Mother Asks What to Do About Her “Dreamer” Son

A mother once asked me for advice on what to do about her son Randy, who has very big dreams, plans, and expectations.  (One of his plans was to build a raft.)  This is my response to those who have children that are very big dreamers:

Hm, what to do about your big dreamer whose ideas seem so impractical. Yes, I do have an idea. Don’t you be the one to show him his impracticality. Let natural consequences work for you. Let him come to the problems and solve them with your help or realize they can’t be solved. You will relieve yourself of a great deal of pressure. Both of you, actually. I’d recommend the books, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk and Between Parent and Child. The gist of those books is that the parent is the child’s advocate. Let him learn his hard knocks in the world and you be his safe place to fall. No idea is impossible. He might end up with a very primitive raft or he may come up with some way to make it happen that you couldn’t see or he may realize it can’t be done. But it won’t be you standing in his way. It’ll be you doing your best to help him find a way, without protecting him from reality. I don’t mean you’d pay for materials, for example. But maybe he wants to try to sell something at school to earn the money. Jordan and I made lollipops and he sold them in his dad’s retail store for extra money. But I had his first deduct the cost of materials and of my labor so he’d know his true profit.

I would focus on looking for opportunities for him to help in grown up ways and to dream with him on his big ideas.

Maybe you worry that you will have to make it happen in the end — like how you were willing to go along on the raft as long as you thought he wasn’t serious. And then it was when YOU saw the barriers. Of course you will see these sooner than he does. But if you let him find them out for himself, you are no longer the bringer of the bad news. Life will teach him those lessons and in a more real way. And who knows? he might surprise you with clever ideas of how to make his ideas happen. Maybe that’s his gift. Only by letting him try will you (both) know.

A little while later, I got a response from the child in question’s mother:
I am so glad you gave me that advice on how to handle Randy’s big dreams. He recently abandoned his previous raft idea and decided he wanted to build a raft out of styrofoam scraps he got at a friend’s house. I withheld my “reasons why that won’t work” and instead found myself saying, “How can I help?” Well, he managed to fasten some wood to the styrofoam, lash it together with string and straps (that’s the part I helped with – he did almost the whole thing himself and was still in charge of my part.) When it was all ready we packed it in the van and took it to a stream about 15 minutes away. Randy wore his swimsuit just in case, even though it was only 50 degrees out, and of course a life vest since the water was a little deep in parts – and went down the stream on that raft! He taped on cookies for a snack (I didn’t tell him they’d get all wet, which they did, but he was OK with that because I let him try.) He was so proud, and we took his picture. Surprisingly, the raft held up until he stepped on it to climb out, and it broke in half. But he did get his rafting trip on his own raft, and his thoughts weren’t “Oh no, my raft broke,” but “What can I do different next time.” So I thank you for that wonderful experience. His current project is trying to make his Yerf dog (kind of like a “bigwheel” for big kids) fly. He’s rigged up a chain of sorts between the front and back wheels with the intention that if he pedals fast enough, this chain will transfer energy into 2 arrows he’s taped together like helicopter blades, and it will lift him up. Now if that works, I’ll be sure to call the newspaper! But we are having fun working on it together. He wants to go on-line next to see if there is any info on making bikes fly…..

Same mother a season later: It’s a snow day today, and Randy built an “ice rink” in our back yard – George was discouraging him but I remembered the incident with the raft so decided just to let it go where it would. He dug out the surface in the snow, put a tarp down and banked the sides. Then there it sat for about a week until yesterday when we noticed it was filling with rain water. We knew it would be freezing over night so we (Randy and I) went out a filled tubs with water to dump in the area. As we were doing this (and I was feeling it in my back, although honestly having fun with it) Randy asked if it brought back childhood memories, since Dad built us an ice rink every year when I was little. I replied, yes, but he used the hose. Then we just looked at each other and laughed – of course – the hose! So we hooked it up and it was much easier. It will be another fond memory and I’m so glad you gave me that advice those years ago about letting kids find their own limits, not set them for them.

Same mother very recently, whose son is now 18:  Randy  is working on designing a t-shirt and hopes to become an overnight millionaire with it. I’ve brought up having a business plan, maybe taking a “how to start a business” class at the community college, but he’s hoping to have a couple famous people wear his shirt and have business take off from there. I’m available if he needs help (which he hasn’t asked for, but I let him know to ask if he needed it) but I’m not being a naysayer or putting up roadblocks. Who knows – Randy does seem to have that good luck streak. You’ve given me lots of good advice over the years, and the one that has really hit home was to let the kids run with it and not be their obstacle – I keep a picture of Randy on his homemade raft with that silly grin on his face up in my room and look at it every day as a reminder.

Coping with Doubts

(The following was a letter sent to Growing Without Schooling Newsletter that I thought I would share with you.)
Dear GWS,
I truly believe, though, that it is the parent who sets the tone and that once the parent has handled his/her own doubts, the child’s dwindle.  My doubts tend to surface toward the end of the “school year” when I must admit that I never did get around to most of the wonderful projects and learning activities that I envisioned in September.  Then I wonder whether I am ruining my son’s life by not making sure he knows what he ought to know. These doubts surface other times of the year, too.  But because I’ve read and re-read John Holt, GWS and other supportive literature and I’ve discussed these issues alot with other “unschoolers”, my doubts are short-lived and I once again am confident.  This problem never becomes an issue for my son, though sometimes I am prompted to attempt some sort of schoolish pursuit for a while and my son bears with me on this for a short time before he helps set me back on course.

We weathered the storm of all my son’s friends going off to school and them telling him he should go to.  I arrived at a standard patter:  first I’d ask them if they liked school.  Only about 20% said yes, so I’d ask them which they like better, school or vacation.  I’m sure the answer to that one is obvious to GWS readers.  So my son saw that all the apparent enthusiasm for school was just hype.  We also played school–I’d make him a lunch, then I’d put on a hat and become the bus driver and would “drive him to school”  (I’d drive around the block).  Then I’d be the teacher and would call roll.  We’d do classes, have recess, and such. About 3 or 4 days of this at the beginning of his kindergarten and first grade years, and he’d feel he wasn’t missing anything and would bore of the game and we’d be back to living real life again.

As time went on, my son’s schooled peers became thoroughly indoctrinated into the idea that “you won’t learn anything and you’ll never get a job, if you don’t go to school”.  Some parents even tried to convince JP (my mom’s nickname for our son) of this.  But I just kept on top of it with my own “indoctrination” program–I’d point out to JP the things that he knew that the other kids didn’t know.  Then when he landed his first job at an antique store, sorting marbles for minimum wage, at the ripe old age of 9, he knew for sure that the job issue was hype, too.

Our society has a very extensive advertising campaign on the “importance” of school so I’ve also been very active at promoting homeschooling to my son and at pointing out ways in which he is lucky because he does it.  When we’re having a great time at the beach in the middle of the day, I’ll say “Gee, you could be in school right now”.  When there’s alot of kids at our house because their mothers don’t want the gang at their houses, I point out how lucky JP is that his mom loves having him around all the time. When we drive by a school and the kids are inside, I mention how lucky JP is that he isn’t cooped up in a classroom, sitting at a desk.  If the kids are on the playground, I make a comment about their “token” 20 minutes outside, probably spent teasing each other.  When he asks me some deeply felt question and we have a great conversation about it, I point out that he’d not have been allowed to ask that question in school.

Occasionally JP is put on the spot because he doesn’t really read yet.  Once a friend invited him to church, and we both thought it would be a good experience.  It turned out that they went to Sunday school and had to write essays.  Of course, JP was completely embarrassed by the fact that the teacher had to write everything for him, even though he’s theoretically in 4th grade.  This comes up at other times, too, and it is a difficult situation for JP to deal with.  But because I have no serious doubts about the path we’re on, I don’t get stuck in this problem.  After all, it’s tough for kids to deal with any ways in which they are different from the other kids.  If it weren’t homeschooling, it would be something else.  My confidence helps JP through these rough times even though he really doesn’t know how to handle other people’s questions.  For example, today he was concerned about going to a birthday party because he thought the adults might ask him what school he goes to.  Once they heard he was homeschooled, he thought they’d then ask him to read some words to see if homeschooling works.  Of course, that’s unlikely, but it is possible.  I made some suggestions: he could ignore them or ask them why they wanted to know, for example.  But he pointed out it’s not especially realistic to expect a kid to stand up to an adult like that.  I don’t have any answers for him except to tell him that he’ll run into things like this all his life, where he has to choose to stand up for his believes or figure out some way to avoid confrontation over them.  He seemed satisfied with this and went off to the party and had no problems.

I believe that we make problems for ourselves when we think we can come up with answers for our kids that will make everything ok for them.  If we look at our own selves, we can see that we have ALOT to learn yet.  I think that when we accept that about ourselves, we demonstrate to our kids that problems and difficulties don’t mean there’s anything wrong.  They just mean we have more to learn.  And when we let our children know that we trust them to come up with their own solutions, we teach them to trust their own inner voices.  Heck, I’ve often found that my son’s solutions are as good or better than mine. And when we take the viewpoint that we’re all learners and we can each learn from the other, the pressure is no longer on the parent to know and solve everything…and without the pressure, thankfully, we seem to know more and come up with better solutions.

I started a support group in my area and have developed a terrific group of friends for myself and my son as a result.  And the more he reads GWS, the more he’ll feel kinship with those who write in and the many others who subscribe.  There are many of us pulling for him!

Parent Need for Stimulation

Working parents always talk about how they need the “stimulation” of adults and how kids require too much attention.

As a full-time home-manager-mother, I’ve found kids to be wonderfully stimulating and that they return many times over the attention they’re given. I wouldn’t want to spend my days inside an office dealing with computer screens, papers and phones, talking about “high powered” subjects like the bottom line or products or patients or competitors. I much prefer to be with my son, hand-in-hand, outdoors, looking at bugs and trees and sunsets and passing showers chased by rainbows, discussing why clouds have flat bottoms and whether there’s life elsewhere in the universe and learning about love and what is life really all about.

I can fit in reading, writing, conversation and community work, but I’ve found that my relationships within the family are by far my most satisfying experiences. The secret to job fulfillment is, I think, to surrender or, as Mother Teresa put it, “Do small things with great love.”

Father Against Homeschooling

From a Father:
A lot has been going on with me emotionally lately – where to start?  I guess it’s started with my renewed desire to consider homeschooling again.  I get so frustrated trying to go through Jason’s homework with him late at night (which seems to be the only time we can manage to sit down and do it, because I want him to be able to decompress when he gets home, then it’s dinnertime).  I know it could be different.  It makes me ache inside to know that he is developing an intense dislike of learning and reading because it’s things we (through school) “make” him do.  I have visions (Al calls them fantasies) of Jason working one-on-one with me and opening up that eagerness to learn that I get a glimpse of every now and then (and usually it is when we are talking about something completely unrelated to what he’s doing in school).  I finally managed to have a conversation with Al about his concerns.  It was so hard for me to just listen without saying “But…” to each thing he said (and I didn’t always refrain).  I thought financial would be the only major one, but it wasn’t.  He says he thinks Jason can learn better from a teacher than from a Mom (which made me scream inside) because of the attitude thing, that he doesn’t listen to me as well as he listens to his teacher. (It’s true Jason has more of a fear of disrespecting the teacher than he does of disrespecting me, but I always thought the positive side of that is that he knows he can be himself with me and I won’t stop loving him).  Al feels Jason needs to learn to function in the “real world” and not be “sheltered’ at home.  He feels what I call real-life learning (an example I gave was for Al to teach Jason how to manage his own bank account or buy and follow a stock) isn’t a “real education”.  He says Jason is unfocussed and it would just be frustrating for me to try to get him to do what he needed to do (which of course my response is that the reason he is unfocussed and frustrated with school now is because he’s locked into a box in the way he is taught).  As says he thinks I would be more fulfilled doing what I’m doing (which also made me seethe – who is he to say what would fulfill me?). Al knows he doesn’t have the patience to teach, and when I said he has misconceptions about teaching – it’s not just sitting with a book – he can take him fishing to teach him fish anatomy instead of looking at a picture in a book! – he said that’s not “real education” (I can feel your feelings even as you read this because they’re probably the same as mine….).  He also worried about socialization (which is the least of my worries), and that if Jason is having trouble with other kids at school (he is a little – he feels he gets left out a lot) then he just needs to learn to deal with it because he’ll have to when he’s an adult.  Anyway, you can imagine how the conversation went, and I’m not sure I want to talk to him at all about it anymore.  He’s got his mind so made up (and so do I!).  If you have any stats about how well homeschoolers do academically (I know I’ve seen them but don’t have them handy), and that they do just fine (or better) in the “real world” (ironically, homeschooling is more in the real world than sitting in a classroom, but Al doesn’t see it that way), I’d appreciate it.  The thing that is so frustrating though, is that I think I can talk til I’m blue in the face (and believe me, I have), but Al seems un-moveable.  I even said I’d wait until Jason graduated from 6th grade but he still isn’t open to it.  And in our relationship, Al usually wins.  My heart aches for Jason and I feel powerless.  I feel I have a responsibility to Jason, but having an intact marriage is also beneficial to him. Maybe I need to just find a way to “homeschool” in between his school hours – the thing is there just isn’t much time.

My Response:
Oh, I feel for you.   I know the truth of everything you are trying to get Al to see and he is so stuck in society’s party line.  It’s like he’s 20 years behind the times because what he’s saying is what people said here.  I had similar dire warnings from my parents and brothers, especially Rusty, who was a history teacher, even our son’s friends — but I didn’t have to live with them so could do it my way.  He’d never have any friends and never get a job, they warned.  The more they saw the results, the more they came around and in the end, each said in so many words that home schooling was the right way for us.

I can get you some articles on socialization, how peers socializing each other is exactly the wrong way to go about it and is what makes schools so anti-social.  Teasing, over-sexed, violent, crude language, consumerism, competition, anti-adult attitudes, cliques, gossip, rampant drugs — that’s socialization in the schools, even good private schools, Catholic schools, etc.  At home?  Cooperation, love, working together, all-in-it-together, compassion, lots of real communication, respect, adults and kids enjoying each other, adventures out in the world with lots of different kinds of people, but guided by a loving mother or father.  Thumper gets along with and feels comfortable with everyone, any age, sex, good kids, bad kids, homeless and people with altitude.  Comes from spending his school days with such a wide variety of people.

Academically it’s a bit harder as there’s really no way to test it.  Our son studied hard for less than a year and took an entrance test to high school and tested as a graduate.  He went in to school and got all A’s (one B — because he was sloppy on some really stupid busy work in auto shop).  But it was so easy for him to get those grades he was bored.  And so what if he got all A’s — what is the point of education?  To pass tests or to assist in living a meaningful, authentic life?

Love of learning?  I don’t know any of our son’s schooled friends who read anything they don’t have to.  He reads fiction and non-fiction and is a life-long-learner.

Real world?  What is real world about spending your days going from room to room each hour with all people of your  exact age?  Only prison is like that.

But no matter how many facts we give Al, I don’t think it’ll nudge him one bit.  There’s a maxim that “If the problem won’t resolve, that’s not the actual problem.”  And in a book on raising teens, “When attitudes are hostile, facts are unconvincing.”  He is so stuck in a false view of home schooling, a subject in which he has no personal experience and just isn’t open to the facts.

Here’s what I suggest we try:

* let him spend some time with our son when we visit in June (more about our itinerary later).
*  ask Al about what sort of future does he want for Jason.  Does he want him working for someone else in a job (school is good at preparing kids to be followers).  Does he want him to pursue financial goals at the expense of personal fulfillment?  (school can be better for that, too.  How many stories do we hear of lawyers and business people etc. realizing they had been wasting their lives in meaningless work so they quit and do what they’d always wanted to do)  Or would he like Jason to be doing what he loved and happy, if not wealthy.
*  ask Al about his own dreams for himself as a kid — is he “following his bliss?”  (If not, why not?  How does school fit into this?)
* ask him what he is afraid will happen if Jason is home schooled.  What does he think bad will happen to Jason?  To Al?  To the family?  To his marriage?  To his image with his peers.  Why does he think this will happen.

Ask these out of curiosity, without any hint of trying to change his mind about any of this, really, honestly trying to just understand his views and why he has them,   Reflective listen (“If I get you right, you are saying _____.  Is that right?”).  Really listen carefully, like he’s a patient with a mysterious disease and you’re looking for clues.   It may be some kind of power thing, it may be that he feels his lifestyle is being threatened..  It may be that he’s scared he will have to go do a job he doesn’t want to do.  Maybe he has the same fears my family had about friends and jobs.  Maybe it has to do with his views of men and women in society.  Or fears his son will become a sissy being with his mother so much.  (I wouldn’t suggest any of these to him though you might ask questions that lead to these answers)  But I think he needs to feel really, really safe to express how he really feels.   Then maybe we can find the real problem and figure out what to do about it.  It may have nothing whatsoever to do with school or Jason.

The real trick is to put zero of your own opinions or objections into it.  If he says something really off the wall like home schooled kids grow up to be social misfits, rather than try to counter it, say something like, “Do you really believe that?”  and “How did you come to that conclusion?”  Try to understand why he thinks this way.

Should you decide to accept this mission (ha, ha, a bit of a joke on that old TV program, “Mission Impossible” — remember that?), your job would be to come away with a lot of his ideas and having given him none of yours.  Take a few days to sort out what he’s said.  Clarify what you find you still don’t understand.  Don’t challenge him at all.  Make sure he feels safe enough to say what he really feels.  Then let’s see what you find out.  Maybe go into the conversation with a mantra like “He’s my patient.  I will be patient.  I will do everything I can to understand him.”  Then just think “Patient” when you are tempted to make a point.  Something like that.  Take a break if you find yourself riled up at all.  This will work best if you can stay detached and have no agenda except to understand him.  It’s ok if he knows what you are trying to do.  After all, you are trying to get to a win-win and this is the first step:  seeing what “win” or goal he’s going towards and why he feels home schooling thwarts that.

Try to understand rather than be understood.  For now.

Dyslexic Child Can’t Keep Up

A distressed mother wrote:

Hope this letter finds you well. I’m writing concerning my little daughter Holly. She is 8 years old and is of the age to be in 2nd grade. I pulled her out of school last year because, at the end of 1st grade, she was unable to read. Although the school she attended wasn’t standards based, she wasn’t ready to go on with her age group and I didn’t want her to fail.

I’ve worked with her this year (since September) and she has made some progress in her reading. I’m concerned tho’ because it isn’t what would be considered an entire year of school work. I would say that we have finished about a half years worth of what would be considered 1st grade work….and its been a struggle every day. In addition, her writing is very primitive. Most of her letters are reversed, poorly formed, and she has trouble distinguishing between b, d, u, a, m, and n. Math is difficult, too. We’ve made about the same amount of progress in the 1st grade math book. My first reaction is that she has dyslexia and I want to have her tested and send her to Assets School. $15,000. a year now…ugggg. But, maybe she just is a bit immature.

I remembered you told me that your son didn’t read until he was 12. How did you teach him when he couldn’t read? How did you comply with the DOE’s request for a report/testing. Do you wish you would have been more traditional in your teaching method or are you happy? Do you think I should have her tested for dyslexia? Is it possible to get a false positive? Does immaturity test as dyslexia, and with the right learning style/ time it corrects itself? If she is dyslexic is it possible to homeschool her?
One of my friends, who is a traditionalist, insists I get help for her–she says that without help she will only grow more resistant and fall farther and farther behind. I don’t know….even if she is dyslexic, the Assets remedy seems almost worse that the problem.
Thanks so much for listening.

Ah, how many phone calls I get each year with questions similar to yours.

The answer to your first question, “How did I teach him when he couldn’t read?” is perhaps the answer to all your questions. Check out my book, Homeschooling: Why and How at Amazon or in your state library as many states have copies. The section ”Our Bodyboarding and Rollerblading Curriculum” is the answer to that question but I’ll address the others specifically.

Regarding “learning disabilities,” read the blog on my website The Child Who Hates Math. Besides what Ms. Vos Savant says, there is a book, The Magic Feather, that I’ve only scanned but seems right on. My personal view on all this is that we all reverse letters, confuse the mirror image letters and have other problems at the start of reading. And I’ve observed these tend to just take care of themselves with time and enough exposure to books. Kind of like remembering someone’s name — some people remember the name after hearing it once, some people have to have repeated contact with the person. But if we see them really often, we remember.

I’m also reminded of the book, The Child Under Six. He talks about behaviors that are “naughty but nice.” These are the age-appropriate behaviors like how a 2 year old won’t share that whether you try to teach, cajole, coerce, bribe, or punish, the behavior changes when the child grows older. Parents take credit for the change but it would have happened anyway. I feel this is the same with the “professionals” who work with “learning disabled” kids — they take credit for changing what the child simply matured out of. I put “learning disabled” in quotes because I don’t believe in the term nor in “dyslexic” as a label. We don’t label adults when they get a name wrong. Why do we insist on labeling children? Some kids are good at math, some are artists, some are athletes, some are poets. Some are not good at these things….just like adults. We expect children to conform to some adult-created standard of when they are supposed to be good at certain things. It’s our fears, that our children will be doomed if they don’t catch up on this or that by a particular grade in school. I’ll bet I know a lot more about nutrition than you do but you aren’t worried about catching up with me. (And I learned everything I know about nutrition since graduating from college).

As for the testing rule in the homeschool laws, read the article on-line about the laws at the above site. For 3rd grade, I submitted a video of things we did. For reading, I showed me reading to our son and the intelligent questions he asked. (I taped us for about 3 hours and edited it down to the parts that showed he was involved). I think for 5th grade I submitted some letters from people who knew him. He never took any kind of test until he was 15 and wanted to try out school and had to take a placement test. I had never pushed academics on him and he was far behind his peers. But when he decided he himself wanted to take the test and do well, he pushed me! He studied hard for about 4 months and when he took the test (math and reading), he tested grade 12.5! So Holly has lots of time to catch up. And in high school, he took hard classes like 11th grade history and Japanese and he got all A’s except a B in auto shop because his notebook was sloppy. He couldn’t see the sense of copying stuff like sizes of bolts into a notebook when he could just look it up in a book, so he didn’t take the notebook seriously.

As for our satisfaction with our approach, yes, we are very glad we took the approach we did. Our son is an excellent writer, a decent speller (better than his dad who was one semester short of graduating UH), enjoys reading, mostly non-fiction (unlike his peers who seem to have an aversion to reading). The dire warnings of him “never getting a job” have somewhat come true — he is self employed and makes very good money as owner of HI Focused Cinematography.
Of course, we all have times of doubting our approaches. Only the most arrogant never doubt themselves. Another piece I wrote might be helpful on this, I, too, Cry in the Night. But as time goes by, I doubt less and less. He is somewhat driven to succeed but I know that I am still not God of his destiny. I can’t say this or that about him is because I did this or that. I just know that I am proud of the person he is and have 100% confidence in his ability to pursue and achieve most of his goals.

Your friend who cautions about Holly becoming “more resistant” is so typical of adults in our society. We have this arrogant view that we know best for our children (and maybe for everyone else, too). We try to make our kids learn what we feel they need to know when how can we know what the world they will eventually live in will be like? And what about the child’s inner gifts, her, for lack of a better word, destiny? It’s by finding out what the child is inner-driven to do that we discover that child’s unique gifts, those things that will give her fulfillment and pleasure in life and will be the biggest contribution to the world.

I feel that so much of my homeschooling and parenting was as much a lesson for me — to unlearn the false lessons passed on in our society. Things like how if you listen to and respond to a child’s communication, you will “spoil” her. If they don’t learn such and such by such and such grade, they’ll never catch up to their peers. We all must be good at everything. Children should live away from their parents when they are adults. So many things we’ve been instilled with just turn out to be false.

I hope this helps.

Doesn’t want to help with chores…

The kid who doesn’t help with household chores:  the key is that children know that they are an important part of the family.  We take care of our own.  Let the child know that he/she is contributed to because of his/her value to the family.  Likewise the child is expected to contribute to the family.  This is not tied to allowance or any other reward.  It is just what people in a committed group do.  The second piece is to help the child with seeing what needs to be done that he/she is capable of doing and fits with his/her schedule and preferences.  While we all do things we don’t love doing, adults have some measure of choice in which chores they do according to what they enjoy and are good at.  Kids should have the same options.