That image above is a note from my oldest daughter, Marley (9). She and her sister, Sage (7), are the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had in my 36 years of living.
They’ve helped me to see both my potential and my limitations, and they’ve helped me to understand the need for deeper, more consistent dialogue around self-exploration and radical self-expression.
These understandings have not only led to personal clarity for me, they’ve also led to some pretty radical shifts in how the four of us — Kris, the girls, and I — choose to live.
Since becoming parents almost ten years ago, Kris and I have:
- Left our corporate jobs to be more present with our daughters, each other, and the work we desire to do
- Let the bank take our house so we could transition out of a monthly living expenses trap of nearly $4000
- Removed our daughters from traditional schooling and shifted into unschooling/free-range learning
- Sold both of our vehicles and bought sturdier shoes instead
- Embraced a mutual long-time goal of pseudo-nomadic living by way of location-independence (starting almost two years ago with our first six-month stay in various parts of Jamaica)
Of all the shifts we’ve made, by far the one that seems to pique observers’ curiosity is the unschooling bit.
Perhaps it’s because we’re usually around people who, like us went to college; who, like us, believe(d) that the pursuit of higher education was a requirement for success and fulfillment; and who, like us, wanted their children to love learning.
But as we started down the path of embodying attentive responsible parents who moved to the “good neighborhood” and kept the “good jobs” to keep our babies in the “good schools,” I was met with a stark reality:
A traditional (read: western, patriarchal, racially-biased) education is not only flawed in its approach to learning, it (by design) omits and/or negates much of the ideas and perspectives that I – as a black female immigrant raising two daughters – need my children to grasp, practice, and understand.
Furthermore, we found that our daughters needed more space to explore and express whoever they were becoming.
And so we became unschoolers.
Today – seventeen months, several locations, and a whirlwind of what-nows later — I can confidently say that Marley and Sage are developing an understanding of what learning needs to look like for them, without the confines of pre-supposed ideas on who they should become.
They are confident little beings, who are being nurtured in the zones of vigilant exploration of themselves and their environment.
And then comes the sticky part – the part that puts me on edge about whether my daughters will be assertive, emotionally intelligent, compassionate beings who speak up for themselves and know how to.
Or whether they’ll be ill-adjusted, self-centered snobs who focus primarily on what they feel and need, with little regard for important graces like, say, tact.
Expressive and Emotionally Well? Or Just Plain Way out of Line?
As a parent who prioritizes and nurtures the exploration and expression of herself and extends that same space to her daughters, how Marley recently wrote this note to Kris and me raised several emotions and insecurities.
Sometimes I feel frustrated or unsure about my parenting choices and angry about the “backlash” from “allowing” self-expression.
If you’re raising your children to embrace and express their emotions, do you ever get that “backlash” sense?
That sense that it might be easier if you could just dart them a look that incites the release of bodily functions and brings their fear of the Gods and Goddesses to the front of their minds?
Yeah, me too.
And it can feel rather complicated, and even hypocritical, right?
One the one side, it’s important to understand that you are not actually raising a child.
You have a child, but you are raising an adult – an adult who will fare much better in their worlds and their mirrors if they understand life skills such as emotional wellness, of which self-expression is a vital part.
On the other side, the skill of self-expression does not usually come with the often necessary accompaniments of tact and discernment — at least not for girls under the age of ten.
So, the question is how do we nurture self-expression and emotional intelligence while exposing our children to the equally necessary skills of tact, discernment, and frankly, the hierarchy of the parent-child relationship dynamics?
Outside of the tried-and-trues (at least for me) of meditation, compassion, prayer, and plenty of open dialogue, it’s helpful to identify what you hope to impart to your children in the way of emotional intelligence.
The 5-Question Gauge List
For our children, we are that status quo, and our relationship with them represents the practice zone for how they manage and express their thoughts and feelings.
Kris and I nurture that relationship by paying attention to how we react to the girls expressing themselves.
Sometimes that gives us the chance to shift where necessary to facilitate open expression and honest dialogue.
Other times, we use it as an opportunity to reiterate what we view as respectable and to show them options for self-expression that do not include things we consider inappropriate in some way.
After thinking through the primary gauges Kris and I use to determine what shifts we need to make in our communications with each of our daughters, I made a list that encompasses the main things we seek out.
For us, this list simplifies the process of helping our daughters to name, manage, and express their emotions, while helping us (as their parents) recognize any potential differences between what we tell them is okay and what they get (our reactions) when they risk expression.
- Does she know how to access her emotions?
- Does she seem to have any fear of communicating her emotional needs?
- Is she compassionate and caring towards others?
- Does she seem to expect to be respected?
- Does she know how to be respectful?
For each of those gauges, we’ve identified the behaviors that either show us that they’re on that path, or warn us when they’re not.
It shows up in how the girls relate to each other, and their friends daily, and how they relate to us.
So, with the identification of those mile-marker questions, we’re learning to be soft-sharp parents who do our best to be flexible and respectful of our daughters’ own processes, while setting and stating our expectations where behavior is concerned.
In our efforts to give the girls exploration room in a “soft-sharp” way, we allow them to:
- Ask questions about anything (there are no “inappropriate” subjects)
- Write unfiltered in their journals (including curse words)
- Decide on the bulk of their daily learning goals on their own
- Stay up until midnight (or later) most days of the week
- Verbally express disagreement with anything we request or require
Those are the main ones for us.
And here’s how we stay soft-sharp for ourselves:
- We prioritize self-expression and we correct course on a per situation basis
- We treat our daughters like girls who will eventually be women, and not children who should fear our wrath (most of the time, anyway)
- We surround ourselves with other forward-thinking parents who also prioritize their children’s emotional awareness and wellness
- We acknowledge that the girls (at least in part) got their radical self-expression ways as a result of being raised by two stubborn, world-questioning weirdos who encourage rebellion
- We pray to Creator often, and we call upon our ancestors to guide us along the way
- We travel often so that they and we get to use the skills we practice in our daily huddle
- We forgive, we ask plenty of questions, and we encourage our girls to do the same
- We expect (them and ourselves) to make mistakes – many, many mistakes.
- We seek out resources to support what we believe, and to educate us on how to better manage our household
I fully expect that the radical shifts we’ve made will continue to bring my family and me into more unchartered territory.
If you’re a nontraditional parent going through your own radical shifts with your children in tow, you will likely toe a similar line between nurturing expression and managing behavior.
Remember that this is a practice, not a science, so give yourself space to observe the process as it unfolds.
Also, don’t approach your children as if you already know what they need.
I know that might sound crazy, but try letting their behaviors help you create processes that will work with who they actually are, not who it would be most convenient to you for them to be.
I share what I am learning so that other radical thinkers can see their tribe in mine and re-affirm their commitment to raising adults who will not be afraid to risk expression.
If this resonates with you, let me know how you help your children navigate through emotions, expression, and other such life skills.
Akilah S. Richards is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a six-time author, digital content writer, and lifestyle coach who writes passionately about self-expression, womanhood, modern feminism, location independence and the unschooling lifestyle. Connect with Akilah on Instagram, Tumblr, or her #radicalselfie e-home, radicalselfie.com. Read her articles.
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