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?