A while ago when I got Sandra Dodd’s ‘Big Book of Unschooling’, I came across the idea that Unschooling was essentially just a continuation of Attachment Parenting. I’ve thought a lot about that since, and it’s certainly true for us.
Although we snugly fit into the label of AP, I prefer the term mindful parenting. At the heart of both attachment parenting and unschooling is mindfulness – a way of being with our children that values them as people, individuals, with their own sovereignty which should be respected.
This means a lot of different things. It means finding a way to honour that freedom whilst living in a harmonious way with each other. It means understanding why we have the boundaries that we do, and when those boundaries should be negotiated or adapted.
I think it is the toughest way to live, because it requires constant attention and presence. It requires a kind of patience that can feel impossible sometimes. But we choose to do it because we don’t see another way.
I struggle sometimes with deciding how many boundaries to create and how much to take a step back. I am sometimes tricked into thinking that there has to be certain rules in place (old habits die hard) in order to ‘teach’ my children certain things.
But that doesn’t feel right to me, and us. And so far, it is not the way we have done things. It is not the way we live our lives either, and so to impose arbitrary rules for the sake of having rules would not work at all for us.
But we do do our best to guide Ava in areas where we feel she needs our guidance. For example, we know it works best for her to go to sleep around the same time every night. She tells us when she is tired and we respect that. We don’t have a set time she has to be in bed, but we try to create a routine that she can enjoy and that can help her create a healthy sleeping pattern.
If that needs to change, it will, because these things have to be open to negotiation, at all times. For as long as it works, these areas where we do offer guidance are areas where we feel she still needs us to, much in the same way she use to depend on us to change her nappies or the way she still depends on us to feed her.
We have noticed recently, for example, that Ava is usually happy to share her things, even her most sacred toys, as long as she is asked first. Fitting to the ‘serious child’s’ personality profile (as much as that can be accurate) is her deep need for respect. She does not take well to feeling powerless, whether that is having a toy snatched or being ‘told off’.
Snatching toys is just the kind of thing natural to kids her age, that she herself will do sometimes. It’s a great example of something which she learns from and works through. But being punished for acting like a kid is exactly the kind of thing we try to avoid. Not because we don’t understand the ‘life is hard, you have to be prepared for it’ concept, but because we feel there are enough difficulties and challenges presented to our children on a daily basis, that they certainly don’t need any more from us.
And on days where I go out of my way to be kind, really kind, she in turn is so very kind back. On days when I make a point of sharing everything I have, she shares back. And so it goes.
When people ask about our choice to homeschool, I usually don’t protest, but unschooling is not a method of homeschooling. It is a philosophy, a way of living, rather than an educational system. We came to it not because we hated school, or because we wanted to be part of a radical and revolutionary movement, but simply because it was the only way we could envisage living authentically. It is not an easy option. And the more we read, and talked, and talked to other families, and joined groups, and thought, the more we realised that school was no longer a safeguard in any way. Unschooling wasn’t simply a possibility, it was what we already believed but had never articulated.
For Howard, his own ‘deschooling’ was much more straightforward. We think and understand things in different ways, for a start, but he had a sadly all-too-common disappointing school experience. Me, on the other hand – well, I loved it. At the time. It was my whole world, and my whole sense of the world. Now, knowing what I do, I see how problematic that is in itself.
We talk and plan and look at where we might live in the future, at communities out there we’d like to be a part of. We observe Ava and how she is already and how she might be in the future. (Imagining, for example, that she is the kind of of kid who will get up and go about her day with her own agenda in mind)
We do silly things, and in those silly moments, we joke, ‘this is unschooling’, because the truth is, freedom is a concept I am still trying to grasp, still trying to understand. I have so little idea of what it truly means to be free and to live a free life, and in five days I will be thirty.
But I know that when my daughter was born, everything changed. So much truth was brought into my life. I saw things in a way I couldn’t have before. Seeing my children in their wholeness, their complete selves so intact, it is impossible not to reflect on things once too hard to examine. Things fall apart, and you start again.
That’s how it was for me then, and ever since Ava’s birth. My life has been changing, slowly, with one aim in mind. Freedom.
So we call ourselves ‘unschoolers’, aware that labels of any kind can confine as much as define. But it feels like a good fit. And in those moments when we are doing whatever it is we want (maybe we are in our pyjamas all day, like yesterday, or maybe we are eating our dinner in the living room on quilts because the dining room table is still covered in a sewing project or the day’s paintings still to dry), there is still a part of me with that awful, terrible nagging sense of what we probably should be doing instead.
It is this voice that I have to resist every day. It is this voice I try hard to challenge at every hurdle. This is the voice I refuse to use with my children – the voice of control and judgement, because I know all too well how hard it is to be yourself when you don’t know yourself.
As radical as unschooling may seem, it is so very simple and natural to us. Treat our children, and each other, in humane, kind, respectful ways. Give ourselves fully. Love fully. And let go of the need to control. Whether that is in the conversations we have, the activities we choose, or the boundaries we create.
It means working on ourselves constantly and bringing awareness to how we are feeling and thinking. It means resisting the comfort of conforming to make things easier. Loosening ourselves from the mindless drama that is so seductive we forget what is really important to us. And realising that perfection isn’t the goal, nor is trying to roughen our edges so that we don’t threaten others. Sometimes I find it good, necessary even, to close ranks and to examine things we need to change or how we might move forward. We’ve kind of been doing this recently, inspired by good conversations with friends who feel the same way.
We’ve been in this house for over a year now, and it has been a fast year. We came as family of three, are now a family of four. We try not to think of what next year or the year after might hold for us, but it feels essential to us that we are moving in the right direction, always keeping in mind what we are doing and why.
So it comes down simply to knowing what it is that matters, and what doesn’t. I am becoming increasingly aware of how silly it is to spend time on the things that don’t matter. This family matters. My kids matter. My relationship with my kids matters more than anything. Living an unschooling life puts that first, and keeps it at the heart of everything, from the way we all learn, to the way we all grow.
I want them to have the freedom to live and to learn as they see fit, trusting that they will, just as I have trusted this far that they will learn to walk and talk without any need for authoritarian regimes or processes telling them how to do it. And we don’t need to do much to facilitate this learning, other than being there to respond to their interests and passions with encouragement and support.
Call it what you will, most of us have been doing that since birth. Ava’s huge trunk, filled with accrued costumes and scarves and floppy hats and jewellery is a testimony to how we have, without thinking, followed her passion and responded to one of the things she loves doing right now. I don’t know why she loves to dress up. I don’t know what it means, or where it will lead, whether or not it signifies something else, or whether it is just a passing phase.
We haven’t even consciously declared it a ‘thing’ at all. We’ve listened to her, provided her with some things we think she’ll like, and then got out of the way. I know that if I ever suggested to her she should dress up or try on something, she’d look at me as if I was out of my mind (the same look she gives people who talk to her like she is a baby, or who try to control her in any number of ways) She simply wouldn’t do it. She’d deliberately resist because it would feel strange to her to be told what to do in this way.
Instead, she will disappear off on her own and when I see her next she is wearing the strangest, most wonderful getup – an outfit that either matches so well I think she has some amazing sense of inner style, or is so completely disjointed that she looks like a mini Lady Gaga. But when she is climbing the armchair and standing in the window in her swimming costume and wellies, and I think to myself, ‘Goodness, the neighbours are going to be…’ I do my best to stop myself and remind myself that this is just the kind of thing that doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t.
What matters is just that she gets to be whatever she wants to be, and that I love her unconditionally. When she’s up on that windowsill, parading backwards and forwards in a strange outfit and acting out scenes from a book or film she’s just read or watched, I feel such connection to her, and such privilege to see her so comfortable in her own presence, so sure of who she is and so trusting that I won’t try to hamper that. And I might laugh and say to Howard, ‘it’s okay, this is unschooling’, but what it really is is connection. And that is only, truly possible when there is the freedom to be who it is we are.