“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.

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