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 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.

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

Through the Back Door: Parenting Choices and Unschooling

 

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I often read testimony from parents who unschool their children that their choice was a natural progression from the principles of attachment parenting–breast feeding, baby wearing, co-sleeping, etc. This makes a lot of sense to me. Both are based on nurturing children’s emotional and physical needs while fostering shared trust in a safe and loving environment. I love reading these stories. They are deeply inspiring and deserve to be shared.

But this connection is so prevalent that when I was initially seeking solutions for alternative ways to approach education, I wondered if someone like me, who came at parenting from a different angle, was even capable of unschooling my children. It seemed to me that attachment parenting might even be a prerequisite. At one point, I shied away from these articles because they evoked an irrational sense of guilt and doubt.

For both medical and personal reasons, I did not breast-feed either of my children, who are eleven months apart. They were both miraculous gifts to my 39 and then 40 year old body which had been erroneously and hopelessly labelled “infertile.”  And while I did often carry my babies close to my heart in warmth and love, co-sleeping and feeding on demand were foreign concepts to me. I was a product of the system and didn’t question much.  I did my best as a mother based on how I had been parented and  while I got some of it right, I made lots of mistakes, the kind of mistakes that bubble up and ask for attention only when we are truly awake and open to real change, the essential missteps that allow us to revise, learn and grow.

You could say I came into myself as a parent through the back door. Attachment parenting did not lead me to unschooling; unschooling led me to a deeper understanding of the attachment I have with my children. In the process of deschooling myself over a period of  time, of detoxing my mind and soul of the societal messages and practices which had taken root since childhood, I was able to question nearly everything I believed about how children learn and how they view and interact with the world, as well as my role as a parent. I was able to allow my children to take the lead, to trust, respect and have confidence in their abilities and our relationship.  I often marvel, when I wake up in the morning and see my children, that my husband and I get to live with these two really cool people. They don’t belong to us; we are merely on a parallel journey with them. In the words of Ram Dass, “we’re all just walking each other home.”

I share my story not to discount the link between attachment parenting and unschooling–because it is real, and lovely and logical. I share it because maybe there’s another me out there, or several, or many, who are considering unschooling but who, for whatever reason, approached parenting differently. If that’s you, I have a simple message: keep digging and questioning, and walking your children home.  And if you want to learn more, if you’re open to discovery and willing to scale a few crumbling walls, the back door is always open.

 

 

A True Mother: On Breaking the Transgenerational Parenting Cycle

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“Shadows of the past churn and turn towards the light asking us to pay attention to unexpected feelings of ambivalence, comparison, and inadequacy in parenting. Unearthing, and addressing these feelings when they arise unwinds shame and is an essential key to healing our transgenerational attachment legacies”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

I was not always a gentle parent. Although I believed I was doing what was best for my children, my early days as a mother were a tug of war. I loved my children with all my heart, but my notions of parenting were based on what I knew. Transgenerational parenting, in short, means we parent the way we were parented. And in doing so, we often pass down complex ancestral emotional wounds. We all face the same challenge when we stand before the child-rearing fork in the road. We either follow the well-worn path of legacy or we veer off in a completely different direction, vowing to change a pattern that no longer serves us or our children. But the stronghold of that generational biologism is very difficult to break. It requires a certain level of consciousness and the willingness to ask ourselves some important and sometimes painful questions. Above all, it takes a great deal of courage.

When my son and daughter were toddlers, I believed with strong conviction that the best way to guide them was through rigid scheduling and correcting “bad” behavior. Which meant lots of yelling, time outs, talking to’s, threats and even spankings. Because, isn’t exerting control how children learn to behave, to obey and to conform? Isn’t that how we instill the notion of right and wrong? Isn’t that how we ultimately protect them? I wasn’t their friend after all, I was their mother. How many times had I been told that?

The results were detrimental. Most of my arbitrary attempts to control their behavior without trying to understand the emotions behind it was hurtful and confusing for my children and made them resentful. That resentment was either internalized in the form of withdrawal or externalized in the form of acting out, neither of which was the desired outcome. And it quickly became a pattern.

My personal interior tug of war was that I often felt rejected and disrespected. And I constantly felt guilty. And when I felt guilty, I would tap into the little girl in me that remembered just wanting to be loved and try to offer that affection to my children. But without an explanation, exchange, apology, or any real change in my behavior, my children soon learned to mistrust the 360° attempt to sooth away the damage. They would accept my  hugs and I love you’s, but they were left with the disappointment and menacing presence of unresolved feelings.

I was deeply at odds with myself because I didn’t know another way, but I didn’t like myself as a parent. My husband, on the other hand, was a model of patience and a first rate problem-solver who often intervened when I was overwhelmed. I admired him greatly as a father and wanted so much to be more like him. At the same time, I struggled with the resentment I felt at the bond he had with our children, which in turn fed my self-doubt as a parent. Some fundamental understanding of my relationship with my children was missing.

One day, when my patience was extremely low, my voice got loud. Really loud. It boomed and raged and reflected in my children’s frightened eyes. I recognized that voice–the tone, the intonation, the tenor–as that of my father’s, someone I had loved and feared with equal measure. That voice, on good days, could lift me up with  praise and laughter and on bad days and without warning, could plummet me into despair with criticism and disdain–well into my adult years.

Before my father passed away from a long battle with cancer, I  took the risk and asked him some hard questions. How was it possible that former employees, friends, colleagues and strangers described him as nurturing, loving, a great listener, kind and patient, when I knew a whole other side to him that was harsh, critical, rejecting and punishing? Was he even aware of how much he’d hurt me over the years? Did he care? Did he love me?

Well, my father was all those wonderful things that other people saw in him. And he was also the father I knew. He did his best, and of course he loved me. But, he was also a wounded child who grew up to be a wounded adult. As he explained to me in the vulnerable voice of a soul who’s come full circle,  he grew up in a household without love, walled in by strict rules and moral codes that demanded good behavior. He had been largely deprived of compassion and physical affection. “I was incapable,” he’d said. And I believed him.

I had inherited his long legs and his Irish sense of humor, as well as a long lineage of dutiful parenting and the emotional scars that got passed down alongside them. His admission broke my heart, but it also awakened a deep understanding in me that I would no longer be the forward carrier. I would break the cycle.

The first thing I did was get down on the floor. That’s where the change began. Down there, with my children, I could see the world through their eyes, I could imagine how tall I must seem to them, how everything asks to be explored and conquered, how it’s all wonderful and funny and frustrating as hell. Down there, I started to play, to clap, to dance, to sing. To be still. I looked out the window and up at the clouds. Those clouds! I fell asleep on the floor with my children on a bed of legos and books and cinderella shoes. I laughed and I cried. For my father, for myself and for lost time. I listened and I watched and I let the small things go. I spoke, slowly, purposefully and as gently as I could. I practiced. I held their feet, their hands, their heads, their whole small bodies until I knew their separateness by heart.

And when the time was right, I picked myself up off the floor and took care of myself. I engaged in the world. I did one thing, one small thing, every day just for myself. I read about respectful parenting. I tried on compassion and trust with myself and others. I learned how to talk things through rather than react. I learned to inspire rather than insist. I learned to ask questions and listen to the answers without judgement or criticism, regardless of how much time it took and how many other things I had to do.  I meditated. I wrote. And I asked myself a lot of questions about the parent I wanted to be. I didn’t try to be a perfect mother. I aimed to be a true mother. True to my nature, true to my instincts, true to my word and true to my intentions.  I forgave the past. And I learned to forgive myself when I’m not at my best. I would be lying if I said it was easy. It’s not. Every morning I summon patience and kindness to my side. The love is already there. It always has been. And so we move on, together.

Just Curious

 

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I wasn’t very curious as a child.

Writing that sentence feels both liberating and profoundly sad. The truth is, I was curious. Of course I was. But I quickly learned that there was little value in it.

Like most children, I was taught to stay inside the box (because it really was there to protect me), to color within the lines, not to read ahead in the history books, not to  speak unless I was called upon. I learned in school that information must be administered, monitored, measured and validated by adults in positions of authority. I was led to believe that I was categorically bad at math, but a star speller, so I excelled where I was praised and became ill when faced with numbers. I learned that if it’s not in a book or on a test it’s not worth learning, and that my physical and emotional needs were secondary to the material at hand. These messages, although never overtly stated, were reinforced daily by the routine and repetition of what constituted learning, namely, the unquestioning obedience to instruction.

The children we often hear about–the ones who retreat to their rooms, who don’t feel like telling their parents what they learned at school, who don’t seem to have any interests, the children who are labelled “sullen” or “introverted” or “dispassionate”  –these children are not part of a slacker generation, or emotionally void, or brain-fried from too much screen time. They are not, in fact, anomalies. They may just not know how to identify or explore their passions in the absence of prescriptive learning, or possibly even how to communicate without being prompted. They have learned to avoid anything that is not assigned or solicited. Most importantly, they have forgotten how to be curious. And this is when they get lost, to themselves and to us.

All children are born hungry to explore the world with their five senses on high alert. And since literally everything is unknown to a child when they are born, what a thrilling state to be in! The unreigned joy, the innocence of failure, the confident determination as they take their first steps, clap their hands or discover that dirt doesn’t taste very good. Isn’t that what stirs our own adrenaline and wonder as parents? Isn’t that what allows us to see the world with new eyes, what challenges us to be a little more curious ourselves? It’s what makes diaper changes, getting spit up on and sleepless nights bearable. We want to be around that joy, those pure discoveries, capture the grace and muck, document it and dream about it, and wake up wanting more.

But then one day, and increasingly too soon, most of us willingly hand  our children over to an institution in order to be “educated,” divesting them of the very same curiosity and wonder we so valued up to that point, and depriving ourselves in the process of the great privilege of witnessing our children truly alive.

People often ask me why I homeschool my children.  It isn’t because I hate school. It’s because I embrace choice.  I believe my children learn better by being free to ask questions at all hours of the day, and empowered to discover the answers at their own pace.  And I see great value in talking to and learning from other children as well as adults, and sometimes questioning their authority. I encourage my children to read ahead, to try ahead and to try again when they fail.  It’s because I now understand the fundamental difference between the deep knowledge we gain from being curious and the mere distribution of information. But it’s also because I’m a bit selfish. I’ve become addicted to my children’s curiosity. I want to be around it all the time. It’s worn off on me, inspired me and challenged the life I was taught to live. Depending on the day, It serves as either a kick in the ass or a healing tonic.

Life is an inexhaustible subject.

Finding Your Own Path: Homeschooling Choices and Parenting Intuition

 

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When we first made the decision to give homeschooling a try, I joined a few online groups and spent a lot of time reading through the conversation threads and asking questions of my own.  I was desperate to know how this at-home learning thing worked and how other, more seasoned parents dealt with doubts and insecurities. But mostly, I wanted to know what I should be doing. In other words, I wanted an outline for how to educate my children outside an institutional framework. But ultimately, there was so much information and so many, many opinions–often times conflicting– that I ended up feeling more confused and overwhelmed than ever, despite the (mostly) good intentions of all who had contributed to these conversations. I simply shut down.

This information overload seemed familiar. When had I felt like this before ?

When I was pregnant with my son.

Like many first time expecting mothers, I roamed the pregnancy and childbirth section of my local bookstore in search of the perfect tome to guide me through the changes in my body and how to best take care of myself and the rapidly growing baby I was carrying. Which led to birthing advice, choices and decisions. Then there were opposing “schools” regarding feeding, sleeping, wearing, bathing, diapering, and a myriad of other care-taking subjects to face once this little person arrived.  I got so much advice from doctors, friends, family and strangers that the books sat mostly untouched on my nightstand before they got shoved under the bed in favor of a vampire novel. (This was my weird pregnancy craving.)

I listened eagerly to all the advice I received. For a while. Then, when I started to feel anxious and overwhelmed about which path to follow, I took a  step back and began to listen to my intuition, which became more heightened as my pregnancy progressed. I sifted through it all, weighing and integrating what felt right to me and letting the rest fall away. Together, my husband and I made the big decisions about our child’s birth  based on our values, habits, and lifestyle. But mostly we drew from a deep well of resolve and trust in ourselves and our abilities. And we decided that  maybe we didn’t need to decide at all. . . that we could just be with our baby and the rest would come naturally. We continued to listen to our instincts as our two children passed through the differing stages of emotional development and physical growth, as they tested and explored the world around them.

Parenting techniques continue to be a widely-covered and controversial topic and there is certainly no lack of opinion on which is the right way to raise our children. Unschooling (and homeschooling in general) are also garnering a lot of attention as the benefits of interest-led learning proliferate. And with that coverage and awareness comes the division that is inherent to almost any movement that challenges the establishment. The homeschooling umbrella covers many different and legitimate ways to help our children learn outside of the typical school framework. Unfortunately, they carry labels based on everything from the reliance on or absence of curriculum, text books, bed times and even food choices.

How is a parent to decide which home learning« technique » is right for their family ? A more important question might be, do we each need to fit neatly into any one of these categories ? More importantly, do our children need to have the way in which they learn best (which may differ from child to child, within the same family) be so strictly defined ? In the end, it all comes down to our parenting intuition, our ability to identify which aspects feel right and which don’t. We can pick and choose and mix it all up and call it whatever we want because ultimately it only needs to work for our children within the greater family fabric.

Following our intuition is a learning process itself. Mistakes will be made, insecurities will surface, obstacles will present themselves in the form of setbacks, standstills and criticism about our choices. But if we consider our options carefully and observe and listen to our children, that same intuition that guided us through birth and parenting, and the accompanying peaks and valleys, will lead us along a rich learning path with our children. Eventually they’ll veer off onto their own unique life paths, patterned with experience and paved with intuition.

C is for Curriculum

 

When we pulled our two children out of school a few years ago and decided to homeschool, I was filled with giddy optimism. “Now THIS was going to be fun,” I told myself, as I rolled up my sleeves and began to set up a school in our home. (Yes, I took it that literally.) Blackboard? check. Textbooks? check. Desks and chairs? check. Alphabet on a string? check. Pencils, paper, paint, posters, rulers, maps, stickies, smilies, markers, doilies? check. Curriculum?

Curriculum?

Anyone?

For the love of doilies, I didn’t have a curriculum.

And that’s when panic set in. How on earth were my children supposed to learn? How was I suppose to teach them if I didn’t have an age-appropriate, time-tested, topic approved, standardized school curriculum? What time were they supposed to learn math? First thing in the morning or after snack time? (oh god, did I have any juice boxes?) Were they supposed to learn to write in lowercase, UPPERCASE, script or cursive? At  what point did history officially begin? with colonialism? the neanderthals? the big bang theory? oh no, wait, that’s science.

I quickly found said curriculum online. It was described as “co-ed, easy to use and teacher-friendly.” That was a relief. Since I had a boy AND a girl, that meant I could teach them both the same things! Phew!  I felt armed, confident, guided.

It lasted two weeks. Two weeks of feeling utterly defeated as a would-be teacher and a parent. Two weeks of  tantrums and tears. When I finally stopped crying, the seeds of our unschooling journey were planted. We haven’t used anything resembling a curriculum since. It was a long and sometimes confusing process filled with discovery, doubts, and missteps, but ultimately I came to understand that my children could not be neatly molded within the framework of a guided curriculum. When we finally left them to discover the world on their own terms and at their own pace, our children’s curiosity began to bloom right out of the pot and spill out in tendrils that criss-crossed and intertwined in ways I couldn’t have imagined. There was no way to separate geography from history, language, landscapes, culture, or art. We found fractions in the kitchen, patterns in nature, and science washed up on the beach. These things had been there in plain sight all along, only I hadn’t been able to recognize them as learning opportunities because I had been taught that they didn’t belong in the realm of education. Knowledge was something that had to be taught, acquired, instructed. And in my own personal case, paid for.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for us in the beginning was that neither of my children had any interest in learning to read. Experts from all fields–educational, psychological, developmental–were telling me that a child could not progress in their learning if they didn’t first know how to read. At the time this made great sense to me and resulted in a not-so-subtle campaign to get them on the reading bandwagon. Not only did it backfire on me, but it temporarily squashed their love of being read aloud to, so I backed off and let them navigate and explore their passions instead.

In the end, it was the exact opposite of what the “experts” had claimed. Because they wanted to learn more about what interested them, both my children began to put letters and words together in order to get there. Following their passions motivated them to want to read and write, not the other way around. Incidentally, their passions–geography and drawing for my son; horses and languages for my daughter– were nowhere to be found on the easy to use curriculum.

Which brings me to the glass of water. The one that some see as half-empty and others as half-full. Most people, when we talk about our no-curriculum life, like to point out that by a certain age, children should know a minimum of basic things. These basic things somewhere along the line were agreed upon and became universal– we need to fill our children up, drop by drop, to this level, at this age, with this information. And therein lies the half-empty glass.

What most people don’t understand is that while a standard curriculum may provide universal structure, it has crippling limits to children’s unique talents and capacities. The “basics” may get covered, but when children are allowed to learn without limits, to play, discover, fail, explore and experiment, the glass is not only half-full, it has the strong potential to overflow. The problem is that the realm of formal education doesn’t like overflow because it can’t be controlled or contained. It can’t be measured and tested. Overflow doesn’t fit the factory model generated by standardized learning.

In the absence of curriculum, C can no longer stand for conformity, or containment, or control. It now stands for curiosity, creativity and occasionally chaos. Oh, and most importantly, clown.