Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Interview With Zoe Weil

Recently, I got the chance to interview Zoe Weil, President and co-founder of the Institute for Humane Education and author of Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times. Here is what she had to say about being a Humane Parent.

K: How would you define Humane Parenting? What are some of the goals of Humane Parents as you see them?

Z: Actually, I’ve never defined humane parenting or considered the goals of ‘humane parents,’ because what I’ve focused on is using the tools of humane education to raise humane kids, which I write about in my book Above All, Be Kind. I feel more comfortable sharing my experiences as a humane educator with people who want to give their children the tools and motivation to be humane rather than try to define what humane parenting looks like. With that said, to me humane parents are simply people with children who actively cultivate the best qualities of human beings (one of the definitions of the word humane) and model these qualities for their kids. The actual tools of a humane educator are key to raising a humane child. They are to:
• Provide information about the issues of our time in age appropriate ways so that our children have knowledge about the effects of their everyday choices
• Foster the 3 Cs of curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking, so that they are good learners and thinkers, able to make wise decisions
• Instill the 3 Rs of reverence (in our young children), respect (in the middle years) and responsibility (as teens) so that they become compassionate choicemakers and engaged changemakers for a better world
• Offer positive choices and the tools for problem solving so they can make a difference.

K: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as an activist when it comes to raising your son?

The biggest challenge by far is living in a culture that does not support, foster, or encourage many of my values and actively undermines them at every turn. Whether it’s TV, violent and sexist movies, music, and videogames, inhumane, unhealthy, and unsustainable foods marketed to my son, or rampant materialism, I feel like society presents enormous hurdles to humane living and raising humane children.

K: What are the biggest lessons you have learned during your Humane Parenting journey?

Z: Again, I wouldn’t call it humane parenting, mostly because I have felt so humbled by being a mother and would, in retrospect, change many of the ways in which I parented my son, but here are the two biggest lessons I’ve learned as a parent trying to raise a humane child:
  1. The culture in which our children live exerts enormous power over their desires and behaviors which we cannot fully prevent.
  2. It’s important to back off and let our children make their own choices in age appropriate ways, even if they are different from ours, and to honor and love them for their independent thought.
K: Have you found that you have any personality quirks that most interfere with your goals as a parent?

Z: Oh my, yes! Although I try to cultivate the best qualities of human beings, and do well in some arenas like loyalty, compassion, honesty, and perseverance, I’m also impatient, reactive, stubborn, and fairly controlling. These definitely interfere with my goals as a parent!

K: I am interested in the tension between cultivating a sense of responsibility to the world at large in our children and our desire as parents to help our children grow into the person they are meant to be. Have you found this to be an issue, and if so, how have you come to terms with the conflict?

Z: A few years ago I was leading a humane education training workshop and my son, who was 13 at the time, came to the end of it in time to participate in an activity we call “Spectrum.” In this activity, I place four cards down on the floor which have “I” statements on them indicating behavior choices along a spectrum. I ask people to stand in front of or between the card or cards that best represent them. There are four sets of these four cards, one on animal issues, one on environmental issues, one on social justice issues, and one on consumerism issues. The purpose of the activity is multifold. First, it’s interesting for people to realize that while they may have made some choices, like being vegan, not buying products tested on animals, adopting dogs and cats from shelters, and so on, that are kind to animals, they may be making other choices such as living in a big house, driving an SUV, having more than 2 children, that have a negative impact on the environment. It’s humbling to realize that our righteousness is not warranted when we see others who are making a big effort in another arena that we aren’t so “evolved” about. The other goal is to notice the changes one has made over the years. I’ll ask where they would have stood on the spectrum five years earlier. Almost everyone has moved further to the more sustainable, compassionate, peaceful end over those years (not surprising since these are people who’ve come to our workshop!).

When my son participated, he was further into the consumptive end of the consumerism spectrum and had moved away from his vegan upbringing on one end of the animal spectrum. While everyone else had moved toward more compassionate lifestyles, he’d moved away from his upbringing. People asked him why, and he was quite forthright in saying that it was just easier and more convenient and his desires sometimes trumped his values.

At that moment I could have felt a bit embarrassed. After all, I was leading the workshop and here was my son no longer living according to the values I’d raised him with. But I didn’t feel embarrassed. I actually felt proud of him and of myself. I was glad that despite being raised by an often overbearing, rigid parent who believes certain things are right and wrong and we should do this and that, he felt comfortable being himself, being different, and being honest about who he was. I guarantee that there were adults in that group who weren’t honest about where they were on the Spectrum because there’s a lot of pressure to conform to the “humane ideal” in this situation, but my son wasn’t one of them. He was not belligerent or standoffish in any way; he was well-spoken, friendly, and fine with being who he was, different from his mother. I felt like I’d done a good job of raising a polite child with a strong sense of self who could speak his truth – even if it differed from mine. When it was over, he draped his arm around me. I knew he was proud of me, too, even though we were sometimes making different choices.

K: What has been the payoff of your efforts at Humane Parenting? Do you have a specific story to tell about your son that illustrates the qualities you have tried to cultivate in him?

Z: My son is very honest. This is a curse as well as a blessing because I often know more than I want to know! He is also fiercely loyal, compassionate, and incredibly generous. For the past few years he’s been a significant donor to my organization, the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). Two years ago, I was sitting at my desk and he walked in and handed me a tiny scrap of paper. On it was a little drawing. I didn’t know what it was but he wouldn’t tell me. He made me figure it out. Finally I realized it was the first drawing in a treasure hunt. I found the next drawing and the next and so on traversing every corner of the house until I found the treasure: $150 for IHE.

The Institute for Humane Education is offering a month-long online course called Raising a Humane Child starting next Monday, October 4. I was able to participate in a pilot version of the course and can tell you that it is well worth the time and will transform the way you view your parenting. Please head on over and enroll - and tell them Ahimsa Mama sent you!

I am a scholar-turned-mother/activist who is interested in sustainable living and social justice. I have published a number of articles and given presentations internationally on the topics of voluntary simplicity and humane parenting. Learn more at my website www.beautifulfriendships.net

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