Unschooling: they just don’t get it

Some months ago, I was interviewed for a Pacific Standard piece on unschooling. The conversation I had with the reporter was long, winding, and enjoyable. The final piece inevitably left a lot out, but I thought it represented what we talked about fairly well.

Then I read Gracy Olmstead’s interpretation of the interview in The American Conservative. Her piece about parenting in America talked about a few recent articles on the subject, including my interview. After reading her assessment of what I said, it came home to me yet again how difficult it is to convey the gist of unschooling to people who haven’t experienced it.

While unschooling is laissez faire in the sense that parents get out of the way and let their kids take the lead in their learning, it is, at the same time, extremely hands-on. As I said in the interview, “You have to be able to help your kid and be a facilitator, and pay attention.” Facilitators facilitate, which is quite different than standing by and doing nothing. Unschooling parents know their kids well, they act as guides, and they provide and identify resources.

Olmstead also seems to think that my comments raise questions about whether parents “should have an authoritative role in their children’s development—whether discipline is an important part of a child’s mental and ethical maturation.” Unschooling parents respect and trust their children’s innate desire to learn, and seek to remove obstacles (including imposed didacticism) that might hinder learning. That certainly doesn’t mean they don’t play a significant role in their children’s development.

When Olmstead talks about discipline, I’m not sure whether she’s referring to disciplining children for errant behavior, or helping kids learn to practice discipline in their lives. As unschooling parents of our teenage daughters, it was quite important to us that they respect others and learn the importance of becoming contributing members of society. These values were not conveyed through lectures, lessons, or arbitrary rules and restrictions. Rather, they were “taught” by modeling, long talks, and exposure to the world around us. As to self-discipline, it’s been my experience that when people, including children, are given the time and space to pursue their interests, they do so diligently and with zeal. I only wish I were as disciplined as my unschooled kids are.

Olmstead makes the sad mistake of believing that children can’t and won’t learn without being force-fed. She says, “…we must consider whether McDonald is right about young learners: will children sufficiently challenge their own predispositions toward laziness or ignorance without an older adult coaching and challenging them?” Given the ongoing crisis in schooling, I agree we must consider how we can most effectively nurture and educate children (though I reject the idea that people, including kids, are naturally lazy). By offering up a different model, unschooling can help explore those questions, but only if the observers can be open-minded enough to leave their preconceptions at the door and make a sincere effort to understand what we’re doing.

In writing, in conversations with others, and whenever we can, I and my fellow unschooling parents will keep trying to communicate clearly and successfully about what it means to unschool.  I can only hope that in time, Olmstead and others like her will finally get it.

‘The Wolfpack’

Last night I saw the movie The Wolfpack. It tells the story of six brothers, mostly teenagers, growing up in New York City. Their father rarely let them emerge from their sixteenth floor apartment, so they spent the majority of their lives inside.

They were homeschooled, and boy, were they isolated. They had no friends outside the family, and almost no experiences outside their apartment. They were allowed to watch movies, lots and lots of movies.

Despite being raised in a wildly unorthodox fashion, the boys come across as intelligent, articulate, radiant beings. As filmmaker Crystal Moselle says in a New York Times article, “The thing is, these brothers are some of the most gentle, insightful, curious people I’ve ever met. Something was clearly done right.”

Something was clearly done right. That’s a bold statement. Is there anyone, on hearing about the conditions in which the boys were raised, who would think such a thing could possibly be true? Perhaps Moselle’s conclusion comes from looking at the pack through an artist’s eyes, with intelligence, curiosity, open-mindedness, and genuine caring. Her film doesn’t judge the family, but rather tells their human story.

Although the boys are prevented from interacting with the outside world, they do have each other, as well as a close relationship with their mother. I don’t know any homeschooling families who operate the way they did, but I recognized characteristics typical of most homeschoolers I know. They include close family relationships, openness, innocence, curiosity, and creativity.

Watching the hours upon hours the brothers spent transcribing entire film scripts, creating costumes, and re-enacting their favorite movies reminded me of some of my own kids’ obsessions. In another interview with Moselle, she points out that the brothers were more knowledgeable than she about her own field: “I mean, I went to film school, but they’re like little encyclopedia cinephiles. You can be like, ‘So, who won the Oscar in 1977?’ And they’ll tell you who it was and who should’ve won.” I’ve known several homeschoolers who’ve developed similar encyclopedic knowledge relating to their interests.

Once the brothers, as adolescents, start going out into the world more often, they seem to have few issues coping with it. They meet Moselle, look for jobs, and start making their own films. It forces us to ask, what is required for one to become socialized, and what does socialization even mean?

Of course the members of the wolfpack have plenty of issues. They speak of their fear, their anger, and their longings. They have to grapple with who they are, and where they came from. In those things, they’re no different from the rest of us.

Why are we doing this?

Today I read an excellent post by John Taylor Gatto, responding to a mom asking How Do I Rekindle Curiosity in My Teenagers?

His answers were spot on, and they should be. As a New York City public school teacher, he helped rekindle the curiosity of countless young people. One thing he said jumped out at me: Before every unit I ever taught as a schoolteacher I took pains to be 14 years old again and ask myself, “Why are we doing this?” 

I’m lucky. My kids at home, both teenagers, are curious and enthusiastic about life, in large part because of the phenomenon Gatto calls “getting lost in work.” They work at things they love to do, and it keeps them happy and curious.

So I read Gatto’s post directed at me. After five plus decades of life, I get tired sometimes. Okay, maybe a lot of the time. I’ve been doing a lot of the same things for a while, including homeschooling. While I see the living embodiment of the answer to the question Why am I doing this? in front of me every day, the fact is my teens are independent. They still need me for long talks, nuts and bolts, and for bouncing ideas around, and I still get great pleasure from those things, but as far as homeschooling, they pretty much do it themselves.

My life is full of rewarding stuff that I do for myself, like singing, writing, and volunteering in the community, but reading Gatto’s post made me want more, and why not? You only live once, and as Gatto says, “…each one of us at some time or other finds himself or herself facing the problem of rekindling enthusiasm…”

Getting lost in work — been there, done that. It’s time for something else. Gatto’s Radical Solution #2 might suffice: physical exile from familiar environments. Hmmm. Sounds like a vacation is in order. I’ll get back to you when I return. In the meantime, stay curious.

Caitlyn, Laverne, & The Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus

Everywhere I turn today I’m seeing pictures of and reading about Caitlyn Jenner. Why didn’t she use a K? She looks like Jessica Lange. And more than anything else, she’s absolutely gorgeous.

I agree she’s gorgeous. So does Laverne Cox, who is also gorgeous. But what does that mean?  After appearing on the cover of TIME last year, Cox was described by some as “drop dead gorgeous.” Today she says, in a statement on her Tumblr, “What I think they meant is that in certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards. Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves . It is important to note that these standards are also infomed by race, class and ability among other intersections.”

Cox is speaking some powerful truth here. Styled hair, sculpted figures, and glamour don’t define beauty. Courage, honesty, kindness, self-expression, and love do. Thanks, Laverne Cox, for reminding us of that, and of the necessity of helping less privileged transgender people on their journeys.

Conveniently, another story that popped up in my news feeds today offers a perfect chance to do just that. It’s a Kickstarter for the Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus. As one of the only transgender choruses in the country, it aims to be “a trans-only singing space to explore the human voice, to determine (and re-assess as needed) range, work on musical skill building and create community.”

Singing is powerful medicine for the heart and soul. Singing together fosters connection, joy, and hope. When the members of the Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus stand up in front of an audience and raise their voices in song, that’s going to be drop dead gorgeous. I can’t wait to see and hear it.

Self-awareness & resiliency

Recently my daughter, who is currently studying psychology, attended an all-day seminar on resiliency in children. Afterward, she noted self-awareness as a contributing quality.

I hadn’t thought much about self-awareness in the context of resiliency, but it makes sense. Being self-aware helps us understand our strengths, work on our weaknesses, and relate to others more successfully. It helps us get through rough patches, and even avoid them sometimes.

Homeschooling can contribute to the development of self-awareness in significant ways. Play, something for which homeschoolers have ample time, is a vital tool for interpreting and understanding the world and oneself. My kids and their friends set up a whole world called Little People Land, complete with a mayor and other important community members. Much happened in the seemingly endless hours they spent there. In the context of that complex social structure, they learned a great deal about themselves and others.

Real-life social interaction plays an important role in the development of self-awareness, too. By watching and relating to others, we learn that not everyone is like us, and we discover things about ourselves. Homeschooling, with its opportunities for age-mixing, finding mentors, and spending time in the community, offers kids a diverse socialization palette.

Spending time alone, to process, unwind, think, and relax, is just as necessary. Fortunately, homeschooling allows plenty of room for solitude and self-reflection.

Children who grow up deciding for themselves how to spend much of their time are more likely to know themselves. They know what they enjoy, what’s not so much fun for them, what comes easy, and what doesn’t. I rarely heard my kids utter that infamous refrain, I’m bored. Life is too full of cool things to do, and boredom, when it does occur, is just a signal to pursue a new direction.

In the absence of authorities judging and/or grading their work, homeschoolers enjoy freedom to experiment, taking risks and opening doors to experiences they might never have had the confidence or courage to try otherwise. They understand that they are in charge of their own lives, and with that privilege and responsibility, they become the foremost authorities on their own goals, conduct, and abilities.

Self-awareness also acts as a buffer to criticism, making it useful rather than discouraging. When young people are aware of their own abilities, they know when they need help, and how to seek it. They respond to criticism that contributes to positive growth, and don’t take to heart negative judgments offering no path to improvement.