All I am saying can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. – John Holt
One of the challenges in unschooling my kids was the frequent, creeping notion that I wasn’t enough, that I was totally screwing up my kids by not forcing them to go to school. This was a pretty huge experiment, after all — going against the mainstream of traditional schooling, even against the smaller stream of traditional homeschooling, where the kids sit at the table doing sums and sentences under Mom’s watchful eyes. And the experiment had very large stakes: the foundation that my kids would stand on for the rest of their lives.
I found it would come in waves. Periodic waves of fear would wash over me usually after a conversation somewhere with another mother — one who detailed the amazing opportunities her kids were getting at their expensive private school, one who strongly supported her public school, or worse yet, the super organized homeschooling mom bragging about all the workbooks her kids were completing. In contrast, here were my kids happily playing with Legos, creating elaborate Play-Mobil scenes and stories, running barefoot outside in hours-long games of tag, reading or playing Roller Coaster Tycoon. Respectable by some standards maybe, but certainly far from the academic accomplishments that schooled kids were racking up. Suddenly my faith in the process of unschooling would dissolve like water on a hot skillet. I would be awash in the thoughts that they hadn’t mastered Latin, learned their multiplication tables, or memorized all the Presidents. Instead of loving their freedom and happiness, I would hear the siren song of someone else’s curriculum. What had I been thinking? They weren’t listening to lectures, doing homework, or taking standardized tests. They weren’t being pushed, observed or held accountable for assignments. The voices would start up, “You’re not enough.” “You should be doing more.” “You’re kids are really missing out because of you.” If it was a mild wave I could sometimes get through it by quickly venting to another unschooling mom. If it was a serious wave, it might stir up a frenzy of activity to try and match what others were doing. Workbooks would be purchased, timetables established, rules created. The kids were relatively tolerant of these bursts, but they were definitely happier when things died down and we got back to our normal, sustainable pace.
On one hand, I will say that having nagging doubts was good, because it kept me on my toes, on my game. All that second-guessing meant that I was evaluating my choices regularly, rather than cruising along on autopilot. For me having the freedom to choose also meant taking responsibility for those choices. Periodic self-examination of the principles that were at the root of my decision to unschool was healthy and ensured that we were staying true to them.
Maybe lots of people have these “not enough” fears, but when you’re following a non-traditional path, they can be extra challenging. You have fewer resources to fall back on. If things go awry you will get little sympathy because you were not following the status quo. A herd mentality makes people more comfortable when they’re doing the same things as those around them, because for herd animals, being alone is essentially death. When you choose the mainstream, you have the comfort of knowing that if the mainstream is wrong at least you have tons of company and you can all commiserate together. By choosing a different path, a failed outcome would leave me alone with my failure. Striking out on a path less traveled means that if I failed, those mainstreamers might look over, shake their heads and say, “Well, she should have known better.” You can’t expect a lot of sympathy when you choose a different path in the first place. So, the self-esteem stakes were higher as an unschooling mom.
To combat these fears, I had to find my own inner strength. I had to find ways to remind myself that I was enough, and that what I was doing could succeed. By choosing a path less traveled, I had to survive without that comfort of the mainstream. This made me stronger. There were resources out there, but they required some effort to find. Publications like Growing Without Schooling and Mothering Magazine were invaluable. There were a handful of local unschooling families and I was a member of an online homeschooling network, some of whom were unschoolers. The Rethinking Education Conferences were also great places to find like-minded parents and refuel my confidence in self-directed learning. One tip that ultimately may have helped me the most was the notion that every form of education will have some gaps along the way. The key is to be comfortable with the gaps that come with your choice. So, while traditional schools and traditional homeschools have their good points, they also have gaps. My kids didn’t sit through school every day for 12 years, we never had fights over homework or assignments, they weren’t made to take dozens of (to them) irrelevant classes or take tests on all those facts along the way. They also didn’t lose their enthusiasm for learning, they had time to cultivate intimate friendships, and they were free to explore their own interests. We were aware of the things we were missing and consciously decided that the benefits of free learning outweighed the gaps.
Yes, there were bumps along the way, but overall we managed to stay true to the concepts of respect, honesty, trust and freedom to choose. Our less traveled path turned out pretty much as I first envisioned it: a happy, healthy road to success.
© Jean Nunnally and Clear2Learn, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jean Nunnally and Clear2Learn with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.