Laura Grace Weldon describes herself as “an author, farm wench and relentless optimist”. She lives on a small farm with her family. Her recent book is “Free Range Learning.” She writes that although she has deadlines to meet she often wanders from the computer “to preach hope, snort with laughter, cook subversively, observe chicken behavior, discuss life’s deeper meaning with her surprisingly tolerant offspring, sing to bees, hide in books, feed cows, walk dogs, concoct tinctures, watch foreign films and make messy art.”
Your recent book, “Free Range Learning” is about how “homeschooling changes everything.” What possibilities does homeschooling open up for raising children to value and live in peace and nonviolence?
I think we need to recognize that schooling is a very new concept in the long swath of human history. Worse, it can undermine the way children are primed to advance their abilities and mature into ethical, responsible adults. Most of the time humanity has spent on Earth has been as nomadic hunter-gatherers, before the advent of agriculture. Although our lifestyles have changed considerably, our minds and bodies have not. Like our earliest ancestors we are still tuned to nature’s rhythms, cued to react quickly to danger, desire close interdependence with a cohesive group of people, and need, in infancy, highly responsive nurturing that gradually transmits egalitarian values to the growing child.
Studies show us that during this era (and throughout most time periods afterward) babies are breastfed and remain in close contact with their mothers for the first few years. This results in securely attached infants who are more likely to grow up independent, conscientious, and intellectually advanced.
Children play freely in multi-age groups without overt instruction from adults. We know that free play is crucial for a child’s well-being. It promotes attention span and fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Perhaps most importantly, it fosters self-regulation (ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control) which is critical to living peacefully.
This playfulness extends to learning. Children watch and imitate people around them. The child’s natural desire to build his or her capabilities doesn’t have to be enforced, allowing instruction to happen when the child seeks it. The learning environment is particularly rich when young people are surrounded by adults performing the tasks necessary to maintain their way of life. Children naturally begin to take part in these real life tasks, effortlessly absorbing life lessons from role models along the way. This sort of learning helps them internalize the values they need to be able to cooperate, which is how humanity has thrived.
Can this happen in today’s society?
We don’t have to live as hunter-gatherers in order to raise children to be peaceful and caring people. Although there are plenty of variables, I’ll just note three: supportive and affectionate families, real role models, and engagement in the life of the community.
The impact of warm, supportive family connections goes well beyond our individual lives. How children are raised has a profound impact on the world around us. Gentle nurturance resounds through a child’s entire life, bringing forth a greater potential for happiness, kindness, and success. Children treated with love and consideration become adults who treat others well too.
Children also need role models beyond the nuclear family. They long to see how all sorts of people handle crises, find meaning, settle disputes, maintain relationships, and stay in love. As they get older they benefit enormously from the spark of enthusiasm transmitted by people who are passionate about what they do, across a whole range of fields.
And young people need to take on real responsibilities and make useful contributions, not remain limited to the peer segregation so common in our culture. Vital, engaged communities require input from people of all ages. This kind of dynamic interdependence is the way humanity has flourished throughout history, maximizing individual strengths to uphold the highest good for the larger community.
I’d be interested in hearing more about your own background and how it has shaped you.
I think many of us start off very young with distinct passions. For some of us this has to do with talent but I’m not musically inclined, athletically gifted, or technically oriented. From my earliest memory I have been concerned—well, maybe obsessed—with alleviating suffering. My parents were plagued by my questions and worries. By the time I was in second grade they’d cancelled all their subscriptions to news magazines so I wouldn’t ask about far off wars and disasters.
As I entered my teen years I launched a quest to understand what makes people act without regard for others. I spent far too much time learning about injustice and cruelty, developing quite a dark sense of humor to compensate.
I did glean something valuable, however. I realized that no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, we continue to have one choice even when it seems all our options are gone. That choice is attitude.
I also realized what Einstein said so well, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it.” I’ve definitely encountered this problem in myself as well as in activist groups. It’s easy to slide into despair and anger, lingering on what isn’t working. But right around the corner from that perspective there’s hope and the ability to build bridges of understanding with others, allowing us to strengthen what is working.
My early quest turned in positive directions, leading me to teach nonviolence and write about peace. This always gives me something new to learn. Lately I’ve begun to understand the powerful impact of trauma and how our bodies themselves can spark the wisdom to help us heal. Understanding this can help all of us recognize (and resolve) the deep roots of violence, to self and others. Some wonderful books on the topic are In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness by Peter Levine, The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment by Babette Rothschild, and anything by Alice Miller.
If you could name one person who has been most influential to you as a pacifist, who would it be?
I’ve had the great fortune to work closely with one of the granddaddies of the nonviolence movement, John T. Looney. John was a lawyer and engineer who started a branch of the American Friends Service Committee in Akron, Ohio. He was so involved in disarmament, civil rights, and anti-war efforts that in 1970 he stopped working in his field to concentrate on activism. He held Guns or Butter conferences, led the Ohio Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign (and served on the National Board), and got over 88 active peace groups started. He wrote a curriculum called Alternatives to Violence (ATV) that taught about the application of nonviolence from the personal to the global. His course was taught in schools, churches, and businesses to tens of thousands of people. Many students of ATV went on to use what they’d learned in ways that profoundly shaped education, law, and business. Some developed the first mediation and conflict resolution programs used in the courts and community centers. Others wrote books about using nonviolence in the workplace, in schools, and in detention facilities. He called the organization he created to sponsor ATV Peace GROWS (GrassRoots Outreach Works). He was outreach. He was particularly fond of connecting people with one another, often saying, “there’s a great person you should get to know.” John never sought attention for himself but cast light on others.
I was trained as an ATV teacher and had the good fortune to serve as editor of the Peace GROWS paper as well as on the Peace GROWS board. John and I were planning to write a book together and had drafted the first three chapters before he became too ill to continue. What I learned from John can’t be contained in any one book. He taught me to get involved when it’s none of my business and to stay in touch with people no matter what. I often fall short of these goals. The last thing I wrote about John was titled “Vegetation Attack Disrupts Peace Meeting.” Even in a ridiculous moment, John’s gentle nature can’t help but shine through.
What are your thoughts about writing versus being, doing versus thinking?
I hope to recover from the Busy Addiction. A friend in India tells me that the western world is terribly hampered (in health and spirit) by the emphasis on staying busy. According to her, the only time we are truly ourselves is when we are doing nothing. By this she means lying in a hammock, lazily strolling in a park, sitting quietly without doing anything. Only then do we return to centeredness. I realize that I rarely allow myself an unoccupied moment let alone the hours per day that she prescribes. I may never un-busy myself to her ideal but I suspect that balance is essential. In my life, I’d like more being and contemplating.
There seem to be two schools of thought about how to make the world a more peaceful place. One emphasizes working for peace in our everyday relationships with others, as well as within ourselves. The other emphasizes working to change the systems that perpetuate injustices on a larger scale, and especially internationally. What do you think is the relationship between these two approaches?
I don’t think they are separate. We bring who we are to everything we do. It may not seem that we’re accomplishing much when we are learning to be peaceful within and without. But there’s resonance to compassion. Kindness inspires others to be kind in ever widening ripples of reaction. Eventually, attuned to affirming the highest good for others, we can’t help but work to change what is unjust. More unjust systems have been toppled by people becoming truly aware than by any other force. That doesn’t mean it’s not important to change systems actively. I’m all about writing letters, marching in the streets, and working within entrenched systems to change them. I just suspect the attitude we bring with us is as important as our actions.