It has been eight months since my 11 year old daughter, hereafter named Faith, left primary school at the end of Year 6 and we embarked on our deschooling journey towards an unschooling, or life learning, life. Here is my deschooling journey in writing.
I have deliberately (and reluctantly, because there is a lot to say) left out details about Faith herself and what she has been doing and her own deschooling journey, to respect her privacy – this article is purely about myself and my own thought processes.
I have included links to relevant articles, blog posts, books or videos at the bottom of each section, and at the very end a list of further links. I fully recommend, especially if you are embarking on your own deschooling journey, that you check them all out. They all put into far better words than I the concepts I’ve tried to introduce here.
As an introduction, this lovely article How to be a good unschooler by Pam Sorooshian encompasses pretty much the approach I am trying to take.
The importance of deschooling myself
Faith has been in school for 7 years, I went to school for 14, plus have been doing an OU degree for 7, and have had school ingrained in me my whole life. If I am going to fully support Faith in life learning, learning her own way, learning what she wants to learn about, learning in many different ways, and in ways invisible to me, I have to be completely comfortable with how that happens, and the only way to be so is to fully deschool myself. It requires a critical assessment of my schooling and my own learning experiences, and a lot of letting go, of both my own negative experiences and of pre-conceived assumptions about the nature of learning, and what ‘education’ really means.
Deschooling Yourself, on ‘Self made Scholar’ [article]:
Letting go of expectations
Looking back at the plans we had at the beginning, I am not sure now how I imagined we would keep up with such a busy, active, out-and-about life, especially given that I also work and study myself. We had planned a few structured regular activities, based on her interests at the time, but dropped them all by the first half term. It wasn’t that Faith stopped enjoying the activities themselves, but that it turned out she needed to be free of a schedule and of interference, and free to invest as little or as much time as she wanted in what she was doing. So, the way we’ve gone about following her interests has been different to what I expected. There are reasons behind the way I expected to implement our plans, and it has been eye opening to watch the alternative unfold. The first thing I had to do was to let go of my expectations in order to allow that unfolding to happen.
Letting go of curriculum
I was still thinking in terms of a curriculum: in separate subjects of maths, science, history, geography, languages, English, art, and music. It is very, very difficult not to when this way of learning has been ingrained in you. But in actual fact, these ‘subjects’ are splurged all over life in all sorts of ways, mixed and connected – it is schooling that unnaturally splits them up and assumes they need to be taught and learnt separately. One thing that you could categorise as a certain subject can actually lead to something else from another, sometimes in unexpected ways and moments.
As an example, when we decided to finally get our first pets (guinea pigs), Faith enthusiastically spent a couple of weeks researching all she could about how to look after them, watching YouTube videos and reading books. What she found out covered all sorts of topics: biology (breeds, genetics, eyesight, digestive system), chemistry (of water: heavy metals, calcium, molecules and atoms), diet (the need for Vitamin C for example, and which veg are high in it), design & technology (designing and building a grids & correx cage), animal behaviour (mating, squeaking, differences between male and female)…. Her research also called for a variety of skills: reading, use of the Internet (googling, YouTube), use of the library, sketching (both of guinea pigs, for fun, and also when designing the cage), use of Excel spreadsheets, practical skills when building the cage, social skills talking to the pet shop assistants and the vets, and last but not least, the physical care and bonding with the guinea pigs themselves. In addition to this, it is the guinea pigs (and other piggie owners) that first inspired Faith to film, edit and upload her own videos for YouTube, something she has continued to do completely independently ever since.
So you see, the separate ‘subjects’ seem a nonsense when you begin to settle into a life spent doing just what you enjoy and following what interests you. Often one particular interest can lead off into all sorts of topics and involve all sorts of skills.
We all change throughout our lives, in terms of our interests and values, perhaps most often as children. The plans Faith and I made at the beginning were based on her interests at the time. Some of those interests hold fast, others are long gone. In some she delves deeply or regularly, others she picks up from time to time. The early vision I had of what we would be doing was based on 10 year old Faith, and those interests she had at the time; I didn’t factor in, to the extent I should have, that she would grow and change and her interests with that.
In any case, ‘losing’ interests doesn’t actually mean she has lost anything – she gained a lot from them at the time, and that will stay with her. She may even revisit them again one day – in fact she has been known to. It is important that I pay attention to how those interests are changing and in what direction and can adjust accordingly in terms of what I strew and what we plan, if anything. Generally though I have let go of the idea that I need to plan much – every week has the potential to bring new activities and ideas, let alone the next few months!
Upholding the right to quit
I gave Faith the right to quit the structured activities she tried out at the beginning, and gave no sign of it being a negative thing that she chose to quit them. It was important that I do so; what would be gained from making her continue? Even though she hadn’t lost interest in any of those activities of themselves, she certainly would have if she had been forced to continue with them. She also now knows that she retains that right to quit anything she may embark on in the future, and this may in fact encourage her to try more than she might do otherwise. Knowing you have the freedom to quit is in any case a very important notion for a human being. People in boring, dissatisfying jobs stick them out. People in unhappy or even abusive relationships stick them out. Why? It is inbuilt in our society that quitting is a bad thing, a weak thing, but actually I’d argue the opposite – it is freeing, and it takes a great deal of self-confidence and self-knowledge.
Besides, quitting those things does not make Faith a quitter in general. She has shown an enormous amount of perseverance, patience and commitment to various activities she has worked hard at.
Letting go of the need to be taught, to be assessed, and to produce
It’s quite remarkable that I intended to take Faith out of school, in order to unschool no less, and yet seemed to hold on to this notion that in order to follow her interests and learn ‘properly’ from them, we would need to find alternative and structured ways to teach her. In actual fact, learning is not something that has to happen as a result of being taught by an authority that is deemed to know better: learning happens within the learner only, and happens best when the learner is fully engaged, fully interested, fully free to delve as deeply as required, to follow random trains of thought or connections, and to learn in any of the multiple ways there are to learn about something. It also happens best when there is no higher authority assessing the learning that is taking place, putting pressure on to learn in the ‘right way’ or to a particular ‘standard’, and to pass tests. It happens in many ways other than the conventional academic way: you don’t have to produce something (usually on paper), ‘proving’ what you’ve learnt, in order to learn it fully. Learning happens inside you, and much of it is invisible to others.
Despite what I’d always believed due to the notions ingrained in me by schooling, I can now recognise how much I have actually learnt, by myself, due to my own voracious interest in whatever the topic is, and how constantly I have been – and still am – learning. Before deschooling myself, I always thought of my life as having been pretty ‘unsuccessful’ and ‘unproductive’ – I didn’t go to uni, I never embarked on a great career or a passionate goal or ambition, I didn’t even have any interesting artistic hobbies, at least none that I got round to actualising. It was really amiss of me to dismiss or turn a blind eye to the rich learning and experience that really was going on, just because it didn’t fall into a schoolish category of some sort, or because there wasn’t a higher authority teaching me or it wasn’t the result of such, or I did not receive a qualification for it.
For what it’s worth, I am doing a degree, with the Open University. I am currently two courses away from completing. I have thoroughly enjoyed most of it – mainly (unsurprisingly) because it is of a topic that interests me. I have admittedly enjoyed the process of producing an assignment and having it come back with a good mark. I even enjoy the exam revision process and sitting exams. One thing I have learnt from this experience though is that grades mean nothing in terms of actual learning and knowledge, and that this is not the best way for me to learn about something that interests me. I could not sit and pass an exam I got a Distinction for just a month after sitting the exam (without repeating a months’ worth of revision first). What I feel the decent marks I am getting for my OU degree actually indicate is that I can apply myself, manage my time, that I have decent cognitive and mathematical skills, that I am able to pick out relevant information from what often seems – let’s face it – a load of waffle, I can write clearly and concisely, and do all this under pressure… those sorts of skills, which are useful to complete any degree.
Another thing I have learnt from studying with the OU is that learning in this more traditional, academic way is very different now that it is something I have chosen to do myself, compared to when I was forced to do it and was trapped thus as I was in school, because someone else said it was what I should be doing. It is far easier to get through those periods when it becomes boring or tough or feels a waste of time, because I am choosing to do so and because I myself want the end goal – and I know I have the freedom to drop it at any time if I really wanted to.
To use our guinea pigs as an example again, in order to buy them we didn’t need to go to guinea pig owner lessons, or write an essay, or sit a guinea pig exam – my 11 year old daughter found out all we needed to know, by herself!
Praxis: The Unschooled Intellectual [blog post]
Zak Slayback: Ten Bad Arguments for College [blog post]
Dr. Leonard Shlain: The Alphabet vs the Goddess, a talk not about unschooling but some interesting theories about the impact on society of the rise in literacy, given that reading and writing is a left-brain (masculine) activity. [talk]
Questioning the importance of the focus on learning
So far I have focused on the nature of learning, as if it is what life and education is all about, particularly in childhood. But is it really? Well, it turns out that you can’t separate out life and learning – try spending a day learning absolutely nothing (Sandra Dodd initiated ‘Learn Nothing Day’).
I want to question the idea that the primary goal in life for children should be to learn stuff in preparation for adulthood. We’ve established that children – and adults – learn naturally anyway. Learning is a by product of living, you can’t stop it happening and it’s not good for the process to meddle with it. Life is short – you realise that fully as you approach your 40s – so the very best way of living our lives – our own lives, nobody else’s – is in the way we want to, as long as it doesn’t harm anybody else, of course. Doing what we enjoy doing, paying an interest in what we’re genuinely interested in, enjoying the company of those we love, and living in the moment (in a non-destructive way), and also working towards any goals we want to achieve. It also turns out that modelling an enthusiasm for your own learning and curiosity and hobby and fun is a better model of the future for your kids than day to day drudgery, housework, a job just for money. If this is the approach taken to life from the very beginning, in childhood, chances are skills will be honed and experiences gained that lead to successful employment in an area one is passionate about – or at least (which is as far as I’ve come myself), a work/life balance that makes one happy.
Our education system does not allow for this in childhood and especially adolescence. In school, the only way to get to success, happiness, financial security is by working one’s way through a traditional limited education and gaining qualifications. Is this actually the case? Well, for many, it doesn’t work like that. For starters: Einstein. Edison. Charles Dickens. Beatrix Potter. Richard Branson. Steve Jobs. Stampylongnose. Look around you for examples of people closer to home – I for one know plenty of people who are either not doing anything remotely related to their schooled education, or who are stuck doing something they don’t want to do because of it. And some riddled with debt into the bargain!
In school, children are continually reminded of where they should be headed, and that what they’re doing now will help or hinder what they’re heading for. They have to learn things ‘just in case’. They have a set path to follow and no way to get off (that they know of or have the freedom to do), and limited options along that path. Their lives will start when they’re finally adults and have come through the education system and have ‘succeeded’ – if they do. For many adults myself included, school will therefore have instilled the feeling that their life hasn’t started yet. Even if on the surface they have ‘got there’, it’ll be ingrained that ‘now’ is not their reality, that there is always something better round the corner, and that they need to rely on a higher authority if they want to learn or do anything new. I have heard many adults chuckle, including myself “I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.”
So, in unschooling Faith, I decided to forget completely about her future. The future will take care of itself. It is highly unlikely that whatever happens she will still be living here as a dependent into her 20s and if she is, there’ll be a good reason for it. Therefore, right now we are enjoying our lives, we are spending time doing things we enjoy, keeping our eyes open for things related to what we’re interested in, not talking about how X or Y will help her in the future, or making grand goals for the future based on what she’s into right now. It doesn’t mean that Faith is not learning about anything to do with the need to earn money one day (for example); in fact she is exposed more than ever to that need: she actually witnesses me working (I work from home), she has reminders all the time of why, we are continually assessing our budget when it comes to things she wants to buy or places we want to go. She’s also continually assessing for herself what she thinks she wants to do when she grows up, always based on what she enjoys now. She is exposed to a lot more options, too, not just schooled education-based ones.
My focus is therefore no longer always on learning. I have been watching very closely, naturally, to witness how learning happens – it has been an important part of my deschooling process – but I am learning (ironically!) how to let go of the need to look for learning and to cause or coerce it, because it isn’t necessary: it happens naturally anyway and the only important thing for me to do is to support it.
Pam Laricchia: Whose Goal is it Anyway? [article]
‘Happiness is here’ blog: How to unschool [blog post]
Letting go of the feeling that I should be ‘doing’ more
I often feel like what we want to ‘do’ can be interrupted by life, or that I, or we, should be ‘doing’ more. There is always a long list of things we (or at least I) want us to be doing. And yet when I really look at what is going on, we are doing plenty, even during the most ‘lazy’ chilled out weeks. I’ve mentioned invisible learning, and the fact that you don’t need to ‘produce’ something all the time. So I’m not really sure what it is I think we should be ‘doing’. I suppose those unopened arts & crafts boxes, the plans that haven’t been carried out yet, the museum or theatre trips we’ve not yet organised, all sit there like a monkey on my back.
‘I should be spending more time doing stuff directly with Faith.’ She does a lot by herself. Partly because there are periods of time when I’m working or doing something else I need to do, but also when she gets involved in something and doesn’t want company with it. Perhaps I feel like I ‘should’ be doing something with her whenever I am free, because I am responsible for her education, and as described above, it is ingrained in me that you need input in order to learn or achieve anything. In fact, observation has shown me that the opposite is actually often true! But, on the other hand, we do a lot together, in fact most of the time that I am free is spent with her – recently for example we’ve played lots of Minecraft, gone swimming or to the park, played with the guinea pigs, watched YouTube videos or DVDs; Faith is continually showing me what she’s watching or playing me music or showing me a ditty she’s made up. Besides, having me interrupt or involve myself can sometimes hinder Faith’s engagement in or enjoyment of whatever it is she’s doing anyway.
And so, the conclusion has to be that I really must let go of that feeling that we should be ‘doing’ more: I need to go with the flow, enjoy what we are doing, value what we are doing. We’ll get round to the other stuff, when we have the time and when we’re ready to.
Raising Miro: Is Unschooling for the lazy? [blog post]
Idzie Desmarais: I don’t believe in laziness [blog post]
Learning from life
A consequence of realising that learning happens all the time has helped prevent me seeing unexpected occurrences, such as crises or even daily tasks like shopping and housework, as ‘interruptions’ to Faith’s education. In actual fact, I’ve found that an enormous amount of learning has come out of such ‘interruptions’, some of which would not have happened otherwise.
You can imagine that having figured out all the above, my perspective changed dramatically, and I began to undergo a complete paradigm shift. Anything that Faith could be doing now appears worthwhile, however (seemingly) mundane and however disconnected from ‘schoolwork’ it is. To go back to talk of the future, put in a simple way absolutely everything around us that you can think of is either directly or can be linked to something somebody has made money from, or been a pioneer creator of. In other words, engagement with it could lead to a desire to be employed in some way related to it, and therefore no longer looks like a waste of time – especially as such employment would be entered into for the pure enjoyment of it! (Though of course spending time enjoying something is not a waste of time even if it is not going to aid one’s future!) Also, connections can be made all over the place to many other learning opportunities and activities. We need only to fully engage with what is being enjoyed or investigated by the child.
Take a look at the following random examples (all of which Faith has spent time doing), with this new thought in mind (and extrapolating for a few of them):
– Colouring in
– Playing a video game
– Stroking a pet
– Hunting for stones and shells on the beach
– Baking a cake
– Choosing clothes
– Posting a message on a social media site
– Filming yourself, or taking a photo
– Listening to music
– Paying for something in a shop
– Climbing a tree
– Digging in the garden
– Watching TV
– Googling something
– Trying out a new hairstyle
– Face painting
– Scraping at a stick (it’s called ‘whittling’!)
As a current example, Faith is spending some of her time on social media – YouTube (including posting her own videos), Instagram, Twitter and Google+. Some parents might worry about this in the context of home education, think she is wasting her time, that it is holding her back from doing x,y,z, that it isn’t ‘proper’ learning or that it shouldn’t have a place in her education. On the contrary: it occurred to me that these days, being online is crucial for most businesses as well as self employed individuals. There are people at my place of work whose jobs it is to make, edit and post YouTube videos, advertise on all social media platforms and keep up with and respond to customers’ posts – all of which Faith is already doing in her own small way! I’m not saying that it is a job that Faith will definitely want to do in the future, or that she will end up doing it – but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t spend her time doing it now, or that it should be discouraged, if she enjoys it – the opposite. It’ll be just one more string to her bow, and aids the development of many transferable skills. This kind of ‘just in case’ is a far more worthwhile one – and more fully learnt – than those you don’t want to be doing in school! Besides, there are far more trails of discovery that lead off from these activities than you would expect – you would probably be surprised to know just how much Faith has learnt from her time on social media and YouTube.
Letting go of the idea of ‘value’
We all have different ideas of what is ‘valuable’, or ‘worthwhile’, or conversely what is a ‘waste of time’ or ‘less important’, or even what is meant by ‘value’. Often this is tied up with the values of the education system. Take a look at the following list:
Books vs movies
Period dramas vs soap operas
Card or board games vs video games
Home cooked vs ready made
Handmade vs factory produced
Classical vs pop
Ballet vs street dancing
You probably don’t need me to tell you whether the items on the left are generally seen as more ‘worthy’ or ‘educational’ or those on the right. Those are the values that were instilled in me, in any case. But why? In the reality of both my adult life and in Faith’s childhood, all of those things we enjoy; sometimes we lean more to the left, sometimes more to the right. It depends on the specific thing in question, and on our own interests or needs at the time – some books are boring, even the most ‘worthy’ ones, some movies are rubbish. Some classical pieces I love, others I don’t get on with, and ‘pop’ is a hugely wide category of music too. I love cooking so we have a lot of home cooked food here, but being able to bung something in the microwave on a busy day is invaluable too. There is absolutely no reason to set one type of medium or activity above another, they can all be enjoyed, money can be made from all of them, learning can happen in abundance from them all.
What is important when unschooling though, is that we value what our kids value. No matter what that is, or what we think of it ourselves. (It goes without saying that I am setting aside such as racism, violence, abuse and that sort of thing – that is a whole different topic.) It would be tiresome to grow up with someone who scoffs or rolls their eyes at what you love, or who even subtly discounts it in favour of other stuff. What they love might actually become a life long passion, it might lead to gainful employment long term, so we could wind up shutting that off for them – or it could lead to a vague discomfort or guilt about enjoying it. What’s the point of that?
Joining in and engaging
With the above, comes one important role of an unschooling parent – that we engage with what our kids are doing, in a genuine and positive way, and join in so that we understand it. Only if welcome, of course. It is always surprising just how much is involved in what at first appears to be the smallest of activities, and when you fully understand it and what your child gains from it, it is then easier to fully support it. It is also then easier to ‘strew’ (a term used by Sandra Dodd) further learning opportunities, either those related to current interests, or new things they may be interested in (but never showing resentment if what is strewed is not taken up).
Sandra Dodd: strewing [web page]
With engagement comes conversation. I have really noticed during our deschooling period just how important conversation is, both to learning and to connection. Most of our science- and history-based learning so far has occurred through free-flowing conversation, for example. I have noticed more than ever before just how many questions Faith asks, and how important it is that I endeavour to answer them as soon as possible after they are asked, even if I need to look it up. If I am distracted or disengaged, many a learning opportunity will be overlooked, and disconnection or disengagement from the subject at hand becomes more likely.
Letting go of restrictions
Given all I have mentioned already, it might be obvious what I am going to say. Restricting something inhibits the learning, engagement, enthusiasm and passion that I think is so important in both childhood and adulthood.
I have never restricted ‘screens’ (a silly word for what I mean, it encompasses so many different activities) for Faith in her life, although it was previously of course naturally restricted by school and my work pattern. There has been no problem caused by this whatsoever: Faith watches or plays as much of something as she desires, and it has by no means ever been all she does. The fear of many is that given the option, all children will do is sit in front of the TV, or spend all day playing video games. This is not actually the case, and in cases where it is, it could be either during the adjustment period where the child has been restricted up to then and is bingeing for fear of it being taken away again; or the child is genuinely really into what they’re doing and will milk it for all its worth, to one day make something of it. In any case, the language bandied around about this, conjuring up an image of a child ‘just vegging’, addicted, in front of a screen couldn’t be further from what is actually happening! It is well worth reading more about this via the links below.
I have already touched on social media. It is understandably viewed as a danger zone for tweens and teens, but I feel it is important given that Faith really wanted to be involved that I give her that freedom and my blessing, as it means that I can engage with her about it and ensure that she is forewarned and forearmed with regards to the dangers. Faith is very savvy about internet safety, and I have no reason not to trust that she is looking after herself online. Besides, due to my support and positivity about the matter, she has involved me in her online activity and I can relax in the knowledge that she would feel safe and free to come to me if she has any concerns whatsoever about something. This is the far better option than the alternative route I could have taken: to flat out refuse, to denigrate social media, to be over-dramatic about the dangers, only to have her possibly secretly go online without guidance or support, or to grow up not knowing much about how to navigate the important and complex web that is social media and instead enter it naively when she is older and possibly more vulnerable to the dangers.
Tanya Byron: Cleverly Connected [TED talk]
Saying yes more
Kids come up against ‘No’ a lot. Unschooling philosophy, for reasons that will be obvious by now, encourages ‘Yes’ wherever possible, and if it’s not possible at a given time, it doesn’t have to be a flat out ‘No’. Obviously there will be real limits to a ‘Yes’ – financial, for example. But once I switched from a ‘No’ mindset to a ‘Yes’ mindset, I started to realise just how many arbitrary ‘No’s are thoughtlessly given out, how often something that can’t be a straight, immediate ‘Yes’ doesn’t have to be a full on ‘No’ – and how the practical reasons for something that really does have to be ‘No’ can be explained fully, in partnership with the child.
Take these two common examples of the sorts of scenarios I have thought about for myself:
You’re about to cook dinner, you’re quite hungry. A child bounds up to you with a water pistol and wants to pop out for a water fight with you. I would previously have automatically, unthinkingly responded “No not now, I’m about to cook dinner!”
How about instead: “Ooh sounds like fun! I’m really hungry so let me just grab a bite to eat [toast/cereal/packet of crisps, just to keep you going] and then we’ll go have a water fight for half an hour, OK? Do you want a snack as well?”
Of course, if you’re unschooling, there is no need to worry about an upcoming bedtime and early start the next morning – it doesn’t matter if dinner is later than you’d have liked it to be, especially if hunger can be staved off in the meantime.
You’re in the shops and child sees something that they really, really want, but it costs a lot of money and this month you just don’t have the spare cash. “Nope, we can’t afford it”.
How about “Ah this month I can only afford to buy the food, and I don’t get enough money every month to pay for it straight away. How about we put £10 a month away to keep safe and when there is enough we’ll buy it?”
I admit I struggled with ‘Yes’ at first; I spent more money than I had and went rather overboard trying to create the feeling of abundance that I had read is so important when unschooling, so my current challenge is to work with Faith on keeping my ‘Yes’s realistic.
Unschooling support: Saying yes [podcast]
Unschooling support: “Spoiling” [podcast]
Letting go of structure – and control over food and sleep
When there is no longer school to go to at a particular time of day, and my own job is also no longer a 9 to 5 out-of-the-home job, it becomes obvious that we have been conditioned to believe that the structure of the day should nevertheless be: up in the morning, three meals a day, bed in the evening. There is absolutely no reason for this to be the case, unless you do indeed have school or a 9-5 job to get to. In fact, trying to stick to such a structure when you’re unschooling will be detrimental to the benefits of unschooling, if it doesn’t fit in with what your child’s body naturally wants or needs.
Everybody is different with regards to how much sleep they need, and when, and so Faith has the unique opportunity to really explore what sleep means for her and how to best manage it. Initially, I was concerned about allowing freedom with sleep, because I thought that having Faith possibly become out of sync with my own pattern would limit what I could facilitate, and limit our chances to go out, spoiling her overall unschooling experience. Partly for these reasons, and partly to keep the house quiet for the rest of us, there is a still a ‘bedtime’ albeit a later one (around the same time I myself go to bed), but I no longer insist “Go to sleep soon”, and if we have early plans the next day I’ll simply remind her of that. She will stay quietly in her room at night, and it is up to her now when and how much she sleeps, and when she gets up if we don’t have plans. I have found contrary to what I had expected that even when her sleeping pattern is not in sync with mine, just as much learning takes place as ever, and any plans we have are not actually affected. So, my concerns about giving her freedom over her sleep pattern were unfounded. I love that she can just follow her own wishes and needs and learn for herself the consequences of one sleep pattern or another.
The other perhaps even more important learning opportunity is a relationship with food. Bar those with certain medical conditions, we are all born with the ability to intuitively eat what we need and in the right amounts (think of a baby); it is spoilt by the controlling of eating by parents, various dietary fads and paranoia about health and weight. There is contradictory and continually changing advice about what is good to eat and what isn’t, including for children, and labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (even subtly, by encouraging it or limiting it, respectively) instils guilt and fear around eating, inhibiting the body’s innate ability to listen to its own signals and leading ironically to poorer eating habits later on (such as bingeing, fasting, dieting). So I feel the best we can do in our own short lives, is to eat what we feel like (taking care of allergies of course) and pay attention to the actual impact we can feel on our bodies, while of course listening to any well-founded medical advice should problems arise. Eating should be an enjoyable and even exciting experience. Conventionally, we don’t make it so for our children.
Lifting my own control over Faith’s food intake was one of the first things I did as part of our unschooling journey, before she even left school, and it has been enormously freeing for both she and I to leave the choice in her hands. It is carried out in a similar way to learning opportunities – a wide variety of food can (and should) be ‘strewed’ too! Like with sleep, she is learning to listen to what her body needs: eat when she’s hungry, stop when she’s full, and eat what she feels like (assuming it is available). While 11 years old is a little late to come to this (I wish we’d started when she was weaned!), Faith now has the opportunity to learn to do this earlier than she would have otherwise, and will hopefully take this attitude to food into adulthood, arming her against the unhealthy relationship with food that befalls so many young women (and men).
Kids, Carrots & Candy: A Practical, Positive Approach to Raising Children Free of Food and Weight Problems [book] – (not about unschooling)
Unschoolers.org: Food [blog post] – it is also worth reading the other posts linked at the bottom
The Libertarian Homeschooler: Do you have picky eaters? [Facebook post]
Intuitive eating [website; not about unschooling]
Interestingly, Faith has applied the same awareness of her bodily needs to physical exercise. She’ll recognise when she needs to go out and run about, or when she needs to take herself to bed – either can be her reaction to feeling ‘sluggish’. In a nutshell, she is free to listen to her body’s needs and respond to them appropriately, which is in fact one of the most important learning opportunities that unschooling has to offer, given that this is very difficult when you’re at school.
“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
Unschooling takes an enormous amount of trust, because society’s view of children and therefore that ingrained in us is so contrary to the unschooling view. We need to trust both in our children themselves, and in the unschooling process. At the beginning, it has to be a blind trust, because you don’t have your own evidence to go by. It is important at that stage to read lots about other people’s experiences, especially grown unschoolers and their parents. Then, as time goes by, you start to see with your own eyes how it works, and trust in the process begins to build. I began unschooling food and sleep because I had read about the reasons behind it and it made sense; I no longer felt comfortable about holding control over someone else’s important bodily functions – but I had to dive into it with blind faith that it would ‘work’. And by ‘work’, I mean in the sense that it would suit Faith, not that she would naturally end up sleeping and eating in the way I thought she should without me having to make her.
For example, would you believe that a child would say ‘no thank you’ to an offer of ice cream, or ask for ‘proper food’ instead of the available chocolate and sweets? Or take themselves to bed early because they’re tired, with absolutely no prompting from anyone else? Or google for themselves how to troubleshoot an IT problem? Or pick up a maths book voluntarily to do some sums? Or to carry out a hated task first thing in the morning, again with no prompting? Or turn off the laptop or TV because they’ve had enough for that day? Well, I’ve seen all this happen with my own eyes. We grossly underestimate children’s ability to learn how to care for themselves, and we harbour an arrogant assertion that we are always the ones who know best. In actual fact, if a child is never given the opportunity to learn for themselves, they will grow into adulthood without that inbuilt knowledge of themselves and their bodies’ needs because it has always been controlled for them, and it is partly this that can lead to the self-destructive behaviours we see in many adults.
Trust extends to the learning process too and the long-term benefit of it, of course. No unschooling parent knows that their child will come out of adolescence and be OK – and by OK I mean that they will go on to lead happy lives with the ability to make a living for themselves, in whatever way that may be. But then, nobody whose child is in school knows that either, and in fact I personally would worry more about that if Faith were in school. All we can do is follow the path that makes the most sense to us and trust (or hope, if trust is too difficult) that they’ll be OK.
I find it odd to reflect though, that the more freedom and choice I place in Faith’s hands, the easier I find it is to trust her and the process. When I was trying to control and choose for her, I had less faith and worried far more. I think it’s because I instinctively knew that it’s not possible to do that for another person and feel safe in the knowledge that my choices would be wholly the right thing for her. I can now see that giving her the freedom to make her own choices (with support and guidance where needed) actually makes it more likely the choices made will be right for her.
Dealing with the wobbles
What happens when my trust is shaky? Those moments when I think “What the hell are we doing? Am I ruining all chances for Faith to be successful? Am I raising her to be a self centred arrogant person? What if she doesn’t get any qualifications at all and it turns out she needs them? What if she should be doing some ‘proper’ subjects? What if the screens are addling her brain? What if she isn’t getting enough exercise? Is she socialising enough?” and so on and so forth.
As already mentioned, there is tons of reading to be done online and in books that specifically addresses such wobbles (including the links I’ve included), but other than that my main anchor in those times is my own observation of what Faith is doing, and it amazes me every week just how much goes on, how much learning happens, how Faith’s interests and activities take unexpected twists and turns, the connections made, how something she wasn’t doing a month ago has come to fruition with no coercion, and most importantly, how happy and confident she is. I have no reason to doubt that all else being well, this is setting her up for a content, productive adulthood and that it will be maintained throughout her life.
Besides, my ‘what ifs’ when I imagine Faith going to secondary school are far more scary to me.
Homeschool this [blog post] (NB – I don’t like her use of the word ‘lazy’ (see previous links) – or the mention of her forcing a healthy breakfast on her daughter when she chose to go to high school, but other than that it’s a great post for dealing with the wobbles!)
I nearly forgot to include this, as it is such a non-issue, but feel I should because it is often one of the first concerns trotted out by others when they hear that you’re home educating. I’m actually lost for words as to how to write about it, and to be honest I have chosen not to give this concern more time than it deserves. Let’s see, here’s a brainstorm of all the contacts I can think of that Faith frequently has with other human beings:
– Her own friends – sleepovers, swimming, social media, video chatting, meals out, cinema, shopping, gaming
– Me & our friends and family – babysitting, sleepovers, parks, visits to us and them, day trips out, gaming
– Strangers – shop assistants, the vet, YouTubers (both online and at conventions), cafe waiters, the neighbours, gaming, social media
All real-world interactions, a wide variety of people and ages, basically how we all relate in this world, not including our jobs (which is not relevant to consider for children, and which are so very varied in any case). What adult sits in a classroom every day with a group of people all of their own age group and one older authority figure? How can that appropriately and healthily ‘socialise’ somebody?
Home Education UK: The ‘S’ word [article]
How to treat Faith
In order for a child to feel fully free to learn in their own way and follow their own interests, to feel safe when there are no (arbitrary) restrictions and supported with their choices, to feel comfortable about approaching the adults in their lives for help and advice when needed, and to be open to hearing and assessing advice when it is given, the relationship between them and their unschooling parents has to be rock solid: mutually respectful, open, non-judgemental, non-authoritarian, non-controlling and so on along those lines. Parenting has to become partnering, and this sits contrary to most modern parenting advice, which is based on control and coercion (bar ‘attachment parenting’ such as that advocated by such as Alfie Kohn).
It may be tempting to think children need this control – don’t they? If we don’t control them, chaos would reign! Surely they don’t know what’s good for them? Well, many, many unschooling families who do not parent in the conventional way continually prove otherwise, and there are many blogs, articles, videos, books to be found demonstrating this.
I am trying to change the way I see myself as a parent in relation to Faith as my daughter. I am trying to speak to her as I would any other person, in a respectful and calm way, rather than an authoritarian way. I am trying to always give her choices and freedom (along with the information she needs to utilise this) whenever possible. I want her to trust that she will be heard and respected. All this has to be done in a mutually consensual way of course; this is not about parental self-sacrifice.
And it is hugely important that Faith grows up confident that she has the right to say ‘no’ to something and to express displeasure about something or to complain; while the issues she protests against may now be small (or seem insignificant to us), one day they may be big.
My thinking about Faith is therefore morphing from “She is my child, my responsibility, I should make the decisions, I know what’s best for her” to “She is a whole separate person in her own right, with her own opinions, interests, personality, rights, and I simply have the privilege of being the one to share her formative years (that’s a nonsense expression isn’t it? When do we ever stop ‘forming’?) with her and help guide her through them”. I think we sometimes forget that children are in fact whole people, separate from ourselves. They will one day be fully grown adults in charge of their own lives, complete with the memories and messages of childhood that we (among others in their lives) are ingraining in them.
Taking Children Seriously [website]
Parenting for social change [website]
Approaching the teens
I used to be terrified of the idea of Faith becoming a teenager. I envisaged hormonal mood swings, rows about homework, sulking, disconnection. But over time, literally all of those fears have dissipated. I am not naive enough to believe that it’ll all be plain sailing (but then, when was it ever?), but armed with the attitudes aforementioned, and some knowledge that the stereotypical teen is in fact a product of the world in which they are placed (a world Faith will not be living in), I have developed trust that the reality will be very different to what I had imagined before deciding to unschool. I am actually now very excited about the future.
The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn [free pdf of the book]:
More links and resources
‘Living Joyfully’ blog
The late John Holt, the ‘father’ of unschooling:
How Can Education be Changed? [radio interview]
Alfie Kohn, who writes about education and unconditional parenting but not about unschooling:
The Risk of Rewards [article]
Unschooling Support podcast, by Amy Childs
Linda Wyatt: Unschooling Me [blog post about figuring it out for yourself]
I’m Unschooled, Yes I Can Write blog by Idzie Desmarais
Class Dismissed, a documentary film that I am impatiently waiting to see
For the love of learning – discussion hosted by worldschooler Lainie of ‘Raising Miro’ with Jeremy Stuart (who made the Class Dismissed movie), Teresa Graham Brett (of Parenting for Social Change) and Scott Noelle of the ‘Enjoy Parenting’ website
John Taylor Gatto
Weapons of Mass Instruction [book]
and his talk, Weapons of Mass Instruction
Home Education and the safeguarding myth (hopefully you have access to this)
Websites about the practicalities (e.g. legalities) of home education:
Videos just for fun:
Boyinaband: Don’t Stay in School [song] (NB ‘Don’t Stay in School’ refers to the subjects, not children. He is calling for a change in the curriculum)