If my three daughters hold hands, they almost encircle the trunk of the giant oak we find in the woods. Thirty little fingers grasp the rough vertical ridges of her bark and climb. My eldest, due to start sixth grade in a few weeks, leads the ascent. They don’t get very far, but they try anyway.
Standing at the base of this tree’s trunk, I look up into her twisted and gnarled branches. Sunlight filters through thousands of leaves. She wears a crown adorned with a dozen shades of overlapping green. Dappled shade carpets the forest floor. I run my fingers over the furrowed, weathered skin this oak has worn for centuries, and I wonder about the wisdom she’s gathered as she inched toward the sky.
“You have to let go of her sometime.”
It’s the first thing I hear, on a warm August evening six years ago, after sharing that my oldest won’t be starting grade one at our local public school in September.
Aside from the early weeks of the pandemic, when everyone in the throes of online learning was curious about homeschooling, the comments and questions I have received over the years have been skeptical most of the time. Dodging questions about my children’s future social skills and tolerating unconvinced silence is my specialty. I have heard it all.
It will hold them back. It will make them weird. They’ll have gaps in their learning. Kids need the structure of a classroom. You have to let go of them sometime.
I want to know what the hurry is. The tiny human in question hasn’t yet celebrated a sixth birthday. What if she isn’t ready to spend each day in a classroom full of peers? What if I’m not either? What if we don’t want to rush?
But it’s always a rush, isn’t it?
When will you wean her? Is she sleeping through the night? Can she sit up yet? Why haven’t you started solids? Are you going to put her in preschool? Is she potty trained?
We value progress and growth and independence, tracking milestones and checking them off ahead of schedule, if possible. We value speed and efficiency: a pizza pop in the microwave version of life. We value buildings filled with textbooks and education degrees (I know this; I have one.), churning out individuals who have checked off all the boxes on the credit requirements list.
But slow? Savoring childhood? Accepting gaps and weaknesses while nurturing strengths and passions? Waiting for achievements and milestones and independence to unfold on their own?
In our culture, choosing slow feels bold.
A mighty oak spends the first half of summer nurturing thousands of acorns, packing each with nourishment for what she hopes will be her offspring. In the second half, she scatters them across the forest floor.
Hundreds will become dinner to hungry squirrels and hundreds more will decay without sprouting, feeding the forest instead of the squirrels or the seedlings. But, she knows a handful will overwinter under the frozen ground and sprout in the spring.
This handful won’t all survive either. Their fragile roots will be vulnerable to human feet, late frosts, and fungi.
But a few will manage to send delicate roots branching out from their seed, fueled by what their mother prepared months before. They will anchor themselves in the soil, waiting for their own tiny leaves to spread out, catch the sun, and sustain themselves.
This is a big investment–hundreds of acorns for a handful of hope.
This is slow work.
And it’s not over yet. From here, it is not a race to the canopy. This is not where the work ends.
These seedlings will eventually take their mother’s place, but for now, they take it slow.
Instead of rushing to independence, they are shaded by her careful calculations and stunted by light deprivation.
Under the soil, they build a foundation. Their roots grow. Intertwining with their mother’s roots, they connect to the rest of the forest via innumerable and invisible strands of fungi. Mother trees tend to their babies, sending them sugar and nutrients through this underground network in this time of waiting.
The mother trees don’t let go.
Seedlings who grow quickly will have brittle trunks. They will break easily in storms, be easily injured, and succumb to fungi and disease because they won’t be able to heal themselves before they rot.
The ones who take it slow will be resilient, ready, and waiting for their turn to head for the canopy.
In the forest, choosing slow is survival.
There’s a lot of pressure to race our kids through childhood and dozens of ways to relieve it. Savor childhood. Respect a little human’s unique pace. Build that resilience. Prevent a human version of brittle trunks.
It may include homeschooling and it may not. It may include climbing ancient oaks and it may not. It may include meeting milestones and it may not.
In the meantime, what if slow is not a liability but a gift?
Kate is a high school English teacher turned homeschool mom, with a little freelance copywriting on the side. She and her husband live in Ontario, Canada with their three daughters. When she’s not reading, baking, or sipping earl grey tea, you’ll find her exploring nature with her family. She writes on Instagram (@pocketsfullofacorns) and on her blog (pocketsfullofacorns.blogspot.com).
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