Archive | May, 2017

The Little School-House Built on Loving Learning

22 May

If you had asked my opinion a couple years ago, I would have told you that I suspected that Waldorf schools were just for rich hippies, and therefore had nothing relevant for me or my children. Funny how parenthood changes so many of your ideas about life and parenting, though. Parenting has schooled me hard on humility, made me more open to changing my mind, and forced me to always take circumstances and context into account along with all of my theories and ideals. Now both of my children are in a Waldorf preschool program, and I could not feel luckier or more pleased about it.

My bias, though, first of all, was that I didn’t think that I would send my kids to private school. On principle, I’m against private schools because quality education should be free and available to all, and we should all be fighting to make public schools better. Of course, I also know firsthand that too much of the time the best thing to do is to get the hell out of the system. I did not imagine that I would need that option for my kids’ preschool, however. I didn’t have any expectations for my kids to graduate kindergarten as geniuses. I figured I’d be teaching my kids to read and write myself anyway, and that I just wanted them to go to preschool to get out of the house and play with other kids. Why pay money when your standards are minimal?

Little did I know that those minimal expectations are not the objectives of public or private preschools around here. They all seem to want three year olds to be sitting around copying letters and doing homework and other meaningless and useless activities that I just can’t accept. And I’m too tired and too busy and too foreign to take on the education system just yet. Plus my littler one is still only two, a year too young for compulsory education here in Mexico. So if I’m going to pay for his schooling/care anyway, it might as well be a program that’s good for him, and it might as well be with his big sister.

My other bias was that I always wanted my kids to be in Montessori schools like I was. Maria Montessori is one of my life heroes, and I can 100 percent get behind her educational philosophies. Montessori is all about hands-on learning and giving kids lots of options and control over their learning. It meets kids where they are in the educational process, giving them the tools and guidance they need without over-structuring their lives. (Read a brief introduction to Montessori here.) But there is no Montessori option here. And Waldorf actually has some things in common, as well as some separate ideas, that make it very worthwhile. (more extensive info about Waldorf here)

Furthermore, what really sold me on this particular Waldorf program was the person who made it happen. From there I fell in love with the wonderful teachers, too, as did my children. I got to know other parents in the school, who are amazing people. Certainly the school’s inventor and director made a world of difference in my bias, however. Because she’s an unschooler* at heart, like I am- an anti-authoritarian, anti-system, humanistic, respectful person right down to her core. She is engrossed in and passionate about all things related to autonomous education. She values all children and adults for the fully human and unique people that they are. She respects and facilitates the processes of learning for everyone, without pushing anyone. She is constantly learning, with a big full and open heart, and the joy in her mission spreads like wildfire. That is what I want my children to be around. This is the environment I want for my kids, for all kids, as they build the foundation of their little fabulous selves.

The teachers she found and coached and trained are an amazing pair themselves. They are so open to ideas, and so attentive with the kids. One of them is super outgoing and exudes a sense of fun and adventure, while the other one is very tender and maternal and calm. They are both incredibly patient and caring- traits that sometimes we as parents struggle with.

My kids certainly- and from what I can see, it seems like all the kids- feel safe and secure and valued at school. They don’t treat kids like problems there, even when their behavior is problematic. They have firm boundaries for the kids, but don’t put unrealistic or impossible expectations on them. They pay attention and recognize kids’ different needs, and help teach the kids’ to respect their own and other people’s needs. (For example, when the littler ones snatch toys away, the bigger ones often say, “Oh, it’s because she’s so little.”)

Importantly for me, my kids want to go. They have a good time and they learn like the sponges that they are. When my daughter first started there, she even asked to go to school on Saturdays! I’m also eternally grateful to have somewhere “childproof” to send my irrepressibly active two year old. There’s pretty much nothing at school that sets off the string of “NO!”s that unfortunately happens at my house often. The inside and outside areas are set up for kids to explore freely, even for very adventurous two year olds. Of course both of my kids come home with bruises and scrapes sometimes, but that’s so preferable to trying to make them sit down most of the day.

The school is not officially a school, but rather called a “home extension” program, which is so much better than both regular school and day care. The kids start their day with songs and circle and community. The big kids go for a walk around the neighborhood. One day a week they cook their meal together. One day a week they bake bread together. They always sit down together and eat out of glass bowls and plates together, and the kids wash their own dishes afterwards. My kids always devour all their lunch, because they get to work up an appetite beforehand, and aren’t forced to choose between eating their food or more time on the playground.** They have a very set routine with lots of freedom worked into it. They have lots and lots of bodily autonomy and movement. They don’t have workbooks; instead they have lots of story time with real and interesting books. They sing tons of songs, which Lucia loves. They make things. They create, invent, and use the hell out of their wild and beautiful imaginations. They learn to take care of each other, play together, help each other, share, collaborate, and problem-solve together, which are lifelong skills and values that are just as important as literacy. They get literacy skills aplenty as well, it’s just worked into their day naturally, through play and real life experiences.

I still wish this amazing and wondrous house of learning were free for everyone; it’s the only fault I can find with it. But it’s not actually the fault of the school or its creator; I also know that the government would never, ever, ever fund such a thing here. Something that encourages autonomy for children? A space for parents to critically analyze the system, our parenting, and all the things we may have been taught are the right way? Not gonna happen.

Meanwhile, however, the very existence of this “unschool” is planting seeds to change the future of education in Oaxaca and in the world. Because of this school, I end up talking to a lot of parents about the benefits I see from this style of education. I have conversations about educational and parenting alternatives. (Even when I just mention that the kids help cook something on Tuesdays, other parents’ ears perk up.) I imagine that other parents at the school do the same, spreading words and ideas to other parents. Above and beyond that, though, our very same principal is out all the time spreading her wildfire passion for lifelong education. She’s all over the internet with her radical ideas. She has a regular slot on the radio about parenting and education, and the radio is the most accessible forum around here. She doesn’t just want this lovely little program for this little group of kids. She wants to set the world on fire and build a movement of autonomous education for all. And she’s doing it. Changing the world is slow going, but nobody can say our beloved directora isn’t fully committed, body, heart and soul, for the long haul.

So maybe Waldorf schools in some places are schools just for wealthy hippie types, but that sure is not a fair or accurate description in this case. Luckily for me, you’re never too old to unlearn your own biases. I’m so incredibly grateful that this hotbed of learning exists, and that my kiddos, my partner and I get to be a part of it. I couldn’t dream of a better place for our family to belong.

(In case you are wondering, especially those of you in Puerto, the preschool program is called La Casita, and the mind and heart behind it is Rebecka Koritz.)


*from those dear folks at wikipedia: “Unschooling is an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschooling students learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child. While courses may occasionally be taken, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods, and other features of traditional schooling in the education of each unique child.”  I was unschooled through most of high school, and I got the best education I could have dreamed of! Because, you know, there was no Montessori or Waldorf high school.

**Granted, my little ones are total chowhounds. They even nicknamed my littler one Cookie Monster. When I ask him what he did at school today, he always tells me, “uhm”- his noise that means eating. My big one is also a chowhound, but she never ate her lunch at her other school.

Mother’s Day Homage to my Feminist Bad-Ass Hombre

14 May

I’d like to thank my husband, first and foremost, for never, ever giving me Mother’s Day gifts related to cooking and cleaning. No new broom or Tupperware, and heaven forbid it- no iron for me, thanks. Probably he guessed that I would spend my life in jail for murder if he gave me housework-related things as a personal gift. So despite the hundreds of stores and street vendors hawking such appalling things for Mother’s Day each year, he has not once in these 4 years of my motherhood in Mexico fallen prey to such nonsense.

He also doesn’t mind that I insist on celebrating twice a year- both on May 10, the official day in Mexico, and again on the second Sunday of May. I mean, we’re a bicultural family, right, and this is what it’s all about. Double holidays for everyone!*

What I most love about my coparenting partner, though, is that he’s a total radical around these parts. Not only does he see my point on all of my culturally distinct ideas on gender and parenting, but he’s also right there with me and has my back about it. I suspect he actually cares even less than I do about what people say about us, our parenting, our family gender roles, and our children. Which means he has not one single turd of caca to give on the matter.

From the get go, he shrugged off people’s shock about baby Lucia not getting her ears pierced upon birth. “But it’ll hurt her later!” They said, as if the baby doesn’t feel it when she gets her ears pierced, and with the assumption that she’ll want to get her ears pierced later. “But people think she’s a boy! She doesn’t even have hair!” Folks complained, and he not only shrugged but started calling her Pablo on the days she wore “boy clothes.”

Then we did some big-time role switching. I went back to “El Norte” to work and save up some money, and he stayed down here to get our house built. That switch was more of a funny cultural thing, since it’s much more typical to have a young Mexican family in which the man goes off to the states to work and save money to improve the situation for the family and the woman stays home. So okay, I took our kid with us, but it still sounded funny compared to the normal narrative here.

It wasn’t quite as funny, though, when I got a full-time job here and Conan became an official stay-at-home dad. He was the only stay-at-home dad along the entire coast of Oaxaca, if not the entire state. You can read all about the peer pressure and shaming that he put up with for that brave endeavor, right up till last November (read about it here a bit). It was a situation that was really practical and beneficial for our family, especially for our children, and yet even other moms acted like he was being lazy, despite knowing how much work it is to raise a family, what it takes to stay home and care for small children. Through all the criticism and gossip, he just kept on doing the best he could for his family.

While some people thought his whole Lucia-as-Pablo joke was pretty cute, folks are much less forgiving about boys breaking out of gender roles. So I was nervous about what Conan would think when our little boy wanted to wear a dress on a family outing one day. Do you know what he said? The same thing he says on the days Khalil picks out shorts and a t-shirt. Nothing. I momentarily underestimated Conan’s rebel streak. I forgot that he is just as fierce as I am about living life outside of boxes (although he might be less belligerent about it than I am).

There are countless other examples of why Conan is a badass feminist partner and father. Every week there are new things that I realize about him, or things I see as the norm in other people that make me realize how distinctly cool my husband is. Just this week, a female coworker of Conan’s gave him a hard time the other day about the staple he keeps putting in his shirt to make up for the missing button. His coworker says to him, “Conan, your shirt is sad! We can see who’s the boss at your house.” Obviously, if he had a good wife, she would fix his shirt. (No, his coworker didn’t say that part out loud.)

When Conan repeated this to me I turned red- not from embarrassment, because I do not feel the slightest bit bad about not being an on-call button-sewer. I am already fulfilling my inordinate amount family responsibilities to the best of all my abilities, and I furthermore have full confidence in Conan’s ability to problem solve and figure out his own remedy to a missing button. Nope, I turned red from fury. Why? Why do other women buy into the patriarchy so much? Do they so desperately need validation that they think you need to put me down as a woman and further imply that my husband isn’t a real (aka bossy) man because he doesn’t force me to follow my assigned gender role thoroughly enough? Barf. “What did you say?” I asked him, appalled. “I didn’t say anything,” he replied- as usual, ignoring his way around ignorant and annoying people.

Not only does he not expect me to sew on his buttons, but he also believes that I am a full-fledged human being, deserving of personal time and even occasional social time that doesn’t include him. I wish that I didn’t even have to include this as part of what’s awesome about my partner, but compared to so many other people’s relationships, this belief system of ours as equals is akin to something like folks trying to build an igloo right on the beach.

Being the unconventional family that we are, what could be more perfect than appreciating my children’s father on Mother’s Day? I wouldn’t be the same mom that I am without his revolutionary beliefs and back-up. So thanks, Conan, and thanks to all the radical men and dads, to all the trans and gender-nonconforming folks and parents, everywhere. Let’s keep making this world a better place, and backing each other up, and, in honor of Conan, giving zero fucks about what other people have to say about it.

Happy Mother’s Day- to us, and you, too!

*I would like to point out that I think it’s sexist and crappy that Father’s Day here is always on a Sunday, just like it is in the US, and yet Mother’s Day falls any old day of the week, presumably because moms are not in the labor force, which is less and less the case all the time.

Two Little Arrows out in the Wide World: Musings on Children

1 May

I send our little boy out into the world with a pink and blue tutu, heedless of the consequences. I’m not concerned, although I suspect the babysitter is. Our son has very firm ideas about what he wants already, plus he loves to copy his big sister, and many of his life’s joys are the same as hers. This includes a passion for shoes and tutus, as well as an extraordinary ability to prolong bedtime by bringing more and more books to the bed with a pleading look in his eyes.

Mostly when he wears his tutu or his dress (things he has borrowed from Lucia and made all his own) strangers just assume that he’s a girl. Obviously, folks who know him know that he’s a boy, and reactions have been mixed. First folks are kind of taken aback. Some folks have a strong reaction of “WTF,” while others have a milder sort of head-shaking tsk-tsk version of it. LIke, “Why would they put a skirt on this poor boy? These strange people!” When people ask about it and I tell them he’s matching with his big sister, they seem to be a bit more understanding about it. I kind of resent having to give an explanation for my two year old’s style, but at least that keeps most people from freaking out that boys can’t wear that- at least in the presence of my children. I don’t want too many people contradicting our family values that all people can wear whatever they want.


Protesting nap time, with Lucia’s shoes on, on the wrong feet, of course. 

People thought it was weird when we dressed Lucia in hand-me-down “boy clothes” when she was little, too. People were not ever shocked and appalled, however, in the same way that some people are about Khalil wearing a tutu. I could talk my feminist theory talk about why I think Khalil is more distressing for them, but that’s not my purpose today.

Partly, I’ve just been thinking about how easy it is for me to let my children be themselves- sometimes, and in some respects. And how hard it is to let my children be themselves in other ways.

Take, for instance, Lucia’s invented new hairstyle. I’m not the slightest bit worried about the other parents out there judging me or her because her hair is like a 4 year old version of some punk-rock hair cut (it kind of looks like someone was drunk while braiding her hair). I couldn’t care less about anyone reporting her to the fashion police for her favorite outfit, which involves pants, a tutu, and a shirt/skirt one-piece all at once. (YES! Wear all your favorite things at once! Yes!)


Here you can kind of see one version of Lucia’s favorite outfit, as well as her badass hairstyle. 

It’s easy enough right now for us to plant and water these seeds in our kids’ heads- that they can wear whatever they want, that boys and girls can do anything, that girls can have boyfriends or girlfriends, and boys can have girlfriends or boyfriends. Since Lucia already has a “boyfriend” at her preschool, the who-can-be-your-partner conversation has already happened. I had to give her examples of friends of ours that are “novios con novios” or “novias con novias” so that she would believe that I wasn’t making it all up. I felt totally rewarded in the parenting department one day when one of her friends was over and I overheard her talking about how so-and-so at school could go with so-and-so, because you CAN have girlfriend with girlfriend, because her Mommy said so. Of course I worry a tiny bit about what will happen when her peers’ opinions hold more weight than mine, but I realize that all I get to do is plant and water seeds and see how they grow.

That part is easy for me. Based on my background, and my values, I have possibly too much confidence about being able to sow healthy and open ideas in my kids’ heads about many things. But I realized that there are certain other things about my kids that I just keep fighting against, and that it’s time to evaluate that.

Like the sleep thing. Lucia has had major sleep problems since she was pretty itty-bitty. She has a hard time falling asleep (my genes) and a hard time staying asleep (Conan’s genes). One night when I was putting her to bed late but happily, she told me, ever so wistfully, “I can’t wait for it to be morning.” And I thought, “Why do I begrudge her this so much?” This bright little heart never wants to go to sleep, so deeply and intrinsically, that even when she is to-the-bone-exhausted she still has an inherent resistance to sleep; she  just won’t give up on the waking world. There is too much excitement, too much to be lived. None of us should be sleeping! And that’s precisely how I used to feel- and how I still feel, sometimes. Having children taught me a new level of exhausted, one that gifted me the capacity to fall asleep nearly instantly as my head finally hits the pillow each night. And yet. Slithering my way out of depression, I find that more and more I resist sleep again. It’s like being 15 again, where I just want to stay up and smoke cigarettes and write poetry, or sneak out and drink coffee and have philosophical discussions at the all-night shitty diner at 2 in the morning. I want to discover myself, and discover the whole world, too! I want to love everything, to be enchanted and jaded at the same time, to hand out flowers to lonely-looking strangers on Valentines Day and get involved with a youth-run activist zine all over again! Except I don’t smoke anymore and no one is calling to sneak me out of the house. (I sit at the computer and smuggle myself a beer after the kids are in bed instead.) But I digress. Feeling her sleep resistance as a kindred spirit instead of as an inconvenience or a failure or something I’m supposed to fix, it finally clicked for me that my kids are going to be however they are.

Duh, right? It’s sounds so simple. Of course I’m going to keep influencing them, and doing the best parenting job I can. But that’s all I get to do. So what’s the point in fighting with them about other things? I don’t mean not setting boundaries or letting them run amok in all ways, but I do mean recognizing when they’re just not capable of meeting certain expectations, because they get to be unique human beings, too. I’ve been thinking about this extra because I’ve been reading this book about working with your kids to resolve problems, which also talks a lot about working with your child’s personality and strengths. So when Lucia told me how she couldn’t wait for the next day to happen, oh-so-longingly, pining for more moments of life, and I recognized little-girl-me in her, it finally hit me that no amount of bedtime routing is going to “cure” this child of her sleep issues. And there are going to be lots more things that I view as problems that maybe could be viewed from a different lens, for everyone’s benefit.

Like I’ve finally accepted that I don’t need to stress abut my kids’ eating habits. Yes, I still need to bust my butt to make sure there’s healthy food available for them to eat everyday. But I don’t need to stress if Lucia wants to eat just pasta for lunch, vehemently rejecting any vegetables involved. She’ll eat her vegetables for dinner. My kids are great eaters. This is not a real problem. Just because they don’t eat exactly like I do does not mean they are not healthy eaters. Khalil is not yet capable of resisting the urge to drink the bathwater when he’s pretending to have a tea party. Lucia is not capable of getting a good night’s sleep in a bed by herself. Some things I’d like for them, they’ll be capable of in the future. Some things they might never be able to do because that’s just how they are. And that’s okay, too.

It doesn’t mean I have infinite patience, either. It still makes me lose my mind when I’m running late and Khalil insists on buckling his own seat belt, which he can’t effectively do yet. It still ups my anxiety when Lucia has major panic attacks over non-emergencies. But I can deal with it all a lot better when I am compassionate about all of us being separate human beings, and doing the best that we can, being who we are. When I am kind and generous with them, and with myself, too.

I can be at my parenting best when I can keep the wise words of Kahlil Gibran in my heart. (And yes, my son is named for him! And yes, I am having a beer with myself and my writing as we speak, and delighting in every minute of it.) I’ll leave you with his words, since it’s way better than anything I could say.

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.”