As If… On Not Turning Our Children Into Byproducts of
Our Philosophy by Jan Fortune-Wood
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
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.