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On Not Turning Our Children Into Byproducts of Our Philosophy
By Jan Fortune-Wood

Children are not byproducts of our unschooling philosophy.

For our home educating family of two parents and four children, May is the month of HES FES. HES FES stands for “Home-educators seaside festival” and is advertised as the world’s largest home-educator’s camp. This year [Editor's note: this article was written in 2002], an intrepid 1,000 home educators, many of them pursuing self-directed learning, met in the now familiar Dorset field on the south coast of England, braving morning mists, cold nights and a couple of spectacular storms for the opportunity to meet together with others of like mind; to attend workshops, form networks, dance, eat, and sing together.

HES FES is an extraordinary gathering, pioneered and organized by Andy Blewett of Choice in Education, and it offers a focal point of support, encouragement, inspiration and learning to a growing number of families, not only in Britain, but in Europe, where standing out of the mainstream in education is often fraught with hurdles and burdened with isolation. For our family, HES FES has assumed ritual importance in the calendar, ranking alongside the seasonal markers of birthdays, Christmas, and anniversaries.

For me, the camp is a time to renew friendships, a chance to indulge in the space for in-depth discussions and an opportunity to share my own thinking on self-directed learning and how it relates to living non-coercively with our children. Each year for the past three years, I have led a workshop on living in consensual ways within families and the practice of finding solutions to problems which do not involve coercing children or requiring parents to self sacrifice. It’s a marvelous opportunity to share some deeply held principles and to engage with other parents who are supporting their children’s autonomy and self-direction, not only in how they learn, but in every sphere of life.

I enjoy giving the workshop and I welcome the follow up discussions that result, but (didn’t you just know there was going to be a “but”?) there is also a shadow side to taking part so publicly.

“Performance anxiety” affects all parents. How will we feel if five-year-old Sam fluffs his lines in the local play? How embarrassed will I be if seven-year-old Clare swears in front of the new neighbor, whose views are known to be rather conservative, or if two-year-old Alex decides to lay down on the supermarket floor and refuse to budge? Parents have an awful, and all too easily acquired, habit of taking on surrogate feelings for their offspring. If their children can’t or won’t be embarrassed or intimidated on their own behalves, then we will do it for them and with gusto. All too often, those feelings are magnified when we dare to step out of the mainstream in some way.

There is a temptation to want to prove that our home-educated children, and especially those who have real control over their own learning are more successful, more polite, let’s face it, just more… than their school-going, coerced counterparts. There is a real danger of advertising our learning style, and the alternative life style that is often a byproduct of it, by pointing to the product. Children, however, are not products; they are real, autonomous, human people, making their own mistakes on their own learning adventures; living out their learning for their own sakes, and not to provide examples for their mother’s most recent workshop talk.

So at HES FES I always feel a certain tension. On the one hand, I want to talk about how wonderful it is to live by consent; to be able to reach mutually desired solutions to everything from – “what shall we do today?” to “where should we live?” and to be able to constantly grow new knowledge as we problem solve together and encourage one another’s autonomy and individual direction.

On the other hand, I don’t want my children to be constantly scrutinized and judged to see what kind of examples of consent-based living they provide and I don’t want to feel that my own interactions with my children have to become a kind of performance art for interested bystanders keen to see practical demonstrations of taking children seriously. It’s a tension that is both inevitable and self-inflicted. I’m the one offering my pearls of wisdom, after all, and at such a large camp my children are bound to come into contact with a huge variety of people, some of whom are going to be skeptical of or even hostile to the idea that autonomous learning and non-coercion go hand in hand.

Is it a tension worth living and wrestling with? Well, it is certainly one which doesn’t seem to afflict the rest of my family, all five of whom seem gloriously immune to the strictures of what other people might think about them.

They need that immunity. After my first year’s workshop, several parents told me that “there must be something in this non-coercion if your children turn out like that” – they were speaking particularly of my children’s participation in a series of workshops modeling a style of democratic decisionmaking. The comments were meant as wonderful compliments and part of me felt that parental glow of pride, but it also left me uncomfortable.

The conventional assumption is that children are products, and a product, as we all know, has to meet certain standards and criteria before it can be acceptable. For conventional parenting, this often means that children who do not meet the required specification are labeled. The labeling might be judgmental and intended to shame: “Harry is a naughty child;” “Becky is such a willful, stubborn little girl;” “Katie is a selfish little so and so.” Alternatively, it might be the kind of labeling which categorizes children according to the growing plethora of “syndromes.” Labeling neatly accounts for their faultiness without ever needing to question whether they are simply distressed human beings who are not resilient to all the coercion in their lives.

If we are attempting to take our children seriously as autonomous human agents, directing their own life and learning, then falling into the trap of seeing them as products negates and real belief and trust in this autonomy. “Sally is such an articulate, polite, interesting child” is just as damaging as “Simon is such a spoiled brat.” It fixes children as categories and as measurable outcomes when what we should really be aiming at is nurturing our children’s intrinsic motivation to live and learn. The only thing our children should become is the self they most want to be, by their own lights and not in order to confer some elusive seal of approval on our parenting.

Are my children in danger of being categorized and labeled? One moment shining examples of non-coercive parenting and consensual family living, the next moment held up as sub standard performers of my theories? Blissful oblivion apart (and I seem to find this harder to achieve than the rest of my family), all of us take seriously that we are fallible. We try to live consensually, but we do so with the knowledge and information that we have available at any one time and that means that we make mistakes. It’s by dealing with those mistakes within our family, rather than being blown on the winds of other people’s perceptions, that we grow and learn from them.

Moreover, whilst we are not pursuing preordained outcomes in our parenting and learning, it goes without saying that children who are accustomed to being taken seriously as autonomous agents of their own learning and life; children who are used to being treated as rational and creative are not going to be easily convinced that they should be behaving according to other people’s conceptions or misconceptions of what self directed children are.

There was certainly plenty of evidence at this year’s festival that self-directed learners are both independent-minded and able to take other people into account; not products who are accustomed to being measured, but a variety of interesting selves who are constantly learning by their own lights. One night, sitting in our open tent chatting with friends a water balloon suddenly exploded over me. My husband caught up with the perpetrator who claimed that he’d been aiming at a friend as part of an ongoing game and had misfired. The boy didn’t leave it at that, however; he came back without any prompting to apologize, explain and offer any assistance to dry up the tent and me.

On another occasion a boy from the camp came out of the local fish and chip shop in the village and dropped his dinner. He swore loudly at the frustration of losing his food and noticed that there was a woman standing close by. Thinking she was one of the village locals, he explained, “I’m home-educated so it’s up to me to choose how I express myself, but I do understand that this might offend some people, so if you were offended I’m very sorry.”

On another day, a group of locals set up a regular yard sale at the entrance of the camp and a group of four home-educated girls ages twelve to fourteen seized the opportunity to regale the stall holders with the benefits of home education. One mother, who had tentatively allowed her child some time out of school, decided that she was not going to force her child back in, but was going to really make a commitment to home education. Another parent decided that her children were not going to start school after all; why should they when they could have the opportunity to find their own way to such confidence and articulacy?

Alongside the compliments we also receive some rather doubtful comments. Last year one mother told my daughter that it must be hell to live in a household where parents have to take so much time to ensure that the children’s preferences are being met (as well as the adults). People do make comments and form their own perceptions and judgments of what it is to live six self-directed lives in one family unit. Does that make us want to abandon the creative, unpredictable, but enormously satisfying journey of self-directed learning and living? Does it make us want to hide away so that we never hear anyone’s comments and so avoid the danger of falling into seeing our children as products? Does it make my children self conscious and liable to try to perform according to what other people want or expect from self-directed children? As if!

Dr. Jan Fortune-Wood is author of a number of books on home education, autonomous education, and non-coercive parenting, including Doing It Their Way; Without Boundaries and Bound To Be Free, all published by Educational Heretics Press. She home-educated her own four children. This article was published in 2002.

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