Carpe Diem: Unschooling is All About Living in the Present

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Vase With Flowers by Sunny Rowland

It seems that everyone these days is in search of a way to reconnect: with ourselves, with those close to our hearts, and with what is essential in life. We read and hear a lot about getting back to center, stripping away the extraneous, silencing the noise. We are distracted by instant access to news and constantly solicited by ads, messages, click bait and forum debates. We find it hard to carve out time to do things that are meaningful to us; to garden, to paint, to write, to take a walk in nature. We are stressed and unfocused. Even young children in schools are being led in meditation and mindfulness practices. And yet young children are innately in tune with themselves and their surroundings.

In fact, no one lives more fully in the present, with all the attendant gifts and emotions that go along with it, than a child before he is made to attend school.

A newborn expresses immense gratitude the instant his needs are met, and conversely screams in frustration when they are not. An infant will while the day away, sleeping or studying her toes or the curve of her mother’s nose with intense concentration, without ever worrying that she should be doing something else.

A toddler expends limitless energy and stamina exploring his curiosity, the sounds he is able to make, the movements he masters. He fails repeatedly in his attempts to roll onto his stomach, crawl, stand, walk, put words to the many references he has already integrated into his understanding of the world. He tries again, fails again, but his determination is organic and powerful. He learns from his missteps, assimilates what he has learned, then dismisses the mistake. He attaches neither shame nor defeat to his inabilities; for they now belong to the past. Here and now, at this precise instant, is a renewed opportunity to learn. How exciting, how exhausting, how truly and utterly wonderful is this present moment !

We, as parents, happily encourage our babies and toddlers in their learning blitz. We offer guidance as role models and supporters of their knowledge and skill quest because we understand that we cannot teach them to talk, walk, eat or any of the other basic skills a child acquires by the age of two or so. They must learn these on their own, with our guidance and support. As we accompany our children on this day-to-day evolution, we too are asked to live in the present, to accommodate inevitable changes to our lives, naturally losing our sense of time. While many of us attempt to create a semblance of structure, our children continually show us the gift of now, asking us to let go of any semblance of a calendar or schedule.

And then one day, and increasingly too soon, our society willingly hands our children over to strangers who begin to “prepare” them for the future. The present they so wholly inhabited suddenly becomes a sterile box which they are no longer allowed to freely explore. Where not so long ago we encouraged them to walk and talk, they must now sit in silence. Where once we championed their leaps of learning and their boundless discoveries, we now begin to train them to be instructed. Where once we made great efforts to meet their physical and emotional needs, we somehow find it acceptable that those needs be controlled and stifled. Where once we championed our child’s individuality and autonomy, we now find it beneficial that they conform, obey and mold.

The messages they now receive are no longer anchored in the here and now, but instead focus on what is to be.

You may talk when called upon. You may use the bathroom after class. You must wait. Like everyone else. You can’t paint now, it’s not time. Geography isn’t taught this year. Play time is in an hour. Lunch is served at noon. The test you will take next week is important. Your future depends on it.

Is it any wonder we need meditation in schools? How can we expect our children to live in and derive joy from the present when our educational system continually sends the message that their value and purpose lie exclusively in who they will become? In asking a child, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” we are telling them that who they are now, what they already know, and why and how they have come to know it are irrelevant.
All meaningful learning experiences are layered, expansive, and enhanced by the accumulation of practical knowledge, the building of skills or the exposure to or observation of a mentor. Learning that stems from curiosity or interest remains an integral part of a voluntary quest that is fully owned and managed by the learner, implying a sense of sovereignty, self-awareness, intrinsic motivation and autonomy.

No learning that is ever mandatory, coerced, imposed or executed under threat of punishment, duress, or exclusion should ever be called “educational.” If learning serves only as the proverbial carrot before the donkey (the carrot being the promise of future success, popularity, and societal acceptance), only to be forgotten after it has been officially tested, then it should be considered superficial at best, and at worst, a damaging waste of childhood.

Life Learning is all about seizing the day

When we choose an unschooling lifestyle, we are giving our children dominion over their learning, their bodies, their imagination and how they spend their days. Since there is rarely an agenda, we are given the rare privilege to wake up and allow our days to unfold according to our interests, responsibilities and the unpredictable randomness that inevitably presents itself. In a free life, we allow ourselves to decide what is important in the here and now and how we want to approach our conundrums and revel in our discoveries .

Living in the present means we don’t worry too much about tomorrow, we seize the day. It doesn’t mean we don’t take our responsibilities seriously or plan for the future or weigh the consequences of putting something off until tomorrow. Being given this freedom allows children to discern what is most important to them without having those parameters judged or critiqued. Contrary to what most assume, this does not result in bad choices but instead tends to foster a strong sense of self-governance and responsibility in being in charge of their time.

What about their future? Remove the donkey, the cart, and the carrot and you remove an enormous source of weight and pressure representing a limiting notion of success. Children who are given the freedom to choose when and how to learn and at what pace are less likely to be deterred by failure or shamed for letting go of an activity, hobby, or pursuit that no longer brings them pleasure, joy, or contributes to their objective. They are allowed to try a multitude of interests if they choose.

My children, when asked what do you want to be/pursue/do when you grow up, have changed their minds a multitude of times. But I see and value them for what they are TODAY, now, in the present: an actor, a geopolitical fanatic, an entrepreneur, a stylist, a linguist, a comedian, an artist. Kids. People. Individuals. They are happy and expansive and awake. They have a healthy relationship with the past; they don’t fear or pretend to know the future. And neither do we as their parents. We let life and learning unfold one day at a time, weaving the ordinary and the memorable into the continuum of life.

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8 thoughts on “Carpe Diem: Unschooling is All About Living in the Present

  1. What a gift to be able to start my day with a new nugget of your wisdom, Ellen! Thank you for another beautiful reminder to cherish my daughter, and to live in the moment with her. 🙂

    Like

  2. When I read this kind of articles I feel so guilty about my son. He is brilliant but didn’t really like school. He wants to be free, on his own words. And he is 5!
    When school ask to write about something I have to push him to do it. But when he writes about what he likes I can’t stop him.
    I feel your article is so true and I really wish I can have the courage (to face my husband who totally disagree) and start the freedom of homeschooling. I totally believe my son will be more happy.
    Best
    Rossanna

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    • Hi Rossanna, you have your sons’ best interest at heart and that’s what matters. Getting a spouse or significant other onboard with life learning can be very challenging. Initially, I was the one who resisted and my husband had to convince me to try it. Then my children showed me just how amazing their learning capacities were and how fulfilled their lives had become. You can always encourage your son to explore his passions and give him the freedom he wants at home. It’s a good start. Best of luck to you. You’re a good mom!

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  3. “No learning that is ever mandatory, coerced, imposed or executed under threat of punishment, duress, or exclusion should ever be called “educational.”

    What’s more, no change brought about by these methods is effective or lasting, either. You are teaching your kids to follow their internal compasses, and the better they get at knowing where they are and where they’re going, the less susceptible they’ll be to others who try to lead them astray. A valuable skill, indeed!

    You are an inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

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