It’s nine o’clock. I’m trying to nurse the baby to sleep. Rain patters on the yurt roof.
“Mommy, I have some questions I need to ask you. Can we do some school tomorrow and I can ask you my questions?” My 6 yr old daughter snuggles closer.
“I have three. Three questions.”
She is quiet for a couple of minutes. Firelight flickers across the walls. I think she is asleep, till a head pops over my shoulder again. “Here is one of them that I’ve been wondering FOREVER mom. It’s about the planet that is cold on one side and hot on the other.”
I’m exhausted. It would be so much easier to tell her to just go to sleep. But we have a rule in our house: never interrupt learning. “Venus?”
“Yeah, that one. So here’s my question: is there, like, a line dividing the hot side and the cold side, and if you cross the line then you’re on the other side, or is it more like, you know, you keep walking and then it slowly gets colder?”
I smile in the dark. “I’d say it’s gradual.” We talk for a bit about planetary rotation. My four year son joins in from his futon on the other side, and they move on to the fascinating discussion of other galaxies, and how long it would take to get there, and what you might find.
Learning. It happens at all hours of the day and night, if I allow it to. When I stop trying to control, and just follow their lead. This is the essence of Unschooling. It’s messy. And magical.
“Can you help me with my letters Mommy?” Is usually asked when I’m in the middle of cooking dinner. It’s so easy to say no, not right now, later. But we have a rule in our house: never interrupt learning. So he pulls a stool up to the bar counter and I help him while I chop onions. Soon the workbook is abandoned for a knife, and he helps me chop the potatoes. He chops them too small and misses half the skin, but this is learning too.
A young human, if all of the needs that thousands of years of evolution have programmed into them have been met, is so naturally curious that you could not stop their learning if you tried. We are wired this way. It is how we acquire information about the world around us. By exploring, by watching, by asking questions, by creating hypothesis and testing them out. A young human is full of a burning desire to know…everything.
They don’t need nor desire constant attention or intervention, but they do require us to be present in each moment. Willing to slow down and answer their questions. Young humans mimic everything. They want to do everything that we do, and will keep coming back to a task again and again until they have mastered it.
Watch a very young child attempting to move a heavy object from one place to another, and you will see the determination of the human being.
The other morning, my two oldest children were up and outside before I’d even gotten out of bed. I could hear their excited voices through the canvas walls, discussing the collection of slugs which they’d put in a bucket the night before. They were having such a good time outside, that an hour later they popped in, sweaty and muddy, and asked if they could have breakfast in their fort under the grapes.
Why not? We have a rule in our house: never interrupt learning. Even when it involves slugs.
As I was packing up their breakfast picnic, I could hear them attempting to move a table (quite a heavy metal table!) up the steep hill to the grape arbour. They tried one way, and then around to the other side of the hill. They tried pushing, and pulling, and got into an argument about how it should be done, and resolved the argument, and came up with a plan, and eventually succeeded in manuevering this heavy table up the hill.
Humans do not easily give up. Not if our instincts are intact. The natural drive of a species to continue to exist, pushes us to learn, to create, to problem-solve.
It is only if a human has their time and efforts controlled, regimented; is told the right way to do things at the expense of all creative thought; is manipulated by the carrot-and-stick game of punishments and rewards, that our intrinsic motivation is broken.
When all motivation becomes extrinsic, we cease to be human and become cogs in a wheel. Worker bees, whose only function is to serve the ecomony. Slaves to the bank and the corporations and the bottom line.
The goal of modern schooling is not only to impart knowledge, but to acclimatize children to our society. To take all of the wildness which resides in their very genetic makeup, and “civilize” it out of them, just as we thought to civilize the native “savages” of this land and so many others. To teach order, and obedience, and focus, and work ethic.
But as technology increasingly takes over the functional roles that humans once filled in our societies, I would argue that what we need, now more than ever, are our uniquely human capabilities. Intuition. Assessment. Creativity. Critical thinking.
A child in a first-grade classroom might be able to name the letters of the alphabet, perhaps to read, perhaps to work some simple sums. But how much of the precious moments of her childhood were squandered to be taught these simple skills? 2,400 hours. Was it worth that time? Was it necessary? Would she have gained these skills otherwise? And more importantly: what does she not know? Does she know where a frog will go if you follow it for an hour, or what the different calls of the raven mean? Can she show you which sprout will turn into broccoli, or carrots, or cabbage, or peas, and identify the weeds from among the vegetables? Can she tell you at what season you can find mushrooms in the forest, and where, and which ones are edible?
There’s so very, very much a child can do with 2,400 hours. And very little of it would they naturally choose to spend sitting at a desk. Or sitting at all. Hiking, swimming, jumping, rolling, climbing, running, bike-riding, yes. But rarely sitting.
And what happens to the child who cannot sit? The child who’s evolutionary drive screams at them to move, to explore, to create, to connect. The child who revolts at being subdued in a plastic chair, in a concrete room, behind a closed door. That child is labeled “disfunctional”, “ADHD”. Medicated. Put in therapy.
Today, 10 million school-age children in the US are being prescribed stimulants, antidepressants, and other phsychotropic (mild-altering) drugs for educational and behaviorial issues. Children 5 years old and younger are the fastest-growing segment of the non-adult population prescribed antidepressants in the U.S. Either a huge percentage of American children have serious disabilities, or they are normal kids having normal reactions to boredom. To lack of movement. To lack of connection. Why is it that we forever blame the child if they cannot focus on the material, rather than question whether the material is worth the child’s focus?
We cannot institutionalize our young from the moment they’re steady on their feet, keep them indoors or in front of screens for the majority of their waking hours, and then turn them lose on the world and expect them to care about our planet. About her oceans and her forests and her creatures.
And right now, as humanity hovers on the edge of the climate tipping point, we need humans who care deeply.
We’ve spent generations now pillaging the earth’s resources, disrupting her complex ecosystems, and destroying her rich biodiversity. We can be the generation who stops. In our schools and in our homes, we can raise people who are capable of rethinking the way we humans live on this precious planet.
While there is benefit to the brevity of our human lives in that we can acclimatize to vast changes rather quickly, these very acclimations become ingrained into our culture in such a way that we cease to question the validity of their existence. We need humans who are capable of questioning the validity of everything. Of the way we build our homes, and use our groundwater, and fish our oceans, and raise our food.
We are born concious beings. Empathy is our natural state. Because of our awareness of how our actions affect our people, other creatures, and the world around us, society has naturally evolved, in many ways, towards equality, fairness, and non-harm.
But in many ways, we are still in our infancy as a species. A brief blip in the history of our planet. We have so much farther to go if we wish to not only survive as a species, but create a society that is fair, just, and in balance with the ecology we depend on.
There are endless ways in which humans can expend their efforts towards this end, but nothing is so important as the way in which we raise our young. The way we care for our children directly affects the way in which they will care for the following generation. It affects the decisions they will make, and the society they will create.
Scientists have seen with lab rats that if a newborn is taken from it’s mother and raised in isolation, not receiving the constant licking from it’s parent, then it literally changes the biology of that rodents’ offspring. They become aggressive, and cease to care for their own young. Not that we need lab rats to tell us this. It’s evident in everything.
I had a goat once. A beautiful nubian doe who I brought to our place from another farm when she was already an adult, and bred. At her previous farm she had not been allowed to raise her kids. She had birthed a couple of sets of twins already, but they had been taken from her at birth and bottle-fed.
It was the middle of winter when it came time for her to kid. I had just had a baby of my own three weeks before, and was up to my neck in milk and exhaustion. I was expecting to be able to lend a watchful eye at the birth, and then leave the doe with her new babies and get back to my own newborn. I held the idealistic view that I would be giving this doe what she had missed out on previously: the chance to raise her own young. How naive I was.
Beatrix wanted nothing to do with her triplets. She blocked out the sensations of birth to the point that she didn’t even stop munching her alfalfa when her kids dropped to the barn floor, and then walked away from them without a lick or a second glance. This is not natural animal behavior. This only occurred because of human interference. Her natural instincts were broken.
This is the great responsibility of our human lives. Choice.
We humans choose, with each generation, whether we will break or nuture our natural instincts. Every time we mothers carry a child in our wombs, every time we feel those contractions blissfully opening us, we choose, not just for that child, but for all future generations, whether to nurture empathy and compassion. We choose it in the way we birth, we choose it in the way we handle them, the way we feed them, speak to them, and in the way we respond to their thousand questions.
The rain pounds harder on the yurt roof. The children next to me are snoring softly now. I think about the tilled rows and young trees outside, and wonder if my grandchildren will collect walnuts and apples from their branches. I wonder what kind of world they will be born into. And I am keenly aware that I am creating that world, with every choice I make.