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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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

 

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 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.

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.

The Learning Buffet

 

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I was having coffee the other day with another mom while our kids were practicing Judo. She wanted to know more about how my children learned without school and asked several questions about covering certain basic subjects like math and reading. Although she’s become increasingly frustrated and concerned about her child’s school education, she couldn’t fathom taking the leap to homeschooling because she had imagined herself in the role of teacher. When I told her that we didn’t follow a curriculum and that my children were autonomous learners, she asked,

“But how do you know you’re nourishing their minds with the right information? How can they learn if someone doesn’t teach them?”

This is, of course, an excellent question and one that’s not always easy to answer. I’m not sure if it was the word “nourish” that sparked my answer, or the savory odors emanating from the cafe’s kitchen, or simply the fact that I can relate almost any subject back to food, but this is the analogy that came to mind:

 

The  One-Meal-Fits All School Special

Imagine that your child is given the same meal every day with no choice and little variation. This meal is eaten exclusively indoors in rooms segregated by age. It is prepared on a mass level by a large institution with no regard for your child’s individual nutritional needs, personal tastes or possible allergies. The kind folks who serve this meal have little to no input on the menu and are not allowed to decorate the table. Due to a lack of funding by the large institution, there may also not be enough utensils for every child. Furthermore, this meal is parceled out into several unrelated courses (pun intended) throughout the day and relegated to separate plates. In other words, never shall the cheese and mac mingle in creamy, melty harmony! Never shall veggies linger with linguini! They must be served separately and consumed within a certain period of time.

If your child is able to properly digest this piecemeal, she will be rewarded with something that temporarily makes her feel different and even special–like a star, or a smiley face or a capital A. However, if your child is unable, for whatever reason, to assimilate what she is fed, she will either be given the same meal again and again until she can finish it, or her plate will be taken away even though she is still hungry. And at the end of the day, although he is clearly full and couldn’t possibly take another bite, your child will be given a doggy bag which he must consume at home. All this will make him sluggish, irritable and unlikely to converse.

Periodically, your child will be asked to regurgitate everything he has been force-fed in order to judge his potential as a future consumer and participant in this global gastronomy. Over time, your child may complain of dulled taste-buds, heart-burn and eventually a total loss of appetite.

 

The Learning Buffet

Now just imagine, if you will, an endless smorgasbord of a buffet table laid out with an omnium-gatherum, a grab bag, a jambalaya ragout of options to tantalize your child’s tastes. He is invited to rummage and forage, scramble and tumble over this table in search of whatever whets his appetite. He can float in alphabet soup, concoct a potpourried patchwork of a salad and linger over it for hours, days, months if he chooses. At this table, there are no pie-eating contests. Your child is not only given free reign over his choices at the buffet, but is encouraged to suggest and create what’s on it. This buffet is always available, night or day, and your child may come and go as he pleases. There may be periods, even long ones, when your child may not seem hungry or eat the same thing every day, much to your concern. This is O.K. Eventually, he will come back to the table, hungrier than ever, and try something new. At times, the buffet may appear cluttered and botched. Mistakes are normal. Hash is healthy. A ragbag can be ritual. And a mishmash is just marvelous.

The best part about the buffet is that it’s open to everyone –young, old, family, friends– to share and exchange recipes, to savor flavors, suggest and stew over ideas.

Your role as a parent is the following: Provide all the necessary utensils  with colorful diversity. Put a little bit of everything on your own plate and savor it with gusto. And sprinkle the table with lots of love and patience. That’s all it takes to nourish your child. Oh, and eat together. It makes everything taste better.

 

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