The Best of Intentions in Unprecedented Times
I had every intention of doing a lot of writing during this quarantine/isolation time - I thought at first it would be such an opportunity of time and space to reflect, refine, and to offer hopefully helpful thoughts and ideas. I thought maybe I would even publish two blog entries a week! Ha! That might have been the case were this just a kind of stay-cation, but it has been quite different for me, and I suspect for many others as well.
I’ve found that I’ve been exhausted, like I started a new job, or perhaps more like I squished two or three jobs together. Emotionally, this time feels both unreal and too real. It has so much unknown future hanging over the always immediate needs of the present. If you have children at home, you know that there’s often little time to really sit and transition ourselves, let alone our children, and that our young may not verbally express existential angst, but it vibrates out into the home in invisible yet palpable ways.
One of my mentors recommended this past week that I simply try to be patient with myself - that there’s a connectedness in knowing that so many of us around the world are experiencing this wild newness. While that is playing out differently in every city and household, there is a kind of solidarity right now. It’s ok if we only “accomplish” 1-2 things in a day. We’re running a background program of concern, question, caution, and changes large and small. We will talk more about “accomplishment” for our children in just a bit.
Opportunities & Challenges
I’ve heard some describe this time in terms of opportunity - having more time with children now that everyone has to be home together, getting creative in connecting with family and school communities, and reassessing how we fulfill our needs without the luxury of zipping off to a store. The car and bus traffic on the roads has significantly decreased and the foot and bike traffic (at least in Miami) is at unprecedented levels. Life has slowed down for so many. It has become an up close mash up for others.
All of a sudden, we all have lost either all or part of our primary sources of income, or know someone who has. It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to suddenly find ourselves in these precarious positions. Perhaps our jobs have remained but have gone “virtual,” and we wrestle now with balancing “productivity” and the practical logistics of a home-space merged work-space that we suddenly share in isolation. There’s a lot of newness.
Right as we closed our school doors three weeks ago, I asked what blog topic would be most helpful: 1) Do we demand learning at this time from our children? or 2) Is boredom educational? There was an almost 50-50 split in expressed interest. I felt excited to launch into these topics - I actually see them as quite related. At the same time as we closed our doors, I joined an “isolation bubble” with some family members close by and began doing childcare for upwards of 7 children ages 7 months to 11 years (including our 3) while working with my unique school community on what it means to be a democratic community at a distance, combing through budgets for sustainability projections, learning new ways to grocery shop, and contending with all the existential exhaustion that this time suddenly brought with it. Lo and behold, I found I was demanding productivity from myself when all I wanted to do was to be bored or to escape into a novel or to take a nap. Oh, the beautiful way and often ironic ways that life continues to be my most relevant and challenging teacher.
Are these questions of demands and boredom still relevant to you? They are so perennial, are they not? And now we find ourselves with much more direct contact time with our children to concern ourselves with them.
What to do?
What should our children be doing during this time? Many parents are feeling overwhelmed with their own work transitions and then feel the added pressure of wondering how much they need to facilitate learning for their children. By children, of course, each family is potentially speaking about a wide range of ages. The schools they were recently at may have sent instructions for “virtual learning” modules or sessions. Maybe they were given a schedule to follow or maybe they were given little in terms of clear direction.
If it helps, my understanding is that many traditional schools are doing an unprecedented level of “letting go” in terms of grades, attendance, and pressure. For my part, I can say, “Thank goodness. Did it take a pandemic to inspire such a breath?” Even many “rigorously academic” schools have scaled back to about 3 hours of virtual “class time” and some with a greater emphasis on discussion and creative expression in this moment calling for exactly that. There are no longer truly “captive audiences” and it opens up a phenomenal line of questioning for many students and their families about what is truly possible outside of the “rigorous” schedule many have become accustomed to. Many students miss this actual social contact. Many may be glad for some distance from bullies or even overly harsh school staff. For some, school is an oasis while for others it feels like a prison. What is now?
I’ve heard from fellow educators more recently that while there have been fascinating evolutions in their teaching due to the innovation this time calls for, and that at first students seemed intrigued by school going “online,” there’s a waning of motivation and even the most engaging teachers are watching the screen for distracted or distracting students. Many parents feel they suddenly were pushed into the role of school administrator and enforcer. Many parents also feel they are getting to see what their children are being asked to do and wondering how “worth it” it really is.
So let’s step back a moment ourselves and ask the underlying question here - what is “educational” or “productive” for young people? Should they be “learning” a particular cannon of discrete information? Are they wasting time otherwise?
I’ve mentioned the book Free to Learn by Dr. Peter Gray before. He writes so well about what “kind” of learning our human young require and thrive on that it’s really just better to read it yourself - or listen to it (being an audio learner is a real thing that shouldn’t be considered second-best to visual/text learning).
If you’re reading this, you most likely went through a traditional K-12 grade to grade, test to test, project to project, year after year program. Socially it may have been fine, fun, or phenomenally frustrating. You may have pleased your parents with report cards or received some punishment for less than perfect grades. And then you emerged. Did you wonder whether all that work was worth it? Did you find you had a vague memory of many vague things that vaguely gave little direction to your next steps? Many of us did.
What would have been more productive for us as we were growing? Have we taken time to contemplate the question?
Would any of us want someone to look at us and say, “Now, you better use this time productively, you hear? I’m watching.” Firstly, it would make us feel like the assumption is we wouldn’t naturally do anything productive, that we require constant supervision, and that the person “watching” is far superior in their command of “productivity.”
Over the years, and especially since researching and embracing the Sudbury model of education, I’ve learned to stop and ask myself what I would want for myself, as an adult, when I start wondering what I should ask for from children. It’s interesting that this should be such a novel thought. I would venture that most of us were acculturated to consider children as beings constantly needing direction. There’s wonderful research on how this idea has become more pronounced over recent decades with parents directing their children toward “educational” toys or enrolling them in classes or onto teams. Many parents feel anxious if they see their children look “bored,” and subsequently children themselves feel anxious about these un-directed and un-filled moments.
Many people might feel right now like their buzzing routines came to a sudden halt and the void feels unnerving and unnatural. When this first began, at least for us here in Miami, I heard people wondering how much TV series binge watching people were going to do. Or maybe you made a list, like I did (and then barely followed). While it’s easy for many parents to accept our children making productivity lists, it’s less tasteful to think of them also contemplating binge watching (though eventually most everyone will get tired of that).
“This is the perfect opportunity for my child to…” and then we see lists of all these educational games or resources available online and imagine our children making brilliant use of them - did you hear the MET is streaming encore performances? It’s so tempting to want our children to have our same interests and to fill their time with “enriching” activities or content, and to forget that one of the most powerful ingredients to any meaningful learning is choosing.
The Power of Choice
We all have had the experience of coercion, from clear or obtuse manipulation to direct demanding. We may have complied or rebelled. Often when we’re younger we’re so excited to be doing any activity that we don’t particularly notice that it was orchestrated for us. But it matters. Choosing what we do builds muscles inside of us, the executive functioning part of us, that cannot be built when everything is chosen or decided for us. This doesn’t mean we let our children choose to spill milk all over the floor and leave it there - that doesn’t work for the family system and is quite rude - that’s not the kind of choosing we’re talking about here.
Many parents these past few weeks have felt the pressure to create activities, to fill up time or keep kids from nagging. It feels nice to have colorful photos for social media and to feel like we’ve created fun for our little ones. What would it be like to pull back from that? To let our children take the lead in planning and creating activities or the lack of activity? This is the radical suggestion here.
But they’ll nag me that they’re bored!
The Fear of Boredom
It’s tempting to rescue our children from “I’m bored,” or to be rather annoyed at the statement (or both). Our children are not us. They are their own people. If they’re bored, that’s actually not our problem to solve! We can empathize - we’ve all felt bored - and then let them figure it out. If we “jump to” right away, we rob them of the chance to choose what to do next.
This does not mean that we should turn around and demand boredom because “it’s good for them.” Simply in refusing to orchestrate the day for them (I often call it “cruise directing”), we allow for important things like choice and boredom.
As is becoming a theme with variation in this blog, I want to also suggest that instead of demanding our ideal, that we model them - yes, even boredom. I feel like a rebel without much more of a cause than modeling humanness when I sit and don’t look at something on my phone, or even pick up a book. I give my mind time to percolate, to rest, to not engage. There’s research to suggest that these times are actually essential for us.
Like us, if our children have a screen to turn to, they probably will. It’s not necessarily a terrible thing because eventually most will get “bored” even of that and will be looking around for models of what to do. They are not looking for nagging and unsolicited suggestions - just as we probably aren’t either.
How Will They Learn?
Our world today is more integrated and interconnected than ever. Information is not confined to textbooks, encyclopedias, “experts,” or “educational websites.” We have more than we know what to do with at our actual fingertips. The issue isn’t access as much as navigation - and no sailor became the captain of a ship just from watching someone else steer through calm waters. We all require life experience to hook our learning to. It does not magically happen because we found the “perfect online program.” It just doesn’t.
Ironically perhaps, the less we demand, often the more our children pick up the reigns themselves. We’ve mostly told our own children that we trust them to learn what they need - and it’s incredible to watch that become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I stopped “picking out books” for my children years ago, and stopped myself from making comments that amount to, “Oh, that’s so great that you did that thing I approve of!” I think I would dislike it if my mother did that to me. I believe as a result, they are empowered to seek out their own books and games and activities. Don’t imagine for a moment that our household is free of all strife, but we’ve clearly communicated confidence in our children’s ability to learn, and so learn they do - not for us, but for themselves. Too good to be true? No time like the present to try it out. Again, get some support for how and why to do this - it really helps.
This is an unprecedented time with unprecedented challenges and opportunities. That does not mean our children will and must experience them in the same way that we do. They may see this period as the unexpected gift of time, choice, and opportunity for boredom. They may learn better what it means to be on a family team and to pitch in together. Whatever they learn, they are always learning. They do not have to be on a computer program but they may also be on a computer program or game or YouTube and still be learning. Mostly, they are learning by watching us and by practicing life.
I’ll allow myself to not feel so “productive,” (having felt underwater these past few weeks) and encourage us all to be a bit more gentle in our expectations both with ourselves and those around us. We all need time and space to process this in our own ways, including our children.
Please share your comments and ideas. The goal is for all of us to feel more empowered as parents - which helps us to empower our children (while still nurturing physical, mental, and emotional health and growth for us all). Thanks for reading. - Christen
MAIN Author: CHRISTEN PARKER-YARNAL