Sharing the Journey
As Donna Mitchell reviewed one of the kazillion drafts for the DaySpring High School Handbook, she looked at the section where home educators shared their experiences and methods, looked at me, and said “Where’s yours???” I’m sure you’ve heard the term “wry expression”, and I’m just as sure that would describe the way I looked at her as I said, “And what would I write about??? The Damage Control Method?” And if you know Donna, you know the gleam in her eye as she said, with enthusiasm, “Yeah. Exactly.”
Today, attempting to “psyche myself up” to facing the difficulty of describing these memories, I picked up an old article printed in HELM, the first attempt I made publicly to describe our journey toward truth. As I read over the article to the end, I encountered a poem I had written during those dark days when my daughter Katrina was only six years old. I found, somewhat to my chagrin, that ten years after it was written, silent tears were once again making their way down my face.
Because I know there are others suffering in the same ways, I tell myself often that I will share more of the experiences that culminated in my family launching itself down the home education path. But when I put my fingers to the keyboard and start the trip down memory lane, waves of resistance stop me. “It is still too soon,” I think, and “I can’t do this.” Indeed, there is much I cannot yet share freely.
But there are some experiences I can share. Recently, I ran across this statement in the Timberdoodle home education catalog:
“If you are grieving that your children speak only one language, are atrocious spellers, and can’t locate Nigeria to save their lives, then you don’t know real grief. Look around you; troubled families are dealing with bigger issues than just scholastics, they are dealing with issues of the heart.”
These thoughts are written, then, not for those who are concerned with scholastics, or looking for answers to scholastic issues. They are written for those who are dealing with, and are often still grieving over, issues of the heart. Those who, like me, have made a decision to make Healing the priority. For the reality is that even though home education has recently been described with that term <shiver> “mainstream alternative”, many parents come not easily to home education, but only after they have spent years in continuing battles and constant compromises, attempting to “work with the system”. These parents know the heartbreak of living with a child who is being torn down year after year, the pursuing of one avenue after another without really knowing how to help that child, while knowing deep down that something is really wrong about the whole situation. The resulting damage in those cases is a fact of life.
Because that damage has often been reality for so long, the knowledge regarding it may start as only a background thought. After the child has been removed from the public school, the months go by and we have the freedom to think unencumbered by the need for rationalization and frustrated acceptance of the abuse of the government-school system. Along with that freedom to think comes a growing and often heartbreakingly painful understanding of just how much damage the child has suffered.
I believe that all children are hurt by the government school system. Some survive — hardly a point in favor of the system. And some children are even seen as “flourishing”. This view ignores “opportunity costs”, which cannot be measured. Under no circumstances can the potential of a child be realized in the public school system, no matter how many survival skills they have learned, how many awards they have won, or how much they enjoy the cheerleading squad, the band, or the debate team. Those who survive – and especially those who flourish – do so in spite of the system, not because of it, and/or because they have learned how to manipulate and work that system to their advantage. At best, the results of learning to work the system place an extremely confusing burden on the young shoulders of those children.
I also believe that some suffer so greatly by virtue of their personality, their level of maturity, their personal experiences, that for some of us, making healing the priority is an absolute necessity, the most important decision you can make. For those of you who are confronting this pain, it is my hope that sharing some of our experiences may help in some way, or stir some thought in you that will ease your journey toward peace and truth.
Make the Commitment!
Be prepared for the possibility that it could well get worse before it gets better. A child damaged by the system is lost, and as hard as it may have been, it was comfortable in that the misery was at least predictable and familiar. The layers of defenses and coping mechanisms could take months, even years, to fall away. Because the new home educator is typically at least a little unsure anyway, the first few months can be rough enough, or surprising enough, or anxious enough that the child is returned to public school before the benefits can even start to be felt.
Be prepared for your child to want to return to the system. This is probably the most surprising and unsettling event for those who have witnessed terrible hurt in their child. Understand some of the underlying causes, and don’t give in to this request without considering both the possible motivations and the unintended consequences of giving in. A toddler allergic to chocolate still reaches for it, but if you previously had to take emergency care steps due to the allergic reactions, you would not let that child have chocolate just because they want it.
Children often hold themselves totally responsible for the events in their life. Because those who suffer the most in the school system have already seen themselves as “failing”, they may well see the initiation of home education as proof of their own inability to succeed. Perhaps even believing, as my daughter did, that even YOU have given up on them. Often, after the first flush of relief at being away from school is over, they will begin to “recall” how “this” or “that” was “their fault”, and as children always seek approval and success, they will want to return to the system to prove their self, to attempt to “conquer” the situation. PLEASE be aware of this. Your acceptance of the idea of returning to public school, even your consideration of it as a possibility, can validate these extremely debilitating ideas in their mind. Do not look for them to understand that this process is occurring with them. Indeed, if confronted they may deny these feelings. Understand that “conflicted” means just that – an internal conflict between two opposing beliefs, both of which they “know” to be true.
If you have attempted to raise them to believe in themselves, that belief in themselves is in constant conflict with their absolute KNOWLEDGE of their own “failure”, a “knowledge” gained in day-to-day experience in a damaging situation that we cannot possibly really know, experiences that occurred sometimes minute-by-minute, in so many subtle ways that we may never, and they may never, recognize them all. Do NOT validate this sense of failure by agreeing to let them return to public school.
When they ask, you may feel that you have failed. Don’t give in to that. You have not failed. You have just begun to succeed. For the sake of your child, stick with the protective instinct that brought on the original decision to remove them from institutionalized “public” education. Make the Commitment.
Understanding and Patience
Children who have suffered are not only hurt, but usually have a great deal of anger. Don’t expect it to disappear just because they are away from the day-to-day hurts. This does not mean that inappropriate behaviors should be tolerated, but that you can help your child find appropriate ways of expressing what they often have very good reason to feel. Anger is particularly hard to deal with when there is no denying that they have good reason for that anger. Redirect energy into positive directions when possible. Journals can help, and talking, and listening. But so can physical means of expression, like punching out pillows or tearing up pieces of paper. I have seen my daughter punch at a pillow until she was laughing; I have also seen her punch at a pillow until she dissolved into deep wrenching sobs.
Talk with them, agree with them, empathize with the situations they have had to bear. Discussions may get uncomfortable for you because you will have your own responsibility demons to face, but facing them with courage will model behavior for your child. Discuss with them the traps you have identified with the system. Help them to understand the hidden secret that other children who may not have appeared to be unhappy could have been, often were, suffering also. Examine your own school experiences for those hurtful episodes probably long buried, and discuss those with your child.
The unexpressed anger of a child is often self-directed, and while the release of these feelings can be emotionally draining, correctly identifying the problems and the responsibilities for the suffering is tremendously beneficial to a child who has misplaced responsibilities and misdirected anger toward themselves.
Sometimes life hurts, we can’t take it away, but we can be there, and acknowledge that the hurts really happened, that they are legitimate. Sometimes that’s all they need.
But DON’T Over-Compensate
It’s a pretty big temptation. As you start to understand the extent of the pain, don’t feel so sorry for your child, for what has happened, for their hurts, that you are constantly trying to “give” something or “do” something that makes it “all better” or “makes up” for it. You can’t, and it’s not going to make it go away, and it’s not what they need. By denying this temptation, by staying strong with consistent boundaries, you are expressing your belief in them, and your belief in their resilience.
If your child has been labeled by the system or in the system, regardless of how many doctor opinions you’ve had, or how many books you have read on the subject, or how accepted the diagnosis may be, you need to at least start to consider discarding the label.
In some cases, this is far more difficult than it sounds. Caring, concerned parents who have been told they must “accept” that their child is disabled or disordered have experienced at least some of the steps to acceptance. They have often grieved. They have researched and attempted in every way to learn about this “disorder”, and the “approved” methods for dealing with it. They have sometimes been thoroughly trained in behavior modification techniques, and thoroughly coached in the benefits of medication. The problem is that this process is directed, from the very beginning, either by those who diagnosed, or those who aimed your child toward that diagnosis. They have often recommended books, doctors, therapists, and coping methods. You may have spent years totally entrenched in the teachings: you have grieved, you have accepted, you have researched, and you have learned the approved parenting methods.
But you may have to accept the very difficult fact that in following the recommendations of those who directed your research, in putting forth your very best efforts to help your child, you are now “invested” in a label that may have no validity whatsoever.
“In 26 years of teaching rich kids and poor, I almost never met a ‘learning disabled’ child; hardly every met a ‘gifted and talented’ one, either. Like all school categories, these are sacred myths, created by the human imagination. They derive from questionable values we never examine because they preserve the temple of schooling.”
~~ John Taylor Gatto
“It’s clear to me after fifteen years of research and practice in the field of education that our schools are largely to blame for the failure and boredom that millions of children face as they trudge off unwillingly to their six-hour fate every weekday morning from September to June. Children categorized as learning disabled are the most visible casualties of this process, but they’re not the only victims.”
~~ Thomas Armstrong, In Their Own Way
“Testing … boxes children in with convenient labels couched in scientific-sounding educational jargon … the child who is not paying attention … suffers from ‘attention deficit disorder.’ The child who has difficulty remembering test instructions has ‘poor auditory sequential skills.’ Children get saddled with diagnostic terms such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and the like, making it sound as if they suffer from very rare and exotic diseases. Yet the word dyslexia is just Latin bafflegab, or jargon, for ‘trouble with words.’ ” ~~ Thomas Armstrong, In Their Own Way
Find alternative opinions. Read and read and read. Any diagnosis made from subjective criteria – and this includes any and all “mental” diagnoses — should be highly suspect, and in many, many cases, children brought home will eventually be label-free.
For century upon century, mankind existed and related one to another without the aid of stratified classification systems for the differences in personality types and the differing abilities of human beings. Individuals are unique, and uniqueness defies classification strategies. “Normal” has never been adequately defined, and the attempt to define it by default by stamping large segments of society with labels has wreaked havoc not only in the public school situation, but also throughout American society. Concentrate on your child’s strengths, and remember that you are your child’s mirror. How you see them will greatly affect how they see themselves.
You Are Responsible
Oh yeah. The hard one. I had to face the fact that it was me, and me alone, who was ultimately responsible for the mistake of putting my child in public school, and for leaving her there even when the damage being inflicted and the suffering were blatantly obvious. Nobody held a gun to my head. No one said drug this child or else. I listened to the “experts” and I ignored my heart, but it was Cathy who made that decision. Casting around to blame others, even the more idiotic of school personnel involved, wasn’t going to help, and wasn’t going to change anything.
Don’t buy the popular psyche trend that guilt is an overwhelming burden that none should bear, only a tool that authoritarian figures use to manipulate. Guilt is an instinctive reaction to mistakes, it serves a purpose, and should lead to corrective action. You can’t undo the mistakes of the past, but those ignored are the most likely to be repeated.
Guilt does not have to devastate you, it can teach you. Confront the fact that you made mistakes, but don’t wallow in it. Those who make no mistakes aren’t accomplishing much. You don’t have to engage in ongoing Beat Up Self Again Today sessions, but the guilt is there and examining the mistakes and what led to them is an aid to moving on quickly, taking advantage of today’s opportunities rather than dwelling on yesterday’s pain. You must admit and face the guilt before you can forgive yourself, and forgiving yourself is necessary to your own healing.
But the most important reason for accepting responsibility for the past mistakes is that until you do, you cannot embrace responsibility now, for what happens today. The grief and the guilt over the past are a small price to pay for the freedom to exercise your parenting rights without doubts, the freedom to embrace fully and eagerly the responsibility for the decisions made in your child’s life. Until you can accept responsibility for decisions made yesterday, you cannot accept it for decisions made today.
But You are NOT Responsible
As I worked – and continue to work — through these issues, I became aware that not only was I accepting responsibility for my own actions, I had a distinct tendency to take on responsibility for the actions of others. Whoa. Don’t go there, it’s a trap. Unless others are responsible for what they do, you can’t be responsible for what you yourself do. If you make excuses for the behavior of others, even when making excuses is due to the fact that ultimately you were the decision-maker, you will undermine your efforts to be personally responsible for your own behavior by generalizing the excuses made for others into excuses made for yourself.
I was responsible for placing my daughter into the care of strangers. But that did not make me responsible for their direct and abusive actions. Yes, I do have reason to be angry at their mistreatment of her and their manipulation of our daily life. Understanding this has helped me stand strong and committed to insisting on being treated with respect in daily social interactions, and to model this behavior for my daughter.
Expose the Experts
What may sound like a pessimistic, negative approach to life is actually a process you need to undertake in order to reveal, in all its glory, the extent to which the individuals, the building blocks of society, have misplaced authority. Choose areas you have never really examined, areas you have just accepted on so deep a level it never occurred to you to question. Some examples: Vaccinations are responsible for the low incidence of childhood diseases. State-of-the-art childbirth methods are responsible for low infant mortality and traditional midwifery is dangerous for child and mother. Fluoride in water and toothpaste is safe and beneficial. The minimum wage raises the standard of living for the low income.
The subject matter of your research is not as important as an objective process. Seek Out Opposing Opinions. Ignore what sounds like raving conspiracy theory, but seek out intelligent, researched opinions that contradict the norm.
The goal of this research is not to re-engineer your thinking until you are plugged into some opposite pole, but to give you another side of an issue so thoroughly presented that you begin to understand how influential “accepted teachings” can be when only one side is presented. Research both deep and wide, and you will reap untold benefit, learn once again how to listen to your own heart and mind, and to trust your own instincts.
Both you and your child have definitions and specific understandings of education constantly playing through your mind. Your child has been effectively programmed with responses to educational “settings”. Without a conscious effort to avoid the triggers, those predefined understandings and responses will undermine your efforts.
Presented with “standard” educational activities – workbooks and textbooks – I could see the responses in my daughter. She suffered not so much from what she had not learned in school, but from what she had learned. In her mind, regardless of what reassuring words I could find to use, she was stupid; she didn’t just think she might fail, she knew she would fail. After struggling with this as a constant for almost two years, there had been very little progress toward changing those pre-programmed responses. Was she learning? Well yes. But she wasn’t enjoying it, and neither was I.
So after daily struggling with traditional “education” and traditional curriculum, we took a long, long, LONG break from all academics. We didn’t talk school, or walk school, or think about school. I told my daughter very frankly what we were doing, and why; depending on the maturity of the child and the particular circumstances, that may or may not work for you. It was something that I needed to do because my daughter’s sense of failure and inability ran so deeply that without this information, she would have assumed I had totally “given up” on her. Reassuring words I had, but nothing I said was getting past the years of experiences in public school.
Was it scary? You bet. Those who, like me, are dealing with a child subjected to damaging experiences are typically dealing also with a child who has been struggling with academic activities, often labeled as “behind”. And we are often too anxious, too afraid that “doing nothing” will inflict more damage academically.
During this phase, I realized that I had not grasped how fully I had been indoctrinated with the idea that “school” equaled education, and that “learning” was a small and separate compartment of “real” life, taking place during set hours with set activities following set routines dealing with proscribed facts, that elusive “necessary” body of knowledge that the experts have laid out for us.
As I began to de-program myself, I shared much of what I was reading and learning and researching with my daughter. I shared my thoughts, and sometimes my own insecurities and concerns about our academic vacation. Frankly, I don’t know how much she took in, how much she understood. I do know that she began to share with me on a deeper level the hurts, the everyday horror of some of her experiences. And that this break from academics was far more beneficial than continuing to struggle.
I know that both of us, not just my daughter, but myself also, began to feel real healing take place.
But but but Academics!
I am not what most people refer to as an unschooler, and I do direct in a decisive manner the education of my daughter. Even taking the complete break from academics was a decision, not a default. We slowly resumed some of the more traditional “educational” activities, and use some carefully selected curriculum, but we do it with our own timetable and based on what we decide she needs to learn, not on a scope and sequence or the requirements of the construct called “school”.
She is learning that ultimately, she is responsible for her education; I believe that since no one can do the learning for anyone else, all children are independent learners. Although she is given a great deal of latitude in choosing areas of study, and shares in the decisions, she is not left totally free to make those decisions, as I do not believe she has the experience or knowledge needed.
Daily struggles over learning will never take place in our home again. A struggling, frustrating learning experience means there is something somewhere that needs to be re-evaluated. Healing is still and will remain the priority in our home, and it is only because it has been given priority that we have been able to resume academics and she can experience again the joy of learning.
And so? If they spend the rest of their years with you without learning geometry or calculus, will they never be able to learn it? Have you not learned anything since you left school? Allow Them To Heal, and they can learn anything they are motivated to learn, anything they need to learn. Until they do heal, rote memorization of facts, or draining the energy on worksheets when the mind is not attending will yield no better results than throwing more money down the black hole of public education.
The rest of your child’s life lies ahead. But knowledge without self-confidence and skill without peace equips for functioning without equipping for life.
About those methods
During many conversations or meetings with home educators, I feel just ever so slightly “out of sync”. I don’t worry overmuch about curriculum, and seldom join in any meaningful way in conversations that concern it. I don’t have an impassioned commitment to a particular method, although occasionally I will indulge in brief fantasies on what I “might have done” had my daughter never been to public school. I’m not overly concerned with the number of high school credits she has so far, or how many credits she needs to graduate. I am not searching for a college, or attempting to encourage her to solidify her interests so we can “get her ready”. I am not searching for places where she can volunteer, even though I think that is a truly wonderful experience for most teenagers, because I know that with her past experiences, she is not ready. I know that she may be here at home for quite a few more years before she is fully confident of her ability to meet the world without being crushed beneath the weight of old memories, and the old fears of being hurt, and I am not overly concerned with whether she is ready to be on her own at 18, or at 28.
I watch closely for what is helping and what is not helping. I watch her face as she interacts with others, even as she watches television. I am often called over-protective, engaging in actions that might BE over-protective for some other child. But she is not some other child, she is my child.
So what’s so hard about writing about my “method”? I don’t have one. My home is not a school, and I am not “homeschooling”, I am raising my daughter. I am not a “home educator”. I am Mom.
And that is quite enough.
Healing Priority Resources
In Their Own Way, Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.
The Myth of the A.D.D. Child – 50 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span
Without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion,
Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.
7 Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing
Your Multiple Intelligences, Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.
The Einstein Syndrome, Thomas Sowell
Late-Talking Children, Thomas Sowell
Reclaiming Our Children:
A Healing Solution for a Nation in Crisis,
Peter R. Breggin, M.D.
Talking Back to Ritalin: What Doctors Aren’t Telling
You About Stimulants and ADHD,
Peter R. Breggin, M.D.
Running on Ritalin: A Physician Reflects on
Children, Society, and Performance in a Pill,
by Lawrence H. Diller
The Manufacture of Madness: A Comparative Study of
the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement,
Thomas S. Szasz
Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars,
Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes,
— YOUR Mind; plus YOUR Heart; plus YOUR Instincts
Cathy D. Henderson