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We are only a few days away from moving from our two bedroom rental into a larger one. The new home features lower rent, a reduced utilities bill, and sits next door to my mother’s house. My husband, children and I are happily painting, cleaning, and preparing for our new circumstances. That said, I have a fondness for the house we are leaving. I am enjoying its relatively serene space all the more as I come home after an evening painting, scrubbing, and trying not to over-think, over-plan, or over-worry.
It was in my early days in this current home I first found the motherlode of support for raising children in the autodidactic tradition (or as I shall shorthand the practice here, “unschooling” or “life learning”). And as we pack up the place, those memories are exhilarating in the recall – but now comfort-worn by my years’ experience, and my gratitude to the many individuals who’ve helped, and continue to help, along the way.
My husband and I started our children early in the tradition of institutional education. We’d taken part in playschools since the kids were nine months and two weeks, respectively. We were one of those, “give your kids every advantage” families – like most parents or carers are, regardless of what particular strategies they employ – so we continued in the tradition I was raised in, believing academic success and so-called “socialization” to be the two brass rings of Good Parenting. We also believed it was our civic duty to participate in public schooling. After all, I’d had a pleasant enough experience in school, and I had the straight-As and the engineering degree to support my “success” story.
Playschool was fun for most everyone in the family, but by the time I was volunteering twice-weekly in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom (as it happened, I was the only parent who did) my views on institutionalized and compulsory education were changing. I perceived many hazards and shortfalls and, increasingly, I intuited fewer advantages. As for tangible, culturally-supported motivations – such as a second income to say, pay our bills and/or have running cars, let alone provide me with Social Security – even these did not outweigh my increasing desire for a different life for our little family. It would actually be an overlong article were I to list the many things I found lacking in (first) the public school, and then, as I investigated further, any compulsory schooling model within our reach (let alone the lifestyle required, which I could write pages on). Ultimately I came to a mindset of, YOU make your case to ME as to why I should require my kids to school. So far I’ve not heard a compelling answer nor experience an unmet need, and I’ve listened intently to many arguments over the years.
So in 2008 we stepped out of the relatively comfortable, and culturally-supported, public school experience. At first it was a bit harrowing as, since I’m the Mommy, I was tasked with TEACHING MY OWN CHILDREN, horrors. I had binders full of lesson plans and a Google Calendar set up with subjects we’d cover. Most people left me alone about the venture or even praised me, figuring I was, basically, smart enough to go about it (I only footnote here my culturally-afforded privilege as a white, working-class, college-educated cisgender married woman with a university degree, a home, and no visible disability). With my husband’s enthusiastic support and participation we dove into the “brave” world of homeschooling.
At this point I’d been exposed to the concept of “unschooling”, but it still sounded like a craven mess to my ignorant yet somehow biased thought-life. However as the kids and I did our thing, I became less and less satisfied with the very school-y model I knew how to employ to instruct my children. As I see it, the model I knew is typical and two-fold. First, we tell our children what to think, believe, and parrot (within a narrow range of “acceptable” beliefs and thoughts, all the while giving lipservice to freedom and “critical thinking”). Second, we motivate them using praise and its counterpart, emotional pain – in other words, “you can’t eat your pudding if you don’t have your meat!” (it’s true, if you look deep enough into what is really happening). Initially as a homeschooler I wasn’t doing much different than the enterprise I’d removed our children from, even if the environs were a lot healthier in most ways.
It was at this time I found, somehow, Wendy Priesntiz’s publications Life Learning Magazine and Natural Life Magazine* and began reading there – as well as many authors and blogs referenced, and the books, articles and blogs tangentially-linked to those. At the time, specifically with regards to Priesnitz’s pieces, I found validation of truths I’d felt deep inside since I was a child. To wit: that “absorb, regurgitate, & be graded” methods of education were superficial and ineffective. To wit, that children shouldn’t be treated as cattle nor capitalist fodder for the United States’ edifices of consumerism and consumption (forces I like to jokingly reference as Jack Handey’s monster: “trampling and eating everything it sees”). To wit, my suspicion that what many adults wanted a great deal from children was to be able to control their movements and especially their behaviors and especially their thoughts and beliefs. Deep-down I knew it wasn’t possible nor intelligent to demand “respectful” behavior from children while we robbed them of their agency and basic human rights (these demands for “respect” yield spoiled fruit; I’m reflecting on last year’s bullycides and the many angry and frightening responses from grownups; also the recent public cheers when a father publicly destroyed his “disrespectful” daughter’s laptop with a firearm). The fact adults scream – and hit – for “respect” from children is something I occasionally feel a sense of deep embarrassment-by-proxy about.
All of these things – things I “knew in my knowing place” – were given voice by someone thousands of miles away, with decades more experience. I can’t fully express the excitement and possibility that began to open up for me those few days. Those experiences were a cornerstone as I continued to read and relate with other authors, professionals, parents, carers, teachers, and adults with an avocation and passion for our children.
The exercised right to raise one’s children without putting them in an institution continues to draw fire, myriad subtle or blatant slings and arrows. Most of these arguments, primarily, reduce down to our culturally-indoctrinated reflexive desire to control children’s lives, emotions, thoughts and expressions, and physical movements. The latest anti-homeschooling piece referenced in my tweetstream comes from Slate (“Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids”, February 16, 2012), trotting out the “if you’re progressive you owe it to society to put your kids in the public school system” argument. And you know, this was a view I once held myself not so long ago, so I relate. In my case, Eva Swidler’s piece in 2010 was seminal in articulating the fallacies inherent in the argument that participating in the system with your child’s fulltime lived reality is the only ethical thing to do (after all, there are many ways to support schooled kids, even if you do not have children or your children do not attend school – and Swidler’s eloquence, I might add, addresses this beautifully). Other good refutions have emerged recently, specifically challenging the popular concept that compulsory state-run schooling is a major ameliorating force fighting socioeconomic disparities and systemic oppressions.
The expectation of, and massive mainstream pressure to, institutionalize children is a new experiment in terms of humanity. But from the beginning I’ll bet you’d find this argument of civic duty: “You owe it to _____ agenda to participate [in this exact way]!” Personally I think many who frame forced school attendance for children as the only way to be civic-minded and ethical are merely, if they were to examine their root feelings, scared. Arguing that home educating parents are cloistering their children and telling their children who exactly to trust is not only a logic fail in one way (as if sending them to school without right of veto isn’t telling them who to trust), but also fails on an even deeper level – because children actually decide who to trust, as much as some people don’t want to admit this (I trusted School, by the way… the problems I later had are the subject of another article). Many won’t entertain the concept children have the capacity and the right to have a regarded and significant voice in their own daily lives. And dare I say, those most fearful are likely those of us with a series of gold stars attached to our name by virtue of the educational system.
My children’s forty hours a week times thirteen+ years is pretty important to me – and to them. When I find the institutional proponent who speaks of children as anything other than chattel (or cattle), subhumans (check out popular language describing teenagers if you’ve the stomach for it), requisite products and/or extensions of our own values, or capitalist investments, I’ll listen all the more intently. Most proponents operate from the perspective children are second-class citizens, that we know what’s best for them, and they couldn’t possibly learn if we stopped relying on desks, tests, and doled-out potty-breaks.
I provide my children, and the schooled children who frequent my home, with safety, emotional and physical nourishment, and a great deal of autonomy. And the practice grows up some pretty good kids.
Look, my theories that articles such as the latest on Slate, or examples like the vitriolic and lengthy tirade “HOMESCHOOLING IS CHILD ABUSE” (actual title from a self-identified college professor), are primarily fear-based? I could be incorrect. What I can say with confidence is I was a school-achiever and school-believer – and I was fearful at first. I was scared to commit to the supposed “huge” responsibility of educating my children. Scared of relinquishing (the illusion of) control by exploring, by merely entertaining the idea of, autodidactic family life. I was scared of not playing the “more income=more happiness” game, even though my logical mind told me we had a roof over our head and enough coal to burn. I was scared of doing something different than the herd and having my family life interfered with by the State (that’s a founded fear, by the way). I was scared of being told I wasn’t doing what “everyone else” thought I should (again, a founded fear, also reinforced by school, incidentally).
Mostly I was scared of giving up (the illusion of and) the practice of Control.
I look as deeply as I can into articles regarding children’s education and parenting, and those are the fears I see.
I live in gratitude for those who went before me and mapped out a blueprint for courage. As we pack up this home to move to another, the memories are pretty sweet.
“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” – Benjamin Franklin
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” – Audre Lorde
* both helmed by Wendy and Rolf Priesnitz, with over thirty years’ experience in the fields of life learning, writing, social activism, and publishing. Full disclosure; I’ve written a few pieces for these publications, including one published here – “the conversation t hat never happens”.