Sunday, October 28, 2007

Homeschooling to Counter the Culture of Consumption

I came across a Washington Post article titled "Spending More for a Little Solace," which explains reasons that people buy "features they do not need and may never use," the bells and whistles on their DVD player, SUV, digital camera, etc. As a parent who taught her children consumer awareness from their toddler years on, and who views mainstream American culture as largely driven by Madison Avenue, a passage jumped out at me. It noted that interviews with children and parents show that "low-income parents do not splurge because they fail to understand the importance of delayed gratification or because they are impulsive," but because "they are acutely sensitive to how certain consumer products influence their children's 'search for dignity.'" The researcher said that, even among famlies that were extremely poor, every 8-year-old boy in her sample "had a Game Boy or Nintendo." This is because "parents, especially poor parents, tend to buy products they cannot afford because they are acutely focused on whether their children are fitting into peer groups." The parents "were choosing their child's psychological desires over their own material needs.'" That is a sad indictment on mainstream cultural identity in the US, and it gives good reason to resist assimilation.

Because consumer awareness has been a consistent part of my children's home education, Caitlin (17) and Laurel (14) are keenly aware of the psychological effect of advertising, as well as the lack of real value in most things heavily advertised. As a result, they are not materialistic; they don't feel the need to have whatever product is "in." Instead, when making consumer choices they follow their own hearts, and even then, they tend to set aside instant gratification, often spending time researching the product and reading reviews online before making the decision to spend.

Unbeholden to Madison Avenue's commands to "Collect 'Em All!" and "Get the New Improved!," the kind of things my children buy reflect a different set of values. The goods they desire are thoughtfully chosen books, music, and movies--all things that enrich them on well beyond the temporary rush of obtaining something new, and on levels deeper than the simple brief amusement from items bearing little "
play value."

Although many of the myths about homeschooling have been dispelled in recent years, our educational choice is still considered by many to be a "fringe" activity, practiced by oddballs from either end of the extremist spectrum. While I will continue working to clear those stereotypes in my own way, I also embrace the oddity of my educational choice, feeling comfortable being outside the mainstream, and so do my children. While Caitlin and Laurel are still sometimes looked at askance because of their unique educational paths, homeschooling has given them something of infinite value. Their desires are their own.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Stranger Danger? Maybe

I did not teach my children “never talk to strangers,” that all-too-common line that makes every unknown person a danger. Nor did I teach- or model for them the idea that every stranger is “just a friend you have not met.” I am certain that if we never talked to strangers, we would never meet potential new friends, but I temper that with commonsense caution.

When my then-3-year-old daughter and I were at the local shopping mall, we spotted a man who had the most unusual walking stick, hand-carved with a snake undulating up its length, and embedded with semi-precious stones. We were both fascinated and curious, so I stopped him for a chat. The "stranger" told us that he had carved the stick himself, and collected the stones while on rock hound vacations with his family when the kids were young. We learned that his entire family had been into gem hunting and cutting, and that common interest was the center of their leisure time and a source of many happy memories. My daughter and I expressed appreciation for his work of art, and I thanked him for taking the time to share his story.

As my little girl and I continued on our walk around the mall, we passed by the little county police booth off the food court. A staffer saw my daughter and came out to offer her a McGruff the Crime Dog pencil and a coloring book, and proceeded to tell her she should "never talk to strangers!" and I almost burst out laughing.

According to personal safety expert and author
Gavin De Becker , the police rep was more likely a danger—by virtue that she approached my daughter—than the man with the remarkable stick, whom we chose to approach. Of course, I used both of those encounters as examples of being open to approaching new people, and being cautious about those who approach us.

The majority of perps are not strangers; they know their victims, and gradually encroach, planning out every step, wooing the kids with friendship, attention, and special treatment. I know this from experience. Yes, it happened to me, and because of that, I have taught my children to trust their instincts, to worry about personal safety first, and “being nice” second.
Through example and careful words throughout their lives, I have let my children know that you can't recognize a perp by looking at him (I say "him" because most offenders are male), and that they have the right to say “NO!” to anyone whose presence or behavior makes them feel uncomfortable. This was reinforced by their taking the
radKIDS and RAD self-defense courses, which provide interactive, physical lessons in defending bodily integrity.

My children’s “lessons” in self-protection have been learned slowly over time, gently, and as appropriate. For instance, they have long known that adults have no business asking them for assistance, that adults should ask other adults for help. I have told my daughters that, if anyone approaches in a car, they are to walk in the opposite direction from the way the car is heading, and go to an area where there are a lot of people. They know that if they are lost or in trouble, they should seek assistance from someone—preferably a woman—working nearby, and they should not look for a security guard, because, statistically, most of them are ill-trained at best, and may be dangerous themselves.

I am glad that my daughters know that predators exist, and proud that my girls know they can stand up for themselves when need be. I am also pleased that they understand that strangers do not necessarily represent danger, that they are comfortable in a variety of situations. It is immensely satisfying to know that my children’s lives will be uncolored by the taint of abuse, that they are free to be who they are, to live confidently in the world and enjoy it.