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Am I Giving Them Enough?
When Unschooling Feels Like Unparenting

by Theresa Shea

boys by waterNormally, homeschoolers are sprinkled here and there throughout cities and, due to this spotty distribution, they have little effect on mainstream parenting. I have the rare good fortune to live in a neighborhood with seven other homeschooled families in it. Our local playground is filled with children of all ages during school hours. At the library, we often meet one another on sunny afternoons. Last winter, we organized a homeschooling hockey clinic on Wednesdays after lunch at our community league rink. When the sun was shining and our skates were carving up the ice, we couldn’t help but feel sad that our children were the only ones out enjoying the beautiful weather.

We are the wild element, the bad example to schooled children! We represent an alternative lifestyle. When we get together en masse, we are a formidable crowd. We provide living proof that not all children have to spend five days a week shut away from the larger community. There are a lot of children in our neighborhood, but one by one the daytime access to these playmates dwindled as kindergarten and first grade claimed many of them. Because of our presence, however, it’s not uncommon to hear schooled children ask their parents, “Why can’t I be a homeschooler?”

The kind of freedom unschooled children enjoy – no early bedtimes, sleeping in and no homework, to name just a few – must be perceived as a threat to mainstream parenting. I assume that the parents whose kids are in school tolerate us. Sometimes I’m convinced they avoid us. Probably they judge us. Alternatively, they might just feel sorry for us. They can’t imagine spending the entire day with their children. So when their own kids inform them that not all children go to school, they likely have ample ammunition to justify the importance and necessity of doing curriculum and regular schooling. Every now and then, however, their real thoughts about homeschooling slip out. But that’s okay because, as homeschoolers, many of us are engaged in the same comparison and judging of their children’s schooled lives. At times we mingle warily, at times freely. Most importantly, to preserve relationships, we routinely keep our opinions to ourselves. After all, every one of us believes we are doing what’s best for our children. No one way is perfect, and it does little good to create an “us against them” standoff, for even though the abundance of homeschoolers in my immediate vicinity suggests we’re not a minority, I know that’s not the case. The peers my children will have as adults will likely have been schooled. Some of them will have fared better than others. Regardless of who went to school and who didn’t, they will be of the same generation and they will find common denominators in order to get along.

To my mind, parenting today is more challenging than ever before. Perhaps at no other time in history has so much focus and attention been spent on analyzing how children develop, how they don’t develop and what we need to do to get them to develop. Sadly, today’s children are diagnosed with all kinds of deficiencies and behavioral problems. Professional pathologists analyze the speech of kindergarten children. Reading tests are done at an increasingly younger level. Schools practice lock-downs as commonly as fire drills. One can almost feel the collective held breath of an entire community of schooled parents who desperately hope their child will not be the bullied one or the one singled out as a remedial student.

My children have never gone to school and, aside from asking once to go to a daycare that had enticing toys and a playground barred to them by a chain link fence, they have never voiced a desire to attend school.

Articles in magazines discuss the realities and pitfalls of competitive parenting. Somewhere along the line we have lost our bearings. Rampant individualism is replacing cooperative communities as more and more folks operate not collectively but as individual family units (and even within these units, there is often a shocking lack of interaction).

The homeschooling community, because we routinely seek each other out for social activities, may be more cooperative out of necessity. However, even though I’m not drawn into discussions about what school is better, what teacher I wish my kids had or who is getting better marks, I am not immune to the anxieties and pitfalls that stem from contemporary parenting. Perhaps this says more about me and my own insecurities than it does about homeschooling, which is an arena that challenges me in positive ways because I can’t blame the “teachers” if my kids don’t appear to be learning anything.

I wasn’t the mother who always knew she’d homeschool her children. Luckily for me, I had friends and neighbors who were already on the “beam,” so to speak, and who answered my many questions. One friend said, “I didn’t want someone else to have my children for the best hours of the day.” The coin dropped when I realized I didn’t want that either.

For the most part I am the happy life learning mother of three children aged nine, seven and five, and I’m immensely grateful for the freedom and flexibility my family enjoys. Not doing school-at-home or following any set curriculum enables us to set our own schedule, make spontaneous plans, lie low and read all day or pursue any old adventure that comes our way. My children have never gone to school and, aside from asking once to go to a daycare that had enticing toys and a playground barred to them by a chain link fence, they have never voiced a desire to attend school.

Yet I must admit that there are days when I question my pedagogical beliefs within the homeschool community and wonder if I’m giving my children enough. I’m not very “crafty,” you see, and, aside from music lessons, I avoid putting my children into activities that have pre-set learning outcomes. However, parenting is not something done in isolation and I’m always rubbing shoulders with parents whose children, schooled or homeschooled, are engaged in highly “productive” activities. Sometimes I wish I had a Teflon shield (“force field UP!”) that I could deploy to ward off well-intentioned bits of advice or to redirect the stressed vibes that emanate from highly-ambitious parents who seem to believe they know exactly what’s best for their children. On a good day I can easily protect my chosen family existence and defend it if need be. However, on a bad day (like when the children are fighting incessantly, the house is beyond chaotic or my patience is at an all time low) I find myself falling victim to the belief that other people are doing far more interesting things with their children than I am. While I’m trying to lock myself in the bathroom for a moment’s peace, these families are likely working on science projects, engaging in clay and woodworking instruction, taking sewing lessons or painting murals in their bedrooms.

By contrast, my days with my children are largely unstructured and unambitious. My kids usually sleep in. Sometimes we start the day by reading. Sometimes they go their own way and listen to book tapes, play dollhouse, work on their Lego base or play hockey in the hall. At some point in the day they ask when we can all go to a café (yes, my need for an afternoon coffee has resulted in having three café kids). I love the mornings that start slow and begin without any rushing whatsoever.

So why, then, if I’m mostly content with my day-to-day life, do I have the tendency to compare my unschooling regime with that of others? Where does this underlying kernel of dissatisfaction or doubt come from? I guess I’m not immune to the cult of competitive parenting that has contemporary families engaged in far too many activities. Yet I consciously try to resist the mainstream map (or trap) that has parents running hither and yon, continually linked to a cell phone. No, I think my impulse to compare stems from having a guilty conscience. By not having my children in school, I feel like I’m getting away with something big, that my family and I have somehow managed to slip between the cracks of the overly-scheduled world out there, and we are all laughing. It can’t last, can it? The shoe’s going to drop, isn’t it?

But here’s the glitch: I also have a guilty conscience because I enjoy leaving my children alone and waiting for them to initiate activities. In fact, what unnerves me is that I think I do my best parenting when my children entertain themselves. Abandoning the need to teach my kids specific subjects can, at times, make me feel negligent. Shouldn’t I be taking a more hands-on approach to their learning? Shouldn’t I be introducing them to numerous new things each week to ensure that I don’t miss any outstanding abilities they might have? Deep down, am I really a true believer in the unstructured life we lead as life learners or am I simply lazy? Isn’t unschooling, in a way, simply a gussied up form of unparenting? Sure, I cook with my children when they ask, and yeah, I chase the puck on the rinks with my boys and, okay, I can load stitches on a knitting needle for my daughter. But I’m also really happy when they do their own thing. In fact, I’m mostly operating on the belief that it’s not my job to initiate great projects for my children. I like to believe that giving them their freedom is the best thing I can do for them. On good days, I don’t feel guilty at all about letting them find ways to amuse themselves but on a bad day I think: Shouldn’t a real homeschooler be more engaged with her children? Shouldn’t she have some kind of a “plan?”

I usually suffer this educational crisis when I visit the home of a parent leading a more structured homeschooling life. As we all know, there is a wide range of pedagogical beliefs in the homeschooling community and there’s also no shortage of things to get involved in. The daily choices can, in fact, be overwhelming. By trying to keep life simple, I’m hoping to slow down a little and create some kind of sustainable desire in day-to-day living. So what if my kids spend their days listening to book tapes and building LEGO bases or drawing? So what if they play hair salon or pretend they’re in a spaceship? Does it really matter if my eldest son can name all 30 NHL teams off the top of his head but has trouble remembering the ten provinces and three territories? (If only more expansion teams would come to Canada!) Am I failing him? Or will he figure it out on his own one day?

It’s important for me to remember that, to paraphrase the writer Allison McKee, not only am I unschooling my children but I’m also unschooling myself. The latter is the greater challenge of the two because when I succumb to doubts about the path I’ve taken I know it stems from my own schooled childhood. I received the gold stars. I won the spelling bees. My learning was structured so that I’d always be told when it was time to do a history project or to hand in a book report. Did I love school? No. I just happened to be smart enough to get by without much effort. From a parenting perspective, however, I look back on my own childhood with mild regret. If I hadn’t gone to school, what might I have done instead?

A woman I know once told me her son had been a late talker. “If he didn’t talk to me, I didn’t talk to him,” she laughed. Yet he learned how to speak. I believe the same thing will be true of my children. If I don’t lead or prompt them, they will naturally end up leading me and leading themselves. Aside from asking them to play music on a daily basis, I’m as hands-off as I can be, yet I’m always around for guidance and assistance should my children ask for it. That’s the key thing – to have them ask. I try not to pose the questions for them and I also try not to test them by asking them questions to which I already know the answers (no easy task, that one!).

When my youngest son, Levi, first began to write his name, he spelled it I-V-E-L. I was amazed! He was learning his own letters! I didn’t need to point out he’d written his name backwards. I knew he’d figure it out on his own at some point, and he did. However, to some people, the fact that I didn’t “correct” his writing (“No, Levi, you’ve written your name backwards; it’s L-E-V-I!”) would be seen as an act of unparenting. For isn’t it my job or duty to correct him? Yes, if he came right out and asked, “Is this right?” But he never asked.

I remain convinced that many of my neighbors and acquaintances also believe my unschooling methods are a nifty way of unparenting. My children, for instance, are often the only unparented ones playing outside. Over the years my husband and I have taught them road safety and we certainly did our time on the sidewalk when they were really small. Now we trust that all will be well. If it’s not, we expect one of the kids will come and find us. But to the other parents on the block, our parenting likely looks negligent. Little do they know how much time our children spend playing together while theirs are in school. Even I must admit, however, that when my kids were outside in the dark one night at 11:15 enjoying a game of glow-in-the-dark wand tag I suddenly realized that my unschooling lifestyle could probably land me in trouble with social services or child welfare. Shouldn’t they be in bed by that time or, at the very least, inside?

Every now and then another parent will say something that gives me an insight into what they really think of homeschooling. A friend of mine whose children go to school recently told me about the new piano teacher she had found. For awhile, I was contemplating changing my daughter’s instructor so I asked a few questions. She replied that the teacher was pleased that her daughter went to school because she liked kids who had discipline in their lives. “I’m not sure,” she went on, “what she’d make of a homeschooler.” Of course she didn’t mean anything by it, but the comment revealed her belief that homeschoolers have no discipline in their lives. What I wanted to ask, but didn’t, was how she thought a child learned “discipline” by being dropped off at school in the morning and having all her time structured for her until being released at 3:22? Of course, my friend’s brand of discipline is the popular one: It means learning to do what you’re told. I would prefer to see discipline defined as the ability to structure one’s time or, better yet, as the ability to handle freedom.

Most people believe that sending their children to school is easier than keeping them home, the theory being that daily separations help to replenish the supply of patience. But it doesn’t work that way. Parenting has its own “zone.” If you’ve ever gone away for a day or two without your children, you’ll know what I mean. I return home thinking I’ll be a deep well of patience but it takes me some time to get used to everybody talking at me simultaneously. My husband, meanwhile, having been on his own, is in the “zone.” One doesn’t step in and out of parenting seamlessly. Surprisingly, I have discovered that the more time I spend with my children, the easier it is to be with them. School creates a whole host of problems that parents are willing to accept in order to procure their own “freedom.” My siblings and I spent our childhoods going to school. For ten months of the year we were separated five days a week, for the majority of the day. When we returned home, we watched television or played with friends, then we had more “school” to do in the form of homework. The parenting we received was transitional – we were transitioned to school, transitioned from school, then readied again for school. Much of our out-of- school time was spent preparing for school. I’m telling you this to illustrate that unschooling my children is not a natural thing for me.

It’s the “schooled” voice in my head that wants me to believe my children aren’t truly learning anything but, when I stop to question that belief, I see an abundance of proof that suggests the contrary.

It takes time to rid ourselves of the need to accomplish things educationally with our children. How well I related to Allison McKee’s anecdote in Unschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves (Life Learning, May/June 2006) when she admitted to taking over her son’s pond project by suggesting ways he could better chart the changes. Only later did she discover that by applying so many structures she completely deflated her son’s sense of wonder and fascination with the initial idea. But staying out of the way or minding my own business does not come naturally. Hence the occasional doubt about unschooling and the inevitable fall that follows into believing that it’s really a way of sanctioning unparenting.

The good news is that every time I go through a period of questioning my pedagogical beliefs I come out the other side with a renewed conviction that life learning is exactly what my family needs and benefits from. It’s the “schooled” voice in my head that wants me to believe my children aren’t truly learning anything but, when I stop to question that belief, I see an abundance of proof that suggests the contrary.

My eldest son Dashiell, for example, learned how to read on his own when he was eight. He didn’t have to suffer through phonics or undergo any alphabet drills. Again, it was his interest in hockey that got him going. He wanted to be able to read the sports page on his own. That same interest in sports has furthered his math and geography skills. Why not get the world map out when watching the World Cup of Soccer to see how far some of the teams traveled? My daughter Sadie, at seven, is going through the same preliminary reading process that her older brother did. Every day she asks me how to spell certain words as she writes her “books” and when we go on outings she often asks me to tell her what signs and advertisements say. Sadly, she too will be reading soon. I say sadly because, once children learn how to read, there is no going back to that time of innocence when they are immune to print culture, to reading everything from store and brand names to some of the smuttier graffiti around town. I hope my daughter takes her time learning to read and I hope my youngest also doesn’t break any early literacy records. I routinely wince when I hear parents of schooled children complaining about the difficulty of getting their six- and seven-year-olds to read. I wish I had the courage to tell them all just to leave their children alone. What’s the big rush? Children have an entire lifetime to be literate. Their pre-literate life is so short.

In the long run, asking the “big” pedagogical questions is not a bad thing. In fact, it ultimately strengthens and confirms my more intuitive convictions about unschooling. I want to give my children a childhood that’s not entirely governed by the clock. I want them to have time to develop their imaginative worlds. I want them to know that freedom from the daily grind is not something that necessarily stops once you become an adult. And I want them to understand that a life in which one simply grins and bears it, because everyone else is doing the same thing, is not a life they need to lead. I know that, to many parents who are leading a more mainstream life, my unschooling looks suspiciously like unparenting. But if “unparenting” to them means having no set bedtime, no “discipline” and no real structured learning, so be it.

I know I’ve found the right thing for my family. And I still feel like we’re getting away with something big.

Theresa Shea is the mother of three unschooled children. Her poetry and non-fiction have appeared in several magazines and anthologies in Canada. She has recently published her first novel. An amateur violinist, Theresa spends much of her time trying to get her children to do their music practice. Any free time she has generally involves drinking americanos in cafés, reading the latest in contemporary fiction and non-fiction, or homeschooling her new golden retriever puppy. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta.

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