The Big Questions
By Robyn Coburn
unschooled child learns about big life issues in the same way other learning
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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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