We are the only family in our community whose children don’t go to school, so it’s only natural that we get asked a lot of questions about our learning philosophy by educators and parents. The fact that we live in a predominately french ex-pat community means that these questions are often pointed and direct. Many times they aren’t even questions but statements such as, “well, they’re still young, but eventually they’ll have to go to school if you want them to succeed.” I get that one often.
I can’t blame them. Homeschooling is extremely rare in France and isn’t considered a viable educational alternative. Most of the parents I’ve spoken to had no idea homeschooling was even legal in France. So from this deeply ingrained cultural perspective and the strict institutional approach to pedagogy and therefore future success, I can understand their deep skepticism for homeschooling.
But the discussion tends to get really uncomfortable when I get to the part about how my children don’t follow a curriculum, don’t use text books and sometimes spend ENTIRE DAYS doing nothing but watching documentaries or playing in the mud. I might as well have said they gamble all day and run a brothel at night. The idea is that inconceivable.
I used to dread these conversations, especially when we were just starting out on our unschooling journey and I was grappling with my own insecurities about how my children would learn and what my role as a parent would be. I was often flustered and unable to articulately talk about interest-led learning and the natural curiosity that leads children to discovery and passion. I could write about it, but face to face encounters were another story. Every question felt like an attack and every remark a judgement. I felt an overwhelming need to convince others–family members, friends, strangers–that we were doing the right thing for our children and by association, that I was a good parent. As a result, I often came across as defensive and maybe just a little judgmental myself.
Then one day something changed. We were talking with the father of my son’s friend who asked, “but if you don’t follow a curriculum, how do they learn crucial subjects like math, science and history?” Before I could open my mouth, my son, who is ten, started explaining that math is found in everyday experiences like cooking, making change at the grocery store, and in analyzing rhythms in music. He explained that he learned fractions by building lego towers.
My daughter, nine, piped up and said she learned about diameter and circumference in a horseback riding ring. As for science, they observed nature–the stability and structure of hives, birds nests and termite hills; the life cycle, survival techniques and predators of insects. They learned about oceanography through TED science talks. History, my son explained, is Geography’s inseparable twin brother. They go everywhere together. In other words, my children started answering for themselves. And when they did, people listened.
Because my children spend time with people of all ages and are given the freedom to participate in “adult” work and conversation, they are exposed to a wide variety of topics, debates and ideas. With few exceptions, no one has ever told them they were too young to understand something being discussed in their presence. As a result, they are at ease holding a conversation and possess the vocabulary to express themselves articulately. In addition, they are largely in charge of making their education happen, from exploration to choosing a topic, doing research and/or seeking out mentors and materials. So it makes perfect sense that they would be able to handle a tough question about their learning experience.
Who better, in fact, to talk about what unschooling looks like than the very people who are doing it? While I am certainly a facilitator and advocate for my children’s passion for learning naturally, I was educated within the school system, which is perhaps why I still struggle with explaining “unschooling” in a tangible way, at least to skeptics. I had been answering these questions for my children thinking I needed to protect them from uncomfortable questions or harsh criticism. Once I realized that my children held no such fears, it became obvious that I was only protecting myself, which is proof that I still have a few hurdles to navigate on my own path. They, on the other hand, are quite confident about their journey. They perceive obstacles as challenges rather than barriers. They view questions, when phrased respectfully, as genuine invitations, to be answered with abandon, not restraint.
If we can trust our children to know what they need to learn and learn what they need to know, then it makes perfect sense to give them the floor when it comes to talking about those experiences. As long as they’re comfortable doing so, step aside and let them answer. As ambassadors for passionate learning, they clearly take the stage.
Here is one of my favorite inspiring examples of a learning ambassador: