“All I am saying ... can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” ~ John Holt
I should have perhaps written this post a long time ago......but then perhaps the time is appropriate for me to share this now, as I am on a different wavelength now than where I used to be some years ago.....and it does feel good to reflect on some things that happened many years ago now, after having perhaps internalized what I learned then, completely.
When we just started out on this journey, I did have some "options" in mind as I perhaps viewed this initially as a "break" from school and the system that we were all so used to and grew up with. So, at the back of my mind were thoughts and mental assessments of schools where Raghav would "fit in" later perhaps. In my head then were these thoughts - "If he wants to go to school later on, then maybe he can go to ....." Top on the list was KFI (Krishnamurthy Foundation) - that was the only option in Chennai that I had "marked" in my head....and then the only other place I could think of was "Bhavya" in Bangalore.
Very soon after we started our homeschooling journey though, I realized that this was not just a "break" for my son and us from the system, but rather a journey that had no marked way / path and was leading to NOWHERE - a place that was not predetermined nor one that we knew of already. It was a journey of living in the here and now - not in the past or in the future. That was a huge revelation and realisation for us as a family. But it has also been something that has given us unshakeable faith in our son, ourselves and what we are doing. We have moved on so much since then that it has now become a way of life for us.
Today, I reflect on our journey of living and learning again, when I refresh my memories of our visit to a small "BEING SPACE" - that is what I like to call it - many years ago, while on a short trip to Bangalore.....a space that was a catalyst of sorts for us to go the unschooling way...A space to just be oneself without any judgement....with adults interacting with kids from a space of respect for the little people that the children were, creating a safe space where they explored the environment and themselves, with freedom to make choices and where they were listened to with empathy. A space called Bhavya.....a space where children taught me how to truly listen to and interact with one's whole being to children.
Soon after we started homeschooling, a friend of mine who was my sounding board before I took the decision and who was the catalyst really to wake me up and LISTEN to my son, suggested that I visit Bhavya some time. Her son was going there and she kept telling me how she could not imagine another place where he would or could "fit in". So, when we got an opportunity to go to Bangalore for the Aero Show some years ago, we also made some time to go to Bhavya. I was very keen to meet Sita Nayar, who started it and strangely, Raghav wanted to go too (it takes a whole lot of effort sometimes to convince him to go anywhere!).
I still vividly remember what happened that day as I have held those moments very close to my heart.....moments that were turning points in this journey. We entered the unassuming compound and Raghav tentatively watched a few children playing in the sand pit. Almost immediately, his steps quickened and he went towards them and asked to play there. This was the first time I had seen Raghav open up almost immediately and feel completely at ease in a place other than home. It was also the first time he explored a new place all on his own. That was a huge first for us!
Some of the kids were playing in the sand pit and Raghav wanted a spade and a bucket that they had, to play by himself. He just went up to them and asked without any hesitation whatsoever - something that he rarely does! I am usually asked to be his voice or mouthpiece - a role that I am quite used to now. One of them asked him to wait till he finished, while another handed one of the things over to him immediately. Raghav then dug a bit in the sand pit, imagining that he was cooking something, while some of the kids watched, and then he wanted to move to another sandy area near the pit. Sensing that, my friend told him that the sand in the sand pit was cleaner and different from the other sand, and the other kids around asked him to be careful not to mix up the sand from the two areas. That was my first learning point from the kids - that little things that we might not really give much thought to, are SO important to them.
After Raghav had finished his cooking and wanted to go on and explore other things, he was walking around with the bucket and spade in hand, saying that he wanted to keep it in a safe place, where no one would disturb it. He tried putting it down in different places, and at every spot, the kids told him how that place might not be so safe as it was in the way of kids running or walking around. They also said that others may not know when they see that bucket and spade, that it was something that he had made and might take it away or destroy it unknowingly. Finally, my friend's son, who was much older than the others, offered to make a sign board that said "DO NOT DISTURB THIS" and stick it into the bucket of sand; he also suggested that the bucket be kept under the slide as kids usually would go only on the slide. Raghav was finally satisfied with these suggestions, kept his creation under the slide with the sign in it, and went away content, with faith that his creation was finally in a safe place.
The extent to which each of them went to understand how precious that creation was to my son, moved and touched me so deeply, that even today it brings tears to my eyes. And they did not know my son - that was the first time they were seeing him, and the first time he was seeing them. Yet, there was a huge effort made to understand and interact with trust and empathy, spontaneously, without any adult intervention or facilitation. I realised then, the power of "truly listening" to children and the infinite possibilities that open up because of that. It was another learning point for me and a turning point in our homeschooling journey.
Bhavya gave me the confidence to try this out in faith - that when a child is "listened to" is when he/she will "listen too"! Bhavya opened a whole new world for me....I realised that there could be a space where kids could grow in freedom, make informed choices, stand by the choices they make, be listened to with empathy, empathise with others too, be respected for who they are and thereby learn to respect others too...that there could be a space where kids will show a readiness for everything - from sharing, to feeling comfortable in a place, to exploring new things, to wanting to learn something....I learned from talking to Sita and briefly watching what was happening in Bhavya, that children learn to play with others by learning to play with their parents first and that until they were really comfortable to be on their own and play with other kids, we need to be there with them while they play, as that is the most crucial time when most misunderstandings come up - so we need to be around with them, to help them understand each other, empathise with their feelings etc. Bhavya also made me understand how important it was for kids to trust another person, before any learning could happen. We were talking to Sita about how Raghav loves swimming, that neither of us knew how to swim, and that Raghav did not like going to a swimming class and she just turned to us and said :" Well, why don't one of you go learn swimming and then teach him!" Until that point, I had not even thought of a possibility like that!
Raghav then spent some time in their library reading some books and found a Thomas book that he liked very much. He wanted to take it home and so I asked him to ask Sita. He promptly went up to her and asked her if he could take it home. She replied saying he could, but asked him to return it before he left Bangalore. He was pleased and read it over and over again at home, over the weekend. He also kept asking me how many days there were left to go back to Chennai, and then reminded me to return the book the day before we had to leave! This was yet another learning point for me - that when you trust another, responsibility often flowers on its own.
My friend and I then chatted a little more and I got to know that kids there were even allowed to eat whenever they felt hungry, until they showed a readiness to stick to a schedule of sorts. They had a kitchen where the children sometimes cooked. It was also used at times as a quiet space where one could choose to eat alone too. Parents were also asked to be with their children at Bhavya, until the kids were comfortable and expressed that. There was one kid who was new and whose mother could not come in because she had another little one. So whenever the kid wanted to go back home and expressed that, she was taken back home, as many times as she wanted to in a day! Another kid spent many months just climbing the trees in the compound and did not want to explore anything else - she was respected for that and no one forced her to do anything else.
Later on that weekend, we also visited my friend and her son in their house. My friend's son was much older, but still had some dinky cars that he gave Raghav to play with. When we were about to leave, Raghav wanted to take some of the cars home. He asked my friend who told him that if her son was ok with it, he could take them. Her son did not want to give them away. I tried the usual tactics of distracting him and other things which we learn so quickly from others around us. None of those worked. Raghav was bawling away and I finally learned from my friend how to deal with it all. They were some of the most painful moments for me as a mother, to listen to my child cry. But that was the only way I could have done it. She showed me how to hold him close while I used any phrase in the negative with him, as that usually made it easier for kids to handle the “No’s”. So I held Raghav close to me as I carried him and told him that I knew how much he wanted that car, but that he could not take it home as it belonged to my friend's son and that he could play with it there, as long as he wanted to. This went on and on, but it finally worked! Raghav threw the car down in anger, screamed to leave immediately, and cried himself to sleep a few minutes later. It was an important learning for him and me - on how to BE with a feeling, and something which has been with me till today.
The visit to Bhavya was an eye-opener for us as a family in many ways. For Raghav, I guess he understood in his own way that there could be a space like this, besides home, where he could be himself and be respected for that. For us, there were these words that rang loud and true in our ears after that - EMPATHY, FREEDOM, TRUST AND RESPECT. I must say that this visit to Bhavya came quite early in our homeschooling journey and was a turning point in a sense for us to move towards unschooling.
I understood how important it was for Raghav to have a space like that where he could be trusted, respected and listened to for what he was. It was also important for him to have a physical space for himself wherever he went, where he could be alone and quiet if he wanted to, when some things outside overwhelmed him.
I remember how when he was much younger and we had invited a whole bunch of friends and their kids over for dinner, the kids kind of took over his room and all his toys.....they were all over the place and after a point he just got so overwhelmed that he gave up and came and sat with us, holding on to one little toy. He couldn't cry or say how upset he was. I knew he was, but did not stand up for him because of my ignorance and being worried as to what my friends would say or think if I stopped their kids. Sharing was a virtue that was deeply ingrained in me and I could not understand then what it could mean to my child, when his whole world had turned upside down in a few hours! That was how insensitive I was! But there is hope for everyone who wants to introspect and learn, and I learned too and have come a long long way since.....to a point now, when I understand and believe completely that one cannot share happily with another, until one is allowed to own something totally for as long as one wants to. I have now learned how to tell people and kids that my son is still learning how to share; that sometimes he does not want to give his toys to them because they belong to him; and that he would share happily with them when he was ready. We also ask some of them to bring their own toys to play with. Saying that has empowered me and him to be ourselves and interact more freely with others without shame or guilt. However, it is still difficult in a world where sharing amongst kids is seen as something that has to be imbibed, and not sharing is something that is looked down upon and not understood in the true spirit. We are still finding and making our way.
I strove hard to create a space like that for him at home first. We had to make many changes but every one of them has been worth much more than what I can put into words. First, I stopped inviting people home at random, without involving Raghav in the process. This is something that we do till today, because sometimes he does get thrown when people come in suddenly and stay on for a long time. He feels that his space has been intruded upon in some ways. We also made a list of Do’s and Don'ts that he would show to people who came home, to get them to understand his needs better. Wherever he goes, he usually carries a part of this space with him, where he can retreat to if he really needs to - and that space could be his Lego, or a favourite toy, or his iPad or anything else from home. It gives him a sense of security.
What I have learned from watching the kids at Bhavya is this -
If we learn to trust children, respect them and empathise with them; we give them a SAFE space to BE and open out a whole world for them to explore on their own and in their own way, with freedom to choose and the responsibility to stand by their choices.
The few hours that we spent in Bhavya are still fresh in my memory, making me feel connected with that truly sacred space, even from many miles away..... It is a space that cannot be described..., only experienced, felt and then lived, from the deepest recesses of one's being.