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These Days

In Honor of Mothers

by Dr. Richard Prystowsky

hen I was a child, although I was eager to learn some things, for some reason I steadfastly did not want to learn how to ride a bike without training wheels. My mother, however, wanted me to accomplish this task, even though I myself was neither in a hurry to ride a bike without training wheels nor concerned that I had not yet reached this developmental marker of "growing up." For one thing, I liked the security of knowing that, as long as my bike had training wheels, I wasn’t going to take a spill while riding it.

My own fears and desires notwithstanding, one day my mother made the effort literally to send me on my way. After my training wheels were removed from my bike (I’m not sure who removed them), I climbed onto the seat of what now had become my "two wheeler." My mother stood behind the bike, steadying it so that I wouldn’t fall. Although I was quite nervous, I was willing to give this experiment a try, knowing that my mother was standing behind me, helping to insure my success. As I slowly began to pedal, I could tell that she was keeping up with me, and I could feel her steady the slightly swaying bike.

As I pedaled faster without falling, I felt more and more confident. After all, I knew that my mother was right there with me, keeping the bike from tipping over. All I needed to do was pedal faster and faster and enjoy the success of my new venture. In my rising sense of exhilaration and glee, I quickly turned my head to glance at my mother. I could see that she was pleased by my success. She was smiling at me, cheering me on—but from quite a distance. Realizing that she wasn’t with me, helping to steady the bike, I suddenly lost confidence and then control. Though I was no longer looking back at my mother, I could not steady the bike, which began to wobble more and more intensely. In short order, I fell.

I cannot recall whether or not I was hurt, nor can I recall whether or not I was upset with my mother for having abandoned me. As a child, I didn’t think about the fact that she would have had to run fast in order to have kept up with me. All I knew was that Mom wasn’t there, and that realization was enough to make me feel so insecure that I lost control of the bike.

Whether or not I began riding the bike immediately after having fallen off of it, I never again used training wheels on my bike. Instead, I learned to ride my two-wheeler — with confidence, and with much joy.

As a homeschooling parent, I find this story rich with meaning. My mother had not forced me to begin riding a two-wheeler before I was ready to ride one; rather, whatever her own investment in my accomplishing this task, she surmised that I was more capable of achieving this goal than I considered myself to be. Despite my initial and persistent discomfort in facing what I saw as a daunting task, she challenged me to reach a height that I hadn’t yet reached but that she thought I could reach and would enjoy reaching. Standing behind me, she supported me while I began the new journey—and then she let go, cheering me on as she watched me accomplish something that I had been sure I was not yet ready to accomplish.

My mother understood my developmental stage, she acknowledged my feelings of fear and anxiety, she supported and encouraged me, and, perhaps most important, ultimately she guided me while also letting me own the process of my learning, as well as the outcome. Even if my mother had been able to keep up with my fast and furious pedaling, she did the right thing by letting go. In fact, one might even say that, by letting go, she backed my efforts especially well because she empowered me to own them. I fell, not because I lacked the ability to ride a two-wheeler, but because my mind was still in training-wheel mode. Still attached to the idea that I couldn’t ride a two-wheeler all by myself, I fell because I became disillusioned. That is, I fell when I was forced to drop my illusion, an experience that was simply too much for me to bear. And yet, it was also clear that I had been riding a two-wheeler all on my own — quite fast, in fact, and with very good control.

It’s also important to note that, when I fell, my mother didn’t make a big deal of my "failure." Rather than rewarding my feeling discouraged, she acknowledged that I had a slight setback and then helped me to move along, to move ahead. She remained confident in my ability and encouraged me to keep trying, to keep practicing.

My mother’s confidence in and encouragement of me, as well as her helping to guide me in my pursuits, was a constant in our relationship. As I was preparing for my first semester in graduate school, for example, I became overwhelmed by the amount of class material that we were to have read prior to the start of the semester. Some of this material was quite challenging. One book in particular—James Joyce’s Ulysses—confused me so much that, in sadness and desperation, I called my mother to tell her that I had made a mistake and that I should probably not even start the program. She told me that of course I could do the work and that, even though it was challenging, the university would not have accepted me into the program if the graduate school faculty did not think that I was capable of succeeding. And then she let go, allowing me to own my fears and to experience my learning path. Years later, when I was on the graduation platform, being hooded for my PhD, my mother was in the audience, smiling and cheering me on, from a distance.

In her later years, my mother experienced devastatingly failing health. On January 7, 2004, she died in a tragic house fire that consumed my childhood home. Since her death, I have thought a lot about her parenting. In my own parenting, I seem to have appropriated her modeling of both encouraging and letting go, in so doing, allowing my children to benefit from my knowledge and experiences (or so I hope), yet own their learning experiences. Perhaps I was never comfortable being a completely unschooling homeschooling parent partly because, as my mother taught me through her actions, as a parent I had both the right and the responsibility to introduce my kids to challenges that perhaps they did not think they were ready to face. To this day, I try to encourage my now-college-age children to work through their moments of self-doubt so that, to paraphrase a line by poet Robert Browning, they can reach beyond their grasp. As my mother did for me, I try to reward my children for their efforts, encourage them to expand their horizons, cheer them on as they succeed, and not focus on their occasional setbacks.

I know that I have a lot of both of my parents in me. At this moment, though, as I contemplate the beginning of the second year of my life without my mother, I am thinking particularly of her and the many wonderful gifts that she gave to me and, through me, to others.

One of my mother’s greatest gifts was her modeled teaching that those of us who could do so were obligated to help empower persons who needed our assistance. In her views and professional work, my mother was a staunch advocate for the underprivileged. She knew from personal experience what it meant to face and overcome obstacles. As the only female in her medical school class (she received her medical degree in the early 1940s), for example, she faced professional obstacles not faced by her male counterparts. As a Jew growing up in the Deep South, she faced discrimination on a daily basis. As a child of the Depression, my mother had understood economic hardship firsthand. And as the youngest child in her large family, she had become fatherless when she was two or three years old and therefore deeply understood the feelings of grief, longing, and abandonment.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my mother became a child psychiatrist, who, as I’ve suggested, advocated strongly on behalf of persons who had trouble advocating for themselves. In her private practice, she treated patients pro bono if they could not afford to pay her. She spent countless hours working at a child guidance clinic located in a poor section of New Jersey. She taught Head Start teachers, making sure that they understood that their primary obligation was to meet the needs of their students.

Maybe this fact will help explain my mother best: When she would play the board game "Life" with us, she would refuse to sell her children at the end of the game. She just couldn’t do that, even in a game.

Like my mother, we parents need to honor children’s present needs and feelings while also respecting their abilities to move ahead. We need to empower our children by validating their own learning paths, guiding them along the way, supporting them in their efforts — and knowing when to let go so that we don’t inadvertently try to own their responsibility to learn and achieve.

My mother understood well that it’s okay for kids to struggle and for parents to stand back and watch while their children work through problems. If all goes reasonably well, our children should gain self-confidence if they know that we parents stand behind them — even if at a distance — regardless of the outcome of their efforts. For, even if we’re at a distance, if we guide our children with love and act from the heart, focusing more on the process of their learning than on their learning outcomes, they will know that we are fully there both with and for them, smiling at them as we enjoy their presence in the moment of their most precious being.

Ultimately, my mother showed and taught me that all of us have the capacity to be loving guides for persons who could use our help. Sometimes, we just need to make the effort to help someone begin the journey — shaky as that journey might be — and then to have the courage to stand back and watch, letting go with love, never really being all that far behind. R.P.

___________________

 

Dr. Richard Prystowsky and his wife, Charlie Miles, homeschooled their two younger children, both of whom are now in college. Formerly a profession of English and humanities at Irvine Valley College, Richard currently is the Division Chair for Math, Science & Engineering at College of the Redwoods. He is also the author of the college writing text "Careful Reading, Thoughtful Writing" and formerly was the editor of the education magazine "Paths of Learning." Dr. Prystowsky is also a popular and inspiring homeschool conference speaker and workshop presenter.