Principles in Practice 2: Justice and Compassion

The second installment in a series examining homeschooling and parenting via the seven Unitarian Universalist principles. Unitarian Universalism, 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. See where each principle 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. Better yet, join the conversation.

I spend a fair amount of time  juggling my time, attention, and resources.   I spend another chunk wondering if I’m getting it wrong.  These are concerns of equity, concerns all parents, homeschooling or not, face daily.  As adults, we know that equity does not mean giving the same to everyone.  The baby needs more hand-on attention than the older child, on average.  While the older may scream foul, demanding more time, the adult knows that giving each child what each one needs is true fairness, true equity.  As a homeschooling mom, the balance of hands-on time still tends toward the younger learner, but this last school year, my older son screamed foul in the way he does best:  he simply stopped doing independent work.  I’d granted him a fair amount of independence at the start of the school year, what with three online classes, one on Latin, which is all, well, Latin to me.  He wanted the independence, he said, with actions if not with words.  As apropos of a 13-year-old, he was pushing away from me in search of others and a better understanding of self.  So I kept my hands off.

Those who have followed Quarks and Quirks for the last year know where that led.  By November 2010, I realized how unprepared he was to manage his time in these classes.  He was skipping assignments, either out of benign neglect or frustration.  After four months, Latin was dropped. Second semester, he took just one online class, although his math moved from mom-taught to self-taught with ALEKS.  He continued to flounder, never asking for help but clearly distressed about his mounting list of failures.   He wanted more time learning from me, he said.  I was floored.  This child turning young man, the boy who fixed my kitchen cabinet and navigates our computers faster than I ever could manage, wanted more of me.  So this year, he’ll have more of that.  He needs is. He’ll carry just one online class, and most of his studies will revolve around Meteorology (his passion) and Earth Science.  Literature, writing, history, and science will dance together, and he and I will have that time he wants.  His younger brother, on the other hand, will shoulder three online classes of his choosing, which allows me more time for his older brother.  That’s equity — flexible distribution of time and resources that within limits, gets folks what they need.

Justice sits aside equity, restoring equity when one has been denied of it.  My younger son’s idea of justice includes a good amount of retribution generally in the form of grabbing the offending brother (many of his justice issues involve his brother) and telling him LOUDLY how wrong he was.  When I intervene, the LOUD aims at me, with questions along the line of, “What are you going to do to him?  He needs to learn not to (fill in the blank with the infraction of the day).”  My idea of justice is different, focused on restoring equity, assuring that people are heard, and reminding all to be respectful of others.  Retribution, paybacks, and vigilante justice aren’t acceptable options for them or for me.  Justice may come in the form of natural consequences, such as loss of computer time for breaking a computer rule or cessation of a game when conversation in the game turns to yelling.  I miss on this count sometimes, yelling right back, floored at the lack of fairness one child shows the other. I’m still searching for my inner Gandhi, who often hides quite well.

The underpinning of justice and equity is compassion.  Being compassionate to a child should be easy.  After all, they’re small (for a while) and relatively inexperienced in life.  Plus, by biology or careful planning, they’re ours.  So why is it so hard to be compassionate day in and day out?  For me, seeing the errors that led to the skinned knee, failed test, or lost toy can press me away from compassion.  After all, if I’ve warned a child 734 times today to pick up his shoes/toys/books/duct tape so no one will trip on them, and then he is the one who falls on the hazard, it’s hard not to say, “I told you so.” Compassion says comfort and care first, discuss actions and consequences later.

It’s easier with the LEGOs than it is with the schoolwork.  I’ve had, on thousands of occasions,  a child with numerous assignments remaining who grows despondent, wanting a chance to play with friends and abandon responsibility.  Depending on the day and the list he has, I will sometimes shoo the child out the door after receiving a promise to return to work come evening.  Compassion or just an escape from whining?  It’s a thin line, but I’ll be generous and call it compassion.  Other times, either due to the amount remaining, evening commitments, or just my irritation about the general malingering that same child seems to display, I’ll refuse the request.  This can be done with compassion, recognizing the child’s sadness and, with my older (the usual offender), reassuring the child that the work pile to doable with focus and effort.  Or refusal can come out of an angry, smaller place:  it can start with criticism at his work habits and a litany of opportunities the child had to be productive.  Smaller still, it can carry examples of other recent times similar to this, times where my benevolence and compassion was rewarded with more avoidance and noncompliance on his part.

Ouch.

Compassion comes from the deep heart, offered not as a means to an end but as a way of respecting the worth and dignity of each person (Principle 1).  When compassion comes with conditions, it is no longer compassion but coercion.  Compassion, like dignity and worth, does not mean being walked all over by another.  It means repeatedly offering love from the heart, treating others as you would have them treat you, without expectation.  The compassionate parent refuses requests of children, but not with belittling.  Refusing a child what he or she wants may be the most compassionate, just, and equitable path.

For me, extending compassion means keeping my mouth shut for ten seconds before speaking.  This, as I’ve written about on Finding My Ground, is a work in long, slow progress.  I’ve found that when I slow down (mouth closed) and offer compassion first, the rest of the lecture brewing in my mind either evaporates or at least condenses into a few neutral lines.  That’s better for all involved, including me.

How do compassion, justice, and equity inform your homeschooling and parenting?

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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!