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gentle steps towards unschooling ourselves

Just about over two years ago, Christine and I made a committed decision not to pursue traditional public or private school education for our son Aidan. Rather, we decided to homeschool. “Homeschool”–that’s what we called it [singlepic=591,350,350] Joyful Livingtentatively when we decided. It’s the most recognizable term referring to a wide array of alternative approaches toward education outside of a traditional school system. School at home, though, has not been where this choice has taken us. It hasn’t been “school” at all, and it has taken us far beyond our home.

A few months back, I changed all “homeschooling” references (links, categories, etc.) on this site to read “life learning” instead. This term felt like a much more accurate description of what we are doing–just living our lives and doing so joyfully. From the beginning, Chris and I have leaned toward a child-led-learning approach where we encouraged Aidan to discover and follow his own interests. This has been at the core of our approach since the beginning, and we have never felt the need to adopt any sort of formal curriculum. Even without formal curriculum, though, we have considered whether we should be approaching this life learning thing with some sort of plan for Aidan. Early on we gauged Aidan’s interests, brainstormed possible activities for him, field trips and the like, checked the state standards (during insecure moments of crisis), and tried to figure out ways of “tricking” Aidan into learning at home. The thing is he doesn’t need such tricks or gimmicks, and only now is this really sinking in for us.

Recently, I found a podcast produced by an unschooling mom named Sarah Parent. Her show is called Humans Being and it focuses on this idea of unschooling and gentle parenting. It’s been really helpful to us recently, as Chris and I continue to evolve in our understanding of the life we are choosing and living with our son Aidan.

We Are Humans BeingI have so many ideas flowing through my mind in recent days (plus I haven’t blogged substantially in weeks) that I’m not sure how to find order to it all, so bear with me. The Humans Being podcast has been such a great find for me in several ways. It has been a kind of validation, I suppose, for the choices we’ve been making with Aidan and has helped to quell some of those insecurities that creep in from time to time. But also it has compelled us to look more closely at what we are doing and what we are not. One insight that I’ve reached most recently is that if, in fact, we are allowing Aidan to learn naturally–as all children do–without the imposition of teaching, as it were, then this too must extend to parenting. How can these things be separated? Parenting, after all, is about gently guiding your child as he or she learns and develops. How is this different from homeschooling–especially if homeschooling for us is not anything like school.

We’ve just realized that we’ve compartmentalized our lives, drawing a subtle line between “life learning” and parenting.

It’s funny, when people we know ask how homeschooling is coming along for Aidan, we are never quite sure what to say because the question implies that this homeschool thing is somehow separate from the rest of our lives. Of course, that’s not surprising, as for most people–parents and children–it is. School and, therefore, learning is separate from everything else. It is compartmentalized. So, when asked this question, we typically say something kind of general like “Oh, everything is great. We are just living our lives and enjoying everyday.” However, only recently have we come to see that in some ways we’ve continued to compartmentalize our lives, drawing a subtle line between “life learning,” as we’ve come to call it, and parenting.

We allow Aidan great latitude with regard to his pursuits, allowing him to follow his curiosities and interests; we support his choices and do our best to facilitate–that is to provide resources, gentle guidance, and so on–to help him achieve what he wants to achieve. However, until just recently, when it came to day-to-day parent-child exchange (outside of intellectual curiosity), our relationship was much different. We were in charge, and Aidan was expected to comply–regardless of his own physical and emotional needs. That may sound a little stronger than I mean it, but our parenting philosophy was far more authoritarian than we ever would be when facilitating Aidan’s intellectual pursuits (aka homeschooling). How can such a line be drawn? If as parents we see ourselves as facilitators and gentle guides for Aidan’s self-directed learning, shouldn’t this extend from botany right through bedtime, from plate tectonics through table manners? How can we allow self-direction in one but not the other? How can we be supportive in one aspect of Aidan’s learning but authoritarian (and adversarial) in the other? Realizing this has shined light on a confusing disconnect in the various ways we’ve been interacting with our son.

How can we allow self-direction in one but not the other? How can we be supportive in one aspect of our child’s learning but authoritarian (and adversarial) in the other?

So what is the result of this awakening? Currently, we we are in the process of “unschooling” ourselves on traditional notions of parenting. We are making gradual steps toward extending the trust we put in Aidan’s own desire and action to learn to other areas of our lives where traditional authoritarian-style parenting usually would have kicked-in. It’s a gradual process, but we are starting small. The idea is to lift arbitrary rules–or rules that serve entirely our own interests rather than Aidan’s. (That’s not to say that our interests are not important, but we shouldn’t serve our own interests by forcing our child to act in certain ways just because we can. We certainly would not allow ourselves to be treated this way, so why would we treat our child like this?) So, we are working on letting go of things like bedtime, food rules (that’s been tough), forced manners (i.e. “Say you’re sorry!), and so on.

Sarah Parent addresses many of these matters so very well in her two episodes on “Unparenting.” Find them here: HB #12: Unparenting and HB #13: Unparenting (the sequel). Below is an excerpt from the show notes:

We are here for each other. We will all (children and adults) experience a range of emotions while we work to understand each other and strive for peaceful relationships. Authenticity means having emotions and being honest about them. Communicate with each other in a way that serves everyone’s needs. Children will move through unscathed when guilt and shame are not involved in extreme situational emotions.

These shows are really worth listening to if you want to better understand the true nature of the provocative term “unparenting.” It’s so easy to have snap judgments about such things. Please suspend your judgment and listen to them if you have an interest.

I think this idea of “unparenting” is even more misunderstood than the idea of “unschooling.” The negativity of these terms doesn’t help. To one who values (or just accepts) traditional ways of schooling and parenting, these terms may seem downright irresponsible, but again, I believe this comes from a real misunderstanding of what they mean. Personally, I resist labels that rely on the “un” prefix. Rather than define our choices in terms of what they are not, why not focus on what they are? Alternatives and better representations of the choices of “unparenting” and “unschooling” would be “gentle parenting” and “whole life learning.” Truly these get closer to the core values at play here. As a self-proclaimed “unschooler” I myself misunderstood this notion of “unparenting” and (honestly) saw it as permissive and irresponsible. My views have changed because I understand it so much better now. Hey, look at that, I’m learning too.

The adjustments we are making in the way we parent are steps towards greater authenticity, mutual respect, trust, and peace in our home. While we are going through some adjustments, overall it feels really good. There is something positive happening here.

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