I let my kids stomp and squish and splash in the mud, and I’m not proud. This post is not about how this makes me a better parent. It most certainly isn’t about how kids need to get out there and interact with the “real” world rather than sitting on screens. It’s not even about how unschooling frees my kids to learn from life and explore their world, although that’s true and I could write a post like that. Instead, it’s about why it’s okay that other people don’t let their kids get muddy.
I let my baby stomp and squish and splash in the mud. I stood and watched him go up to his knees in a delicious mud puddle and then pick up sticky clayey clumps and squish them through his fingers, then take those muddy fingers and grab my legs. And then a little girl–about three-years-old and Black and walking by with her family–felt she needed to notify me of this concerning behavior: “Um, he’s in the mud.” She looked up at me like this is a problem, so obviously I should be grateful for this information and immediately act on it. I jokingly replied to her that it was too late, he’s already in.
I don’t know what makes it such a firm rule for her that she should not play in the mud. Maybe she doesn’t like mud. But if it’s her parents’ rule, there’s one whole range of possibilities for why mud is not allowed. First, we were at a park day, our majority-white park group of freely playing, messy homeschool kids in contrast to the mostly Black and hispanic families from that neighborhood who probably come after work for a quick and not-too-messy visit. Second, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a chapter of Between the World and Me about why Black parents feel the need to discipline so harshly in a world that constantly and arbitrarily hurts their kids. Third, maybe the reasons go like this: mud is icky, you could get sick, you’ll ruin your nice clothes, my kids are too good to get in mud, you’ll look like no one cares about you.
Then there’s a more immediately practical range of possibilities for not playing in the mud, possibilities I’m more familiar with. If you have neither your own washing machine nor outdoor space, letting your kids get their clothes drenched in mud is a huge problem. The last time I let my five-year-old get in a serious mud puddle, it took three rounds of soaking to get it all out. And right now I have my own outdoor space, utility sink, and washing machine. I know intimately how much more it costs per month to rent a place with your own washing machine, and that rent money adds up. Plus, I have the time: I’m at home, I can save those clothes even if it takes several cycles. Even if they want to get muddy again tomorrow. I also have time to pack extra outfits and prepare for a muddy park day since I’m not picking my kids up from daycare and then swinging by the park for some quick free-play time before we go home to make dinner and go to bed and do it all again tomorrow.
Sure, I can hear a lot of unschooling voices protest that you can find workarounds even if you don’t have a lot of money, and of course that’s what I love about the unschooling parents I meet: they find workarounds, they think creatively to facilitate their kids’ learning even when money is a huge issue. Workarounds could include: have clothes that always stay muddy, move out of the city to a place where you can afford the space to let your kids play, go to a laundromat that can handle seriously muddy laundry.
But all of those workarounds are extra work. And for so many people in the United States today, especially parents, the work never ends. People work long, unpredictable hours at low-paying jobs and then try their best to get a decent meal on the table. Too many parents just can’t handle the added stress of clothes caked in mud.
When my kids go out and get muddy, often I’ll post a picture and get heaps of praise from friends. “That’s what parenting should be!” “Let them get dirty!” “Beneficial bacteria!” “That’s what I want to be doing!” My friends’ support is pleasant, but on a day-to-day basis so many of these people definitely would not let their children get in a mud puddle.
And the praise ignores the privilege. I can afford the rent, my stability and social clout as a white woman who is not a recent immigrant means that I don’t give a bleep what other parents at the park think. I’ve never been told I’m harming or neglecting my kids if they’re naked and covered in mud. I’ve never been told to go back to where I come from. I have that washing machine, utility sink, and outdoor space for rinsing or drying laundry. In fact we chose to allocate a huge amount of our budget to rent for these things, but not everyone can make that choice.
I was recently participating in a debate about the term radical unschooling, what it means to people and why many current parents of younger children are using it. I use it because even the three-year-old at the park thinks I’m nuts. I didn’t have to make eye contact with the adults, I know that my kids are the ones who are being radical by getting all muddy.
Maybe that’s something about the contemporary culture for parents of young children, that there are more rules and more places to be and more things compelling you to stay clean today. Maybe it’s just poverty and stress and working long unpredictable hours that make parents’ stricter with their kids. When we have such a big gap between rich and poor and people cling to middle class status and jobs with benefits, maybe to be middle class you better look middle class and keep those clothes clean. Whatever it is, when I let my kids get muddy or climb up the slide everyone else at the park makes it clear that what I’m doing is way out of bounds.
At the same time, recognizing my privilege means I don’t use the term “radical unschooling” to say that I’m doing a better job parenting than other people. Just because I have the money and flexibility to let my kids get muddy doesn’t make me better than other people. That girl who notified me that my baby was in the mud was self-assured enough to speak to a grown up, and my quick impression is that her parents are doing an excellent job raising a confident, thoughtful kid.
So when we’re at the park being all muddy and crazy, I think we’re being radical not in the sense of “I’ve arrived at a place of great knowledge and insight and can do parenting better than you.” And not in the sense of showing other parents what they’re missing, making them feel more guilt or stress or demands than they already feel. Not in the sense of challenging them to add muddy workarounds to the work they are already doing.
For me, radical unschooling is only radical if I also support removing structural barriers so that all kids have access to free play. Which means supporting affordable housing so people have the space to wash that mud out. Supporting the Fight for $15 so that parents can work a reasonable number of hours per week. Supporting job training programs that also provide free, quality childcare. Supporting Black Lives matter so that parents aren’t afraid their kid will be shot if they have a water gun at the park. Supporting immigrant justice so that grandparents from Iran, Syria, India, or China can be in the country and freely play with their grandchildren without being afraid of being socially ostracized or told to go back to where they came from or blocked from entry at the airport. Supporting sanctuary cities so that undocumented parents don’t feel afraid to go to the park in the first place. It means supporting queer parents so that they don’t feel like they’re always a representative of what’s right or wrong with queer parenting. It means being feminist so that it’s not just mom who has to stay up late soaking and rinsing muddy clothes.
If radical unschooling means believing all kids should be able to get in the mud and play, it also means learning about what barriers need to come down so that all kids can have equal access to play.