It was not the Real World

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I was one of those kids who love to learn (I still do), but hate school. I loved my friends, I loved some of my teachers, but I hated school as an institution. I was a bookworm so I’ve always read my schoolbooks from cover to cover before the school year even began, and I was generally meek and eager to please, so my grades were good. But whenever there was a teachers’ strike, I would have this awesome feeling in my chest, like the swelling of a golden balloon. A couple of times I found an opening in the fence and ran off, just wandered in the streets and parks until it was time to go home, and all the while I was terrified of having the police on my tail. :o)

Of course, it didn’t help that I was the scapegoat/punching bag of school bullies, and/or those who wanted to be on good terms with them. I was ridiculed, I was ostracized, I was picked on, I was reduced to tears, I had monstrous cockroaches shoved under my nose… I still shudder when I remember that. And when I do, I wonder – are those the kind of experiences that are supposed to prepare kids for the “real world”? Because somehow, at least in my case, that Real World was left behind in Junior High, (thankfully) never to be encountered again.

I believe there is just something about a large number of children being cooped up together for many hours in a day that brings out the worst in them. You can take 30 children, 27 of which are basically good, and 3 of whom have bullying tendencies which would never be brought out without a sidekick. But together with his two friends, the bully forms a gang; then they find several more kids who are desperate for approval and the feeling of importance, to be their cronies. That’s 1\3 of the class already. Another 10 tag along, and the rest is divided between scapegoats and children who are either immune to peer pressure, or just by a stroke of luck find themselves left out. Together, the gang of bullies may commit acts of cruelty none of the individual children would do on their own.

Teachers may try to stop it, or at least keep it at bay, at least when direct bullying is involved. No one, however, can stop children from quietly making fun of someone’s glasses or clothes or the way someone speaks, and no one can make a singled-out child feel any more accepted. Overall this is something children grow out of (but many carry the pain that was inflicted well into adulthood). Although I’ve had my disagreements with people in university, at work, etc, somehow I never found dead cockroaches in my desk again. In “real life”, you won’t often find yourself spending all day long with 30 other people who were all born in the same year as you, either. You meet people of all ages, which gives a multi-dimensional perspective and discourages unhealthy competition.

Then there is the element of simply being cooped up for too many hours, every day. But then, if you have 30 children in a classroom it only makes sense you’ll need 30 minutes of enforced discipline to have 15 minutes to explain something, answer questions, and give homework. No wonder so many children, especially boys, are on Ritalin.

You may say I am biased because of my own school experience. Many children are popular and happy at school, have many friends, and thrive in a classroom setting. Sounds good, right? They pay a different price, however, for fitting so well into the system.

But that would be a story for another day.
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The Great Replacement

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“No matter how hard you try,” a well-meaning person told me some time ago, with the air of delivering an eye-opening statement, “you will never be able to replace a kindergarten teacher for your children.”

I was rather short-tempered, but I wanted to be kind. I also knew that a long explanation would be futile, and would lead to yet another argument. What I said was simply, “it is the kindergarten teacher who will never be able to replace a mother.”

But going back to the original statement… two things are implied here:

1. Small children need preschool/kindergarten, and the preschool/kindergarten program is without doubt the absolute ministry-of-education-regulated best.

2. If you teach/keep your children at home, you must be trying to imitate the preschool/kindergarten/school setting, with yourself acting as the teacher.

Even people who are prepared – very cautiously – to admit that maybe learning at home isn’t a very crazy idea, are most reassured by the sight of children with workbooks, working with timetables and being graded for their work. Because of course, without daily drills and grading, there is no learning… right?

Once, a mother confided in me that she is going to put her 18-months-old child (her only child, so far) in daycare, even though she doesn’t work outside the home, because several family members insist that the boy needs more “stimulation” and “socialization”; since she looked so obviously dejected when she spoke of it, and since I was certain she knows my opinion already, I allowed myself to gently say that as far as I can see, a 6-hour-long daily period in a daycare center would be overstimulating, tiring, and overall pointless for her son.When we are talking of a baby who can’t even speak properly yet, all the needed “socialization” is covered by a daily walk to the playground where he can see and interact with other people.

Since women entered the work force en masse, the question of what to do with the young children became highly relevant in almost every family. A home can be left alone, but not a child – and so day care centers, preschools and kindergartens became a widespread solution. This is now so normal that a mother who is raising her children at home is allegedly “replacing” a preschool teacher. Let us not forget it is the other way around.

The period of having small children at home is very intense, physically and emotionally demanding; it is also finite. It may a few years if you have just one child, or a couple of decades if you have many, but either way it will come to an end some day. Some day, I will not have anyone barging into my room shouting, “Peepee!” – nor will I need to interrupt an adult conversation in order to say, “please get your finger out of your nose”. Life will be calmer, perhaps, and more rational – and a little duller as well.

So let us, mothers, savor this time with our children, and know that we are exactly where we are needed at the moment, and that no one – no one – can replace us.

The photo above is from our old home, taken when our two eldest were little. We lived in an isolated little corner with a beautiful view and raised goats, chickens and a dog. The demands of such a lifestyle were many, but there was much joy in the journey, and the memories are sweet.

The Great Curriculum

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If there is one recommendation I feel qualified to give regarding teaching young children (especially – but also older children, and adults, too), it would be spending as much time as possible, weather permitting, out of doors.

No matter where you live, there is always something to do, learn and observe outside – tending to your own garden and animals, foraging, taking notes on the various plants, insects, birds and animals in your area, etc.

The outdoors are particularly suited to little ones, in not having the limitations we almost unconsciously enforce at home. There young children can shout and laugh loudly, run without fear of bumping into furniture, jump, climb, and in general let out their energy without bothering anyone.

Too many children suffer from severe shortage of unscheduled and free outdoor time – and by ‘outdoor’, I mean not so much neat and orderly playgrounds without a stray blade of grass to be seen anywhere, but wild-ish old parks with ancient trees, open fields, orchards and groves, the sea shore or the river side – whatever humble bit of nature you have in your area.

What about learning? It comes organically when children come back to you from a romp with a collection of leaves and questions; when they squat to observe an anthill for a whole hour together; when they measure the depth of a puddle with a stick, or take notice of the change of weather and seasons.

Here are some more ideas for nature-based activities:

– Drawings or playdough sculptures of interesting objects;

– Collections of leaves, stones, pinecones, seashells, etc, and crafts based on those;

– For slightly older children: nature diaries and photographs that can be made into beautiful collages;

And the best part of it is, you’ll likely have as much fun as your kids!

In the photo: Israel, 3 yrs, is trying to coax a tortoise to peek out of its shell.

What to do while breastfeeding

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Having a newborn means breastfeeding… a lot. Several hours a day (cumulatively), and during the night as well. I love this, because it allows me to sit back, relax, and take things slowly with the best excuse ever. Keep a snack and a bottle of water handy, because making milk for a baby means expenditure of both liquid and calories.

Breastfeeding doesn’t mean neglecting the other children. On the contrary, it’s a great time for uninterrupted conversation, word games and, of course, reading. We’re really getting through chapter after chapter in the last few days!

I have many favorites among children’s books, most of them classics – Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia books, and everything by Astrid Lindgren. Revisiting Pippi Longstocking is always a pleasure:

“But don’t you understand that you must go to school?”

“Why?”
“To learn things, of course.”
“What sort of things?” asked Pippi.
“All sorts,” said the policeman. “Lots of useful things—the multiplication tables, for instance.”
“I have got along fine without any pluttifikation tables for nine years,” said Pippi, “and I guess I’ll get along without it from now on, too.”
“Yes, but just think how embarrassing it will be for you to be so ignorant. Imagine when you grow up and somebody asks you what the capital of Portugal is and you can’t answer!”
“Oh, I can answer all right,” said Pippi. “I’ll answer like this: ‘If you are so bound and determined to find out what the capital of Portugal is, then, for goodness’ sake, write directly to Portugal and ask.'”
“Yes, but don’t you think that you would be sorry not to know it yourself?”
“Oh, probably,” said Pippi. “No doubt I should lie awake nights and wonder and wonder, ‘What in the world is the capital of Portugal?’ But one can’t be having fun all the time,” she continued, bending over and standing on her hands for a change. “For that matter, I’ve been in Lisbon with my papa,” she added, still standing upside down, for she could talk that way too.”

Pippi Longstocking

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Pippi Longstocking is one of the most inspiring literary characters I know. She is always positive, fearless, endlessly creative, knows no boundaries and doesn’t believe in the word “impossible”. And something else: she never, ever wants to grow up.

While obviously an adult, with adult cares and burdens, I often find myself wanting to be a teeny bit like Pippi, and wishing my children to be a little like her, with her boundless optimism and disdain of rules. This proves even truer as our family grows and I need to apply more and more creativity to get through a day in one piece. As of now, we are expecting our fourth baby, apparently a girl, around the end of March, and I know our lives are going to be even more of a happy mess than they are today.

‘All the children sat looking at Pippi, who lay flat on the floor, drawing to her heart’s content. ‘But, Pippi,’ said the teacher impatiently, ‘why in the world aren’t you drawing on your paper?’

‘I filled that long ago. There isn’t room enough for my whole horse on that little snip of paper.’

Simple Living With Children

There’s just something about simple living and homesteading that chimes in especially well with home education. When a lot of your time is spent doing down-to-earth things which people have been doing for millennia, it’s so much easier for a child to jump in and participate, than if one’s life is segregated and chopped into many little high-techy cubicles. People of all ages enjoy doing fun and productive things such as planting seeds, gathering food, digging in the earth or taking care of animals.

Read more in my latest Mother Earth News post:

Some home economics is still taught in kindergartens and schools, though it went out of fashion – but even if there were a lot of home economics classes, the best place to learn things like that would still be at home, where cooking, sweeping the floors, sewing, mending, knitting and working in the garden occur as part of our day-to-day lives. A little child learns a lot simply by observing an apron-clad mother, and later by participating in simple tasks.

Not all on our own

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Reading this excellent post made me think about many things. In essence I agree; Me Time is often over-emphasized, over-rated and, worst of all, over-indulged, as in the notion that you are allowed to do almost anything that will make you “happy” or more comfortable.

However, it is true that motherhood can be draining. It is a joy, it is the greatest project of my life, but it is also hard, hard work 24/7. I will even venture to say that so far, things haven’t even really become easier as the children grow. The challenges are simply different. Sure, I get more sleep now than I did when I had newborns, and my day is more orderly, but frankly, breastfeeding and changing diapers was more… straightforward than handling some of the behavioral problems and educational choices we are facing now.

Before we reminisce about how our great-grandmothers did it all on their own and didn’t ask for any help or time off, I would like to step in and say I don’t believe it was the case at all. Childcare wasn’t the exclusive task of the mother. Our great-grandmothers lived in a much more supportive community, and often close to family who could offer some help. A woman of that time could, perhaps, see her mother on a daily basis; or perhaps she lived near her sister, who had children of the same age, and each of them could take a turn watching the little ones. Or if there was no family nearby, neighbors would often step into its place. I’m not saying it always happened, but it was common.

When my two eldest children were toddlers, I had basically two choices: either I stay home with them all day, every day, no breaks (my husband worked long hours) – or I put them in daycare and I’m away from them all day, every day. But I didn’t want or need to be away from my children all day; I only needed an occasional break to refresh me and provide some variety. So I always had them at home with me, for better or worse.

In the past, it was common to let young children play outside and explore on their own – such young children that today it would be considered criminal neglect. The outdoors were safer, and there was almost always some responsible adult outside at every hour of the day.

My great-grandmother used to have a maid. Not a live-in maid, but someone who came on a regular basis and helped around the house. You will say, “it may be so, but she didn’t have a washing machine.” That is true – however, according to my Grandma, the children wore the same clothes all week and only got clean ones for Shabbat. You can imagine how those clothes looked at the end of the week (there were five boys in that family!). Can you imagine not giving your child fresh clothes to wear every day, perhaps more than once a day? If my daughters get a little stain or spill on their clothes – and it happens often, as you can imagine – they start to wail and beg for a change, and sometimes I have to put my foot down, especially if it happens an hour before bath-time.

So what is my point? Feeling tired and drained is bad enough. Feeling guilty because you are tired and drained and you don’t think you are supposed to feel this way is far, far worse. It is perfectly normal to want to feel refreshed and rejuvenated by doing something different. This doesn’t always have to involve spending time away from your family – I have learned to say yes to my husband’s offers of little escapades in the middle of the week, even if there are dishes piled up in the sink.

I have learned to put my feet up in the middle of the day for a short while, and to lock the bedroom door and say, “Mommy is resting”. Usually this means only a few minutes of lying down, with or without a book, but sometimes I manage to steal a cat nap.

I have also learned to enjoy my children more, and to participate in their fun activities rather than frantically say, “oh, good, they are occupied. Now let’s proceed to the next thing on the to-do list.”

I know there are moms out there who are struggling; who live far away from any family, and in places where it is uncommon to rely on friends or neighbors. Who spend all day, every day with their children and are so exhausted that a day in the office may seem like heaven sometimes. What I would like to say that it is normal to feel tired. It is normal to want help. And if you live in the way many live these days – a relatively isolated nuclear family – your best and only source of help will probably be your husband.

Before you feel guilty (“he has been working all day!”), remember that a break can mean not only putting your feet up, but also simply doing something different from what you did all day. I used to be all of a “no, no, let me, I’ll do everything” person. But then I realized that after my husband comes home, or on weekends – after he has had time to eat and rest, and do some of his own stuff, of course – he is perfectly happy to take charge of some childcare and household tasks, and doesn’t see that as a burden. There is a novelty in that to him, because it’s a change from what he has been doing all day and all week.

Would you go into the kitchen late in the evening and start cooking? I wouldn’t, because by late evening I have seen enough of the kitchen for the day. But my husband is often inspired to cook or bake after he has come home from work, or on Fridays. For him, it’s recreation, not a chore. Also, often I’ll have tired, squabbling kids in the evening, but the moment there’s a knock on the door, they run swift as the wind to open and are so good and happy when they are around their father. Why? Because we all benefit from a change. The children, too.

I realize there are also single mothers (and often not by choice) out there. My heart truly goes out to them and I hope they, too, find the right healing balance for themselves and their children.