Hawk* is my oldest son and probably has been my greatest parenting challenge. It was while I was pregnant with him that I was baptized as a Christian believer and proclaimed my faith. His older sister, Tiger, prepared me for how to deal with him as an infant, but nothing could prepare me for how to deal with him as a toddler and young child. I was used to a child who was very active and messy, but who responded to discipline. Not him. He was active and messy, too, but he would do exactly what you asked him not to do. We tried redirecting him and distracting him. No. We tried restraining him. No. We tried explaining. No. We resorted to parenting books and more punitive techniques.
While I had consulted many Christian parenting books about how to handle Hawk, we weren’t seeing the results that were promised. He wasn’t becoming more obedient and compliant. The “lessons” he was supposed to be learning weren’t sticking, and he was being punished more than he was being loved. I was worried. I didn’t like what I was doing nor did I like how I felt. It seemed wrong somehow, but we did not know what else to do with him because no matter what we did, he still did the opposite of what we asked and then laughed about it. I am not proud of how we handled him. Something inside me felt that he was closing down and moving farther away from us. We were exhausted, frustrated, and at the end of our rope. Finally, we cried out to Jesus for him and heard Him say, “Is that how I treat you? Love him unconditionally and give him grace.” We had made a big mistake in looking to other people, even well-meaning people, for advice on how to discipline our son. We had neglected to consult the person who created this boy and gave him to us. Three specific times Christ talks about children and they are all preceded by “do not”: do not offend, do not despise, and do not hinder them. We were guilty of all three. We eased up on our expectations of him, gave him grace, and loved on him. He gradually responded and now happily complies with our requests because, as he says, “he loves us.”
This boy would be used by God many times to teach me who was really in control and it was because of Hawk that we gradually became unschoolers.
You might think that Tiger would have had more influence on us making that shift. Afterall, she was school-age first and it was because of her that we decided to homeschool in the first place. We could see that she was bright but wiggly and wouldn’t be happy sitting at a table doing worksheets. The idea of parting with her made me sad. An article I had read in Mothering magazine introduced me to the idea of homeschooling, and it didn’t take much to convince us that we could at least try it for a while. I was so excited at the opportunity to play teacher! I read all about different teaching styles, how to plan unit studies, and other important stuff, like what kinds of things kindergarteners are learning about (I hope you hear my sarcasm). If I had just left well enough alone, things would have gone much better and Hawk would never have had the opportunity to teach me. Ah, but Tiger was more subtle than he. She would roll her eyes, lay her head down on the table, get up as soon as I got up to use the washroom, scribble instead of color nicely. These things bothered me but not as much as when she didn’t want to play with me anymore and didn’t want to tell me all about her interests. Her eyes had lost some of their shine and her shoulders slumped just a little. A lot of the kids we knew were like that and it was a regular topic of conversation among the moms (“I can’t get _____ to do _____. Do you have any suggestions?”) Even though I was saddened by her displays and silence, I persisted because this seemed to be a common occurrence among homeschoolers. Hawk came to her rescue because he wasn’t subtle. He would just say, “I’m not doing this.” I would do all the things the other moms suggested (didn’t I make this mistake before?) and it didn’t matter to him. He had decided and no amount of bribing or punishing was going to change his mind.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to learn. He just didn’t want to do it the way I was asking him to learn. He built things. He cooked. He watched educational videos. He loved art. It did not matter to him if I tried bribing him with candy and it did not matter to him if I made him sit there until the work was done. He would not allow himself to be manipulated that way. Again, I was exasperated with this child. Again, I should have gone to Jesus first instead of other people, but sometimes adults are just as forgetful as children. The Lord reminded me of the Proverb that says, “teach a child in the way he should go,” which really means to teach him according to his bent (Proverbs 22:6, Amplified Bible). Jesus also reminded me how He taught the early disciples and how He teaches me. It is through relationship.
It is a lot easier to just give people lists of things to do rather than actually get to know them, their strengths and weaknesses, and talk with them about what they’d like to do. The latter takes considerable effort and time and it requires a genuine desire to know people. Jesus was telling me that. Just as He didn’t want me to just follow a list of rules or check off religious duties on a list, I shouldn’t do that with my children, either. Just as He desired my heart, I should desire the hearts of my children, too. Just as He knows me and wants me to know Him, and He knows me so well that He knows the desires of my heart, I should strive to know my children so well that I know the desires of their hearts as well.
It is not as though I didn’t have a relationship with my children. I took them on field trips and to restaurants, I bought them things they requested, I read to them, and I played with them. But is that what a relationship really is? Is a relationship just going places and buying things? No, what Jesus was asking me to do was harder and easier than that. It was harder, because I had to change and easier because I just had to BE.
In the middle of all of this, Butterfly and Mouse were born. Just being made it easier to deal with Butterfly and crawling Mouse. I spent more time watching and listening to Tiger and Hawk as they played, planned, and created instead of me being so controlling and directing. They invited me to their restaurant, their shows, their museums, and their amusement parks. Sometimes they included their sister, Butterfly.
Sometimes they seemed to run out of ideas and would start bickering a lot. I would often intervene because they would start engaging in repetitive, aimless activities that I felt were wasteful of resources and had no purposeful end. There were times when I would revert to my old habits of trying to make them do things that I felt they should be doing. It became this dance: periods of intense engagement in an activity or topic, followed by an extended period of aimless activity that would drive me crazy to the point of giving them schoolish things to do until both they and I craved the free, unschooled life again. I really did not know what to do with those long periods between intense interests and ideas. In some ways, I still struggle with this. I know that they will become interested in something else eventually, but it makes me uncomfortable to allow them to do aimless, seemingly mindless activities.
While God showed me through Hawk that I needed to teach through relationship and not through coercing, manipulating, punishing, bribing, or any other controlling factor, it was Butterfly who showed me how. I had been watching and listening to Hawk and Tiger, I had been trying to allow them to pursue their interests and trying to facilitate not only their interests, but exposing them to new experiences. But I would get confused about what my role was. Am I supposed to just leave them be all day unless they ask for my help or participation? Am I supposed to buy great books and interesting kits and leave them lying around the house for them to discover? What am I supposed to do? How do I escape from reverting to schoolish habits and fully embrace an unschooled life?
I wrestled with this question for a while. I kept reading about all these great adventures unschooled kids were having and interesting projects they were pursuing. All my kids were doing was making Lego movies and trying to form neighborhood clubs. I wanted my life with my kids to be exciting, to be like flying and the reality was that they argued and fought, didn’t want to go anywhere, and had difficulty persevering toward their own goals. God answered my searching with Butterfly.
Butterfly has Asperger’s. God prepared my heart for her by leading me to unschool because she has little tolerance for being made to do things that she really doesn’t want to do. Her way of showing this is nothing like her older siblings. The more you press her, the more anxious she becomes and will have a meltdown of uncontrollable crying and shaking. Skills learned in artificial ways do not transfer well to real life. Butterfly showed me how to truly unschool and how to manage those dry spells. Her insatiable desire to learn and her need to have me near her showed me what it could be like. Through her, I learned how to apply the truths of my faith to my relationship with my children. It is not what you are doing or how you are doing it. It is the why that matters. If I am helping the poor and reading my Bible, but I am doing it out of a sense of obligation or to look good to others, I am not really a Christian. It only matters if it is driven by a desire to know Christ and follow Him. The same is true of unschooling. If my child is learning about ancient Egypt and is using a particular set of books to do it, it is still unschooling if she chose to learn about it using those materials. If she is using them in an effort to please me or because I am making her do it, then it is not unschooling.
Addressing a child’s unspoken needs is just like Jesus knowing the desires of my heart. It is the very essence of love. Butterfly has a need to know what to expect and so we talk about what we are going to do the next day before she goes to bed at night. In this way, I have also learned that structure helps her older siblings to accomplish their goals, with me acting as an accountability partner. This has helped them to have shorter periods of aimless activities and to dive deeper into their interests.
I am still learning and growing in my faith and this is true of my journey with my children as well. There are good days and bad days, periods of intense and joyous growth, and there are periods of dryness and searching. This is the normal rhythm of life and walking with my Savior and my family. I look forward to how God will continue to unfold lessons about Himself and my walk with Him through my children.
* The names of my children have been changed