There are only so many times I can say that we have ‘no typical day’ and then not elaborate on that – so I figured it might be fun to take you all through a ‘typical week’ – although of course, there’s no such thing as a typical week! Ha!
But I think a whole week gets a little closer to including the range of possibilities, as well as our overall rhythm (which is semi-intentional, and also kind of just happens) than one single day does.
So, before it is wiped entirely from my memory, I’m going to take you through this past week. I have already forgotten a ton, and also I want to keep it relatively brief, as well as be mindful of my children’s privacy, so of course it won’t be EVERYTHING we did. But more like an outline. The details are too many to include, and too many to remember! Here goes.
The children usually wake up on their own, sometime between 7am and 8.30/9am. Lorenzo tends to be up first, and he will have breakfast with Daddy and read books. I might take over once I’ve showered and gotten dressed for the day.
We usually meet with homeschool friends on Mondays, but it didn’t work out this week – people were away or unavailable, which sometimes happens. Penelope got really into the Timelines of Everything book. After breakfast, Lorenzo went to spend some time at Granny’s where they played and read books. Penelope and I had some quiet, individual reading time (arguably one of our favorite things!) and then we worked a little on her miniature crafting project. She wanted to play Cluedo after that so we did. Then I made lunch, and read our novel (The Courage of Cat Campbell) out loud to them over lunch. They played a little after lunch, then listened to one of the Vanderbeeker books on audio (the second book, I believe), while crafting. They are making homes for their peg dolls at the moment, and all the furniture for the homes.
Lorenzo has been really into Louis Armstrong since listening to the Magic Treehouse book about him. Over the weekend, he asked me if I could find some of his music to listen to so I did some research and found a couple videos, some music and a few websites with facts about his life. I mentioned this to the kids, and when they’d had enough with the audio book they asked to watch the videos and read about Louis Armstrong. We listened to some of his songs and music too.
I don’t really remember what we did next – they probably did some Minecraft, I may have gone out for a walk, we had dinner, and started winding down for the day. The things that are lost in these Day in the Life accounts are all the many conversations, questions and discussions we have throughout the day. I don’t always make a note of them and they are easily forgotten. This, I suppose, is a part of the invisible learning that is always happening and so easily slips away because we have no physical “proof”.
After breakfast and books, Penelope signed into her online SDE community. Lorenzo and I read about Greenland sharks (again, he’s just super into them) and did some online research on them, watched a video and then watched more videos about sharks in general. I had a few ideas of things to do but he wasn’t into them, so he went and played with his lego while I did some housework. We had two friends come over to play around 11am, and they all had lunch together, after which I drove our friends home while Penelope and Lorenzo stacked some wood from our massive wood pile which is still very much present in our front yard (Spence was home, I didn’t leave them home alone!).
They played more in the afternoon. Lorenzo remembered he’s been saving money for a bow and arrow and we counted his pocket money, then looked up how much the bow and arrow he wanted costs. I’d told him I could put up half of the cost so we calculated how much that would be, and ordered it online. This led to talking about zeros and place value and Lorenzo wanted to write some equations for me to solve, with lots of zeros in them.
Penelope had dance class at 6pm so she got read for that, and L played while I made dinner. Maybe we did something together – but I don’t remember!
Wednesday is the day we drive over to Monroe, Maine, and the children attend White Ash Learning Centre from 9am to 3pm. They have so much fun – the only down side is we have to get up earlier than we usually do, and pack lunches and bundle everyone out the door. But also, being late isn’t a big deal so it’s a lot less stressful than our school-going days.
On the way over they listen to music and audiobooks and I also record myself reading our novel out loud – they love that!
Back home in the afternoon, I thought Lorenzo might like to keep an Inventor’s Notebook given that he is really into inventing things. He started taking pictures of his lego creations and sticking them in it, and writing a little bit about them. He talks a lot about wanting to become an inventor, and this is part of my not-so-covert campaign to persuade him that HE ALREADY IS – and has a notebook to prove it!
Penelope and I also did a few calculations about something she’s been saving her pocket money to buy – it’s a lot of money and I had agreed to contribute 1/3 of the price, if she raised the remaining amount.
Penelope was in her SDE online community this morning. L and I did some tidying – we put all the lego away and he hoovered the floor. Then he got really interested in trying to figure out how the hoover/vaccum works, so we spent some time opening up bits and trying to make sense of it. We had lunch and read books, then we had to take our dog to the vet. He was reluctant but once there he had a great time chatting to the vet about dogs, listening to our dog’s heart with a stethoscope, and helping the vet hold Jeb while she administered shots. The vet also explained how shots work.
We had some great chats in the car on the way home – about everything from the tides, the icy roads and how ice turns to water, to when it might be okay to steal (we agreed that if you or your family are starving and will die, then stealing could be justified). He also did addition on his little Maths calculator thingy (it has a name!), and listened to an audiobook. We spend a lot of time driving so we’ve gotten resourceful about car-time.
Back home, Lorenzo and Daddy went out and Penelope and I played a writing game called One-sentence Story Swap – where we each started a story with one sentence, then swapped papers and continued the other person’s story with another sentence, and so on. It was super fun and we somehow made it so that one of the characters in the story Penelope had started turned up half way through my story. I don’t correct Penelope’s grammar or spelling unless she asks, and if I feel like it’s an easy and helpful correction I might ask. So often, when she’s writing or we’re writing together we talk about spelling, grammar or interesting words. And sometimes we don’t!
Penelope did some reading in the morning and then got to listening to a new history podcast she found. We had an arborist come over to look at our garden and Lorenzo spent his entire morning outside following her crew who were chopping down two sick apple trees. He asked a bunch of questions, and helped out where he could. He watched and observed and had a lot to tell me at lunchtime. This is mostly how he learns – but actually living and doing.
Lorenzo’s bow and arrow arrived so he ran outside to practice on our target.
After lunch the kids watched some Mystery Science videos. Penelope went over to Granny’s in the afternoon to bake cookies and hang out. Lorenzo started listening to the next Vanderbeeker book and occasionally came into the kitchen to tell me what was going on. Granny and Penelope came back around dinner time and we had a family dinner and an early bedtime.
Thanks for reading! I probably missed out a bunch of stuff! But even so, it feels like a full week of living without school.
Learning slowly means the children are playing and I call them over to have breakfast. We eat pancakes while I read aloud from a new book they are excited about. They intervene with questions and exclamations and we wonder about things out loud and promise to look them up. I make a mental note to find videos about the largest underground cave in the world. It’s 18 times as big as the 02 arena in London, we find out.
They want one more pancake each and more reading – did you know that the Greenland Whale is thought to live up to 500 years? We try to figure out what was happening in the world when this whale was born. P shows us how slowly the whale moves – 3 feet every 3 seconds, apparently. L wants to try it too. We wonder how they live so long if they move so slow.
L wants to go skating on the pond and P wants to bake. She bakes on her own, listening to an audiobook. Some days we see friends and they play for hours in the snow. Other days they do crafts and listen to music. P sometimes works on the zine she’s putting together with her online SDE community, or on the two books she’s writing (one is fiction, one is a history book). L is sometimes up for a science project, or building a new ‘invention’ or doing some phonics on the Nessy app.
We watch a documentary about rock music, or perhaps they play Minecraft. I make popcorn and snuggle by the fire to read. I point to the sunset over the pond, and we pause to watch.
There are hard days – people are grumpy, layers need to come off and be put back on, teeth need to get brushed and dishes pile up in quiet accusation. No one has warm socks because they are somewhere between being worn and landing, clean and occasionally folded, in drawers. Things break, I need air, people bicker, there are errands to run and emails to send.
Some days we have places to be, or classes, and some days we don’t and time flows on, sticky and delicious. I sew. They draw and make things. We measure and figure. We read more books. They build and create and imagine. We talk a lot – about dreams and where places are and who invented clothes and why do some people have more power and how would you make cheese.
We read some of our novel before bed (currently one of the Poppy Pendle books). They beg for another chapter, and I read it, because early mornings are rare.
This is no particular day – but it’s also an average day.
Sometimes living and learning is intense and deep, other times we hop lightly from one thing to another. It’s never predictable, and at the same time it’s steady and familiar.
This is Slow, for us. This is unschooling, for us. This is us living our lives – weaving our own separate threads and regularly coming together in a colourful pattern or a tangle or something in between.
The last few weeks I’ve been on a deep dive into the research and science around learning to read (and literacy more broadly), on a small quiet mission to try to figure out how it applies to my self-directed children, and how it can apply to children who are home educated in an informal, consent-based manner (which includes unschooled, self-directed children, but also any eclectic homeschoolers and others).
One point of contention is whether including an awareness of phonemes, phonograms and phonics, is a necessary component of learning to read, AND of further literacy development leading to skilled reading. I want to point out here that I have by no means read all the studies, there is so much research on reading and I have barely scratched the surface – I hope that in future I might alter and enrich my ideas on this.
For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll call emergent reading (the sort of independent reading that children do at the very beginning) simply ‘reading’ or ‘learning to read.’ Some may consider this sort of reading to be achieved once children can decode AND understand text. There’s an actual equation for this! (Here.) Some have raised issues about how reading isn’t a finite skill and there’s almost no stark beginning and end to it. This discussion is for another day. Right now I’ll focus on assume that ‘learning to read’ is the ability to decode the words (recognise and pronounce them) and fully understand their meaning.
As an aside though, skilled readers is what we ideally want, and let me explain what I mean when I say this is “what we want.” It has helped me to view reading as a combination of skills that a child acquires, and that weave together to form a rope that is ‘skilled reading’ ( Scarborough’s Reading Rope, 2001; SCORE, 2020). Many children will ‘learn to read,’ even though they may not yet be skilled readers. Many children will pick up these skills unconsciously, or some of them more consciously and others almost without knowing or noticing. Some children may pick up some skills and not others, and not ever become skilled readers (the statistics for literacy in the US are a reflection of this). I’ll come back to this later.
Words and texts are everywhere, and I think we can all agree that reading is an essential skill. Becoming a skilled reader helps a child access books, research, courses, online resources or programs, further education of any kind. It opens a whole lot of doors in terms of self-directed education. As far as I’m concerned, skilled reading is something my children want to be able to do, and it’s something I prioritize in supporting. Education aside, skilled reading will be important in almost all lines of work, in engaging with civil society, politics, activism, and all legal, administrative and healthcare information in an informed way. I could go on. We want our children to become skilled readers – to have the ability to read, understand and engage with written text at a high level. We don’t *only* need them to pick up basic reading – we need them to keep improving until they are skilled.
Even if you personally don’t want this for your children, I think we need to consider whether they might want it for themselves in the future. I’m going to set aside the need many of us might have of having our children love to read for pleasure. I’m not saying this is either a good or bad or neutral thing – I’m simply not going to deal with this aspect of reading (at least not today!).
Ok, lets get to the juicy part now. There seems to be a lot of chat in unschool circles about how reading is “natural” and how children will “just pick it up.” There are all sorts of analogies for this. Some compare reading to speaking – humans are primed for picking up spoken language, surely reading is the same? Children learn so many other things, like walking for example, by observing, watching, and experimenting. Why would reading be any different?
I have to admit I used to think this too. It made a sort of rational sense that if children are able to learn most things without intervention, why wouldn’t they be able to learn reading “naturally”? I was super sold on this. I dismissed phonics programmes as schoolish interference in children’s natural process. I believed that simply waiting, trusting and supporting appropriately would do the trick. To an extent, I still believe this.But I suppose it depends on what you mean by waiting, trusting and supporting. I don’t believe that phonemic awareness or phonics instruction (when asked!) is incompatible with this view. But hear me out.
The first point that I think is really really important to bear in mind is this: humans are NOT wired for decoding written text. Linguists have talked a lot about how we are primed for language – what they mean by this, I believe, is that we are primed for *communication* and talking and language was invented for that purpose. Kids learn to speak their native languages without being taught – they learn through observing, and listening, and trying and failing, and getting adult feedback on their attempts. They learn “naturally” without being systematically taught (although I should say this is not the case for ALL children).
We are not primed or wired to read. Nothing about our brains is primed for reading (SCORE, 2009). Sure, we invented reading. We also invented the nuclear bomb. I don’t think anyone would claim that assembling a nuclear bomb is “natural”. Some people might get there in a self-directed, informal, “natural” way after a lot of time and practice, but others will not get there without instruction. This is an extreme example, and I’m not comparing reading to nuclear science, but it serves to illustrate that learning to read doesn’t *have* to be a natural process by definition. Not all man-made processes and skills are “natural’ by definition.
Reading involves rewiring our brains. This is a quick overview of how our brain is trained and re-wired to read. If you consider that English written text is a code where letters and combination of letters stand for different sounds, and words stand for meaning, then reading is a bit like cracking a code. Once you know what letters or groups of letters stand for, what their sound is, and how to combine those sounds to make words, you can ‘read’ those words, in the sense that you can pronounce them (you may still not actually know what they mean). Once you know what words mean, and how to combine them into sentences (grammar), you can read a sentence, pronounce all the words, and understand the meaning of the words and the sentence as a whole. This is my simplistic version of a very complex process (SCORE, 2020).
In fact it’s very much like riding a bike. You don’t just get on a bike and immediately ride it, in the same way you don’t just open a book and immediately read. I spent 30 minutes watching my 15-month-old niece trying to figure out her new tricycle. First she sat backwards on it and pushed her feet down on the floor, moving backwards. She spent quite a while doing this. Then she turned herself around on the seat and practiced moving the handlebars. Then she pushed her feet into the ground and moved forwards a bit, then backwards a bit. She never did get around to using the pedals. Not today, at least. And this isn’t even a bike, it’s a tricycle! She will eventually figure it out, and then perhaps graduate to a balance bike, and then a fully-fledge bicycle. Much liked becoming a reader, bike-riding is not “natural” – it takes time, a ton of practice, observation, experimentation and perhaps, for some kids, scaffolding and a supportive adult to offer suggestions, champion, sometimes even instruct.
And that brings me to my next point: it is different for every single child. Some children will require more adult intervention, some less. Sure, the human brain is similar in many ways, but none of us learn in exactly the same way.
So we can agree that reading is a learned skill, and that learning to read is made up of many ‘strands’ of skills that include understanding that letters and words are made-up symbols that stand in for concepts or objects, or represent meaning, language comprehension skills such as understanding meaning and knowledge of grammar, and word recognition skills that include phonological awareness, decoding (knowing that ‘a’ makes a specific sound), and sight recognition (of words such as ‘the’).
Agreeing on this means that in order to become a skilled reader, children will need to master all of these skills. Some children will seem to “naturally” pick up reading, when in fact what they have done is their brains have unconsciously cracked the code of reading without explicit, systematic instruction from an adult, or app, or programme, or much of anything other than just exposure to language and text in its many forms. According to studies, this is a minority of children: between 1% and 7% (SCORE, 2020; Margrain, 2005; Snow, 2007). But given that some of the studies are done on either kindergarten children, or school children below age 8, I personally would need to see further studies to be able to pin down a number. (I haven’t read all the studies so perhaps there are studies with larger age ranges that include home educated children – if so, hit me up!)
The reason is this: two of the studies are based on children who could read before they started formal schooling at either kindergarten and first grade. Only a tiny minority of children could. This *may* tell us that a tiny minority of children learn reading ‘by themselves’; but this could also tell us that a tiny minority of *school* children learn reading ‘by themselves’ before they start school. I wonder what this number would have been were there a study that looked at informally home educated children – perhaps only a tiny minority would have learned to read ‘by themselves’ at age 5 or 6, but perhaps a larger chunk would have learned by ages 8,9,10, or later. We can’t know this from school children because at age 6, systematic reading instruction begins, and therefore you can no longer claim that a child is learning to read ‘by themselves’ even if perhaps they are ignoring all teaching, and in fact learning by themselves.
The other issue that comes up with studies on reading, is that many of them measure learning as if it were by definition the direct result of teaching. This is the “classic assumption.. that children learn because they are taught.” (Trevarthen, 1995), and that when we measure children’s learning, it is the direct result of teaching. In fact, learning is much more complex than that. There is a lot of research on how our conventional constructs of learning are flawed, or incomplete, and children’s learning is in fact much more complex and there is so much of it that is simply not measurable or even evident to adults.
From looking at the very few studies done on home educated children, and the one and only study of how home educated children learn to read (Pattison, 2013), it seems that children who are home educated in largely informal, consent-based and self-directed homes, will tend to learn to read in their own time, which can range from age 2 to the teenage years, and with a combination of informal methods. These include but are not limited to observation, conversations, exploration, and a variety of activities that might be adult or child-led, or might be online, and that sometimes involve the use of Phonics instruction, and sometimes do not. I think this, and Harriet Pattison’s book, is valuable research because it pushes back against the conventional ways we assume children learn, and considers that it’s a much more complex, less measurable, sometimes relational and sometimes hidden, process. Both Harriet Pattison and Alan Thomas have done valuable research around this process.
Just to go back to some of the research around reading, most of which is done on children in school settings. The research shows us that because written language is a code, and because the English language is essentially a code made up of letters and combinations of letters that represent specific sounds (phonograms), and because there is in fact a logic to the way phonograms work in English, explicit, systematic instruction of Phonics in schools has generally speaking been shown to work more effectively than Whole Word instruction (where children learn letter names and sounds and then ‘figure out’ words by repetition and being read to) or ‘balanced literacy’ (which is basically a no-mans-land between Whole word and Phonics where no method is implemented properly, and it takes place in some schools in an attempt to satisfy both camps). Basically, the available research tells us that in a school setting, and perhaps in a more formal homeschool setting (although we have no research to show for this), Phonics instruction will be more effective in helping your child learn to read, and eventually become a skilled reader. (Although, one recent study claims that phonics instruction in schools does help some children in the short-run, but makes no difference in the longer-term.)
The problem we encounter as unschoolers and informal home educators is the following: we don’t tend to implement anything systematically and regularly. That’s just not how we roll. However, what we do do, is we give our child a lot of space for the other ways children learn: play, observation, exploration, conversations and “doing nothing” (Thomas & Pattison, 2007), the latter of which is a way for researchers to account for how children learn in ways that are not immediately or ever apparent to adult observers. Our self-directed children learn in these ways, and many others.
As such, the studies on Phonics tell us that knowledge of Phonics helps children learn to read in settings where they are mostly exposed to systematic instruction, and less exposed to the other ways children who are home educated informally might learn. We may also stretch this research to tell us that, if in doubt, and if you are not sure you are providing your child with a variety of rich unstructured, informal learning, then a Phonics program or Phonics app is more likely to get your child reading, and also help them become more skilled in the long-run, than leaving them to their own devices. That said, there is no research that directly confirms or challenges this statement – we need more research on self-directed children!
For those of us who feel confident that our home facilitates our child to learn in a myriad of different ways, it might make sense to assume they will learn to read. And because we are usually in no big rush, we trust it will happen. Based on the ONE research study on how children learn to read at home, *it’s likely* that if children have a multidimensional and text-rich environment, and an adult who is knowledgeable enough to support and facilitate (or who knows how to access the knowledge they don’t have,) then they will learn to read. There seems to be a lot of informal evidence in the homeschool community that would confirm this idea. Many reference the high illiteracy/low literacy rates in the US to mean that skilled reading does not come, even later on. This may be so – and it may be a case for phonics instructions in schools. Harriet Pattison’s study also does not follow up to see if children who learn to read then become skilled readers. I tend to think that if you are in a school setting and are labelled as ‘behind’ or a ‘late reader’, this sticks with you, and may even prevent a child from becoming a skilled reader in future – whereas a home educated child who is
The way I see it is this: research in schools seems to show that Phonics is helpful in learning to read. So, knowing what we know about how reading is like a code we all need to crack, in one way or another, why wouldn’t I support my child with phonological awareness? Why wouldn’t I consider the research and bring in some of the accumulated knowledge about how our brains crack the code of written language to our home learning?
I realise I haven’t spoken much about trust – as unschoolers we fundamentally trust that our children will learn what they need to learn, when they need to learn. I’m fully behind this concept. We are consent-based and anti-oppression at core. That will always be my baseline. I simply don’t think that an awareness of phonograms and phonics contradicts this fundamental principle in any way; in the same way that if my child was really interested in engineering, I would facilitate their knowledge of things like the Laws of Motion and other principles of Physics, because I recognise this knowledge could help them significantly. Of course I would only offer if I saw they were interested in digging deeper, or if I noticed they were stuck and that this knowledge would help them.
I do the same with my knowledge of phonics – I offer it if asked, when I see they are stuck or struggling and might be receptive to it, when I feel like it might support them get where they want to go. This is totally possible — and I will write about how we do it and how it can be done more in my next post.
The last thing I’d like to mention is that I haven’t spoken about SO MANY OTHER aspects of this topic. One is that critics of the science of reading have claimed it does not consider neurodivergent children and how they learn, and that extrapolates from one group of children to all children. Perhaps there is validity in these claims – I didn’t have space to address this here because I wanted to focus on the idea that phonics makes sense as an effective way to decode language – this makes logical sense, and has been seen to work. I also haven’t spoken about what ‘reading’ actually means – research also differs on when a child is considered as being ‘able to read,’ because reading is not a finite skill that you achieve, it is constantly changing and is multidimensional. This would need a whole other post.
Lastly, I would like to see more studies on self-directed children because I believe that further quantitative and qualitative data on how these children learn to read is absolutely necessary. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for reading!
Scarborough’s Reading Rope in The Science of Reading (link below)
This is a hard truth. I might diligently observe, I might ask questions and be present, I might think I know a lot about how children learn, but I will never *fully* know what a child is learning. They are the expert on themselves!
This is why documenting learning, in ALL settings, only gets us so far. We are sorely mistaken if we believe that we can accurately and completely say what a child knows and can do at any given time.
I wrote a while back about how, for those of us who either have to or like to keep records of our child’s learning, it might be interesting to involve our children in documenting their own learning.
Not only because this feels much more respectful, but also because we can document to our heart’s content but are we really creating a full picture?
The reason I think it’s important for children to document with us, if they wish, is that only THEY know what they are learning, and why something pulls them, and where they wish to go with it. As long as I watch and assess through my own adult lens, I’ll only ever have a partial understanding.
Our children know themselves better than anyone, and they know what they know better than anyone too. Perhaps leaning into keeping collaborative records, and constructing learning together, may help give us more of an insight.
I also recognise I need to be okay with our children not wanting to document their lives – not everyone feels a need to take notes, keep files, remember things. I always have – I was the child with the scrapbooks and diaries. My children – not so much, and that has to be okay.
It’s okay to not have to prove your learning to the world. In fact, it can be an act of rebellion against a society that needs us to constantly work and produce to gain acceptance and feel worthy.
Which brings us to trust. I trust they know how best to learn, and how best to organise and retain what they’ve learned. I can’t assume my records are the final word on their inner processes and lives.
My children know themselves best, and they get to decide what to share with the world.
(this blog post is from an instagram post I published a while back)
The adult gaze is a tool of oppression and control.
My definition of the adult gaze is inspired by the male gaze, a phrase coined by the feminist and film critic Laura Mulvey , which describes the way women in the media are viewed and represented from a heterosexual male perspective.
The adult gaze, for me, derives from this concept but is much broader. It means the way adults watch, weigh up and evaluate children; the way adults bring all of their social conditioning and project it onto children; the way children are viewed, represented and portrayed by adults; and finally society’s conception of children and the way this is perpetuated within institutions, and inherent in all interactions with children, from advertising aimed at children to the way the medical profession relates to children.
The adult gaze is firmly rooted in the adult conception of children as less than, or adults-in-the-making, rather than whole people in themselves, and the resulting narrative that adults “know best” and can therefore wield their power over children in a myriad big and small ways. Children are seen as less capable, less worthy, in need of being steered, taught, shaped, molded, controlled and corrected.
This is what I mean when I say the adult gaze. It is layered, and complex, and it’s hard to escape the fact that what lies behind it is a combination of assumptions and constructs that adults grow up around, internalize, and then project onto their own children. The gaze describes what the adults do (watch, follow, assess, give feedback), and also what they project onto the child (societal pressures, assumptions and stereotypes), as well as the influence of systemic adultism, racism, colonialism, capitalism, ableism and all other types of discrimination and imposed social norms.
The adult gaze is all those things. It projects them onto the child, but it is also made up of them: it is the gaze of the white supremacist, the coloniser, the patriarch, the capitalist; it is a neurotypical, ableist, sizeist, binary gaze.
The ‘evaluative gaze’, coined by Carol Black, is school’s heightened and institutionalized version of the adult gaze. In schools or more conventional schooling/education, children are constantly monitored, controlled, organized, measured and assessed. They are judged, criticized and given constant, unsolicited feedback, both positive and negative. The evaluative gaze is a systemic, sanctioned tool of oppression and control.
The adult gaze is harmful and disempowering for children. Many of them internalize and take it with them into adulthood; it becomes their inner voice and the pressure they put on themselves. It becomes the sense of never being enough. It is in turn projected onto their own children, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
The adult gaze can be heightened for children from marginalized groups, because it operates within a hierarchy– it automatically puts people in categories, pits them against one another, encouraged comparison and disconnection, and is contains an inherent idea of what is “normal” and desirable.
Children deserve to go about their days without constant monitoring and feedback on who they are, what they say and what they do. They deserve to feel seen, appreciated and accepted for who they are at all times.
I suppose this would feel like Unconditional Positive Regard, coined by the psychologist Carl Roger; this means always assuming that our children are doing their best. This tool can help us step outside of the default adult gaze, and give our children the compassion and unconditional love that they need. And because many of us find giving ourselves this sort of unconditional positive regard challenging, this is where the inner work really begins. We start to deconstruct our cultural assumptions and dismantle systemic inequalities, and work on feeling worthy of love and belonging, so that our children may feel this too.
Unschooling is not unlimited freedom. Not only is unlimited freedom virtually impossible, it’s also not actually what freedom means. By definition, my freedom HAS to end where yours begins. Otherwise, I would be free and you wouldn’t, and that would not be a free society; it would be selective freedom.
Unschooling is not selective freedom, because freedom, by definition, is not selective (see above). By extension, this also means that freedom, by definition, means freedom of ALL people. The alternative is an unfree family, community, society, nation, world. You cannot care about freedom and not care for everybody’s freedom. You cannot be an unschooler and not care about everybody’s freedom.
Unschooling is not living in a vacuum, or value-free environment. There is no such thing. All environments are constructs and as such they contain assumptions, inherent values, socially constructed dynamics. Even an attempt at being value-free isn’t actually value-free, because your intention is to be value-free. Your values are inherent in your lack of values, if you see what I mean. Unschooling is NOT a lack of all assumptions, an assumed neutrality on all topics, an utter lack of opinions, relativism. Not only would that make for extremely boring conversation with your child, but also, everyone has opinions, beliefs, assumptions, biases. We can’t help it, we’re human. It’s okay to share them with your child, to share your thinking process, your journey and your inner work with them, and then to ask what THEY think. It’s okay to feel strongly about things but also get curious about your child’s thinking process and their possibly different opinions on things. It’s okay to get comfortable with having differing viewpoints and beliefs, while staying true to YOU.
Unschooling is not steamrolling over other people’s needs. It is not permissive parenting. It is not putting children’s needs over adult’s all the time. It is not leaving children to figure things out that are way too big for most adults to handle alone. It is not ignoring your children, and leading separate lives. It is not never sharing your opinions, thoughts, and experiences. It is not neglect, and it is not control either. It is not helicopter parenting. It is not an open and shut method, to follow blindly. It is not the same for every family and child. It is not self-sacrificing. It is not selfish.
So what IS unschooling?
Unschooling is self-directed. That means that each individual child ultimately ‘owns’ their own education. No one is deciding what to learn and teaching it in a top-down fashion. Rather children live their lives and follow their own interests. If a child lives in a family that is engaged, supportive and curious, they will learn. They will find passions and follow them and learn things in the process. They will build relationships. They will engage with issues big and small, through books, movies, online research, conversations and being out in the world. If they are encouraged to take an active part in their environment, as John Holt envisaged, it would be hard not to learn the things that matter to their family, community and culture. Children absorb from their environment and are inherently driven to learn. They ask questions when they need an answer. They explore, they make, they research, they communicate. They do all of this with adult support, but they don’t need an adult to lead.
Unschooling is freedom. Freedom from school and school-at-home and everything that comes with it (control, schedule, top-down teaching, forced compliance, peer pressure, the adult gaze, assessment and evaluation). For some, it is freedom from patriarchy, systemic racism, ableism, and discrimination, because unschooling means choosing as much as possible to not operate under oppressive systems.
It is also freedom to learn at your own pace, learn the things that interest you, follow your intuition, find purposeful work, find out who you are and how you want to be in the world, figure out what brings you joy and what you’re good at without unwanted feedback. It is freedom to belong to a family, community and society, and freely undertake certain responsibilities in order to be part of a bigger whole. It can also look like freedom to choose to be taught, to use a curriculum and follow it (or not!), to take classes, to take exams, to be part of a team or group. Unschooled children can be made aware of the options and make decisions about them. It can be freedom to go back to school, and freedom to stay home.
Unschooling is collective freedom. It is working to identify and dismantle oppressive systems wherever they show up. It is not selective – you can’t be an advocate for children’s liberation but ignore the role of institutions, governments and economics in the oppression of marginalized groups.
Unschooling is trust, relationship and mutual respect. Children are given as much freedom as the adults in their lives can “comfortably bear” (Pat Farenga’s words), which means that the dynamics of respect go two ways. Freedom and respect are given to the child, but also expected by the adults. With increased freedom also comes an increased sense of responsibility for our own words, actions and decisions – again, this works both ways. Trust and connection are prized above all else, because the adults feel confident the child will learn what they need to learn if these two elements are present. This doesn’t mean the adults will walk away, fingers crossed. It simply means connection is more important than control, every time. The adults will still support, encourage and help when needed or requested.
Unschooling is consent-based, but it goes further than that: it is questioning hierarchy and assumed wisdom. It is asking ourselves, is that really the case? Could it be different? Can we reimagine it? It is a journey without an end point. It is a process of deconstructing, shedding, deschooling, decolonizing and so much more.
Unschooling is political. I think it is political because all of our choices are political. John Holt believed that lasting social change happens slowly, and when individual people start to change their actual lives. He believed the best way to change people’s minds was to live your own life the way you believed it should be lived, and tell people about it. He wrote, “Private action, however radical and satisfying, only becomes political when it is made known.” He believed unschooling was not for a small, privileged, white minority; it had the potential to grow because it could be done in different ways, by all sorts of people.
Which brings me to my last point: Unschooling is about your child, your family, your culture and your community.
THERE IS NO ONE WAY TO DO IT, THERE IS NO SPECIFIC PATH TO GET TO IT.
Conventionally, deschooling has been the domain of home educators and radical thinkers. I believe it can benefit everyone.
Even more conventionally, it has referred to the adjustment period for a child between taking them out of school and starting to home educate. This is valuable, and important. It is this concept that led John Holt to coin the term unschooling – hoping it would be a clearer term (debatable). In this post, I’m only going to look at deschooling ourselves (the adults).
I will give detailed, but also relatively succinct, information on what deschooling is, why do it and how to go about it. It is by no means a definitive account (that might be a book! In like, 10 years’ time!), nor is it personalized to you – pick and choose the bits that work for you, and look deeper for what is missing.
What is deschooling and how do we define it? Many people have written on this, so I will offer up several opinions and theories, and link to things you can read, listen to and watch to take you deeper.
As far as I’m concerned, deschooling is the process of beginning to question the “education” we have received growing up and living in the world – from our families, friends, communities, school, society at large and online platforms.
It is a journey, not a destination. You are always deschooling, you are never deschooled. It is a dynamic process that shifts its focus and goes beyond the thinking and questioning stage, to a place where you start to work out how you want to live, and what you’d like society to look like.
It is a chance to heal and reparent yourself, work on your relationship to yourself and others in your life, re-discover your own potential. It is a chance to find different ways to relate to your children and other people in your life that are compassionate, authentic and non-hierarchical.
The person who coined the term deschooling was Ivan Illich, in his book Deschooling Society, published in 1971. He claimed that schools, based on an antiquated system, were responsible for perpetuating a “schooled” mentality whose ultimate aim was obedient, unquestioning workers.
Whether you agree with this original view or not, I think deschooling can be a lot broader and far-reaching than that, both on an individual and societal level, as well as more nuanced, and supportive of school transformation rather than abolition, as Illich advocated.
Deschooling, what on earth is it
Deschooling is ultimately all-pervasive and ongoing to it’s quite hard to pin down. And it can be very personal. In the end you will have to pick and choose the bits that serve you.
Here are some things others have said about it.
“Deschooling is the work of adjusting to a new reality, one in which a young person now possesses an extremely high level of freedom and a correspondingly high level of responsibility”Blake Boles, Why are you still sending your kids to school?
“I define [deschooling] as shedding the programming and and habits that resulted from other people’s agency over your time, body, thoughts and actions.”Akilah S. Richards, Raising Free People
Deschooling is “an intentional time to forgo any formal studies and give your child time to rediscover the love of learning, as they did when they were little”Ainsley Arment, The Call of the Wild & Free (this quote also applies to us adults!)
John Holt on what a deschooled society would look like: “It would be a society in which there were many paths to learning and advancement, instead of one school path as we have now . . . a path far too narrow for everyone, and one too easily and too often blocked off from the poor”
“Education is a compulsory, forcible action of one person upon another for the purpose of forming a man such as will appear tp us to be good; but culture is the free relation of people, having for its basis the need of one man to acquire knowledge, and of the other to impart that which he has acquired.. Education is culture under restraint. Culture is free.”Leo Tolstoy
“Deschooling demands egalitarian relations between parent and kids – a family organization which accommodates the radical curiosity of childhood, even (perhaps especially) when it challenges authority. Parenting, in the deschooling family, becomes a revolutionary activity.”
“Deschooling aspires to develop not only the free individual, but ultimately a free society” Geraldine & Gus Lyn-Piluso
“Colonisation works to bring us all into line. It insists that there is one knowledge stream, one way of doing things, one value system for understanding success. It enforces this agenda to the detriment of all ancestral knowledge, all other ways of knowing and doing, and leaves us with a narrow vision of what life is and can be. An education that does not actively dismantle this process perpetuates systems of oppression throughout the rest of society.” Adele Jarrett-Kerr
Deschooling, why do it
The biggest reason why you should start on a deschooling journey, is because IT IS FOR EVERYONE.
It is especially for those who don’t think they need it.
It is for school-going families AND home educators. For anyone who works for an organization or institution of any kind. For anyone who has ever felt diminished or put-down as a child or adult. For anyone who has felt oppressed, or is part of an oppressed or marginalized group, or has been the cause of oppression. For anyone who calls themselves a leader, teacher or parent. For anyone who has anything to do with children, in any capacity.
It is not only about school. School is and was a huge part of most people’s lives – so processing that and understanding the powerful dynamics at play are important. But, it is absolutely not limited to school.
Everyone’s deschooling journey will be different.
Deschooling is about questioning hierarchical structures of power, and the influence they wield on our lives. You may start with the adult-child relationship and the concept of adultism, and then find that this same dynamic is replicated in so many other spheres. Deschooling is about calling out and tackling oppressive systems, beginning (but definitely not ending) with your relationship with your child(ren).
It is about healing ourselves – from our childhoods, from trauma, from influences that may have been less than positive or constructive in our lives. With this, comes the realization that until we have started loving and accepting ourselves, it will be virtually impossible to practice unconditional love and acceptance with our children (and others, for that matter.)
It is about relationships – the one with your children, but also the ones with partners, friends, family members and the wider community. What, ultimately, matters more than this?
Deschooling is ultimately about re-imagining what we would like the world to look like. I know, huge. But that is literally how big this is. It’s political, and it matters.
Deschooling, how to do it
There is no ‘how-to’ in deschooling, but this is more or less how I approach it.
(this last one, and all Brene Brown’s books, are not really about education but a lot of the concepts in her books have helped me see myself and others differently, and ultimately informed my deschooling process).
Figure out who you are. Staying true to myself – I realized after cancer that I had not done that, for such a long time (if ever). The first step was figuring out who I actually was, what I genuinely wanted and needed, and what I didn’t. I loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. I also needed the help of people – friends, therapists, writers and thinkers, my husband and my children. We can’t do this alone.
Meet courage, fear, vulnerability and shame – Brene Brown writes a lot about this (her quote below). These are big themes for me, they may not be for you.
Create new habits.
Following joy – finding joy in small things; making joy, rather than success and productivity, an integral part of every day.
Journaling & writing: this is the way I express myself best, the way I figure things out. Yours might be something else entirely – painting, movement, time alone, time around others. Make time for whatever it is that helps you figure things out.
Start a regular practice that helps you stay focused and grounded. Some things I have tried are: meditation, yoga, running, long walks, being out in nature, affirmations, just a few minutes alone with no distractions.
Praying (the secular kind). I’m not a praying person, like, at all. But one extremely challenging day, I found myself summoning the strength to get through it, from somewhere – anywhere! So I came up with my secular prayer idea. I write this myself, and it’s always evolving/changing. As soon as I wake up, I pick up my notebook and take a minute to slowly read this out to myself. It has helped.
Radical self-love. This is not self-care, it is re-learning how to speak to and treat yourself in an unconditionally loving way. It takes time and conscious, daily awareness and effort.
Rest – rest is radical. We are told we must be doing, producing, and busy all the time. If you’re not busy there must be something wrong with you. Making time for rest is nothing short of revolutionary.
Boundaries – Brene Brown writes eloquently about this. I’ve been working on expressing my boundaries in terms of my needs, rather than as limits that exist independently of me, and owning them. Boundaries are okay – we all have them, because we all have needs! It’s time we honoured them. Learning to express my needs has been crucial (I loved Non-Violent Communication – it works for me, but I know there are issues with the method when it is championed as a one-size-fits-all method, or “the only way”. It is neither of those things.)
Stop caring what everyone thinks, and start caring what a select few people think. I listened to The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson, it was fun and interesting)
Make a commitment to your children: I wrote mine a pledge, and they are fully aware of what we are trying to do as a family, and as such they are invested in it, and hold me accountable. They also know that there will be struggles and failure, and that’s okay. Make time to talk about these things openly; ask questions, solicit feedback, express feelings.
I actively work to give back power to my children, and let go of control. A great book if you’re starting off is The Self-Driven Child by Ned Johnson and William Stixrud. It’s mainly aimed at school-going families and in my opinion, it doesn’t go far enough, but it’s a great start. If you’re a bit further into deschooling, try Anarchist Pedagogies ed. Robert H. Haworth.
Start learning again – is there something you’ve always wanted to learn but never got around to? Or never found a compelling reason to? Now’s the time. Do it just because.
Anti-racism and decolonization work. I am not the person to speak on this, but if you are white, I believe it is important to tackle this stuff. There are several Instagram accounts I would recommend:
Fuck Beauty Standards. This is a big one for me, and I have only just begun scraping the surface of this. I enjoyed Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay a while back. Start questioning the things you do to conform to what we’ve been told is desirable. Practice mini acts of rebellion, that defy these things. Learn more about Feminism – I’m currently on an really inspiring Feminist Summer Camp!
Re-image education – my focus is on normalizing home education, and also normalizing the concept of learning spaces that are not school, but are accessible to everyone. I also want to campaign for transformation in schools but I’m still figuring how to go about this. It has helped me to find a cause or purpose, and follow it, ever so slowly.
Rethink Capitalism – start to reframe a lot of what we believe and do as a product of our economic system. This can be confronting, especially if you have benefited from capitalism (which, let’s face it, many of us have).
Rethinking concepts of freedom, autonomy, what it means to live communally – I read a lot of political philosophy at university, and I love talking and thinking about this stuff. Recently I’ve been listening to Talking Politics, History of Ideas podcast. Loads of food for thought.
Normalise that what you are doing (raising children) is valuable and important. The way you do it matters. Raising and educating children is political.
Beyond my own family, it has helped me to make lists of things I can actually do to make a difference, however small. I get easily overwhelmed by the every-changing news cycle, and to avoid paralysis I prefer to jump in and figure out what I can actually do to help, however small (and it always, inevitably, feels small). Things like donations (if you can, make a list of organisations you will regularly donate to), spreading the word, volunteering time or resources, writing to local and national representatives, signing petitions, talking to friends and families about the issues you care about.
There is so much more, and I could go on.
Can you add to this list?
What will you be doing to deschool & heal yourself?
I’d love to hear. Thanks for reading and come find me @bigmothering
This may be an unpopular view in unschooling circles, but we have things we won’t sacrifice for the sake of freedom.
There’s a lot of focus on free children in unschooling – have you noticed? A lot. At first glance, it may even seem like freedom is the main thing. And I think it was initially, and still is for many.
John Holt and others who were writing last century certainly advocated that children be free, as their over-arching principle, although often freedom isn’t really defined, and sometimes comes from a libertarian perspective where the human right to individual freedom trumps everything else.
(I should mention that political theorists have defined freedom in so many different ways that actually, it becomes almost a meaningless word, if it isn’t given a definition. Which is part of my issue with the word. I should also say that freedom hardly even means “the ability to do whatever it is you wish” – in spite of this, it’s often taken to mean this.)
Of course I want my children to be free! Who wouldn’t? But when I started thinking about it more deeply, I realized the talk of freedom betrays a lack of understanding about different cultures, and about privilege (and about freedom itself!). It comes from a Western, liberal perspective that has been adopted and taken to extremes by, essentially, right-wing, no-government and pro-capitalism advocates, but also by some apparently left-wing liberals.
I was raised in a culture that was more nuanced than that – that believed in individual freedom but was also willing for it to sometimes give way to things like family and community. Where individualism seemed frankly like a privilege – life was to some extent a compromise, you sacrificed individual freedom to take care of the young and the old, to make a living, to provide comfort and safety for your family.
The freedom-above-all-else side of unschooling has never felt good to me.
To be clear, I believe strongly that oppressed and marginalized groups should seek liberation – often this will mean advocating for certain freedoms. I am not disputing this in the least.
I am disputing the uncompromising focus on freedom and individualism without a serious discussion of privilege, oppressive hierarchies and systems; in the sense that freedom for my children will look and hold such different meanings and connotations than freedom for children in marginalized groups. We need to recognise this.
I am disputing the focus on freedom without a serious conversation about how the ‘free’ market is not always (or ever?) a way to liberation. Without getting deep into why sometimes, an understanding of culture, background and family is more important than unbridled freedom at all costs. Without entertaining the idea that freedom and liberation are not always aligned, or the same thing.
Here is where I’m landing, as of today. I believe in liberation of children from an system that oppresses them, of all people from oppressive systems. This means that I believe my children’s freedom from school is valuable, and their freedom as individuals is desirable until it comes up against my own freedom, the freedom of our friends and neighbours, of our community at large, of adults and children in marginalized groups; until it comes up against the liberation of others who are in less privileged positions.
I want them to know this – that yes, they can have ownership of their bodies and minds and selves, but that they live in a family and a community – everyone matters just as much as they do. If freedom to them looks like coming home covered in sand and mud and dragging it all over the house, for me to clean up afterwards, then their freedom is also my prison.
If freedom for my white, middle-class, able children means upholding a system that oppresses others, or putting others in situations where they feel less free, then my children’s freedom is also someone else’s prison.
Unschooling is not about unbridled freedom; it’s about liberation. Liberation leaves no one cleaning up someone else’s mess, no-one living under an oppressive system.
It’s not about individualism; it’s about community. It’s not about existing in a value-less vacuum; it’s about questioning beliefs and systems but also ultimately standing for something.
For a period of time after beginning to home educate I settled on consent-based education as a description of what I was aiming for and what I believed education and parenting should ideally be, for us.
Since then, and sliding closer and closer to unschooling (the slipperiest slope of all!), I’ve had more thoughts about this. I still believe that consent-based as a general principle is an absolute necessity in all education settings, and all settings for that matter (children AND adults!).
Consent is important because every one of us, children included, is a person with the right to be heard and respected; the right to make independent decisions; the right to bodily autonomy, the right to emotional and mental freedom from manipulation. It is important because if it’s wrong for a boss to manipulate their staff into doing things they’re not otherwise willing to do (random analogy!), or for a husband to use his power over a wife, or for a white person to use their power over a person from an oppressed group, then it’s wrong for an adult to use coercion, manipulation and control to get a child to do what they’ve decided should be done. It’s about power, as it often it.
But I also see limitations to consent-based, for that same reason: it’s about power.
Because of the power imbalances in relationship, and the fact that children are always bottom of the hierarchy, some (maybe most?) children, to different extents, won’t feel like they can say no.
We’ve probably all met children who have no issues telling us exactly what they think, why they think it, what they want to do and what they most certainly will not be doing. I have one of these children. They can be challenging but they also have the gift of being open books: you know that when they embark on something, they truly want to do it for its own sake, or some other entirely self-chosen or self-imposed purpose. You know that when they say no, they definitely mean no. Children like this may thrive in consent-based spaces because when they give consent you know they mean it, and when they say no you also know they mean it.
I’m talking about the other sort of child (I know there are more than two types of children, but for the purposes of this point, there aren’t). This kind of child has maybe had a few years of pretty conventional schooling, or been parented in a way where their wishes were not always heard and respected, or maybe that is just the way they are – more sensitive, more aware of hierarchies, more concerned with other people’s reactions and needs.
I was this sort of child, and I also live with one. This child can be easily persuaded to do things through mild insistence (which may actually feel like guilt-tripping to them), and an internal sense of duty; they may also do things because they hope they will be praised for it by the adults around them, or they don’t wish to disappoint those adults (they can sense disappointment no matter how well you hide it), or because they are people-pleasers who shy away from confrontation.
Maybe they are afraid to say no, because they don’t trust that there will be no repercussions, or they fear what other’s (teachers, parents) opinions of them will be, or they might feel, deep down, that they are less lovable and less worthy for not wanting to do/learn/be something. They might do things more out of peer pressure (if in a school-type setting) than out of personal interest or drive.
They may not always be conscious of the reasons behind their consenting or not, and it may not be easy for the adults around them to truly know whether they are doing something because they truly wish to, or for some other, more complex reason.
Why does this matter? It matters because if you are aiming for a consent-based environment, then all children and adults involved need to fully be on board with what this means, for it to truly work.
Here’s an example from our own deschooling journey. We started off doing semi-structured learning with a bit of curriculum. Initially one of my children seemed very into following a curriculum for one of the subjects they enjoyed, doing the worksheets and crafts involved. As time went on, they seemed more and more reluctant to do this. Fifteen or so conversations later, it emerged that actually they really didn’t want to be doing it but were doing it for a variety of reasons: to please me (even though I’d asked whether they wanted to do it, and kept emphasizing how we weren’t going to do anything they didn’t want to do, learning-wise), to feel like they were “doing it right”, because at times it wasn’t such a big deal so why not do it, and various other small, subtle reasons that I pried out during our series of chats about this.
See what I mean? And I am their mother. With another adult, such as a teacher or tutor, do you think this child would have opened up enough to get to the bottom of this? I highly doubt it.
This is my extremely personal example, but I’m willing to bet there are many children out there like this, in fact I’ll bet there are many adults out there a bit like this; adults who say yes to things they don’t really want to do but feel like they should do, adults who can’t quite get clear about what their true interests and passions are, who are constantly second-guessing themselves, who care about what others think and who would find a consent-based environment hard to navigate because behind the moment of saying No or Yes to something, there is so much more.
And that brings me to the crux of the whole consent-based thing: if the power is not being shared, if there isn’t at least a serious effort being made to bring down the oppressive hierarchy where adults have most of the power, and use it in big and small ways to elicit compliance, then consent-based is virtually meaningless.
No matter how much you emphasize that your home or learning space is consent-based, if the children involved don’t feel like they are on an equal footing with you, that they can trust the adults and truly be themselves around them, dissent without repercussions of any kind, then you are not really doing consent-based.
So, I’ve now landed on unschooling or self-directed as a description of what we do. Both of these concepts take things a step further than consent-based; the focus is much more on an environment that actively breaks down the conventional adult-led model of education, and puts everything (life, education, learning) into the hands of the child, who exists in a supportive, respectful community of other children and adults.
It’s not so much about the adult offering things and the child consenting or not (although there is still some of that), but more about the child setting their own agenda and the adult facilitating and supporting them.
Not only have I found that this has empowered my children, but it has empowered me too. Because if my children can be self-directed, then why on earth can’t I? I am just as worthy as them of healing, liberation and belonging.
I suppose the line between consent-based and self-directed is a fine one, and for some it may not matter much. For some, with maybe the more strong-willed, outspoken variety of child, consent-based may work just fine. Others may have really compelling reasons why consent-based, or anything else, is what their family needs and wants. I get that. There is no better or best.
For us, this distinction does matter – purely consent-based doesn’t work when some of us are still actively working on figuring out our interests and motivations, and leaning into finding inherent joy in things rather than doing things to please others, gain something or project a certain image.
And also, I like the shift from adult-led consent-based, to every one of us owning our own learning, growth and life choices. It’s liberating. It’s what I feel we could all do with as humans. It works for us.
Can our children be in charge of their education? Should they make big decisions about their own lives? Do these things truly belong to them, and them alone?
I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to that, but I would like to say that overwhelmingly, yes, they should.
Realizing this was a slow process for me, rather than a sudden realization, and I will admit there are still moments when I think, Wait a minute, are we sure this is right? It’s easy to doubt and second-guess yourself when the overwhelming narrative is: Children are incapable of making big decisions about their life.
My children are 7 and 9. During their early years, I did a lot more structuring and guiding for them. I set up an environment that I felt would encourage them to make wise decisions. We read books and talked about the things we believed in (we still do this!). We had a much stronger rhythm to our days, and more boundaries in place.
Now that they are both past the early years, we’ve had to renegotiate so many things, especially with my eldest.
Fundamentally, I truly believe that children are very capable of understanding a situation, and coming up with a way forward. It’s just that often, the way forward may not be the sort of outcome or compromise the adult was looking for.
And I think we need to be honest about that. Giving children a real say in things will probably mean they will choose to do things we may not be okay with. This can be confronting for us, because we were probably raised differently to this and would expect children to always defer to adults.
It can also be confronting because we may have strong feeling about things, such as compassion, collaboration, and equity – and we don’t feel we can dive into a place where everything is relative, and anything goes.
I think there can be a middle way. For starters, it would be helpful if we adults found a way to open our minds a little and consider that our way may not be the only way. It would also help if we learned to express our own needs in a way that was less critical and judgmental, and less about controlling our children, and more about helping them realize that we are all interdependent. That we can’t all do whatever we want, because we live in a family, community, society. I don’t think these two things – opening our minds, and maintaining a sense of togetherness – are mutually exclusive.
Because fundamentally, and more importantly even than whether they are capable, our children deserve to be treated with the same respect we give ourselves and other humans in our lives. And this means also granting them a degree of ownership over the decisions about their lives. Every family will negotiate this in different ways, and it will also depend on the individual child; for us, I feel strongly that my children need to be given as much ownership over their education and their lives as we can possibly work with as a family.
For us, this means the freedom to be self-directed in their learning. It means laying it out there for them, a bit like this:
You are in charge of your learning, you get to decide what to learn, when to learn, how to learn; I will be here, supporting, guiding and advising when you need me to. I may have to step in at times, but I will always do this respectfully, with consideration for your feelings and opinions. As long as you live with your family, we will demand the same respect from you as the respect we give you. But ultimately, your life belongs to you! You get to try, fail and try again. You get to decide where you’re going to go with it. Nothing you do or don’t do will ever change our love for you, but it might change the trajectory of your life. Own it.
Crucially, for us, it hasn’t been the case of putting it out there and then wiping our hands of it and walking away. That would be way too simplistic and easy, and I’m not sure it would work. Everyone’s lives and education and interests are a constant conversation in our home – we talk about what feels right and how we know it feels right, what we love about things and what we don’t, how sometimes we need to do things we don’t love so much, and how often we do things because it’s what we feel is expected of us, everyone else is doing them, or whatever. We talk about beliefs, values, differences and emotions. We are all involved in each others’ growth.
This helps us parents also know that if all our child does for a week is lego, that doesn’t mean they will be playing lego for the rest of their lives. It gives us perspective. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that children’s lives happen in intense bursts of curiosity and interest, and that often these pass and give way to something else, just as intense and consuming. Sometimes things also stick. Often this can be a good thing.
It’s been amazing to watch our children take this on as their responsibility. They have both grown and learned so much from being put in charge of their own lives, as much as has been possible. My 9 year old especially, has grown so much. She has embraced the things she loves and experimented with some new things, and made a conscious decision to find a way to enjoy things she believes might be useful for her in future, but which she’s not crazy about right now.
Many people have written about how giving young people choice will ultimately mean lower levels of stress and better outcomes for them. It is widely appreciated that more choice and ownership over a life that can often feel controlled and restricted, is a good thing.
For me though, it’s more than that. It’s about appreciating that children are people too – they deserve to be treated with the same respect as adults, they deserve to have inalienable rights, they deserve a substantial say in their lives. And if I believe that my children deserve this, I must also believe that all children deserve this.
Because it’s an incredible privilege to be able to give our children this kind of freedom, and we should also acknowledge this. There is a huge amount of privilege in believing that you can live without school, and still do well in life. There is privilege in one of us being around a lot, to facilitate it. There is privilege in pulling out of a system and forging our own path.
Not all families will feel they can do this, and get away with it. But I do believe that they should be able to, to the extent that they wish to, whether they are school-going or not. And I think that belief is the point: I won’t only live my life in a way that allows my children to experience respect, liberation and community; I’ll also live it in a way that supports the right of all children to experience it.