Giving Up the Gold Stars
Our unschooled children grow into teens, happy and learning in the real world while we, the stay-at-home parents, feel reduced to chauffeurs and ATMs caught between the sweet intensity of their early childhood and the day our kids leave home. Our teens look more to peers and other adults for guidance. Actually, our advice is often rejected outright. Staying home with the kids provides little external reward, and now even the kids themselves hold us at arm’s length. It can be boring. It can be frustrating. It can make us downright angry. It’s time to unschool ourselves.
That’s my experience at least. I am the stay-at-home dad of two stepchildren, Kyle, 11, and Andrea, 13. My wife Annette and I are excited to see their “education” living up to the promises made by the unschooling parents who went before us. But these days I find myself with a lot of time to fill and a hankering for the freedom my kids enjoy.
My difficulty is that all those voices we protect our kids from – the shame and guilt, the standardized measures, the pressure to attain status, money and glory – are resident in my own head. I am my own parent, my own teacher, my own boss and my own slave driver. There’s tyranny between my ears.
How do we, as adults, get rid of those nagging voices? How do we enjoy learning and living right now? How do we explore our way to the rest of our lives as life learners rather than join the mindless chase: get the “right” degree, the “right” credentials, the “right” job, and squirrel away money until we can start living at retirement?
The original intention for this essay was to discover methods and tips for learning from life as an adult and to share them with you. That’s absurd, I realize now, because we’ve been learning and teaching ourselves outside the classroom our entire lives. There’s a bazillion ways to learn and even demonstrate your competency to others when needed. The challenge is recognizing what we honestly value, accepting it, doing it and holding our efforts as legitimate. Too often, we confuse what we think “ought” to be done with what we truly desire. Unschooling is all about kicking out the nagging voices. Author and unschooling parent David Albert calls it, “dismantling the inner school.” I call it giving up the gold stars.
A critical voice I hear doesn’t like this whole line of thinking. Isn’t it self-indulgent? “Sometimes,” the voice says, “we have to do things whether we like them or not.” Why should I get the luxury of “exploring myself” while my wife labors every day to finance aimless freedom for the rest of us?
It’s a sharp point; it pricks blood. I feel guilty every day she heads into work and I stay home. In four years Kyle will be old enough to drive and Andrea will be an adult. At that time, I’d like to re-enter the workforce or otherwise contribute my share of the money in our family. My self-esteem and marriage demand it. It’s only fair.
It’s a conundrum. I want to pull my weight, allow Annette more flexibility in her job choices, and maybe even give her the same opportunity I’m getting now. Yet I don’t want – can hardly stand the idea of – my working life to be what it was before: good for money and bragging, but not much else.
This problem isn’t so strange after all. As unschooling parents, we want our kids to find their own way, yet we also want them to earn a good living. I’ve heard more unschooling parents brag about their older kids getting into big name universities than I’ve heard brag that their kids rejected higher education. Beyond our own egos, we want assurances that they’ll be safe, prosperous and respected as adults; so it’s not surprising we want the same for ourselves.
If there’s one thing that the stories from unschooling magazines, websites, books and friends tell us, though, it’s that unschoolers, full of curiosity and self confidence, find their way to life competency however unconventional their paths. They prove that unfettered and happy people wisely seek their own best interest without the need for coercion from authority.
Wrapped up in our Puritan work ethic is a belief that without the fear of punishment from authority, people will fall into laziness, indulgence and barbarism. “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” goes the old saying. We unschoolers have rejected this belief. Or we say we have anyway. Sometimes our inherited attitudes remain at work deep inside.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus offered a different vision of human nature: that human beings seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, and rightly do so. Even 2,500 years ago when he lived and taught, critics thought Epicurus’s hedonistic ethics were poorly thought out and would lead to moral decay, yet the same critics admitted that intentional communities of the time based on his teachings were populated by happy people. Why? His writings demonstrated in the long, tedious way of philosophers that the rational life for a person who seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize pain is simple, humble and honest. To him, the greatest pleasure of all is friendship.
Because we respect our children as rational people equal to ourselves and seeking their own best interest, Annette and I work hard to parent without coercion. We avoid punishments and rarely demand unqualified obedience from Andrea and Kyle; instead, we make requests and explain our intentions. In their own ways, the kids do the same. We compromise as equals as much as we can (which, I admit, is easier now that they’re older.)
What’s the result? Andrea and Kyle do not generally lie, steal or hurt other people. They keep their promises. They’re not perfect – they have their failings as we all do – but I trust, respect and like them. They can be relied upon to do their share of the household chores, usually without being asked. When volunteering, they work hard. Andrea is highly respected at both her “jobs,” a regular babysitting job and volunteer work at an exotic cat refuge. As far as I can tell, they are at least as knowledgeable and literate as their schooled peers (more in some things and less in others) and wisely manage their money.
All this is not to brag, but to show myself, as well as you, that uncoerced people – people in an environment where they are free from being “made” to do things “for their own good” – do not become wastrels, but instead happy and useful. If I see that with my kids, why not with myself?
Somehow the little Puritan inside my head fears that if my desires are indulged, just doing what I want, I’ll accomplish nothing and be a leach on my wife after the kids have grown. Or maybe I’ll be doomed to a minimum wage job in my middle age. Yikes, I sound like a teenager, parents and elder relatives all at once! I’ve been through this before, for goodness sakes, yet survived and prospered for 20 years. It seems foolish to worry now, especially when the world is far less confusing to me than it was in high school.
The lesson I take from my life learning children is that doing what you want doesn’t just mean doing what’s giddy fun at the moment, but spending your time on what you honestly value. For Andrea, sometimes that’s watching reality TV and painting her nails, and sometimes it’s shoveling tiger feces in the 110-degree Texas summer. For Kyle, it can as easily be playing video games as drilling math to prepare for his science class. They are judicious with their time and energy.
My goal, then, is to do what I honestly value and trust that my best interests and my family’s best interests will be served by doing so. It’s hard to be that honest.
Kids are great at it, though. When Kyle was little, if he didn’t like someone, he ignored them. Didn’t say a word. The number of hurtful relationships that have lingered for years before I could honestly admit my distaste for someone astounds me. When the kids don’t like a book or movie, they declare it boring and move on. I was into my thirties before I could drop a boring book; a mental schoolmarm kept me reading every book like an assignment. Andrea and Kyle just won’t eat something that’s “gross.” I wish I had all the money spent on vegetables I don’t like because they were “good for me,” then left to rot in the fridge drawer. Self-honesty would have saved me grief and expense. Sure, I “just have to do some things I don’t like,” but how many times have I made myself miserable unnecessarily out of a bizarre sense of “ought to?”
Kyle left public school at the beginning of first grade because he was having a tough time, not because we wanted to unschool him. Fortunately, my company was downsizing about the same time and I ended up staying home with him. Truth be told, I was thrilled to take a buyout while the offer was decent and get out of the rat race for a while. So we didn’t plan our home education based on deep thought and research. We started doing school-at-home with Kyle, like so many of us do. Andrea stayed home after the end of that school year. After a while, school-at-home stopped working. The kids didn’t fight me, they just stopped learning. We dropped down to a few minutes a day of math and language, plenty of field trips and a homeschool co-op on Thursdays. Even that was too much.
After many frustrated outbursts from me, much reading about unschooling and long discussions between Annette and me, we started unschooling. Susannah Sheffer at Holt Associates advised us to just let the kids do what they wanted and depressurize, with only a small rule limiting TV and video games for a few months.
Then came the boredom. Andrea had it worst. Kyle and I share more common interests, so we were better able to entertain ourselves. Also, Andrea had been a gold star pupil in school…the teacher’s pet. She craved someone to tell her what to do and to praise her for doing it well. She hated having no direction. I don’t remember how long it took Kyle to depressurize, but just like the books say, Andrea found her own interests after six months. After months of whining, she sat down over two weeks and wrote The Book of Pretty Princesses, 20 or 30 pages of illustrated princesses with a vignette about each. (We bound it at Kinko’s and still have it around the house somewhere.) She’s hardly been without a project of some sort since.
The life learning books all say the depressurization period is six months to one year, depending on the length of time in school and the intensity of the experience. How about someone like me who’d been in school and corporations for 27 years? Looking back, my depressurization took four years. Those four years were ugly.
When I left the job, I wasn’t going to just stay home with the kids. Why, that would be wasting time! I had a plan: to discover my one true calling in life, start a family business, rescue Annette from employment, provide the perfect education for my children (who we’d discover to be prodigies), become spiritually enlightened and save the world! I’m only exaggerating slightly. Boy, oh boy, I was going for all the gold stars!
What I actually did was dabble, dabble, dabble and drive Annette crazy. Here’s an abbreviated list of my endeavors: taught kung fu part time and intended to open my own school (I’d been studying for several years already, but ended up realizing I disliked my teacher), started writing a book (blank pages for my efforts), sold insurance (lost money), started a website for my poetry (no one begged me to publish my collection), EMT classes (couldn’t figure out how to use a stethoscope), political activism (was going to take down Bush, but couldn’t stand activist meetings), running (tired of injuries), get a degree in environmental something (didn’t commit, I hate school anyway), grow our own food (stopped weeding when the weather got hot), tax preparation (couldn’t keep up with the classes), Zen enlightenment (can’t sit still), teach nonviolent communication (I hate sitting in classes, so why would I teach?), and a few home micro businesses (sold a few cookies, and that’s about it). There’s more. Nothing stuck, although I did do a decent job of being there for the kids.
For four years, I spun around and around. Now it just looks insane. What drove me to try so many things and why did I quit them all? Simply because I didn’t truly want to do them. I was trying to find the one “perfect” thing that would bring complete fulfillment and a shower of gold stars. That strategy didn’t ever work before, and it wasn’t working then. In school and work, I could earn some gold stars quickly by just doing what I “ought” to do, what was expected. But I was never happy for my efforts. (OK, money and praise were nice, but it only does so much for you.) None of the things pursued during those four years won gold stars fast enough to satiate me, and I wasn’t doing any of them for their own sakes, because I simply liked them. I was so busy chasing gold star trophies in “most respectable,” “best paid,” “most talented,” “most enlightened” and “world savior” that I didn’t even know what I liked or how I’d find it.
After four years, I just gave up. With a funny mixture of frustration and contentment, I was finally willing to accept my place in the world. I got humble and figured out that I’d probably never be President, start a multi-billion multi-national or cure cancer. Didn’t even want to anymore. I realized I’d die someday and the world would go on. Even my wife and kids would get over it. I was entirely happy about that. It’s great to be nobody special, to be very, very small. (Taoists call that Te, and Benjamin Hoff wrote a great book about it called The Tao of Piglet.) I considered it the best life to just enjoy each day, enjoy my family, and be there for my wife and kids.
My life went on like that for a while; I was content. Not running hither and thither anymore, I picked up a little slack. The house got a little cleaner, our home became more peaceful with less yelling from me and our finances became better managed. Obviously, that wasn’t all from my effort, but I’m at least one-fourth of the equation. It was calm and sweet.
But even paradise doesn’t go on forever. Boredom entered the door again, stealthily at night. I fretted. I fumed. I paced the floor. I had tried pretty much everything but professional football and found it wanting.
The answer finally came, but I didn’t believe it – I wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons. The last time I’d played was 20 years before. Insane! Dorky! Utterly useless! Annette, who’d had quite enough of my whining I’m sure, encouraged me with her lips even while her eyes were rolling.
On line, I found some guys my age to play with. (D&D isn’t just pimple-faced teenagers anymore.) From the first game, it was fun, more fun than I’d had since childhood. Finally, I was honest and dead-on about what I truly, honestly liked and wished to do. D&D is completely free of gold stars: earns no money, helps no one and few respect it. But I love it!
Of the several campaigns, or player’s groups, I tried, my Dungeon Master Jim’s was the best and we play regularly. His game involves a complicated tale with plots and subplots intertwined like spaghetti. His game so excited me, I started keeping detailed notes and typing up a synopsis later so no precious clues and details would be lost. As my imagination fired up, I began to write little background stories about my characters to explain who they were, where they came from and why they would do something as improbable as adventure, living by the sword or by magic. During the summer I started writing more detailed stories about my characters in fits and starts.
D&D, my family and some other beloved pursuits sustained me for another year, but I became unhappy and bored again. Now that Kyle is 11 and Andrea is 13, they just don’t need me like they used to. Caring for them when they were younger used more of my energy than now. Again my restless energy was seeking a place to work. I tried to help the kids to excel more in their pursuits, especially academic ones. They have been wise enough to shove that help right back in my face. They’re starting to find their own way, and while I’m not redundant yet, they aren’t babies anymore. Until I conceded that one night, though, I was angry at their “ingratitude.”
Understanding, finally, that they didn’t need or want me to “improve” their lives, I figured I’d better start doing something for myself and my future. Like before, deciphering what the something should be was confusing, having driven up so many dead ends before. Annette got tired of my whining again and urged me to “just do something.” It hit me: Write.
I’d certainly enjoyed writing over the last year, but then again it was one of those dead ends I’d tried in my gold star strivings. Not only that, but I couldn’t see how it would lead to a living since few writers can live off their royalties, even considering Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. There’s always a little worry about the future. But the urge was there to write, and it is something. I declared myself a writer and went to work. Just like that.
These days, I’m interested in emulating people with proven competency. In the fiction field, successful writers say the magic secret is to write a lot and keep writing – even when it’s garbage – until you get good. That makes sense to me. We always look for the trick, but success in anything comes from just doing it a lot. No matter the pursuit, life is better if it’s a pursuit you like, especially when it’s something like writing where there’s a severe shortage of gold stars. So I have hours in the week set aside when I go to work and write, and “just do it.”
It seems my intuition is working properly, just like with D&D. The process has been thoroughly enjoyable. It’s work, but it doesn’t seem like work. I don’t stress and strain. I don’t wake up and say, “Ugh! It’s Monday. Gotta go write. Sigh.” I enjoy creating stories and amusing my friends with them. I’m also enjoying learning about the business side of professional writing.
Of course, I’m not making a dime and may never make much to report to Uncle Sam from writing. I don’t know where this is going to lead or how I’m going to make a living in five years. I don’t see any other gold stars coming down the way, either, as I’m writing fantasy and science fiction stories mostly, and they don’t garner much respect or even the satisfaction of creating timeless art. A nagging voice is still pushing for money and respect, though it’s getting to be a tiny voice. But I don’t care. I’m having fun. I may even get tired of writing, or write for a hobby and earn a living some other way. It doesn’t matter. I’ve got ideas and savvy, and a few other pursuits that could bring in money later; things will work themselves out. I survived just fine when younger and far more confused.
What matters to me now is that I am honest with myself about what I like and don’t like, what’s important to me and not important. I may create a dream career or simply find a job that earns some money. Whatever happens next, I’m enjoying living and learning from life. I’ve stopped chasing gold stars.
Alan Oak is, first and foremost, husband to Annette and stay-at-home stepdad to two life learning children, Kyle and Andrea. He is a passionate Dungeons and Dragons player; a writer; and an activist for peace, unschooling, sustainable living and local foods. He lives in Richardson, Texas.