Barb: I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life wondering whether unschooling my kids would really make a difference in how they feel about themselves, their connection to others and society, their understanding of the human condition and what makes the world go ’round. My kids are now all grown up and I am still wondering, observing, and thinking about this.
I hold a fundamental belief that life should be simple, and yet dissecting such a question is complex indeed. It’s a beautiful truth that their childhoods, our family life, was rich, fun, exciting and spontaneous with many, many steep, fast-paced learning curves. We lived a magical existence and, for the most part, felt on top of the world: my children were empowered with the knowledge that not only were they never expected to do anything they did not want to do, but that their parents would support their wide and varied forms of emotional, psychological, spiritual, artistic and academic expression. We trusted each of our children’s natural learning processes, engaged in lots of discussion, listened to each other, applied consensual decision-making.
Despite all the freedom and fun in childhood, all three of my grown children, once adults, have experienced an uncomfortable sort of wake-up call in the “real world” as they moved from home and become fully sustainable on their own. Their levels of discomfort have at times been nearly overwhelming as almost everyone they met was, in their words, in need of therapy: real-world people lacked inner motivation, holding jobs or attending college because others expected them to; they’re in abusive relationships they can’t break out of; they are bent on all the ways our world is not working; they’re just plain unhappy or relieving stress with addictive or self destructive behaviors; they don’t know how to be honest. Even though my kids were always an active part of the real, outside world, they engaged in it on their own terms, in much more limited doses, and they always had the protection and support of home. One of the bottom lines for my grown kids is they feel different from everyone else, at least those who spent their formative years in traditional homes, schools and churches. Let’s face it––that’s almost everyone.
Mark: For me the simplest, and most complete answer is yes, the benefits of unschooling are real. But since life is anything but simple, nor the future yet complete I can only offer snapshots of lives that have grown more full because of an unschooling approach.
There are stories of kids with nearly unlimited free time and a home-built submarine, late readers, made-up games, catapults, bouncing trees, squabbles, fights and nurturing each other. There are stories of endless days of epic Lego and Playmobile adventures.
While those kids were still young teens they recognized they were different. They knew that other kids their age were trained better academically but weren’t able to use that training in real life situations.
Those now-grown kids know they grew up differently, have created their own lives, and by-in-large have created their own livelihoods.
Barb: It’s so right and natural for grown children, no matter what their backgrounds, to want to step back, look at their childhoods, their parents, themselves. It’s common for grown unschoolers to see themselves as “odd ducks” because, well, they are. They ask themselves, how did I wind up with parents who questioned everything? With parents who chose to keep me out of school when every other parent out there finds nothing wrong with the confining classroom? Should I have been forced to do or learn things? How would I be different if I had been raised just like everyone else?
In our culture, the maturation process, just like the formative growth years, is largely conditioned. In most homes, children are expected, at age 18 or thereabouts, to either attend college, get a full time job, join the military, live alone or away from home. The momentum that takes over at this stage is much like the momentum of traditional parenting: go to school, do your homework, watch some TV, go to bed, go to Sunday school, get summers off to go to camp or swim or play. Life proceeds on a very scheduled and predictable timeline for most humans, which is radically different from life for most unschoolers.
Mark: We are social creatures. It is normal and natural to want to fit in. Why school has been assigned such a significant role in that effort is misguided and just floors me. Something different is going on entirely.
But to your point about kids questioning their parents on their choices about schooling, we were, I suppose, lucky in that our oldest succumbed to pressure from family members to not be that odd duck and tried school for what ended up to be about six weeks. His comments coming out of that experience were along the lines of, ‘they tell you what they want you to know, they tell you what’s going to be on the test, they go over it in class and still kids have trouble passing a test.’ He just didn’t get the point.
And, as I said, I don’t either. Kids are normal humans who do want to fit in. But we have the whole picture framed incorrectly when we even talk about schools and raising kids, or the term you are using here, the maturation process, in any equivalent manner. But they are integrally intertwined in our society.
Barb: Yes, it really is all about this thing we call fitting in. I wonder: does anyone, anywhere, feel like they fit in? Ever? All the time? Isn’t the drive to adapt to fads in clothing, style, expression, for example, all just attempts to fit in?
Of course. What I have seen in my grown children is a very healthy skepticism about not only fad behaviors but with regard to advice and information in general. I see them very capable of questioning everything, giving deep thought to what troubles them, making careful decisions for themselves, regardless of who agrees with them. Because my kids have grown up with the responsibility of thinking for themselves, they are so accustomed to it that they don’t realize that many others have no or little skill at this––in fact, thinking for oneself has been thoroughly and successfully conditioned out of them: from being told when to sleep and eat; to what to study and when; to behaving obediently and not questioning their parent or elder; to what to believe spiritually and morally. The list is long and comprehensive. If one of the unhappy side effects of this outcome, this approach to parenting, is having your child feel like an odd duck, then I’d have to conclude that the alternative is much worse: having a child who is always wanting to be someone, in some way, other than themselves, whether it be in dress, thought, behavior, food choices, or huge things like the choice of a life partner, career or spiritual beliefs.
Mark: What I see in my kids is an understanding of what matters about how they grew up, and why it was critically different. My kids went through a period when that group think handicap of other kids (and most of us grew up with) was referred to as “they’re just school kids.” As their identities grew and they became more independent, the feeling of being an odd duck became a non-issue.
Stepping back a bit, our kids have only known a society that has been pushed by an ‘us vs. them’ drumbeat. The institution of schooling pushes for uniformity and conformity (us), political forces have taken, and are taking today, absolute ideological positions (us) and those who do not conform (them) or support policies not sanctioned by the ideology (them) are made to pay a price. So, I come around to an ‘us vs. them’ drumbeat which feeds the desire to fit in and the worry that we maybe the odd duck.
As unschoolers and homeschoolers we have a chance to affect this ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy. One thing we need to do is honestly address your question “Does anyone, anywhere, feel like they fit in? Ever? All the time?” The quick answer is no. But I would add, in our own creation of our perfect world, why would we want to?
Unschooling gives us the freedom to celebrate our differences, supporting our kids to be responsible for their own choices, achieve confidence as they find their own ways in who they are and are becoming. This powerful process of self ownership almost guarantees they are not going to be threatened by the differences in others.
What do you all think?
Barb Lundgren, editor
Mark Hegener, publisher