I’ve recently had the good fortune of receiving a moderate
volume of calls, emails, and texts from parents who are curious about homeschooling
and unschooling for their children. Part of the increased activity may be
the small community ripple our thirteen-year-old daughter made last fall
when she tested into, and enrolled at, our local community college. Regardless
of the factors behind this increased interest, I love the subjects of homeschooling,
unschooling, parenting, and living with children. I am honored when adults
and children alike trust me enough to share their concerns.
Today I’ve fielded texts from a mother to six who is
trying to navigate her family’s first year of homeschooling and unschooling.
She tells me her family spent a year deschooling – living without books
and curriculum – and now she’s worried, because they’re “behind.” She was
feeling upset because in an online unschooling community she brought up
these concerns and was told by members of the group that she “hadn’t deschooled
yet.” This kind of thing can be unschooling-speak for: “you’re still part
of The System! Bad unschooler, bad!” (Meanwhile those unfamiliar with unschooling
are probably scratching their heads thinking – “What in the WORLD is ‘deschooling’?”)
Let’s think about my friend’s position for a moment.
With six children, some of them near full-grown, my
friend has embarked on this incredibly brave thing: removing them from public
school. If you haven’t done this as a parent you probably don’t realize
how terrifying this can be. She has been trying to make her way in a semi-rural
geographic area unfamiliar with and (as is the way) unsupportive of unschooling.
She took a whole year off enforcing instruction – and faced whatever direct
or tacit criticisms her friends, family, partner, and community offered
up. She did these things with very little support and help. Now believes
she’s seeing signs that her kids are “behind” in some way, and she knows
that as their mother she will be criticized roundly – if not out-and-out
accused of abuse – if other people think this too.
Any tone of criticism from unschooling quarters of
her having “not [fully or properly] deschooled” may not be helpful. In all
likelihood, none of us will ever fully deschool. At the date I write this,
Western childrearing is bemired in constant testing, appraisal, comparison,
competition, and what I like to call a scarcity mindset. Unschooling is
a way out of that, but it isn’t easy for most. It is true there are those
who will grasp the concepts of unschooling relatively quickly and find these
concepts incredibly agreeable (as I have). But even so, we are unlikely
to be surrounded by family, friends, and community who will help us when
things are hard, let alone support our new worldview with enthusiasm. I
think perhaps an always-unschooled child in a remarkably-balanced home –
that is, a child from a nurturing household, raised without compulsory institutionalization
and by very confident parents or carers – might come as close to being “deschooled”
as anyone can. But about ninety-six percent of us were raised in school,
and cared for by parents with all the attendant anxieties parents have been
told they should have – as well as the sometimes very severe troubles that
plague most human beings like divorce, anxiety, depression, substance abuse
– that sort of thing. These factors put stressors on parents and children
that are myriad, frightening, and complex. As a result, most all of us learn
a very “school-y” way of looking at things.
What do I mean by a “school-y” way of looking at things,
I mean the perspective of constantly evaluating, comparing,
and pushing oneself (or others) to perform to institutional or social standards
regardless of personal drives and temperament. I mean the belief that performing
to academic standard in school will problem-solve any of life’s real struggles.
Schools are not all bad. Schools house some lovely
children and passionate, caring grownups. The school environment teaches
us good stuff – or at least non-harmful stuff, like history dates and fractions
But unfortunately a larger lesson school teaches us
is that children cannot be trusted to grow up the right way. Children must
be taught certain things on certain schedules. They must be corrected and
punished, and any grownup allowed on the premises is free to do so. School
pretends children’s minds are unformed or primitive, and it is our right
and responsibility to mold their brains like clay.
School teaches us children shouldn’t be out in the
world with “real” people, but should be rounded up and housed during daylight
hours. I wonder how many grownups have thought about what that teaches children.
School teaches us children are less valuable as human
beings than adults. At school students are managed, like cattle – no matter
how we try to dress it up. Children are required to live in a way we figure
is good enough for them, because they are “just children” – although we
know that as adults, we would find such an enforced experience frustrating,
humiliating, and boring. (In fact, teachers – who have significantly more
freedom than children – often do find their jobs frustrating, humiliating,
School teaches us to perform for bribes. Grades are
School teaches us that some people are smarter than
you, and that makes them better than you.
School also teaches us that authority must be deferred
to – whatever cosmetic lessons we find in a class or two. In the world of
school, those who “rock the boat” are only appreciated if they (were mostly
white men who) have died off and provided us a pithy paragraph in a textbook.
Real and present-day examples of people “rocking the boat” continue to meet
the same kinds of reprisals – oftentimes violent – that have plagued every
generation. And don’t look to school to employ any meaningful justice in
the scheme of things, or to employ a democratic process!
Schools perform a kind of cultural hazing. Quite simply,
many adults don’t want to work too hard for children to have it better than
they did. This is not because adults don’t care; it is because adults haven’t
dealt with the insidious oppressions of our own childhoods. We’re encouraged
In fact, one of the most confusing things to me as
a child and young adult was the hypocrisy of school: we were told in glowing
terms about free-thinkers, ground-breaking artists, and brave social pioneers
– while being simultaneously told to respect the teacher’s authority (no
matter how mean-spirited or unjust he or she might be!), produce an art
project identical to our peers, and tolerate the bullying (by child and
adult alike) within the school walls. We were told when to eat; we had to
ask when we could eliminate waste. Sometimes I think if just one adult would
have spoken to us in frank terms about this hypocrisy, and revealed himself
as witness and friend to the child, my mind wouldn’t have kept churning
away at this silly business of “school” – trying to make sense of it all!
The plain fact is: if you live long enough to become
a grownup, you have acted the autocrat to children.
Now, since I am a passionate autodidact, some assume
I disliked school or had a horrible time there.
Well – I didn’t! I enjoyed being liked by peers and
teachers; I enjoyed earning A grades, and receiving praise from adults.
I thrived in classes which were to a letter very easy for me. I liked being
around my friends. I enjoyed, in large part, many of the social aspects
of school. I did not occupy the lowest ranks of the socioeconomic strata
and escaped bullying relatively unscathed.
So: I liked school just fine.
But I didn’t have a choice to leave.
I’m an adult now. And there is a life so much better
We can start this life, without even doing anything
dramatic. It is exciting, it is scary – it is quite freeing.
We can leave school behind – not the fractions math
or the history dates, if we like those and find them useful – and maybe
not even the physical building if we’re not quite ready. But we can leave
behind the unjust, unfair, illogical, and oppressive mentalities that permeate
the institution, and make for such an unsatisfying experience for students,
teachers, and parent/carers. If we can’t easily leave this all behind, or
even part of it – that’s okay. We can find teachers and mentors who help
us. I have done this, and I am so glad I did.
And I am comfortable with whatever place the new homeschooling
or unschooling parent is, today. I don’t need a parent to yank their child
out of school to be able to help ease their path. (In fact, I don’t think
you should yank children anywhere!)It isn’t my right or responsibility to
set the pace of your journey. I have come to believe that taking steps,
even baby steps, along the path of autodidactic learning and childhood nurture
will yield some of the most mind-enriching lessons of our lives. Like the
unschooling parent herself, my job is to be loving and encouraging – to
be a listening ear, and to offer advice when asked.
For a friend, then, who may be worried about his child
being “behind,” I would first ask a few questions:
What does “behind” mean to you?
Do you worry about your child’s mental and emotional
health – or rather, what people will say about you based on what they think
of your parenting? Think carefully before answering.
If your child were academically “ahead” of his or her
peers would that make it all better? Would that remove the parenting difficulties
of providing consistent love, of feeding and clothing your children, of
dealing with death and illness, loss and fear – of seeing your child suffer
all these travails and more?
Do you believe you are the one who provides the drive
in your child to succeed?
If you answered ‘Yes’ to that question – is it possible
you’ve taken an inappropriate amount of responsibility in the parent-child
Do the same things that bother or worry you, bother
and worry your child? Exactly the same?
Does your child have different strengths than you?
At what age do you begin let your child steer the course
of her own life – without your interference? I don’t mean “let her do what
you want her to do” – I mean really begin to let her choose?
If your grown child is “behind” later in life – say
in the workplace he is not earning as much, or appreciated as much, or does
not have titles that his or her coworkers do – whose job is it to course-correct?
If your child (young or grown) is “behind” on something
they don’t care about – should they be forced or coerced to care, by you,
If they do care about what they are “behind” on, is
it possible they can learn to do something about it?
Is it possible your child can experience periods of
relative inactivity, of rest and respite, instead of being required to always
be performing or improving?
Are you using your child’s life as a distraction from some of the dissatisfactions
of your own?
As an unschooling parent, when people think of me – if they think of
me at all – it is as an extremist. Either I am a radical with heady ideas
that “won’t work in the real world,” a woman who thinks her children are
“too special” for the norm – or I am considered a very neglectful parent
indeed: the “wire monkey mama” from the Harry Harlow experiments, callously
ignoring the raw materials of my progeny. In a way these accusations have
helped me. When I realized I would be criticized by either lens no matter
what I did (as, sadly, all parents are), it became easier to give up addressing
the critics. I looked for support instead, and mentorship. Given time, this
has put me in the extraordinary and humbling position of being able to offer
support to you – if you’re looking for it.
Trust that no one loves your child like you do. Trust that your love,
and your willingness to change – and the fact that this is not a race! –
are more than adequate factors for love and growth. Trust that you have
made mistakes in the past – as we all have – and you will probably make
mistakes in the future, too. Trust that being a parent doesn’t come with
a requirement to be perfect.
Trust that our children can live and thrive despite our mistakes.
And thank the Universe for that wonderful truth.
Kelly Hogaboom is a writer and tailor living in Aberdeen,
Washington, United States. She practices Buddhism, veganism, a loving partnership
with her husband Ralph, and unschooling with their children Phoenix and
Nels. You can read more of her writing on her