Unschooled

Over the weekend I read two articles—scratch that, make it three—about a family who “unschooled” in the 70s. One written in 1975 by the mother actively in the midst of keeping her children at home to learn as they would, when they would, on the loosest of schedules. One by the youngest child in that family, describing what it was actually like being unschooled at home and abroad. And a final response by the mother, who was surprised by some of what her daughter revealed. And of course, all of this got me thinking…

John started a Sudbury school in Kansas. In short, the Sudbury model de-emphasizes formal “classes”, advocates age mixing and is run as an autonomous democracy in which every participant (whether child or adult) has a single, equal vote in the running of the school and hiring of staff. Sudbury schools do not evaluate, assess or recommend. As long as the children do not harm one another, they are free to do as they please.

As an ideal, I love this model. Am I “free” enough to let go of my conceptions of achievement and progress to support my children in this model? Uh, no. In many ways, I think unschooling (which is basically what the Sudbury model is, with the addition of a broader, democratically run community of children) is very compatible with attachment parenting (another relational model I find outstanding in principle, but difficult for me to uniformly adhere to–though I admit to being undersupported, and I constanstly struggle to strike a balance between personal and family life). Maybe this is a personal failing; maybe I am just somewhere inbetween. But watching Gabriel play/work today as I raked our substantial side yard, I started considering things a little differently.

Because you see, Gabriel was not my first child. That would be Jonah. And Jonah has always been especially adept at getting what he needs, even if it (almost) kills me (and his father). He cried unlike any baby I have ever known. It was a shriek. A pterodactyl-like howling squawk. And honestly, John and I just did whatever it took to make it stop. We danced. We bounced insanely hard and high on an overinflated yoga ball. We played Loud music with a fantastic, almost primal drum beat. We wore him in baby packs for naps. We drove for hours in the car for naps (praying not to hit a red light). We slept with him as he rubbed our arms up and down until he fell asleep. I would nurse him for hours and experienced all manner of painful troubles doing so. If you look at the attachment parenting checklist, we fall pretty much in line, even if we started the practice under a certain degree of duress. That duress awakened in me a latent penchant for bitterness that I fight to this day. The feeling that someone is taking my life away from me, without my permission.

Things are immensely better with Jonah in all regards. And I can’t help but think that has something to do with the attachment parenting he forced us into. Thanks J. But back to Gabriel for a moment. You should have seen him at work today outside. Completely following his own initiative (anything I suggest these days is met with a standard “NO!”), he carried pieces of wood to and fro, he dug in the dirt, he discovered more wood in the garage and proceeded to transport, he did some “building” (which amounted to piling scraps of wood), he ran in circles around the yard vocalizing his war whoop, he got into our real toolbox and procured a screwdriver which he used on every screw he could find. In the midst of this, he brought me my water bottle while I raked. Handed it to me and said, “Wawer,” as he took a drink of his own. Then he took it back from me and put it back where he found it. I was stunned. Stunned and pleased as punch.

All of this got me thinking that Gabriel would be a fine unschooler. And that I might even be a decent unschooler mom. I still fear what I perceive to be a personal lack of freedom. And I’m not sure what to make of Jonah in this environment. He craves structure. Trying to get him to conform to said structure isn’t always easy, especially if it involves something he’s not interested in. He needs an incentive. But there again, we fall into one of the tenets of unschooling—follow the child. Connected with my particular concerns for Jonah is my growing acceptance of his autism. I’m still feeling my way through things, especially when it comes to the ways I can help him live independently in the world. I don’t want that to mean I’m teaching him to act a certain way, to always be pretending to be someone he’s not. I have to watch carefully my own reactions to certain of his behaviors. I do not want to squelch what is simply a difference, even (especially) if I find that difference to be odd or socially unacceptable.

Autism advocate Ari Ne’eman recently said in an essay published for Autistics Speaking Day:

Not too long ago, a colleague commented that I should be proud for being so nearly “indistinguishable from my peers.” Only in the autism community would anyone consider that a compliment. Despite the good intentions behind the remark, I felt a profound sense of hate and disgust motivating it — not of me as an individual, but of the person I was growing up, and of the person I still am, hidden underneath layers of mannerisms and coping strategies and other social sleights of hand. Those kinds of statements define our worth as human beings by how well we do looking like people whom we’re not. No one should have to spend their life hiding who they are.

Along those same lines, The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism published a post by Kyra Anderson titled Bring Everyone Out that speaks directly to the stigma of autism in society, and how parents as well as their autistic children struggle to come to terms with it.

I’ll close this down with a short list of simple guidelines from Barbara Doyle that seem to me to fit under all three umbrellas I’ve been considering: unschooling, attachment parenting, and autism.

  • Put the relationship ahead of compliance. Do we really want our kids completely compliant? Consider someone saying this: Get in the car. Drink that up. Take off your clothes.
  • See all behavior as communication. Don’t seek to extinguish behavior until at least you understand what is trying to be communicated.
  • Respond to all communicative signals as quickly as you can.
  • When you feel stuck, choose a respectful response that minimizes the tension.
  • Help eliminate the Us versus Them mentality that is reinforced every time someone says something like, you are so patient to deal with that every day! You are such a special person! God chose you because such and such and la la la! Phooey. We are not divided that way, or we ought not be. We are we. I do what I do with my son because I love him, I rejoice in my time with him, I learn from him and I am compelled to be the best mom I can because it’s important to me.

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