“letting our children say ‘No'”

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.

putting children in their place

Unschooling Beach
Unschooling Beach
Unschooling Beach

My children Phoenix & Nels – having a typical “school day”

“I have used the words “home schooling” to describe the process by which children grow and learn in the world without going, or going very much, to schools, because those words are familiar and quickly understood. But in one very important sense they are misleading. What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children’s growth in the world is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn’t a school at all. ” – John Holt, Teach Your Own

It’s that time of year again. At a meeting recently a few acquaintances of mine caught up and compared notes as to how much their schedule is uprooted when their children are out on summer vacation, and how the new school year restores order. I (innocently enough, I swear!) shared aloud, “Our lives don’t change that much, because our kids don’t go to school.”

Immediately: one of those awkward record-scratch-at-a-party moments. The atmosphere in the room abruptly shifted and the talk suddenly fell silent. Then one woman sternly corrected me, literally giving me side-eye as she admonished: “Your kids go to school. They just do school at home.” Everything in her demeanor and tone was one of chastisement, likely (I know today) originating from fear. Quick, immediately assure me of The Order of Things so we can go back to pleasantly talking again. Or something like that.

This would be kind of funny, except it happens to me almost without fail now that I no longer let people off the hook by offering them their own perceptions – that is, by using the word “homeschooling”. The cumulative effect of so many acquaintances and strangers repeatedly correcting me about our family life is surreal. That is, people are more or less constantly telling me we’re living our lives in a way we are decidedly not.

When we first removed our children from forced institutionalism, I was nervous – as anyone might be – about departing from the mainstream. Like most parents and guardians, I wanted to do the right thing for our family. I personally had been a “success” in public school and then at a state university – yet now in untrodden ground I allowed others to put me in the extraordinary position of homeschool apologetics (a position I am underqualified for). And for a number of years when casual conversation brought up home education, or unschooling, or life learning, I thought the adults we were talking to had honest and founded doubts about how children learn. That is, I thought these adults’ objections, questions, assumptions, biases, and cynical commentary stemmed from their honest desire that children be given the best educational opportunity possible (“The Conversation That Never Happens”Life Learning Magazine July/August 2010).

However as years have passed and I’ve had hundreds of these conversations, I have come to a much more unsettling conclusion. Simply put, many adults believe with every fiber of their being that children belong in school. Full stop. Whether school is that great a place or not is not really the main issue on the table. Most adults simply don’t have better ideas for kids. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s that they’re overwhelmed. It is precisely because it is so daunting to face our responsibilities of caring for vulnerable citizens – draining emotionally, mentally, and physically – that many adults don’t want the job (be it children, older, frail or sick people, or anyone marginalized or oppressed). When it comes to the child class, we find comfort in our cultural arrangement that children are second-class citizens for us to herd like cattle (although few grownups will want to own up to this bleak strategy in such a direct manner). If you threaten the correctness of this arrangement – by say, merely living as a radical unschooler and not closeting – many people become quite upset. True story.

If they’re honest with themselves, many adults simply equate compulsory schooling as a type of cultural hazing, a necessary evil, and in a weird way justified simply because it exists. School isn’t too great, or sensible, or effective – and every one I’ve met can elucidate on long lists of the ways they personally found it dissatisfying – but it’s just How Things Are. They had to go through it, so today’s kids should too. As an operating strategy, many adults don’t want children to have much better than what they themselves had (but again, good luck getting a grownup to admit this!).

This makes it sound like I think these people, or even most people, are terrible. I used to think that, kinda, but I was incorrect. I now believe these people are merely frightened and overwhelmed. I used to be one of those people, so I can relate.

Most adults believe we should do the best by children that we can reasonable manage. However this desire – be it altruism, spiritual principles, or evolutionary strategy – has been consumed to skeletal remains by a lifetime of cultural indoctrination and in many cases, deep-seated shame and resentment. Rare indeed is the adult who, upon listening to our family’s experiences (or those of other life learners) and after observing our children – thriving, vibrant human beings who regularly get praised and commented upon regarding their maturity, intelligence, and inner strength – suddenly says, “Well then kids don’t need to go to school at all!” It happens now and then, and at that point our conversation immediately gets about four thousand times more interesting than, “But what about math?” – or, when speaking to my children – “How old are you?” and “What grade are you in?” (and those latter questions reflect the typical patter of grownups who actually think kids are worth talking to – many don’t!)

I wish these conversations, the ones where we imagine better opportunities for children, happened more often.

But instead, I am met with the same objections day after day, and the days pile into years, until now there is a general sameness to people’s objections and self-labeled “skepticism” (read: cynicism – also, some commentary at “Unschooling for Haters […]”). As this adult begins to tell me why we can’t let kids A, B, or C because X, Y, or Z would surely result, they are on a predictable quest within their own deep country – that of their ingrained social conditioning and heretofore unexamined biases. While they voice aloud their predictions on how unschooling won’t or can’t work, their mind simultaneously closes to what is before their very eyes: a family with many years’ experience unschooling, two children who’ve not been forced into institutionalism – and who can speak up for themselves – and our collective experience knowing many, many other unschoolers.

It’s been pointed out to me that in moving from childhood to adulthood we experience one of the only, if not the only, instances where we are nearly guaranteed to move from a position of oppression to a position of privilege. The truth of this is worth contemplating. Unless we are very careful and very wise and very dedicated, we reify what was so heavily imposed on our own little bodies and our own terrific minds. A sobering thought: I can tell you I have worked very hard over the past decade to actively strip adultist framings from my consciousness. And yet to this day if I’m feeling cranky I will command my child(ren) in a completely terse tone, expecting in some part of me their obedience, apparently believing in these moments that such demands are my right and responsibility. (Tangentially, my children know they can say, “No” without reprisal – most children cannot.)

If I have worked harder on this UNlearning, harder than anything else in my life, and yet the irresistible oppressive reflex still remains indelible within – where does that leave your average adult who has examined the implications of childhood oppression only a little – or not at all?

“We who believe that children want to learn about the world, are good at it, and can be trusted to do it with very little adult coercion or interference, are probably no more than one percent of the population, if that. And we are not likely to become the majority in my lifetime. This doesn’t trouble me much anymore, as long as this minority keeps on growing. My work is to help it grow. ” – John Holt, ibid

I have to leave behind my sorrow that so many cannot, or will not see things for how they are, built upon pessimism and fear; let alone try the work of living a different way. It’s not so much hard work as it requires, like all honest effort, a continued return to the work. Faithfully. Daily. Each day I return to my desire to do no harm. I return to my practice of allowing my fears to inform me instead of driving me recklessly. I return to knowing I have a responsibility to help my children – not an edict to [try to] control them. Days of that effort accumulate; over time I have a body of work and a new way of living. It’s not magic – but then, having a few years under my belt – it kind of feels like it is.

I see today that from the moment my children were born I was not willing to subject them to what I was subjected to. Out of that willingness grew action, and out of that action grew not only love and stewardship as I’d not experienced as a child, but another gift: forgiveness for those who raised me in the ways they did. I am truly grateful for the practice, as it keeps me from despairing when our deep commitment to humane family life is often labeled “fringe”, radical, and strange.

unschooling for Haters, especially my favorite kind of Hater, the “skeptic”

Wynoochie River With Friends

a typical day for my kids

Hi. I’m a radical unschooler named Kelly! Listen, I feel ambivalent about labels. On one hand they are helpful for the human mind to process; on the other, the human mind invariably dredges up bias and preconceptions the minute it can label a thing. That’s just how it is. As an experienced unschooler, I thought I’d flesh out many of my encounters with those who hear the term “unschooling” for the first, second, or third time, and the biases so many continue to hold on to.

If you stop reading in a few seconds there is one takeaway I’d like to leave with you: the term “unschooling” means different things to different people. If nothing else, if you go about your day remembering that whenever you hear that word, it could mean something different than what you’ve previously perceived, EXCELLENT. My job is halfway decently done.

I’m actually not going to write tons on what unschooling and autodidactic learning looks like in our family. I write a bit about how our lives play out here and on my personal blog. I’m happy to answer any specific queries you have. You can reach me best by email at kelly AT hogaboom DOT org.

I hope what you read here is helpful.

Unschooling For Haters, Especially My Favorite Kind of Hater, the “Skeptic”

or, how my family life is not all about YOU, but thanks for playing

I resent your choice of words. I’m not a Hater, but I am a skeptic. My cousin unschools and her kids are noisy/dirty/can’t read etc.

On balance, skepticism never helped me much. It didn’t make me smarter, kinder, nor gave me a roadmap to life. A lot of time my skepticism was actually just a barrier I put up because other people’s lives, ideas, strategies, or existence frightened me deep down in the pit of my gut (for me that wall-building action is part of… being a Hater). I understand it’s human to be frightened of the unknown but any strategy – including one of perception and thought – that I develop out of that place is usually a poor one.

Anyway I’m sorry but I think unschooling is irresponsible/neglectful/elitist/etc.

I think contempt prior to investigation is irresponsible. I think you should come to my house and hang out with my kids – or give them a call or email and talk to them directly – before you decide I’m neglecting them. As for elitist, this might make more sense if I didn’t passionately and consistently work with, and know of many other unschoolers who work with, many schooled children, and if we weren’t learning in a much deeper way how to participate in public life, rather than being daily confined to age-segregated institutional procedures. In short, any of these charges might make any kind of sense if unschooling didn’t, you know, work so well at increasing our sense of humanity and our experience of community.

(Oh, and I know you’re not really “sorry”. But, that’s cool.)

Well that’s just my opinion and it’s a free country.

I have a little experiment. Let me ask: is your opinion defensible enough you’d warrant it’s worth five dollars? I mean after all, your opinion influences the choices and realities of so many, and you’re deciding what’s best for like, tens of millions of children (in the US alone). So, are you willing to back up your opinion? Listen to Jeff Sabo’s talk addressing the hundred varieties of “it’s just my opinion and I have a right to have it” conversations he’s had. It will be money well spent. Promise.

I went to school and I turned out fine.

Really? Are you “fine”? I went to school too. I’m “fine”. I smoked for 17 years and I’m “fine”. Is “fine” what you want for your children? And mine? Do you begrudge the parents and carers who might want to explore beyond “fine”?

I went to school and I turned out fine. Kids need discipline.

If you can look deep, deep, deep inside your guts, inside your Knowing Place, and tell me you have absolutely no bitterness at the thought of today’s children having a better life and more freedom, autonomy, and opportunity than you had as a child, I mean if you can really dig in there and tell me that’s not even a tiny part of why you want to force kids into school, then I am willing to entertain that line of thought.

If you know that’s not a part of how you feel, please do read some of Idzie’s blog. She has a great resource, interviews with many grown unschoolers.

On the subject of compulsory schooling being requisite for character development; my unschooled children age eight and ten demonstrate more discipline, sense of self-worth, self-control, kindness, openness, interest, critical thinking skills, and social abilities than most grownups I meet. Full stop.

And briefly: discipline is an inside job. You cannot inoculate a child with discipline no matter how much you coerce, praise, blame, hit, scream at. You do, however, run the risk of creating a praise-dependent, risk-averse, and fearful person.

I’m glad I went to school. I learned blah blah blah

I’m glad I went to school too. I learned wonderful things there, including the experience of forced institutionalism for young minds and bodies. If things had gone differently, I’d probably tell you I was glad to have been unschooled; but we’ll never know, as I wasn’t given the choice to NOT attend school. I think it’s pretty cool my kids get to choose. I won’t be haunted I didn’t let them. My grandkids, should I be so fortunate to have any, will probably get more choices and more nurture still.

Addendum: I used to be someone who took a great deal of pride in my degree, my education, and my soi disant expertise. You know, having those letters before or after your name, having an office with a big important desk and stuff. When I had children I fully planned on raising them academically-achieving, clean and well-mannered, etc. Problem is, when you decide for another human being how they should spend every minute, and how they should act/look/behave (even if you don’t admit to yourself you’re doing this), there will be intensely unpleasant fallout. For everyone. I’m grateful I started to perceive this early on in parenting.

No one stripped my degree from me and no one can take away my accomplishments (real or imagined). Today I willingly relinquish the illusion my education, my position in society, and my privilege make me a better or more deserving person.

If I didn’t make my kid/forbid my kid to X, Y, or Z he would A, B, C (eg. watch TV all day, never bathe, ONLY eat cookies, et cetera).

Yeah. As an unschooler, I hear that stuff a lot. Often from people who don’t ask us if our children watch telly all day, or eat only marshmallows and white rice (they don’t, to either). Most fear-disguised-as-anger, handwringing, and pearl-clutching about unschooling or non-coercive/non-punitive parenting comes down to just a few issues. Screen time (computers and television), bedtime (on the adults’ schedule of course especially since a school schedule is required), hygiene, math worksheets, and food. I can tell you I’m grateful to have left behind mainstream schema on all of that business. My kids’ hygiene is fine, they are active, they eat all kinds of food, they get enough sleep, they have mad life SKILLZ, et cetera.

You’re saying I’m a bad parent.

I haven’t met a “bad parent”. I’ve met sick parents, parents who were lost and overwhelmed. I’ve met parents who’d entirely abdicated their responsibilities. I’ve met parents who chose their addiction over their children (usually not even knowing they were doing so). I’ve met parents who parented with strategies different than mine. I’ve met many, many parents. I’ve never met a “bad parent”.

You’re saying I’m a bad parent.

No, I’m not. Do you think you’re a bad parent? What, specifically, do you have doubts about? Are you seeking help for those or are you surrounding yourself with strategies of Ego-preservation? Why do you care what I think? Your opinion matters more than mine; if not, it should.

You’re making me feel bad.

That is not my intent. This is not all about you. If you can put aside this experience of persecution for a moment, understand this: if others hadn’t written boldly about this non-mainstream way of parenting and living family life, I would have never had a choice of my own to parent a way that has yielded tremendous dividends. I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to those people, and I’d like to pay forward to other parents and children. I’m sure you can understand.

Well this is all fine for YOU but I’m not ______ enough to homeschool (rich, brave, smart, educated, patient, etc).

I’ve met parents with disabilities, mental and emotional health issues, single parents, poor parents, impatient parents, chronically-ill parents, who homeschooled and/or unschooled. I myself used to think I could never hang out with my kids all day, good Lord I needed a break! I’m so glad I faced my fears; I had everything to gain.

I don’t have to defend myself to you or anyone else. 

Nope. You don’t. And you also have the option not to take the piss re: other people’s lives. If you were really relatively serene about your own parenting style, why would you need to pick on others’?

Listen. I’m not the unschool police. I don’t have the right nor responsibility to come to your house and see what you’re doing and hit you with a cat-o-nine tails. No one does. You might be beating yourself up a little but I can assure you I’m not beating you up. There’s nothing I can do about your skepticism and/or rudeness and/or ignorance and/or self-doubt, although sometimes I wish I could. Your judgment and your fears are affecting others’ realities.

Good luck!

 

posted without comment, re: Salon. OK. Maybe a TINY bit of comment.

2 Chocolate Milks

Chocolate Milk!

I was cited in an article on Salon today discussing home education (“Home-schooled and illiterate” by Kristin Rawls, Salon.com March 15, 2012). In the interests of informing any advocates or interested parties regarding unschooling, homeschooling, alternative education, parenting, etc. – as well as friends and readers – here is the entireity of the exchange between myself and the author.
 
I received this email on March 2nd 2012, which was I believe mostly copied and pasted:
 
So, thanks for agreeing to talk to me.  I only know fundamentalists who homeschool, and I’m willing to admit that, for that reason, I’m a bit biased against it. I would do it myself in certain cases if I had children, but I’m skeptical of homeschooling or unschooling as a “movement.” I’ve only spoken with Christian fundamentalist or former fundamentalists who were homeschooled in Quiverfull families. They tell me that their parents had an extreme fear of any government oversight whatsoever, and now think their parents’ fears were overblown and gave them a warped view of the world outside their small communities. This article is about what kinds of regulation homeschoolers actually have to deal with, notwithstanding the paranoia about it on the Christian Right.
 
1. Could you tell me a bit about the type of state oversight that you have experienced as an unschooling parent? What were the requirements? Did you have to do portfolios or list a curriculum? What about standardized tests?
 
2. Do you feel that the oversight was overly intrusive in any way? If so, how? Was it merely annoying bureaucracy? Or did you experience it as more ominous than that?
 
3. In brief, why did you decide to homeschool?
 
4. In hindsight, what do you view as some of your successes and/or mistakes as a homeschooling/unschooling parent? And what kind of impact did these have on your kids’ education?
 
5. Some homeschooling parents neglect their kids’ education. I’ve heard horror stories from the Christian homeschooling movement over the past few days. One girl was functionally illiterate when she entered the public school system at 16, and there were no disabilities that made learning difficult for her. She was just fine once she got into a rigorous educational program and caught up. One woman tells me that there was very little emphasis on education at all since homemaking skills were viewed as the most important education for girls. She never got past pre-algebra, which I remember doing in the sixth grade. So I’m very curious – have you seen any of this kind of neglect happen in the secular homeschooling world? If not, do you think it could happen in the wake of new stressors (moving around, illness in the family, etc.)? How do you guard against getting overwhelmed by life and letting education go?

 
6. Given the kind of neglect that many in the Christian homeschooling world experience, what kinds of regulations do you think should to be in place? Should a home educator have a college degree? A teaching degree? What kind of education or training is needed? Should curriculum be more strictly regulated so that, for example, young earth creationism doesn’t replace science? And that Bible-reading and home economics don’t take the place of academics?
 
7. Have you ever been investigated by the legal system for truancy? I’ve heard of a few cases of this involving Christian homeschoolers, but I wonder if it happens to other homeschoolers as well? Have you ever known anyone who was arrested or jailed for neglect involving homeschooling? Christian/secular? How do you feel about the current state laws in place to investigate neglect? And do you think conservative Christians’ fears of investigation are valid or not?
 
8. Have you ever had anything to do with the Homeschool Legal Defense Association? Does this organization serve non-Christian homeschoolers in any capacity?
 
9. LOGISTICS: What state(s) have you lived in while homeschooling? How many years did you homeschool, and through what grades? I assume it’s okay to quote you by name since you write under your real name?

Here’s my response:
 
Hi Kristin,
 
Wow, what a complex and multifaceted topic! This would be best discussed in person over coffee. But, you know, you’re in NC and I’m in rainy PNw, so there’s that!
 
I’m going to decline participation in the questionnaire, but thank you for emailing me. I do have a few things to add which you may or may not find useful.
 
First, homeschooling and unschooling mean vastly different things to different families who self-identify as such. Those of us in the so-called alternative education world are used to being treated with a broad-brush, unfortunately. It’s always my hope a more nuanced piece might emerge in the MSM, but so far that’s been rare.
 
Like yourself, I too had not only anti-homeschooling bias but a deep fear of religious fundamentalism and an erroneous belief state institutions could and should stamp it out. And, ha, I also remember the revulsion I first felt when I read the term “unschooling” (as in, I remember the room I was in and everything – years and years ago!). Myself, college-educated (chemical engineering) and a straight-A student who would’ve said I enjoyed school had you asked, “unschooling” sounded like dirty hippie neglect (I’m not trying to be offensive… I had an unkind mind at the time. Also, I was raised by hippies. In a bus with planets painted on the side, and everything.). Hee. I was also under the erroneous impression that unschooling (or life learning, or autodidacticism, or whatever label is most fun to use) was a “movement” or a new trend; it’s not.
 
So I can relate to a lot of where many people come from, when they write me.
 
Secondly, the 2010 Swidler article I referenced in my article (“a blueprint for courage”, which you seem to have read at least parts of) – http://www.naturallifemagazine.com/1002/unschoolers_re-imagine_schools.htm – addresses some of the concerns you sent my way via Twitter, and also fields typical objections self-labeled progressives/liberals have to home education. Swidler’s article also cites some of the culturally-popular myths in the US – specifically that alternatives to compulsory schooling are primarily religious families (and religious home ed families are, of course, the Boogeyman), and that those who do not send their own children to institutions have therefore turned their back on schooled children and schooling families. Like I said, the topic is complex, and Swidler’s is one piece that’s kind of a go-to seminal piece for those new to secular/progressive home ed.
 
Additionally, I found a few authors tremendously helpful in overcoming my own anti-homeschooling/anti-unschooling bias. Idzie Desmarais’ blog, http://yes-i-can-write.blogspot.com/, and Wendy Priesnitz’ work (easily available online) are two of my favorites; today I have the privilege of working with these women. I’ve written for their publications as well as a few others, full disclosure, although I am not paid to do so.
 
If you are serious about learning more, there are so many resources on the internet. My advice is, don’t sell yourself short, and read the best of the bunch! 🙂
 
If you’re interested, I am @kellyhogaboom on Twitter, and @underbellie as well (more social wellbeing stuff than personal tweets). My kids are on Twitter as well – you can always write my daughter @phoenixhogaboom – who turns 10 today, yay! – if you have any questions as to her experiences! I get a laugh how many grownups enjoy talking amongst themselves about what’s best for children. 🙂
 
I saw your tweets on Rush [Limbaugh, re: Sandra Fluke]… and a few others alluding to his latest public comments. Do I even want to KNOW what he’s said this time? #assery *headdesk*
 
Good luck in writing your article! 🙂
 
Kelly
 
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No personal communication thereafter.
 
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Ms. Rawls got two things wrong about me in the Alternet/Salon piece. One, that I was “irritated” by the exchange (I wasn’t). Two, that Underbellie is a “popular home-schooling blog” (it’s neither a popular blog nor a home-schooling one!).
 
And finally, anecdotally, obviously I am not addressing the Salon article’s content here, for a variety of reasons. What’s funny is, a few minutes ago the kids and I were at Homeschooling Sports at the Y – populated almost entirely by religious home educators, and tons of kids laughing and playing – and I was really amazed at all the curriculum-talk there. Kinda funny in juxtaposition to the Salon piece.
 
Hello new readers! I actually haven’t written much here at Underbellie regarding homeschooling and/or autodidactic education and/or unschooling, but I write about our day-to-day lives quite a bit on my own blog – kelly.hogaboom.org.
 
Toodles, my lovely readers!

a blueprint for courage

ed. note – I receive no compensation in any form for links provided here or at my journal, kelly.hogaboom.org.

Phoenix +  Harris = Lurve

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

A Free Service
Coffee Date w/Emily

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* 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”.

the conversation that never happens

Ed.note: This piece was originally published in Life Learning Magazine and is intended for readers familiar with the field of autodidactic learning and/or forms of homeschooling. It is somewhat more specialized than typical writings at Underbellie in that it was tailored less for generalized audiences and it is a bit more personal than typical UB pieces; but as I’ve said before, Underbellie is not a 101 space.

Life Learning Magazine is a publication I whole-heartedly endorse (and no, I do not get a kickback or whatever for saying this); you can subscribe to this publication here: [ link ]

Nels swims!

As some gentle and bearded songwriter once asked, Where do the children play-ay-yay-yay?

My children are Nels and Phoenix are six and eight.  They are well-spoken, physically active, able-bodied, happy, early and adept readers, mathematically proficient, (usually) well-“mannered”, direct, articulate, and fairly compliant with regards to Authority.  Because in many respects they are pleasing and convenient to other adults in my community they are often assumed to be being raised “right” (by my husband Ralph and I).  This means when friends, acquaintances, and strangers find out they are homeschooled (or unschooled, autodidactic, or life learners to be more accurate) the question of how they’re turning out so well despite the <gasp!> lack of structured learning in their life is a subject most grownups ignore with studious precision.

Most life learning families who’ve been doing this a while run across the question How can children possibly learn outside of school? online, likely because many of us seek out the discussion with other like-minded unschooling familes.  But in the real world with our friends, acquaintances, and sometimes our family they keep their minds and mouths shut like a trap.

It its way it’s almost humorous.

Keeping one’s children out of school and not imposing home-curriculum is a fringe choice in this country.  Given that, I think part of the reason this conversation doesn’t happen is many of us prefer to think of fringe people as being, well, wrong.  When we see their choices working out well it’s a bit uncomfortable.  Thus it’s much easier to think of my kids or myself as some kind of an exception to the rule.  The kids are either “bright”, or I am a super-hard working mama administrating organized curriculum and I have extraordinary “patience” to spend so much of my time with my own children (why children are assumed to be such a horrible group of people to be forced to mingle with is the subject of another article).

Last Friday I volunteered at our local historic theatre for a movie showing. As we volunteers milled about in the lobby I struck up a conversation with my seventh-grade English teacher B. (I am 33 so I took her class almost twenty years anon). The subject came up of the G. family, neighbors I had known as a child.  They were a wonderful family with three kids, a warm and cluttered house, lovely home-cooked food, a garden and an impressive treehouse.  They were also homeschooled, and back in the day they were the only homeschoolers I knew.

I told B. I’d run across the youngest child D. at the grocer’s; he had grown from the small boy I knew to a very tall young man barely recognizable to me (although recognize him I did). When I spoke to D. I brought up homeschooling and he’d told me he disliked it and felt much happier when he’d been enrolled in school (that was about as much time we had before his employer needed him again).  Relating this story to B. I’d meant to convey my amusement that as an adult who’s thrown herself into the world of learning with her children, at least one member of the seminal family I knew as The Homeschoolers on first blush wasn’t sharing my enthusiasm.  But my ex-teacher B. interrupted my story to offer:

“Well, I think you’re probably being more thorough than S. [the children’s mother].  You know, the girls had reading comprehension issues.  I mean nothing against S. but I’m sure you’re more…” she trailed off (more what?).

Get that?  My ex-English teacher immediately assumed, first, I was teaching reading and, secondly, whatever impressions made by the G. girls were evidence of some inherent deficiency of the homeschool model (not say, the fact different children show different abilities at different ages, or B.’s own bias in favor of compulsory schooling).  The fact my kids were performing to her standards meant I was doing something extra awesome that apparently most parents couldn’t or wouldn’t be willing to do.

Now when I hear the oft-spoken rather narrow-minded ideas of how children learn I sometimes speak up and sometimes I merely listen.  In this case I said the first thing that came to mind. “It’s funny you’d say that, because both my children were early readers but I never ‘taught’ them how to read.”

“Well, but you read to your children,” she responded earnestly (and how does she know this I wonder?). Then she quickly amended, “I’m not saying S. didn’t read to her kids, it’s just…” and the conversation once again puttered out awkwardly.

Many unschoolers know exactly where B. went next.  She asked, “How long are you planning on keeping them out of school?”

Right, because even though my kids are so obviously flourishing (so well my six year old son did the raffle drawing on stage that night, reading numbers loud and clear and showing a great deal of gravitas in the public eye), truly this must be either a quirk, or they are “brilliant” or “clever”, or I am doing some kind of hard-core educational stuff that I will surely not be able to keep up with (this reminds me of some of the points on “The Bitter Homeschooler’s Wish List”1).  There was in B.’s mind no curiosity as to what we were actually doing for our education; experiences of “academic achievement” must only stem from innate brilliance or school-like strategies of imposed learning.

Now, I know B. is just one person and this is just one brief conversation; and yet I’ve had these exact same exchanges many times in our burgeoning unschooling career.

Because if we were to admit that autodidactic children in a loving and secure environment perform very well indeed in aggregate (given nearly any marker of success), we’d have to then question the many tenets of the school model.  One thing I’ve observed about most educators (and many parents and carers) I’ve met is that no matter how much they disliked (or currently dislike) school, or admit they learned very little, or saw and/or experienced shocking instances of bullying, or didn’t retain the knowledge taught therein, or weren’t particularly well-fed or emotionally-nourished during their childhood, or “coasted” through or were patently ignored as a person, they really don’t want to consider perhaps things could be better.

What would I want to happen differently?  I guess I’d like to see in my interfacing with the public more discussion of the things so many assume are true (such as: school, homework, and externally-enforced “discipline” are needed to produce joyous, competent children-cum-adults who are a credit to our society).  Now I am a realist and know that for those who claim many “can’t” unschool, there are many, many more who simply won’t consider it as an option.  The sad thing about this is not merely it impedes growth in the number of life learning families, it’s that in avoiding the discussion with successful unschooling families, parents and carers ensure they are closed to possibilities and mere “consumers” rather than authors.  They remain alienated from the true nature of their children and self-neutered in the tools and convictions to ratify change.  It keeps the adults who have the means and support to do the most good merely busy messing about in making only cosmetic improvements to their children’s scholastic environs (if they put in effort at all). Many parents follow their children’s teachers’ dictums regarding their kids’ performance and sometimes even their kids’ characters.  Parents and carers force children to complete homework (hours of this after nine-hours of compulsory schooling) and chase grades instead of swarming the halls of our schools to demand and enact more meaningful reform.

I’d hope for the families who can’t unschool or homeschool – or as is very common, can’t bring themselves to consider homeschooling or unschooling – that they might at least begin to understand the nature of learning and support their children accordingly.  Perhaps they might begin begin to see their children as being in the right by their natures, and with clear eyes address the demagogy of factory-based schooling and the deep flaws within.  Within schooling families, perhaps at parent-teacher conferences instead of listening to the teacher pick-apart their child’s “performance” they could sit with their child in the knowledge it is not their child who is the problem; he or she is likely coping as best one can in such a system.  That for the schooling famlies who have the resources maybe they’d advocate for higher adult ratio in classrooms, maybe they’d volunteer more in classrooms, maybe they’d speak up against piles of homework that in American schools begins in kindergarten.

And I wish they’d stop making every effort to not talk to me about my children and their learning journey.

Bio for the article:

Kelly Hogaboom  is a writer, sewist, wife and mother living in a semi-urban little green coastal smudge of Washington state. She cooks, sews, raises kids, cats, and chickens, and spends her days joyfully living.  You can find her journal at kelly.hogaboom.org and her twice-monthly columns on social issues and B-movie culture at underbellie.com.

  1. “No. 18 – If you can remember anything from chemistry or calculus class, you’re allowed to ask how we’ll teach these subjects to our kids. If you can’t, thank you for the reassurance that we couldn’t possibly do a worse job than your teachers did, and might even do a better one.” from Secular-homeschooling.com