And boy, was it ever a good fit. I took to it quickly, and was fascinated by the Higher Ed courses far more than the business ones. I began to make friends with many of the Higher Ed professors, engaging in deep debates about the role of higher education in society and ways that the system could and should run better. They took to me as well, at one point paying my way to represent the program by attending a conference on partnerships between universities and inner-city public schools. It was fascinating.
That brings me to the decision point. I desperately wanted to stay at Penn State and get a PhD in Higher Ed, so I could learn more and work to improve education systems from the top down. The program wanted me, too. But the thought of another five years of poverty, even in a beautiful place like Penn State, in order to get a job with half the earning power of my MBA, seemed pretty silly. So with money on my mind, in April 2005 I accepted a lucrative job offer from Dell and we moved to Nashville, TN.
Nice story so far, but you may be asking how that decision led us to unschooling. Well, allow me to introduce you to the realities of public schools in rural TN.
The bottom line is that the school system there was underwhelming. Not only were the schools underperforming (whatever the hell that means), but because we lived a few miles outside of town the kids would have had to wake up at 6:00am – yes, six o'clock in the morning – in order to make the school bus for their 45-minute, 4-mile ride to school. No way we were going to do that.
So, we decided to keep them home and research our options. After a time, Ginger discovered unschooling and in her gentle, patient way eventually got me to look into it. We read, we listened, we learned. We got Rue Kream's book, "Parenting a Free Child", and simply ate it up (I have often referred to Rue's book as the best parenting book ever; if you don't believe me, get yourself a copy and try to prove me wrong.) We joined a few lists and read the words of people like Ren Allen, Kelly Lovejoy, Mary Gold, Sandra Dodd, Pam Sorooshian, Beth Fuller, Scott Noelle, and Joyce Fetteroll. We tried things, we made mistakes, we grew, we cried, we tried again – and our kids blossomed. We began going to unschooling conferences, and saw unschooling and joyful, peaceful parenting in action. We thought we were good parents, and I suppose we really were. But this was parenting like I had never seen before, with positive inspirations and examples at every turn.
As a man who has been trained his entire life to look for data to find weaknesses and then either correct or exploit them, these conferences were earth-shattering. There was no data, there were no measures that I could look to and rely upon to prove to myself that unschooling and joyful, connected parenting "worked" or "didn't work." There were simply hugs, and smiles, and gentle soothing words, and trust, and children living with their parents in the moment. And I was completely hooked. Despite my own upbringing, my expectations, my values, and my extra-large emotional baggage, I knew where we had to go and I was determined to do everything I could to ensure that we got there. I began thinking about how to do it.
Finding the Right Fit
Some people – and many Dads – treat parenting and unschooling like a visit to the tailor. They come into it knowing exactly what they want it to look like given their own preferences and likes, and they work tirelessly to ensure an end product that fits their description. They know what they want, they know when they want it by, and if it doesn't come as quickly as they like they will drop it and go find a different tailor who will do it the way they want it done. I always viewed our journey in a very different light, more like a trip to a thrift store than a visit to the tailor. I never felt that I needed a "power suit" that fit my exacting needs to create an image of who I wanted to be and how I wanted to be viewed by others. I simply felt that I needed to wear clothes of some type, and that the combinations and appearance could and should morph with time. If I didn't like what I found in one place, I could move on to another and another with no hurry and no expectations. I knew that when the "clothes felt right" then it would be right. We found unschooling and played with it a bit to see if we liked it, and when we looked in the mirror we knew it was just right.
This is How We Do It
People sometimes say to me "Jeff, this whole unschooling and joyful parenting thing seems so easy for you. How do you do it?" That is really funny to me, because this entire journey has seemed like one step forward, three steps back at times. It wasn't work, per se; we just let it happen. But that doesn't mean that it was ever easy. We are not perfect by any means, and I can be an outright asshole at times. I have struggled with the way I was raised, and continue to put on my victim suit now and again and lapse into old ways that don't really work for me, my kids, or my partner. But there are some things that make it easier to live the life we've chosen. In fact, I often wonder how families make unschooling work – or why they try, to be honest - without these benefits that we enjoy:
- I have a partner that I trust and respect and with whom I communicate well.
- My partner and I are introspective, never afraid to examine ourselves in the pursuit of better.
- My partner and I are honest with ourselves and with each other, always and all ways. That hurts sometimes.
- When we get hurt, we let each other be hurt and then console, learn and grow.
- My partner and I are not always on the same page, and sometimes are not even in the same chapter or the same book. But we are always in the same side of the library, and we rely on that.
- My kids are physically and emotionally healthy. We get sick and sad and have our quirks just like everyone else, but fundamentally we are lucky to not be dealing with major physical, developmental, or emotional issues.
- We have an environment of mutual respect between the kids and parents.
- We have made it a priority to have access to technology and learning opportunities.
- I have the courage and skills that enable me to earn enough money to live without having to leave the house every day.
- We are not material people in the least; if you don't believe me, come take a ride in my old Honda Civic, or come sit on the floor in my couchless 900sf apartment. But per #8 above, you bet your ass I have nice computers and a big screen TV; we're not savages, after all.
- We are open to experiences, positive and negative – because we know that the negative ones are just as valuable.
- We don't "need" our kids to do anything . . . but we "hope" that they have fun and pursue their passions.
- None of us are perfect, but we have all perfected the ability to say we're sorry and mean it when we screw the pooch.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Some of these things are conscious choices that we have made. Some of those have been easy, some have been incredibly difficult. Some of these things existed long before we had kids, and long before we heard of unschooling – but more than a few were picked up and honed along the journey. The point is that these circumstances are what make our family unique. There are literally thousands of others, completely unique to us – our preferences, our upbringings, our socio-economic status, our family heritage, our choices.
As such, our lives look and feel differently from anyone else's - just as it should be. But like I wrote above, many parents want it all to look and feel a certain way, to do unschooling the "right" way. There was a time when I thought I knew what that meant. We humans are a strange beast; in general, we like rules and guideposts and milestones to measure ourselves against so we know if we are doing things the right way. We look to books, to lists, to examples, and we think about how we compare them. We strive to do more, learn more, and be better so we can do things the "right way."
When I think about the fact that each family brings thousands of different variables into their parenting and unschooling journey, I come to see unschooling and parenting less as a well-defined end state and more of a spectrum along which each family will fall onto a different point. Some families will chose to reject formal curriculum while maintaining control of other parenting decisions. Some families will elect to go the full enchilada and remove all controls, leaving everything to the children to regulate. Most families will fall onto their own unique point between these two bookends of the spectrum, letting go of some things and controlling others. Some of those families may choose a different point on the spectrum for each child in the house, depending on the needs and wants – the unique variables – of their situations. With those ideas in mind, how could there possibly be a "right" or "wrong" way to unschool?
For some unschoolers, though, that is simply not enough.
Frankly and lamentably, there are people within the unschooling community who are ready and willing to tell you exactly how unschooling should be done. I have never really understood this. Of course there are principles to unschooling; Sandra Dodd has written a great list of them here, and there are far fewer than you might imagine. The premise of these principles is pretty simple; if you practice them you are likely going to be somewhere on the unschooling spectrum, anywhere from "curriculum-only" to "whole life" or beyond, wherever that is. But a "right" way to unschool? Pish . . . I just don't buy it, especially when it comes from unschoolers who theoretically should be more interested in allowing people the experience of their own journey than in whether or not their choices are conforming to a pre-conceived notion of what "right" unschooling looks like. At the end of the day, I think we should all be less concerned with whether or not we are "unschooling" and less concerned with where we are on the unschooling spectrum, and far more concerned with whether or not we are being good parents and helping create an environment in which our kids are happy and joyful. Whether or not that leaves you with a label of "unschooler" or "radical unschooler" or "home schooler" or anything else should be of no concern. Be thoughtful, respectful, and purposeful in your relationship with yourself, your partner, and your children; strive for growth and joy and trust and peacefulness. But live your life, do your thing, label free.