The alarm didn’t go off. In fact the alarm hasn’t gone off since I can remember. This morning I wake up to the sound of zombies groaning, “We’re coming.” My son Jay, age three, is at the foot of the bed with his iPad playing ‘Plants vs. Zombies’. Hardly sounds educational, and breakfast has been prepared by my one year-old daughter Holly––some squished banana which she proudly serves by pushing it in my mouth before I have even opened my eyes.
Jay has now plugged his iPad in to recharge, and has wandered into the kitchen with Holly in tow. I imagine what my mother-in-law might have said if she could see me at this moment: “Look at yourself! You might call laying in bed ‘radical unschooling’, I call it not bothering, and bad parenting! Leaving your children to fend for themselves! You should be ashamed of yourself! Man up and get a job! They should be at school!” I pull up the duvet and snuggle into my pillow. Meanwhile, I hear Jay in the kitchen pouring milk for his sister with limited spillage. He even remembers to shut the fridge door this time in spite of the distraction of Holly cleaning up the mess by unrolling practically all that remains of the kitchen towels. Yes! I am sure even social workers would be concerned by this apparently obvious parental neglect. An unshaven man in bed, seemingly unconcerned about his children.
Holly brings me a beaker of milk to drink, which I find quite reviving as she spills it over my face. With a stretch and a big, groaning man yawn, I give her a hug and thank her, before sitting up and wiping squished banana from my lips.
Now, a modern day Mary Poppins would have drawn the curtains at first light, before waking us all with that inexplicable cartoon voice that some people use when addressing children. Then she would brush their hair, scrub them up and dress them, before strapping Holly in a highchair and spoon feeding her. Jay having been placed in front of a bowl of freshly made oatmeal already waiting for him at the table, and bibs all around! She would most certainly also have prepared lessons and activities for the day.
However, to see how independent and engaged in their environment my children are––‘neglected’ is the last word that describes them. I don’t feel being a good parent is all about doing everything for your children. You should care for and protect your children, but they need and want to become independent, self-directed learners. If that means I have to sleep in with breakfast in bed (even if it is just a mush of banana with a splash of milk), I am ready!
I plod towards the bathroom for a shave, inviting them in to brush their own teeth once Jay has finished his apple. I have no idea what we’ll learn today! Well, we certainly won’t be singing the alphabet song, that’s for sure. Names for letters? What nonsense! You try sounding out the simplest of three letter phonetic words armed with only the names of uppercase letters sung in order to the tune of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. We may as well invent new symbols for numbers to teach them that would look only vaguely like the numerical symbols they would later need to recognize. I could hang a frieze on the wall depicting bold numbers in order from one to ten, and watch them count to ten by pointing at the symbols in turn. My mother-in-law would be impressed. She may even believe that I have taught her grandchildren to count. Let’s just hope she doesn’t point to number nine and ask them what it is, as they would have to start counting from the beginning again in order to name it.
It is important to stand back sometimes and question why we do things in certain ways, and whether they are the best approaches. Families who choose to unschool do just that by their very decision to embark on that journey. However, it is often the ‘doing things’ that stand in the way, particularly on the part of the parent. Equally, teachers who choose to homeschool can have great difficulty letting go of a tendency to lead from the top, with a goal and outcome being targeted within a prepared and limited learning experience. Unschooling relies on a prepared and inspiring home environment that can create a spark of curiosity that can take learning in any direction, at any moment.
Jay is now busy choosing his clothes and dressing himself, while Holly attempts to do the same, but just ends up creating a hat out of her favorite dress. She then proudly parades around the bedroom like it is the most unique fashion statement ever. I help her find an opening for her head and leave her to push her own hands through the sleeves.
Children from impoverished villages with no schooling develop life skills beyond their years, apparently. Or do they? Their life skills are developed, but beyond their years? I don’t think so. Their motivation to engage in their environment is no different from any child’s. A caring parent, watching a random cable channel, may feel sorry, seeing these poor children, ‘forced to grow-up’, having to fend for themselves in such a village, as they work alongside their mothers pounding grain. While that parent watches TV, their own child sits safely caged in a playpen behind them, surrounded by loudly colored plastic things that squeak. There has to be a middle ground where our children are neither neglected nor pampered, but enabled and trusted to take appropriate risks. When a child first learns to stand and reaches out for the objects they see us using everyday, those objects are moved away––remote controls, smart phones, eyeglasses, and anything that can possibly be spilled on a beige carpet. They are gathered in the center of the table, or retreat to higher ground. But, really? Is a spillage so bad if it helps fine tune a toddler’s motor skills and balance? It will have to happen one day!
My older children are now at middle school age and beyond. When they were further along the journey that their younger siblings, Jay and Holly, have begun, their projects were of their own choosing, often building from a chance moment, thought or discovery such as an unusual insect, a collection of shells from a morning stroll along the shore, or a sudden and inexplicable desire to see how tall a structure can be made with uncooked spaghetti and play dough. They would always be active, engaged, and learning. I do admit that my hand was often secretly behind many chance discoveries, and by stealth may have helped guide the direction a child-initiated project they may take. But mostly it was all about just being there––supportive, knowing when to help and when to stand back. And allowing them to learn through their own enthusiasm and direction, even if I did float about the house leaving interesting things around by chance, with a ‘Willy Wonka’ glint in my eye.
We like our children to believe that they can do anything or become anyone, that the ‘world is their oyster’, just waiting for them to make their choices. Many believe that a child’s efforts at school and their grades will define who they will become. Personally, I dropped out of a London school, leaving home at age 16, with nothing but a low grade qualification in Art and a bad attitude. The teachers were on strike, race riots and high unemployment rates that characterized Thatcher Britain were in play. Well, my world was more like a cheap hotdog; having a taste of oyster was simply not on the menu. We do have free will and choice, but you try ordering oysters Rockefeller at a hotdog stand. Even Art School was out of the question, funding only being available for core subjects. I ate the hotdog and left England for Paris, with mustard on my chin and greasy fingers. I was soon to discover that my French teacher had empowered me with something quite unexpected––the ability to sound completely stupid! Even if the Parisians could decipher something intelligible from me, I must have sounded like I still had half a hotdog in my mouth as I struggled to speak a bad version of the type of French not heard since top hats were fashionable.
With no training, and after seven years, I could speak and understand real French. I also had employment, making a good show of teaching English. I had simply observed, emulated, and absorbed skills from my new environment that the education system had failed to instill in me. On reflection, a seed had been sown that would grow to represent my attitude towards education and learning, altogether. The irony was that I, now a teacher, was employing the same approach and methods that had failed me.
Then, one day, by chance I found my oyster in the form of a charming 50 year-old man who looked 30. He was the same age as my tired father, but with a sparkle in his eye. And he had an inspiring passion for life that drew me to provincial France to join him, where, under his mentorship, I lived on a micro farm which hosted troubled youth from inner city Marseille. Along with this mixed age group of children and teenagers we rode horses, cared for animals, planted, cooked, and gathered sacks of lavender to distill into essential oil.
While there, I learned about Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori, their many influences, and how my mentor had drawn on their individual philosophies to create a learning experience I had never imagined could exist. Angry, unteachable teenagers became confident young men around me as we worked together on the farm, rather than us working on them. They wrote because they had experiences they wanted to write home about, they learned math through the need to know how much wood was required to build a new fence, or how we should price our herbs, essential oils, and goat cheese at the local market. We were basically unschooling, but I didn’t know it. At the time my father thought I was a beatnik just loafing around the French countryside, while my mother was convinced I had joined a cult. I just knew that this felt right, it worked, and I wanted to know more about alternative education.
By the end of the summer I had decided to study the Montessori method. It could easily have been Waldorf that I chose, but I was offered an internship in a Swedish Montessori school. Six years later I held a full complement of Montessori credentials, covering birth to middle school, and ran my own private school. Licensing laws, accounting, inspections, liability insurance, the stuffy world of Montessori associations and accreditations––I was soon spending as much time administering the school as being with the children. I may have been an established Montessori teacher but I was no businessman. Also, I didn’t have a recognized teaching degree––something that new licensing criteria was poised to demand. I worked hard to gain a Bachelor of Education and public school teaching credentials. Then, one day, I woke to my alarm clock, only to realize that the world that was supposed to be my oyster, was suddenly smelling of hotdog again. My ‘clients’ were now wealthy, pushy parents more interested in elitism and hothousing their children than joining a diverse community of learners. I may have been running an alternative school that shared many motifs with the philosophies of the man who first inspired me, but I had become a teacher in a school.
I threw it all up in the air and moved to an island in New Zealand to unschool my three oldest children. My passion was to recreate for them the learning environment that had first inspired me. This struck a chord with the local homeschoolers and like-minded parents on the island. I considered myself a sort of rebel, a Montessorian unschooler. Much of the underlying philosophy behind Montessori complimented my approach. And best of all, homeschooling groups were free from the obligation to follow the national curriculum in New Zealand, and could operate unlicensed. I had created an unschooling community in which our children flourished.
I have since emigrated to America and have two more beautiful children, and a new passion. I now consider myself a radical unschooler. My mother-in-law may not understand, and as a man, I may be in a minority by committing to a family lifestyle over following my career. After 23 years in education, I no longer consider myself a teacher. I am simply a father with a knowing twinkle in his eye.
It is very easy for some to remain caught up in preconceptions of what a father should be for his children. There are these Kodachrome images of fathers playing ball in the garden with their sons, buying him a super hero comic as a treat, or with their daughters on their knees, sitting on a rocking chair and reading a book about princesses. These images have been reinforced in popular culture, a throwback from an imagined world where the man goes out to work, returning to spend a moment of ‘quality time’ with the kids while the aproned woman cooks dinner. Although this sounds like a white picket fence view of a family in the 1950s, gender roles are still unintentionally asserted.
Paradoxically, the majority of homeschooling families involve a nurturing mother at home and a man in employment to make this financially possible. Interestingly, a child is also far more likely to be taught by a man at school than learn alongside one at home.
I remember my older children watching a scene from a TV show that involved blood one evening. I explained how this was fake blood, and of course these are actors. Next thing I know, we are in the kitchen making fake blood from corn syrup and food coloring. They act out the scene and film it. We spend the rest of the evening finding out how movies are made, coming up with ideas, storyboarding, and staying up late into the night editing their footage with sound effects and background ambience. Yes, we slept in late the next day, but my older children became able to question what they see on television and in the movies. They began writing scripts and making props––most amusing was when they drank blue Gatorade from a (throughly cleaned) Windex bottle, almost giving my mother-in-law a heart attack.
Deciding to become radical unschoolers as a family was not really something we ever planned, we never really even thought about it. In many ways, thinking about it and planning it goes against the natural form it should take. Not parent-led, nor child-centered, just a family, all equally involved in day-to-day living. We’re learning through action and involvement together as a family.
At this early stage most of Jay and Holly’s learning comes from cooking, creativity, and exploring the outside world. I am wondering what they will do with the cardboard boxes, poster tubes, and paper tape that somehow appeared in the main room overnight. How did that stuff get there?
This year I turn 50 and I have that sparkle in my eye. We may be poor, but as Jay stands next to me now, counting out the eggs he is about to cook for his mother, I decide that tonight we will eat oysters Rockefeller. Having the entire family together all day, every day, as I watch them learn and grow, and having a banana squished in my face every morning, is all I need to feel like the richest man in the world.
© 2013, Lee A. Elliott. First published in Home Education Magazine, 2013.