At my brother’s wedding reception the table is full of glasses, candles, and stacks of plates piled with delicious food. In this venue, then, one of the other guests brightly asks me, “So how long have you been homeschooling?” I point my fork at my son, sitting at the end of the table snuggling his father – “That one,” I say, “has never been to school. And he’s nine years old. My daughter,” (leaning against me, listening like a pert little wildlife creature), “she went to one year of public kindergarten. What I saw there while I volunteered twice weekly inspired me to think about something different for our family.”
This answer seems to satisfy my new acquaintance. But then my mother pipes up, leaning forward to gush, “And it’s not homeschooling, it’s unschooling!” A pause, as those listening react in confusion at the term. My mom leans over to me. “Tell her, tell them,” she says with the kind of peevish enthusiasm she gets when ordering me around (Yes. I know. I’m 36.) She presses me further: “They want to hear about unschooling!” I roll my eyes. “No, you want me to tell them about unschooling,” I retort. I’m cranky, and I just want to eat my vegetarian spring rolls in peace. It’s been a long day!
On Forcing Myself On Strangers
These days I don’t get too fired up about “the unschooling conversation“, or at least not near as much as I used to. To use a phrase whose time has probably passed, I am much more chillax about the whole business. Why? Many reasons. Because ignorance is rampant, harmful systems are both prevalent and entrenched, and child-as-second-class is the norm. It’s simply the norm. Most people think children should be ordered about for most their waking hours (even though most people don’t want to own up to this), and if there was any way my educational theories or my passionate communication skills or my words-upon-words written could force people to try things differently, I probably would still be forcing people today.
And this brings me to another reason I am (usually) less ardent in these conversations, probably my most grounded reason. Because frankly, I’ve the same impulses as everyone else, attempting to impose my sense of justice, order, or intelligence on other human beings. Shocker: I am not always right, I am not always making intelligent decisions, and I myself am plenty-ignorant. While today I am willing to share our experiences and especially to help those who seek help, I am no longer willing to argue. Why set myself on one side of a table lecturing or complaining or feeling persecuted or expressing despair at the state of child-raising in our country? Instead, I can practice gratitude for having the family I do, and I can try to be helpful to other families who ask for my help.
Today I don’t have to live by force – although I should call it the attempt to force, and the illusion of control by “winning” an argument (I include those arguments in the mind that we continue, when we’ve long left the conversation with another human being!). At the wedding party dinner I was more than happy to talk a bit about unschooling and, specifically, to answer the questions that ended up being put to me (“How will your kids get into college?” and some other typical fare). See today I don’t have to “prove” unschooling and today – blessed miracle! – I don’t even have to get upset and frustrated by other people’s ignorances. I don’t mean anything or anyone in particular, I just mean that maybe my entire life I will have that little blip of annoyance when I see how people Other and belittle children and talk about them like they’re property or chattel. Perhaps I will never move past feeling irritated and angry. But today I don’t have to rise to a state of panic and anger. I don’t have to rehearse negative thoughts and negative emotions, and I don’t have to let these emotions dictate my reality. I can take up the line of conversation, in this case, pick it up, participate, then put it down.
Then, enjoy my spring rolls.
Who gets to say “No”?
A little while back my partner and I got into a lively conversation with a parent who was also an educator. This parent became increasingly interested in dissecting our philosophies of non-coercive parenting, anti-authoritarianism, and life learning as opposed to compulsory schooling. The conversation became quite lively (I was not especially chillax) but it remained respectful. I remember very little about the content of our discussion except the tail end of the conversation. The parent kind of pushed back from the table, shook their head, and said, very slowly: “I think you and I have the same ideas… except… I don’t let my kids say ‘No’.”
At the time, I was aghast. “Not letting your kid say ‘No’” is firstly the very definition of typical American parenting – and there is no “sameness” to this parent, and Ralph and I, at all! In fact, this parent was articulating the exact root disagreement that fostered our lengthy and lively argument in the first place!
Still, I was impressed this parent was honest. Many parents, carers, and teachers I know act as if they are letting their kids exercise their agency (i.e. say “No”) when really they are only providing them the slimmest margins of freedom. These adults often align themselves with or seek out methodologies of parenting or child stewardship (some of which employ special words and more humane – to outward appearances – behaviors) to, in part, obfuscate what this particular parent stated so eloquently - “I don’t let my kids say ‘No’”. Many parents can’t admit, “I don’t let my kids say ‘No’”, because they don’t want to believe this about their parent-child relationship. This is very sad, because among other things this means they cannot get to the bottom of the parent-child relationship, and they thus block their own path to healing and deep peace.
And this can be expanded further, because it isn’t a parent thing. It is an adult thing. Somewhere along the way we all internalized the concept, so deeply ingrained that even years of active processes of unlearning by a committed individual do not remove it quickly or entirely, that one day it would be “our turn” and we would no longer be the second-class citizens of the world (at least in the sense of child/adult), but could then demand obedience and obeisance (“respect”) from the children who were to come after us. We became deeply invested in this fantasy, in part because it contains an illusion of safety, of Self-as-demonstrated, that ego-soothing “I’ve earned my place!” experience we often grasp at.
So I understand why many adults don’t want to own up to what this parent, albeit begrudgingly, spoke aloud. But looking deeper still, I see that this parent has even another lesson for me.
The Gifts of This Parent’s Honesty
What a gift this conversation was! Because the deeper truth is, we can never not let someone say “No”. They can always say No. What we can do is make consequences or environments so unpleasant – perhaps extremely so – that they choose not to say No. They are temporarily and/or outwardly cowed. We are really quite industrious and imaginative in the ways we attempt to control, to manage the outcome, to get our way. We may scream, hit, beat, remove pleasures or material goods, and employ all sorts of psychological and emotional “carrot/stick” strictures to these children’s lives. Harshada Wagner’s talk on how we create emotional pain for the world’s children will always be written on my heart, because what he says is true regardless of whether we are parent, educator, or a civilian interacting with the children of this world.
We inflict emotional pain in an attempt to control or an attempt to maintain the illusion of control. Now, why we do this is the subject of another piece. But isn’t it freeing, to finally admit we are doing this? Isn’t their some small part of you, in that space of devastation and sadness at the smallness of our attempts to control, and the uselessness of these attempts, that feels a little excited, that breathes fresh air? When we confront the truth, as it is said, it sets us free.
Our children will always be able to say No to us; if they don’t do so outwardly for fear of our reprisal, they do so inwardly. The phrase “cognitive dissonance” comes to mind, although it falls short in describing the holistic and endemic nature of the harm done when we insist we will not “let” our kids, or any kids, say No. Some children grow to hate their carers and most will continue to respond to much of life from a place of woundedness. Some grow to emulate the abuse. Many do not outgrow their fears and do not heal from their hurts. The human impulse to control, to seek security where there is none, is magnified further still and their lives become filled with suffering, with grasping and revulsion and with complexity and over-work.
When we adults present a lie in rebuttal to something the child, deep down, knows in her gut, we commit the worst kind of betrayal. Entire lives have been corrupted and wounded, and this can carry on for generations in family legacies of hurt feelings, abuse, drinking and drugging, fears, over-indulgences or pathological self-denial in otherwise-healthy activities (like eating or not-eating, or working, sleeping, and sex). I see these fallouts every day.
Therefore I submit it is the greatest responsibility of any adult to commit to honesty – not just cash-register honesty, but emotional and spiritual honesty, when we are dealing with the rest of the world, and especially with children and with the child class. If you cannot admit here, or to me, or to your counselor or spouse the ways you are not letting your child say No, it is at least a start to admit it to yourself.
The wonderful news is it is never too early nor too late. We have only to set foot on the path, today.
When I was a child the things that hurt me most are easy to identify, today. It was not the physical abuse, the scoffing at the hands of peers, illness, death of a pet or of family, or hunger or sleep deprivation. What hurt me the most was when the adults I depended on would tell me lies and insist I believe them. They told me I was Selfish (setting themselves apart as Virtuous), and they told me this often, instead of admitting the larger, breathtaking truth that selfishness is something within all of us, that all of us can make peace with and transform. They told me they were strong when really they were weak. They told me they were not dependent on anything, when really they had many dependencies (as we are all wont to have). I had the opportunity to grow and learn they did these things not out of avarice or cruelty but merely because they knew no better, and had likely been done to similarly. Today I am so grateful to see deeply into these things, and to perhaps provide a different experience for my own children, inasmuch as I can.