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Choices and Decisions About Unschooling
When to Honor Our Unschooling Children's Choices and When to Make Decisions on Their Behalf
By Mette Guillaume

Making a decision about honoring an unschooling child's request to attend school.My name is Mette. I am a 33-year-old Life Learning/Natural Life Magazine reader, living in Copenhagen, Denmark. Some readers may remember me from an interview with Sandra Rakovac in the series “Talking about Life Learning” which appeared in Life Learning Magazine a few years ago.

At the time, our oldest daughter was six-and-a-half and had never been to school. We were leading a simple, relaxed, unschooled life. I was convinced that we would go on like that – enjoying the freedom of being outside the school system. But things turned out not to be that simple.

The year before, over the summer as the other kids started getting ready for their first school year, buying lunchboxes and schoolbags, and as the questions from friends and relatives got increasingly frequent and insisting, my daughter had also started asking about going to school. I had dismissed those demands at first, blaming them on the fact that virtually everybody else we knew was preparing to start school and thinking that her interest would wear off as things would quiet down again. It did, for a while, but she kept asking regularly about going to school “like the other kids.” I made a point of explaining to her how I was against the whole idea of compulsory schooling and forcing people to do this or that, how I would like for her to conserve her freedom.

Oddly – or not so oddly –enough, it was that exact same reasoning that finally got me to “give in” and agree to let her go to school. One night, she came to me asking whether my keeping her out of school against her will wasn’t kind of the same thing as forcing someone to do something! Bam! There I was, honestly not knowing what on earth to answer to that, except admitting to myself, and to her, that...well...yes I suppose it was. Thus, off to school she went, happy as a bunny to finally join this mysterious place where all the other kids went, this school that seemed to contain heaven on earth or at least everything exciting around.

 

So, how did my unschooled daughter who had never been forced to sit in circles and learn her ABCs or even to conform to specific timeframes for sleeping, eating or playing fit in to the highly structured world of school? Remarkably well. The teachers were stunned to learn that she hadn’t been to preschool or kindergarten class. They were convinced that we had done a lot of structured work at home – since she was such a good student. We had, of course, done tons of activities from which learning had sprung – but none of them labeled “work” or “learning.” The rigid timetables and imposed activities of school didn’t seem to bother her at all. Quite the contrary: She was thrilled to have books and worksheets, to fill out blanks and to get shiny stickers for doing a math page. However, when I asked her what she liked best about school, she responded, “Recess.” Go figure, I thought to myself: Why on earth would she want to go to school, if recess was the best thing? At home she had recess all the time…until it dawned on me that, of course, she didn’t have recess at home, since she didn’t have scheduled classes! There were a lot of things she didn’t have at home: a classroom, a teacher, a schoolbag, classmates, assignments, schoolbooks...the whole school environment, in short.

"I thought I was being a respectful parent, giving my daughter the freedom of choosing her own path, but what I really did was charge her with a responsibility that she shouldn’t have at her age, at least not entirely alone. Despite all my good intentions about respecting her as a person, this wasn’t a decision she should be making. There are some deeper issues than lunchboxes and having recess which my daughter can’t possibly understand or even really reflect upon yet."

The year of first grade was a year of immense trial for me as a parent trying to live consensually with my children. I wanted to try to honestly and sincerely accept her choice and to be positive about school. Only, the whole concept of institutionalized schooling makes me ill at ease. Be it the intrusion into our family life and daily rhythm, the disastrous methods and effects of the forced and uniformalized teaching that goes on, the unsupervised “socialization” that takes place in recess or the many messages and values that school transmits and that I cannot possibly adhere to. I could mention, as well, a shift in attitude and personality in our daughter, which is really quite unsettling to witness when you realize you are having some of your fears about the institutionalized world confirmed. I wasn’t at peace with the situation at all. I read and re-read my favorite authors on peaceful parenting and consensual living. And, all the while, I kept on ignoring my gut feeling, which told me in no uncertain terms that my daughter shouldn’t be in school.

Then it happened. About a month into second grade, I had a sort of epiphany. I realized very suddenly that if I hadn’t acted upon my very clear gut feeling, it was out of fear of assuming the responsibility of that decision. It was much easier for me to just say, “Well, our daughter wants to go, so she goes,” than to have to take the entire responsibility for a lifestyle choice which makes all of our family “weird” and different from most of society. I thought I was being a respectful parent, giving my daughter the freedom of choosing her own path, but what I really did was charge her with a responsibility that she shouldn’t have at her age, at least not entirely alone. Despite all my good intentions about respecting her as a person, this wasn’t a decision she should be making. There are some deeper issues than lunchboxes and having recess which my daughter can’t possibly understand or even really reflect upon yet.

So, our daughter is back where she should be; at home with her family. She is once again able to follow her own rhythm and to create her own educational plan driven by true interest and intrinsic motivation rather than by standardized curriculums and someone else’s expectations. She will – I hope – be able to escape for yet a while longer the pressure to conform to the dictates of society and of her peer group. I’m not so naive as to think there won’t be roadblocks along the way. Home-based education is challenging and I know that, at times, our daughter does miss school and, periodically, she does ask to return. I would have been surprised otherwise, in fact. The pressure to fit in and “to be like everyone else” is huge for adults and especially for children. It is a challenge for me and my husband as parents to make a decision so radically different on behalf of our children. It is also a paradox that to ensure that my children have the freedom to be who they are I have to take some of that freedom away. This is what confused me at first, but after our experience with school as a part of our life, I am absolutely sure that even if being different will be challenging for my children, and they won’t necessarily understand the reasons to begin with, saying “no” to school is the only way that I can honor their right to true freedom.

Are we back to where we started, then? Not quite. I have learned some very important life lessons in the process, starting with the fact that a vision is only fruitful if it is revisable. I knew this in theory of course, but now I have experienced it firsthand. What it means concretely for our family is that where we used to have a very informal and highly unstructured approach to learning, because this was my vision, we are actually now homeschooling rather than unschooling, because this seems to be my daughter’s vision of things. I am still very relaxed in my approach to learning. We don’t use a lot of workbooks and I don’t do lesson plans as such, but I do sit down once every three months or so to try to outline some general ideas. We now follow (more or less) a weekly plan of readings, activities and field trips. Occasionally, I will organize these around a common theme, in other words create a unit study if and when I sense a specific interest in a particular area. Above all, I try to make sure my daughter records what she does in some way, because this gives her a clearer sense of “doing something,” like the other kids are doing schoolwork All of the scheduled activities remain totally optional, though, and every once in a while we won’t do a single thing of what I had planned. This doesn’t matter obviously – what matters is that my children conserve their love of learning, their enthusiasm and especially that they maintain full ownership over their personal educational projects.

I never thought that I would be spending hours on the internet comparing educational philosophies and curriculum options, much less find myself ordering phonics flashcards and language arts workbooks! But this is where I am today, and what do you know – it’s actually all very exiting. I still do not intend to take on any role that resembles that of a teacher, but I have discovered that I can play a much more active role in my children’s education than I used to think, without violating their foundational freedom.

When this article was written in 2009, Mette Guillaume, her French husband Eric, and their two children were living in Denmark after having spent ten years in France and around the world.

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