These are times of confusion and polarization regarding what sort of parenting children need. And life learning parents seem to be an easy target of criticism from all sides. Critics of non-school-based education who completely misunderstand what we’re doing claim we’re un-parents who are neglecting both our children and their educations. Feminists, on the other hand, often criticize us as being over-involved with our children, too “attached,” unable to cut the umbilical cord and sacrificing our own lives in the process. The reality, of course, is that the sort of hands-on parenting practiced by life learners is neither.
Over-involved parenting is sometimes known as “helicopter parenting” or, more gently (but I think disturbingly) identified as “concerted cultivation” by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Dr. Annette Lareau. This is where overachieving parents, in a misguided effort to prepare their children for educational and monetary success, over-program and hyper-control their children’s lives and learning. Paradoxically, by solving problems for their children, these parents end up robbing them of the opportunity to take initiative as well as responsibility for their mistakes and credit for their achievements—the very traits and skills that allow people to function successfully in rapidly changing circumstances. The passivity that’s fostered by the meddling mode of parenting and educating actually robs children of self-respect and self-knowledge.
Life learning parents, on the other hand, provide children with time to muddle…opportunities to explore, to investigate their questions and ideas, to figure things out, to make connections, get ideas and test them, take risks, make mistakes, and try again. Although this might, to the casual observer, look like un-parenting, it’s actually the opposite.
Muddling requires the gift of time and space (both physical and psychological). It also requires that parents learn the difference between caregiving and meddling. This sort of parenting has also been called “slow parenting” by author Carl Honoré.
As well as avoiding schools and organized commercial opportunities like tutoring and lessons, it involves respecting and trusting children, talking with them, enriching the environment by providing opportunities for interaction with people and things, sharing and modelling learning, supporting the risk- and mistake-making processes, and helping celebrate satisfying accomplishments. It means providing the time for children to investigate their own ideas, and being a flexible and patient observer of a process that is not particularly sequential or organized. As Naomi Aldort notes, aside from being an effective active learning process, aware parenting nurtures children’s self-esteem, confidence, self-reliance, creativity, and decision-making abilities.
Unfortunately, there are many high energy helicopters out there. And I fear that, for many—women especially—it has become a career substitute because in our culture “just” being at home with our kids isn’t enough. As one mom quoted in an article by Kelly Hogaboom said, “I don’t want to teach my kids that once they become parents they have to put their life on hold for twenty years!” How tragic that kids are so undervalued and that nurturing their growth means so little.