By Jennifer Fink
For three days, my nine-year old son has been dragging himself around the house in a toy dump truck. He kneels in the dumper, hunches forward and uses his knuckles to propel himself. For three days. Around and around. Over and over. Three days, and it’s driving me crazy!
The Tonka ® trucks came up from the basement last weekend, old toys rediscovered. My boys immediately gravitated to the trucks. I thought they’d haul blocks; the blocks recently reappeared also. Then they started running laps, pushing the trucks, and the sound of rubber on linoleum ground into my head.
It was Nathan, my nine-year-old, who discovered that you could pull yourself around in a dump truck. He taught his brothers, and for awhile, the dump trucks were the hottest toys in the house. The boys took turns scooting around and competed in dozens of races before moving on to other things.
All except Nathan. He pulls himself around and around, and I imagine that my son, a recreational vehicle aficionado, pictures himself zooming over a frozen river on a snowmobile. Maybe, in his mind, he’s racing a four-wheeler around a dirt track. Or maybe my can’t-wait-to-grow-up son is simply happy he’s found a way to drive.
But as he spends hour after hour at the helm of his dump truck, my patience wears thin. He looks ridiculous in the back of that toy truck. He’s way too OLD for such a toy truck. His father tells him as much.
“You’re too big for that! You’ll break the truck!”
Nathan looks up, hurt, and storms off silently.
I don’t understand his fascination. Normally, he pursues interests well beyond his years. He runs numerous businesses, including a produce stand down at our local Green Market. He reads books of military history, just for fun. The Civil War, Revolutionary War, Cold War, Mexican-American War, World Wars I and II – Nathan knows more about American history than most grown-ups I know. Daily, he ponders questions such as, “I wonder what it would be like if Hitler never lived?” and “Which president do you think made the biggest mistake?” He challenges my thinking, and we’re both better people for it.
Most days, he plays on the computer, watches documentaries and reads prodigiously. He almost never “plays” anymore, except elaborate games of pretend with the neighbors, and even these are often reenactments of historical events. Oregon Trail, Pioneer Times and Civil War are among his favorite games.
So what’s with the dump truck? The first day, the toy was “new.” I was sure the novelty would end soon, and I kept quiet. The second day, the truck was the first thing on his mind. Still in his pajamas, he climbed into the truck bed and pulled himself around the house. He took a couple breaks – long enough to get dressed, eat meals and watch a couple TV shows – but he always returned to the truck. I was beginning to get annoyed. Didn’t he have anything better to do?
Day three. The sight of my nine-old-son in the truck is driving me crazy! My unschooled nine-year-old, the one who can’t spell, who struggles with basic math facts, who hates to write, is spending his days in a dump truck. My brain screams. I want to tell him to stop, to cut it out, to do something!
I picture his former classmates in neat little rows, working their way through division. His friends are memorizing spelling lists and writing book reports, and he’s pulling himself around the house in a dump truck.
Finally, I do scream.
“Stop pulling yourself around the house! Get out of that thing and DO something!”
It’s not a moment I’m proud of. It’s a moment that goes against everything I believe. I believe children’s actions have worth. I believe they learn from their play. I believe the best learning is uninvited. But I believe only in theory. Confronted by the reality of a nine-year-old boy who’d rather tool around in a dump truck than tackle multiplication, my beliefs crumble.
Nathan looks at me, confused, and gets out of the truck. How can I explain myself? How can I explain that the sight of a nine-year-old in a dump truck threatens my beliefs? I know he’s just having fun, but his fun scratches at all my insecurities. His fun challenges my every belief and expectation. It exposes my doubts and fears.
As a new unschooling parent, I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to make sure my children’s “school days” are productive and educational. It’s as if I expect a surprise inspection by the Department of Public Instruction any minute. I want, every minute of every day, to be able to point to my boys and say, “See how wonderfully they’re learning?”
It’s a ridiculous expectation, but it’s there all the same. Every day, I struggle to balance their need for freedom with my need to see them excel. So many people don’t understand or respect homeschooling; I want my boys to be poster boys for home education.
But my children are children, not poster boys. Nathan goes off to his room, and I realize that, yet again, I’ve put someone else’s ideas of “what a nine-year-old should know” ahead of my child’s needs. I realize that while I’ve committed, on the outside, to an unschooling lifestyle, inside, I’m still keeping score. Inside, I’m still anxiously watching their activities, filtering and reprocessing them until they fit the school categories of Math, Science, Language and Social Studies.
I realize the problem is me, not the dump truck. I need to let go of my expectations. Maybe our activities don’t need translate into neatly encapsulated learning experiences. Maybe life isn’t meant to be separated into subject areas. Maybe the whole is more than the sum of its parts. And maybe my boys – even the nine-year-old one—need some dump truck days.
About the author:
Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer and homeschool Mom. She lives in Mayville, WI with her husband and four sons.