This article was written for the German parenting magazine Unerzogen and appeared there in their fall 2013 issue as Bessere Partner werden. They used photos other than what I sent to go with it. The photos below were taken by Joyce Fetteroll and are used with her permission.
There is some very bad advice going around, and a lot of divorce. Negative suggestions come from all directions. Unrealistic expectations abound. They're hard to ignore.
By accident, without knowing it would happen, after years of unschooling and writing about unschooling and helping others understand unschooling, something happened. I began to hear that people's marriages were improving.
At first I thought it was simply pride and satisfaction in a difficult job accomplished together as a couple. I thought that any parent will be grateful to someone who is very sweet to his or her children. And succeeding at a project that takes years becomes a bonding experience. Happy memories are good glue.
After a few more years and more reports of marriage improvements, changes of heart, and even (sometimes) better relationships with ex-spouses, I started to collect those stories, and to look more closely at why so many were reporting them.
Before I go further, I want to say that Germany is not, in this decade, known for tolerance of alternative education. But even if a child is in school, if the parents are consciously moving toward being gentle and supportive of the child's interests and individuality, many of these benefits can still be approached.
Now I will go back to writing about unschooling, as the families discovering these patterns had children out of school, and were focused on learning in natural ways from the world around them.
The best unschooling parents aim to avoid punishments and shaming. They try to facilitate learning and joy, peace and happiness. They slowly and incrementally learn to make choices themselves and soon they can better assist their children in learning to make thoughtful choices. They try to nurture their children by creating a safe place, and time and space for them to play, to explore and to grow up whole and undamaged. My husband said, when asked what we hoped to accomplish by unschooling, "We wanted our children to become thoughtful, intelligent, undamaged adults." (—Keith Dodd). Both my husband and I saw damage in ourselves from our childhoods. Could we identify those things and avoid them in our children's lives? It was a noble experiment.
We began moving from attachment parenting to unschooling, one child at a time, when our oldest turned five, in 1991. Being with our children in direct and mindful ways made us kinder, gentler and more accepting. We were more playful and full of wonder, as we saw the world through their eyes.
Our children are grown now, and though I can't say they have no memories of frustration or of feeling crowded by siblings, they are poised and confident adults.
Through the intervening years, I was in communication with many hundreds of unschoolers, some for a season, and some longitudinally as their children grew up, and they stayed in the discussions to help others, too.
Here is what I know now that I did not know in 1991, when I started: Learning to live better with children makes one a better person. Being patient with a child creates more patience. Being kind to a child makes one a kinder person.
When it starts to become a habit for a parent to consider peace, safety, acceptance, choices, service and gratitude in everyday decision making, parenting gradually becomes easier.
Just as one can move incrementally toward being the kind of parent one can be proud to be, it is possible to become a better spouse or partner.
Colleen Prieto wrote recently, "For me I think the biggest applications of unschooling in terms of my marriage are the ideas of embracing and supporting other people's passions and interests—not just my child's, but my husband's too. And accepting people for who they are, not trying or wanting to change them or 'fix' them. Valuing everyone in our family for who they are and working together to meet everyone's needs. Unschooling is good for marriages."
I can't share all that I know in one article, but I hope this will be enough to help each reader raise the level of peace and affection in one relationship, or more, over the next year or two.
Change takes time. Don't send the bill. Don't "be nice" for two months and then say "I was nice and you weren't any nicer to me!" Be nice because being nice is better than not being nice. Do it for yourself and your children.
When you choose to say something or to wait, think of which will be more patient, or less critical. If you decide to say something, think of two things and choose the one that is closer to the person you want to be. If you choose not to say anything, consider your posture and demeanor. Choose to be gentle, and not to express negative emotion.
Sometimes choose quiet space, but not hateful silence.
With practice, it gets easier.
Moments, not days
Don't think of "bad days." One terrible moment doesn't condemn the rest of the day. One bad moment? Recover. Apologize, smile, be sweet, and make the next moment better.
It is possible for someone to see through a lens of negativity. Pessimism and cynicism can do irreversible damage to relationships, so dismantle those if you're living with them in you. In your choice making, in your moments, choose to see the good side of each coin. Decide to see what you have, with eyes of gratitude. See the abundance around you. Be abundantly supportive. Be someone another will be grateful for.
Occasionally look at photos. Not wall portraits—they become invisible to those who see them every day. Look through photos from when you were young and first in love. Remember the times when your partner was new to you, and you didn't know so much about his family and medical history or problems at work or failure to finish projects. Remember the spark of love between you, and remind yourself of the passion of youth. No one makes it to a 50th anniversary without patiently enduring some imperfect times on the way.
Alex Polikowsky, a Brazilian mom married to an American dairy farmer, wrote, "I make a conscious effort to see my husband in a good light and not focus on anything that he is not, or does not."
Parents get pretty good at noticing when a child is tired, hungry or frustrated. It's important to see those things in yourself. Keep your family safe from your more dangerous moods and states. If you're too hungry or too tired to be kind and safe, ask for help. Or admit you're feeling stressed, and be more careful. Don't use your mood as an excuse to be harsh or dangerous. Learn to do what you need to do to stay in a workable, safe zone.
"Only so many No's"
I have suggested to parents of infants to imagine that a child comes with a book of coupons for saying "No" 200 times (pick a number; I've said 300 before, too). That is how many times a parent can say "No," and the child really listen. So it's good not to use them all up in the first year or two, because the child won't hear you anymore. It's good to save a few dozen for when they're teens and it's crucial.
To extend that to marriage, how many hateful statements can a relationship endure? How many fights will crack the foundation? Keep hate out of your house. Only say helpful, supportive things.
Parents who wouldn't dream of telling a child he is stupid seem not to notice saying similar things to that child's other parent. Don't be hateful, and save your fights for very important things in the distant future. (If the rest of this goes well, you might never need those.)
Nurture your partner
One of the best thoughts I ever had was remembering that the little boy is still inside the man. His hurts and fears are lurking. His memories of good times and bad times before I was in his life are still in there. Sometimes little boys need a hug, or to play. But they probably don't need MORE mean mothering. Sometimes little boys were deprived, told to wait, told to help, not to play, whatever it was.
If you have awareness of any of your husband's childhood frustrations, remember that those are a part of him and sometimes will be closer to the surface. Sometimes I do one or two little life-improving things that I wouldn't have done if I hadn't said to myself "Do a couple of life-improving things"—like change the sheets, take out the trash near my husband's desk, take him some lassi or juice when he's working in the garage or outside, buy something he likes, at the store.
My husband is not a child, and I am not his mother. But I knew his mother, and I know stories of him as a child. I'm the person he chose to help him move into another stage of life, with confidence and security and love. That was 35 years ago, now, that we first "dated," and we've been married for nearly thirty years. He felt safe with me, and I wanted to keep it that way. I felt safe with him, too.
There are rough spots and scary days in most relationships. Being quiet until tensions cool is imporant. People can talk a marriage to death, and many people have. People can gamble a marriage on an ultimatum, and lose.
With a child, being his partner and not his adversary means that situations are not going to involve one of you winning at the other's expense. There doesn't need to be a winner and a loser, when a choice is made. Try to see that in your marriage and in your family. Make decisions that benefit your family, your home, and your children. Do that selflessly and sweetly, and your own life will be sweeter.
"He should be safe in his own home" is a good thing to remember about a child. It can be said to visitors, to siblings, and reflexively to oneself when making a decision. An adult partner should be safe in his own home, too.
Safe from what?
Safe from cruelty and shame. Safe from shocking disturbances, if possible. Safe from zombies. Safe from the fear that his partner will leave him. Safe from the fear that he will be separated from his children. Safe to eat foods he likes. Safe to watch sports on TV, or to have some time alone in the workshop.
Safe from being controlled. This is a big one. If the "control force" is great with you, maybe use it to control your own clutter or organize your papers or rearrange your books or clothing. File your photos. Don't turn that awful control beam on people you love.
I remember having three children all under the age of six. I remember watching the clock and the door, waiting for another adult to enter, hoping for a break, finally. But my husband was at work probably watching the clock and the door, hoping to be able to go home and finally have a little time to himself, to relax and to think his own thoughts.
Those two expectations have collided at many front doors of homes with small children.
Children get older. Find compromises with partners who work outside. You do need a break. Being at work all day isn't often "a break." It might be worth hiring "a mother's helper"—an older child to come and play with your children while you're home, to help them get snacks or to play with toys, so that the at-home parent might at least have privacy on the toilet, or maybe a quick shower. Perhaps trading with another mom just two hours a week would relieve some of the pent-up need for a body untouched for a little while, and some privacy.
Those days do pass. No child is ever three years old for more than a year.
Meanwhile, though, the adults need some space and time as surely as children do. Try to be generous. One grumpy, impatient person is one. Two is too many.
Children get older and don't need their parents as much. As the children mature, maybe offer for your spouse to pick up old hobbies again, or to develop new interests. Even if it's too soon for the primary caregiver to have new hobbies, the other partner might need the distraction and stimulation of new things to learn and do. And hobbies where natural learning is at work will help that parent understand unschooling better, too, or will help him be more sympathetic to children in school.
Learning will generally add to the peace and knowledge of the whole family, even if only one family member is really actively involved in the learning.
When you find ways to offer your partner space and time to be alone, it will eventually benefit the whole family.
Be soft and gentle
Helping a child learn to hold a kitten or a puppy isn't always easy, but modeling how to do it gently and softly helps. Parents can remember those factors when touching babies and children, too. Is he comfortable? Is he safe?
Someone who can gently handle a puppy, and a baby, might remember those things when dealing with another adult.
But there is another aspect of being soft—a practice of being calm even while the world moves quickly, and it can be done with tools you have handy. You can put dishes away gently. Sometimes if someone is asleep and I need to put clean dishes away, I try to do it as silently as a burglar. It's like a game. But it calms me, to being that conscious of being quiet and gentle. I think we've all experienced someone putting dishes away sharply and loudly, sometimes in anger, even. That harsh energy is dangerous to dishes and to peace.
Laundry isn't noisy, but it can be folded gently and lovingly. Instead of resenting the work of folding something, think of its purpose, its user, of the advantage of owning clothing, or towels, or bedding that people like, and need. Having a washing machine and not needing to draw water and heat it over a fire, and wash clothing by hand gives us more time to be with people, gently. Clothes can be folded with affection. Make the beds with gratitude for having a soft place to sleep, with walls around you and roof above.
When you bring in your groceries, you might do it gently, and put them away with a feeling of abundance and gratitude.
Service might be the most out-of-fashion aspect of relationships, and of life in general. People expect to be paid. They don't want to do "more than their share."
In helping to maintain the nest you have created for your children to grow up in, think of its components. Physical house, kitchen, food, beds, bedding, space to be alone, space to be together—but it's not empty space. It is a space you have chosen to share, and it is a space arranged around you. Have a hopeful, open presence. Be a happier place.
A young woman I know is getting married this season. At her bridal shower, a book of advice and recipes was gathered. Our family has known this girl since she was fourteen years old. She was unschooled most of her life, and has been friends with all three of my children for thirteen years now.
I sent a recipe I knew she had liked, and a photo of myself that my daughter had taken. And here is the advice I sent her, which I am happy to share with all of you now, too:
To have a more peaceful, loving relationship that has the potential to last for a lifetime, don't count and don't measure.Spouses
When spouses have common interests or hobbies, before they have children, sometimes their projects and successes there form the basis of their relationship. Maybe they're in theatrical productions together, or they ski or hike, or race go-karts, or volunteer to help people file their taxes, or they're both interested in the same period of history.
When responsibilities and children come along, it's easy for that early relationship to falter, and for the mom to know more about the kids, and for the dad to have work stories she's too exhausted to keep straight.
Sometimes unschooling becomes a new common interest, and their successes there can make them a successful team again. When I saw it the first couple of times, I thought it was nice, but partly coincidental. When I saw it over a dozen times I looked again.
Being a good parent makes a person more attractive to the other parent, and makes the other parent grateful and respectful. Gratitude and respect make it easier to have compassion and patience.
Just as being kinder and gentler with a child makes one a kinder, gentler parent, being more attentive and concerned about a spouse or partner makes that person, in turn, more attentive and concerned.
It doesn't happen all at once, and you can't send them the bill. You can't count or measure it. It has to be selfless and generous. Your kindness needs to be given because it makes you kinder, not because you want any further reward.
Being patient and compassionate with a child who is sad or hungry or tired or maybe teething or frustrated with his friends is good. Feeling good makes you calmer and more confident. It will give you stores of calm and clarity so that you can remember that your spouse might be sad or hungry or tired, maybe aging, aching, or frustrated with his co-workers and friends.
If you have come to feel adversarial in any way toward your partner, remember "partnership." Help him or her follow interests or hobbies or to take care of collections, or to see a favorite TV show. Support his interests. Being nicer makes you a nicer person.
The photos above were taken by Joyce Fetteroll in the summer of 2013. The couples shown are Bruno Machado and Marta Pires, of Lisbon, Portugal; Ester and Samuel Siroky, of the Yarrow Valley, in Scotland; and Rippy and Graham Dusseldorp of Leiden, The Netherlands.
Those photos were sent for the magazine, but the editor opted to use people I don't know for the German publication.
More photos of couples and mushy accounts: SandraDodd.com/spouses
Sandra Dodd lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, with her husband and daughter, Holly (21). Her son Kirby (27) has lived in Austin, Texas since he turned 21, working for Blizzard Entertainment. Though Texas and New Mexico are neighboring states, his house is 1075 kilometers away. Marty, the middle child, recently moved from the family home to the house he lived in from birth to nine. That's only four miles away.