines because she felt that’s what she was expected to be interested in. She really thought they were interesting.
Out of curiosity, I poked around a bit more on her Facebook and found a whole bunch of other people we went to high school with. And to a large extent, they were all living lives similar to mine: stay at home moms (one former cheerleader listed her job as “CEO at home. That’s right! I’m a stay-at-home mom.” My husband: “why do American women always list staying at home with the kids as their jobs? In Finland if they stay home with the kids, they just put, ‘unemployed. Taking care of kids.'”). Or they had jobs, but they were normal jobs. As far as I know, not a single person I went to high school with is a hollywood A-lister, or member of a famous rock band. One is doing post-doctoral studies at Stanford, which is pretty cool. Another helped discover some new type of LED or something. But even in our high achieving set of students, we’re all relatively normal 15 years on.

I told my husband about my realizations and he thought for a moment. “I don’t think your life is lame. You homeschool. You work from home. You travel. You garden. You do a whole lot!” I guess it’s true. But it’s not a high status life, and maybe that’s what I was sensing at that wedding. While I had the family, my friends had the status. They were the ones our former teachers would be proud to have taught, as though they were personally responsible for their achievements.
I could lie to myself and say I could have been a doctor, but the reality is I could not have. Not only do I lack to the aptitude, I lack the desire. I’ve never been passionate about having a career or trying to amass any sort of status. But I have been passionate about kids ever since my first nephew was born when I was 11. I’ve always enjoyed working with them. And I’ve been passionate about languages since I was at least 7 and have spent time trying to learn at least a dozen and even made up my own (I didn’t get very far designing its grammar though. The verbs were very regular). And now I’ve living my normal, everyday life combining both of these.
I’m still extremely proud of my high school friends. I’m really proud of how smart and hardworking they are and just like our teachers must, I like to tell people about what they’ve accomplished. But I’m also proud of my life. I’m proud of the way I’m raising my kids and how much they’re learning.

All in all, I have a pretty good life.

Google search result for “Stay-at-home-mom.” How the hell is her kitchen floor so clean? The look on her face is on point, though.