Silencing the Voice of Conformity

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My twelve year old unschooled daughter has been waking up late these days. Around 9 am, the sticky, stubborn residue of conformity whispers in my ear that perhaps I should wake her. There are things to do. It’s a beautiful day. The sun’s been up for hours. So has her brother.

At 10:15, the insistent inner voice of irritation (or perhaps jealousy?) quips that breakfast is still on the table and we’ve all got better things to do than wait for her to wake up. I was never allowed to sleep that late as a child. Why should she?

By 11:00, I am at my worst, convinced that she is wasting the day away. Misusing valuable learning time. It’s a weekday for heaven’s sake! We’re spoiling her. But then another thought sneaks in and suggests that maybe she’s depressed. Or sick. There’s definitely something wrong. Have I been available to her? Have I been listening? Why haven’t I noticed?

And then comes the crescendo of the cruelest inner voice:

I’m a horrible mother.

This internal dialogue is not something I can control, despite five years of unschooling and a great deal of self-work. It is a process that cycles back around and wallops me unawares. When neither of my children had learned to read when school said they should, the voice of conformity told me they were suffering from developmental delays. When they didn’t know their times tables or how to write in cursive, it convinced me they were lacking in essential skills. When they didn’t have an entire class of friends to invite to their birthday parties, it broke my heart and told me they must be lonely. And when others were critical or judgemental of the learning freedom my children are afforded, it shamed me into believing I should send them to school.

Sometimes, I can stand up to those voices and recognize them as vestiges of my upbringing and societal conditioning. They are recorded tapes, messages that have played so long on an ingrained loop that it’s difficult to silence them. But while I can’t stop them from having their say, I don’t have to listen anymore. And I certainly don’t have to act on them.

Other times, in weaker moments, I rail against the demons of self-doubt, fists of anger ready for the fight, tears of uncertainty pooling around the past. But I will not drown. In moments of self-care, I recognize them for what they are, sometimes going as far as gracefully accepting them as an integral part of my whole progressing self. I put them to paper. Invite them to a proper debate. And I try very hard not to impose them on my children.

My daughter owes me no explanation, no excuse, no justification, no proof. She needs sleep now and she listens to her body. So when she does wake up, rested and recharged, her smile and beauty take my breath away. I hug her and say good morning and the nagging voices skitter into the corner to be swept up with the dust and crumbs of our lives. She will certainly learn or create or ponder more in the next few hours than I did worrying about her sleeping too late.

I watch her eat breakfast with one hand while her heart paints with the other.  Another gentler voice slips in then, one I’ve cultivated and welcomed with time and experience. It never shouts or shames or insists. It simply says, “trust.”

 

*artwork by Sunny Rowland, created over breakfast, Posca pen on wood

 

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On Seeking Unschooling Advice

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I love to write about and share how my children learn without school here on the blog. And I feel it’s important to share not just the abundance of good stuff and the leaps and bounds of learning, but also to show the underbelly: the doubts, insecurities and fears around taking risks or being judged.

But if I could give one piece of advice to parents just setting out on their own unschooling journey with their children it would be this:

Don’t seek too much advice.

I know that sounds paradoxical, but here’s the thing: you are unique. Your children are unique. Your life together is unique. And because of all that individuality and rich diversity,  the what, when, why, where and how you and your children live and learn will be innately different. If you trust yourself as a parent to offer gentle guidance and support without interference (and that’s a tall order in and of itself) and if you then extend that trust to your children to be curious and inquisitive, you’re half way there. The other half of the journey will unfold in glorious and magical layers and sometimes very ordinary ways, if we just let it happen naturally.

Insecurities and doubts about how our children will learn without someone teaching them are normal. We’ve been conditioned to believe it’s neither possible nor socially acceptable. We fear giving our children freedom because most of us have been well trained ourselves to stay within the confines of societal rules and regulations. We are led to believe that offering our children autonomy means giving up any sense of structure, or that we may even be putting them in harm’s way. Society tells us that following, obeying, and perpetuating rules and paradigms we don’t necessarily believe in are all part of being a good citizen, and dare I say, A Good Parent.

Those same parameters and restrictions are sometimes seen in online unschooling communities. Many believe if we follow certain rules and can check off certain criteria, we are being “good” unschoolers. Stray from those norms, and you’ve wandered off into a sub strait or separate faction that needs yet another label. These likenesses form out of a need to belong, to do things the “right” way, to fit in and yes, even to comform to expectations about how we parent, guide our children in their learning, and help them explore their world. It’s human nature to want to learn from others, to seek support when we feel uncertain, even to rely on those with more experience to guide us. There is often great comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our doubts, that others have trudged through the obstacles and survived. It’s affirming to be inspired by real examples of unschooled children who have conquered criticism and surmounted physical or developmental obstacles, to be bolstered by stories of children who come to reading and writing later in life, children who don’t seem interested in anything or anyone, until one day, when everyone seems to have given up on them, they are moved by interest or curiosity or some great unknown force within themselves and cannot, for any reason, be torn away from the object of their intent. There is always relief when we recognize our children or ourselves in these stories and we let out a sigh of relief. Phew! I feel so much better.

But there is a difference between asking for comfort, support, suggestions and reassurance and receiving it in a non-judgemental and constructive way, and taking too much advice from those we deem experts. Particularly if that advice goes against our instincts and better judgement. Many in the unschooling world would argue with me, but I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as an unschooling “how to.” Of course, we need to offer examples about what unschooling is and what it isn’t as a way to explain it. It needs to be called something so that we can refer to it, talk about it, write about it. But can we really assign it a global definition? And do we need to?

If we boil it down to it’s essence, unschooling is really just living, fully and freely. If the institution of school had never existed, society would not have collapsed. Learning would not have died off. And certainly, we would be more intriquitely woven together–as families, communities, as a society, and probably as a world filled with different and unique individuals, each contributing, each respected.

It’s wonderful to ask for and receive loving support. Ask for suggestions, but don’t follow anyone else’s path. Seek advice, but know that it’s okay to sift through it and toss out what doesn’t work. Look to those with more experience, but don’t try to replicate. Try things. Weigh them. Discard. Be inspired. Let in what resonates. Fail. Succeed. Try again. Follow your children, follow your instincts. And listen to yourself. Trust. And never let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong. Your unschooling is not my unschooling. Or anybody else’s. And that’s exactly how it should be.

The Opening of Pandora’s Box: Honoring Ourselves in Menopause

 

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At some point in the last year, I ceased menstruation and officially entered menopause. On what day, at what time, and in what manner, I couldn’t say. Just a seminal phase of my woman-life ushered in with little fanfare. We don’t acknowledge this rite of passage like we do the others.  I wonder why that is? My child-bearing years are now behind me and I’m floating in a sea of hormonal and life-purpose confusion. I’m not asking for a party, but can’t we at least talk about it? Shouldn’t someone at least say something. But what would be appropriate under the circumstances? “Good luck in this last phase of your life.” “Don’t let those hot flashes get you down.” “Best of luck finishing your sentences.”

I am aging. In ways that are genetically predictable, I am transforming. My knees sound like castanets when I walk up stairs.  The ankle I sprained in July aches when the weather drops below 65. And my fingers are beginning to curve upward and inward in a way that would be sexy if it were my breasts. I can’t help but be reminded of my grandmother’s arthritic fingers and the rings she could never get off. I loved her for decorating those knotty hands with bangles and rings that drew attention to the leafy skin and the complicated root system of blue veins beneath. Maybe that’s what it’s all about. Decoration, despite. And yet, intuitively, I am leaning less towards embellishment and more towards revelation and rebellion. I’ve decided to celebrate my greys. No hair dyes, or hennas, or hats for me. In fact, I’m wearing my hair down more these days. Wild and coarse and threaded with silver.

Mysterious things are happening. I’m no longer afraid of bees, or spiders, or snakes. In fact I speak to them tenderly, as I do trees and bodies of water. I’m now leery of falling and terrified of forgetting. Vocabulary words, the names of beloved actors, musicians, movie titles–even childhood friends– float around out of reach, or just plain leave, and I often have to put on my coat and boots and go looking for them in the middle of the cold night. I always find them, but they seem to wander off more frequently these days and I resent them like hell when they come sauntering back in the door like nothing ever happened. Like finding a child whose been hiding for too long, I’m both relieved and super pissed off. But I smack my forehead with the heal of my hand and say “of course” just to let them know it’s no big deal. They came back. That’s all that matters.

I also seem to be regressing (or progressing) emotionally. As a child, I held negative emotions inside. I could feel them vibrating right behind my chest plate in a small coffer I was told never to open.  Now, there is the leaking of self in all it’s forms. Anger, sadness, grief.  And at the bottom, a soft lining of Hope and Forgiveness. Pandora’s box has sprung wide open. I drive along country lanes with the windows rolled up and scream until I have no voice.  Sometimes, I fight the urge to hurl myself down a couple of stairs just to get my family’s attention. But I must be reasonable. So I speak my mind. I’m sick of doing the dishes. What about dinner? Did anyone notice I made dinner, you know, that lovingly prepared stuff on your plate?

The other night after losing at Scrabble during family game night, I actually muttered “it’s a stupid game anyway” and went to pout alone in my room. I cried my eyes out for no particular reason and for this whole tender world and ended up in a fetal ball with my forehead on the mattress—a petulant child’s pose. When it was all over, I felt renewed and peaceful. I don’t pretend to know what it all means. Sometimes I don’t recognize myself. On a recent morning, as I searched desperately for my new hair clip, I spotted it in my daughter’s silky hair.

“Give it here! It’s mine!”, I shouted.

This is particularly disturbing behavior for someone who practices mindfulness and Buddhist principles. Even more so for a mother who prides herself on being a peaceful parent. And well, an adult, by many years. When I had my children at 39 and 40, I didn’t think to do the forward math. Which finds my children at 12 and 13 entering puberty as I cross the threshold of menopause. Generally speaking, this is not a good combination. But they seem to be handling it better than me, easing into it, being the better example. I ask for forgiveness and offer it to myself.

I am a champion of healthy foods. And yet I found myself on a recent trip to the grocery store staring at the vast selection of Pop Tarts in the breakfast aisle . “Ooh, Pop Tarts” I enthused as I held a box of brown sugar cinnamon toaster pastries in my hand. “Mom, put the box down,” my son spoke gently and slowly to me. “You can’t buy those. They’re not even food.” He is a wise thirteen year old. I put them back. We made apple pie instead. I am still learning to compromise.

Menopause also finds me suspended in the middle place of womanhood. I am mother. I am daughter. I am mother to a teenage daughter, daughter to an ageing mother. Her body, so fragile now, betrays her with a constant series of small losses and a denial that won’t allow her to get rid of the tripping heels and the clothes that will never be worn again. And I care for her, when I can, with patience and compassion, as she cared for me. She must show herself, vulnerable and exposed, and allow others to assist, additional arms and legs to carry and lift and wash her. Tuck her into bed. And although I am at times terrified by what her ageing looks like, I recognize my inclusion in the cycle as a priviledge.

My own daughter will begin menstruation soon, as mine has ceased. So I sit her down and tell her that one day soon she will begin to bleed, only a few teaspoons really, and that it means her body is working as it should. I try to make it sound like no big deal, and a miraculous splendor at the same time. I tell her we can celebrate somehow. And I tell her, I will be there, if she wants me. If she needs me.

Some day soon, I’m going to plan a small ceremony to honor my own transformation. Something private, just a still moment under a tree. Nothing to figure out, just a time to be. Maybe in the Spring, when the bees are around. I have so much to tell them.

The Essence of Pie

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“Mom, can you pass me the paring knife and the cutting board?”

I look up from my recipe box, the hand-inked index cards stained with sauce and spices and god knows what else. Crumbs have found their way into the corners. I’ve been thumbing through them and can’t find “the best apple pie you’ve ever tasted”, which has a couple of secret and unexpected ingredients. For the life of me, I can’t remember what they are.

I pass my daughter the sharp knife and watch her begin to peel an apple expertly in one long red ribbon. “Don’t worry, mom, we can wing it.” And so we do. My son approximates the flour and butter and chooses to cut the pastry together with his fingertips, pressing it into the glass pie dish and fluting it up the sides. The result is artisanal, but lovely. Certainly uneven, thicker in some places than others. Definitely homemade.

Next, my daughter lights the stove, and I pull down the non-stick sauté pan. We dump her apple slices in with some sugar and butter. Next she adds a sprinkle of cinnamon and goes to stand in front of the spice rack, studying them for possible inclusion. “Ooh, what about nutmeg and a little ginger?” she looks at me excitedly, but she’s not really asking. She trusts her instincts. “Go for it,” I encourage her. As she’s picking out the jars, she turns one around and grabs it enthusiastically. “Cardamom.”

“Are you sure about that?” My son is doubtful. He knows it as a spice we use in Indian dishes, but my daughter reassures him that “it’s super versatile. You’ll see.” She adds her spices and a generous glug of vanilla extract. Things are starting to smell wonderful at this point and the apples are softening, the sugar caramelizing, so we spoon them into the crust and pop the ad hoc pie into the oven.

While it’s baking, we sit at the counter and chat. We’re surrounded by bits of flour and salt and sugar and bowls smeared with creamed butter, wooden spoons, a sharp knife. The cat jumps up and dips her paw into the bowl with authority and begins to meticulously lick her paw. I have a strong urge to scat her away, point out the mess we’ve made, and ask for help cleaning it all up. But it doesn’t seem so important. The mess can wait. I let it go and tune back in to the moment.

My son is explaining something about a movie he wants to make, which takes place in Berlin, and is asking my daughter if she would like to star in it as an American spy who’s infiltrated a ring of German spies. “Ya, natürlich,” she responds. She’s been studying German and it suits her. Then they both giggle in a way that makes them seem so much younger than their twelve and thirteen years. I reach over and tuck a stray strand of hair behind my son’s ear. He lets me, even smiles, and I feel such a swelling of gratitude for them both, for this life, for all they’ve taught me.

The moment passes. But there is pie, bubbling and crusting in the oven and its essence is something we don’t need a recipe for.

 

Against a Xeroxed Education

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“Xerox” is a great metaphor for our educational system. It’s one of those brand names that has become synonymous with the product it represents due to successful marketing, longevity, and popularity—like Band-Aid, or Popsicle, or Q-tips. We identify strongly with the brand name because we’ve heard it, read it, seen it on TV, and bought it so often that it becomes a generic monopoly on the item itself—the copy machine, the adhesive bandage, the ice pop, the cotton swab.

As consumers, we tend to be fiercely loyal to these brands. We think of them as mainstream, reliable, even comforting. And we come to accept them over time as the product itself, the real deal, regardless of price or quality.

Because these products sell well, they are often given prime real estate in the supermarket, pharmacy, or appliance store. Displayed at eye level and at arm’s length, we easily forget that other choices are readily available. We simply don’t see them because they aren’t in our peripheral vision. This is the tipping point for the successful marketing of any brand. When we buy without thinking, they have us exactly where they want us.

In this same way, over time, School has become the generic brand for education; just as Student has become synonymous with the person being taught, when in fact “Student” could readily be replaced with “Consumer.” We continue to accept the School brand name without question despite an ever-growing dissatisfaction with compulsory education, making text book companies, the test-writing industry and the general business of school quite successful. At the same time, we have bought into and continue to support the corporatization of education through homogenized curricula, depersonalized learning, and standardized testing as acceptable defects.

Rather than turning to another choice, completely overhauling the product, (or taking it off the market altogether), we repeatedly try to “fix” school, throwing catchy slogans and billions of dollars at the education industry, clinging to the possibility of reform through repackaging, while teachers, who might hold more insight into the defects and possible remedies, remain consistently underpaid and stripped of any input into how we might improve upon the product.

Choosing a “xeroxed” brand of education for our children also means we are subjecting them to a mass, one-size-fits-all learning platform that doesn’t allow for individuality, creativity, or freedom of thought and expression. Supporting the school brand without considering alternative options is a blatant form of educational bias. Any time something becomes a packaged commodity with a marketing machine behind it (and a direct path to Big Finance)—whether it be seeds, clothes, wine, food, or education—the essence of the thing has lost its authenticity. Those who push for a globalized agenda are merely phantoms of progress who have highjacked the very idea of democratic learning.

School is not a brand holding a monopoly on learning, and we need to stop feeding it as such. It’s time to open our eyes and see that there are valid alternatives to the faulty wiring of compulsory schooling and corporatized testing. And they’re right there in front of us on the educational shelf in the form of homeschooling, self-directed learning, open source course platforms, democratic learning centers, nature/wilderness programs, community volunteer opportunities, and even your local library or art museum. In fact, they have been there for some time now. It’s time to dust them off and let them shine. We need to help our children forge their own path to a democratic future based on freedom of educational choice.

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This essay is an excerpt from the book, “Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Life and Learning” available here.

The Great Turning

This is a guest post I wrote on Laura Grace Weldon’s beautiful and inspiring site!

Laura Grace Weldon

I’m thrilled to offer a guest post by Ellen Rowland. This essay is adapted from her recently published book, Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Living and Learning. 

I sat at the small table by the kitchen window this morning thinking about hope. The news was bad. Again. Acres of majestic trees destroyed by fire, hurricane devastation, floods and loss, missiles and political misfires. So many people in need of each other, divided by both real and imagined borders. Yet in that quiet moment as my children still slept, I felt a strong pull to lean into the beauty around me, the calm, to focus on the small acts of kindness that don’t always get talked about and believe in their power. Did I have a right to be hopeful when the world was so clearly hurting?

If you’re deep ecologist Joanna Macy, and others like her, the…

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Unschooling my Spirituality

IMG_3356_2I grew up with two imposed givens in life—education and religion. Education happened in school, a place I was obliged to go Monday through Friday. Religion, reserved for Sundays, was fortified and demonstrated by my family’s regular attendance at church and rewarded with warm donuts and scalding coffee served in styrofoam cups in the community hall. We usually skipped that part in order to be the first to get out of the parking lot.

These two obligations were not of my choice and I never really questioned either until I had children. Two uniquely designed, impossibly small bodies imprinted with years and years of genetic scrambling and combined ancestral traits and yet I didn’t see them as part of me, or as part of my husband, but rather as two free souls who chose us as parents. My husband and I have always described our children’s births as special occasions when we were introduced to the two most important people in our lives. Of course we felt fiercely protective of them (and still do), but we are constantly working to avoid any notion of proprietorship. We take Kahlil Gibran’s words to heart and to bed, and hope to remember them as more than a poem during the day.

Having my own children had the unexpected side-effect of stripping away old belief sets. It was as if, through their painful and clamorous births, I was given a fresh start as well. It wasn’t sudden, or obvious, or easy, but for their sake, I wiped the slate clean with some threadbare remnants that I no longer had use for. My vision got clearer, my heart and mind woke to a sense of self that swept away the imposed veil to reveal a very clear understanding that I had choices and that I would offer them to my children.

There would be no imposed school. School is merely a place, a building. But there would be expansive and meaningful learning. There would be play. There would be exploration and expeditions of the imagination. We would choose experiences over things, curiosity over information, expression over conformity. Because learning lives in all these spaces, seen and unseen.

There would be no imposed religion, no housing of beliefs. All doors of worship would lay open,  with their similar beauty and identical fears. There would be mindfulness. There would be gratitude. There would be loving kindness and equanimity and compassion. We would expose our children to mosques and temples and cathedrals, to museums and cafés and booksellers, to lectures and concerts and performances, and to mossy gardens and majestic forests. Because the spirit of life lives in all these places, seen and unseen.

As I watched my children pull together an education independent of time, pace, place or someone else’s agenda, it occurred to me that I could craft my own form of spiritual expression according to my own interests, my own curiosity, and whatever helped me make sense of the world. I could unschool my spirituality in the same way they were unschooling their education. And I could do it with joy, purpose and intention.

I put aside obligation and legacy and thought about what made my heart bloom. Gospel music, reciting the Gayatri mantra, a regular practice of Qi gong, the Hawaiian principles of Ho’oponopono, keeping a gratitude journal, Buddhist teachings and meditation, cooking a meal for loved ones, holding compassion for others. The spiritual patchwork I pieced together is nothing that could fit into a neat category. It can’t be extorted and will never be profitable. It wields no guilt and promises no rewards. And because I sewed it together, I don’t need to call it anything. It is what it is. We are who we are.

 

Book Release

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Dear Blog Readers,  Friends, Fellow Unschoolers/Worldschoolers and those interested in Self-Directed Education,

I haven’t been posting much here lately and I apologize for that. I have a good reason though. I’ve been busy writing a book, a true labor of love, and one I hope you will all enjoy reading. It’s a collection of essays about the personal journey of accompanying my two children on their life learning journey. It’s also about looking closely at my own formal education through a deschooling lens, confronting doubts, and embracing the joys and challenges of stepping outside the status quo. Woven throughout are threads of peaceful parenting, sustainable living, and anecdotes about living off the grid in Senegal, West Africa.

So without further ado, I am thrilled to announce the publication of

“Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Life and Learning”

Click on the link above or the book icon to the right for more information about the book.

Please share the good news! And thank you for your continued support!

All good things,

Ellen

Math vs. Maths and the Wonder of Pi

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Depending on where you were born, you will identity with either the singular or plural abbreviation of the word mathematics. As an American, I grew up with the word “MATH”, a giant creature under whose opaque wings lurked all the mind-bending formulas which tortured me as a child. Math was a monster, and it had a looming bodily form, a black-hole face scarred with + x = – /, and a deep, monotone voice which closely resembled that of Darth Vader. And the worst part? The math monster lived on the BLACK BOARD.

While many people are able to make sense of the world with numbers, I’ve always preferred to decrypt it with letters, something that came naturally to me. I was conditioned to believe from any early age that I had a math handicap and the label became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Well into adulthood, I shied away from numbers, still counting on my fingers under the table as anxiety rose up to heat my cheeks and my mind became a jumble of floating numbers that faded just as I was about to seize them. It took me a long time to understand that being “bad at math” wasn’t a learning deficit, it was based on the fear of failure and a lack of a way to understand and make sense of math.

Having never been given formal math instruction, my children look at it as a useful ally in life. My son, who is mad about architecture, geography and aviation, learned percentages by stacking colored Lego towers. He uses statistics to understand the scale of buildings, places and the people who inhabit them. This year, he’ll be tackling algebra in order to get his pilot’s license so he can navigate the skies. My daughter, who at 11 has her own small jewellery business, learned to manage her finances in order to invest a certain percentage of her profits in new materials.

These days, I prefer the British reference, “maths”. Add on one little ’s’ and the word feels less threatening—lots of little concepts waiting to be examined and tamed. Or maybe it’s because my children helped me see that maths are everywhere in everyday life, not just relegated to one hour a day in a chalk-dusted classroom.

Maths are in the kitchen hidden in measuring cups, recipe division and the percentages we use when mixing certain ingredients together or dividing up a pizza for five. Maths are melodies and harmonies and crescendos intertwining and repeating in music. Maths are the algorithms found in the patterns of nature, in the weave of your favorite sweater and in the database that allows us to document and share our stories on the internet. I’ve even come to suspect that one little mathematical muse often helps me form sentences that carry a  cadence when I write.

Lately, maths have even taken on a soulful quality that I never could have imagined. The other day my son and I discovered the wonders of pi π. I relate to pi because it has been described, like me, as an irrational number. It just goes on and on at random. I like that about pi. And I like it because it sounds like ‘pie.’ But I had no idea that pi was so complex and playful. Did you know, for instance, that this infinite non-repeating decimal contains entire sequences such as our birth dates, driver’s licence and social security numbers, even binary representations of DNA? While it’s never been proven that the decimal expansion of pi contains every finite sequence of digits, it does contain many of them.

There’s even a website  to search number sequences found in π.

I wasn’t really expecting pi to recognize me, but I popped in the numerical equivalent of my name and my birthdate and hit the search button. And there I was, right there at position 142791179, part and parcel of pi. And I’m so happy we met. Contrary to what I have always believed, I was never “bad” at math. We were just never properly introduced.

This essay is adapted from my forthcoming book, “Everything I Thought I Knew: Reflections on Living, Learning and Parenting Without School” scheduled for release in the Spring of 2017.

My Kids Don’t Go to School. Get Over it.

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It came to me as we were travelling across France with our children so they could discover the origins of half their gene pool. “Get over it,” I thought. This trip happened to coincide with “la rentrée,” that time of year when French parents, teachers, and government administrators place high hopes on children as they begin a new school year, armed with sharpened pencils, woolen sweaters and (admittedly) a lunch box worthy of a Michelin star.

Throughout our trip, our children were asked repeatedly why they weren’t in school. I at least admire that French adults target their questions directly at children and expect them to answer, rather than searching their parents faces accusingly. While it’s hard to summarize a life lived in intellectual freedom while ordering a cheese baguette at a roadside rest stop, my children’s answers were polite, succinct and honest.

“We are educated at home.”

“Yes, we learn in both french and English.”

“No, we don’t follow a curriculum.”

As the trip went on, however, and the questions kept coming, I noticed that my children’s answers became tinged with justification.

“We use a lot of internet learning resources.”

“We may go to school someday, who knows?”

“Well, we travel a lot, so homeschooling is really our only choice.”

What? My husband and I have always encouraged our children to speak for themselves about how they learn and why, because we feel they do a better job at it than we ever could. When they were much younger and I was the one faced with the questions, I was a defensive, bumbling mess because I always felt criticized. As I listened to the evolution in my children’s answers throughout our trip, I realised that they too were feeling judged and felt the need to justify their choices. Or worse, having doubts. If so many people were asking, maybe their choices were wrong or bad. Maybe they should be in school.

I was feeling it too. At one particular rest stop, as my son was helping a man with directions, tracing his finger along a huge plexiglass map, his wife kept looking suspiciously back and forth between my husband and I and the kids, as though there were a real possibility that we had abducted these children, taken them out of school and forcefully driven them across the South of France. What other explanation was there?

Although homeschooling is legal in France, it is rare, highly monitored and strictly controlled, therefore dissuaded. And while alternative schools such as Montessori are popping up like tulips in the garden of Versailles, they remain schools. Adult directed, institutionalized learning is still the norm and highly valued. So it isn’t surprising that people find it at best odd, and at worst unconscionable, that our children don’t go to school.

I don’t blame those asking the questions. We’re asked everywhere we go, in every country, by a wide variety of people. But I do find it sad that so few people are able to consider the learning value that comes with both daily living and exploration, be it discovering a foreign country, or visiting a local museum. Only one woman, of all the people we met, congratulated us. She was from Finland.

The idea that the only way for children to succeed in life is to spend their childhoods in a classroom is so ingrained in our collective conscience, that any other possibility is deemed threatening to our very social fabric. Compliance, competition and the dire importance placed on performance sends the message that doing well in school is no longer just about success, but survival. This notion is indeed something we need to get over, and quickly. I would have said so, but I couldn’t think of how to translate it in french. I’ll have to look it up.