Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sometimes, it's Not About the Kids

A few nights ago, after a delightful evening with my son, listening to beautiful music (an interest we definitely share!), we stopped by the house of a friend, to say Happy Birthday.

The friend's housemate, who we had barely met before, was there, hanging out on the couch.

Somehow, during the conversation, we ended up talking about unschooling.

I spend a fair amount of time writing about unschooling in various online forums, and have done so for well over 20 years. But to be honest, I don't tend to talk about it much in person, with the average person, especially now that my kids are adults.  it doesn't often come up in conversation.

But the other night, I had mentioned an article I saw earlier in the day, about training young children to sit still, and how developmentally inappropriate that is. The conversation moved from there into things about respecting children, and to making unconventional choices.

Then I was asked if I could give an example of an unconventional choice my family had made.

I told them that my kids, now aged 27, 25 and 21, never went to school, and, in addition, we didn't "do school" at home, either.

Stunned silence, for a moment.
And then… the questions.

Most of you reading this will know what questions I mean.

But what did you DO all day?
How did they learn to read?
You mean you didn't ever teach them things like, say, history?
What about math?

The interesting part about this particular conversation started out being that one of my now-adult kids was there with me, and before this point, the friend we were visiting (and the housemate) did not know that he had not gone to school. Ever. But they DID know that he is a charming, interesting, well educated person. So although their minds were full of "How can this possibly ever work out?" questions, there they were, face to face with someone they both like and respect.

We talked much longer than I had intended, delaying our return home, making for a very late dinner at 1am.

It turned out to be one of the more important conversations I've ever had.

We talked about learning. How learning happens inside the person, not because they are "taught" but because they make an emotional connection to the material and through that connection, find it interesting and compelling, worth learning and retaining.
We talked about how most people do NOT recall what they were "taught" in high school, which strongly suggests that they did not learn it, at all.
We talked about following interests, and balancing the needs of family members.
We talked about a variety of fascinating interests that we had enjoyed over the years.
We talked about how each individual has their own personal view of the world, and their own way of interacting and communicating, and how, in a school, a teacher must deal with a large number of students, so finds the "common denominator," but in a home, with far fewer people, it is not a difficult task to do things in a variety of ways, and to know how kids are doing, because you're there, with them, interacting constantly.
We talked about different learning styles.

This went on for a while.
A beautiful thing.

And then it happened.
It all started to sink in.
The questions became less about how kids learn, about the mechanics of unschooling, and turned to the sharing of their own school-based experiences. Their own hurts and emotional trauma. Ways in which they had been belittled, outcast, made fun of, for being different. One shared an experience of having changed schools, and with things different at the new school (because all schools ARE different, something most people don't know), were "behind" in some things, and instead of being welcomed and assisted in making the change, or in "catching up," were treated horribly, by not only the students and teachers at the new school, but as a result, by their own family, unknowingly perpetuating the unkindness. Not fitting in, as a child in a new school, is a well known experience. Being "not good enough" there is bad enough, but when a person's own family starts to push them to be "better," it can be traumatic, and have far reaching consequences to that person's self-image.

It became clear this had happened.
Instead of questions about unschooling, I started hearing shared experiences of having felt, all their lives, like something was WRONG with them. About growing up feeling "less." Feeling stupid. Feeling left out. Feeling unvalued. Misunderstood.
About how they had managed to hide some of their differences- like a need to move while learning. How they had learned to avoid large movements, and subjugated it all into a small twitching of the fingers of one hand, held hidden, under the cover of the other hand, ashamed.

My heart broke.
I wept.

Not only for this friend, these people, but for all the other people who have ever been in this position, put there by a culture that does not understand learning, does not respect children, and by extension, doesn't really treat ANY people with respect for their being.

I was astounded and honored to have been trusted with these very personal revelations.
To have been able to offer a moment of appreciation, of understanding, and of validation.

There is nothing wrong with you.
There is everything wrong with the system.
I could go on, at length, about what real learning is, how it works, what schools typically do, and why.
But the important part isn't even that.

It is how the pressure to conform has hurt so many people.
Especially those who have the soul of an artist, never meant to conform, but to illuminate.
That would be all of us, in some way.

I had never before seen our role as unschooling advocates as having this dual nature.
Not just to promote the respect and joy of an unschooling lifestyle for kids and families, but to reach back and begin to heal those who never had that chance.

Unschooling parents often find this happening to themselves, as they process their own baggage, and go through paradigm shifts.

Perhaps we should be talking about unschooling with more people than just prospective unschoolers, with young children.
It isn't just about the kids.


  1. I think you're right. I think a lot of people are wounded from their school experiences. I'm so glad you were able to have this kind of interaction with him. Thank you for writing about it.

  2. Wow. Thanks for sharing this experience. It resonates with me and helps me see a little clearer why we're choosing unschooling.

    1. Thanks, Ann. I'm glad you found it helpful.