Self-Directed Life Newsletter: Almost too perfect
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Hey guys,

How was your week?

I’m reading a book by Mary Pipher (of Reviving Ophelia fame) called The Shelter of Each Other. It’s an interesting book that touches in part on family culture.

What is family culture?

“It’s how you live together. It’s how you relate. It’s how you spend your time. It’s how you celebrate. It’s how you deal with crisis.

It’s how you spend your money. It’s how you use the space in your home. It’s how you settle disagreements.

It’s your rules. It’s what happens when your rules are broken.

You already have a family culture. The only question is whether you will invest time in thinking about it and considering how well it matches your deepest values and priorities.” — PBH Master Class

I’ve actually had people tell me (quite vehemently) that they do not want to have a family culture because they don’t want to, for example, “force their beliefs on their kids.”

But of course culture exists whether you want it to or not. There’s no way to live in a neutral environment. You make a statement about what you value with every decision, every choice, every dollar you spend, every minute you allot to one activity or another.

Drop a bowling ball and a feather and they fall at the same rate — as long as you remove all the air. Drop a bowling ball and a feather from your window and you won’t get the same results. So, good luck with your “no family culture” plan. Everything you reward with your attention sends a message about what you value. And even if you could somehow “remove all the air” from your family life, you’d have to remove all of the influences of the outside world, too. It just isn’t possible.

I don’t agree with every opinion Pipher puts forward in this book (for example, she’s big on demonizing tech) but her statements about family culture resonate. She also includes a case study of a homeschooling family that I thought would interest you.

If you don’t homeschool, you can still build a strong family culture. You can still enable and support self-directed learning. It is conceivably more difficult because you have fewer hours during the week to work with. But in reality many homeschooling families have kids sitting at a table doing desk work for hours a day and many of them are as over-scheduled (if not more so) than the average family whose children attend school. So most of us are similarly challenged in this area. Whatever time is available to us, we struggle to implement a family culture that reflects our core values and then shore it up against outside influences.

Whether you homeschool or not, you might agree with Pipher that the homeschooling family she describes sounds almost impossibly utopian (in her words, “almost too perfect”):

“I want to end this chapter with a story of a family who has been judicious in its use of tools. They have made careful decisions about what they will and will not take from the broader culture and have connected their family to many good resources. The Millers are both lucky and thoughtful. They are almost too perfect. I suspect that the reader may feel a bit inadequate and envious, as I did when I visited them. But I learned from the Millers, and I want to give readers that opportunity as well.” — The Shelter of Each Other

I’ll make a quick note here that the father of this family teaches at a university and the mother is “a certified schoolteacher.”

“Karl’s the only one of the children who ever attended public school. He went to a progressive kindergarten, but we had a sense that we could do more creative things in less time. We felt Karl would have more time to learn and play at home.” — The Shelter of Each Other

This is the mother speaking. I like the fact that she noted her son would have more time to learn *and* to play. Of course, when children learn through exploring their deep interests, there’s usually a lot of overlap between the two.

“We don’t like the term ‘home school.’ It implies an artificial division between life and learning. Every day is an opportunity to learn and the world is full of interesting things. We’d rather talk about learning based on the needs and interests of our kids.”


“Some home-schoolers have regular classes, a curriculum, and tests. Others are totally loose. We’re somewhat in between. We have study time almost every day. We do more indoor stuff in winter and stay out of doors in the summer. We’re more project-oriented than lesson-oriented.”


“We try not to turn school on and off. Life is learning. But mornings are more organized and we loosen up as the day goes on. We require the kids to work on math, which is something none of them enjoy. We don’t do grades or tests because they focus on mistakes. We want our kids to understand that learning is achieved by making mistakes.” — The Shelter of Each Other

So far, so good — sounds PBH-y.

“So many parents have told me that they couldn’t stand to be home with their kids every day. I hope their children don’t hear them talk that way. Most kids in self-directed learning environments end up calm and easy to live around.” — The Shelter of Each Other

I have heard this many times from other parents — in front of their kids! And the kids looked like they returned the sentiment.

When my husband quit his engineering job to come work at the company I had started, friends and family kept telling us they would *hate* working with their spouse. We ran that company together for the next 20 years and heard that over and over again.

Even if it’s said in a joking way, it’s an interesting statement to make in public: “I would hate to spend that much time with my partner/my family.”

This family enjoys each other’s company:

The mother: “The children are close to each other. Because they learn at home, they are not separated like most siblings are.”

Pipher: “Karl [age 15] looked both older and younger than most kids his age. His face reminded me of faces from my childhood, faces I’d forgotten could exist.”


Karl: “Another way I’m different is that I love my family. One guy asked me if I’d been brainwashed. I think it’s spooky that liking my family is considered crazy.” — The Shelter of Each Other

On routine:

“We often get asked if the kids have social experiences. They have plenty of time with other kids — in 4H, on soccer teams, at their church. But they’re not isolated with only their age mates. Our kids spend time with people of all ages who share their interests.”


“I get mad when I’m asked about social life. Going to public school doesn’t mean that you’ll have good friends. I know kids who were lonely in the public system.”

“We try to spend a lot of time at home. We don’t like to hurry. We like long days out here when we can work and play at our own pace.” — The Shelter of Each Other

It’s rare to hear a homeschooling family say that they try to spend a lot of time at home. They’re usually say the opposite — “I don’t know why they call it homeschooling — we’re almost never at home!”

Busyness is a badge of honor among homeschoolers as much as other families. Homeschooled kids have more time in theory because they aren’t in school — but that time is often plowed into sports, co-op classes, clubs, park days, and so on.

I’ve written before about how we would stack our commitments into one or two days a week so we could have big blocks of unhurried time at home. It’s only when you can relax that you can fall into that deep concentration required for the best play, work, and creating.

Frequent transitions and a busy schedule teach kids not to get too caught up in anything because they’ll have to leave soon anyway. They promote variety and novelty vs. digging deep, and they teach kids to passively wait to be entertained vs. make their own ideas happen.

Making deliberate choices aligned with your values is how you build family culture:

“If an activity interferes with our schedule, we don’t do it. We don’t like too much commotion. Our other rule is that if we can’t do an activity as a family we’re unlikely to do it.”


“There’s a limit to how many people our family can see and still keep its integrity.” — The Shelter of Each Other

You don’t hear a lot of people making that last statement. It sounds so old-fashioned. Actually it’s disturbing how old-fashioned the word “integrity” seems.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to mention the election.

Just like a bridge, if you load a family down with more than it can hold, integrity will be broached, and things you value are going to end up in the river.

If you say “yes” to too many invitations, what does that do to your family culture? If you spend more time with others than you do together, what effect does that have?

Even good opportunities can be negative when they take away the essential time you need together to do the things that matter most.

The author, a therapist, was wowed by this family:

“As I listened to the parents talk in a leisurely way for over an hour, I felt myself becoming anxious about time. I kept glancing nervously at the kids to see if they were bored or restless. Would they leave before I could interview them? Would they feel left out? When I really looked at them, I realized they were fine. They were enjoying listening to their parents and me. They didn’t have television-age attention spans nor had they been socialized to think their parents were stupid and ridiculous. They weren’t addicted to being the center of attention.”

“I write about this family in some detail because I think in many ways they combine the best of the 1930s and the 1990s. They have made careful decisions about what aspects of the larger culture they will accept and reject. They use many modern tools, but they use them judiciously. They have the best of the 1990s — modern medicine, word processors, public radio, and good transportation. But the children are protected fromt he world of consumerism and the mass media. They aren’t avalanched with material that is overwhelming and inappropriate for children.

They have plenty of what they need and not too much of what they don’t need.”


“The parents are tolerant and low-key and they allow their children to be individuals. But they also have high expectations and a clear code of values.”


“The family is fortunate. They live in a serene country setting in a safe, beautiful house. The parents are smart, well educated, healthy, and well adjusted. They have ample financial resources. In addition the parents have devoted a great deal of time and energy to raising their kids in the best possible way. What happened with [this family] can be done, but requires exceptional resources. Most of us can’t do it. But we can learn from them.

This interview reminded me of _Brigadoon_, a trip back in time. Calm, happy children and relaxed, confident parents are so rare today. Probably most notable were the long attention spans of the children and their willingness to sit and listen to grown-ups talk. The family had a manageable amount of information to deal with. They weren’t stressed by more information than they could assimilate. The kids weren’t over-stimulated and edgy. Nor were they sexualized in the way most kids now are. The parents weren’t overwhelmed or in a hurry.

These parents would have done quite well under any circumstances, but I think home school played an important role in this family’s adjustment. The challenges the kids faced — showing chickens, caring for horses, making limeades, and playing piano — were challenges they could meet. These kids hadn’t been age-segregated and hadn’t been pressured by their peers into a variety of self-destructive behaviors and attitudes. They had been allowed to develop slowly at their own pace, following their interests and abilities. They had spent time with people who shared common interests — not a common age. They hadn’t learned from peers to avoid younger children and adults.

They weren’t big consumers. They’d learned to be responsible for themselves and had some ability to delay gratification and think of long-term goals. The family has strong beliefs about the purpose of life that combine elements from the 1930s and the 1990s. Their life is about doing one’s duty and helping others, a 1930s value, as well as growing and becoming all you can be, a more 1990s value. I am sure this family, like all families, has its bad days. I’m sure the parents have arguments and that the kids sometimes sulk. But I am also sure that this family has a focus and belief system that help it through our troubled times.” — The Shelter of Each Other

Pipher’s description is a nice advertisement for homeschooling, but it really showcases family culture.

This family made intentional choices about how their day-to-day life could support their values and how they could limit undesired influences of the larger culture.

The ability to manage and direct our own learning is mandatory for living a self-directed life. How can you live in the way you choose if you can’t learn when you want to, without needing someone else to arrange it for you, accept you into a program, decide whether or not you’re worthy, and so on?

How much control we have over our lives depends on many things, but one thing is for sure: you can’t control your life if you can’t control your learning.

Living a self-directed life also requires constant awareness of the larger culture we live in — how it affects what we do and how we think (and what we think about). We can’t create a family culture and ignore all of the influences of our other communities — neighborhood, school, work, church, town, country, and so on. In many ways, our family culture is our response to those influences.

The particular family Pipher describes may or may not sound “almost too perfect” to you — certainly, our friends weren’t all attracted to our working together (“I would rather DIE”) or homeschooling (“your kids will be the weird kids”). The important thing is whether your daily choices reflect your values — whether or not they *speak* your values in a way that your children can clearly hear.

Does the life you’re currently living comes close to your ideal? If it doesn’t, you might want to think about how you can bring the two into closer alignment — whether anyone else thinks it sounds good or not.

“Children learn from their families what to love and value.

Some parents have the impression that they shouldn’t impose their values on their children. But if parents don’t teach their children values, the culture will.

Calvin Klein and R.J. Reynolds teach values. Good parents are what Ellen Goodman called counterculture. They counter the culture with deeper, richer values.” — The Shelter of Each Other

“If your children grow up in a family culture that loves books and reading, that loves the outdoors, that values making and creating, those things will shape their day, their week, and their life. Your values determine (or they should determine) how you live your everyday life. You set the tone. Your life sets the example. Your choices set the example.

If you create a structure to your days that openly declares what is most important to your family (whatever that is: reading, writing, art, togetherness, the outdoors, science, travel...) and prioritizes those things, then TV and video games will be the small rocks and not the big rocks.

When your kids are young, you have the wide-open opportunity to make your best life. As they get older, they’ll be much more resistant to change — they’ll want to cling to the familiar. So now is the time to think about your family culture — how you can make your daily life reflect your values. How you can make sure that you are spending your time on the things that are most important to you.”Design the life you want


“As a parent, you need to think about what you really want. Then you need to look at your choices and see if they are getting you the results you wanted or if they’re getting you something else entirely.”Parenting with abundance vs. scarcity


“Abundance is not about overconsumption. Simplicity and minimalism go hand in hand wth an abundant life.

Abundance requires simplicity — because in order to have abundance in one area, you must reduce something else. You can either use your toy budget to buy a roomful of random toys or you can decide to focus on investing in only two or three open-ended toys: say, wooden blocks, a wooden dollhouse, LEGO.

…[Y]ou can’t offer an abundance of everything. You have to choose what matters most and invest there. To offer abundance, you must thoughtfully simplify.”Parenting with abundance and simplicity


“We know if we want to improve in our career, we have to work at it. And yet, we don’t do that with our family life. We sort of say ‘It’s the end of the line, they’ll always be there. It’s always going to be stressful. I’ll just deal.’ Well, no.

If we work with our families and take small steps to try and make them better, we actually can make our families happier. And in the process, we can make every member of our family happier. So what’s the secret to a happy family? Try.” — Bruce Feiler, The Secrets of Happy Families 


“Kids [don’t] have to stop and think about what Mom or Dad wants them to do — they’ll just go about it because their family culture has dictated, ‘This is the way our family behaves.’ …

Make no mistake: a culture happens, whether you want it to or not. The only question is how hard you are going to try to influence it. Forming a culture is not an instant loop; it’s not something you can decide on, communicate, and then expect it to suddenly work on its own. You need to be sure that when you ask your children to do something, or tell your spouse you’re going to do something, you hold to that and follow through.”How Will You Measure Your Life?


“Our goals are tied irrevocably to our values. When we make a goal or a resolution, we are stating out loud how we want to change our outside life to match our inside idea of what is important.”Goals, goals, goals: Expectations vs. reality


“We signed our kids up and blocked off two afternoons a week because all the kids are in soccer or tae kwon do or swim team so we had to pick *something*.

Yet when it comes to the thing we want to do, we just can’t ‘find the time.’

We make time for others. Why can’t we make time for what matters most?

Why is it so easy to slip into full commitment mode for other people and so hard to commit to our own goals and protected time?”Five ways to find more time for the things that matter


Another nice quote on reflection (the final key step to journaling — it’s how you turn your observations into plans):

“[T]here is no substitute for direct learning through experience — which we enhance through reflection. The process of thoughtful reflection makes our experiences more concrete, and helps with future recall and understanding. Reflecting about what we learned, how we felt, how we and others behaved, and what interests were at play, hardwires the learning in our brain and gives us a depth of context and relevance that would otherwise be absent.” — Laurence Endersen, Pebbles of Perception


Make the most of the time you have and you could create something remarkable:

“The secret of slow cooking is to not to forget what you’ve got on the stove, and keep coming back to it.”Set aside 5% of your time for your “slow-cooked” ideas


From the mailbag:

On perfectionism and a negotiated curriculum:

“Thank you for this week's newsletter. It is one of those great, timely reminders/affirmations that it is good to not be perfect, or to quote Barry Schwartz (The Paradox of Choice): ‘good enough is almost always good enough.’

I used to be a grade mongering, stressed out perfectionist, and now I work very hard to embrace my own failures in front of my kids, for all of our sakes. As a parent, I apologize when I screw up, and we have discussions about how we can ALL do better. I make a point of not saying ‘because I said so,’ but I have heeded your advice to say ‘Here is something I think is important for you to do/know/learn,’ followed by ‘think about how you might like to tackle it, and let me know your ideas.’ I am helping them by letting them help me. Hooray!

The result is my kids are ready to help me do better, they are forgiving of me/others and themselves, they are good observing their own failures with good humor, and trying things over and over. They are getting better at articulating their frustrations and shaking them off, asking for what they need, and having open, meaningful discussions about what we’re doing, how, and why. They always have lots of ideas! They are learning these important skills for which I did not have the time, freedom, or example when I was a kid, and they will benefit their whole lives for it.

It’s so much easier when I don’t have to do everything, pretend to know everything, and try to be right all the time. They have so much to offer. So much to teach me. I know I’ve said it before: It is definitely my education, too.” — K.

On managing screen time in a purposeful life:

“Thanks so much about your words on screen time. It took me some time to be able to live it, though it made sense.

For nearly a year now I stopped putting a limit on screen time and told the kids they could ask at any time if they could earn screen time, provided their workspace was clean. I still needed the control to say ‘no’ at any time when I thought it wasn’t appropriate (guests over, work to be done, nice day outside).

Ironically, when I have absolute authority, the kids have more freedom. I try to say yes as often as I can and usually the task to earn it is short (a quick clean) or sometimes fun (give me a kiss).

The crazy — or maybe not so surprising — thing is that they’ve nearly forgotten about the computer now. They still ask once a week or so, but we are too busy living an exciting life for the computer to be the focus … just like you said.”
— J.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. — Annie Dillard

Thank you as always for your continued support. If there’s anything you need, reply to this email and let me know! Have a great week!

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