At Park Day last week, five or six of us were chatting in the shade while our children played in the blazing sun. A mom new to homeschooling asked if our group was exclusive to unschoolers. It's not. Many of us use the term unschooler to describe our particular style, but there are several who do not. "I just don't know what to call myself, " our newbie declared. "Some days I think we're unschooling and other days I'm just not sure."
Lively discussion followed about how each of us had settled on our particular versions of homeschooling. Unanimously, we all shared that our original intentions had been left behind after just a few months. My story is similar. As a former elementary school teacher, I never dreamed I would be keeping my own children home from school. I certainly never would've guessed we'd be unschooling. As we sat on that blanket and talked about our individual choices to homeschool, I realized that the various labels we use mean far less to me now than they once did. As far as I can tell, homeschooling parents all have something important in common: We all question the value of sending children to school, and we feel empowered enough to do something different.
I've read and participated in countless arguments about the interpretation of the term unschooling. John Holt originally coined the term in 1977 as a way of differentiating between school-at-homers and other less structured styles. My problem with the term is that it states merely what we don't do. We don't sit at the kitchen table and do lessons. We don't fabricate learning. We don't spend hours every day at school. I believe that what we do is far more descriptive. We hike, we cook, we play, we bike, we read, we create, we invent, we dance, we investigate, we sing, we perform, we write, we draw, we paint, we plant, we harvest, we explore, we predict, we ponder, we take apart, we fix, we day dream, and if there's time, we do nothing at all.
My unschooling life may look very different from yours. That's the beauty of it, in my mind. Every family is different, every child is different, every parent is different. How could we possibly do it the same and still stay true to our unique selves? Freedom from school means freedom to be ourselves, to do things in our own way. I do love connecting with other like-minded families. It feels great to have those juicy conversations where you know you're being understood on a very deep, meaningful level. But I've given up the notion that we all need to be homeschooling in the same way. The self righteousness I may have projected early on may have been an important part of my development as an unschooling mom. That passion was my way of securing my own beliefs about learning. But I certainly don't know what's best for someone else, and often, I don't even know what's best for my kids. But they do.
I recently read an interview with a grown unschooler. She talked about how, in her new role as the parent of a toddler, she is learning to let go of solutions. This is just what I needed to hear. Brilliant! I may not have all the answers! I'm not necessarily the expert! Phew. I love it! She suggested that she may be doing her child a great disservice by continually showing up with a pre-determined set of solutions. Often, she reasoned, what is most helpful, is to let go and enter into a difficult situation or conflict with a completely open mind.
This really resonates with me, but I often struggle with actually doing it. For me, unschooling is all about experiencing life with an open mind. So much about our life as a family is about approaching life on life's terms. My kids have already figured out that there are very few musts in our daily living. If something isn't working, you try it another way. If you aren't happy with your circumstances, you change them. And yet, how often do I, as a parent; the older, wiser, supposed leader of the pack, assume that I know what's best? How often do I sabotage my children's independence and creativity by bringing my (older, wiser....more exhausted) solutions to their difficulties? Too often, I'm afraid.
I remember when my two oldest children were about 2 and 4 years old. They played together constantly. Dress-up, house, fairies, make believe. Most days they started the moment they woke up and hardly stopped for a break before bedtime. Along with all of this play came an enormous amount of bickering and fighting. In the beginning, I would jump in and attempt to "help" them sort things out before things escalated. Sometimes my efforts were helpful, but often they weren't. As a matter of fact, I slowly began to realize that my supposed "solutions" were actually making things worse. After a few botched attempts to "talk things out" I began to realize that the girls did a much better job working things out without me.
This same realization is coming back around for me 8 years and a third child later. It is often said that as we are unschooling our children, we are deschooling ourselves. Most days it seems I have a never ending supply of opportunities for growth as a parent. My three children remind me constantly that they know what they need, when they need it. When I hit a snag and try to assert myself into their struggles, it's helpful for me to ask myself: What's my motivation? Am I trying to help my children find what's best for them? Or am I simply trying to make myself feel better? If the latter is true, it's time to back off and keep the focus on me. What's best for me? What do I need to do in order to be the best me I can be? Surely this modeling is the ideal way to share my wisdom and experience with my kids.
Mainstream parenting doesn't support this, however. Ah, well. Yet another opportunity to swim upstream and stand up for my kids. When faced with the strange looks or blank stares on the faces of those who don't understand why I allow my children to make their own choices, I've found it's best for me to tune out popular parenting culture and tune in to me. My current lesson appears to be something along the lines of, "Mother doesn't always know best." When I remember to trust my children and to let go of the notion that my job is to solve all their problems and smooth out their difficulties, life is pretty darn good.
Becky is the unschooling mother of three (Janey, 11, Macy, 10 and Charley, 7) attempting to raise her children with compassion and respect. She taught elementary school for 9 years before discovering unschooling when it was time for her oldest to go to Kindergarten. She credits Sandra Dodd, Mary Griffith, Jan Hunt, and just about every other person she interacted with at her first HSC Home=Education conference 6 years ago, as her inspiration to find a more natural way of living and learning with children. She is a Homeschooling Consultant, offering support and guidance to families looking to clarify their vision as a family of learners. You can read more of what Becky has to say at http://lifewithoutschool.blogspot.com She can be reached at homeschoolconsultant@gmailcom.