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November-December 2003 - Articles and Columns
Unschooling - Sandra Dodd
Balancing in the Middle Ground
Should people live in the water in the middle of the ocean, or should they live on land as far as possible away from an ocean?
Quickly! What's your answer?
This was a trick question just designed to make you think. But people really do ask the same kinds of questions of themselves sometimes. In some people's heads, "Don't believe everything you read" turns into "Don't believe anything you read."
In the middle are things like "Believe things that make sense and seem to work after you've thought about them and tried them out," and "Don't believe something just because you read it, but wait for it to be confirmed by other more trusted sources, or by your own research or observance."
By thinking in extremes, "There is more than one truth" becomes "All things are equally truthful." Just because there are many truths doesn't mean there's no such thing as nonsense.
And so with children, neither leave them in the middle of the ocean, nor prevent all contact with water. Find the balance point that allows the two of you (and the rest of the family) to feel safe, connected, and healthy. Letting children do nothing is as extreme as letting them do everything. Doing everything for them is as wrong as doing nothing for them. Somewhere in the infinite range between everything and nothing will be a comfortable, productive range, and you will more easily find that familiar place as each new decision comes along.
New unschoolers can feel that they're moving between extremes, and it can take a while to settle where the whole family is content. Sometimes it takes years, but there are ways to feel better in the meantime.
If the old rules were that school is vital and "an education" (defined as the curriculum of an ideal school) is necessary, will the new rules be that school is not important and an education is not necessary? We don't make school disappear by turning the other way. It's still there. Our kids might want to go to school someday, in some form. We don't deny that knowledge is important by becoming unschoolers, but many come to prefer the idea of "learning" with its vast possibilities over the narrower "education".
My favorite "new rule" has always been that learning comes first. Given choices between doing one thing or another, I try to go toward the thing that's newest for my kids, and most intriguing. "New and different" outranks "We do it all the time, same place same way." But there are comfort-activities, and to be rid of all of them would be as limiting as to only do routine, same, safe things. So we find a balance. Or we tweak the same and the safe, changing it enough to make it especially memorable from time to time.
Lately a couple of people came to www.unschooling.com, and said unschooling wasn't working for them. As has been reported by others before, they said they had stopped doing school, and then stopped making their kids do anything, and now their kids were doing NOTHING.
Aside from the idea of the rich potential of their "nothing," the parents had gone from making their kids do everything, to "making them do nothing." And interestingly, it did make them "do nothing," at first. Or at least the parents couldn't see the new things they were doing.
Rather than moving from one edge of a dichotomy to the other, the goal is to move to a whole new previously unknown middle place. My model won't work in everyone's head (as we're not as plug-and-play as some would like to think), but here is one way to look at this problem: See if you have a dial in your mind that says "everything" at one extreme and "nothing" at the other. It's impossible for anyone to do everything or nothing. Maybe label it "too much" and "not enough" instead, and try for the midpoint. Replace any on/off switches in your mind with slide bars or dimmers!
Reconsider your energy source. If the parents aren't powering all decisions anymore, should the children take up the task of generating enough power to fuel their own learning? I wouldn't expect my kids to do that any more than I would stop feeding them and expect them to become hunter-gathers in the back yard if they wanted to survive.
Energy is shared, and that's how unschooling works. Whether I'm excited about something new, or my children are excited about something new, there's still newness and excitement enough to share.
Some parents label unschooling as "child-led learning," and so they think they're going from "parent led" life to "child led" life, but the balance point is that the family learns to live together harmoniously.
Harmony makes many things easier. When there is disharmony, everyone is affected. When there is harmony, everyone is affected too. So if it is six of one or half a dozen of the other (right between none and a full dozen), go with harmony instead!
And harmony expresses the same idea that balance does in these social instances. How you live in the moment affects how you live in the hour, and the day, and the lifetime.
Some have written that unschooling made their family life better. In every case I've seen, making a family's life better is exactly what makes unschooling work well. So which comes first? Neither grew wholly in the absence of the other.
There's a regular contributor to the message board at unschooling.com named Lyle. He wrote, "Unschooling has had an incredibly positive impact on our lives, and not only in an educational aspect, but in everything we do. It's changed the way we live, the way we think, and the way we look at the world in general." Another day he wrote: "When I was about ten or eleven, I wanted to be a writer. (Still do, in fact.)"
Lyle writes well and frequently about his unschooling. He could choose to write nothing, or he could separate himself from his family to become a professional writer and write every day for many hours. Lyle writes, as do many other unschoolers, for real purposes. He shares what he has discovered and experienced for the benefit of others who want their families' lives to move toward unschooling. His writing is real, because it affects the thoughts and actions of others.
Lyle is a writer. Somewhere between writing nothing and being a wealthy professional author, many people write in the middle ground, and others' lives are changed.
We can come to see our children and ourselves as writers, poets, actors, musicians, engineers, philosophers, sculptors or scientists right where we are now, instead of as potential future poets or scientists.
Halfway between the past we can't change and the future we can only imagine, we find ourselves in the present. Not just the present year, but the present day; not just the present day, but the present moment.
Thank you for spending some of your moments reading this, and I hope you enjoy many present moments with your children!
© 2003 Sandra Dodd
November-December 2003 - Articles and Columns
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