20 Unschooling Questions

So, I saw that my good friend Frank Maier volunteered to be "interviewed" about unschooling for an awesome website called "Do Life Right", and I just couldn't help myself. Great site, provocative questions - and it's always a good way to clarify my thinking. And, frankly, it inspired me to start blogging again. So without further ado, here it is.

DoLifeRight: Tell me a bit about yourself and your family (name, children’s ages, where you live, etc.):
Jeff: We are a family of five: me, my wife Ginger, our daughter Annie (19), and sons Kai (10) and Kade (7). We have lived in Monterey, CA; State College, PA; Nashville, TN, and now reside in Carlsbad, CA, just north of San Diego.

DoLifeRight: How long have you homeschooled your children? Do you consider your family an unschooling family? What does this mean for your family?
Jeff: Annie did not live with us when she was of school age; she went to public school through the 6th grade, and then went to Waldorf through high school. Kai went to public school kindergarten only, and Kade has never been. The boys have always had an interest in learning things at their own speed and in their own way, and we have never used a formal curriculum at all. We do consider ourselves unschoolers, although that term has a variety of meanings and looks different in every household. We tend to think of it as following the principles of unschooling by focusing on the pursuit of passions and life learning – for the parents and the kids.

DoLifeRight: Did you plan to homeschool your children before you actually had children? What is your own educational background?
Jeff: As I mentioned, Kai went to school for his kindergarten year. I grew up with the paradigm that my kids would go to a good public or private school, and that my wife would either work part time or not at all. My grammar school education was okay until I discovered social pursuits, which led me to value other things more than school from grade 7-12. My grades reflected my new focus on non-school things, so I had limited college options. I attended college a bit over the next 7 years, taking a class here and there, with little direction or interest in going or learning what they had to teach. When I turned 25 or 26, however, I decided I wanted to get a degree, and completed my BA full-time while I was in the Army full-time. After I got out of the Army, I worked for a few years and then want back to get my MBA from Penn State. Both of my degrees were with honors, which is amazing for a guy who scraped through high school with a 1.7 GPA.

DoLifeRight: Why did you decide to not send your children to school? What research did you do to make this decision? Were there any books, magazines, or websites you would recommend new parents (or parents who are new to homeschooling) read?
Jeff: Kindergarten for Kai was an ok experience overall, nothing too wonderful and nothing too terrible. I would have been okay continuing along that path, but that is primarily because I never really thought about homeschooling – and I had certainly never heard of unschooling. After the kindergarten year, we moved to Tennessee into a neighborhood in which the school bus came at 6:30 in the morning, and we quickly figured out that that was not going to work out too well. It is very easy to homeschool in Tennessee, so we started to do that while learning about what homeschooling actually looked like. Somewhere along the way Ginger discovered unschooling, and began to read about it. The more I learned the more I liked it. While there have been some fits and starts, we have never looked back. The one book I read that meant all the difference for me was “Parenting a Free Child”, by Rue Kream. It really answered all of my questions about how my child’s future would be impacted by unschooling. It was hard to believe at first, but it has all born out.

DoLifeRight: Did you consider yourself an “Attachment Parent” when your children were infants? How did this (or didn’t this) affect your choice to unschool/homeschool your children?
Jeff: We were uber-attachment parents, and still are, although some things have changed. After Kai was born in the hospital, we began researching different ways to parent. So in a nutshell, we started out as: no-circumcision, birth at home, cotton diapers, breastfeeding three-year-olds, co-sleeping, non-vaccine, baby sling, organic food, etc, etc. We also had mostly educational videos, no violent toys, no internet (or microwave for that matter), no cable TV, and the like. I don’t know that parenting our young ones this way made unschooling an easier choice, but I do know that as we began to relax control over some of the things like toys, TV, internet, and food, I certainly had a huge paradigm shift to make. It was, and sometimes continues to be, hard.

DoLifeRight: What specific benefits to your children (or family as a whole) have you actually seen since you became unschoolers/homeschoolers?
Jeff: Seriously? I don’t look at it this way. Unschooling can not be measured by short-term goals or milestones or growth. I think that when you truly adopt unschooling, you’re taking a long-term view of your child’s life and setting them up for success beyond your wildest dreams. How? By setting up an environment in which we model the pursuit of our own passions without expectations or conditions; by allowing and encouraging our children’s passions and exploration without judgment; by trusting that our children will do what’s right for them even if it’s not what we would choose for them or for ourselves. Doing this authentically and wholeheartedly helps our children understand that their views have value, that their passions have value, that their thoughts have value - that they have value. And that builds a confidence that enables them to try new things and explore their passions as well as their fears. But most critically, it enables them to see the world through their own eyes and to define success on their own terms.

DoLifeRight: Do you have a regular schedule in your life? How does this work with outside commitments and responsibilities?
Jeff: Well, Annie and I have a regular schedule – Ginger and the kids, not so much! Not only is there no real definition in their schedule, but it shifts day to day. In general, their schedule is as follows: eat when you’re hungry, wake up when you’re ready to be awake, go to sleep when you’re tired. That all works pretty well, and our folks who stay up late are respectful of others, just like our early risers are. When we do have something that we want or need to accomplish during the day that could alter our regular schedule, we simply talk about it. For example, if Kai wants to stay up until 5:00am but also wants to go to park day at 11:00am, we simply explain what that means to him so he can consider how to work with those timelines. How else could we do it? Bedtimes and awake times are arbitrary, and if they’re not tied to when someone is actually tired then they have no relevance.

DoLifeRight: How important have support groups been for you? Do you have online ones, in person ones, or a mixture? Please list any you want to share.
Jeff: “Support” groups have been hit or miss for me. At various times, I have subscribed to Yahoo groups (Always Unschooled, Unschooling Basics, SSUDS) and participated in local unschooling groups (which have mostly become play groups, not necessarily unschooling-oriented). Of greater value for me were the unschooling conferences I attended, where I got to see families at all different ends of the spectrum, listen to and bond with other unschoolers, and really see it in action. If there is one piece of advice I could give to unschoolers, new or old, and especially Dads, it’s this: get thee to a conference!

DoLifeRight: What resources do you use for your children’s “educations”? Feel free to comment on the word “education”.
Jeff: I’m okay with the word education, but not okay with the assumption that “I” use or select the resources. If we start with a basic presumption that unschooling is about learning about the world through experience, then the idea of resources (prescribed or otherwise) is a pretty silly one. The question then becomes, how do we interact with the world? We experience the world in whatever ways we choose, often simultaneously: relationships, talking, listening, TV, internet, board games, video games, sleep, books, shopping trips, exercise, cooking, lounging, eating, etc. The world itself is the most amazing resource of all; all formal resources, like books and curriculum, are simply ways to organize and categorize the things we see and experience. Wouldn’t you rather just experience it than read about it?

DoLifeRight: How did your friends and families react when you told them your children wouldn’t be going to school? Have their opinions changed over the years?
Jeff: I think our family learned long ago that we were planning on parenting in a way that worked for us, not for them. Accordingly, they did not push back at all. While they may not always understand it, I get the feeling that they respect it. Friends have been slightly more challenging, especially other families with kids the same age as ours. Since our “rules” are different, that can lead to some tension, and I am sure that some of them think we are crazy. My reaction to that is pretty simple – who cares? If our kids like playing together, let them play. If they don’t, they’ll let us know. If it’s a problem for the other parents, well then so be it. Provided other people are not making judgments about me because of unschooling, it’s all good. Otherwise, if they want to judge we may have to call it quits.

DoLifeRight: What have been the benefits (unexpected and expected) to homeschooling?
Jeff: We don’t unschool for the benefits, we unschool because we believe that our children have the right to experience the world for themselves and develop their own tools for making their own choices in pursuit of their own interests. I cannot make that happen, of course, but I think they stand a better chance of it through unschooling. There have been some pleasant surprises as we have relaxed control of things like bedtimes, food choices etc. No more fights over inconsequential family logistics!

DoLifeRight: How does your family make money? Do you have a job? Full-time or part-time or something in between? Can you tell us about your choices and how you made these decisions?
Jeff: We decided before Kai was born that we would be a one-income family, and I would be the income earner. Over the years, I have increased my earning power and now have a reasonable balance between pay and workload. It’s not always reasonable, of course, but on the whole it works okay. Every once in a while I think I’d like a job with a bit more flexibility to work from home or take some time off, but I really have it pretty good where I am.

DoLifeRight: How have *you* personally grown since you started unschooling/homeschooling your children? How has your relationship with your spouse/partner grown?
Jeff: One thing I did not expect was the degree of introspection that I would undergo, mostly around the idea of control. Most Dads relish and exercise control, but not because we like to be controlling. We need it because we need to keep our lives in order and in pace with our expectations, and with the expectations others have of us. And as we make the change to unschooling, and we feel control slipping, it’s scary. But here’s the creepy thing; I think we actually have more control when we unschool than if we don’t. We like to think we can control things like what a child learns, what job they have, how happy they are, how healthy they are. We infuse our children constantly with what our expectations of them are. And then we send them to off to school, where we have no control over what they learn; we send them off to college, where we have no control over the direction their lives will take; we control what they eat in our house, where they only spend 20% of their waking hours; and we control what activities they participate in in pursuit of happiness. What we do not do is give them the trust and tools they need to make their own choices and set their own course, thereby putting them in the exact same position as we were once in - unsure, fearful, with the parent’s definition of happiness and success. We create the illusion of control for ourselves and our children, and then we use it to build a house of cards that we pray won’t fall down until the kids are too distracted to notice. So, in our efforts to control we actually do a great job; we control the rest of their lives for them in fact, unless they can break the shackles. What is a Dad to do? We want and in many ways need to control and share our expectations, but we risk screwing things up if we do so. What we can definitely control is the way we help our beautiful children navigate through this world, and the way we help them chart and steer the course that is best for them. We can share our expectations like these: “I want you to be happy. I want you to see the world for all it can be. I want you to find the things you love to do and do them as much as you want. I want you to develop your own definition of success, and then pursue it like a dog on a bone. I want you to know that I will support and love you, even if you’re down. And I have only one real expectation and hope - that you believe what I just said, and that you call [...] me when I deviate.” Regarding my relationship with Ginger, we have learned that unschooling is definitely not the easy choice; it forces you to engage in decisions that most families take for granted, and to confront your own personal baggage about expectations, parenting, and education. We have not always agreed, and we have rarely agreed at the exact same time. But we have learned to disagree peacefully, as well as learned more about the depth of the feelings and trust we have for our children.

DoLifeRight: Are you able to find time to have your own hobbies, interests, and friends? Beyond your children (of course), what are your interests?
Jeff: Well, I have to make the time. I firmly believe that if we want our children to be free to explore the world at their own pace, we have to be willing and able to do the same. My interests and passions vary: music, history, certain TV programs, going to the gym, boogie boarding, and playing with my family. It’s critical to my sanity (and therefore my family’s sanity) that I make the time for myself once in a while.

DoLifeRight: How do you respond to other people’s questions about the following: completeness of education, socialization, college plans, etc.? Do you give different answers to different people? Why?
Jeff: For many people, the difference between the SASS (Sad American School System) and unschooling is so foreign and inaccessible that they have a difficult time getting it. While this is frustrating for some unschoolers, I don’t mind it at all. I clearly remember taking three steps forward and then two steps back throughout our unschooling journey, and of course I still occasionally falter as I try to reconcile my own paradigms of the Modern Success Story with the innate and complete trust that I have in unschooling. So as the folks at work have expressed an interest in learning more, I have tried to be patient and understanding of their journey, as well as open to a continual rethinking of my own viewpoints and ideas about what it is we’re doing here. A recurring theme of late in these discussions is a pretty simple question: “Why did you decide to unschool?” My usual response to this query is something like “Why do you think we decided to do it?”, which, while frustrating, makes the other person think quite a bit. Their answers usually come in one of these forms:
Because you did not like the quality of education in public schools.Because public schools are unsafe.Because public schools are underfunded.Because public schools cater to the lowest common denominator.Because you could not afford private schools.Because your wife doesn’t have to work, and you must be rich.Because you like/need to be different, to rebel a little bit
While all of these are true to a degree (not the rich part!), they are not the reasons we unschool; not in the least. But more on that in a minute.
After we get through that part of the conversation, their questions then inevitably focus on the differences between the SASS and unschooling, many of which I have blogged about before:
In school, they socialize with other children. Aren’t you worried about socialization?People need to learn math and science.How can they learn discipline if they aren’t in a structured setting?What do you mean they don’t have to earn their allowance? How will they learn that you have to work for money?If they don’t do chores, they won’t learn to be responsible.Kids are not capable of making intelligent choices about TV and food; what if they sit around eating candy and watching South Park all day?No bedtimes? What the hell is the matter with you?
Hey, let’s be frank – we’ve all heard these questions before, in one form or another. We could easily get agitated, angry, defensive, quiet, or something else, and if that works for you then go for it. But lately I’ve taken a very different tack that I wanted to share with you. I take off my glasses, look them in the eye, smile, and say:
“It seems to me like you are focusing on everything that you believe unschooling is not; I prefer to focus on what it actually is, which can put some of your questions in better perspective. Would you like to hear about what it is?”
If the answer is yes, then we’re off to the races. No one has said “no” yet.
The lesson here is, to me, quite obvious. When we focus on what something is not, we restrict our thinking to view things as opposites – good or bad, happy or sad, effective or ineffective. That has its place (especially at work, most days) but it doesn’t focus on solutions or understandings. As such, it forces us to take sides and we become interested in ensuring that our views are heard and understood, without giving equal weight to the validity of a different viewpoint, eventually reducing our ability to evaluate that viewpoint to see if it might work for us. However, when we focus on what something is, we affirm it: we recognize that it exists and that it works for some people, and we are then able to evaluate whether or not the good parts of it will work in our own lives.
In our family, I believe that we unschool because of what unschooling is, not because of what any other educational choice is not. Unschooling is amazing, freeing, flexible, provocative, enabling, interactive, solitary, expansive, focused, connective, learning, being, living, touching, easy, hard, scary, peaceful, loud, messy, and neat. As I continue to answer questions about this amazing life we have chosen, I will continue to focus on what unschooling is, and let what it is not be someone else’s worry.

DoLifeRight: If you have more than one child, how do you handle their different interests and desires? If you have one child, how do you handle his/her desires to be with other children? How do you reconcile these interests with your own?
Jeff: We don’t handle it; we roll with it. We’re interested in experiencing life, and our kids are too. Things only get tricky when our own expectations about what our lives “should” be get in the way.

DoLifeRight: What are the biggest issues you are currently having, or have ever had in regards to parenting and/or homeschooling/unschooling?
Jeff: The transition from unschooling as an educational philosophy to unschooling as a lifestyle has been amazing. It’s one thing to say “My kids should lead their own learning”, and quite another to say “It’s ok for my house to be messy and for my kids to eat donuts while playing the Wii at 2:00am.” That’s not an “issue” for us, per se, but it was sometimes challenging to get here!

DoLifeRight: Any regrets? We want to hear the good and the bad! This is the best way to make informed decisions.
Jeff: No regrets at all. You can read all you want, talk all you want, use every available unschooling resource and website, channel John Holt, or whatever else you need to do to ground yourself in the philosophy. But you can never use any of that as a substitute for your gut and your heart. For us, unschooling has been the hardest thing we’ve ever done - it’s definitely advanced parenting. But it has always felt right. For everyone who is just dipping their toes in the water and thinking about moving to unschooling, do so with your eyes and hearts open, and be as cognizant as possible of the change you will undergo. But once you get there, you just could not ever, EVER imagine going back or making any other decision.

DoLifeRight: Do you have any websites, yahoo lists, etc. that you run or maintain? Please list them here with descriptions.
Jeff: I used to blog about unschooling at freeboysdad.blogspot.com. I do occasionally speak at unschooling conferences, and may do so again in the future.

DoLifeRight: Any last thoughts or advice for DoLifeRight’s readers?
Jeff: Let go and trust; at the end of the day, it all boils down to that.

1 comment:

  1. Power to ya, brother. And judging from the number of people on Facebook who've shared your interview, you've touched a lotta lives and said some important things.