What is so Radical about Radical Unschooling?
~ a conference talk by Anne Ohman ~
I had one of those moments a little while ago…ya know those moments??...when your child is in front of you and says something or does something and you just know in that moment that all is truly well and that you and your family are exactly where you’re supposed to be, especially in reference to this unschooling life?
For this moment, I was in the kitchen, making dinner, and Sam, my 15 ½ year old, came to be by me. He’s really been into watching Jimmy Fallon’s late night talk show and I love it when he talks to me about what he’s seen. On this evening, he told me that Paul Simon was on the show last night. And he said, “I didn’t know he was the Simon part of Simon and Garfunkel!”
And…and that’s it.
What? Were you expecting something more??
The truth is that I have these feelings from such moments, numerous times a day and that revelation that Sam shared with me held no more value to me, as an unschooling mom, than any other learning connection that Sam has made throughout his 15 ½ years on this earth. It was no more valuable than when we were discussing the movie The Kite Runner and Sam made a comment about the Russians and the Germans and war and it was all historically accurate and very interesting and I had no idea where he picked up that information, but suspected it might have been from his video games. The fact that Sam made a connection that held meaning to him and his own life, with no thought as to how much value it might hold in school terms ~ that, to me, is what is valuable beyond measure.
And that seemingly small connection has grown in so many ways beyond that moment.
I didn’t even know Sam was that familiar with Paul Simon or Simon and Garfunkel, but every time we heard a Paul Simon or Simon and Garfunkel song after that Jimmy Fallon show, I imagined that his connections would start swirling around all over again…for each time after that original connection, he has been able to then connect the music he is hearing on the radio with Paul Simon’s face, and with information about his life that Jimmy Fallon prodded out of him…and then his awareness of all of that, as well as the other connections from that interview, are present in his Being, and so each time, his awareness has expanded, and is at a new level because of all the new connections he has acquired…and all of that is carried forward in his everyday life, twisting and swirling and growing or sort-of being paused until another spark lights the connections all over again…
While I was writing this out, I asked Sam about all of this, to confirm my hypothesis…and bear in mind that it’s probably been well over a month since he first told me about that Jimmy Fallon show and he didn’t know it would end up in a conference talk… I asked him if he now pictures Paul Simon when we hear his music on Sirius. Sam said, “Yeah. He’s old.” And he asked when his music was popular, asked if it was the 70’s. I said, “Yeah, but Simon and Garfunkel was the 60’s.” I came back to my computer to write more, googled Paul Simon, and then informed Sam that the dude is only 68 years old. Sam smiled and nodded. As if to say, “Yeah…what I said. He’s old.”
So this is just one connection that Sam shared with me from one moment in his life. How many more did he experience throughout the course of that Jimmy Fallon show? How many more learning connections happened that caused bells and whistles to go off, in an “Oh! I get it NOW!” sort of way…and how many learning connections occurred in the subtly quiet and unobtrusive way that learning usually happens…just as a part of living life. More than one, I’m quite certain.
That’s why this Jimmy Fallon moment holds no more value than any other connection that Sam has had in his life. It’s all a part of the bigger puzzle, each individual piece extremely valuable in and of itself and in its own way.
My unschooled children’s lives are truly their own. We don’t unschool academic subjects, we radically unschool life. My children have nothing to prove to me or our school district or anyone else in the world…they only have to trust in themselves and follow their own joy…and it’s that which we nurture and encourage and allow…and it’s that which brings me Peace and allows me to Trust in my children and in this unschooling life.
This is my radical in radical unschooling.
I think that if I were to go to the streets and take a poll and see how many parents would feel a sense of peace and contentment because their child learned from Jimmy Fallon’s late night show that Paul Simon was in Simon and Garfunkel, the results would be pretty contrary to my own reaction. I do believe most parents are more concerned about their children’s math, science and history test results from school.
To me and my family, Sam’s Jimmy Fallon moment holds WAY more value than anything a school thinks it needs to force on children, bullying them into learning what the schools deem valuable for life. The value of any real learning comes from the meaning it holds for the individual and his or her life.
You may know Ronnie Maier from other unschooling lists…I’ve known her for years as “Dragonfly.” She spoke at the Live and Learn conference last year, and I was surprised while listening to her talk to hear my name in there! And since my name was in there, I thought I could take advantage of that and use part of her unschooling conference talk as a story in my own.
Ronnie was talking about walking toward the *ideal* in unschooling. Here’s the excerpt from her talk, which was called Unschooling the Wrong Way:
***...things came along that kept us from reaching the ideal, or that seemed to be keeping us from it. We had busy times. And then we had slow times. And then we had—I had—moments of crisis. You've heard of PUPD? That's Periodic Unschooling Panic Disorder, and I've had more than my fair share of bouts.
One of the first of these was the test-score crisis. In Washington State, the law requires homeschoolers to either test or be evaluated by a teacher, annually. So, after our first year of unschooling, I dutifully sent off for tests, administered the tests, and then sent them back. When the results came back, I ignored all the excellent advice you'll see on unschooling forums and I looked at the results. I **freaked out**.
I sent a panicked e-mail to unschooling mom Anne Ohman that day, pouring out all my fear because the results weren't good enough.
And then the next day, I sent her a follow-up mail:
"Please disregard my entire panic-stricken email. I just [looked] at the results [again]. The percentages… are… their percentile rankings [and they actually put my kids right where they are supposed to be at their grade level]. Flurry of worry for naught."
Anne's reply was this:
"Frankly, I'm more disturbed by your relief that the scores weren't as low as you had thought than I was about your worrying about the scores being low! You are defining your children by school's terms...those tests don't mean anything in real life.
"I would examine your relief, and ask yourself *So What* if my child had scored low? Look at this perfect, beautiful child with an amazing mind. That test can't even come CLOSE to all that she holds in her mind and her heart...it can't even come CLOSE to defining all that She Is."
And then I took one step closer to the ideal.***
This is my radical.
There are so many definitions and debates about what radical unschooling is...and I do not want to get into a debate about it with anybody…but since I have the microphone today, I get to share with you my own ideas and thoughts from my own experience of living this life with my always-radically-unschooled 19 and 15 ½ year old boys.
I have noticed that when some people define radical unschooling, they, of course, start with the definition of unschooling ~ living without school. And then they explain that the radical part is that we extend that unschooling concept into other and all areas of life. For example, we don’t impose bedtimes on our children and we don’t force them to brush their teeth and we don’t force them to do chores and we let them choose what to wear (or not to wear) and we don’t control what they eat.
While all of this may be True, it all just seems like surface stuff to me. And I don’t exactly love the Vision this conjures …one of wild, out of control, dirty-teethed children running around naked all night while parents are trying to get to sleep, messing up the house and not caring, all while eating bags of sugar! While this may be accurate to some degree at some point in our lives, I’m pretty sure that it’s not a typical scenario in the everyday life of a radically unschooling family.
I don’t think that those surface examples capture the real Truth, nor do I think they help parents in getting to or understanding the radical. And I also think it’s what causes some people to think that radical unschooling might be something that looks like unparenting.
Radical unschooling is not abandonment or neglect or merely just the removal of control or rules. And by abandonment and neglect, I don’t even mean those words literally; although this is what some people think unschooling is, sadly. I mean to abandon and neglect our children emotionally, parentally and leave them feeling like they are alone on their path in life. It really saddens me to think that some people do think this is unschooling, because, to me and my family, the glory of our lives is found in just the opposite. It’s not control or rules, but it is joyfully involved parenting, partnering, sharing and guiding. It is giving information and sharing experiences and opinions, as well as being open to the child’s information, experiences and opinions. It is seeing the world through your child’s eyes and sharing in his path no matter what it brings…the joys, the frustrations, the challenges, the sweet flowing and the grand living. It is walking away from trying to control a child’s life and walking toward being co-creators with your child in his own, unique path and life.
I also, personally, don’t agree with the people who say that to radically unschool, you just say “yes” to your kids. Jake and Sam and I had a discussion about this last week, in response to the blogs I came across while doing research. I shared what I read with them about radical unschoolers encouraging their children to not only question authority, but to break the rules that don’t make sense to them, regardless of whom it impacts. To this Sam said, “It’s not a life based in Joy if it’s hindering other people’s Joy and their Peace and their livelihoods.” Jake’s input was this: “Radical unschooling isn’t a blanket statement saying that anything your kids want to do is OK…it’s a respectful way of living with your kids and helping them to know how to live in the world and not be clueless.”
Tweaking that “just say yes” definition a little because of the unparenting it seemed to be creating, a well-known and high-profile unschooling Mom was trying to sell me the definition of saying “yes” more. I still wasn’t buying.
I can see how it might help those who have felt a need to control their children and it might help those who automatically give a knee-jerk “no” in response to a child’s request. If it helps them to STOP and not give an automatic negative response, then that’s great. But I think it’s still just surface stuff.
The surface seems to be the place where there are only yes’s and no’s and nothing in between. It’s the place where the rules and parental control exist, as well as the absence of rules and parental control, without any real explanation, consideration, information or examination. I think it’s where people live when they’ve had a difficult time in life and they don’t want to face any more pain. I also think it’s where people go to from living in the hamster wheel of school, college, job and they think that this is all there is to life. The surface is where I find the people who live their lives and speak of their children without ever really considering the hearts and the souls and the needs and the Voices of the children.
I Go Deeper. I think you have to dig deeper in order to really find and live radical unschooling.
If we dig beneath those rules and that control and those yes’s and no’s…and if we look beyond the surface of our children’s lives, then we are on our way to excavating authenticity in our own lives…and it’s in that path where we will also find radical unschooling.
It’s within the depths of radical unschooling where the spectrum of answers and solutions between yes and no is infinite. It’s where those answers and solutions have a foundation built from the entire family’s input, feelings, opinions, experience, and information. Not one person is saying yes and not one person is saying no and nobody is telling anyone to go and figure it out on their own. Everyone is working together to explore the possibilities that lie within that spectrum between those two answers.
It is within the depths of radical unschooling where I am able to be a student of my child. I can choose to ignore all of the typical societal messages that exist on the surface and I can go deeper and truly know and understand my child…not only his Joys and his passions and his strengths and his interests, but also his sensitivities and his challenges and his fears.
Living a radical unschooling life in my family involves holding onto each of these things that make up Who My Child Is, and taking them all into consideration as we walk forward every day toward those things that allow him to Shine the brightest. We hold onto these things that make up Who He is as we work together and talk together about the things that happened yesterday, what’s happening right now, what this day may hold, and what tomorrow might look like. This is how we are partners and co-creators in our children’s lives.
By digging and reaching and living deeper, I am able to build and nurture a relationship with my children where we truly know and respect and enjoy and assist each other. They are not left alone to figure out the world…I am there as their guide, their translator, their interpreter, and a direct, unencumbered, nonjudgmental connection to their Shining True Selves. I am the one who listens, who shares, who Trusts in them, who allows and encourages them to Trust in themselves.
This is my radical.
I looked up that word in the dictionary. Well, actually, I lie…it was on my Merriam-Webster on-line toolbar.
There were several definitions for the word radical, but the one or two that are appropriate to what we’re talking about are these:
~ marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional : extreme
~ tending or disposed to make extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions
They also listed two slang definitions: Excellent and Cool! (I especially liked those!)
And Jake was walking by me as I was writing this, so I asked him what he thought was so radical about radical unschooling.
He thought for just a moment and then said, “The way that it defies the typical archetype that has been handed down from generation to generation.”
Here’s what I think. First of all, it’s sad to me that honoring, respecting and celebrating our children’s lives is considered to be radical. I envision and I walk toward the vision of creating a world where this is common.
I think it’s radical that we Trust our children deeply. It’s radical that we notice that our children are born with an innate desire to learn and explore and expand and get what they need and what they desire…and it’s even more radical that we trust in that even when they are five years old and beyond. It’s radical that we not only give their innate desire to learn and explore a sacred space to happen, but we also join them in that space.
It’s radical that we, as parents and adults, actually LIKE and enjoy being with our children.
It’s radical that we don’t allow typical society to tell us what has or should have value in our lives. It’s radical that we don’t believe in separating math or history or any other school subject from the rest of the world and from life. It’s radical that we don’t believe that forcing arbitrary facts from those subjects on our children has any value.
It’s radical that we not only believe, but we know for sure because of having it proved to us time and time again, that the REAL learning is right IN Jimmy Fallon or video games or dolls or hockey or whatever our children are drawn to, because REAL learning happens at the time when there is a connection that holds real MEANING in our children’s lives…and these connections are happening all of the time, unbidden and unseen by most.
It’s radical that we do not live according to the dictates of typical society when it comes to things like our children’s eating and their sleeping and their clothing and their jobs around the house, but not because we merely extend unschooling beyond the academics into these areas or because we have been told to say “yes” to our children, but because we truly hear, believe, trust, validate and respect our children’s Voices.
And it is oh so radical that we allow their glorious and unique perspective and view of the world to enlighten our own lives and expand our own worlds.
And…one more: It’s radical that we don’t merely ascribe to all things alternative and all things radical…that we are not rebelling against society nor are we militant in the alternative merely because it is going against the norm of society. We are simply creating the space to listen to our own hearts and follow our own flow and live our own unique path, whether it touches the mainstream or the alternative or anywhere in between…it’s radical that it is uniquely our own.
These are some of my radicals.
Most of all, I, personally believe that the radical in radical unschooling is found within the parent. I believe the radical lies within the inner work that we are willing and wanting to do ~ even though it is sometimes difficult and painful work ~ to go deeper and to GET to that place of releasing control and trusting in our children and being a partner in their lives.
This is why the definitions of just saying “yes”, or saying “yes” more, or releasing control from bed-time, food, chores and everything else is just surface stuff to me. Because anyone can say yes, anyone can remove control and state to the family that from now on there are no rules. But often, when we just work from the surface, it’s possible that deep down we are still holding inner resentments and questions and judgments and fears.
What I know from experience is that in order to get to that place of truly wanting to and BE-ing a joyful partner in my children’s lives, and to get to that place of respecting, honoring and celebrating Exactly Who My Child Is, it’s necessary for me to dig deeper within myself and remove my own baggage and release my own judgments. I find I need to work on my own healing and really learn to accept and forgive the yesterdays. In order to truly love and give to my children, I need to first truly learn to love myself Exactly As *I* Am.
Once we see that the real radical lies within the depths of our Beings, as unschooling parents, then we have more clarity in seeing through our children’s eyes, and the other choices that are a part of the radical seem to flow much easier.
Erica Chase-Salerno wrote to me after attending the We Shine Unschooling Conference and part of her message said, “I'm starting to really see and feel more deeply this journey of our family as our journey, delving inward, less about what our friends are doing or how it looks in their families. This feels so freeing.”
It’s freeing, because when we make the choice to do our own work of delving inward, we release so much. We are able to empty out our cups from our past pain, our inner struggles, our baggage and we’re free to be fully present here and now, in THIS moment, with our children and see their lives separate from our own past experiences and definitions.
This helps us to release the need to control them and make space for them to be Who They Are. We can release fear and make room for Trust. We can release those preconceived expectations that we feel society has placed on us and keep our sights and focus on what is real within our own home. We can release the need to compare ourselves and our children to others and find Peace and Contentment in just allowing everyone to Be. We can release old definitions of life and learning and the world and begin each new day with an empty cup, allowing it to be filled and emptied over and over again as we all grow and change and evolve and learn and stretch and come to new levels of awakening and awareness. As we release all of that, we gain our own freedom, we can claim our own unique space in the Universe, and we also can choose to be open to the gift of truly knowing and loving ourSelves.
It’s my radical to make the choice to go within and do the work in order to get to a place of truly understanding what my child needs from me and to see the infinite possibilities of what I can give to him.
It’s my radical decision to make sure that my child can see himself Shining in the reflection from my eyes so that he knows that he is worthy and that he is right to be Exactly Who He Is and that he is right to walk forward toward his Joy because that Joy and all that surrounds it in the real living out of that joy is where all of the world and where all of the learning is contained.
This is my radical.
. . . .
A couple of months ago, Jake and Sam and I went into a nearby city and Sam chose to have Chinese food for dinner. Jake and I had burritos. After we ate, Sam informed us that next time, he was going to get the burrito because he felt *unsatisfied* after the Chinese food.
Jake, being the Grammar Police from the time he was younger than 2 years old, correctingly said, "DIS-satisfied."
Sam said, "No...UNsatisfied."
They looked to me, and I had to admit that I thought Jake was right. But still, Sam stuck to his word. So I put both words in a google search and found this from dailywritingtips.com :
***Don't mix up dissatisfied with unsatisfied. Dissatisfied applies only to people who are unhappy, frustrated or disappointed with a thing, person or situation. Examples: I was dissatisfied with the service I received at the restaurant. She was dissatisfied with his response to her question. Unsatisfied refers to the feeling of needing more and can be used with abstract items. Examples: Despite the hearty meal, his hunger remained unsatisfied.***
Not only was Sam right, but the point he was making was exactly the example they had used!!
I’m telling you this because this is a radical story. I am always so blown away by Sam's vocabulary. He is brilliant and eloquent and comes up with words and I don’t know where he gets them from, but they are impressive and usually right on…and when they’re not, he’ll realize it, play around with it a bit more until he finds the word he was really looking for, like he’s shifting that puzzle piece around and around until it fits just right.
And it amazes and impresses me because I just so CLEARLY remember being told over and over again in school that you had to READ A LOT OF BOOKS in order to have a good vocabulary. In fact, the exact words my classmates and I repeatedly heard from the teachers were, "Timothy Prevost is so smart and has such a good vocabulary because he reads books all of the time." Everybody hated Timothy Prevost. Without trying to, and just for being Who He Was, the rest of us were made to feel bad about ourselves because our teachers chose to place a comparative and competitive value on a child who finds his joy in reading books.
Sam has probably read one book all the way through ~ it was the graphic novel Watchmen. He started really reading strongly when he was about 13 years old, and before that, he always just kind of guessed at the words that were in video games…or he would know enough certain key words, some very long and complex ones, to get by in order to play his games or YuGiOh. He also depended SO much on Jake, who would read everything for him (happily, I might add). And because of all of his years of being used to doing this, skimming, guessing and asking, he’s kind of gotten into the habit of doing just those things BEFORE he decides to actually READ something, even though he can read very well.
About a month ago, he was making brownies from a mix and I was nearby. He asked me what temperature the oven needed to be set to. I laughed and light-heartedly told him that I didn’t know, but he or I could read the directions on the box to find out!!
After I said that, I looked closely and carefully at him and I added, "Kind of opposed to anything that has to do with reading?"
It had started in my head as a joke, but as it came out of my mouth, it felt more like a loaded question.
But in those few seconds after I asked that question and before Sam answered, I wondered exactly why it had become a loaded question for me. Looking at my boy right there, in that moment, I knew without a doubt that all was well!
It did NOT matter that he asked me a question before reading for the answer…I was right there and I do have quite a few years of experience in making brownies from a mix. It’s understandable that he would ask a person whom he trusts his question, just in case there was even the SLIGHTEST possibility that he was able to get an answer instead of picking up the box and shifting his brain into recipe-speak in order to find out what temperature to set the oven to. The guy just wanted to make brownies and there are times when Sam wants to do things with as little effort as possible.
So the question wasn’t so loaded after all when I was looking at Sam and truly seeing Who He Is, because all I really see when I look at him is all that makes him Shine!
It turned into a loaded question as it came out of my mouth because of what was within ME. I knew that it wasn’t because I had traces of past definitions and fears and judgments within me…I believe it became a loaded question for this reason ~ I have been speaking at unschooling conferences for over eight years and writing on unschooling forums for even longer, saying something along the lines that when kids aren’t forced to learn to read, and if they aren’t forced to read things either of their choosing or not, then they don’t associate reading with anything negative and their love of reading does not get snuffed out.
But here was my boy, who for all of his life has been celebrated for all that he IS, who has never been shamed nor seen as lacking for not reading, who was never forced to learn to read, nor forced to read anything once he did start reading. And yet it seemed that he still not only did not love reading, but he actually avoided it, even when he wanted and needed information! There he was, proving me dead wrong! And I usually actually LOVE it when my children do this, but this was more serious because I would be wrong in front of a much larger audience than just my family!
So there it was...the question had been posed to Sam…it was out there…joking or loaded, it was out there. “Kind of opposed to anything that has to do with reading, Sam?” And Sam, being the wonderful and hilarious person that he is, laughed and said, "Well, actually, yeah...but nonetheless..." and he painstakingly picked up the box to read the directions.
Sam lives ~ has always lived ~ a VERY full and rich life. Yes, we know that reading books adds even more fullness and enrichment to some other people's lives, but Sam has never been drawn to that. He’s drawn to things that other people may not be drawn to. There is no equation for perfection in a radical unschooling life, nor are we striving for the right answer to get a good grade. We’re only working from our own Truth, our own comfort zone, our own Joy, our own paths, our own level of motivation. That’s what makes it so radical.
Sam has never been told by anyone that he trusts and respects that society would look upon him more favorably if he reads a lot of books. He’s certainly picked up on that fact from society’s messages, though…but he knows the Truth about society’s perverted definitions that are based in school’s manipulations. He doesn’t trust society’s messages, so those messages are not going to change the way he feels about himself. There is no way my child is going to pick up books and read them in order to be seen in a better light in society. He knows that he is a phenomenal human being, and he knows that what he IS drawn to are exactly the things he should be doing, as those are the things make him the person he is and the person he wants to be. And this is what is celebrated about him and this is why we are so radical.
Sam has always listened to audio books…at first because he happened to be in the car where Jake and I were listening to a book, and then later, choosing to listen to the books over listening to his music at times. He remembers more about all of the books we’ve listened to over the years than I do…in fact, I read the 6th Harry Potter book twice and listened to it on audio w/both Jake and Sam, and yet when we saw the movie, it was Sam who remembered so many little details and connections and character facts that I did not. Sam still remembers books we listened to several years ago, when he was very young, and will quote them or make a reference to them in conversations, and I will have to ask where it’s from and I end up feeling like I didn’t even really read or listen to the book. When Sam was little, he would listen to Jake and I as we sat together reading, but he would do so nearby while he was playing. This boy likes to *move*.
There are *so* many amazing and wonderful aspects to my wonderful boy…and the fact that it seems that he isn’t drawn to reading books or boxes for directions is simply another piece of his Being. Sam is tall. Sam is hilarious. Sam loves to cook. Sam sometimes would rather skim, guess or ask questions than read. Sam loves to mix beverages. Sam loves to kayak. Sam loves his English bulldog, Monty. Nothing is better, nothing is worse…nothing is graded and no value is placed on something above another…it all just Is.
This is my radical.
The truthful answer to my joking and seemingly “loaded” question to Sam is actually *no*…Sam is not opposed to reading ANYthing. In addition to frequently becoming engrossed in various magazine articles, Sam’s world is full of reading. All kids’ worlds are, no matter where they are on the learning-to-read spectrum. Here’s a really radical part ~ my boy gets to choose whether to skim, guess, ask about or actually read what’s in front of him. This is just one of the zillion choices he gets to make in his free life every day…a life that is removed from judgment or shame, grades or Timothy Prevost, and one where he gets to do exactly what works best for him in any given reading situation.
After thinking about this further, I thought that perhaps my question to Sam, which I had thought was so loaded and onto which I had placed the entire weight of my credibility as an unschooling author and speaker, really could just be something that might very well be attributed to the socio-biological argument that men don’t read instructions or ask for directions. Again, checking my hypothesis with Sam, he said, “It’s actually just an advanced form of laziness.” Perhaps I go too deep sometimes.
Here are two samples out of the thousands of reading-connected moments I have witnessed with Sam since the time of this brownie-making, loaded-question incident. I have seen Sam ask Jake what was going on in an on-line manga Jake was reading, and not being able to explain it fully himself, Jake said, “You can read it.” Sam grumbled as he walked to Jake’s mac book, “Grrrr…reading…”
And when I was cleaning the table this past Thursday night, I picked up the paperback book The Great Gatsby. I asked whose it was, and Jake said it was Sam’s. I asked if he was reading it, and Jake said, “Apparently.” As I was cooking dinner that night, Sam came to me with the book and told me that he loved the quote that was in the beginning of the book. He handed it to me to read. It was a quote by Thomas Parke D’Invilliers and it said: ***Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; If you can bounce high, bounce for her, too, Till she cry, “Lover! Gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!*** I googled Thomas Parke D’Invilliers and learned that it is a pen name for Francis Scott Fitzgerald and a character in his quasi-autobiographical first novel, This Side Of Paradise. I also learned that, oddly enough, he has a facebook page.
Dan Milman, who is the Way of the Peaceful Warrior dude, said, “Faith does not rely on knowing anything with certainty. It requires only the courage to accept that whatever happens is for the highest good.”
This is the foundation of our radical.
I asked the Shine with Unschooling list to tell me some things that they used to think were True before they understood and lived radical unschooling.
Many posts came through and most of them were about how people thought (or assumed from being a witness to it in society) that you had to *make* kids do things and control your children. I could go through each one of them and talk about how radical unschooling busts that particular societal-held myth…but it’s more my style to let our lives speak.
So, to do that, I was going to have you follow us around for a day as we busted these myths…the day of September 18, to be exact…the day before we were taking Jake to Vermont to attend Not Back to School Camp. But after I had written it all out, complete with back-stories about how we got to where we are, it was way too long and added about an extra hour to my already too-long talk. So I printed it out for you to take and read at your leisure.
Instead, I’m going to skip directly to the END of that day and continue from there!
Later that night (…keeps that sense of mystery, doesn’t it??...I know you’ll just be dying from anticipation and you’ll have to rush to read the hand-out to see what you missed!), as we all finally gathered together in the living room to watch some TV, Jake came and sat by me and I was so grateful for that, for his absence over the next week was all too present in my mind and heart. He was talking about how excited he was about going to Not Back to School Camp the next day and I was telling him how happy I was for him. Dave whined, only half-jokingly, “Why are you leaving us, Jake?” and I answered him. I said, “Because he has to…because it’s what he needs and wants to do…and it’s all good and right and as it should be…but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to miss him.”
I turned to Jake and asked, “You’re not going to miss us one bit, are you?” He said, “Mmm…probably not.”
And my heart soared with Joy for my boy.
Last year, 2008, was Jake’s first year at Not Back to School Camp. It honestly was the first time he had been away from his family for a night…and here he was, away from his family in the most rustic of circumstances, in the freezing cold of Vermont in late September, for seven nights!
His decision to go to camp last year was an easy one…his decision to stay once he had been there did not come as easily. I had already received the call that Sam was not enjoying camp at all, and so I made the 4-hour drive back to Vermont the day after camp began to bring Sam home. It was kind of assumed at that point that Jake would be coming home, too, because when I asked him, I never really got a straight answer from him about if HE was enjoying it…and whether he wanted to stay or not…and, after all, isn’t Jake the one with the extreme sensitivities? Isn’t Jake the one that brought us to unschooling for a zillion reasons, one of them being that I could not picture this boy in a setting that lacked privacy, like a locker room and a gym class? Hadn’t we been half-joking around with Sam prior to camp, telling him that he needed to watch out for his older brother and protect him and take care of him while they were at camp? So if Sam didn’t like it and needed to come home, then surely Jake must feel that way, too.
And yet, hearing Jake talk about it, I knew that it was really wrong to assume that he would want to come home. There was a spark of hope in his stories, even with no proof of a happy ending, and a deep disappointment in the thought of leaving. Not Back to School Camp was something that Jake had wanted to do for a long time, and it was just this year that he felt like he was ready. But would he want or be able to be there without Sam? Would the things that he felt he could get out of camp ~ mainly a deep connection with more unschooled friends ~ be worth the price of the few things he despised, not to mention surviving the rustic setting of it all?
These were the things that we spent the next four hours discussing. Yes, four hours…after a four hour drive to Vermont and with a four hour drive home ahead of me. But I knew that four hours was a relatively small and actually easy investment for my child’s peace of mind and heart.
Being a student of my child was crucial in this marathon conversation in order to make sure that all parts of Who Jake Is were honored and considered. Jake experiences what we call “torturous indecisiveness”. When he was younger, it used to paralyze his life at times, and I would spend a long time helping him to come to a place of feeling good about whichever option he would ultimately choose. Since he’s older, he doesn’t experience it as much, but it can crop up at times when he places a great deal of importance on a particular decision and its outcome…like whether or not to get his hair cut before camp, or what to do on his birthday.
And so whether or not to stay at camp for the next six nights was a really big one, and it was not a decision that could be set aside while we gain more clarity and direction. This was something that needed a conclusion at some point on this day, as I still had a four hour drive home ahead of me. And so I needed to use what I know to be True about my boy in order to help him come to a decision.
Throughout our conversation, above all else, I could pick up on the fact that despite the cold, the rustic three-sided cabins, the mandatory group meetings, the freakin’ cold, the lack of privacy, the constant wet feet from wet shoes, the freakin’ freezing cold, Jake truly wanted this experience for himself ~ to grow as a person. This was way more than merely deciding to be at camp or not…this felt like a real turning point in his life, and here he was trying to decide whether or not to go ahead into the fear and the unknown, or turn around and go home to his safety net. We are a family that believes strongly in the safety net of home and family, trusting that our children will step forward out of it in their own good time, in their own way, with no prodding or nudging from anyone else.
I could see that Jake wanted this experience as sort of a test for himself and I knew that this factor could not be ignored.
When I think about what is so radical about our lives, I believe much of it comes from the motivation I have always had to work with my children so that they can be at a place where they feel good about themselves…so that when they look in the mirror, they feel good about that reflection staring back at them. Really, everything has stemmed from that place, that desire, from the very beginning…from when I saw my Whole and Complete young child learning so much every day by living in the real world and following his Joy and I did not think that school would add anything to his feeling good about himself (and neither did he!). Quite the contrary, actually, as Jake was always so wonderfully unique…I knew he would not fit in the typical expectations box of school and this would only contribute to him NOT feeling good about himself.
I have seen with both of my children that it’s easy for them to feel good about themselves when living a life based in their joy, but we all know that there are challenging times in between that Joy. When behavior was not at its best, or anxiety was high, or there were torturous decisions to be made, I felt that I could easier know what path to walk during those times when I made the deliberate and mindful choice to not take the anything personally and instead focus on getting to a place where my child could feel good about himself. This involves validating where he is and what he is feeling and experiencing in this moment. And this validating most definitely involves seeing beyond the surface of the behavior or the anxiety or the decision and digging deeper than I thought I could dig, into the need and the message that it’s conveying. It’s here where I can make the shift to see the world from my child’s perspective, and I can summon similar experiences and feelings that I have had in my own life, therefore validating from a sincere and honest place.
During my talk with Jake at camp, I knew that if he walked away from something he had placed so much self-value on that he would not feel good about himself…and Jake is wired in a way that when he doesn’t feel good about something he did or said or chose, then it stays with him for years, and it sometimes seeps into his everyday life in little nagging ways. I knew that this is what I needed to release him from, and so I kept walking toward that which would allow my child to be free from guilt or regret.
This involved me digging deeper than I thought I could go, because I was the one who wasn’t sure if Jake would survive let alone Shine in this camp setting. I had to dig deeper into the well of Trust I had built over the years in my boy and hold onto that spark of light I saw in him when he talked about being at camp. That was the spark of his Shine, and I had to trust that when it was free, and with a little more kindling from me, that it would grow. I had nothing more to go on than being a student of my child and trusting completely in him and in that small spark, even when everything else in his life up to this point had indicated he would not like to be left alone, without his family, without the comforts of home, in a place where he had very little privacy, that was freezing cold, that had such a mixture of personalities that he wasn’t sure he could be completely himself, where a daily group meeting was mandatory and Jake’s spirit always had rejected anything mandatory…for seven days.
But I did it. I focused on that spark of Shine. And I dug deeper and I walked forward.
I told him that the seven days would go by whether he was at camp or whether he was at home…and we can come to the end of these seven days either at home, having a good time together there, which we always do and always can do…or we can be at the end of this week with Jake having experienced something new and different…something that he’s been wanting to experience for a long time…something that he felt would manifest exactly what he had desired…something that gave him the opportunity to walk forward toward the unknown, the chance to risk the comfort of his safety net for personal growth, fulfillment, and deeper connections with himSelf and with others….
He chose the latter. We said our good-byes for the second time in two days and I watched him excitedly run up the hill from where we were parked to the main lodge…and I drove away crying, yet trusting in my boy more than ever before and proud to know such an amazing and brave human being.
Jake ended up getting exactly what he had hoped he would get out of the experience. He made wonderful new friends with whom he created deep connections from sharing in this experience together, from having profound conversations, and from being completely immersed in a community where he felt safe and comfortable to be his gloriously unique and quirky Self. He was celebrated for being Who He Is at camp. And the things that I thought would crush him turned out to be the things that he cherished.
Jake came home with an amazingly bright new light that I had never seen before in him. He had passed his own personal tests of character, survival, inner strength, fearlessness, and acceptance…not only passed, but thrived and was in Sheer Heaven and Pure Joy for every day that was left after that four hour conversation.
Not for one single moment during Jake’s 18 years before he left for camp did we ever think that this boy needs to get used to being away from his family so that he can function in the “real world.” Not once did we throw him in the water when he wasn’t ready or wanting to swim. Not once in his life did we tell him he needed to toughen up, get used to being alone, get used to the harsh realities of the world. That’s not the world we live in, in our family, and it’s not the world we believe in.
So not one time during our four-hour meeting to decide whether he would stay or leave camp did I have any second-thoughts or regrets about the life Jake has lived those previous 18 years. In fact, quite the contrary was True. I was so grateful that our lives had allowed the time and space for my boy to know exactly Who He Is and Who He Wants to Be and what makes him comfortable and what makes him uncomfortable. Even if it took four hours to get to that place of knowing.
The same held True for Sam in choosing to NOT stay at camp. There was not a single passing thought about the money we had paid for him to be there…in fact, we ended up spending a heck of a lot more money because Sam and I spent that weekend in New York City, eating at our favorite places, seeing the Blue Man Group and then seeing Rhys Darby at Caroline’s Comedy Club.
But the money that was spent on something that was not completed was not a factor…only my boy’s heart being where it needed to be ~ home ~ mattered to us. This was not the first time we have paid for something that turned out to not be in alignment with my children’s lives. Each time it happens, we learn more about ourselves and the world and we are able to live better lives and be more True to ourselves. We have always felt that the money was merely an investment in our children’s Peace and Joy, as well as an immense learning opportunity for all of us…for even when a class or camp is paid for and not completed, we have learned so much along the way.
This profound growth and evolution that Jake experienced at camp is something that should not be radical…it is exactly the organic and free way that learning about one’s self and the world and one’s place in the world should happen for every child, every person…in their own time, in their own way, in the environment of their own choosing. What makes it all even more radical is the space and honor and trust that we, his parents, gave to him all of his life in order for this growth and change to happen as beautifully and organically as it did.
Follow the child. In all ways. Follow the child to a place where he is feeling good about himself. This is the radical that is held within us, and that is our choice to make as the unschooling parents.
And often, we have to keep digging to make sure that we’re really hitting that specific part of the radical. Sometimes we lay our shovels down thinking we’ve done the work, we’re there now, we’ve found it, we’re radical unschoolers. We’re following the interests, the passions, we’re honoring who they are and what they love. And we sit all comfy on our pillows of Trust.
But then the children change and grow and they need more and they take different paths and so they need different things and we’re back here on their old interests, saying, “Hey, this looks good for you,” and they’re up ahead on the path, looking back and saying, “No thank you…and could you please keep up, Mom?” ;)
And sometimes some old definitions and judgments slip back into our minds and we come up against struggle because we have been oh so comfy on our old pillows of Trust that we’re reluctant to get up and take a look at it and realize that something needs to shift and we’re not wanting to admit that it’s probably us that needs to make that shift…so it takes a while and in that time there’s probably some more clashing and struggle, but we eventually realize that the radical, again, lies within us, and it’s up to us to pick up the shovel again and dig, dig, dig even deeper to keep reaching for the new level of radical in order for us to catch up to our children and really BE with them where they are so that we can continue to give them what they need and to make sure that we TRULY are hearing them, believing them, and following them.
And then there is the clarity and the Joy and the reward from the work and the digging and digging to get to the radical. There is the connection with our children, one deeper and easier and sweeter than we could have ever imagined before they came into our worlds. There is a life well-lived, and souls that remain Whole and Truths that have been excavated, previously buried under the muck of non-truths. There is an authenticity to life and paths that open up because of living in that place of authenticity. There is truly knowing ourselves and our children and not hiding behind and in the stuff that those on the surface hide behind and judge others by. There is a child whose life is full of hope and the possibilities are exciting and infinite. There is Sheer Joy and the ability to create the life we want to live because of living in this vibration of Joy.
This is not only extreme radical, this is excellent and cool.
After a visit with my Dad this summer, he sent me an e-mail that said, “The boys are turning into great young men. They really seem to enjoy life.”
There is nothing that anyone could have said that would have better captured or more fully summed up the life of my unschooled children. I felt proud of my Dad for noticing this above all else. This was another Jimmy Fallon moment for me when I read that…probably one of a hundred I had that day.
And that pervasive feeling of Peace and Trust that I get from such moments is most definitely my radical.
Thank you for listening.