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The Big Questions - unschooled child learns about life issues

The Big Questions
By Robyn Coburn

An unschooled child learns about big life issues in the same way other learning unfolds.

Sometimes, parents new to unschooling wonder how the big life questions and issues can possibly be trusted to natural learning. After all, in school there is Health Class with reproduction, contraception and sexuality being covered “age appropriately” in grade five, then again in grades seven and eight, regardless of readiness. Yet according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, every day in America ten thousand teenagers contract a sexually transmitted disease and two thousand four hundred teens become pregnant.

In the same curriculum are nutrition, anti-drug and tobacco courses, and interpersonal skills with an emphasis on tolerance. We can see from the recent spate of bullying related suicides and other anti-bullying public service type programs how well these classes are working! Just another reason to home school, right?

    

I remember constant embarrassed giggling in the tween classes about “this stuff,” and feeling indignant at the invasion of my modest privacy in the later years – and I was at an all-girl’s school. I also remember my (single) mother determinedly sitting me down to have “the talk” one afternoon and imposing all this undesired information on my eight-year-old self because she had suddenly decided that it was time I knew about sex and growing up. I was pretty disgusted and couldn’t see the advantage of it in a woman’s life at all. I still don’t know what could have prompted her startling insistence that this happen right then, especially since she was clearly uncomfortable.

It’s different with my daughter. Nine-year-old Jayn wanted to have a “big talk” as she called it later. We were relaxing after a tickle fest, and she wanted to understand the concept of religion and belief. It was one of those magical evenings when she actually wanted to ask me questions and was ready to listen to the answers.

I don’t worry about Jayn’s learning, which is not to say that I don’t care. I mean I have no anxiety or mental timetables about her learning. Instead, I dwell with trust borne of both my own experiences and that of others that she will come to know all the information she needs, and will become competent in all the skills she needs to have a happy and fulfilled life. The journey may be bumpy for me at times, but, in terms of academic knowledge especially, I really, truly do not worry.

Sometimes, parents new to unschooling wonder how the big life questions and issues can possibly be trusted to natural learning.
Most of the time, Jayn’s learning method has been to make statements about her observations or theories and then to seek qualification. She actually rarely asks questions outright, other than how to spell certain words. She is not usually interested in hearing about any kind of factoid or idea unless she has initiated the conversation. If she is wrong about something, she hates hearing about it, and usually has to explore and discover her own error before she is willing to revise her statement.

Therefore, I was a bit taken by surprise by her mood of receptive inquiry. She had nothing else calling her attention, no other pressing activity. We talked for over two hours, and I shared with her what I know about the Bible, Moses, the story of Christmas and Jesus, and what many people believe, in the cause of cultural literacy and sensitivity.

The conversation naturally wound down and Jayn moved on to other things.

The next evening, I was sitting at my computer and Jayn came to me and said that she wanted to have another “big talk.” She had enjoyed our close conversation the night before. She had more to ask.

I had a sudden intuition, and I was right. Suddenly, a prediction I made a long time ago was coming true. In her own time, when she was ready, she wanted to know about sex.

Jayn had for some time understood pregnancy, genetic information, the concept of two parents, the idea of menstruation. She also had a vague notion of the special kind of cuddling that adults do. However, now she wanted to understand the mechanism as it were.

I remember my (single) mother determinedly sitting me down to have “the talk” one afternoon and imposing all this undesired information on my eight-year-old self because she had suddenly decided that it was time I knew about sex and growing up.

So I explained how it worked, and we also talked a little about different kinds of sexuality, STDs, and contraception. As long as she was asking questions and nodding, we continued. It was a real, deep, loving, and special conversation without embarrassment or awkwardness.

I watched the light dawn. Suddenly she said, “Is this what Quagmire is always going on about?” Yes it is. This is a reference to the TV show Family Guy,one of our favorites. I told her, “You’re going to get a lot more of the jokes now.”

For anyone who fears that knowledge of sex leads to action, I can only reassure you from our continuing life. Now eleven [at time of writing], Jayn has not evinced any interest in adding practical experience to her intellectual knowledge. She hasn’t become precociously interested in boys or sexual scenes on TV shows or in seeking information via the Internet. Sometimes, I will laugh at some adult joke, and she will look at me. I’ll say, “It’s a sexual reference, honey,” and she will roll her eyes and return to her activity. As her own puberty progresses, she has no desire to grow up yet, start her menses, or do any womanly thing other than play with makeup and wear cool shoes.

Contrary to what might be predicted, I find these to be the easy – flowing – conversations. I come to them as the experienced, qualified person. I don’t call it teaching, but I am guiding and sharing my knowledge. I have at least many of the answers. What can be hard is when the conversation is about something mundane. Repeatedly rehashing the plot of the latest I Carly, asking me to quiz her on events and characters in her TV shows – as if I wanted to know the answers. The permutations of different skins for Sims. The lengthy dissertations about the minutiae of the last Free Realms quest to find an elusive coin or her dilemma about choosing the long pants or the capris for an avatar’s outfit. Virtual dolls supplanting the many real dolls in her collection.

These are her passions at the moment: games, stories, drawings, crafts, and chatting with girlfriends on Skype, or visiting the mall and trying on clothes with her friends. I’m just glad she wants to keep talking to me, so I try to ask the questions. But devising the quiz questions she wants – that’s really tough work.

And I’m still here for “big talks” whenever she wants them.

Robyn Coburn is a part-time writer, part-time artisan, and full-time unschooling mom. When not working on some project or other, Robyn enjoys classic movies, reading, and not cooking. She lives in California with her husband James and daughter Jayn who has never been to school but still knows how to read, do math, create stories, ask questions, and organize her own time.

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