Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Presenting opportunities to kids (and the limits parents impose)

I've been thinking philosophically about a certain topic for some time. I don't have any answers or conclusions, just thoughts. Any unschoolers, feel free to chime in with your perspective.

In the unschooling mindset, as I am understanding it, you let your children follow their interests and passions and then facilitate their attempts.

toddler plays with scissors
Mikko demonstrating proper scissor safety at 14 months. Note that we'd taped up the blades, but that didn't last long...
I like that, and I hope to (continue to) do that. For instance, when Mikko showed an interest in cutting things up with scissors: First, I found him some decent scissors. Mikko's been handling our regular office scissors since he was, oh, ten months old or so, but I knew both he and I would be more comfortable with a pair sized to his chubby starfish hands. (I seriously love these Westcott/Acme For Kids scissors — blunt tip but metal blades so they actually cut instead of gumming the paper — they had them in the grocery store's office supply section in packs of two, and I feel like I really lucked out on the quality considering where I bought them and how little I paid!) I handed over magazines, Christmas ribbon, anything that comes in the mail, and other tempting paper goods. And then I supervised and suggested activities we could do that involved cutting.

But how did Mikko even become interested in the scissoring arts in the first place? It was because he'd seen us use scissors every day in our home business of online sales. We always have several pairs here and there (we're always misplacing them and buying more). He's been intrigued by our wielding of these shiny metal tools for all the 2.75 years of his life so far, and it was only natural he'd want to try his hand at working them.

So there's my conundrum. How do you follow your kids' interests without, particularly at younger ages, being the person who gives your kids those interests? How do you decide which opportunities to present to your kids, and is there a way to untangle what was your influence versus what was their genuine inclination? And does it even matter in the end?

I ask these questions because some people, online and in real life, have asked me (gently) why I've chosen to speak German with Mikko and why I would like to enroll him in ballet classes. There's genuine curiosity there, but in some cases also an unspoken declaration that they as parents have made different choices and would not have made those ones.

I think about this in terms of music as well, though no one so far has questioned me on this. I play the piano and guitar, and Mikko is interested in — surprise! — the piano and guitar. Perhaps because playing those instruments is so socially positive in my culture, no one has thought to ask why I'm "encouraging" him to play those in particular. (I put "encouraging" in quotes, because I've really not started any sort of campaign to get him to play, just let him tootle around, and I have bought other musical instruments for him — it's just that nice ones are expensive, so the only nice ones we have are the ones I play!) If I were interested in having him play the bagpipes or accordion or bassoon, I wonder if people would think I was foisting my strange interests on him, you know? If Mikko finds the bagpipes or bassoon later in life and wants to play them, I will support him as best I can (allowing for our HOA's quiet hours...), but I can't introduce him to everything at once. We have to start somewhere!

I have a lot of deep thoughts when I'm watching (a) the Olympics, (b) Cirque du Soleil, and (c) child actors.

Oh, they're related. Just you wait.

With the Olympics and Cirque du Soleil, I think: Wowzers, that's a lot of specialized equipment and knowhow. These are whole worlds of activities and skills and tools I know nothing about. I watch, say, the circus folk doing that twirly dealio on the long strips of cloth and somewhere in my mind comes the thought: There must be circus supply stores for things like that. Those strips of cloth must have a name. And those people who are performing the act probably have all sorts of vocabulary about what they're doing, vocabulary I know not of. And when you hear the back stories of how a lot of these performers or athletes got into what they're doing, it's often: (a) family history (coming from a long line of lugers, say) or (b) proximity (living next to the luge course).

With child stars and Olympic athletes, I see a lot of sacrifices made for the sake of one family member's goal. I find it a little skewed, to be honest, but it's one of those fascinating and repulsive things that I can't look away from. When I hear a story about a family that took out an extra mortgage on their house, are on the verge of bankruptcy, and had to hold multiple fundraisers — all to watch their kid not medal at the Olympics — I think, That's either dedication — or foolishness. Hard call. (Maybe. I don't know all the circumstances and history that go into that sort of decision.)

When child actors become screwed-up adults (or, frankly, children), I think, It was the parent's job to protect them from that. Even though I really wanted to play Annie (how dare you steal my role, Aileen Quinn!), I now appreciate that my parents did nothing to feed any potential egomania in me and let me stay a kid. (Not saying I had any chance whatsoever of becoming a movie star; I'm just saying I appreciate now that they didn't even bother to try.)

So I guess I do feel that parents have a lot of influence in terms of what their kids will be exposed to in the first place, after which kids can make their decisions of what to pursue and what to discard.

And those parental decisions can be based on a multitude of factors, such as expense (I really loved horses as a girl, and my parents never bought me one. Ever.), familiarity (such as the way I know piano but don't know the accordion), what the parents value (for instance, music and language are loves I can't help passing on), what the parents are already doing (such as our family business), cultural or geographical limitations (my son will probably never learn to run a banana plantation or speak Tsonga — he might, but there are a lot of possible interests unlikely to occur to him simply because they never come up in our lives here; in the same way, a child growing up in a tropical country is unlikely to become a bobsledder, adorable stories notwithstanding), and also aspects like whether the parents think a particular child's interest is a good fit for the family as a whole. For instance, it might be possible to sacrifice and find a way to make Mikko a world-class ski jumper — or we might decide that such a sacrifice (moving our family nearer a mountain resort town and spending money on equipment and lessons and racing fees and whatever else ski jumpers need to function) is not a prudent choice for our family as a unit.

That doesn't mean Mikko the adolescent or adult couldn't find a way to make such a dream come true on his own — but there are a lot of dreams that don't come true unless you start young, and we're necessarily limiting his horizons through our decisions.

I've begun coming to terms with this in my own life. I have so many potential passions, but at 33 and turning 34 next month, I've narrowed down my list and am mostly content with that. I've let some things go to concentrate more fully on others. All of life is a series of saying "no" to something (most things) to say "yes" to something else. It's like falling in love with a person you want to be with the rest of your life. You're thereby saying "no" to being in love with everyone else in the world, for your whole lifetime (you hope). And it's not scary; it's fine. Letting go of those possibilities is an acceptable loss when you've found what you desire.

But with a child, with my two-year-old, I don't want to narrow his options in a way that's harmful to him. I want to present him with possibilities, but I can't — I simply can't — present him with all the possibilities in the world.

So how do I choose which ones to lay before him, in a way that's honoring to the individual he is? How do I know when to encourage trying out a particular activity I think he might connect with, and when to step back and see what he'll find on his own?

You can't raise a child in a vacuum, presenting absolutely no options. If you never play an instrument or sing in front of your child or let him hear music playing, he simply won't know it exists. If you choose not to speak any language to your child so as not to influence which language he will choose for himself, the neural pathways in his brain won't form and he'll have trouble learning language at all. You have to make choices. You do. But how do you decide and evaluate the ones you make?

Help me think through this some more:

What opportunities are you going to present to your children — music, athletics, language, art, schooling, housework, sewing, classes, hobbies, business? What are your limits (inherent or intentional) on how much freedom you'll allow your children in choosing or following their passions? How will you encourage them to discover their own interests?

And if you want to take it personal:

Which of your many passions have you let go to pursue something more important? Which dreams are still beckoning to you?


Unknown said...

I haven't read everything, because it was really long, and I have the attention span - internet oblige - of a field mouse. I stopped at the cirque the soleil and then read the end again.

I think in infancy, indeed, a lot of what a child learns and becomes interested in is directly related to what the adult caregiver does and provides.
I do not think this is something we should be all too worried about, because the most important part is that he becomes interested, no matter the subject, and that he sees his caregivers enjoying things and being passionate about them.

When they are a little older, they will - given the freedom to do so - devellop their own interests any way, they will have the drive to do so, since you have shown them you as an adult can also be passionate and consumed by things.

As an unschooler, the interests sparked in your child will spark out of materials you provide, yes, but that does not mean they will be predictable.

So I don't worry too much about biasing our child.

Then as for our family: given our situation, we just provide what is available, which is rather limited (that sort of freaks me out most of the time). I guess there is no comparison if you live in the civilised world and there are millions of options, from which to CHOOSE.
If you are still worried, then I suggest you bring in interesting things you don't know every so often, it will give you both something to discover and might lead you down interesting paths.

WOW I'm very talky this morning

Dionna @Code Name: Mama said...

(snicker - I have to admit, I skipped some parts too)
Honestly, we can only do our best. By reading stories, going to museums, taking trips to new places, and generally by living life, our kids will be exposed to it! And as they get older, they'll be able to say "wow! I liked the tightrope walker!," and you can help them set up a tightrope in the backyard ;)

I think if you are watching for their cues - their eyes to light up, their smiles, their obvious interest - then you will have plenty of opportunities to follow their lead.

Very thought provoking post though, and thank you for the reminder to follow Kieran's interests! I'm occasionally guilty of ignoring his cues.

Lindsay said...

In high school, I was involved in so many different activities that I was doing lots of things, but not really doing any of them all that well, and I think I will encourage my kids not to do the same thing. And I would like to encourage my kids to learn life-long skills, not things that are only good in school. I.E. If you play football and baseball in school, what are you going to do for fitness in your 30's? Or your 50's? Hubby is working on that now as a 25 year old- how to stay physically fit without playing team sports (unless you count stroller pushing as a team sport, lol).
Similarly, if you are a drummer, you really need a "band" to play with. If you learn piano, you can play rock music or Mozart concertos alone or with others. Not that Baby can't be a football playing drummer, but I'll encourage him towards more life-long activities too and to think about the implications of his choices.

Momma Jorje said...

For starters, while I do sometimes scan through an article / post, I did read ALL of this one.

I see nothing wrong with making some choices for our children, even with an unschooling mindset. For instance, you had to choose what sort of diapers (if any) to use. You chose Elimination Communication. We, as parents, are here as guides (at least) and protectors for our children.

I think it is also completely natural, acceptable, and expected for a child's interests to often mirror the things they see their parents doing. We all want to set good examples for our children anyway, don't we?

And finally, while I admire people that dedicate their entire LIVES for olympics or violin or whatever... I wouldn't ever choose that for myself or my child. I feel that far too much is sacrificed in the person's life, not even taking the family's sacrifices into account.

Katyjean Leslie said...

I really enjoyed your post-I usually do. I have to say that this is the second time I have tried to comment-for some reason I can't get them to post.
My children are pretty much grown now-my baby will be eighteen in Sept. I do not pretend to know alot about parenting and things seem to change so much but I have to say that I tried my best to allow my children to grow up in a more natural fashion. I didn't follow trends or traditions or any of the things other people said I should do. My way was not very popular and caused many arguments with other adults but I truly believe that every person is born with their own true gift and we as parents should never force our or anybody elses desires or beliefs on our children. We should expose them to all the diverse and wonderful things in this world that we are able to. (Excersing common sense of course). Don't worry-our children will know instinctivly what their passion is. We need to be brave enough to allow them to follow their passion and selfless enough to support their gifts. Whether we like it or not, our children do try to mimic us to some degree-all part of learning-since we are their first heroes. The best gift we can ever give them is to live what it is we want them to learn and to always nurish their dreams.
By the way, I love the name Mikko.

Anonymous said...

Our kids are products of their society and experiences and family. This will naturally limit their options, although I am quick to point out that our children's options are far MORE limited than almost any other child's in the world. I see no problems with that, as long as you're not setting out to limit your child's options or stifle their interests. You can only do so much, and at some point trying to expose them to everything results in overscheduled insanity.

A lot of what you're describing - which, I think, is trying to deduce what your child's interests are - is greatly reduced as they get older. At 5 my daughter is very up-front about what she does and doesn't want to do, what trade-offs she's willing to make, and so on. She knows about a much wider world, now, and lets me know what parts of it she wants to explore. So it gets easier to follow your child's lead, and see where their genuine interests lie.

Anonymous said...

Gah! I mean to say our children's options are far LESS limited. Or far MORE open. Either would have worked.

(I hate typos.)

Lisa C said...

LOL. I skipped most of your article, too (I only glanced over those comments), but only because it's late and I was actually going to go to bed--not get into reading blogs. So, no offense!

But just wanted to say quickly here...I think children are born with the aptitude to be good at many things, and their surrounding world determines which of those aptitudes they'll discover. For example, how could someone because a great baseball player if they've never been introduced to the sport? How could I have fallen in love with writing if I lived in an illiterate tribe in the middle of a rainforest?

I think it's cool to let them see as many things as possible, and encourage them to try what interests them. I see nothing wrong with taking a child to see Irish dancing if you secretly wish he'll develop an interest in it (that's me).

At Mikko's age he's not really aware of what all his choices are, so I think it's fine to make some for him, but as he gets older allowing him to chose for himself would of course be the way to go.

Anyway, if you don't want to limit a them experience a lot of stuff, and let them choose for themselves what they want to pursue. My two cents. Sorry I didn't finish the article!

Lisa C said...

P.S. My mom did me a big disfavor by not allowing me to do some of the things I wanted, because she thought it wasn't practical. I never lost interest in those things, so really it was a big waste for her to try to choose for me. She only set me back.

Darcel said...

I don't see anything wrong with presenting your child with opportunities or interest that you think he would enjoy, or that you would like for him to have/know.

I think the problems start when the child doesn't want to do something the parent has chosen for them, and the parent makes the child continue.

We are thinking of enrolling our oldest in Girl Scouts this year. I think she'll enjoy it, if she doesn't I'm not going to continue to force her to go. She is a get up and go girl, but in certain situations does well in a class like setting.

My roll as their parent is to make their life as open with possibility as possible. If they show an interest in something, I'll help them continue on that path until they are done with it.
I'll also present them my own ideas of things I think they would like.

Everything our kids show an interest in leads to something else. It's like connecting the dots. I think as parents we need to remember that they may not always be our dots our children choose to connect.

Michelle said...

nak one handed - excuse the lack of caps

my oldest is the same age as mikko. i've had a lot of the same thoughts as you. i have noticed that my son is interested in what my husband and i are simply b/c that is what he has been exposed to. i think it is human nature for kids to imitate the people around them so they can learn how to be part of the society they live in.

i want my kids to learn how to make healthful and ethical food choices, cook, garden, handle finances...lots of things. i also plan to have them learn spanish as long as they want to. i don't speak it so we'll learn together. i think knowing a second language is a very valuable skill.

i was unschooled until i was 10 so i am fairly confident in home schooling. while my kids are young, i am exposing them to what i want them to learn. as they get older and have more opinions of their own, they will make more choices for themselves.

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