As I’ve continued to think about how best to present what follows, I have had immense difficulty containing what really is a fairly encompassing look at how we live our entire family life. As I pointed out in the first part of the current discourse, the commitment to unschool (and to a lesser degree, homeschool) is a whole life commitment. In order to make the important role of parent-teacher-guide as engaging and as powerful as is best for unschooling, the parents must live their lives toward it everyday, ideally from the beginning of each child’s life through all of the interactions that follow. At present, though, the bottom line is that there is so much to discuss in our approach to unschooling that I already see a “pt III” to this discussion in our shared future…
To pick up where we left off the other day, and to address some of the questions I ‘ve already been getting, let’s return to the transitional period of the “4th trimester”, those 3 months immediately following birth. I mentioned that we consider this the pouch period, and that we kept lights and sounds low, receiving blankets tightly swaddled, and energy levels just above snoring. I also mentioned that we made time for warm, snuggly, skin-to-skin contact between both parents and baby. We also began in this period, and continued for quite some time afterward, to carry each baby around. Not in one of those carseat carriers, and not in an armored stroller, but strapped to our bodies in all manner of ways. We carried them for as much of our waking day as possible in those first months, even while they slept, just as if they were in a postpartum marsupial’s pouch, sleeping, nursing,and cooing as Mom proceeds through her normal (neurologically stimulating for baby) movements.
There’s really all kinds of great baby-on-body carriers, and during the course of raising these three girls, we’ve tried almost all of them. And though we do have our own favorites, I think any carrier that puts the baby’s body on yours is better than any carrier that doesn’t. Our girls have been carried in slings, Baby Bjorns, Snuggli packs, Mobi Wraps, Peruvian blankets (worn on the back), Kelty kid backpacks (for hiking, etc.), and Ergo Packs. Overall, I think a front carrier that the baby can nurse in, and turn around to face outward as well, is the best single option. Slings and wraps work well for this (once you figure out all the different ways that the baby can ride in them) and are by far the coziest for baby, but slings can make one shoulder very tired (and tweak my broad-shouldered back immensely) especially as the baby gets bigger. Ergo Packs are versatile (worn on either front or back of parent), easier on the back, and still don’t take up much room when folded up. Unlike other “packs”, they tend to be a little cozier for younger babies (especially with the insert), but do not have an option for the baby to ride on your front and face out — which can be a deal-breaker for a lot of kids.
With Echo, Natalie and I used a sling right away, then a Mobi Wrap, then the Ergo and have stuck with that pretty exclusively since then. And as I’ve mentioned before, we intended with Echo to “get more Cro-Magnon with it”, so we deferred the vast majority of the time to Natalie for carrying Echo. I think that this is one of those child/parent-specific things that each family has to balance, and find the path most appropriate for them, though. As a “sensitive new-age papa”, I’ve really explored the gambit of early papa-hood methodology, both in terms of my physical involvement and specifically with respect to baby-carrying. With Bella, I think I worked too arduously to be “an equal parent”, and a surrogate stand-in for Mom whenever possible, and even lot’s of times when it wasn’t what I would now consider “possible”. Part of that was due to my eagerness to be fully involved and helpful and connected as a male parent, and part of that was due to the particular situation in which our family was living at the time, as well as the social dynamic of the family. With Xi, her mother and I were co-parenting from the beginning, so when I had baby Xi with me, there was no other parent in the room but me. And since I very much wanted to give her everything I could, I carried Xi everywhere we went, as much as I could, even when it was all together inconvenient. If I had it to do over again, I probably would do it pretty much the same, given the circumstances with each, and I am glad for the level of bonding that each experience has afforded me with each of my daughters. However, I think with Echo, by deferring to a more biologically natural arrangement, we afforded her more and even better opportunities for early brain development.
As I intimated above, the balance of individual parental involvement is a family-specific balance. What works for your family will likely be as unique as the members of your family. Nevertheless, I believe biology leans heavily in favor of making the mother the primary infant caregiver, especially during moments of infant stress, and I think that the evidence for this can be seen in the myriad ways the mother’s body responds and changes in consideration of the infant. And in honour of that biology, Natalie and I decided before Echo came that we would first firmly establish the bond that Echo had with her home planet of Mama, and when that was set, and she signaled readiness, then we would expand her bonding horizons. That has worked wonderfully for us, and more importantly, I think, wonderfully for Echo as well. I will say that it has been harder for me being the “benched” parent a lot thus far with Echo, waiting on the sidelines for the right opportunities to help her — and often helping Natalie instead (in addition to helping the other girls more, of course).
In terms of further bonding, we made some other very specific choices. I didn’t mention it yet, but all three girls nursed exclusively. I think you can certainly unschool even if you don’t breastfeed, but I think there are unparalleled opportunities for bonding and brain development in nursing, not to mention overall health, that make unschooling exponentially easier than it would be without. As newborns, the immune system is totally passive and nursing offers baby all of the mother’s antibodies, and has been shown to reduce the likelihood of the child developing allergies (as compared to formula feeding which can be hard on the baby’s digestive system in part because infants don’t produce digestive acid for the first 3 months). The health and immunity boost from nursing and the digestive simplicity of breast milk, keeps the baby’s body and brain stress down, leaving both more open to continued grow and development. The process of nursing, and the systematic mother-child bonding that occurs with it, release serotonin in both mother and baby (and breast milk provides the baby with copious amounts of the amino acid tryptophan to make more serotonin), which regulates positive mood, the sensation of security, circadian rhythms, growth, and digestion, among other vital processes of the body. Breastfeeding has also been shown to positively effect children’s general cognitive development, both in the actual drinking of the milk and in the neurologically stimulating process of the feeding, making it another vital choice for powerful education (home or anywhere). So, just to be clear, breastfeeding not only gives the babies body all it needs to build brain and body, keep healthy, happy and secure feeling, but also provides for some of the best bonding you can do with an infant. Papas can get in on this a little more if Mom is willing to pump some of that magic milk or hand-off the baby for burping, but otherwise, Papas have to be confident that they’re helping enough just by assisting Mom and baby in doing their thing with nursing.
Another bonding, and early education, technique we’ve used with all three of our girls is sign language. We’ve used American Sign Language (ASL) because it’s an actual language, unlike Baby Signs, but you could probably use anything as long as you were consistent. In our home, we start very early, making the signs for “nurse” (we use “milk”), “I love you”, “sleep”, and then move on to “change your diaper?” or “bathroom?” or “pee?”, and “food”, “Mama”, “Papa”, “sister”, etc. Before they could talk, all three girls could communicate almost anything they needed with Sign. As it turns out, Echo got the most comprehensive signed linguistic system, but Bella got three episodes of ASL study, and Xi two, from helping the younger sister(s) so they actually got a leg up on this one. Sign Language is an important choice for motor skill, neural, and cognitive development; teaching the idea of language and communication (earlier than kids who don’t learn to sign); avoiding 2 year-old communication frustration; teaching kids that we are interested in giving and receiving communications to/from them; and teaching speech (in part because parents who teach their kids Sign also spend more time talking to their babies while reinforcing signs). All of the reasons for using, and benefits of, Sign Language also mean deeper, longer parent-child bonding, greater identification with the parent as teacher, and a refinement of the model-mimic function that is so important for the child’s learning.
Another bonding and development-enhancing choice we made with Echo was to use Elimination Communication with her. EC was one of the few areas of parenting that was totally uncharted for us until we had Echo. But even as start-stop novices, we actually existed with a baby without diapers aaaaallllll day, every day from age 1 even though we hadn’t used it at all for a few months leading up to that. EC makes this list, for things that I think are not only helpful for parenting, but also for unschooling, though I know not many of you will be brave enough to endeavor to use it. Don’t worry, I don’t think it’s essential — but I know it’s helpful. For starters, aside from getting lucky by nursing and general deep bonding, there is no better way for a mother and father to hone their parental intuitions and baby-reading abilities than to go diaper-free. You also get an unparalleled sense of your baby’s physical routine which can tell you a lot about him. And you get yet another chance to talk to and otherwise communicate with your baby, and he with you. All of which stacks up rather well for continuing to cultivate the parent-child relationship, increase your child’s natural ability to learn, and develop the culture of exploration, discovery, and self-mastery on which you will both come to so heavily depend.
Another nonessential choice that we will never be without is Homeopathy. We began using it when Echo was suffering from terrible colic. We had great success treating that and a whole host of other family conditions through the last 3 years, and learned a great deal about Homeopathy in the process, solely because we happened to get involved with Dr. Mark Janikula ND, our own local genius. Without his tutelage, we probably wouldn’t have used Homeopathy nearly as much, and certainly not with as much attention to its intricacies and possibilities. As it is now, we sometimes treat the girls for symptoms as minor as being unusually surly, stoic, and lacking appetite for a few days, or having trouble sleeping, cracked lips, an unwillingness to discuss problems, and difficulty concentrating. Being able to treat health imbalances as they approach by virtue of symptoms this subtle (and yet, often, not so subtle), again means that both the body and brain endure less stress, and therefore, are more open to sense experience (see a theme here?). It also means, emotionally and physiologically, our children are just feeling better than they otherwise would — and better able, and more interested in, exploring their world.
The last choice I’ll share with you at present, is one I would call essential for both normal healthy development, and for converting the “empowered nervous system” we’ve created by everything above into a human submersible explorer running on a self-motivating motor. Of course there’s little to that conversion, in reality it’s what humans were born to do — explore, observe, absorb — why else would our sense organs be the first organs to function? But the self-motivating part, and the degree to which we challenge the child’s genius to invest itself in the process of exploration and discovery, and even the perceptual ability necessary for both is directly related to how much we can allow the child to involve herself in her earliest (and ongoing) explorations without judgment or valuation from us at all.
Initially, this means we let the baby explore without relying on “nonono” or “yucky” to dissuade her. We let her check out everything, over and over and over again. If there was something inappropriate for her exploration, we kept it out of her world as much as possible or assisted her in the safe discovery of as many of its properties as we could accommodate. All three girls ate dirt. Echo ate lots of it, repeatedly, for over a year, along with chalk, and grass and leaves, sticks, boogers, she even drank puddle water once or twice. Later on in the girls’ development, this same choice has led us to join in with their hard work and exploration and to celebrate their discoveries and success without praising them for doing what they are already enjoying and interested in doing. We have found, as Joseph Chilton Pearce suggests in The Magical Child that this simple choice (and challenging act!) has left all three girls more able to freely interact with the endless flow of ideas and information bombarding them constantly than many of their peers. They also continue to be more motivated and more confident in exploring and trying new things, and more reliant on themselves for gauging their progress and achievement.
And that’s where I’ll let you go for the day, friends. One more post and you’ll know pretty much everything there is to know about us… Until then.