Principles in Practice 1: Worth and Dignity

Who knew?

Who knew that a week at SUUSI (Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute), a family camp of over 1100 in Radford, VA, would teach me so much about homeschooling.  There weren’t any sessions about homeschooling, education, or even parenting.  I met just one other homeschooling parent and one homeschooled-to-college 17-year old.  I had no intent to even consider my plans for fall for the boys while on vacation.

So what happened?

Simply put, I saw principles in practice.  I’m a Unitarian Universalist, a denomination without creed but with a set of seven principles.  I think these principles can speak to all of us, homeschooling or not, and inform us on how to live in community with our children.  Regardless of faith — Christian, Hindu, UU, Jew, Buddhist, Pagan, Muslim, Taoist, or Humanist, these principles can help us on our homeschooling missions.  So humor me for seven (likely not consecutive) posts and examine a principle with me.  See where it resonates with you and your experiences with your children.  No worries about agreeing with one or more — or with disagreeing with one or more.  Just come along for the ride.

The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is the respect of the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  Our week at SUUSI gave me an up-close look at parents and their children, a look that included the rough times that can spring forth when spending a week away from home with sometimes too much stimulation and too little sleep.  I was amazed at how often I saw this principle in practice.  Parents holding sobbing children, not scolding or hushing, just holding and loving.  Teachers giving kids choices (within limits), encouraging them to try new things but respecting each child’s sense of his or her own limits.  Parents not afraid to respectfully remind their kids when their kids’ actions were not respectful of others.  In that atmosphere of honoring others, I felt myself relaxing into honoring my own.  I’d gone with the intent to let them lead.  We’re all introverts, and I wasn’t sure how my boys or I would manage that many people every day.  I watched them closely, following their lead, allowing them plenty of down time and taking plenty myself.  I allowed them to try what they wanted to try to step back when they were unsure.  They surprised me in their choices, and I learned a lot about stepping back.

Six and a half years ago, my then-husband and I took our older child out of school because we respected his dignity and worth.  We saw his individuality, his learning preferences.  We saw his strengths and, just as importance, acknowledged his weaknesses.  We understood that no amount of forcing him or his school would make either party happy or whole, so home he came.  We made a schooling choice that honored our son’s self, his being.  And that’s not an uncommon start to homeschooling.

I wish I could say I’ve honored their worth and dignity every step of the way, but with that statement, my nose would grow while my pants caught on fire.  Too many times, I’ve tried to push them into the path of my agenda when that was clearly not a direction that respected their learning and growth.  I still cringe at some early days coaxing my older to write.  To my defense, I had no idea he was dysgraphic at 5 (writing was lagging at Montessori, so we worked on it at home), but had I really watched and listened to him, as I would have with an adult, I think I would have seen my error.  Wanting him to learn to write wasn’t my mistake.  Asking him to do something that for his was developmentally impossible  was.  An advantage of homeschooling is the intimate knowing of our children’s strengths and weaknesses.  It’s easy to squander that knowledge by over-focusing on weaknesses, demanding they be strengthened on mom or dad’s time, not the child’s time.

Honoring their dignity and worth isn’t always fun.  It doesn’t mean they call all the shots or are not in need of assistance from adults to grow into beings that are productive, peaceful, happy, and tolerable (at least) to be around.  It means that, even in small bodies without the greatest social skills and planning skills, that they are fully human.  They have opinions, preferences, will, and feelings.  They have favorite subjects to study and least favorite subjects.  That favorite may not be mine, and that least favorite may be my pet hobby, but they have a right to those preferences and deserve respect.  Their ideas deserve attention; their desires deserve an ear.  Their minds deserve stimulation; their bodies deserve tender care and feeding.

How does a parent honor the dignity and worth of a child?   Not by becoming a doormat.  Not by following every whim at every hour.  I honor my child by also honoring the adult my child will someday become.  I alert them to rules of the world, the manners and ways that (for my younger especially) don’t always make sense.  I expect them to honor other humans and remind them of them when needed.  I teach them the subjects they don’t find fun and do find hard, because without certain skills (and writing would qualify around here), I don’t given them the tools they need down the road.  I give them choices with limits:  choices for the structure of their day and choices of what to study.  Math first or second?  Their choice.  Doing math?  Not negotiable.  Studying Earth Science versus Physics this year?  Negotiable.  And, I’d add, they’re far more successful when their choice is honored.

That step is easy for me.  Much harder is honoring them when they’re irritable, anxious (looks like irritable often, at least for my younger), or just plain derelict in their duties.  I’ve yelled in frustration, “Just do it!  I’m the parent, you’re the child, and that means I’m in charge.”  (And, yes, that would generally be to my younger.)  I’ve yelled worse.  I’m not proud of it, and I’d rather report that I consider my children as the full humans they are every time I speak to them, even when they’ve smacking their sibling, ignored my (no longer) polite request(s) for them to get to work/bring in the trash cans/practice piano/get dressed/just acknowledge that I’ve SPOKEN.  I can really lose it at that point.

And honestly, sometimes losing it works.  But we all pay a price, and the distance between us increases.  I’d rather summon my patience and speak with them with respect to their dignity and worth all the time, but I doubt that’s happening any time soon, but I continue to try.  I don’t regret the truth I’ve told them kindly.  The truth that I am the adult responsible for them, and that I want them to grow up able to live productive lives, be happy and kind, and the sort of people others like to be with (or tolerate, at the very least).  This requires speaking when spoken to, following through on assignments, and regular bathing.  It requires learning how to respect the dignity and worth of the others in their lives, including that of their mom.

Let’s make this series a group project.  How do you respect the worth and dignity of your family?  When do you not manage that task?  Does your spiritual or not spiritual bent influence your ways in this area?  Be nice — respect the worth and dignity of others, please!

5 thoughts on “Principles in Practice 1: Worth and Dignity

  1. Loved your post! Forwarded it to DH, and to my mom. On your point about how the adult losing it sometimes WORKS: yes, it does. And, I don’t think I’m rationalizing when I say that if it’s rare, a parent “losing it” doesn’t have to increase space between parent and child (especially if respectful communication around the issue occurs later when everyone is calm). it can (sometimes) bring parent and child closer when the child really sees the depth of the parent’s frustration and emotion. Like you say, the majority of interactions are ideally respectful. I guess I’m arguing that the occasional outburst from an otherwise kind and respectful parent “keeps things real.”

    • Glad you liked it! Sometimes mom rant does re-establish the pecking order around here, but I have trouble keeping a rant on topic and tend to wander in, um, less than productive and respectful ways. I like your conclusion: it keeps things real.

  2. I am a UU homeschooler also. I appreciate the journey you are starting on and look forward to reading more that incorporates the Principles. You make good points and thanks for sharing the good and the bad. It sounds much like my home. We all make mistakes sometimes and often the way I handle my mistakes afterward is the greater lesson to my kids and requires more of me than the times that I behave according to my ideals right up front. Keep it up. Peace.

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  4. Pingback: Principles in Practice 2: Justice and Compassion « Quarks and Quirks

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