on community

on community post image

Years ago, when we first decided to homeschool, I didn’t know a single homeschooler. I was desperate to find community for the kids. I wanted them to have friends; I didn’t want them to be isolated, didn’t want to make them weird.

We started going to a Park Day in Berkeley when H was just four. The boys his age, a little older, worried me. How they pounded other kids on the backs when they played tag, tripped each other purposely. How they taunted each other: “You’re so lame!” “You’re so gay!”

The mothers were off in a circle, not really watching, singing choral rounds. The irony of this not lost on me.

My gut told me that this wasn’t what I wanted for my kid, but he needed friends. Was this just how boys were? Was I being overprotective?

There was one mom I liked–young, closer to my age. One rainy day she invited me and the kids over for play, for tea. Her kitchen, so cozy. She put out a plate of homemade scones, honey for my tea. H played with her son, L played with a basket of Playmobil at my feet, and the mother and I talked about our read-alouds and recipes for butternut squash soup.

A few weeks later, after a Game Day at someone’s house, the boys circled up to kick a soccer ball. H was five by then, had never played soccer. The ball rolled to him, waiting there in his denim overalls. He did the natural thing and bent to steady the ball with his hands. Up shot a great wall of objection, variations of “You can’t touch it, idiot!”

One of the ringleaders was the son of the woman who had invited me to tea. He trash-talked constantly, a fact I’d been trying to ignore. Despite the hollering, H stayed in the circle, kicked at the ball, watched it bumble its way to the opposite side. The other boys pinballed it back to speed, boom boom boom, back and back and back, setting it up for one of the boys to hammer it across the circle, right at H, hard at his pelvis. 

“Haha! Got him in the nuts!” the kid crooned. The others joined in, “Haha! Got him in the nuts! Got him in the nuts!” 

H didn’t cry. I don’t remember what he did. I don’t remember what I did. I just know I got us out of there, skipped saying goodbye to the mothers, knew we’d never go back.

He was five. He still drank from a sippy cup.

* * *

I’ve been lucky, recently, to be in a couple different writing groups with young mothers and the topic of community has come up. The need for it. The longing for it.

Back in those early homeschooling days, I was so bent on finding community for my kids that I pushed down what my intuition was telling me. That at five and two, it was okay if they had a small handful of friends. The neighbor girls. Cousins. The little girl from the preschool that we’d quit a year before–a year younger than H, smart and sweet, with hands like hummingbirds. H adored her. And even more: my kids had each other. At five and two, H and L played endlessly.

In my journal back then, I wrote about “Got him in the nuts!” and the trash-talking boy. I did not write about that boy’s mother and the afternoon she served me homemade scones and we chatted about butternut squash soup and The Jungle Book. That floods back from memory, all these decades later.

At the time, I don’t think I understood how much I needed to sit with another mother, stirring honey into tea.

Something I’m learning as I write my book is how expectations for parents–especially mothers–have shifted in recent years. Intensive parenting has become the norm.

With so much focus on kids, what’s rarely discussed is how mothers need support. I’m not talking about the “self-care” you see on instagram–wine and spa time and weekend getaways–but real community.

* * *

A month after the soccer incident, we tried another homeschooling group. A smaller one, with mostly younger kids. The vibe was different from the moment we showed up, the mothers turning to us in unison with big smiles, hellos. One took H to meet the other kids, off playing tag. None of them trash-talking, pounding kids on the backs.

Something in my chest released that day. Thursday, April 23, 1998—it’s there in my first homeschooling notebook. Under an old oak, kids chased H and H chased kids. I could not know how many hours L would spend playing house with friends in rooms formed by that old oak’s roots. I could not know that one day H would be a preteen at that park, jostling with friends, wandering off to the corner store while his stick-loving baby brother waddled across the circle, pulling needles from my friends’ knitting projects. Could not know that many of these women would become beloved lifelong friends.

We were homeschooling parents, raising our kids outside societal norms. We needed each other.

But all parents need this, mothers especially. What I didn’t see at the time was how lucky I was, building community at a time when many parents are losing it.

* * *

One of my newer writing friends is the parent of a teenager. She laments how, when she’s with other parents at school events and such, it almost seems like a pitch session. Other parents use the time to tell about their kids, the activities they’re involved in, their college application plans.

Which is not the same as a trusted community, where you share what’s hard, what’s honest. Where you share yourself.

In my new writing communities with younger mothers, I find myself giving advice–though I bristle at advice. I want them to know how in recent decades, the media has trained mothers not to trust their intuitions. (That’s a TikTok link where I go deep into some of the enraging parenting shifts I’m uncovering as I research my book.)  I want them to understand that one of the best ways to hear your intuition, especially if you want to follow any path that differs from the dominant culture, is finding like-minded community.

Not an easy task, especially for working parents. Start small, I find myself saying. Find one like-minded parent, meet some weekend at a park. Let the kids play while you chat. It sounds simple, but in this there can be magic.

Maybe, eventually, invite a few others. Maybe skip the youth sports that society pushes and meet at a playground instead. Maybe plan a camping trip–maybe plan regular camping trips. When I walked over to that oak tree back in 1998, I had no idea how many camping trips we had in store. That they would be among my kids’ most cherished childhood memories, days of endless play with kids who would become their own lifelong friends. That these trips would bring my husband his own set of friends.

That this community would give me ongoing–still ongoing, as a parent of adult children–comfort and confidence as a mother.

* * *

I’d love to hear from you. Have you found the communities you’ve needed for yourself? If so, what did yours look like?

If not, what do you long for? What might the community of your dreams look like?

Mia Birdsong’s How We Show Up is an excellent guide to making family and community. I recommend the audiobook, which she reads.

* * *

A few things I’m loving lately:

  • Courtney Martin’s awesome adventure making her own mini book report ‘zine after reading Naomi Klein’s Doppelgänger. I’ve done so many of these folded paper booklets with kids–I’m smitten with the idea of doing it as an adult.
  • I know I’m constantly tagging psychologist Peter Gray’s research on play; this piece which includes the voices of kindergarten teachers expressing fury at how kindergarten has shifted away from play–due to wrong-minded systemic change–is heartbreaking.
  • A synchronicity: Austin Kleon’s recent (excellent as usual) 10 Things Worth Sharing newsletter included a link to an older article by Lawrence Weschler that looks at the origins of kindergarten and its surprising influences on art and architecture.
  • And since we seem to be, as ever, dwelling on the theme of play, allow me to suggest Summer Camp for adults who want to play with words, led by my writing teacher and friend Sarah McColl. It’s an online experience that sounds creative and fun and I know you’ll fall hard for Sarah, your camp counselor.
13 comments… add one
  • L May 6, 2024 @ 14:20

    I definitely failed at this. I was so lonely from my own childhood of isolated homeschooling, that I was desperate for friends and dragged my kids to millions of meet-ups and activities they weren’t really interested in, instead of creating a calm and stable home. They chose public high school, which was good for them. I am still pretty lonely, I never found my tribe. But to be clear, we don’t live in a place where a secular homeschool tribe really exists. I would have loved the camping though. I tried to make a tribe with extended family but that was a failure too. It’s all been a bit of a disaster honestly.

    • patricia May 6, 2024 @ 14:34

      My heart goes out to you, L, for all your efforts. That sounds so hard! Maybe it wasn’t a failure on your part, but a lot of unlucky mismatch in a place that sounds like a challenge. Even if you didn’t find your tribe then, I hope you keep searching now, for yourself. Maybe start up with one kindred person who shares something, anything with you and go from there.

  • Cindy (Sloan) Burnett May 6, 2024 @ 14:27

    Thank you so much for sharing this story today! My son and his wife are thinking of home-schooling. I passed on your blog info hoping they sign up to learn all the great information you have shared.

    • patricia May 6, 2024 @ 14:36

      Thank you for sharing, Cindy! I wish the best for your son and his wife. I hope they find supportive community whether or not they homeschool.

  • Tina May 6, 2024 @ 22:20

    Community. That’s the first word that comes out of my mouth when someone tells me they are thinking of homeschooling their kids. Community is what it’s all about.

    I always enjoy your writing. It brings back memories of our community.

    • patricia May 6, 2024 @ 22:36

      We were so, so lucky to have each other. I’m only beginning to really understand how rare our experience was. So many young parents today—homeschooling or not—don’t have that. I’m so glad I finally went to Alameda after running into you and Anita a few times. Playing with clay at Boys Club at Live Oak Park—I remember you! ❤️

  • S.Burt May 7, 2024 @ 11:14

    As a parent home educating our 5.5 year old, I feel fortunate that we have found a weekly forest group that my son adores – and he gets to see the same group of small children consistently (independent of me), run by two reggio-inspired, nature-loving, former early years teachers (he connects with them too). Outside of this group, we do one-on-one play dates with 2 other children (one of whom has ADHD and is a few years older.) It requires more understanding and empathy during this play date and I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately: I want to be inclusive but also find that my son gets hurt emotionally or physically by this child at every play date – be it knocking down his sandcastles or kicking sand (which ended up going in his eyes and on his tongue, which deeply upset him) and it’s hard for them to have quality play time. I am under the impression that his friend often doing unkind things because he does not feel good in himself. For him, it’s his only play date and he is otherwise quite isolated and doesn’t have many opportunities to build play/social skills with other children whereas for my son, I don’t feel he needs it – but I keep going along to this play date because my son still asks to play with him (and the parent of this child is someone I enjoy talking to) but play dates leave me frazzled at the end of it. Should I stop? They both have very different interests and tend to bounce off each other’s energy, which leads to me stepping in constantly because of all the screaming and demands. My son acts very differently around him, and is not calm. I often yearn for play dates where I can relax more, like he does with his other friend. Usually whenever we go to a playground, my son will happily approach any child to play.

    • patricia May 7, 2024 @ 12:42

      Hello, S.! The forest school sounds incredible! Both for your son and because it might give you a little time to yourself?

      The playdate sounds complicated. I can only encourage you to listen to your intuition on this one. I will say that I wrote recently to a mom who was allowing play for her son that she felt uncomfortable with, but she questioned her apprehensions because she’d received societal messages that made her think a decision to pull away would demonstrate a sort of close-mindedness. It sounds like you’re continuing the playdates partly because you think they’re important for the other boy. That’s a generous, empathetic response–and it isn’t something you owe anyone. Your feelings as the parent of your son matter too. I’d suggest really thinking about all you’ve written here and see if you can hear what your gut is telling you.

      Thank you for coming here and sharing your story. I think so many parents go through situations like this, but we don’t talk enough about them. Your son seems like a lucky kiddo to have a thoughtful parent like you.

      • S.Burt May 7, 2024 @ 13:47

        Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I often hear people talk about “building resilience” through having opportunities to work through challenges with other children, and it’s something that’s often criticised of homeschooled kids v those at school (even though many home educated kids, like mine, are in no way sheltered and have to navigate challenges naturally in social group settings, and at the playground, as I demonstrate here). I also have a fear of overprotecting and like to see how things play out, but it has been a year of regular play dates now and I haven’t seen the friendship build. They are still both so young, of course. I also notice how differently they play in their homes v at the same park, where the same challenges happen, so I have tried and mix things up. You are correct in your thinking that I’m also trying to also do this for the other child. I hate the thought of him being further isolated, and he already has low self-esteem. I am going to listen more closely to my instincts on this one (whilst feeling conflicted!). Thank you, as always, for your insightful posts.

        • patricia May 7, 2024 @ 18:27

          These situations can be so complicated! I hope that as you work your way toward your answers, you keep yourself and your own needs and desires in mind too. xo.

  • CathyT May 7, 2024 @ 14:21

    Love this thoughtful post and the piggy toes in the picture!

    Community is hard and it’s something I really tried to foster with both my groups of kids (two sets of kids two years apart but the sets 9 years apart). We were lucky to live near enough to secular groups and I clicked with a mom or two… My kids are grown now but the moms still see each other as often as we can — every other month? Texting every couple of weeks or less… It has been lucky for me.

    With one family that I connected with so-so but my son wanted to like because he did have some cool toys and was kind until he wasn’t, I talked with the mom about how my son sometimes was just suddenly “ready to go” and was that ok with her and her son? My son then knew that as soon as the child showed unkind words or actions he could say he wanted to leave and we did leave within the next 8 minutes or so (after cleaning up whatever they’d been playing with). Over time the mom realized there was a trigger and over a longer time realized that the two kids weren’t ready to be together at a house — we then tried playdates at parks more than at a house before the kids ended up drifting apart and not requesting to see each other… Maybe I could have still seen the mom but I was juggling too much other stuff with the rest of my kids to pursue that friendship. Friendships take time and energy and commitment but also a common interest perhaps?

    • patricia May 7, 2024 @ 18:34

      The one-on-one relationships can be so hard when it feels like there needs to be a mesh between the parents and the kids! I mean, how likely is that? I love how you and your son talked about what was happening and found a way to handle it.

      I was lucky to have a big support group, so the one-on-one pressure wasn’t there so much. It was big enough that we could all find the people we needed. I wish everyone had that.

  • Jen May 15, 2024 @ 3:35

    I’ve been grateful for community this week. My daughter had a real “teenage morning” moment (lots of emotion over something relatively small) one morning. We were due out at our home ed group and I insisted that she come along, even though she was too emotional to talk to me. She calmed down in the car and we talked; then she went off with her best friend in the group while I had a lovely chat with some other mothers-of-teens who GOT it. I mean, I know it’s developmentally appropriate, I know it’s perfectly normal, but I was still emotionally shattered myself after her tantrum and SO grateful for these women who listened without judgement, who shared their “teenage moment” stories, who told me about how their oldest children have matured into adulthood. It was lovely.

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