Why unschoolers?

A recent discussion with a home-ed friend is the reason behind my need to write this. The friend has been home-edding (i.e. home-educating) for years. She started thinking that the mainstream system does not provide enough or the right stimulation for her children. She preferred to do it herself. Her method is linked to unschooling, with the children having the choice of their hobbies, for which they have time and are encouraged, mixed with structured learning, namely imposed teachings, subjects and schedule. The children seem to be doing well as far as I know, we see them once every other month.

That day, after spending the afternoon with our group of unschoolers, she came to tell me how she believes unschooling is limiting for children. That we only have a short time for them to know what they need to know. Asking me what chances our children would have of becoming academics. I was pained by her comments. I disagree and wish to expose my reasons here. The way she told me this hurt too: she was saying her truths thinking I would agree with her, as we both have academic backgrounds. Possibly, my children being small, she might have thought that spending time with unschoolers was by circumstances rather than by choice. Unless anxious for her own children and feeling the need to reassure herself, she expressed her doubts to me.

So, why do I not agree with the thoughts behind her statements: that it is majorly important for our children to become academics; that by unschooling them I am taking away their choice of becoming ones if they wish.

I am indeed an academic, I have two masters in environmental science and a PhD in flood protection delivered by the Free University of Amsterdam. I have also suffered from teen depression, brought on by hormones combined with childhood events – not a bad childhood at all but with moves, deaths in the extended family and the consequences on my parents, diseases both for my brother and my father, car accident, and bad timing all over. As an adult I have also had two burn outs (6 years apart) and series of panic attacks, including one of each while pregnant with my first (I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, whatever that means in practice), of which I was pregnant with thanks to 3 years of fertility tests and 6 inseminations. I haven’t worked in five years, and to be honest I am not sure I could keep a permanent job.

There the difference between our approaches are. We tried school with my oldest, six months after his baby brother was born in Dublin, after we had moved from Wales less than a year before as I was 6 months pregnant. The birth didn’t go exceedingly well and the aftermath were difficult for me. My eldest went to school for a little over a week. He suffered from severe separation anxiety and started having nightmares of abandonment. We took him out and started homeschooling, at first thinking we would try again later. Instead we gradually moved to unschooling and possibly radical unschooling. We do a lot, by his choice as his brother is still small and I try to follow his interests in all our choice of activities – reptiles, horses, legos, rockets, cars, volcanoes, music and dancing, reading… – I also include him/them in the house activities and chores – the shopping, cleaning, drying, tidying, gardening, cooking – all are part of what we do. The learning happens as we go, physics, maths, history, sports, engineering, biology… Interestingly, I am learning too, including about myself, my interests and the best ways to manage my anxieties. I hope these learnings will be useful for my sons.

We cannot know what the future will look like. Will we move to more structured learning? How will I deal with more advanced maths? Reading? I guess I will propose. But I trust we will only become more structured if my sons want it and not otherwise. I will adapt to their wants and needs. I actually believe in unschooling – the joy of learning by exploring, coming across everything they will need for a fulfilled life. It is what works best by a huge margin with my eldest, so far and as long as I am available and relaxed.

The thing is – too – is that I do not value their academic success so much. If they wish it, I will help, but I won’t push. They might come to resent that choice, they might say I should have pushed them towards academia, to get a PhD like my husband (quite happy in work) and I have, to earn more (possibly), get more acknowledgement… I hope I would be strong in replying that these are never a sure thing and I preferred for them to know their selves, their true interests, their strengths and weaknesses (without judgement or measurements), their emotions, their limits. To be able to truly enjoy a walk in the forest or on a beach, helping them build a good mental health throughout their lives. But not stopping them becoming academics if they wish! That, rather than targeting academic success and crossing our fingers that mental health will follow… What if it doesn’t?

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Unschooling tool: history, preschool maths (1 to 16 matching numbers puzzle and stones), geometry, engineering
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Let’s do it

It has been a while, with some major changes and happenings, in our lives and in the political and financial world.

Concerning our lives…

We decided not to buy the house in the end, between Brexit and our other uncertainties it seemed better to postpone such a big 30-year-mortgage move. In Amsterdam we had bought our flat right after the 2008-crisis. Afterwards the price just kept going down and we couldn’t sell and move out without losing a lot – not doing that again.

I am over 4 months pregnant with our second child! And hurray! the anxiety and the fear to lose it are back full time. Thank you hormones and messed up sleep… Physically everything is going well so I’m trying to deal with it one day and one night at a time with the help of my husband. Diseases and accidents, time with my son, guilt, giving birth (can I really do that again?), first weeks, sibling discovery. Out of the top of my head. One day at a time and a bit of crochet.

 

We move forward

We made an offer on a house today and it was accepted!!! And I’ve stopped watching BBC News 🙂 We know what we need to know. The times are uncertain, it might get worse, but it might not…

Our options are therefore:

  1. To live in fear and worry and wait to buy – for how long? Do we want to maybe live in rentals forever, knowing pensions funds are uncertain?
  2. To buy a small house to repay as fast as possible to sell in 5/7 years when it is too small for us – at the risk that we cannot sell because it loses too much value or because houses don’t sell well then
  3. To buy the house we want and can (currently) afford, which gives us the space we’re looking for for another child and the possibility to stay forever if we want, at 3 or more

We are 34 and 37 this year and put like this, I find that our choice is actually almost simple… We don’t want to live in fear. We don’t want, in the event that we (manage to) have another child, to take the risk to be stuck in a too small house soon. We’ll do our best with we can do to make things work out, for ourselves and our son – maybe travel less to Europe if the pound continues to drop – and we’ll try to buy this house 😀 I feel a lot better now that the decision is taken!

farmhouse_LorenKerns
Farm house, source: Loren Kerns, flickr

We don’t break, we damage

I draw this sketch the other day, on what I believe most people don’t understand about anxiety disorders. I thought I would publish it here. Please keep in mind that it is entirely based on my own perception and experience, and so I cannot be sure that it would fit someone else’s experience… Also I can’t draw, they’re only very basic, but I’m finding that sometimes drawings explain things better than words 🙂

Here we go:

Push further
Push further

I’m scared of losing it, for a time or for good, by pushing myself too far, trying more things or having too much to deal with. Falling is scary and it hurts. You have no idea how long it will take to get better. Some times people don’t come back, not for years or not ever. Even when you win, the fight and the experience leave their marks, on you and on the people you love. The fear of falling again stays. That next time you might not come back out. The time lost.

For people without this experience, it is easy to discard this fear. But there is nothing laughable about it… Yes, it is part of the disorder, but the consequences are very real and can be very costly; panic attacks, anti-depressants or other chemical and non-chemical but very costly treatments, and time.

A gentle push to achieve

I’m supposed to finish my PhD, after years of not working on it. Get the last parts of the thesis together and defend it, in public. The last time I properly worked on it, I was pregnant. Then I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, right after I had a series of panic attacks at 5 months, when my baby boy has just started to move in my belly… If that is not scary, I don’t know what is.

I managed to avoid anti-depressant, just, by working on some of my issues with several professionals. I gave birth and didn’t suffer from post-natal depression (despite that doctor who told me that I had a 50/50 chance of having one, very helpful) or had panic attacks since then. It’s been just over two years (my baby boy is two!!).

Now I need to finish that PhD, so everyone who helped me can see it achieved and get their share of it, and so I can move on for good.

But it’s been a while since I worked on it and I forgot a lot of things. Just the thought of having to go back to the text and the work, and having to defend it in front of my old colleagues is freezing me. It would be just one of these PhDs that took too long – I’ve been to these defences and nobody feels like it’s a successful end to the work, most actually pity the defendor, it took too long, it has less value, and he/she is not even working in the field anymore. Most don’t see the effort it took to finally get there. To add to this, the defence will have to be in Amsterdam – meaning plane, hotel, etc. with a 2 year old boy – and without much time and help to prepare in advance.

So that’s it. I’m trying to deal with it one thing at a time. I will try to finish it and defend it, without losing it. I’m scared. I tried to tell my supervisor, and he understands, to an extent: you are scared, a lot of people are, it’s fine, you’ll manage and we’ll do our best to help you and get it done as fast as we can. It’s really nice of him and some of his ideas might actually help. But I know something that he doesn’t. That I may not manage. That it could get me over the edge with the stress and the tiredness and the depressing topic! Which would mean having to let go again, of everything, and then months or years of feeling crap, maybe having to take treatments, while waiting to get better. Is it really worth the risk?

After two years, I’m finally able to do things I couldn’t for a long time. I’m also taking care of my son and he is a lovely little person I adore. But I haven’t worked since I was pregnant. I keep having ideas of what I could do but stop even before I try. It is so ingrained, the feeling of failure, the lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. Maybe I am a bit stuck, and maybe if I finished that PhD, I’d get rid of that. Because, maybe, what I am suffering from is some kind of stage-fright which can be managed with some help. Maybe I could do it and be good at it and not fall over the edge. Maybe I am stronger than I think. Maybe it could free me and help me find another path for myself, and even make me a better mother for my son. If I don’t try I might always wonder. I might regret it. Or maybe I wouldn’t care, moving on!

Anyway, for now, I’m trying to finish that PhD, knowing that I still need to listen to myself and be responsible. My supervisor cannot really understand the reality of my situation – that the next time I fall I might not come back out for another 2, 3 or 5 years – which means that he could unknowingly push too far, and I cannot let this happen. My son is two and my health has to come first!

A few thoughts on bubbles

Bubbles. It’s my son’s new word and new interest, so it’s now on the background of the blog. They’re great bubbles, fun and pretty and see-through. I’d like for things to be like this all the time. And I expect my husband would also like things to be like this for me all the time. No worries, just black and white like or not like, happy please and no complaints when we travel – we just went to Amsterdam. I love the town and the people, but he heard that I regretted moving out. No, I don’t regret moving, but it’s not so simple.

I really like our new life here, in Wales. The nature, the space, the people and people speaking English. I can already see the benefits this move had on my health. I suffer less from anxiety and I’m less on survival mode all the time. To the point that I’m really imagining the possibility to have a second child. Despite the fact that I’m still breastfeeding – yes, he is almost two years old, but he is still benefiting from it and I’m scared that I would have to make him stop, he is so happy like this. And despite the fact that we don’t really know the area yet. And that we only have one salary. But we will know the area if we stay long enough, it is so good for children, the schools are good, the people are nice, and my husband’s salary is good. I can see us managing! It’s new! I’m hoping! I’m enjoying life, seeing my son grow up and not scared all the time. Taking the time to visit farms and forests. Enjoying the easiness to go out of the house (no stairs!). Suddenly things look and feel good. We will take care with our expenses and put money on the side and we will try to buy a house as soon as we can. It will take a bit of time. If we stay here.

And that’s where it is difficult for me. Will we stay here or will we move again. I’m a bit lost there. I know what I want for our son. But will we be able to stay? Will we want to? Could we get bored or never settle? How do you settle…?? I loved Amsterdam and despite the fact that there were things I didn’t like so much, it really hurt when we left. I lost my roots. I lost confidence in us settling anywhere. I realized how little we left behind us after so many years. Not so many friends, most move around and having a child and anxiety issues changed things. Maybe we’re also not so good at it. Do we really need anybody else? Yes, it’s really nice to have visitors, people we know and trust. But could we really stay here, or anywhere?

Anyway, I was glad to go to Amsterdam, to see a few old places. I realized that I’ve already moved on for the most part. I love the city but it’s not home anymore. It’s good to know.

Source: flickr, NMK Photography
Source: flickr, NMK Photography

Mindfulness or how to be present in our bodies

After all the changes lately (mostly changing country again), I decided to have a go at this mindfulness class. The first class was yesterday evening. It wasn’t ground-breaking but it was interesting.

Stress and anxiety are natural reactions to dangers and threats – new ones or known ones. Our arousal system awakens, triggers our survival instinct and makes us particularly aware of our surroundings, to help us survive.

Only thing is… these systems are apparently very deep and old in our brains and cannot make the distinction between physical threats and mental threats, or even imaginary/non-existing ones: tigers vs job stresses vs unpleasant memories… Our body reacts the same way to all of these “threats”.

It worked, we survived as a species. And if we were still cavemen it wouldn’t be an issue, but in our modern world, tigers have grown sparse while mental stresses are very common. In survival mode, we are unable to deal with other things than the stressor: if a tiger was nearby we would focus all our attention on it and couldn’t listen to our friends or plan holidays – same with mental stressors. Also whenever we would come back to the place where we met the tiger, we would get a warning, we would remember so we could avoid the area or be very careful. Similarly, when going back to a place where we had a stressful experience (car broke down, heard a bad news, broke up with boyfriend), we will have a flash of these events, despite the fact that they are no more likely to happen there than anywhere else in the world. We might end up avoiding these places, for no more reason than that it reminds us of bad moments, unless we become superstitious and start believing that the place is “bad luck”…

Some of us are more worried than others, more anxious, with arousal systems that are awakened more quickly. If it becomes too much and we are unhappy because of it, if we are stressed and on survival mode constantly, one solution could apparently be to be mindful. Focus on the present, rather than what happened, what might happen, what will happen or what we should do. Be present in our bodies when we experience things: eat, drink, walk in the forest, drive, close the door (how many times do we wonder if we actually closed it?) or switch off the gas (I often check if it is switched off, even if I’m the one who did it).

Meditation could also be a tool which could help us practice. The teacher last night made us go through a round: sit down comfortably and focus on the feelings in your toes, legs, belly, arms, fingers, head. Imagine the blood moving around. Feel the touch of the chair or your clothes. And whenever the mind wanders off, bring it back to the feelings. We can chose to be present and when to be distracted. It just needs practice.

It sounds really good and practical and it’s probably a very good idea to try.

BUT I also think that we probably shouldn’t just close down all the mind-distractions and the warnings we get. They could be there for a reason – telling us that something is not right, in a situation or in our head. It seems to me that there is an equilibrium to be found between being present in our bodies and deciding to never listen to our minds, avoiding the distracting and stressful thoughts and memories all the time because we believe that they are useless. At some point the pressure might be too much and the body could take over, given us symptoms or making an existing disease worse.

Otherwise, I’m thinking knitting or crocheting could also help, maybe in complement 🙂 Rather than shutting down all the distracting thoughts, when my fingers are busy, sometimes my mind wanders off freely (if I didn’t put the TV on) and I can get ideas or just get stuff out of my system.

Source: flickr, Mrs Janet R
Source: flickr, Mrs Janet R