It took a trip to the wilderness to parent like I wanted to.

My four-year-old collapsed in a field of daisies, his face contorted in anger: “This is the WORST DAY EVER!” His baby brother clutched my leg, howling, “Big bear ding-dong! Big bear ding-dong!”

Songbirds scattered from the trees around us.

I stood in the middle of the trail, toddler attached to one leg, four-year-old prone in the field beside me. The kids’ wails rose into the cloudless sky. We were in a wilderness paradise full of meandering paths, tree swings, stick forts, and an off-the-grid school bus I had rented for our weekend camping trip. On my own. And six months pregnant besides.

There was no one for miles to witness this parenting fail.

When Matt went off on his annual guys-only canoe trip, I decided to take the kids on a camping trip of our own. I had everything figured out. The best food and plenty of it. The right gear but nothing complicated. I even prepared the kids for the tricky parts of our stay, like how our host asked us not to push the buttons or play with the steering wheel inside the bus. Gus and Henry had no problems with that.

I was Super Mom, I told myself, hoisting the cooler above my third-trimester belly and lugging it up to the bus.

What I couldn’t control, however, were the kids’ emotions. Including how many they had. Or how loud they were.

Who could have predicted that the moment we stepped into the woods, the toddler would become terrified that a big bear was coming to ring our doorbell? Or that the four-year-old would have an endless (it seemed) case of the blahs?

Not me, obviously.

I was helpless in every sense of the word.

I had snacks and water in my backpack, but the kids weren’t hungry or thirsty.

A nap? Who was I kidding? Who would fall asleep in the middle of a hiking trail?

Bribery? I suspected not even a bucket of ice cream would please the four-year-old in that moment. I certainly had nothing comparable in my pack.

Distraction? Can’t really distract a toddler from his fear of the woods… when you’re in the middle of the woods.

And while we parent without threats or punishment (to the best of our fallible ability), neither would have helped the situation I was in.

It no longer was about what would “work.”

It had to be about what they needed.

Somewhere on that trail, in the middle of the woods, with no one watching, I began to parent the way I had been striving to for months. I didn’t shush their voices because there was no one to hear them yelling. I didn’t rush them because there was nowhere we needed to go. I didn’t bribe, distract, or manipulate them because… honestly, at the end of it all, we’d still be out in the middle of the woods, and it made a lot more sense to help them rather than cajole their problems away.

I realized that I was a better parent when no one was watching.

And that I spend too much time worrying about what other people think.

Instead, I sat down on the path, held Henry, and read to Gus from My Father’s Dragon (because that’s what he asked me to do). Yes, I thought things like “we could be reading this book at home” and “is anyone going to have fun this weekend?” and “my butt is falling asleep,” but I kept those thoughts to myself.

After awhile, the kids started to relax.

It wasn’t long before they began to have a good time.

I did, too.

My son went to the perfect preschool. It was totally unnecessary.

Gus finished preschool last week.

As I walked into his classroom on the last day, I took in the giant windows that overlooked the woodland playground. The school’s pet chickens were squawking around outside. A group of children in rain boots raced across the yard with their teacher, starting off the daily hike across the wildflower prairie, to visit the animals at the farm, or to hunt for frogs in the rocky creek. The classroom was spotless, as always, with a new rotation of open-ended toys displayed on the wooden shelves. A few of his classmates had arrived already and were reading picture books in a wooden loft draped with silk cloths and twinkle lights.

It really was a lovely school, I reminded myself.

He just didn’t need it.

But maybe we parents did.

Throughout the year, I noticed that when I made small talk in the lobby at drop-off and pick-up, my conversation with other parents often returned to: “Isn’t this place amazing? I wish I could be a kid here!”

The nostalgia was drenching. I know I felt it. It was that feeling, that longing for an idyllic childhood, that led us to enroll Gus in The Perfect Preschool last fall for two afternoons per week.

By Thanksgiving, the glamor wore off.

The preschool was still as perfect as it had seemed in the beginning. The teachers were just as kind. The activities were just as magical. It was just that… maybe we didn’t need perfect after all.

I know Gus didn’t.

If you had asked him what his perfect school would be, he’d probably say a place with stuff to climb on, a bunch of books about wolves and the Revolutionary War, and a handful of friends who like to pretend to rescue animals and appreciate a good potty joke.

Sounds like our house. And the friends he has in our homeschool group and in the neighborhood.

But all year long, we’d leave those places – setting aside whatever book or project he’d been immersed in at home, bailing out of playgroup before the game had really ended – and go to preschool, where he would do exactly what he would have been doing at home. Building with blocks. Digging in the sand. Listening to a story. Except this time he’d be in a room with abundant windows, pet chickens, and twinkle lights, and we were paying an arm and a leg for it. (Because, as early childhood educators agree, The Perfect Preschool should focus on play, exploration, and curiosity. The value of teaching kids to read, write, and add when they are very young has been thoroughly disproven.)

And while Gus was outside with his preschool class, digging in the mud and climbing trees, Henry and I were on the other side of the preschool grounds… digging in the mud and climbing trees. It seemed redundant. Why weren’t we all together? We certainly wanted to be.

Around the time that Matt and I were talking about calling it quits, a new student enrolled in Gus’s class. He would quickly become the first friend Gus ever made on his own. Happily, he’s also part of our homeschool group (small world), but the friendship didn’t develop there – it developed at preschool – and that, to Gus, made the world of a difference. And because he was so excited to go to preschool to see his friend, we decided to finish the school year.

After all, I remember my first real friend. (Ah, the nostalgia!)

It turns out, we didn’t need handcrafted wooden blocks or biweekly naturalist-led nature walks to give Gus an idyllic childhood experience.

If I had realized that his favorite parts of preschool would be playing spaceship with his friend and attending the ice cream party on the last day of class, we could have bought a tub of Blue Bunny, scheduled a bunch of playdates, and called it done.

That’s what we’ll be doing from now on.

And as for learning? Well, if the best schools inspire play, exploration, and curiosity, I’m pretty sure Gus has that covered on his own.

6 ways to raise feminist boys (all year long)

A vicious 24-hour stomach bug steamrolled through our house yesterday. We all spent today in recovery doing what I call couchschooling.

It is exactly what you think it is.

Some time after breakfast (my first full meal in 24 hours), I logged onto my phone and learned it was March 8.

International Women’s Day.

Somewhere in the haze of late-night bedding changes and semiconscious debates with Matt about which one of us was the least nauseous parent (and thus obligated to clean the carpet), I didn’t plan any special activities for today.

But on second thought, I justified to myself, stumbling my way from the bed to the couch, maybe it’s better this way.

Maybe it’s better to teach the important things – like feminism, or environmentalism, or racial justice – a little bit, all of the time.

And so that is what we did today.

We read a few of our favorite feminist biographies (while I still had the voice enough to read).

Then Gus chose one woman to learn more about. He picked Harriet Tubman.

We watched a few Youtube videos on Tubman’s life. (Which also meant that I could stop talking. Yay.)

Did you know that after guiding 300 slaves to freedom, she became the U.S.’s first black female spy (during the Civil War)? And that her most famous quote is, “Move or die”? And she never went anywhere without her gun?

Gus thinks she was incredible.

Me too.

He made a drawing of Tubman’s escape route (from the crops at the plantation to the northern part of his piece of paper). In his drawing, she makes her way through swamps and narrowly avoids alligators. He made sure to include her walking stick and gun.

And the words he used to describe what women can do? Be brave, navigate, rescue, spy. 

And that’s it, folks.

After that, I had enough energy to lay motionless, occasionally refilling the kids’ bowls of dried Cheerios.

(They were well-fed, supervised, and busy putting together alphabet puzzles. Don’t worry.)

We try to teach feminism year-round over here. Which makes me feel better about the minimal amount of effort I put into homeschooling today.

Here are my 6 Ways to Raise Feminist Boys (All Year Long): 

  1. Stock your shelves with books that feature bold, unstoppable female characters.

    Boys should be reading books about girls. There are lots of fantastic children’s books written about brave, clever, and creative girls – but it’s a problem if only girls are reading them. Boys need to read books about gender equality and girl empowerment, too.

    Curious about some of our favorites?

  2. Include the perspectives of women from diverse backgrounds. 

    Scour the library shelves for books about bold, unstoppable female characters, but don’t stop there. Make sure your collection includes the perspectives and voices of women of color, women from countries outside of the United States, women with disabilities, working-class women, and bisexual, lesbian, and trans women.

    Unfortunately, this isn’t easy. But there are book lists out there that can help.

  3. Learn about famous women from history…
  4. … but don’t forget about the amazing things young women and girls are doing today.

    Ted talks are a great way to introduce your kids to the young women who are changing the world today. Gus especially liked the talks featuring:

    Jade Hameister, who at 14 years old became the youngest person to ski to the North Pole.

    Adora Svitak, who published her first book at 6 and now, at age 12, is a educator, public speaker, and children’s rights advocate.

    Lauren Hodge, Shree Bose and Naomi Shah, award-winning teenage scientists.

    At 4.5, Gus is just barely old enough for TED Talks. If I pause the videos frequently enough to explain and answer his questions, however, he can follow along pretty well.

    And even if he doesn’t understand every detail of the talk, he’s seeing images of young women in positions of authority, accomplishment and leadership. This will make a lasting impression.

  5. Give your son female role models…

    Have a future pilot in the house? Learn about Amelia Earhart. A budding computer programmer? Read books about Ada Lovelace.

    Gus was already interested in spies when he discovered that Harriet Tubman had been a spy for the Union Army. That fact made him want to learn everything I could find about her.

  6. … as well as male. 

Boys need to learn that girls can do anything. But they also must learn that boys can too.

Boys can be sensitive. Boys can cry. Boys can play with dolls and wear pink. Boys can grow to become nurses, preschool teachers, and stay-at-home parents.

I’ve been searching for books that show boys and men in non-traditional gender roles.

One of my favorite books that teaches a broad, inclusive definition of masculinity is called Real Cowboys by Kate Hoelfer.

Real cowboys are gentle. They know all of the songs that keep cattle calm..

This book is amazing. I’ve never read another quite like it. Hoelfer does a fantastic job of illustrating how a person can be strong and sensitive, tough and tender at the very same time. Because, as she points out in the book, real cowboys are girls, too.

Real cowboys want peace…

Real cowboys are good to the earth…

There is so much good in this book. And so many good resources out there.

But there’s not enough.

I want more children’s books to feature stay-at-home dads. (There is this one, however, that we plan to read).

I want to read a book that tells boys and girls that they can become a scientist, the president, or a stay-at-home parent – and that all of those choices have value. All too often, female empowerment in children’s books looks like success in the workplace. We need to recognize and value the unpaid work of full-time parenting (regardless of which parent is staying at home) and present it as a legitimate, valuable role for children to aspire to.

I want more books that teach children how to speak out and stand up to injustice.

It’s one thing to learn that injustice exists, but it’s another thing completely to learn how to stop it.

 

Alice’s homeschool day in the life (with a 1- and 4-year old)

I wanted to homeschool my kids long before I ever had any. Homeschooling was never a question of why for me. It was more of a question of how. How would I implement child-led learning? How would I unschool and still have my kids learn math? How would my kids learn to read?

I didn’t want curriculum or a schedule. I needed to find a lifestyle that worked for us – a way to live together that would give my kids what they needed to learn and grow.

I found some of my best inspiration for this lifestyle from other homeschooling moms.

My favorite place for inspiration has been the Homeschool Day In the Life series at Simple Homeschool. Every February, the website’s contributors share a typical day in the life of their family’s homeschool.

It’s from these posts that I’ve learned about gameschooling, nature journals, and the Brave Writer lifestyle, three elements I predict will be important to our homeschool going forward. I’ve also learned to relax, focus on the big picture, and realize that no day is ever perfect (nor does it need to be).

This year, I’m adding my own day in the life post to the Simple Homeschool link-up.

They’re tiny, but I call them homeschoolers.

Though neither of my kids are yet school-age, I’m going to lay claim to the title of Homeschool Mom because 1). We officially missed the deadline to register Gus for kindergarten in the fall (it feels like a big deal!) and 2). He’s beginning to read, write, and sum at a kindergarten level.

Here goes our first day in the life post. As it turns out, it was a fairly typical day – and a good example of how life works around here.

Early Morning

I wake up around 7:00 AM to a pair of tiny feet digging into the small of my back.

Gus, our 4-year-old, crept downstairs sometime in the early morning with a stuffed wolf under each arm and burrowed between Matt and I in bed.

“Mom,” Gus says, “what are we doing today?”

I blink at the sunlight streaming through the windows and strive for consciousness. Morning person I am not. “It’s a home day,” I finally answer.

Gus cheers.

A home day is what we call a day without any scheduled plans (though we rarely stay home). In general, we’re all happiest if we have three unplanned days a week, but I usually have to struggle to reign in our calendar that much.

There’s a common misconception that homeschooling creates isolated, unsocialized kids – but I’ve found the opposite to be true. We’re lucky to be part of a large, active community of eclectic homeschoolers and unschoolers. My kids could be involved in a class, field trip, or play date with our group every day of the week if we wanted to.

As it is, we participate Spanish class and go on weekly field trips with the group. Theater class begins when Spanish ends, and there will be a community service/activism group forming this summer. Gus also goes to a play-based nature preschool program two afternoons per week – and one of his best friends from homeschool group is in his class.

Today, however, we have nothing planned.

I love it.

Generously, Matt gets up with Gus and Henry (our 1-year-old) and lets me stay in bed a little while longer. He’s leaving for a business trip in a few hours and has more time at home this morning than usual. I hear the boys rustling through the entryway for their boots and snow pants, and before long they’re all outside throwing snowballs in the front yard.

Relishing the thought of being alone in a quiet house (for at least a few minutes), I quickly pull myself out of bed, make a cup of coffee, and start on breakfast. We eat an epic meal – eggs, French toast, oatmeal, yogurt, fruit – (everyone is always famished in the morning), say goodbye to Matt, and then get down to the business of the day.

The business is books.

We start every morning in the playroom, curled up on the couch with a stack of books. The boys would have me read to them all day to them if I could.

Gus tends to gravitate towards nonfiction, especially books about animal biology and environmentalism – so read aloud time often doubles as science.

He’s currently on a solar power kick. Today, we read Chandra’s Magic Light, a story about a Nepalese girl who earns enough money to buy her family a solar-powered lantern. I’m pleased that I was able to tie in one of Gus’s current interests with one of our homeschool’s overarching goals – to give our kids an education firmly grounded in social justice. One way I try to do this is try by choosing storybooks that feature protagonists from diverse backgrounds and cultures as much as possible.

After about an hour of reading, I turn on a Spanish music CD (Okee Dokee Brothers’ Excelente Fabuloso), and the kids play independently while I clean up the kitchen. I’ve been more intentional about speaking Spanish with the kids lately, and I try to turn on Spanish music or read a Spanish storybook with the kids every day.

From time to time I hear them singing along with the music. (Even Henry is saying “gato.”)

Mid-morning

After the kitchen is cleaned up, we start project time. If we’re anything, we’re project-based unschoolers, and project time is the core of all of our homeschooling. During project time, the kids do whatever they want – play, read, or create. I work alongside them as a helper or guide.

As they get older, project time will look more like research, creation, and presentation. Right now, project time is serious play.

Gus, who has been fascinated with wolves for the past 18 months and plans to become “a scientist who studies wolves in the wild,” chooses to spend project time focused on his favorite topic.

Usually he wants to play wolves or draw pictures of wolves, but today he decides to work on his messaging for Wolf Day at the Capitol. In a few weeks, we’ll be attending a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol to support federal protections for wolves. He’s taking the chance to speak up for wolves very seriously.

Meanwhile, Henry works at his favorite place on top of the playroom table.

The kids are both happy and engaged in their work. I hang out with them, help Gus spell the words he wants to write, answer his question about the difference between a lower-case h and a lower-case n, and try to scrub marker off of Henry’s face. He’ll remain pink-striped for the rest of the day.

Peace reigns until 11:30 AM, when the kids start pelting me with sock balls (so much for folding laundry). I decide it’s about time we get outside.

Afternoon

I was hoping to bike with the kids today, but the surprise snowfall last night will my plan back a few days. Instead, I load the kids up in the Burley for a walk to the library. We’re working on the #1000hoursoutside challenge, hoping to spend 1,000 hours ouside in 2017. Our walk to the library brings us to hour 51. We’ve got some work to do!

Within five minutes of being outside, Henry falls asleep. He sleeps throughout the walk and just long enough for me and Gus to grab our books off the reserve shelf and browse the non-fiction stacks. Then we head to the children’s section where we hang out for about an hour.

We take home books about wolves, a ninja baby, and a rabbit who won’t stop saying “poop-di-poop”, which is a decent summary of my boys’ current interests.

I add a few Spanish storybooks and books about environmentalism, including a picture book I’m really excited about called If You Spent a Day with Thoreau at Walden Pond.

Once we’re back home, we have a snack and pull out some board games. A few months ago I rearranged the playroom, clearing out a bunch of toys and filling the shelves with puzzles and board games instead. Gus’s math skills have exploded since then. So much of kindergarten math can be learned by playing board games – numeral recognition, counting, addition, subtraction, and estimating quantities and distances, to name a few.

We play a few rounds of Count Your Chickens, and then Gus decides he wants to practice parkour. Lots of jumping off the couch, somersaulting, and cartwheeling ensues.

Note to self: More outdoor time needed tomorrow.

Evening 

Since Matt is out of town on business tonight, the boys and I have special plans to order take-out. Gus chooses curry and samosas from our favorite East African restaurant, and the server surprises the kids by giving them free fresh mango juice when we pick up our meals.

After dinner, it’s bath and pajama time. Gus and I recently finished reading the Winnie the Pooh anthology, and as a special treat tonight, he gets to stay up late and watch The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh with me. This is the 1977 version, a movie I remember well from my own childhood, and I enjoy the nostalgia of watching as much as he enjoys seeing it for the first time.

By 8:30 PM, Henry is long asleep and Gus’s eyelids are heavy. I put him to bed, spend time catching up with Matt on the phone, and then dig out my current sci-fi novel (The Three Body problem by Cixin Liu) and read until I’m ready for sleep – which is much later than it should be, but the book is hard to put down.

And that’s it! A typical day in the life of our homeschool.

What I didn’t mention includes, but is not limited to: Epic negotiations required before any clothing change, tooth brushing, face washing, or other act of personal hygiene; more couch-jumping than you can possibly imagine; and potty talk. So much potty talk.

There’s no perfection here, but there is a lot of enjoyment. I am so grateful this how we spend our days together.

Sorting through the February slump

When something is wrong, I start moving the furniture.

There’s something about a rearranged room. It’s like throwing open the curtains and letting in some sunlight. Only bigger. And more permanent.

This month, I did more than a little rearranging. I flipped our entire house. We spent a few days with an armchair in the kitchen. Everything came out of every closet. And then it all sat in piles on the floor until it found its way into a new closet.

February has been a sorting-through-the-mess kind of month.

If I can just find a spot, the right spot, for these outgrown baby clothes that are sitting in the hallway.

(If I can just choose a cause, the right cause, from the overwhelm of issues that are flooding my newsfeed.)

I mean, it has to be the right spot. I don’t want to have to move all these clothes again in a few months.

You know, I can probably just step over the pile of baby clothes every time I walk down the hallway. It’s no big deal.

The right spot will turn up eventually.

(You hear me?)

Ugh, February.

It’s the longest-shortest month of the year. And this one has been especially long. All of the things we were excited about when winter began – baking, board games, playing outside in the snow – are getting old. Now it’s just another batter-crusted mixing bowl, a playroom strewn with game pieces, and soggy pile of snowpants by the front door.

I feel like all I’m doing is cleaning up messes.

(But some of them are pretty cute messes.)

Still, I’m beginning to see the light. I did find a spot for those baby clothes. And I’m starting a regular volunteer position at the crisis nursery next week. And in the past few weeks, Gus started reading, writing, and doing math sums in his head. The boys have been playing together like the best friends they are. And the temps hit 60 degrees a few days in a row.

What else has helped us sort through the slump?

Reading Winnie-the-Pooh.

Playing in the mud. (The before-the-clean-up part.)

Listening to music.

And Girl Scout cookies. Always Girl Scout cookies.

How are you getting through the February slump?

We’re those long-haired, barefoot unschoolers you’ve heard about.

Actually, my kids don’t have very long hair. But they are almost always barefoot. And we are unschoolers.

Always without shoes. #childhoodunplugged #letthembelittle #learningallthetime #kidsofinstagram

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Our home-based preschool is not one with circle time and weather charts and cut-on-the-dotted-line worksheets. There are no ABC posters on the walls. I don’t plan crafts around toilet paper rolls. I taught “in-a-school-building” (Gus’s term) preschool for long enough to feel confident about ditching these things at home. I’m unschooling my kids instead.

Real quick, unschooling is:

“…allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear.” – Pat Farenga, Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling

It’s about children taking the lead in their own education, driven by their own interests and curiosity.

Our son has never had an academic lesson, has never been told to read or to learn mathematics, science, or history. Nobody has told him about phonics. He has never taken a test or been asked to study or memorize anything. When people ask, “What do you do?” My answer is that we follow our interests – and our interests inevitably lead to science, literature, history, mathematics, music – all the things that have interested people before anybody thought of them as “subjects.” – Earl Stevens, The Natural Child Project

We take classes on topics Gus is interested in. Some unschoolers do this, some don’t. But most of all, our unschooling is based on talking, reading, following our questions where they lead us, and doing real work. We’re project-based unschoolers, if you want to get nitty-gritty about it.

You create a space dedicated to doing meaningful work, set up to both attract your child and allow him to work independently.

You offer him an interesting variety of high-quality materials and tools.

You build blocks of time into your routine for project-related learning, making, and doing — time when you are available to support and mentor.

You become a trusted resource who will take him where he needs to go and help him meet his own goals.

He provides the interest and the ideas, so his work is self-motivated. You help him keep track of his plans, intentions, and questions. – Lori Pickert, Project-Based Homeschooling

Our unschool daily routine:

Morning: If I wake up early, I do some writing before the kids get up. If not, I wake up when the first offspring jumps on me or pokes me in the face.

We cook a big breakfast every day, eat together at the table, and then get down to the important business of being bookworms. We do lots and lots of reading, and then the kids play while I clean up the kitchen and get ready for what’s next.

Mid-morning: Around 10 AM, we’re ready for a change of pace.

I co-teach a Spanish class for our homeschool group one morning per week, so when class is in session there are 19 kids under 8 years old yelling “Hola!” in my living room at this time.

On Thursdays, our homeschool group gets together for a field trip or free play, so we might also be touring a fire station, tapping trees for maple sugar, or running wild at the park.

Mid-morning might also find us in a music class, swimming lessons, or dropping Gus off at theater class, depending on the time of the year, but I try not to let activities overlap. We don’t like to have more than two scheduled mornings per week.

If nothing’s scheduled, we do projects. I wrote a whole post on projects here.

Afternoon: Around noon two afternoons a week, Gus takes a nature class, and Henry and I hike at the nature center until it’s time to pick him up.

Another beautiful hike. #childhoodunplugged #kidsofinstagram #outside #sahm

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If nothing is scheduled, we do projects.

Mid-afternoon: After lunch or nature class, depending on what day it is, we all need some time to chill. Henry naps. Gus listens to an audio story in a fort he makes out of couch cushions. I do some writing or laundry. Eventually, we all regroup for more storytime until Matt comes home from work.

That’s our unschooling schedule in a nutshell.

If you’re a stay-at-home mom, this probably all looks familiar to you. I’m sure a million parents are doing all this without calling it unschooling. The only difference is that we plan to continue this routine as the boys get older.

What about you? If you’re unschooling, what’s your routine like (if you have one)? If you’re home with young kids, does this look anything like your normal day?