Give Them a Voice: Children as Unschooling Ambassadors

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:

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Hackschooling-Makes-Me-Happy-Lo

 

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7 thoughts on “Give Them a Voice: Children as Unschooling Ambassadors

  1. I love your blog! Very inspiring and great words to hear. I will tweet it! I love reading your blogs especially as your thoughts often mirror my own, so it is like having a bit of support!

    You write really well.

    Have a great day.

    Love Lehla

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. I love this. Thank you for sharing! We unschooled for about a year and a half, and homeschooled more formally before that. My only problem with the process is me: as the primary breadwinner and caregiver, I found that for days I’d leave the kids to their own devices while I sat glued to my computer around the clock. Needless to say, they copied me and also spent days attached to their screens by their eyeballs. How do you juggle the need to work with the time our kids need for interaction and growth? I feel like I can’t give them what they need.

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    • Hi Vanessa, thanks so much for your comment. I completely understand how the “juggle” can be trying at times. My husband and I both work from home, but my time is much more flexible so I’m usually the one the kids come to for help. Sometimes it’s frustrating for them and me, because I want and need blocks of time to write and translate. So what I do is give them advance notice that “OK this morning mom needs to work in peace. So write down your questions or things you’d like me to help you with and I’ll give you my full attention in the afternoon.” If it’s something quick, I’ll usually take a break. If I’m working on something really important, my husband will often take them with him for onsite meetings (he’s an architect/builder) which they love. But there are still days when their noses are in the ipad. They usually get tired of it and move on to something else. I’ve also realized that I always think I need to give them a lot of time to give them what they need, but that actually, even if I take just a few minutes to answer an important question or look something up, even take a short walk in nature, it’s enough: their need has been met and I can go back to what I was doing. And I usually find I’m more productive when I come back to my desk. I hope that’s helpful to you.

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  3. We try to defer all questions about the kids to the kids if they’re with us. Right now, our kids are 5, 4, and 1. It’s nice to hear your experience with homeschooling questions. It sounds like it will only get better! I’m also intrigued by your comment above regarding working at home. How long did it take to get used to juggling everything efficiently? Thanks for the nice post!

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    • Hi dolphus, auto-correct really wants you to be called “dolphin” by the way. Thanks for your feedback. My kids are 11 and 12 now so they’re pretty self-sufficient, but my husband and I still have to be available for them for help or to answer a question. It’s just kind of taken on a familiar routine and pace. I don’t think it ever really gets efficient in the sense that “flow” is really difficult to achieve. I get up an hour or two before everyone else to write because it’s the only time I can really get into it. We spend a lot of time together as a family, and every day is different, but the luxury of working from home is worth all the sacrifices. Looking forward to checking out your blog. Enjoy those little ones!

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