I’ve stepped away from writing about radical unschooling lately. Mostly because for a while I felt settled. I no longer needed to think about our label because we were living life as we saw fit; no need to pigeon hole ourselves or try to follow a prescription for a particular philosophy. But lately I feel pulled back from simply being an unschooler to thinking about what that truly means for us. I recently found Dayna Martin’s Facebook page (as with everything else, take what like from this link and leave the rest) and was scrolling through when I came across a question she’d posted to her readership, “Do you consider yourself a Radical Unschooler? Why or why not?”
After a bit of consideration I posted this response:
I no longer aspire to it, as I did in the beginning. I am grateful for the rules so many lament because they helped guide us away from the mainstream, the only life we knew how to live even though it didn’t feel good or right. After many years of needing guidance we now just live life. Most of the time that lines up with radical unschooling philosophies because that’s what works for us. And when I’m unsure about a new direction as our family grows older and faces new things I still gravitate to other unschoolers for perspective as I try to figure things out. We’ve abandoned a few of the “rules” along the way because they just didn’t work for us but, for the most part, radical unschooling was just a good fit for us.
A Bit of Background
I have always been challenged by motherhood, especially through my relationship with my son. I don’t mean this in a wringing my hands or shaking my fist at the heavens sort of way, simply as a statement of fact. Now that he’s a teenager I can honestly say that I’m grateful for the challenges he presented to me. They made me a better parent which, by extension, made me better at all of my relationships. He refused control from an early age; I actually sat next to his bassinet crying because my baby wouldn’t let me rock him to sleep like I’d always daydreamed of doing. As soon as he could roll from back to stomach, at 2 months of age, he refused to sleep on his back as so many experts advised. We could only nurse in specific positions, none of which were easy when in public settings (I carried that stupid milk stained boppy pillow EVERYWHERE). He squirmed and fought and resisted the baby carriers. In short, he wanted things HIS way, even as an infant.
As he grew this didn’t change. I continued trying mainstream approaches. Timeouts and consistent boundaries. Coercion, bargaining, guilt, pleading and outright bribery. Even spanking at one point (which is difficult for me to admit). But I was at my wits end with this child. I didn’t have other tools in my tool box and then I suddenly found myself pregnant again and even more exhausted. To be perfectly honest the next few years are kind of a blur. I’m sure we had happy times and happy days but I’m also sure they could have been better, for all of us.
The first few years of school weren’t so bad. He had amazing teachers in kindergarten and first grade. They kind of teachers who understood how he learned and somehow managed to leave space for individual learning within the confines of public education. They were amazing and I’m so grateful for them. But when he went to second grade things began to deteriorate. We chose to medicate him for ADHD. Not so much because I felt he needed it to succeed but because I was worried that the teachers would not have patience with him. At the time I saw no other alternatives. I was a teacher and school seemed to be a given.
We made it through second grade but in third we decided to stop medicating him. The problems at school I’d worried about began to arise but I was adamant that medication wasn’t the answer. I wasn’t happy with the side effects and refused to continue subjecting him to something that was clearly harming him. So, we tried some natural remedies. We saw a reflexologist and spent a fortune on vitamins. I regret this as much as the medication and the spanking. Because even though he didn’t have the adverse physical side effects the most damaging side effect of all was consistent with all of the things I tried- the message I was sending to my son that there was something wrong with him that needed to be fixed.
Then, sometime near the end of my son’s third grade year my dad needed to have a test run at the hospital. Nothing serious but he wasn’t supposed to drive himself home after. I had the day off so the kids and I took him. I was apprehensive because waiting in a lobby wasn’t exactly something my son was good at. I don’t remember what triggered it but he had a meltdown. We couldn’t leave, my dad was still waiting to be seen. We couldn’t wait outside, it was a busy parking lot and I was afraid he’d run into traffic. I clearly couldn’t just let him disrupt a hospital lobby. So, I did the only thing I could in the moment. I followed my instincts.
I pulled him to me and gently restrained his arms by wrapping mine around him. He began to kick me so I wrapped my legs around his. He began to head butt me so I secured one arm around his body and used my free hand to hold his head close to my body. He was being loud but instead of matching that I remembered something I’d read in one of the countless books or articles I’d read searching for answers- I began to whisper in his ear. I told him I was so sorry he was having a hard day (while inside I was thinking about my own hard day). I told him I loved him no matter what. I told him that if he could calm down and talk to me I would try to help him however I could. Slowly he began to stop writhing and yelling because he was struggling to hear me. Once I had his attention I made sure my words were soothing and understanding instead of ridiculing or condemning.
While all of this was happening a woman kept walking past us. Clearly gawking at the scene as there was no readily apparent reason for her to be taking that path so many times. I remember seeing her face and thinking that she thought I should have better control. That I should spank him or something equally humiliating and punitive. I also remember thinking, “That doesn’t work, though! I’ve tried everything and none of it works. She doesn’t know!” And that was it. She doesn’t know. I know because I am his mother. So simple but so freeing. In that moment, thanks to some busy body who would have rather judged me than show me compassion, I figured out that I didn’t have to do things the way everyone else thought I should.
This experience, along with mounting problems at school, led us to the decision that it was time to try something completely different. R and I agreed that we would try homeschooling for a year and see how it went. (Haha, sometimes he still jokingly asks when the year will be up.) It was scary to give up my income and try something that seemed so drastic and radical but once the decision was made a weight was lifted not only from me, but from my son as well. We still had to finish the year because I was under contract but we both seemed to sense we could make it through since we had light at the end of the tunnel.
We had a summer break, like we always had so deschooling was built right in without thinking too much about diverging from the mainstream life we were accustomed to.
At the end of summer we found a homeschool group and started searching for what was going to work for us. We tried lots of things, mostly just hands on projects, fun thematic units, websites and lots of trips to the library. I knew right out of the gate that a boxed curriculum wasn’t going to be right for us but it didn’t take long for me to figure out that a self created curriculum wasn’t a good fit either. I slowly loosened the reins and leaned into unschooling. Eventually I found the right balance (for us) between their seemingly conflicting needs for independence as well as guidance.*
For a few years I felt I had it all figured out. I listen to my children, respect them, genuinely enjoy them. I don’t just love them, I like them. We talk, talk, talk and TALK some more about everything. Things we see on TV, read in books, places we go, jokes that don’t make sense because they don’t understand the cultural reference, history, technology, science, religion… you name it, we’ve probably talked about it. I also continue to search for things which interest my kids but as they grow older I find this more difficult. I realized a while back that 8 to about 11 or 12 year olds are my “comfort zone”. I feel really confident in my abilities to reach kids in this age level in ways they find interesting and compelling. I can plan things that are fun for all of us with kids this age; I not only knew but really understood my kids at this age. But teenagers. That requires a paradigm shift.
The Only Constant Is Change
I realized last Christmas that my kids have outgrown a few of the traditions we’ve always held dear. Or that, at the very least, the traditions needed tweaking. Themed movie nights are still fun but on a smaller scale, with more actual watching of the movie and less arts and crafts than in the past. Driving around to see the lights on houses isn’t awe inspiring anymore but professional light shows might be.
At first I was okay with all this, kids grow up. I certainly don’t like the same things I did when I was ten and it would be silly of me to think their tastes wouldn’t change. I’m still okay with the general idea that we have to adjust our ideas about family fun and traditions. But the natural extension of this realization was that if an afternoon of hunting for pirate treasure is no longer enough I needed to figure out what is.
As I said in my Facebook response to the question of radical unschooling, I came to unschooling after a rejection of the mainstream life we’d been living. Until I met the people in our current homeschool group I didn’t really know (and really had little awareness of) anyone who chose to live outside convention. Rejecting that culture, even though it never felt right to me (and I believe contributed to my clinical depression and eating disorders), is still a struggle. My default reactions in moments of change, struggle and/or apprehension are to convert back to the predominant norms because for me the shift to live as authentic self is still an effort. When my son turned fourteen and I realized he was “high school age” I panicked a bit and started drawing up four year plans which I expected him to happily accept. (I’m sure you can guess how well that went and how long it lasted- if you can’t I’ll just say, not well and not long.)
I turned to other unschoolers, both in “real world” friendships and online for advice. I sought out information from both the parents of unschoolers as well as teen and grown unschoolers themselves. And I came to the inevitable conclusion that I came to when we first began this unschooled life: There are no guarantees. I can only hope to parent the child in front of me right now, to the best of my abilities right now, armed with the information I have right now. I know this but still have to be reminded of it from time to time.
So, if right now is all I have, that begs the question, “What now?” The truth is, I’m not 100% sure. We’ll just keep going as we have. I have to shed my ideas and images of my children as, well, children. I have to realize that one is already a teen and the other will be in a few short months. They are growing and changing in fantastic and amazing ways and I have to be willing to grow and change with them. The only way to do that is with time and genuine interest. I listen when they talk, even about things I don’t know that much about or may not have previously cared about. I set aside time to do the things we genuinely enjoy together even if it means having to re-prioritize some other things. I also continue to share my own thoughts and interests in the hopes that they’ll see me as a genuine person instead of “just a parent”. All too often parents and children see each other only through the narrow lens of their own relationship and as my children grow it becomes increasingly important to me to avoid this. I can’t really control how they view me but it’s my sincere belief that the best way to encourage them to see me as more than their mother is for me to first see them as more than my children.
It really isn’t much to go by on a day to day basis. It sounds simple enough but when I really just want to find time to write more, need to meet a deadline, have to go to work, don’t want to listen to another pop song or hear about another video game it can all seem pretty damn complicated. Today, for example, I find myself at odds with what I want from my children and my ideals. This discrepancy is causing me a lot of frustration, aggravation and angst; especially because I began writing this piece before I started to feel this way and now find myself looking back and questioning things I wrote just a few hours ago. I find that I am still so easily tempted to fall back into old habits and, if I’m being completely honest, sometimes there’s a trace of it there. I know how to rein it in, take a step back and reassess before acting but sometimes a comment or action I wish I could take back slips out. I’m generally okay with this because I know I can’t be perfect and I try really hard to balance acceptance of my own imperfections with striving to learn from these slips and do better next time. But in the moment I realize I’m doing it I feel like crap about it and myself. I immediately wonder if they will remember all of the moments I did things “right” or if it will be only my mistakes that stand out for them. Mama guilt is also pretty hard to shed, no matter how enlightened we try to be about learning from our mistakes.
I think the only reason I am able to keep plugging along on days like today is that I came from the mainstream life of trying to make kids compliant through enforcing rigid rules and consequences. I’ve been there, done that and I know that was even more complicated and frustrating than this. A friend and I have lamented to each other, sometimes jokingly, sometimes not, that a little obedience would be nice once in a while but we both know it’s a facade. No one’s kids are perfect all the time and those who choose the other path struggle and have days like this too. And even if they didn’t, that path was never right for us; the small amount of obedience (or compliance if you prefer) comes at a cost I consider too high. Our household is happier, more peaceful and more productive than we ever were back then. Parents who’ve always chosen radical unschooling, or some semblance thereof, don’t have that touchstone to refer back to so they often question if this is really working or worth it. I am fortunate enough know that for us it is, I just have to remind myself sometimes.
*Some of the insights about finding the right balance can be found here, in an article I wrote for Life Learning Magazine. There is a link at the bottom of the article to my first blog (which I no longer update) about our initial journey into unschooling.