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Date: May 20, 2008

raising your spirited child by mary sheedy kurcinka

As of late, our four-year-old son seems to be reasserting his personality. That’s a nice way of saying he’s been really stubborn lately, intense, highly-emotional, and has had some difficulty dealing with all this emotion (read: tantrums). Needless to say, this has been a little challenging for all of us. Chris learned of this book, and so we checked it out. I haven’t gotten too far yet, but what I’ve read in the first few pages seems encouraging. I’ll update this post, as I read more.

UPDATE: 7/3/08
I’m finally getting back to this post. No, I haven’t been reading Kurcinka’s book for two months solid. I’ve been dipping into it time and again and reading parts of it, and I expect I will continue to do this from time to time. Overall, the book has been very helpful in giving us some perspective on Aidan’s “spirited” behavior, as well as offering some practical strategies for working with him. It’s made a difference. Kurcinka defines spiritedness as the combination of several qualities in varying degrees depending on the child: extroversion/introversion, intensity, persistence, sensitivity, perceptiveness, and adaptability. In reading through the book, both my wife Chris and I saw our son Aidan in many of the examples. At a time in our parenting lives where frustration was at high, the book was very reassuring. We’ve come to understand that Aidan isn’t “out to get us,” but rather he is a child with a spirited temperament–which is really cool (and this is not a mere euphemism). The new understanding and strategies we have learned are working for us. The book has helped us understand Aidan better so we can work with his unique temperament, and realize that it gives all our lives a kind of richness we wouldn’t otherwise have.

why we homeschool: reason 3, what we don’t want our son to learn

There are plenty of reasons why we have chosen to homeschool our son, but there are also a bunch of specific reasons why we choose not to subject our son to state institutionalized education—things he would likely learn there that we prefer he not learn. Here’s a short list of things we don’t want our son to learn:

  1. Materialism—It may be true that statistically the more formal education a person has, the more money and material wealth one will amass over a lifetime; however, it is also true that the relationship between material wealth and happiness is inversely proportional. We don’t want our son to equate his education with a consumer lifestyle that will ultimately leave him feeling empty.
  2. Gender Socialization—Aidan loves flowers. The other day when at the grocery store, Aidan picked out some of his favorites. At the checkout line, the older woman working the cash register asked if the flowers were for Chris, his mom. She responded, no, they are for Aidan.  At this, she gave a curious look and made a comment about how her husband would have a fit if her boys picked out flowers to bring home. She admitted being a product of an earlier generation (and of schooling). We see this thing all the time. Sometimes it can be explicit, ushering the boys towards the trucks and blocks and the girls towards the playhouse and dolls. Sometimes, it can be more subtle. “Don’t cry, Aidan. Big boys don’t cry.” All times, it teaches a child to conform to an idea of what it means to be male or female—social constructions that have little to do with who the child really wants to be, who the child really is. They are flowers for god’s sake. They are beautiful, whether you are a little boy, a little girl, or a 36-year-old man. We all have the right to love them. They come from the earth.
  3. Class Position—I’ve seen, first hand, the effects of schooling on one’s perception of class position. Indeed, one might argue that school is designed to sort, categorize, and assign class position. When I went to school, you had students in “fundies” (fundamental courses), “regulars,” and “honors.” Once a student found his or her place in a track, it was next to impossible to break out. This often had little to do with student ability and a whole lot more to do with expectation and institutional pressures to keep kids in their assigned places. Recently I had the opportunity to teach a college composition course for students in a career automotive program. It was one of the saddest teaching experiences of my life. These kids walked into that room believing that they were no more than “dumb gear-heads” (several said as much) and they held this belief dearly all through the semester. I fear I lost the battle to convince them otherwise. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we ought to be careful about what we pretend to be.” I believe this. I also believe that school teaches us what to pretend we are, and for many, it helps maintain the illusion through the years until such a belief (however arbitrary) becomes fossilized at the core of who we believe we are. We will not allow an institution to tell our son who he is or who he can be. That’s up to him to figure out.
  4. Age Stratification—Being well-adapted to live life, means being part of a community. A community is diverse and healthy. It includes people of all ages working, playing, communicating together. School isolates children into categories of age, such that they cannot learn to appreciate, understand, and thrive in such diversity. Institutionalized schooling cloisters children into age groups. It isolates them from adults and from older people. It keeps them from full participation in authentic real-word experience and human contact, and indirectly it encourages them to push older people away (into “homes”). Maybe, if we let Aidan learn that people of all ages can live together, he will be less likely to push us into a “home” in our golden years.
  5. Provisional Self-Esteem—In his essay “The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement,” Alfie Kohn writes that school attempts “to motivate students (with grades used as carrots and sticks to coerce them into working harder) or to sort students (the point being not to help everyone learn but to figure out who is better than whom).” Our son is good, and we don’t want “grades” assigned to him to help him know how good or bad he should feel about himself. I was mostly an “A” student growing up, and the thing is it quickly became a part of who I was—or who I felt I had to be. While I was praised for my academic achievement, I also felt the pressure of expectation. I was the “A” student; that’s who I was. But what if I wasn’t? Who would I be then? What would I have that would earn praise then? My self-esteem was tied up for many years in what others had to say about my performance, specifically my grades. We don’t want Aidan to learn that his worth is dependent on the judgements of others. One’s self-esteem should come from the self, not from a carrot or a stick, and not from school.
  6. [Children] should be able to think and write and explore without worrying about how good they are.
    –Alfie Kohn

  7. Intellectual and Emotional Dependency—John Taylor Gatto in his criticism of compulsory schooling asserts in his essay, “The Seven Lesson School Teacher,” that children learn to base their emotional state on the gold stars, check marks, stickers, and grades they get from their teachers. He also points out that the “good” students are the one’s who wait to be directed by the teacher. The teacher makes all the important decisions about learning because the teacher is the “expert.” The teacher ultimately teachers the students what to think, not how to think.
  8. Bullying, cruelty, ruthless competition, peer-pressure, conformity, aggression, etc.—I think naming these ailments of institutionalized schooling should be enough; however, I will dispatch one quick anecdote. I attended a top-notch college prep high-school. It was also a Catholic parochial school. One might think such a place would model intellectual and moral conduct of a higher order. I recall senior-year study hall where I observed each and every day, a steady drug trade. I also remember distinctly, one student pushing another out a second floor window in a hallway brawl. I can’t send my child into such an environment, no matter how much the tuition.
  9. Learning Is Regulated by Bells and Seasons—Eight days to summer! That’s what the neighbor kids were chanting earlier this evening. They are counting the days ’til they won’t have to deal with school again for three whole months. Tick. Tick. Tick. Brrrriiing. OK, children, pack up your stuff and move to your next class. Schooling is constrained by time periods and seasons; it is regulated by bells and calendars. Learning is living and it is lifelong. Chris and I often talk about our school days when we couldn’t wait for it to end, so we could finish reading all the books we started in school but couldn’t complete in the time permitted. Learning is ongoing and has little to do with the artificial schedules of institutionalized schooling. We’ll take our time with Aidan and, more importantly, allow him to take his time.

Like I said, this is a short list of some things we don’t want Aidan to learn. Shorter still, we don’t want Aidan to receive a schooling. We’d much rather he take his education from life. We want him to have a happy and fulfilled childhood, live a happy and long life, and learn the whole way through—without ever having to count his days. Life’s too short.

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