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The Conversation That Never Happens (about unschooling)

The Conversation That Never Happens
By Kelly Hogaboom

My children Nels and Phoenix are six and eight. They are well-spoken, physically active, able-bodied, happy, early and adept readers, mathematically proficient, (usually) well-“mannered,” direct, articulate, and fairly compliant with regards to Authority. Because, in many respects, they are pleasing and convenient to other adults in our community, they are often assumed to be being raised “right” by my husband Ralph and I. This means that when friends, acquaintances, and strangers find out they are homeschooled (or unschooled, autodidactic, life learners to be more accurate) the question of how they’re turning out so well despite the <gasp!> lack of structured learning in their life is a subject most of those people ignore with studious precision.

“I wish more people would talk to me about why my kids are turning out so well despite the lack of structured learning.”
Most life learning families who’ve been doing this a while run across the question “How can children possibly learn outside of school?” online, likely because many of us seek out the discussion with other like-minded unschooling families. But in the real world, with our friends, acquaintances, and sometimes our family, they keep their minds and mouths shut like a trap.

In its way, it’s almost humorous.

Keeping one’s children out of school and not imposing home-curriculum is a fringe choice. Given that, I think part of the reason this conversation doesn’t happen is that many of us prefer to think of fringe people as being, well, wrong. When we see their choices working out well, it’s a bit uncomfortable. Thus, it’s much easier to think of my kids or myself as some kind of an exception to the rule. The kids are either “bright,” or I am a super-hard working mama administrating organized curriculum and I have extraordinary “patience” to spend so much of my time with my own children. (Why children are assumed to be such a horrible group of people to be forced to mingle with is the subject of another article.)

Last Friday, I volunteered at our local historic theater for a movie showing. As we volunteers milled about in the lobby, I struck up a conversation with my seventh-grade English teacher B. (I am now thirty-three so I took her class almost twenty years anon). The subject came up of the G. family, neighbors I had known as a child. They were a wonderful family with three kids, a warm and cluttered house, lovely home-cooked food, a garden, and an impressive treehouse. They were also home- schooled and the only homeschoolers I knew at the time.

I told B. I’d run across the youngest child D. at the grocer’s; he had grown from the small boy I knew to a very tall young man barely recognizable to me (although recognize him I did). When I spoke to D., I brought up homeschooling and he’d told me he disliked it and felt much happier when he’d been enrolled in school. (That was about as much time as we had before his employer needed him again.)

Relating this story to B., I had meant to convey my amusement that as an adult who’s thrown herself into the world of learning with her children, at least one member of the seminal family I knew as The Homeschoolers on first blush wasn’t sharing my enthusiasm. But my ex-teacher B. interrupted my story to offer: “Well, I think you’re probably being more thorough than S. [the children’s mother.] You know, the girls had reading comprehension issues. I mean nothing against S. but I’m sure you’re more...” she trailed off. More what?

Get that? My ex-English teacher immediately assumed, first, I was teaching reading and, secondly, whatever impressions made by the G. girls were evidence of some inherent deficiency of the homeschool model (not, say, the fact different children show different abilities at different ages, or B.’s own bias in favor of compulsory schooling). The fact my kids were performing to her standards meant I was doing something extra awesome that apparently most parents couldn’t or wouldn’t be willing to do.

Now, when I hear the oft-spoken, rather narrow-minded ideas of how children learn, I sometimes speak up and sometimes I merely listen. In this case, I said the first thing that came to mind: “It’s funny you’d say that, because both my children were early readers but I never ‘taught’ them how to read.”

“Well, but you read to your children,” she responded earnestly (and how does she know this I wonder?). Then she quickly amended, “I’m not saying S. didn’t read to her kids, it’s just...” and the conversation once again sputtered out awkwardly.

Many life learners know exactly where B. went next. She asked, “How long are you planning on keeping them out of school?”

“If we were to admit that autodidactic children in a loving and secure environment perform very well indeed in aggregate (given nearly any marker of success), we’d have to then question the many tenets of the school model.”

Right, because even though my kids are so obviously flourishing (so well that my six-year-old son did the raffle drawing on stage that night, reading numbers loud and clear and showing a great deal of gravitas in the public eye), truly this must be either a quirk, or they are “brilliant” or “clever,” or I am doing some kind of hard-core educational stuff that I will surely not be able to keep up with. (This reminds me of some of the points on “The Bitter Homeschooler’s Wish List,” which used to be on the secular homeschooling site [“No. 18 - If you can remember anything from chemistry or calculus class, you’re allowed to ask how we’ll teach these subjects to our kids. If you can’t, thank you for the reassurance that we couldn’t possibly do a worse job than your teachers did, and might even do a better one.” ].) There was in B.’s mind no curiosity as to what we were actually doing for our education; experiences of “academic achievement” must only stem from innate brilliance or school-like strategies of imposed learning.

Now, I know B. is just one person and this is just one brief conversation; and yet I’ve had these exact same exchanges many times in our burgeoning life learning career.

If we were to admit that autodidactic children in a loving and secure environment perform very well indeed in aggregate (given nearly any marker of success), we’d have to then question the many tenets of the school model. One thing I’ve observed about most educators (and many parents and caregivers) I’ve met is that no matter how much they disliked (or currently dislike) school, or admit they learned very little, or saw and/or experienced shocking instances of bullying, or didn’t retain the knowledge taught therein, or weren’t particularly well-fed or emotionally-nourished during their childhood, or “coasted” through or were patently ignored as a person, they really don’t want to consider that perhaps things could be better.

What would I want to happen differently? I guess I’d like to see in my interfacing with the public more discussion of the things so many assume are true (such as: school, homework, and externally-enforced “discipline” is needed to produce joyous, competent children-cum-adults who are a credit to our society). Now, I am a realist and know that for those who claim many “can’t” unschool, there are many, many more who simply won’t consider it as an option. The sad thing about this is not merely that it impedes growth in the number of life learning families, it’s that in avoiding the discussion with successful unschooling families, parents and caregivers ensure they are closed to possibilities and mere “consumers” rather than authors. They remain alienated from the true nature of their children and self-neutered in the tools and convictions to ratify change. It keeps the adults who have the means and support to do the most good merely busy messing about in making only cosmetic improvements to their children’s scholastic environs (if they put in effort at all). Many parents follow their children’s teacher’s dictums regarding their kids’ performance and sometimes even their kids’ characters. Parents and caregivers force children to complete homework (hours of this after nine-hours of compulsory schooling) and chase grades instead of swarming the halls of our schools to demand and enact more meaningful reform.

I’d hope for the families who can’t bring themselves to consider homeschooling or life learning that they might at least begin to understand the nature of learning and support their children accordingly. Perhaps they might begin to see their children as being in the right by their natures, and with clear eyes address the demagogy of factory-based schooling and the deep flaws within. Within schooling families, perhaps at parent-teacher conferences instead of listening to the teacher pick apart their child’s “performance” they could sit with their child in the knowledge it is not their child who is the problem; he or she is likely coping as best one can in such a system. I’d hope that the schooling families who have the resources might advocate for higher adult ratio in classrooms; maybe they’d volunteer more in classrooms; maybe they’d speak up against piles of homework that begins in kindergarten.

And I wish they’d stop making every effort to not talk to me about my children and their learning journey.

Kelly Hogaboom is a writer, sewist, wife and mother living in a semi-urban little green coastal smudge of Washington state. She cooks, raises kids, cats, and chickens, and spends her days joyfully living. You can find her writing at This article was first published in Life Learning Magazine in 2010.

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