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Talking to Parents

You like and trust kids. You value play. You live the Agile Roots, honor your agreements, understand the power of authentic relationships, and are generally on-board with all this ALC stuff. It makes sense to you. So you head off to ALF Summer so you can get all trained up to be an ALF.

Or maybe you start by volunteering in a school…Regardless, they’ll find you sooner or later. They’ll see you there, with Peter Gray quotes decorating your kanban, and they’ll make a bee-line towards you. They’re…the adults.

I find facilitation with young people relatively intuitive. Supporting adults takes more work, simply because they generally have more un-schooling to do than children do. I used to joke and pretend that I preferred working with kids to working with adults. That’s not true, though, and it’s a good thing. Because there’s no way to ALF and not facilitate for adults. There just isn’t. Even if you aren’t one of the main adults responsible for a school or summer training program, at some point the adults will find you and ask you to live up to your title. To be a facilitator.

Depending on who and where you are, most of these adults may be friends and family members out in the world. They may be young adults interning or volunteering near you, trying to learn about different approaches to education or discern whether they want to become an ALF. And while those conversations can be challenging until you are experienced enough that they flow (and they will…), they’re not the ones I get asked about most.

Usually, it’s the parents people wonder how to talk to.

Sometimes, young ALFs ask because they’re worried about being taken seriously, and new ALFs ask because they’re worried they won’t do a “good enough” job in some way. Sometimes transferring parents ask because they’re used to not having a voice or to being antagonized by teachers in previous schools. Sometimes new parents ask because they want to know that we’ll support them in working through challenges or fears; that we’ll share stories with them about what their kid is doing; that we’ll make this whole parenting-a-self-directed-learner thing as easy as we can for them. That we’ll be Facilitators.

I should also mention that sometimes kids ask, because they want to have more effective discussions with their parents. Or because they’re wondering how I could possibly spend so much time writing emails and having meetings. No hiding things from them ๐Ÿ˜‰

How do you see parents?

This question always tempts me to grin and answer “with my eyes,” but that’s only partly true. I see them with my eyes, but more often I see them with my mind’s eye. They’re on the other side of the phone line or computer screen, these complex humans who love and are dedicated to the care of other (smaller) complex humans. Who want deeply to make sure their children grow into fulfilled, joyful adults. Who also have an enormous job (you created and are growing a human?!?) to do with no breaks while trying to preserve their personal lives and navigating the busy and expensive New York City of 2015.

I hear of other settings where parents are mistrusted, criticized, or generally looked down on, and where their concerns are treated as challenges to teachers’ power and so received with hostility. This makes no sense to me. I want what’s best for this kid. They want what’s best for this kid. We’re on the same team, in a community that values trust, respect, and open communication. Maybe we’ll disagree sometimes about what “best for this kid” looks like or how to get there (and maybe we’ll disagree so much that they’ll decide to choose a school with a different philosophy). If our relationship is build on trust and we keep conversation channels open, we’ll find ways to work it out and cooperate to support the kid we both love.

To the young ALFs and new ALFs

You don’t need to be scared of parents. They don’t bite, and they’re not out to get you in trouble. Those fears come from myths educators are told so that they see policy-makers and curriculum-developers as closer allies than students’ parents (I won’t take space here speculating who such myths serve…). The fears may also come from your experiences as a disempowered young person whose relationships with authority figures were warped by the assumption that your interests conflicted. The reality is that parents are humans who want an awesome life for a young person who you coincidentally also want an awesome life for. Yay partnership!

If you’re worried about being taken seriously because you’re generally insecure, you may not be quite ready to ALF. Kids and parents will pick up on insecurity and self-doubt, and why should they trust you if you don’t trust yourself? Do some introspection. Call a friend (or me!). Come play and grow at ALF Summer. And check back in when you’ve got that self-doubt in check enough to speak and act with conviction (which doesn’t mean you never get to say you don’t know something…).

If you’re worried about being taken seriously because you’re young or new to this work, remember that sincerity is far more powerful than rhetoric. Be your authentic self, speaking honestly from your own experience while staying open to learning. I entered ALC as the youngest ALF (and only female at the time…). I’ve found that those who start out not taking me seriously on account of my age (or gender) usually change their attitude when I start sharing my observations and experiences, since I speak with sincerity and conviction. And this was before we had such a thorough website and amazing FAQ page to offer as resources! You’ve got a community and some sweet resources available to you, for yourself and to offer to others. You’re exactly as capable and probably more supported than you imagine yourself to be. You can do this!

I always try to enter conversations with parents from a place of openness, compassion, and partnership. Before we start, I take a moment to think of them with respect and gratitude. I may also use this moment to focus and release any hurriedness or stress I’m carrying from the day. I want my body language and energy to communicate–before either of us says a word–how confident I am in us both and that our relationship is important enough to me that I’m putting aside other work to attend to it. Then I listen. I always try to listen first, even if I think I know what’s on the parent’s mind or on our agenda.

It’s like facilitating with kids. When they come to you with a concern, you listen and you listen deeply. You are listening to the words, but also for what they’re feeling. Are they afraid of something or asking for something? Are they projecting their own upset onto someone else or a relationship? What do they need and how can you support them? Sometimes, you may choose to actually ask them these questions, and other times you may choose to reflect what they’ve said to help them hear themselves. You collaborate if asked; resist personalizing it if slighted; remember that different people can define the same word differently. Be open to the chance that you’re wrong and being given an opportunity to grow. Breathe. Speak honestly and simply.ย And hey, sometime’s you’ll be too busy to talk and someone won’t realize you’re in the middle of something. You can (and should) let them know: “Honestly, I really want to be here for you, but I’m in the middle of something and a little distracted. Can we schedule a time to talk later, so I can give you and this topic the focus you deserve? I really appreciate your understanding.” By holding your boundaries and communicating them clearly, you let others know you respect yourself and also that you value their thoughts enough to want to make time to really hear them. Most people respond well to this ๐Ÿ™‚ย 

I have found (in general, in the world) that people appreciate specific compliments about themselves and specific, heartful anecdotes about their children. I’ve found it powerful to complicate the thinking of those I disagree with by responding with an expression of curiosity and a question about how they arrived at their belief or what they meant by their word choice. I’ve noticed that things move faster when expectations, consequences, and deadlines are clearly communicated. I’ve also noticed that if I’m frustrated it’s often because I didn’t make my expectations clear enough at the start of things (and when others are frustrated with me, I conversely try to figure out what expectation they had that I misinterpreted or missed). Having grown up in a family that didn’t really know how to communicate well (we’ve all been learning together over the years…), I’ve had to figure out a lot of effective communication practices on my own. So I can assure you that Google, friends, and many people within the ALF network have lots of great pointers. As long as you’re listening compassionately and speaking authentically, you’ll do just fine.

To the transferring parents and new parents

First things first, let me answer the questions that come up most. No, we aren’t going to take your kids and bar you from the space. You’re welcome to participate by making offerings and showing up for assembly meetings. Please also reach out to your local ALFs with questions and concerns. We value your partnership, and we practice building authentic relationships on trust, communication, and mutual support.

Yes, we see and value the role you play in your child’s development. We respect the power of your relationship with them. There’s a diagram I draw for new ALFs sometimes where you, me, and your kid are the points of a triangle. I explain that conventional schooling strains the relationships which make up the sides of the triangle: kid-parent, parent-teacher, and teacher-kid. When your relationship with your kid involves coercing them to do homework you don’t necessarily care about (and between your return from work and their bedtime, you only have three hours with them…), that’s unnecessary stress. When I’m the source of that stress because I’m assigning them homework and then chastising you for their struggling against doing it, that puts us in conflict (or deeper conflict, if you already resent me for ruining the few hours each night you have to enjoy your kid). If I’m trying to force the kid to do homework and test prep because my job depends on their scores, then our relationship is going to be really strained, too. Which is why the ALC triangle looks different. When each of the relationships is based in trust and respect then nurtured through communication, the dynamic changes and the triangle is a much more pleasant place to be.

All this to say that I’m not going to antagonize you and will gladly listen to your thoughts. I won’t police the expectations or boundaries you set with your kids–like limits on their during-school-video-game use–but I’m glad to remind them that they have those agreements with you and to support them in making choices that honor your relationship. I’m also glad to tell you stories of the amazing things your kid does and says through the week. And to listen to your worries and ease them as best I can. And work through challenges with you. And celebrate with you.

And most ALFs feel the same. We know choosing to do something weird and wonderful and different can feel hard and lonely sometimes. We know parenting a self-directed learner is an adjustment from parenting a kid through normal school, and we know it can be hard not to know what your kid is doing all day. We know that even when your sure you’re making the right choice for your kid, it’s nice to hear acknowledgements of your work and the stories unfold as we witness your child’s journey. Sometimes we’ll be super busy, and sometimes we’ll put our feet in our mouths (sorry!). It may seem like we have it easy–without papers to grade and lesson plans to write–but constantly improvising to respond to kids’ interests, being super present all day to support them, juggling all the details of running a school (since we tend not to have separate administrators, event planners, or counselors/family coordinators to do that for us like regular school teachers do) can be a lot of work. This means we may not be able to answer your email until the end of the school day or to meet with you until next week, but it doesn’t mean we don’t want to hear you. Part of the reason we blog and instagram and tumble and have a social-network-esque website is so you have resources for when your local ALF has all of his or her twenty hands full at the moment. But we’ll tell you when we’re too distracted to hear you as well as we want, rather than pretending to listen. We may point you to other resources or ask to schedule a meeting so we can block off that time to put everything else down and turn our attention to you. And here’s me asking for your understanding when that happens. Know we want to support you and partner with you to support your kid. We want to hear you and share with you. I, for one, am really really grateful for the ALC-NYC parent community. I’m so grateful for parents trusting their kids and trusting themselves and trusting me. I wouldn’t be able to do many of the amazing things I do with students (like overnight trips to Philadelphia for theater workshops) if I didn’t have trustful relationships with their parents, and I’m always glad to put work into nurturing those friendships.

To the kids who notice and wonder

Hey. Your grown-ups care about you. A lot. When they’re excited or worried or frustrated and writing to me, it’s nearly always because they so so soooo want the best in the world for you. And sometimes I write them extra emails back to brag about how awesome you are, since I get to see you all day and they don’t. You and I may both be a little aghast at the number of email I have to respond to each week. But I’m grateful for each one. If you think about it, you might be, too.

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