No question is raised more often about our lifestyle than this one: How do you do it?
Sure, we all went through the school system and most of us cannot imagine what self directed, informal learning can look like. Even though we all are doing it, all the time, without being aware of it.
Because it’s natural, it’s the way we function as humans. From the first breath to the last, we are learning. We can’t help it: We need to solve a problem, we find a new interest, we are enthusiastic about something and we immediately try to learn as much about it as possible.
This completely natural phenomenon is only interrupted – or better: disturbed – while we are schooled.
Because in a traditional school setting we are being told what, when and how to learn by somebody else. Responsibility is taken away from the learner. The learner is being told, over and over, that somebody else knows better. That sitting and waiting for answers she might not have asked for is her job. That competing against each other for the reward of being “the best” is the norm.
The outcomes of such a system are passive-aggressive behavior, low self-esteem, frustration and depression.
You might now say something like: But it hasn’t harmed me, so it can’t be so bad.
Are you sure it has not harmed you?
What and who would you be if you had grown up in an environment where you were trusted, nurtured and loved unconditionally? Where you were the master of your own learning, of your own life?
You say: But that is far too much of burden to put on a young child. Children don’t know what they need, or what is good for them.
No. Look at a toddler learning to walk. No one is teaching her. Still she knows exactly what to do and how. She fails over and over, but finally she succeeds. Nothing compares to the spark in such a child’s eyes. She does not need any reward, the act itself is already the reward.
This is unschooling (at the level of a one year old).
Here is a list of “things” you need to successfully unschool wherever you are:
Trust not only in the abilities of your child, but also in the process. And most importantly in yourself.
This might mean you have to change your whole outlook on life, the way you see your children, your job and yourself.
This also means to be willing to work on yourself, mostly on yourself. Your children are already the perfect unschoolers, they know what they want and what to do.
You, on the other hand, are trained to think in terms of curricula, milestones, the value of standardized testing, and so on.
In order to successfully unschool you will have to give up any preconceived notion of how things should be and instead, yes, trust.
Another biggie, because most of us have totally forgotten how to truly love somebody without expecting anything in return.
But, you wonder, will they not fail if they have never experienced hardship in our ever colder world?
No. How would you like it if there was somebody standing behind you no matter what? One person (at least) to support you in everything you try to accomplish? Somebody you could trust in (there it is again!) and rely on.
Would you break that trust or would you grow with it? I can tell you from 14 years experience as an unschooling mom that kids will spread their wings and soar. They might even make this world a warmer, better place, because they are spilling over with love…
They have never heard that a task is impossible, that they cannot do something, so they try with all their heart, without limiting believes in their heads, to succeed. And they might.
Oh, and yes, this means you will have to learn to love, nurture and respect yourself as well.
Are you willing to see the world through the eyes of your child? To question everything, to un-learn and un-know? Are you ready to grow together with your offspring, to not be the one in the lead, but to be in it as a team, a true family?
Because unschooling might easily turn into the biggest adventure of your life. Once again, it might mean that you yourself have to change.
This might be a painful process – or a freeing one. You will have to face (your) fears.
You might have to let go of your old cocoon and the new one might not have hardened enough yet.
You might be in for a bumpy ride, you might experience some headwind. Family and friends might not like your new lifestyle, they might even try to hold you back and talk some sense into you.
Why should you do it anyways? You wonder now.
Because of the aforementioned gleam in your child’s eye, the incomparable reward of watching your kid growing up happy, a whole, unharmed person.
For simply being happy yourself. Right now.
As long as you think one activity is better than another, e.g. reading a book has more value than playing a computer game, no unschooling magic will happen. You have not given over the responsibility, you still are trying to control the learning of your child.
This one comes with another super important factor: Respect.
Respect your child’s decisions. If you can’t tolerate them, talk about it. Explain yourself, show your anxieties and your worries. You are the parent and sometimes, yes, you know better, you’ve learned your lesson from past experience.
Your son or daughter might still want to try it, and you should let them (short of seriously harming themselves or others). Everybody has to make their own mistakes. (yeah, I hate that thought, too!)
This also means being free of expectations.
Expectations are only in your head and can never be fulfilled by anybody, especially your children. I vividly remember how it felt like growing up, being stifled with great expectations of who I was supposed to be and become. At times I felt unable to move at all, afraid to do something wrong.
Don’t burden your children with your own history.
Instead see them as a chance to reinvent yourself, to create a new reality where everything is possible.
You might now think I contradict myself. I have just told you to let go of all your ideas about traditional parenting to now tell you to take charge.
Yes. And I tell you why. YOU are the parent. You lead the way.
You are the main role model for your child.
Kids don’t hear what we say as much as copy what we do.
You are still working in a job you hate? You are not living your dreams? You blame others for not being successful? You are neglecting your destiny and your inner voice?
Don’t expect your children to start on their journey to a self-directed life, if you are still playing out the role of a victim, blaming others for your failure.
They will follow your lead.
Once again, you might think this is the exact opposite of what I said earlier.
Here is why it isn’t:
We all need the right amount of structure in our lives. Some of us more, some less.
If you are totally free to do whatever, whenever and however you want to you can easily get lost, especially when starting out.
Create a net, a frame to be filled with whatever it is that you and your kids want to do. Make a plan, draw a chart, have a routine, hand out daily chores. Find out how wide or narrow is right for your family and situation, play with it and experiment.
Make your child part of the real life. Hand over responsibilities, tasks and jobs. Show her as much of her surroundings, culturally and socially, as possible. You will equip her with worthwhile skills she can use for the rest of his life.
Adapt your structure to suit all, including yourself and your own needs.
Sometimes make space for exceptions (see point 3.).
Be curious, try new things, do something you have always wanted to do.
Be passionate about things, share your passions.
Show your child what makes you tingle.
Be part of their passions without meddling. Their projects are not yours!
Have fun with your child, laugh and giggle and dance and roll down a hill in the sunshine.
Have long talks about anything, discuss everything from the weather forecast to the latest developments in the Far East. Value their thoughts and ideas about it all. Be open to controversy.
Look for answers to questions you don’t have an answer for, together.
Try not to supply them with YOUR answers.
Even if you are a lone wolf not keen on group activities, this one I highly recommend, especially for newcomers.
Find like-minded people, look for unschooling groups in your region, join a network or create your own.
Not only will it be much easier for you, when the time comes when you have questions or are doubting your decisions (and this WILL happen). It will also be so much more fun for your child to see herself as part of a bigger social group (Here it is, the number one argument against unschooling!).
Most school children don’t have much time left for socializing (and are not allowed to do so in school). It will be difficult sometimes to find enough social contacts for your child, at least with other kids her age (She can have plenty of socialization with people of all ages, at all times – this is one of the nicest parts of the whole thing).
Plan activities together, form a little unschooling group, organize meetings and parties. This can easily grow into loads of friends all over the place which encourages travel, meeting new places, getting to know new languages and cultures and offering countless „learning opportunities“.
Or simply get informed and join the unschooling communities already existing in your country – you will be surprised what you will find, I promise.
Find afternoon activities, sport clubs, interest groups close to you. Sign them up for community college classes or whatever you can find in your area (if they are interested, of course).
Help her find other people to share her interest, a mentor – or teacher – someone she can look up to and learn from and with. This can be basically anybody who loves what they are doing, from the car mechanic at the corner to the artist living in your neighborhood.
Be part of your immediate community. Do not alienate yourself from the neighboring culture your child is growing up in. Contribute to your neighborhood, we can all learn from each other.
Miracles won’t happen over night. Especially if your kids have been in school before.
Give time for the deschooling process, which can take up to a few years. It might help you to find other families in the same situation or read up on the literature about deschooling to ease your mind.
Even if your child has never been formally schooled it might take some time for her to get used to the situation. There will be times when she will outwardly do NOTHING at all. It will be hard for you to watch it and do nothing about it (besides 1. and 2.).
Learn to be patient.
This gets easier with practice and over time (when you realize your child DOES learn, and quite a lot, always).
You can NEVER know what is going on in somebody’s head, but I guarantee you it is never NOTHING. Children need time to be bored, to just be, to process things and make sense of it all. To create their own structure and system, the one they will not forget for the rest of their lives (unlike abstract school curricula).
Don’t forget that this is supposed to be enjoyable, it is your time and your life.
Reflect on your specific situation regularly and constantly evaluate if this way of living still suits you and your child.
Unschooling isn’t for everybody and this is totally okay. It is a lifestyle all of the family has to embrace. It comes with a lot of positive aspects, but of course it has some downsides (what doesn’t?).
Whatever you decide for yourself and your family, get informed about your options first.
Make a conscious decision for whatever path you decide to take.
Don’t be afraid when the path is not clearly visible in front of you, you will know it when you’re on it.
Don’t expect anybody to have all the answers for you, there is NO instruction manual for unschooling – or life itself.
Start with baby steps.
One day at a time.