Unschooling Stereotypes & Myths
This the full transcript of the speech I gave in 2012 at Wide Sky Days, an unschooling conference in San Diego. Please know that this presentation assumes a certain level of understanding of unschooling as an unorthodox method of homeschooling. If you'd like to learn more about unschooling, go HERE.
In this speech is a story about why you should make the damn tuna melt at midnight, a story
that gets retold often, and for which I've become known in certain circles!
My speech touched on several key concerns unschooling parents have.
If you're interested in only certain parts, you can jump to each section below.
(c) 2012 Laura Flynn Endres, All Rights Reserved
Unschooling is tricky to define. Some people find it easier to define it by what it is NOT - for example, it is not following a curriculum; it is not copying school at your kitchen table; it is not a recipe for a one-size-fits-all education. It’s trickier to define it by what it IS – and many terms and descriptions are bandied about such as natural learning, interest-driven learning, and self-directed learning. The problem, then, is newcomers and outsiders can’t grasp what a typical day looks like, or how you can trust that your children are learning the right things. Unschooling is the greased pig of the homeschooling world. You chase it around and around, and you can’t always grasp it; and just when you think you do, it slips away quickly and easily. Sorry – you can take the girl off the farm….
So in my attempts to debunk myths about unschooling, I can define the misconceptions both by how they help unschooling thrive as well as how they hinder unschooling. BeCAUSE unschooling is about principles that guide you rather than rules or recipes to follow, how that looks in your family will be different from how it looks in my family. I often joke about how you cannot find two homeschooling families that do things the same way. It’s impossible. That’s what makes it beautiful to those of us who embrace it; but that’s what makes it infuriating to those trying to understand it.
So what does unschooling mean…..
Some Commonly Used Terms:
Unschooling is Self-Directed Learning.
Unschooling is Child-Led Learning.
Unschooling is Interest-Driven Learning.
Unschooling is Natural Learning.
And then the question becomes: If I’m not teaching them, how will my kids figure out what they need to know? How will they learn the right things?
Well, the answer there is easy. Unschooling doesn’t mean any of those things, even though it can be all of those things. Clear as mud?
Unschooling can include child-led learning, but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusively child-led. VERY often I lead and my kids follow.
Unschooling can be interest-driven. But all the time we learn things not because we were pointedly interested in it, but because learning is built into EVERYTHING WE DO.
Unschooling can be self-directed learning, but that doesn’t mean it’s always self-directed. Sometimes I seek teachers. Sometimes I seek teachers for my children, too.
Unschooling can be natural learning. Wait – I’m not really sure what that means. Maybe it means learning by natural consequences only? Like, you let your child play amongst the power tools because if she lops off a finger? Ooopsie – natural consequence? I don’t know. Just please, don’t use that term, ok? It’s vague and unhelpful.
When people hear these misnomers used to define unschooling, they usually jump to why this can’t possibly be good for kids. They identify the flaws. That’s why these definitions don’t do unschooling justice.
Too often people think we leave our kids to their own devices all the time. This is where the unparenting vs unschooling debate comes into play.
The unschooling parent does not take a passive role. The unschooling parent takes a very active role. It’s the parents’ role to provide a safe and comfortable home – all the basics like food, shelter, and comfort - to the best of your ability. And that takes effort. It takes effort on your part to see and trust the learning that is happening when your children do the things they like to do. It requires effort to connect with your children as they are right now.
It takes effort to enjoy today and not worry so much about some unknown future. It takes effort to provide resources, make things available to your children, drive them places, and help them all day long. It requires a shift in thinking – from baking cookies because it offers lessons in math; to baking cookies because we enjoy it, or because we’re hungry for cookies. It takes effort to stop seeing things in terms of learning and goals and start seeing things in terms of happiness and enjoyment and making connections and nurturing relationships. Unschooling is not hands-off at all.
IF WE DON'T DO SCHOOL WORK, THERE
WILL BE GAPS IN THEIR LEARNING.
In a word? YES. BIG TIME. Sorry, that was 3 words.
This is something that becomes much easier to accept and even relish as our kids get older and begin delving deeply into the things they enjoy most. But in the early years, it can be so intimidating to sit at homeschool park day, listening to the other parents go on and on about their schedules and workbooks and how they arranged things in timeline fashion on the wall and oh, that 9x12 foot replica of the first Thanksgiving dinner their kids fashioned out of papier mache and acrylic paint and the leather they tanned themselves. You’ll panic as you realize that at some point, someone is going to ask them if they’re learning their state capitals or their multiplication facts, and your kids will more than likely give them a blank stare before gazing up at you like, “Handle this please.”
But gaps are inherent in every educational pursuit, and we and our kids have the opportunity to choose for ourselves what is noteworthy and useful and what isn’t. Just because school puts kids through the paces – barely brushing past the surface on any one topic, mind you – doesn’t mean those pieces of knowledge are necessary or even applicable to their needs – now or ever.
And school kids have gaps. Oh do they have gaps! Because not only do they not retain most of the things they learn, they often “check out” at some point, preventing them from being open to new information, and from that point on see learning as a bad thing that is done to you. For example, one of Jonathan’s brightest friends once said, “I’m so glad it’s summer break – now I don’t have to learn anything for 3 whole months!”
I find that the people who are the best at what they do sometimes suffer the most gaps – in the sense that their knowledge isn’t what we’d consider well-rounded. Except as it pertains to their interest or skill, that is. The passionate artist may delve into materials, art history, the marketing, the handiwork, shape and form, etc, and it can be assumed that the more time spent on all-things-art means less time for diagramming sentences and classifying crustaceans. But does that matter?
I also believe that a methodical, objective-based approach is a colossal waste of time. It’s simply not true that we need to spend 12 years doing sequential separated-out math practice in order to understand high-level computations. Sometimes, a child’s brain simply isn’t ready to grasp a concept. Sometimes, a child is able to see an end-result of some number manipulation without really understanding – or needing to understand – how that result was achieved.
It irritates me to no end that there are so many unappreciated abilities and skills simply because they aren’t quantified and measurable, or aren’t on some master list of requirements. My son Jonathan has a shocking amount of sports knowledge in his head – particularly football. He reads sports stats books until they fall apart at the seams. He devours anything having to do with sports, and he retains it all. Would this be appreciated in school? Not one bit. Maybe by his coaches, but even then – there’s really no outlet for this type of knowledge in a kid. What he demonstrates with this sports passion is an astounding ability to learn, research, discuss, debate, quantify, compare and contrast, read, write, question, etc etc. It doesn’t matter what is being learned – what matters is that learning IS happening. How could it not be happening?
Jonathan also just ‘understood’ mathematical thinking from a very young age. This made him an excellent game player, good at calculating things like complicated money exchanges, and so on. BeCAUSE we never did school math at the kitchen table, if you put a long division problem in front of him, he wasn’t sure what you were asking. He could long divide, no doubt about it – in his head. But parceling it out on paper the way we do, he just hadn’t seen that before. Does it mean he can’t do it? No. He wanted to learn it one time, because some friend had made a taunting comment that Jonathan wasn’t up to snuff because he didn’t know what long division was. He did know how to do it, he just didn’t know what it was called. Two or three examples later on paper, boom – he could long divide. So – check that off the list, and no need to spend years of daily practice to get it. So who’s the sucker here? Who’s not up to snuff? The kid who took 1-2 years to learn something (thanks to school) or the kid who took 12 minutes?
What to do if a gap IS a problem? Say it is affecting your self-esteem that you don’t know who fought in WWII, or your child wants to take the SAT to apply to a particular college, or you’re getting your ass kicked at Trivial Pursuit every Easter Sunday. Take responsibility for filling in your gaps; help your children when they want to fill in their gaps. Your gaps are different from my gaps. I have some gaps I don’t care about, and I often discover gaps that truly hold me back from doing things I want to do. The beauty is that, again – we get to decide what is important and when it’s important. Seeking knowledge for your own means to an end is so much more powerful than having it drilled into you by people who think they know what you need but are often wrong.
My oldest son, Brady, attended a private, college-preparatory high school for only his freshman year. He was astonished about how much the kids didn’t care. He was astonished at how they just went through the motions, and because it was a college-prep school, those kids were plenty smart enough in most cases to game the system to their advantage, allowing them to do only what was needed to fly under the radar of all the benevolent adults.
In doing some poking around to prepare for this talk, I found a quote. It was in the comments section of a blog, and it demonstrates how we unschoolers can so beautifully see a perceived negative as something to relish. It said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If an unschooler has a gap, it’s a positive space–something new to learn that hadn’t seemed pressing before.”
A positive space…. Isn’t that fantastic? When you’re in complete control of what you do and learn, you’re not thinking in terms of gaps to fill. More importantly, as you settle into unschooling and living its principles becomes easier, you don’t ever see gaps or negative spaces to fill. There is only learning. There are only new things to do, new bits of information to take in, experiences to add. Everything new has the opportunity to excite and entice, OR to make you say, “Eh, no thanks.” New information and experiences are fun and filled with opportunities to enrich your life and expand your enjoyment. It’s not something to dread – “will this be on the test?” – like it usually is in school.
If a school kid has a gap, it’s perceived as a negative gap. Either you weren’t paying attention – shame shame – or the teacher didn’t do a good job – off with her head! And maybe that school should be defunded and otherwise punished! Gaps are bad.
Unschoolers don’t have to fuss over things like gaps. It’s a non-issue. Fussing over gaps sees things from only a negative perspective. From a glass-half-empty perspective. X-ray vision that only seeks flaws and gaps prevents you from seeing all the amazing learning and evolving that IS going on. Don’t do that to yourself. More importantly, Don’t do that to your children.
Gaps that genuinely become obstacles will present themselves at the right time and for the right reasons. I want that job at the ice cream shoppe but I don’t know how to count change back or calculate percentage. Fine- figure out how, then apply for that job!
THE FLIP SIDE: SOME KIDS CAN’T GET ENOUGH INFORMATION.
Your child might drive you crazy or push the limits of your abilities and resources in her pursuit of knowledge. Many of us worry that our kids don’t do enough or aren’t learning the “right” things. The irony is that there are some people whose kids just can’t get enough of something, or have strong needs that are difficult to meet or that challenge you in ways that scare you. Perhaps your child wants to hike the Appalachian Trail. Alone. At 14. Perhaps your child can’t get enough of that hobby that costs lots of money. Maybe your child wants to be a competitive athlete and you don’t know how you’ll afford the training. Maybe your child wants to see chimpanzees. Not at the zoo. In the Congo.
Unschoolers are nothing if not creative. Creative with financing – can you fundraise? Creative with resources – can you find it on freecyle? Creative with travel – can an unschooling family host you in another state or country? Creative with networking – can you find others who know how to do this? Creative with barter – can I trade goods or services for what we need?
What is always in my mind is “How can we make this happen?” And then the wheels begin to turn.
I caught a short clip on NPR the other day and the guest described two ways of thinking when problem-solving and setting goals. The first method is “Divergent” thinking – basically it’s brainstorming. Allowing your thoughts to stray and encompass many areas – throwing a wide net. It’s this type of thinking that allows us to get every idea down on paper, even ones that seem obnoxious, out of reach, or inappropriate.
Your child wants to learn how to board horses but you live in downtown Chicago. Brainstorm every idea you can think of to support this interest.
The hard work comes when we employ the second type of thinking – “Convergent” thinking. This is where we pare down the original list we brainstormed, first by asking is this even remotely possible, yes or no? And then we begin with the open-ended questions and tackle each remaining possibility. How can we make this happen? How much money, time, and transportation will it take? Does it fit into our schedule? Who can drive her to the farm? Does she want to try it first before making a commitment to more? How can this arrangement benefit the others who will be involved? Namely, in this case, the horse farmers you hope to infringe upon? Can you barter? Can you work off the lessons? Etc etc.
See? Unschooling requires effort. It requires attentive, patient, creative, compassionate parenting.
So in thinking about how our kids will learn all they need to know, we need to shift the question from
“how will he learn all he needs to know?” to "What does MY CHILD need to know to do the things he wants to do?"
I seriously cannot think of a single thing that cannot be learned simply by living in the world and being exposed to diversity in activity, geography, and thought. Might our kids not nail something on the first try? Will there be missteps? A few embarrassing miscalculations? Of course. That’s where some of the best learning happens.
Let’s review, shall we?
Unschooling takes effort on the part of the parents.
Your child is learning all the time.
Gaps are good things.
Gaps are positive spaces, room for more experiences.
SHE’S GOING TO BE A SPOILED BRAT IF I
ATTEND TO HER EVERY WHIM.
This may sound insultingly simplistic, but your child will turn into a functioning adult if you are a functioning adult. You are your child’s primary model. It’s all on you. It’s a lot of pressure, so don’t fuck it up. No seriously! Even when I was teaching, the #1 influence on the emotional health of the child was their homelife. There was a direct correlation between home and success in school. Every time I met a parent, it filled in the blanks as to why that child was happy, or too eager to please, or hungry and irritable, or barely able to function. The good news (and sometimes the bad) is that you are the primary influence, without a doubt.
So what are you modeling?
However, as simple as it sounds to be kind, be helpful, be responsible, etc etc so your kids will learn to be as well, it’s a lot more intuitive and nuanced than that.
The minister at our UU Church gave a powerful sermon once on the meaning behind the Golden Rule. “Do Unto Others as You Would Have Done to You.” Seems powerful and sweet, yes? But she pointed out a slight flaw in that thinking. And it’s this: What I might find soothing and peaceful, you might find maddening or not helpful at all.
I have one child who needs my attention when he’s upset. I have one child who needs me to not even know when he’s upset because attention just makes it worse. I have a husband whose body language screams “I don’t want to talk about it” for a while before he can eventually talk about it, and if I’m bothered by something, the entire world knows it 8 seconds later. It nearly killed me to not be able to comfort my child when he was upset, but if my actions are not seen as comforting, who is it helping? To an onlooker, it probably seemed odd, maybe even horrifying, to watch my child when he was younger be obviously hurt or upset and find me only quietly sitting nearby, not looking at him, waiting for a cue that he was ready for me to come closer. But that was what my child wanted and needed. That is what helped HIM.
It’s not easy to go against society’s expectations. It’s not. Every day as unschoolers we’re practicing Intelligent Disobedience. Intelligent Disobedience is a concept in service animal training where the dogs only obey commands if the commands make sense. The dogs don’t simply follow rules – the dogs intuit when disobeying the rules, even disobeying a command, will keep their companion safe. All of the parenting books that suggest strategies like 1-2-3 time out, or cry it out for babies, or complicated charts that detail rules and consequences – none of those things allow for any intuition, any deep knowing of a child and her needs, or any gray area where even the rules that seem most logical should be broken.
What we as unschooling parents need to be good at is navigating terrain that is ever-changing, while accompanying family members who are ever-evolving. That’s why unschoolers preach principles over rules. Rules are too hard and fast. Principles allow room for creativity and knowing that what works for one doesn’t work for another, or even what works for your child today may not be helpful tomorrow.
In her book Parenting a Free Child, author Rue Kream says, “It's okay to be kind to our children. It's okay to give them a feeling of abundance. Knowing that their own needs and wants are valued will only make them want to help others to meet their needs and wants too. Kindness begets kindness."
One night in April, it was a Tuesday night, Jonathan asked me to make him a tuna melt. No big deal, right? Well, it was midnight. And I was exhausted. We’d been gone for Easter weekend with cousins, so fun but not relaxing. I’d gotten called in to work extra, and since my work is exercise, I was dealing with physical tiredness on top of the overwhelming weekend tiredness. I was trying to get caught up on email and was just finishing up, literally reading it with one eye open and feeling the sleep creeping into my body when Jonathan trotted out of his room and asked me to make him a tuna melt. “I’m soooo hungry, and you make tuna melts better than me. Pleeeeese?”
I admit, my first reply was “Oh Jonathan. I’m so tired. I was just heading up to bed.”
But that wasn’t entirely true, was it? I was obviously willing to stay up longer to get through my emails, so why not stay up longer to make a tuna melt for a boy who can never get full? If I was a traditional parent, this exchange would’ve ended differently. The next morning as I wrote this down I thought of the many things I could’ve said, and might’ve, in another life:
It’s midnight – the kitchen is closed.
You ate a huge spaghetti dinner – you cannot be hungry.
I’m too tired.
Make it yourself.
You shouldn’t be up at this hour.
You’re 15 and more than capable of making a tuna melt.
Eat something else – eat a banana.
The kitchen is cleaned up; I don’t want to dirty any dishes at this hour.
And the list goes on, and gets meaner.
But I didn’t say those things. The initial “I’m so tired” comment did escape before I caught myself and realized that I could either turn this late night moment into a disappointment-filled end to a busy day, or I could disarm that conflict by making a goddamned tuna melt for my son. Why? Because it’s the sweet thing to do. Because there’s a whole lot more in that tuna melt-moment than most people ever see.
Conventional style parenting sees that moment as an opportunity to teach your child to be self-sufficient. Unschooling parents see that as an opportunity to be sweet to our children and deepen the relationship.
If I had instead replied with any of the above comments, would it be the end of the world? No, of course not. But we have tuna melt-moments all day, every day – especially as unschoolers who are together far more than most parents and children. When those seemingly small moments are repeatedly handled with negativity, it begins to add up. Pretty soon we wonder why we have a quietly strained relationship with our child.
You need to be the parent your child needs you to be. Who cares if making a tuna melt at midnight for Jonathan is viewed as permissive parenting by others? It’s not – it’s kindness. People like to think that if we indulge every whim and need of our kids, they’ll become spoiled and demanding. I indulged Jonathan’s hunger and desire to be fed a tuna melt at midnight and I got gratitude. A smile. A “thank you Mom!” and a content child. And a peaceful end to my night.
Your child is learning all the time. Any gaps are positive spaces, room for more experiences.
Make the tuna melt at midnight.
IF I DON'T MAKE MY KIDS DO CHORES,
THEY'LL NEVER LEARN THOSE HABITS.
Others can speak much more adeptly on the chore issue than I can, but allow me to use the words of some others to elaborate:
Sandra Dodd: “Forcing housework on children can cause resentments and avoidances which neither get houses clean nor improve the relationships between children and parents.”
Schuyler Waynforth: “Having a clean house isn't anywhere near as important as having a house that all of us enjoy living in. Having dishes done isn't more important than hanging out with my children.“
Someone named Lyle: “Try not to look at it as, "I have to do it all!"- because you don't have to do it all. There's always a choice. If you don't feel like cleaning today, then don't. Will the house get messier? Yup. Is it a big deal? Shouldn't be. During "de-choring" your house is going to be messier. It's a fact. But when you say to your kids, "Hey, why didn't you clean that up?" the first thing that may go through their minds is, "well why didn't you?" It works both ways.
If the house is a wreck – I CLEAN IT. Seriously. If I’m annoyed with how dirty the house is, as I often am, I vacuum and dust. If I’m irritated by the stacks of clutter, as I often am, I put things away. If the lawn needs to be mowed, I mow the damn lawn.
I realized a long time ago, with the help of some wise unschoolers, that my need for my house to be dust-free and my counters be uncluttered and my flower beds weeded “just so” is my problem. I can force my kids to do chores, sure, but that does nothing to make them appreciate a clean house or a tidy garden. It makes them resentful. Because can we function in a messy house with a weedy yard? Yes, we can. And believe me, I DO say that with a twitch in my left eye because it wasn’t easy for me to acknowledge that. But when I did, LIFE GOT SO MUCH NICER.
I realized I preferred dust over grumpy kids.
I realized I preferred weeds over lost time that could’ve been spent laughing over a youtube video.
I realized I WON’T DIE if my house is messy. I might feel a bit annoyed, but I won’t have an aneurism.
I dared to share that revelation with the moms in our local teen group one day. They pounced on me faster than Rush Limbaugh on a pro-choice rally. They just couldn’t believe I would “let my kids get away with not cleaning up their own messes” and “they refuse to be servants to their children” and “no way, nuh-uh, that’s the problem with kids today, getting everything handed to them.”
I hadn’t even gotten my explanation out before their heads spun around and their eyes rolled into the backs of their heads.
Fast forward a few years. Guess whose kids aren’t dickheads? But now that’s not nice of me, is it. (I’m kidding. Calm down.)
Honestly, though, my kids will help do things when I ask. Oftentimes I’ll make a list of things I would like done, and ask them to help. We divvy up the tasks however we want. Jonathan prefers to mow; Brady doesn’t mind vacuuming. Sometimes the tasks get done right away – oftentimes not. Sometimes it matters (overnight guests are coming), sometimes it doesn’t (the garage floor was dirty for 72 days – what’s one more?). Brady would often go on a cleaning frenzy in the middle of the night. Jonathan likes to purge things from his bookshelves and leave piles for donation in the hallway.
The “how will they ever learn” argument is totally lost on me too. I had THE messiest room growing up, and now I seriously can’t think straight if my house is too messy. I didn’t care one whit about tidiness growing up. One summer, home from college, I never unpacked my suitcase. I lived out of it all summer long, clothes still sort of in there, many things strewed over the sides, clean mixed with dirty – and guess what? I knew the difference and I knew where everything was. To my mom’s credit, she rolled her eyes and I know it made her a bit crazy, but she never pulled a “that’s it! I can’t take it! You’re not leaving this room until it’s clean and your suitcase is unpacked and clothes put where they belong!” on me. Maybe that’s why I turned out so awesome – I had pretty awesome parents who didn’t make mountains out of molehills very often.
I hated – HATED – to cook when I was younger, and now I love it. When I was a teenager my dad declared that my sister and I would each cook one dinner every week – so we’d be forced to learn to cook. That program lasted 1 day. My sister cooked one meal. I cooked exactly zero. I didn’t cook, ever, until as an adult I realized I wanted tasty, affordable, home-cooked meals and there was no one to make it but me.
Most veteran unschoolers will tell you that, eventually, your kids will want to pitch in and help willingly. That’s often the case. Again, happy people aren’t having to fight for every inch. They become willing participants in a happy, easy-flowing life. That will include them realizing they enjoy their toys more when they can find them, it’s easier to cook when you start with a clean-ish kitchen, and mom has more time to play Guitar Hero if everyone pitches in to get the house picked up because guests are coming tomorrow.
THE FLIP SIDE:
HOWEVER: So the party-line goes…. If you focus on keeping a clean home and doing chores with a smile on your face, your children will want to help and will voluntarily begin contributing more often. This one makes me chuckle. Only because, at least in my house, that’s not really been the case. In our house, some of us have always leaned toward tidiness. We just like it that way, so we tidy up frequently. Others in our family, however, don’t give one hoot about messes. They don’t even really “see” them as messes, or as problems. So there are crumbs all over the counter…. Your point is…??? I mostly stopped demanding and grousing about chores a long time ago.
And here’s the thing. When I stopped nagging, did the messy people finally start getting more tidy? NOPE. They really didn’t. So is it better now? Yes. Why? What good is it if they didn’t start helping more? What’s better is that I’M NOT NAGGING. I’m not grumbling. Before, I’d either grumble and do it, or grumble and make others do it. Either way, the result was grumbling, stress and unhappiness. Now, I just do it because I want to do it. Because *I* appreciate having the kitchen tidy. Because *I* can’t stand it when there’s dog hair piling up in the corners.
If I’d changed my approach but still held on to the expectation that maybe not right away, but EVENTUALLY they’d begin to chip in more, I’d still be clinging to resentment – even if it’s future resentment. Instead, I let it go. Maybe the messy people in my family don’t HAVE to care because I always make sure our house is tidy and livable? It doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate sometimes walking into a sparkling clean bathroom, or coming home to a closet full of clean clothes. And it’s not like my messy-leaning family members don’t do ANYTHING. My messy child began doing laundry WELL before his tidier brother. My husband likes to change the oil on the cars and fix the leaky sink, and I’m grateful because if it were up to me I’d be hitting the yellow pages.
Don’t plot future resentment because someone else applied some sort of reverse psychology and it worked in their favor. Begin doing things because they’re nice things to do, and let the chips fall where they may. And really, if you want to know how to enjoy household tasks more, put on your favorite music and shake your booty while you do it. If you don’t like cleaning, get a better playlist.
OH! One more fantastic example. One time, someone in my family dropped an entire stick of butter on the floor and left it. (I’d like to assume he – they’re all he’s in my family! – didn’t realize it, but whatever.) I found the cat happily licking it the next morning. I could have flipped my shit, but I didn’t. I cleaned it up and laughed at my happy fat cat.
Life goes on.
So what’s the advice here…. Don’t flip your shit when the cat licks the butter?
Let’s review Again!
Don’t flip your shit – let the cat clean up the butter.
Gaps are positive spaces.
Just make the damn tuna melt.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE KIDS.
MY NEEDS DON'T MATTER.
The quickest way to make happy people is to be happy. The quickest way to disarm negativity is to be kind.
Why all this focus on happiness when we should be talking about how to get our children to clean up toys or help with the dishes without being asked?
Unschoolers know it’s not black and white. And it sometimes takes time and a bit of concentrated effort to lay the foundation for relationships to be peaceful and days to run smoothly.
But I truly believe, and have found, that:
Happy people whose needs are met aren’t pouting in their rooms thinking of ways to piss off their family members.
Happy people whose needs are met don’t work from a deficit – they don’t have to angle and manipulate to get what they need.
Happy people whose needs are met are willing to help others be happy – because happy people want other people to be happy too, so they can continue to feel happy!
Have you ever felt like things were crumbling around you? Or you wanted to scream? And then someone, some stranger in a store, does something sweet and kind – like tell you your blue shirt brings out your beautiful eyes? - and you just sort of melt? Kindness is incredibly disarming.
We have that power to disarm each high-stress situation we encounter. Granted, there are some people and some situations that can’t be solved by a simple kind word or gesture – like abuse, and abusive people. We need to know the difference, but I’m talking again here about tuna melt moments. Or moments where frustration builds for our kids because there’s a problem they can’t solve. We have the power to make or break so many small moments. We have so many choices in how we handle each interaction.
In Scott Noelle’s Daily Groove he wrote about A Choosing Ritual. He suggests we cut 16 small pieces of paper. On each of the first 8 pieces, you write a brief description of something you appreciate about your child and/or being a parent. Fold them in half and place them in a small container labeled with a smiley face. On each of the second 8 pieces, describe something you find annoying or frustrating about your child and/or being a parent. Fold and place them in a second container marked with a frowning face.
Then here’s the ritual - Every time you see this "altar” you must reach into ONE of the two containers, pull out a note, and read it. In other words...
You must CHOOSE whether to focus on the positive or the negative.
Scott goes on to say: “As you choose, notice that you are choosing, and feel the enormous power you wield in that choice. You literally create your experience through your choice. And beware the trap of thinking you "should" choose one or the other; choose whichever one you feel like choosing. It's your choice!”
For some parents, especially those new to unschooling or struggling to get past certain hang-ups, constructing something like this ritual might be a very concrete and therapeutic way to work through this, to change your default from feeling like a martyr, to seeing the options in front of you.
And you might only have to participate in the ritual a few times before realizing it feels so much better to select from the smiley face bag!
Making a tuna melt for my son at midnight took all of 8 minutes. Complaining about why I shouldn’t have to make him a tuna melt at midnight and grousing about how it’s too late for cooking and how tired I am and sending him back to his room disappointed would’ve also taken all of 8 minutes. But the effects of that choice? Those last a long, long time.
These moments seem unimportant, but they’re the ones that we often get hung up on. Am I really expected to make a sandwich for my son whenever he wants one? What about me? What if I am tired and don’t want to make a sandwich?
You don’t have to. Just remember that every choice has consequences, many unintended and unpredictable. Making kind choices, helpful choices, gets easier because the happy people around you will be inspired to make kind and helpful choices too.
Choose from the smiley face bag as much as possible.
Don’t cry over spilt butter. The cat wants it.
Gaps are good. Even in teeth. Wait -
Seriously, get off your email and make the goddamn tuna melt already.
UNSCHOOLERS DON'T PLAY SPORTS
The outside view of homeschooling is still very stereotypical – we turn a spare room into a classroom. Our kids are required to get up at a certain time and complete their morning chores before having a breakfast of home-baked biscuits, jelly canned during last fall’s harvest, and fresh eggs plucked straight from the coop that morning. Spelling starts promptly at 9, so do not tarry or you will suffer the consequence listed on the wall chart. Unless it is your third offense that month, then you’ll sacrifice your Saturday, normally reserved for some free time, to clean out the garage or some such stepped-up punishment. Our kids’ test scores far exceed the school kids’ test scores because we can pack a week’s worth of lessons into a day. And our kids don’t do football and cheerleading, they do Suzuki violin and shear their own sheep.
Still, sometimes we perpetuate those stereotypes by herding them toward what we perceive to be idyllic little snapshot lives. It’s so romantic to milk your own cow and sew your own clothes. It’s so impressive when your kids can cite Shakespeare at 8 and name the Canadian provinces when Grandma visits.
There’s nothing wrong with those things. If they make you – and your children – happy. If they are genuine pursuits, and not simply living up to some ideal that others have set as standard.
God, I remember feeling so inferior to other homeschoolers in the early days. Oh, your 7 yr old daughter designed and sewed her own gown for the Renaissance Faire? My son has spent the last 24 days sorting his Pokemon cards. Oh, your son watches the History Channel in his spare time? My son perfected launching a crumpled up piece of paper from his bed to his garbage can.
It’s easy to let ourselves be consumed by what we think our lives should look like; it’s easy to pressure our kids to fit a particular mold, or give off a certain impression. For all our talk about how school unfairly molds kids into their worldview, we homeschoolers and unschoolers can sometimes do a pretty fair share of that as well.
It doesn’t matter if your child is interested in horses or pie-making or football or sharks. What matters is that you support your child in her passions, and that you facilitate that learning. Getting her where she wants to go, introducing her to resources she doesn’t know about, funding her pursuits whenever possible, and being a sounding board and brainstormer and assistant and coach.
It’s true that some things are harder for unschoolers to do, like play sports – only because of the restrictions schools put on it, and the difficulty of achieving a critical mass of kids. But don’t let the hypnotic tales of other unschoolers inhibit you from supporting your child’s passions that may seem less, say, marketable. Or less glamorous. When Jonathan was young, he spent about 4 years tracing with tracing paper. Everywhere we’d go, we’d be sure to tote his pad of tracing paper and pencils, and then a pokemon book or something similar, and he’d trace those images. Family and friends would ask what to get him for birthdays and Christmases. I’d say tracing paper, and they’d say Still? Again? I don’t know what it did for him, but whenever he traced he’d be still and quiet and focused. It met some need within him. And then suddenly, he stopped.
The things our children do don’t have to be measurable. They don’t have to be blog-post-worthy. They don’t have to meet educational objectives. They don’t have to lead into higher level skill sets or serve as prerequisites. Of course, maybe that’s exactly what tracing did for Jonathan. Who really knows? I made sure we had a steady supply of tracing paper and that it accompanied us wherever we went. It was a simple way to nurture his need.
Support every interest, even the ones that seem mundane or silly or off-putting. It’s ok to laugh at fart jokes. It’s ok to listen to the same song every day for a year straight. It’s ok to love things that most other people don’t love to do. That’s what makes you unique, and an unschooling lifestyle allows us to give time to things that matter to us.
THE FLIP SIDE:
YOUR CHILD WANTS THINGS THAT AREN’T EASILY GOTTEN WITHOUT SCHOOL.
Believe it or not, school has a monopoly on some resources like sports. It’s easy to find rec leagues during the summer, but not so easy to find competitive leagues during the school year when kids play for their schools. You might have to go to great lengths to make these kinds of things happen. You might have to wheel and deal with the school system. You might have to pay more for clubs or travel further to metro areas. I won’t tell you that everything is easy. Some resources are really hard to find. Some interests are really difficult to support. But I know unschoolers who are cheerleaders, unschoolers who play football for their high schools, and unschoolers who use the school labs without being registered students. You might have to be creative, but if anyone can make it happen, unschoolers can. Network with other unschoolers for help with brainstorming solutions. Most of my son Brady’s networking opportunities for film-making came from unschoolers after I spoke at conferences, and now he works at Warner Brothers. You never know what a little networking might do.
You might have to do a few magic tricks and back flips in order to make things happen, so stretch out. Stay limber, keep your creative muscles primed.
Oh! And we managed to get Brady to Warner Brothers, thanks in no small part to help from unschoolers, so if anyone has any connections to ESPN for Jonathan? Please see me afterward.
Review #4! Or is it 5 already?
Unschoolers can do sports and other cool stuff because you will make that happen.
Be smiley, not frowny.
Let the cat lick the butter.
Gaps are good. Like the store.
Is it really that hard to make a tuna melt? No, it’s not. And you say KIDS whine a lot. GOD.
UNSCHOOLERS WON'T DO DRUGS.
There’s a little bit of danger in assuming that any particular philosophy of parenting will ensure a particular outcome. Namely, that your child will be an articulate, bright, talented teen who doesn’t lie, steal, do drugs, drink alcohol, or engage in sexual activity. When authoritarian parents control their kids, they assume that they’ll scare their kids away from such choices, or severely limit their access and opportunities. When fearful, society-is-out-to-get-us parents homeschool their kids, they believe that if they insulate their kids from every boogieman around the corner, their sheltered kids will make pollyanna choices because that’s all they know.
But unschooling is not a preventive measure that ensures that our children won’t make mistakes or engage in some risky behaviors. As the parent of two teens, I know this now firsthand. And I know many parents of teens and young adults who’ve had to really work to trust and honor their kids in spite of some challenging choices.
Sometimes the best, or at least most appealing, way to learn about something is to explore the boundaries and edges. People engage in risky behaviors all the time and turn out fine. The easy access to media and the speed in which a story can travel these days would have us believe that every experiment with drugs leads to homelessness or death, that there’s a pedophile lurking on every other street corner. I’m willing to bet that at some time, you engaged in risky behavior that had some big potential consequences attached. And here you sit, maybe wondering how to prevent your kids from doing those things.
I was happy to be led, in a talk given many times by Kelly Lovejoy, to the principle of safety. The most important thing is safety safety safety. So rather than focusing on preventing the behaviors, or forbidding them, or offering dire predictions of horrible consequences, instead focus on maintaining a strong enough relationship with your kids that you can address safety considerations with them.
Do they know they can always call for a ride home, no questions asked?
Do they know that you will help them without shaming or berating them when they’re in a jam?
Do they have people they can trust?
What behaviors are you modeling?
Do you share with them how you handle tricky situations?
The main thing is to keep dialogue going, and to have an open and honest relationship so your kids trust you, and will come to you if they need help.
I highly recommend the book, “Parent/Teen Breakthrough: The Relationship Approach” by Mira Kirshenbaum & Charles Foster. It helps you learn how to offer help and guidance that a teenager will accept, and how to maintain a loving, non-combative relationship. It gives very practical advice and deals with all the biggies.
THE FLIP SIDE:
Be careful what you wish for. When you raise a teen who doesn’t drink or smoke marijuana or do any of the big bad things you fear, it’s easy to wear that as a badge of accomplishment, right? “I’m such a great parent, my child makes only safe and healthy choices.” Good for you!
I have a child like that. And suddenly, with little notice, he landed the job of his dreams and went from playing video games in his bedroom in our cozy little house in the middle of nowhere to living in Hollywood. At 19. And suddenly, I was wishing that if he WAS going to experiement and do some stupid shit, he’d done it while he was home so I could see that, as much as possible, he was safe. Now he’s going to do his experimenting in a large, unforgiving, highly dysfunctional city. Grrrrrrrrrrreeeeaaaaat.
So you just don’t know. So the best thing to do, in my mind, is to capitalize on whatever opportunities you have to talk about safety, and making good choices even amid dicey situations, and how to do that, and assure your kids that even if you disagree with something, you’ll love them anyway, and you’re a safe spot to land. Do it before the issues arise, before you’re operating from a panic level. Don’t assume they will, and don’t assume they won’t. Just make sure you’re someone they will trust.
Review #.... whatever, I’m not good at numbering:
Smoke pot with your kids. Be the cool parent, man. Wait – no, that wasn’t it. Safety. Yes, safety safety safety.
Unschoolers can do sports and other cool stuff because you know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who owns a gym and does parkour.
Smiley sack. Haha, I said sack.
Butter for the cat.
Something about gaps.
I want to be forever known as the woman who talked way too much about tuna melts. Ever notice how the more you say something, the stranger it sounds? Tuna melt tuna melt tuna melt. It doesn’t even sound like a word now!
The Luxury of Not Paying Attention
A dear friend of mine recently died of cancer. As I talked to her on the phone one day, I asked if she’d forgotten what it felt like to feel good. She’d gone through chemo and radiation and suffered pneumonia and infections. She was a skeleton of her former self and needed help even going to the bathroom. She said she couldn’t remember feeling healthy, and that she realizes now she took her good health for granted while she had it and she was feeling sad about that. That makes sense.
I told her it is a gift to go through our days WITHOUT thinking about our good health.
As far as unschooling is concerned, it is nice to go through our days NOT constantly thinking about our wonderful relationships, or how we’re going to handle the next moment. As much as people talk in clichés that we need to sit in appreciation for what we have everyday; express gratitude, celebrate our happiness, shout our love of life from the rooftops, I feel as though constant daily gratitude and constant daily worry are two sides of the same coin.
If we’re constantly extolling the loveliness of the day or the fulfillment we feel in our relationship to our kids, we’re constantly acknowledging that another way, a worse, darker way exists. We’re glad to not be there, certainly – but there’s something to be said for just living, just going through our days paying no mind to either sadness OR gratitude. Being annoyed because the cable guy is 3 hours later than he promised, getting lost in a jigsaw puzzle, washing the dishes while listening to NPR, making a to-do list in your head on the drive home from work… Those are luxuries indicating the normalcy of our life.
After my father died, it was as if I was viewing everything through a microscope. His death, for me, was the fastest way to clarity – it was suddenly so easy to see what was good in my life and what needed to be left behind. I truly thought that never again would I sweat the small stuff; never again would I allow trivial things to interfere with my life.
But that was a really hard way to live. As the grief lifted, and I found myself once again getting irritated by small silly things, and paying too much attention to whether or not the floor needed vacuuming or whatever, I realized what a luxury that was – to not be wearing the heavy cloak of grief that for a while had me living in a tunnel.
I think part of my concern about being one of the co-moderators of the “living a sparkly life” circle chat is that my family DOESN’T go around striving to be sparkly. If we ARE sparkly on occasion, awesome! But I don’t exactly wake up every day wondering how I can make it so much better than yesterday. I really don’t. Maybe that’s because I did the heavy work of deschooling in the earlier days. I put in the time; I mulled it over, I practiced, I discussed unschooling principles until I was blue in the face, and spent hours each week reading the lists and blogs. And now I revel in the sometimes unsparkliness of our days because all we’re doing is living our lives in the way we want, doing things we like to do, eating foods we like to eat, spending time with people we like. Sometimes we get irritated with each other. Sometimes a whole day passes without us saying anything other than utilitarian phrases like “can you get bread on your way home?”
We kinda like it like that.
Paying so much attention to that isn’t MY way. It might be your way and that’s excellent. But to me, it’s a luxury to have days where I don’t have to think so hard to make our day better; I don’t have to work hard to avoid pitfalls that cause tension. To me, living a sparkly life really means getting to the point where our relationships are so natural and healthy and unschooly that it’s automatic. I don’t have to think “how can I make this moment better than the last?” I don’t have to think “what would the unschooling gurus do?” I don’t have to think “How can I best support my child in this situation?” Because I just know, and I just do, and things just happen.
In the early stages of transitioning to unschooling we remind people to try for better moments, not days. We urge parents to try to be a little bit better each moment. A little bit more aware. And we tell them it gets easier.
In my job as a personal trainer, I teach people how to exercise and get fit. In the beginning, some clients can only do a few push-ups, and don’t realize how to do them properly and efficiently. In the beginning we talk a lot about form and breathing and alignment and set-up. We do modifications. We take it slowly. They do a few repetitions, and then we talk about what can change, and how it felt. They do a few more and we find out if it’s easier now that they’re being mindful of more things. There’s a lot of talking and not a whole lot of doing.
Fast forward several sessions and I’m telling them “Drop down for 12 push-ups; as many as you can on toes, the rest on knees.” They know the alignment, the starting position, when and how to breathe, which muscles to engage. They don’t have to analyze every single part anymore – it becomes automatic. And if I do my job right, soon they won’t need me at all.
I watch many clients go from timid, embarrassed people who’ve never set foot in a gym to fit, strong, confident people who don’t think twice about waltzing in and working out or running a 10k or taking a class. They weren’t exercisers before. Now they are.
That’s also our goal as veteran unschoolers – to help you get to the point where you just ARE an unschooler, and you aren’t draining your brain or your emotional bank to do it every day.
When I suggested to my friend with cancer that it was a luxury to have carefree days without paying gratitude for her good health, she paused… and then she said, “OMGosh, you’re right. Thank you for that. I’m going to keep that little nugget of wisdom to remind me how lucky I was to go all that time without thinking about my health.”
Ask questions. Read everything you can get your hands on. As Sandra says, “Read a little, try a little, wait a while, watch.” That’s on my fridge! Take copious notes at this conference. Post reminders on your kitchen cupboards or on your bathroom mirror. Find support.
And then, as you get better at unschooling push-ups, wean yourself of the need to have constant reinforcement, to analyze every bit of every moment. Practice seamlessly weaving unschooling principles into your life. As Nike says, “Just do it.” Then just do it again. Then let it become natural, normal, just the way it is.
When you find yourself having several happy days in a row, and your kids having several happy days in a row, and you realize you haven’t thought about unschooling for a while, and you’re pissed because that damn faucet is still dripping in the kitchen, congratulations – you’ve arrived!
“Unschooling is more like a dance between partners who are so perfectly in sync with each other that it is hard to tell who is leading. The partners are sensitive to each others' little indications, little movements, slight shifts and they respond. Sometimes one leads and sometimes the other.”
From Add Light and Stir, Pam Sorooshian
1 – Take time off from being the perfect unschoolers so you can stress about the leaky faucet.
2 - Safety safety safety. Trust Trust Trust.
3 – Let your kids do what they want – it’s their life, for cripe’s sake.
4 - The Smiley Sack notes beat the hell out of the Frowny Sack notes.
5 - Leave the butter out for the cat.
6 - Forget about gaps. Forget I even mentioned them.
7 - And For the love of all things holy, get off your lazy bum and MAKE THE DAMN TUNA MELT. Do NOT make me ask you again.