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Mom to Mom: Jan Hunt

I read Jan Hunt's book The Natural Child: Parenting From the Heart when I was pregnant with Satch and it changed my life. The child in me felt validated and it helped me trust my gut and feel supported about the way I wanted to mother my son. It's one of several books that I give as baby shower / blessingway gifts. I believe that it has the power to change the world, one family at a time. I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Jan about motherhood, unschooling and the new book The Unschooling Unmanual. It is with great joy that I introduce Jan Hunt.

1. In what ways has becoming a mother changed you?

It changed me in every way. It helped me realize that children are human beings and no different from adults in the ways that really matter. They are no different emotionally and react the same way we do to good or bad treatment; they are doing the best they can.

I learned a lot from my son - he's been my teacher. Here's an example that I'm not proud of. One day when Jason was a baby, he threw a spoon down on the floor and I reacted with an automatic response by gently tapping his hand. He gave me a look that I've never forgotten, even 27 years later. He gave me a perplexed look, as though to say, "Why would you do such a thing... how could you hurt me?" And right at that moment, I just grew, like the Grinch... my heart grew 100 times bigger. Because up until that point I didn't totally get it, and from that point on I got it. And any other time when I strayed off the path of respectful parenting, he would give me a look of confusion or bewilderment. He knew from the beginning - like all babies - what he deserved and what I should be doing.

There's a book I'd like to mention, because a lot of people don't know about it, called The Little GooRoo. It's a delightful picture book from the perspective of the parent learning from the baby instead of the other way around. It's a hilarious book and so, so true. I always recommend it whenever I think of it. That's what it's been like for me - my son has been my guru and I've learned so much from him!

I really can't think of a way that motherhood hasn't changed me. I think I've become more empathic. I think I've become more aware of relationships in general of any age and I became even more of a humanist than I was before. I don't think I'm the same person in any way that I was before.

2. What is one tip you would like to share about mothering?

Well there's one thing that comes up in almost every session with a parent. One of the most common frustrations that parents have and that I've had too, of course, is that when a child starts to have a tantrum or gets upset, then we start getting upset, and it escalates. We can feel confused about why we're having such a hard time, considering that we're not using punishment. We explain to the child what's going on in a gentle way, yet that doesn't seem to work. What I've told my clients is that there is nothing wrong with explaining, even to a young child (in fact, children understand two years or so beyond their own vocabulary so they understand things at a higher level than what we may think). So, explanations are fine, but that's not the primary need. Their primary need is to feel understood.

It's exactly the same for an adult. For example, if a couple is having an argument, it's not always helpful to be given explanations - we want to feel understood. It's much better to say, "Oh you're angry because... or you're frustrated because... and I can understand why you would feel that way", to show some understanding and empathy. So explanations are OK, but they can only go so far and they shouldn't be the first thing that happens. The first thing that happens should be validation... validation of the child's feelings. In fact I often suggest to clients that they put the word "validation" on their fridge so they can be reminded, because it's hard to remember anything when you're having an altercation with a child. We can quickly regress into feeling frustrated and angry ourselves and it's hard to remember at those moments how to be compassionate. So the first thing to do with a child is to validate. It's much more helpful and can much more quickly help the child to work out their feelings. For instance, to empathize and say, "Oh you're feeling angry because your little brother knocked over your castle, after all your hard work," or "I remember feeling the same way when I was your age". That kind of understanding and validation is much more powerful then explaining, "Your brother was just playing, he didn't mean to upset you". Explanations are all well and good, but they don't really meet the child's most basic need.

I would also like to include another tip called sleeptalking, which is simply talking to the child while they sleep - it seems to reach the child on a deep level. It can be especially helpful for subjects that are hard to discuss during the day or if the child is just too young to communicate well around a particular topic. You can talk about anything... it's not just person to person, it's more like heart-to-heart or like "ageless soul to ageless soul". They seem to understand anything this way so it can be very helpful. For instance, you can say, "I'm really puzzled about (some new behavior) and I'd like to understand more about that. Could you find a way tomorrow to let me know how I can help you with that?" You can also use it to explain difficult situations. I've had clients going through a divorce who have found it very helpful to explain in sleeptalking that are trying to make the situation as easy as possible for the child, and that they will always be there for them. That kind of reassurance can really get through.

There's a fascinating website on the subject by pediatrician Rhodora Diaz. She offers short scripts for her patients, which include love statements, explanations, reassurances, and offers of help. Lots of my clients have been amazed at how helpful it can be. I often mention it because so few people know about it.

3. I read your first book, "The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart", when I was pregnant with Satch and it changed the way I viewed the role of parenting. What was your inspiration for this book?

My inspiration for wanting to get a book out was to help parents understand their child better and to be a voice for children generally, to stand up for them and help others stand up for them.

4. As a psychologist, mother, and author, how do you juggle these roles?

I have to laugh at this question because I'm not very good at that. It's a lot easier these days because Jason is 27. For many years now, he's been a great help. He's the webmaster for The Natural Child Project, and the best editor I've ever had. He also has a computer repair business. He's just phenomenal. I don't have any real tips for anybody on how to juggle lots of roles because I don't do it very well myself.

5. I'm finding that so many of us moms feel like we're flying by the seat of our pants as motherhood is everything we had dreamed of and yet nothing like we imagined. It's exhilarating yet exhausting, fabulous yet frustrating. We have days that we feel like we're doing a pretty good job and days that we feel like we totally stink at motherhood. Have you ever had days like that? Would you mind sharing one of your best days and one of your worst days. What advice would you like to share?

Yes, I think it's all those things and I think every mom has had days like that. I remember reading a chapter about that once... the writer said that it's even harder for those of us who identify ourselves as attachment parents, those of us who've read all of those books and who've talked with our friends about wanting to be the best parent possible. It can be even harder when we make mistakes, because we recognize them as mistakes and we're even harder on ourselves than parents who haven't had the opportunity to learn about these things and don't recognize the differences as well as we do. It's really hard to identify yourself as an attachment parent and then watch yourself say or do something that contradicts your beliefs about parenting.

I often remind my clients that just as we try to remember that children are doing the very best they can given their experience and their current state emotionally and physically, we're the same. We're all doing the very best we can, and we need to be just as compassionate with ourselves as we're trying to be with our children. It's unrealistic to expect that just because we understand what it's like to be patient and compassionate, and just because we know what kind of a mother we would like to be, that doesn't mean we can just flick a switch and be that person. There may be things that we still need to heal from our own childhood, or things that trigger early memories and feelings. We may be tired or ill. There are so many things that affect the way we treat each other. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that it's unrealistic to expect to be 100% perfect - we all make mistakes. I think all that we really can do is to be more diligent, to learn from the mistakes that we make and to try to do things differently the next time. That's really all we can do, so we just have to be realistic about that.

Here's an example of a good day: I realized how to handle a very common problem parents have in stores. Jason wanted a toy that I couldn't buy for him that day, but I remembered to validate his feelings first. I said something like, "Isn't that a wonderful toy! I'm sorry that I can't get it for you today - let's remember where we saw it and put it on your wish list when we get home". We kept a wish list for many years - it was very helpful to have that option, and it was interesting that so many times he realized later that he didn't want the item after all. Later on, Jason said the same thing to me when I saw a sweater I couldn't afford. It was wonderful to see how compassion can travel down through generations.

It's all about being on the child's side. It's not whether we do what the child wants or not, it's how we do it or not do it. So, that's what we did... we went home and put the toy on his wish list. The important thing is to validate the child's feelings even - or especially - when we can't do what they're asking for. That was one of my best days, because I came up with a pattern that I could use for similar situations later.

I've had a number of really bad days too. I try to forget about those, but here's one example. When Jason was between age one and two, we were living in a place that was a half mile from town. In the beginning I would just take him in the stroller, but toward age two he started to want to walk himself, which was nice because then I could just put our purchases into the stroller. But one day he didn't want to walk nor did he want to get in the stroller. Of course, if I had it all to do over again, I would have been using a sling! But I was really frustrated and tried to push him into the stroller before I came to my senses. What's interesting to me now is that this one incident lasted only a few seconds and yet I've had so many hours of regret over the years. I often woke at three in the morning and just felt so awful about it. And that is something that I try to get through to clients... to be aware that it's important, not just for the child, but for the parent, to realize that you're creating memories. You have an opportunity to create wonderful memories for your child. You also have an opportunity to create wonderful memories for yourself and to avoid the kind of memory that I had created, because it lasts forever. One of my Parenting Cards says "Create happy memories today."

6. You have released a new book, The Unschooling Unmanual which is comprised of personal stories and essays by parents, authors and thinkers like John Holt, Rue Kream and Daniel Quinn. What was the inspiration behind this book?

I just want more children to have the opportunity to unschool. I really believe that it's absolutely the best way to learn. It's what every parent does naturally before their child reaches "school age". For example, if they have a child who is interested in trains, they may buy him a train set, read books about trains, take him for a train ride... parents instinctively know how to unschool. Then suddenly this child is "school age" and the assumption becomes that this child can no longer learn that way (even though he's learned the most difficult things in life already, like walking and talking). All of a sudden he's "school age" and now he can only learn by being taught by someone who is "trained", about subjects chosen by someone else, and in a particular building. This makes absolutely no sense when you really think about it, but that's what our society believes.

We live in what may be one of the most difficult countries to raise a child because there is an expectation that children, if not disciplined will be monsters and if they're not in school, they'll be illiterate. Those expectations just surround us and it's really hard, even with a support group of like-minded friends, not to be affected by all of that. I like to tell clients about a mother of an 8-year-old boy who wrote in about being criticized for her parenting approach. She told me her son said something so profound: "Mom, it's not what they think, it's what we know that's important". It's not important what anyone else thinks, it's what you know in your heart that's right.

I often recommend Rue Kream's book Parenting a Free Child, and my two favorite John Holt books, How Children Learn and Teach Your Own. I also like Grace Llewellyn's book Teenage Liberation Handbook for older children.

7. As a schooled person yourself, what influenced your decision to unschool your child?

My education! I did very well in school academically, but not emotionally - I wasn't part of the "in crowd". I also wasn't able to learn the things that I wanted to learn and a lot of my curiosity was dampened. I often look back and wonder what I would be doing now if I had been unschooled. When I was little and was asked what I would be when I grew up, I would always say, "an artist" - I loved painting and drawing. Then when I was about 7, my parents took me to an art school and I had to take an entry exam. I was asked to draw a still life of a bowl of fruit. I enjoyed doing it, but I didn't draw it in perspective. The school staff told my parents (in front of me) that I wasn't ready for their school because I couldn't do this particular thing. When I look back at that experience I think, isn't that what they were there for? But at the time, what came through was that I wasn't good enough. My number one interest was crushed at that point. This is a classic school experience - a child is criticized for something he shouldn't be criticized for and his passion can be dampened. So that's one experience I wanted to protect my son from. I wanted to see what his passions were and to keep them burning - to give him a fulfilling life.

8. What would you like to say to those parents struggling with the decision of schooling vs. unschooling or to parents who would like use the unschool approach to enrich the lives of traditionally schooled children?

I would first reassure them that homeschoolers and unschoolers test several years ahead of schooled children, and not just academically, but socially. I can really empathize with unschoolers who are being criticized by relatives or friends. Most of those who criticize just don't have the information, and others don't really want to be convinced. But eventually people can come around, as did my own parents, because they couldn't help but see how bright my son was and how kind he was, how well-spoken he was. It's a matter of having faith in your child, and also faith that others will see the "proof in the pudding."

Unschooling is what every parent does naturally for their child when they're little, the only difference is that unschoolers just keep doing it. As the child gets older and becomes interested in more topics and ideas, we just keep answering their questions. And I think that's one of the main differences between unschooling and schooling - the child asks the questions, and in school the teacher asks the questions. In fact, there's some research that shows that before grade 3, almost all of the questions are asked by the students and in all later grades, most of the questions are asked by the teacher. And if you think about this it doesn't make any sense - if you're asked a question and know the answer, you're not going to learn anything, and if you don't know the answer you're going to be frustrated and embarrassed. Being asked questions is the most difficult way to learn. We all learn best by asking questions, not answering them. Another difference is that the children are being taught things that are very unlikely to be their primary interest on that day. It's almost impossible to have 20 or 30 children in a classroom, all of whom are going to be interested in what the teacher is presenting. It's very unlikely that the teacher will be covering what each child is interested in in that moment. We all learn best what we're most interested in at the time. Unschooling children always learn about their current interest. That's a huge difference.

9. One other question that has crossed my mind, because I'm new to the philosophy of homeschooling and unschooling is, what if a child has a passion for something that requires a traditional education and that piece of paper is the key... what if the child dreams of being a doctor, for instance?

That used to be an obstacle, but now it's very easy. In fact, it can be easier now than going through traditional school. A number of colleges are actually looking for homeschoolers because so many of them have done so well there. They make the best students because they're interested in learning.

The Colfax family of California was one of the first homeschooling families. They had four sons. The oldest boy decided that he wanted to go to college and took the entrance exam. It was the first time he had taken any kind of a test, but he did so well that he was accepted to Harvard. He not only went to Harvard, but graduated with honors, and he's now an M.D. Two of his brothers also went to Harvard and did well there. Harvard could see how well these boys did because they were there for a specific purpose - there was something they wanted to do in life which required a college diploma. Since Harvard had such a wonderful experience with them, they not only started accepting more homeschoolers, but their recruiters look for homeschoolers. So, it's kind of ironic that if you want your child to have a good chance at getting into Harvard, unschooling can be the very best preparation! Back in the 60's homeschooling might have been an obstacle for college, but now it's actually a plus. There are lots of colleges that not only accept but welcome homeschoolers and unschoolers.

It's unfortunate that only certain types of work, like medicine and science, have prestige value in our culture. This kind of hierarchy is regrettable, because every child should be free to follow their passion. There shouldn't be any difference in prestige between a good brain surgeon and a good photographer. Everyone should do what they love doing and do it as best as they can.

10. Lastly, what grounds you, moves you, fills your well?

When I'm talking to a client and they get it. To witness that happening is so wonderful! When parents tell me that my words have helped them and helped their children, that is what fills my well. That's why I'm doing this work.

One more thing I'd like to add is that our next book will be about standing up for children in public places, about being an "enlightened witness". It's so hard when I see a child mistreated in public, because it's such a delicate situation in our culture. We can plan how we might intervene in a hypothetical situation, but when it actually happens it can be very stressful and difficult. So we'll be putting together a book or booklet of suggestions on how to intervene in a way that will be helpful and welcomed by both the child and the parent.

Wendy Cook is an artist, photographer and the author of Mother Rising blog.  She lives on the outskirts of DC with her family. Reprinted with permission from Mother Rising.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc. is a parenting counselor, director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.