Knowing Everything


Holly, who is seven years old, wanted to go to Sunday School. I grew up Baptist, but don't go to church now unless for special music somewhere or other. I took her to Hillside Community Church, an independent Albuquerque church with the motto "Where East meets West." There was a marimba band playing that day, and Sunday School is during the church service, so I was happy.

I rushed to collect Holly from Sunday School so she could see the totally all-wooden marimba which was resounding with Caribbean recessional music.

On the way out there was a Japanese painting on the wall, with the names of financial contributors around it. I said, "Let's look at the zen painting." We looked a bit, and on the way to the car Holly said, "What's zen?"

It's hard enough to discuss "what's zen" with adults. I stalled and stammered, and she said, "Because there's zen art, and there are zen gardens." We have a miniature zen garden I got for Christmas, and it's out on the counter or kitchen table almost all the time. Once last summer at the unschoolers' play group Holly cleared a place in the sand box, imported some rocks, and made a zen garden on the play ground, explaining to the other kids what she was doing.

Still, I'm balking at trying to explain this to Holly. I said, "It's hard to explain, but I'll try."

"How did your mom explain it to you?"

Upon occasion I think my kids are "behind" because a memory flashes in of me having known something specific at the age one of them is. It's usually something like long division, or the story of Jane Addams or Teddy Roosevelt, or something that seemed vitally important at the time I learned it, and something to be proud of knowing. I remember getting good grades.

Here is a seven year old asking in a very mature way for some information on something I knew NOTHING of until I was in my late teens, and didn't understand until I was in my thirties (not that I totally understand it now, but I got over total bafflement eventually). I realized how common this is at our house.

When Kirby was five years old, I read him a picture book about service stations. A while later he came to me and said in a very serious way, "Mom, why are you always telling us everything about this planet?"

"Like what?" I asked, knowing he was asking a real question.

"Like trucks and stuff. Is it because you want us to grow up to be smart mans?"

"Uh huh" (stalling for time to think of a good answer)

"And we can tell our kids?"

He already knew the answer. He just wanted some confirmation.

In the week following the zen day, Holly has asked for definitions of "dignity" (because of a line Lillith delivered to Frazier on late-night TV) and of "sarcastic" (when a friend said "Sorry, that was sarcastic"). Those were easy to explain compared to zen. She also asked why "pillow" is called "pillow." She wanted the etymology of the word, so one adult sat and speculated with her while another went and looked it up in a big dictionary. She actually cared about the explanation.

Do you know where I learned a lot of what I know? From my kids. Here is a confession of a large failing, but it turned out well. It is an account of Marty, my middle child, who looked so wise the day he was born. At the age of three he was, in words, teaching me to be a better mother. I have it in my diary, dated Monday, Oct 26, 1992.

I was putting Kirby and Marty to bed because they were playing really rough and I was grouchy and tired. Marty wouldn't help put things away, wouldn't help set up his bed, and Kirby was doing most of the work. Then Marty was playing a kazoo and I told him to put it away. He put it down on a shelf by his bed and then in just a few seconds he was honking away full force and I said, "Put the kazoo away." He just looked at me and kept playing it. I said, "Marty, I told you to stop. Put it away." He didn't. I said "I'm getting really grouchy about this stuff today. You don't do what I ask you to do." He didn't stop. I swatted him on the thigh and said "Put it away." He started crying and I swatted him again, and yelled "You still have the kazoo! Put it away" and I took it out of his hand, but squeezed his fingers in the process, and he was crying. I went to put a cassette tape on and said to both of them "Hitting wasn't a good idea. I'm sorry I hit you, Marty. I couldn't think of the best thing to do. I couldn't think of a good-mom thing to do because I was mad. What do you guys think I should have done?"

Marty said, "I know what to do, mom, when it's in your arms and in your legs." Marty was, at the age of three, describing an angry rush of adrenaline.


"Just breathe. Breathe deep breaths." That was the trick I had taught the kids, something I learned when I learned meditation. Oxygen will calm someone down.

Kirby (who was five and a half) said "I know what. Just ignore it."

"Just ignore that he was playing the kazoo after I told him not to?"


Marty said with some excitement&mdash"I have the best superdy-duperdy idea and it's in my head"— pointing with both hands to his forehead.

"What is it?"

"You should just play with us." (very matter-of-factly said)

"Play with you with the kazoo?"


I said, "I'm going to go write these ideas down so the next time I get mad I'll think about them." And in the years since then I have thought about those ideas a lot. Instead of being my mother's child, I am my children's mother.

My mother did the best she could, I suppose. I need to do the best I can do. So I tell my children everything they want to know. I show them the world in words and pictures and music. While they're becoming better, wiser people, I am too. I wish I had learned these things before they were born, but I didn't have my teachers yet. I have tried to pass on to other moms the best of what works well for us, and to put little warning beacons near pitfalls.

My children discuss behavior and social interactions as easily as they discuss Nintendo or their own cats and dogs. When I was their age, psychology, comparative religion and anthropology were far in my future. My kids might not have much formal terminology, but they're extremely conversant and certainly can think in those areas without knowing they're too young (by the book) to do so. They understand well that there are many versions of historical events. They understand that there are different ways to act in different situations, and with people who have particular beliefs and preferences. Some adults could use knowing that.

A few nights ago I had a good example of zen for Holly. I had already told her that one aspect of zen is setting up words or visuals designed to surprise a person into thinking something they never thought before, but I hadn't had examples I thought she would understand. Here was my example: "It's like a sword that can't cut itself, or..." and as I said "or" and was going to say a mirror that can't reflect itself, her "or" came right on top of mine, and she finished "or Gudrun looking at herself in the mirror?"

I shuddered. I hadn't said "mirror" but I was thinking it. Gudrun is our year-old dog-pound Australian cattle dog. Holly elaborated: "When Gudrun looks in the mirror she doesn't know whether she's seeing another dog or herself."

I didn't go into whether a dog has Buddha nature. It wasn't important in that moment. And someday we might discuss whether a mirror can reflect itself. Surely two mirrors can reflect one another. And I have learned that by exchange of ideas two people can reflect one another, even when one of the people is very young.

Copyright © Sandra Dodd, 1998

Sandra Dodd's children are Kirby (13), Marty (10) and Holly (7), who have helped inspire her to encourage frustrated moms everywhere to lighten up, slow down, and be with their children. They live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a house full of everyday treasures.

[The kids were born in 1986, 1989 and 1991, so you can do the math for their current ages, but Holly was seven on the Zen-day.]

2017 commentary:
October 9, 2017, by Andrea Kim:
Wow. The last time I read this was over two years ago. I was trying to stretch my mind and let go of old thinking when it comes to parenting and childhood education.

When I read it last time (April 2015), ... I'll be completely frank .. it comforted me to know that even people that I looked up to - one of my heroes - had lost her temper with her child. I don't want to admit that because it makes me feel small and petty. But that's where I was at the time.

Reading it this time, I paid attention to the actual point of her writing. Well .. pointS. Even though there were things we knew at our children's ages, our children know things we didn't at their ages. We can and should learn from and with our children.

I can honestly say Sandra Dodd's work has changed my and my children's lives. Although I can't honestly say I have this whole homeschooling/unschooling/parenting thing figured out, I can tell you: I am a lot further along than I was two years ago.

P.S. I've also got back in touch with my curiosity and creativity! Priceless gifts that make life more enjoyable.

—Andrea Kim

To me, this is a perfect example of something I had written earlier in 2017, that Pam Laricchia had picked up and preserved on her site:

No-one is ever likely to read my whole website and I don't ever need them to. It's not written to be read from one end to the other any more than a pharmacy is intended for someone to start at one end and eat, drink or inject every substance in the whole room. If you find a page that does help you, guess what? It will help even more if you read it again after a year or two. And if you read it after you've been unschooling for five years it will seem that the first time it was a black and white postcard and now it's a technicolour movie. Because you'll understand it better and you'll see the subtlety and the artistry of what people wrote and maybe you'll wish you'd been able to understand it better sooner.
~ Sandra Dodd
(quoted here)

At some point after I brought the Pam Laricchia link just above here, someone left this comment there:

Hi Pam, Just listened to this for the second time and it touched me equally if not more than the first time I listened to it. It’s so very true that you always gain something new revisiting podcasts/posts. I am certainly “seeing” this podcast in technicolour! I so appreciate the glorious words that inspire and guide in our unschooling days and more importantly in our lives as a whole.

And about that "Changes in Parents" interview, Pam's introduction to it was beautiful, and I saved it. There is a link there to a transcript on her site.

This article appears in
Moving a Puddle,
a book of essays by Sandra Dodd
More articles on parenting

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