By far the most common response I get from people, mostly women, when I say that I homeschool is, “Oh wow. I could never do that. I’m just not organized enough.”
And, I picture my disorganized home, my busy life, and my kids who many days wear pajamas until, at the earliest, when their friends get home and they toss on mismatched outfits to go play. Wait. Stop. Scratch that. Emme wouldn’t be caught dead in mismatched clothing. She’s also the one who cleans my house. At 11 years old. And makes dinner.
My 11-year-old. SHE homeschools my kids! I’ve just had an epiphany!
But, I digress.
The point is that I really want to sit down with some of these women and tell them that homeschooling is not just a classroom in the basement with your children sitting in desks waiting attentively, awaiting learning to be imparted.
No, some days homeschooling is doing nothing.
Which brings me to my next topic. What exactly DO unschoolers do?
Remember the photos you’ve seen on Facebook — some of you, anyway — where there’s an idealized picture of something and the caption “What my neighbors think I do”? Another picture has the caption, “What my mother thinks I do,” and a third picture says, “What I actually do.” Or whatever!
With unschoolers, the “What I actually do” varies as much as there are unschoolers!
Debate even amongst unschoolers has raged with the eternal question, “Are you really unschooling if you use workbooks [or any formalized learning media]?”
One extreme of homeschoolers answer with a resounding “NO!” One must not fetter one’s mind with structured learning, or even worse, regurgitated ideas and dogma!
Others insist that learning done organically in the interest of the child, regardless of the method, is the goal. Using workbooks, curriculum, or whatever is at hand is legit.
I think the most important consideration, if one is exploring the possibility of unschooling, is the child’s personality and temperament. With my boys, I was hard-core unschooling. With my girls, I use workbooks, printouts, and software.
Here’s what I’ve come to believe. I don’t think I’ve said this before, but if I have it bears repeating.
Children are always learning. They learn most when you’re not teaching. Or not on purpose anyway. They watch how you talk about others at church or in the store. They watch how you drive and the monologue you have with the other drivers (tough lesson learned as my 17-year-old is now mouthy and critical…oy).
From observing your behavior patterns and priorities, they learn that one’s house must be clean at all times even if it involved stress and crushed feelings. Or, they learn that hugs, dancing, and fun help tidy the clutter if not completely overcome it!
They learn that starting the morning in prayer and study helps moderate one’s mood throughout the day, versus chaos and tears They put in place similar systems, especially as they experience life and realize they need it too — perhaps not as young adults once out of the home, but certainly as newlyweds or, even more so, new parents!
Here’s what was critical to me in the manner and method of teaching, especially with my second son who struggled with reading; he didn’t read until he was 13+ years old.
By my attempts to teach something that he wasn’t emotionally or mentally prepared to do, I risked teaching him that learning was “hard.” That he didn’t like it. That he couldn’t do it. Regardless of my patience and gentle correction (anyone who knows my personality is smirking), he would learn that he was “doing it wrong” — OR at the very least that he “wasn’t doing it right.”
I have a girlfriend who is legally blind in one eye. There’s nothing wrong physically with her eye, no physiological reason why she can’t see out of it. While I don’t know the medical details, she had something that should have been corrected when she was young, but because it wasn’t, her brain just clicked off. It no longer even tries. And so, she’s blind in that eye.
My concern when working with Lowell was that while teaching him to read — and struggling — what I would successfully teach him is that he’s incapable. That he can’t. That he “struggles.” That learning isn’t fun.
With my oldest, I knew that he could do most anything. I could set him to any task and he could do it quite successfully. That kid could learn faster than I could come up with stuff to teach him! What we inevitably ran into was the fact that our dynamic, still to this day somewhat, was that whatever I wanted him to do, he resisted. The power struggles I found myself in! I really had to pick my battles.
Now, I just want to be clear. A parent must be the authority and willing to take on their kid when they refuse to submit to it. I understood this and tend toward being very much a disciplinarian (to a fault, some days). However, the whole realm of learning was not a mountain I was willing to die on!
I would go toe to toe with him when it came to respect. When it came to cleaning and chores. When it came to a lot of things. But, in my world, learning should be fun! And so, it was the one area that I pretty much gave to him to learn how and when he would.
The best analogy to demonstrate my point is Walters-style camping.
When we’re home, I expect a level of participation and cooperation from my kids. They’re pretty autonomous when it comes to eating. They take on the bulk of cleaning especially in the kitchen. I keep a pretty close eye on things, but as I told Ethan a long time ago: I have worked my way into management! I started at an entry-level position when he and his subsequent siblings were born, but now all I do is supervise the work and do budgeting!
When we’re camping? All bets are off! They can pretty much do what they want. I do the cooking, I do the cleaning, and they are pretty much free to run wild! I’ve taught them what they need to watch out for (running water especially), and they’re not stupid. But in their worlds, camping is FUN! It represents the freedom to do things they normally can’t!
For example, when we’re living our normal lives, they know that seatbelts and helmets are the law of the land, literally and figuratively. I’m a maniac about it. When we’re out camping and on dirt roads, they know they get to throw off the fetters of seat belts and hang their heads out the windows. In fact, we go camping in the local Adventist summer camp out in one of the back areas. There are very few others who venture out so far. I’ll even allow them to ride on the back bumper holding onto the back of the van.
At home, they wouldn’t think of playing with fire or anything along those lines. When we’re out camping, I let them start the main fire and even “play” — in a safe arena — with it. On one camping trip, we found cut stumps, dragged them back to the main area, and I let the kids build fires on them to try and “burn them out” down through the middle. THAT was fun! The younger ones were quickly bored because I had to help, but especially Ethan, my oldest, got a huge charge out of it.
And so, in our home I was very strict about certain things. Certain things there was no budging me. There are mountains I am happily willing to die on. But, learning wasn’t something that would go anywhere near the realm of forced or miserable.
So for us, unschooling looks very different. My expectations are very different. My boys and girls are very different…in personality and interests. I love being able to homeschool and give them each exactly what they need, when they need it, using whatever tools and media fit that need.
That is what unschooling is for us!