an unschooling life

In three months, my daughter will be two. I can’t quite get over this fact, and I keep thinking (particularly in moments of her emerging willfulness) of something I read on SouleMama recently, the days are long but the years are short. Yes, they surely are, and I hear they just get shorter.

This is a time of exponential growth, combined with a dazzling and sometimes frightening display of individuality. This is a time when, for the very first time, I can see how our choices are starting to really work well with one another, pushing us forward and egging us on to continue to parent in the way we want to and try to every day. Often, amidst books or blogs, articles or conversations with friends, I think of what it means for us to have chosen this path – unschooling – and how our lives are starting to be shaped by it. As I listen to talk of nurseries or schools, it is strange, but also reassuring, to know that we are not on that path. Rather than feeling alienated or pushing me to doubt our decision, I feel more and more comfortable knowing what it means to choose something as abnormal, as unusual, as unschooling, and yet I am also beginning to really understand how difficult it is to talk about unschooling as a distinct thing, separate from everyday living. Because it is not, and herein lies one of the main distinctions between unschooling and homeschooling. Unschooling is a way of life, not prescribed and certainly not rigid, but it does not begin at 9 and end at 3, and it does not begin when a child reaches school age.

Most of us, call it what you will, are unschooling our Littles from birth. We talk to them, and we sing to them, we listen carefully to their demands and try to meet them, we open up as much of the world as possible, and we have to do very little else, because without any specific guidance our children learn to walk, to grasp things, to talk and then to tell us their thoughts, their curiosities about the world. They learn to use their bodies and minds at miraculous speed and, in my experience, do so with the best results when left to do it at their own speed, on their own time, of their own desire.

If anything confirms my strong feelings about unschooling as a way of life, it has been watching Ava develop these past 21 months, watch her do things I have never taught her. She can count to three, for example, and has great joy pointing out when there are two or three people, or hair bands, or books or whatever else she comes across (one she is not so bothered about anymore. one is old news). She can recite entire songs in baby sign, in Ava speak, and with near perfect tone. She can read ‘Ava’, ‘Mamma’ “Daddy’ ‘Peters’ (I know exactly where this comes from…’The Seven Silly Eaters’, one of her favourite books) and a few other words too, much to our complete and utter shock recently. Even her facial expressons and gestures are a comical surprise – a mish-mash of things she sees Howard or I do, and then things that seem to be pure Ava. Her Ava-isms are fascinating, adorable and so very funny.

Each new thing she says or does is extraordinary to us, of course, and yet I find them all wonderfuly ordinary too – exactly what I should learn to expect from an unschooling life. All around her, Ava’s friends are emerging as these whole, distinct people who are so fascinating, so clever. I was musing yesterday at how incredible it was to see Ollie count to ten, when it seems like such a short time ago that he was as chubby and immobile as Ava, demanding nothing but milk and love. As these little people emerge, it seems often like the best thing to do is to offer support and guidance, when needed and love, unconditionally, whilst not interfereng in too many other ways. It is a source of amusement to many of my Mama friends how absolutely offended their Littles are when offered help too readily, or when not given the chance to assert their own initiative.

So much of what I have learned in Ava’s babyhood and recent toddlerhood affirms my already strong views on parenting, and unschooling seems like another branch of that, in harmony with all that we believe and all that we want for Ava. I am beginning to see how very different our lives will be if Ava does not go to school, how much more integrated what we do will have to be in order to support each other individually and together as an unschooling family. Yet the more we do, in this way, the easier it becomes.

Recently we visited the Steiner school, and were quite taken with a certain kind of magic we felt there. Certainly, if we were to decide not to homeschool Ava, she would go here. I have read a fair few books about Waldorf/Steiner schooling and philosophy, and much of it we already try to incorporate into our days. Yet as magical as the Steiner school is, it is, of course, still a school, and the more I really consider what it means to us to send a child to a school, however free, creative or magical that place may be, the more certain I am that it is simply not for us. I can see already challenges we may face, but I don’t feel as intimidated by them as I used to. Ava is already proof enough that all she needs to learn (and learn deeply, learn with skill) is access to the world, a little creative ingenuity from us and, perhaps most importantly, unconditional love. I am learning to trust this, slowly.

It helps to remind myself that it is not going to be perfect and that mistakes will be made, but this would be true of sending her to school, or homeschooling her with a set curriculum. It is similar to the rare times when I trust her not to do things simply because I have asked, and she does them anyway. Rather than treating her as deliberately defiant and in need of disciplining, I try hard (very hard, sometimes) to remain gentle and calm, and keep a connection with her so that she feels my unwavering trust instead of my disappointment (is there anything worse than that over-used phrase, ‘I am not angry, just disappointed’). So far, that has really worked for us. I don’t expect her to behave perfectly, whatever that means, or robotically, and I wouldn’t expect her to do something she didn’t want to do without challenging me (I certainly can’t manage it, and I have had 29 years to practice), but I am so often pleasantly surprised by how willing she is to do something if I try to be reasonable, and try to explain to her why I am asking her to do one thing or another.

She is strong-willed and incredibly stubborn, but she is also incredibly kind, thoughtful and sweet. I am in constant awe of her. I am constantly trying to reel myself in, trying to stand back when my first reaction is to jump straight in. If I sing too loudly once she has started a song, she will stop and let me do it, watching me carefully, yet if I leave her to do it on her own, she will sing an entire song in perfect notes. If I hover over her as she climbs a tall ladder to the slide, she will get frustrated and falter, but if I stand back (further back than I may like) she will do it seamlessly and courageously.

It is so much easier to do this these days, in our home, comfortable within our own family rhythm. I have grown tired, very quickly, of the annoying habit so many people have of expecting little ones to perform tricks for them. The more we do this, as John Holt suggests, the more we teach our children that learning means and can only mean being taught by others to do tricks, and the less they want to go out and explore and find out about the world in their own way, for their own reason.

The teaching of tricks to babies and children by so many baby experts works, I’m sure, to some degree, in much the same way that smacking may stop a child from doing something in the short-term. What long-term damage it does though is extremely worrying, and what it has to do with real, long-term learning, or the capacity for it, more importantly, is evidently nothing. Intelligence has nothing to do with how much a person knows, and everything to with our ability to learn the things we do not know. I love unschooling, because what it encourages above all is an implicit trust in our children’s ability to learn naturally, and to want to learn in the first place. I hope, and believe, that nurturing this curiosity in the world, in life (the very thing that so many schools rob children of), is the best I can do as an unschooling parent.

‘Finding ways to do all this is not easy. The modern world is dangerous, confusing, not meant for children, not generally kind or welcoming to them. We have much to learn about how to make the world more accessible to them, and how to give them more freedom and competence in exploring it. But this is a very different thing from designing nice little curricula.’

from ‘Teach Your Own’, by John Holt.

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About Kendal

I'm Kendal Mosley-Chalk. I live in York with my husband and two children.
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