I’ve been in the pool for 5 minutes. It’s adult swim and the kids have been banished to the deck by the lifeguard on duty. I’m using this time to relax and float along the surface, my ears submerged under water, leaving me alone with my thoughts while also drowning out the complaints about the arbitrary “safety time” they kids do not feel they need. Then I hear my son calling for my direct attention...
“Mom...” I lift my head from under the water. He starts in instantly. “There is another way... to get a baby out. But... it’s a way that... eliminates them?” Eliminate is the term he chooses when discussing an end to life. Saying it any other way makes him uncomfortable.
I look across the pool at the neighbor who we don’t really know, but we see her regularly when we come to swim. She’s quite far along. Waiting, and anxiously anticipating, the birth of her baby girl any day now.
I look at the little boy standing in front of me at the edge of the pool. My ten year old son. Snacking on pretzels as he takes in the world around him. “Yes, son, there are other endings to pregnancy that aren’t giving birth to the baby. Are you asking me about abortion?”
Yes, that is the word he is thinking of. He’s heard it before, he’s put the pieces together. He has questions. His eyes widen when I address his question so effortlessly. He doesn’t feel like his question is taboo. We’ve worked hard to make it that way. The next questions spill out...
We talk for 5 minutes on what abortion is and the varying opinions surrounding such a conflicting topic. He shares his own thoughts, because he knows that he has the freedom to do so, and finishes with “ok, good, did you know that in Pokémon...” We are back to the mundane.
A few months later my oldest daughter and I are driving down the road. We had just purchased a house an hour from our current place and we were headed up for some cleaning, painting, and time together. We are cruising along, listening to Taylor Swift melodically whining about her last break up, when my daughter reaches over to turn the music down and says, “I’ve got a question for you... I think you’ll appreciate this one.” She knows me. She knows I love good and honest conversation. She knows I appreciate logical thinking, questioning everything, and I have a deep disdain for societal norms (even though those things can sometimes be exasperating for her and met with many extra O sounds in the word Mom). I am excited about her engaging with me on something controversial.
“Do you think being transgender is a choice?”
Boom! We have a direct hit! Commence discussion on a controversial topic.
We spend the rest of the car ride talking it over. Sharing how we both feel. Talking through a few questions and over all, might I say best of all, respecting each other in conversation. She is 14 and has come to her own conclusions and she knows that whether they are the same or they differ from mine, she is welcome to ask questions and her feelings will be heard and respected. We have cultivated a space that allows her to share with me, seek my input, hear my thoughts, and take them at their worth to her and her place in this world. My thoughts are mine, hers are hers. We are open to learning from each other.
Getting to this point as a parent does not always come easily. It can be hard to calm that inner feeling you get when your child comes to you with a heavy topic or asking what a certain word means (that last one might get you no matter how much you prepare for it). Stifling the outward response can be even harder because some of what they say can make you giggle, you can’t help it, especially if you have managed to retain a little bit of your mind’s playful side! The weight of their topics, brought with such innocence and natural curiosity, can also make you squirm. Ultimately, my goal is to secure a space and relationship where they can bring any and all things. If they feel you brush away the mundane will they feel they can bring you the bigger questions? If they feel you bristle at the bigger questions will they feel they can truly speak openly? There should not be shame in asking for answers about things in the world that you simply don’t understand.
This is a very large part of whatSelf-Directed Education looks like in the everyday. We do not schedule conversations into neat little blocks of subjects and time. We let curiosity and connection lead us into debates, discussions, and verbal exchange. The learning that comes from these moments is natural and authentic because we have fostered our young people’s ability (or possibly retaught them) to learn in the way nature intended.
No, there is no test to assure me that they remember every point made in our discussion. Our conversations aren’t neatly slated on a master list of topics to cover at a specific age and stage. As nice as checking off the boxes can be, we instead choose to stay engaged and connected to ensure understanding. There are times when we will go back and reference a conversation we had and bring up new points or recent information we’ve gathered. Other times we keep it simple and move on. A Self-Directed Education is not a race to the 12th grade finish line so you can begin your real life. It is real life.
So, when my son knocks on my door and starts chatting away about the newest evolution in Pokémon, I listen. When I can tell there is something behind his chatter, I continue to listen. I wait for it. I often know by his body language that something bigger is building under the surface. When he stops to take a breath and the next words from his mouth are, “Oh, what is a miscarriage?”, I respond without hesitation. Usually I ask them where they have heard what they are asking about, I look for a bit of context in order to build my response. We talk until he is content with the amount of information he has received, at which point he will signal his conversational satisfaction by picking up the previous topic. We are back to little monster evolutions and player stats.
So often the meaningful is sandwiched between the mundane. It is easier to ask hard questions once the conversation is already flowing. Sometimes, I feel people will gauge if you are truly ready and able to hear their weighted words by starting with something of less importance. It feels safer to dive into the water when you’ve first tested its depth.
This is our everyday. It wasn’t always as easy as I find it to be now. I have battled the inner monster of feeling like we should do things the way society tells us to them. Requirements, standardization, a plan guided by the year they were born instead of the curiosity they were born with. However, the more time I’ve spent honoring deep conversations, truly listening to them while they talk, and being open to the opportunities brought to us by our everyday life together, the more comfortable I become in the path we have chosen.
We’ve covered many topics, in many places. From car rides to waiting rooms to dinner time at home, our family may very well be found discussing racism over ravioli. Our goal is to let life lead and guide us into discovering which tools we will need along our way, which skills will prove most valuable to each of us as individuals, and develop a relationship that connects us to each other and the world around us.