Plays Well with Others

Schuyler Waynforth
July 30, 2007

In the house where I live there is a cupboard under the stairs. It seems a very British thing, these cupboards under the stairs, places where the Dursley’s can stuff unwanted relatives. The one under these stairs isn’t large enough for anything but the smallest of children, so instead we fill it with those things that aren’t used frequently: scraps of fabric; the 16mm film projector and all of the old films that David’s parents had when he was a child, things like Heckle and Jeckle and Chilly Willy; an old lap desk my grandmother gave to me that needs a hinge replaced and has done for more years than I can remember and other such scraps of life that, while valued, aren’t required in day-to-day living. The other day, while looking for fabric to make Linnaea a skirt that she wanted, Linnaea and I found David’s school photographs, these long rolls of a picture of all the students, not just in his year, but in all the years at boarding school. I spent a few minutes looking through roll after roll until I found his first year there. He was nine years old. A little blonde headed boy in the first row. David came over and mentioned that he’d broken the glasses of the boy next to him in the photograph—a boy whose first name he couldn’t remember, but whose last name was Salmon—with his fist. And then he found other boys in the pictures who’s bullying he could recall, or who he could recall being bullied. He talked of them as being tortured. He also found the adults, the teachers, the caregivers who targeted young boys for sexual pleasure. Boarding school was not a safe place, no matter how much it cost.

David was nine years old when he went to boarding school. When David flew away from his mum for the first time she had to walk onto the airplane he was so distraught. But it wasn’t enough, and the Airline attendant gave him a sleeping pill to keep him calm for the flight. When I look at the roll of photographs, year after year, moving from black and white to colour, I think of all these little boys being put on planes to come back to learn the majesty of Empire at the hands of these UK boarding schools.

When I tell people about how we decided to unschool Simon and Linnaea I usually begin with when Simon was 3 years old and Linnaea was 3 months old we moved to Japan for a year while David worked at the Institute for Japanese Studies on the outskirts of Kyoto. In Japan children begin school at 3. It isn’t a formal education at 3, it is more state-funded day care, where they play and work on whatever pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills are used in Japanese preschools. Although given the size of the Japanese alphabet I assume most people end up with only a partial literacy, anyhow. Neither David nor I speak Japanese and the idea of having Simon in the care of someone with whom I couldn’t directly communicate disturbed me to no end. But really, our decision to not parent in a mainstream way began much earlier than that.

Before Simon was born both David and I studied human evolutionary ecology. While human evolutionary ecology is a subset of anthropology it is probably easiest to understand it as human biology. Not the sort of nuts and bolts of biology, the rote memorization of all the bones in the body, but the way in which human behaviour is an expression of some parts environment and some parts biology. As such, among the texts we were both familiar with was James McKenna’s work on the family bed as a buffer against sudden infant death syndrome; Kathy Dettwyler, among others, on the benefits of breastfeeding; Nick Blurton Jones on how birth spacing is a product of mothers carrying children until they are 4 years old. We both clearly had a sense that humans, as a species, have spent the greater part of their existence living with their babies in their arms, by their sides, and at their breasts. Having that background meant that when Simon was born there wasn’t a lot of planned separation between mother and child. I can remember when my brother came to visit, Simon was maybe 2 months old, and he shooed us out of our tiny apartment. David and I spent the first 2 hours we were ever away from Simon sitting in our van talking about how awful it felt not to be with our most wonderful bundle of joy. And we hurried back as soon as some minimum required time away had elapsed.

The television program Mad About You had an episode where Jamie and Paul Buckman Ferberize their daughter Mabel, which ran when Simon was about eight months old. At the end of the episode, after standing at the door of Mabel’s all-by-herself room waiting the 5, 10 and 15 minutes required by Ferber’s method to check in and tell her they were there for her, after agonizing over the right and the wrong of it, Mabel finally does fall asleep. And while they are both pleased, Jamie also comments that Mabel can never trust them to be there for her again. For me the choice not to allow Simon to cry himself to sleep was less about that kind of philosophizing and more about the fact that if I lived as humans have lived for thousands of years, letting Simon cry it out would ensure his death. Something predatory would take an infant abandoned in the bush. Surely that must be a stressful evolutionary moment for a human infant. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that helping my baby avoid stressful moments was an important part of being his mother.

While the way Simon was parented as an infant I would now call attachment parenting, it wasn’t a term I was familiar with when he was an infant. I think it would have helped a lot to be familiar with a paradigm of parenting that was more judgemental than evolutionary science. There isn’t any sense of good or bad in science. There is rarely causality in behavioural science as applied to humans, and when there is it usual has a balancing with some other link. Take for example the work that Jay Belsky did on the effects of long term day care on children. He and a few others demonstrated that there was a linear effect between time in day care and aggression. On the other hand they were able to demonstrate a greater precocity among children who had spent more time in day care. So you can choose: kids who may read earlier but beat up others more, versus kids who read later but play nicely. And it really isn’t that simple. When you look at effect size it really isn’t that big, in the whole scheme of things, day care doesn’t statistically make that big a difference to a child’s answers on a 1 to 7 point scale questionnaire. It would have helped to have the relationship I was forming be based more on an understanding of children than on a series of studies and a few monographs creating a picture of the way children have been an active part of a family for thousands of years. When I found unschooling via the internet that year in Japan it was the paradigm that linked the science I knew with the relationship with Simon and Linnaea that I lived.

Unschooling also goes further than the science I know. Among my many files from graduate school there is paper after paper about parent-offspring conflict and a few on sibling rivalry. They are filled with statements like:

Trivers (1972) coined the term parental investment for ‘any investment by the parent in an individual offspring that increases the offspring’s chance of surviving (and hence reproductive success) at the cost of the parent’s ability to invest in other offspring’ (p. 139).
Given a perspective that what a parent gives to one child is at the direct cost of what that parent can give to another child, sibling rivalry is an easy leap to make. Even without understanding the biology, I absolutely expected that Simon and Linnaea would spend their childhood caught up in the jealousy, the sense of losing out, that dictated at least some of my brother’s and my relationship. Certainly a lot of our young adult conversations were made up with jokingly verbalized tally sheets about who was best loved or who got the most stuff from mom and dad.

Unschooling never predicts that siblings will invariably be at each other’s throats. In our family Simon’s and Linnaea’s relationship seems to be more often about sibling cooperation than it is about rivalry. While it is true that whenever I give Linnaea an ice cream cone I both use my energy and my resources for her pleasure as well as taking that particular cone and ice cream away from the food available to Simon. What Trivers doesn’t talk about are the wonderful ways in which modern life can minimize that hit. Buying more than one ice cream cone, while not making the cone that Linnaea ate available, will keep the option open for Simon. It will also minimize the impact that ice cream cone makes on my personal resources. Invariably, choosing to care for my child will take up some of my resources, so if I can accept that cost as a part of having a child, surely I can change my perspective from a sense of being put upon, to one in which giving and doing and helping is the gift I bring in my role as a parent.

Maybe that is the key, the aspect of parenting that produces less than the predicted sibling rivalry: parental time. It might also be why the parenting that David and I did with Simon and Linnaea as infants and toddlers led naturally to unschooling. I spend most of my days with Simon and Linnaea. And I don’t mean just at home with them. I watch television with them, play video games, climb to the top of the summerhouse, build light sabers, dress dolls, make clothes, talk, go to Toys R Us to get the largest stuffed animal that Linnaea wants, have Yugioh duels, read cheats for video games from the internet, look up different experiments from Lilo and Stitch with them, find things on that make them laugh, play Mastermind, cook, make perfume, build towers, knock towers down, go swimming, sit in the hot tub, bring them food when I think they might be hungry, help them to work through hard moments in whatever might be producing a hard moment, and so much more. There are things I don’t do; things that look like they will produce children who understand the world, but that really just limit the ways in which a child can interact with the people and things around them. I don’t send them to their rooms, I don’t make them share, I don’t give them chores, I don’t spank them, I don’t make them go to bed. And maybe all of those things together are why unschooling can ameliorate some of the tension that comes from being a sibling. Being present, letting your children know that you are there for them, working to get the things they want, that help children to be able to wait for something or share something or be supportive of something even though it may not be in their own interest.

There are other arenas in which unschooling preceded scientific understanding of the human condition. In the arena of economic theory, unschooling is quite sophisticated. Not only does it carry at its core the understanding that a good made rare is a good made desirable, buit also understands that how to share something among people is not necessarily to break it into equal portions. In the February 2007 issue of Scientific American there is a review of a paper called “Better Ways to Cut a Cake” that was in the December issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society. The paper is about how dividing something equally between two people isn’t always about cutting it in half. It is about how the value of different parts of the thing may appeal to the two people in different ways. So, if I baked a carrot cake, Simon would prefer the bits that didn’t have icing on it and would be happy with way less than a half if it were the only bits that I’d remembered not to frost. On unschooling e-mail lists this argument is put forward with great frequency. You don’t have to give your children the same things, or equal amounts of something, you need to give them what they want, help them enjoy the life they want to have and not try and make them be satisfied with those goods that are equally divided between however many you have.

The exciting thing about unschooling though is that it isn’t just the person dividing the cake who gets to make the decisions about how it will be cut. Yesterday we went to a fair with some friends. While we were there Linnaea bought a pair of earrings and a stuffed toy cat. Simon didn’t buy anything. I offered him a bracelet made up of skulls and a couple of other things, but he didn’t feel any need to get something equal to the money that Linnaea spent. Robert Trivers’ probably wouldn’t have predicted that, but unschooling does. Creating a rich and varied life means that there isn’t the neediness, or the poorness of fit that can occur in a life of dividing things equally.

In our lives unschooling has also created a family where how the cake is divided is often about being able to give the best piece to someone else. Both Simon and Linnaea are intensely generous people. They take great joy in sharing their pleasure, their favorite things with others including each other. They have both sacrificed their first choice to the other, without pressure, without even having it mentioned by David or me. On a cold afternoon when we’d been out biking, Simon gave his hot chocolate to Linnaea as it was the kind she preferred. Or when Linnaea let Simon play the new video game first, even though she’d wanted it so, saying that she’d gain so much from watching him play it.

Today, while I work on this chapter, Simon and Linnaea have been playing the Pokemon card game. Simon, who is usually a Yugioh duellist, decided last night that it would be fun to revisit his Pokemon cards. So he made a deck last night and helped Linnaea to make one this morning. I woke to the sounds of them duelling while they were waiting for the television show Mixmasters to come on. It didn’t go well. Simon quit just as Linnaea had managed to get the energy cards she needed in her hand so that she could launch an attack. She got frustrated. She yelled. I went and sat with her and she showed me the cards she had set aside as prize cards and we talked about how they were drawn or how some of them were photographs of clay sculpted figures. Within minutes she and Simon were outside in our pop-top van watching Pokemon together on a portable DVD player, and launching her stuffed toy cat from the roof. She recovered from her sadness, from her frustration by being heard and by being valued. Our lives are full of moments like that.

Simon is 10 this year; a year older than the youngest image of his dad at boarding school. So in this year, the year that David would have had his first summer at home with his family after 9 months of learning that his name was Waynforth not David, that his nights were spent sleeping in rooms with other boys, that it was best to keep your head down and not be noticed by the older boys, that if you broke another boy’s glasses with your fist, you were less likely to be beaten up by somebody else, Simon is spending his time learning from a life filled with leisure and joy and sharing and family support and the freedom to choose. We chose the "plays better with others" over the "life of the precocious child." I would happily travel this less-travelled road for the rest of my days.

Written in 2007, but not published then.
First published here, in October 2011.
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