Friday, June 24, 2005

Standing on the Other Side of the Tunnel

When I first came to the decision not to send our firstborn to a school, I was relieved. Relieved that I would not have to part with my baby and allow someone else, a stranger and possibly not someone I would like, to become the role model in our child’s early life. Being occasionally separated from my young child for half a day was a welcome relief, but to be apart for 6 hours a day, five days a week for up to 10 weeks at a time, seemed preposterous.

Once I put my plan into action, I became nervous. Husband was happy to go along with my idea but what would the extended family say? I was acutely aware that I would be denying them the opportunity to go down a path that they had looked forward to for years – seeing their grandchildren move through school. Also, they had never contemplated life without schooling, even though their own school years were extremely brief. They saw school as a privelege providing opportunity for a good future. However, at the very core of me I believed that home based learning was going to be the greatest thing for the holistic growth of my family so it would be worthwhile risking the unhappiness of my extended family. The family members generally reserved their opinions and watched closely from the sideline, trusting in me, contributing in any way they could. What a wonderful gift!

We quickly evolved into a lifestyle that capitalised on every experience. Learning came through our relationships with each other and our environment. It still comes with every breath we take. By the time our eldest was thirteen, she was seeing differences between herself and friends who were now in high school. She began to wonder if she should be taking more control of her learning and began doing more deliberate studies through books. She wanted to study geography, anatomy and astronomy. She drew up a timetable to follow each day. The younger two were asked to write in a daily diary. I felt that their development through natural maths, science, music and literature was well catered for, but that their writing skills could be better developed. It’s interesting to note that we began to think about what ‘should’ be done and what the children ‘should’ be able to do. I began to see learning under subject headings again (as I did when I first left my position as a regular primary school teacher). They were growing older and perhaps I was becoming fearful for them. Fearful that they just might have missed out on learning something that would prepare them for the adult world. From where I sit now, I see that my decision and our young teenager’s decision could have been grounded in fear -fear of not achieving those ‘should’s.

Standing back a bit though, I see that my actions weren’t totally based on fear. My decision to get the children doing some sort of regular bookwork was so that they could become familiar with filling in forms and expressing themselves on paper. I was looking for a balance. Also, I must clarify, I don’t think bookwork is bad, especially not for those who love this sort of thing, but for the active character, it’s not so comfortable. I love book study, as long as I am not bound to it for too long.

Our eldest is now enrolled in an Italian course with NSW O-TEN and she is trying out the Kumon course to hone her basic bookwork skills in maths. She’s also taking formal lessons in music so that she can learn more about the theory and she continues to study classical ballet. At fifteen years of age, she spends about four hours a day doing study through books. I can see that this amount will reduce over time as she becomes more familiar with what she’s doing. Her choices have largely capitalised on her interests and natural talents in music, dance and performance.

The increased amount of bookwork this year has had quite an impact on our lives. In the first few weeks I had a very strong image of a bird having its wings clipped and being placed in a cage. It was awful. Our eldest was struggling with her apparent loss of freedom yet she had made these choices because that’s what she felt she should and could do. She was missing the usual time she spent dancing with her sister, playing with dolls, sewing clothes for dolls or for herself, playing outdoors and in the forest with her siblings and friends. There was little time leftover for daydreaming, drawing or reading for leisure. There was a growing sense of many duties to perform and little time left over to honour the free spirit. Taking the Australian Bottlebrush flower essence was appropriate at this time, to help her move through a major change in her life.

Several weeks have passed and the bookwork is much easier, being completed in less time. She is also seeing that everything she has chosen to study is well within her capabilities so that she is no longer threatened by what she doesn’t know. Timetables are being modified and she can feel her wings growing back.

What about other teenagers and young adults? One of the greatest rewards for publishing SSHED is that I have been friends with families across Australia for the past nine years. I’ve seen each family follow a different path, fashioned by that family’s preferences. I’ve observed how parents lovingly honour their children’s individuality, allowing for growth in any direction. Dozens of those families now have young teenagers or young adults in their early twenties. Those young people are leading full and active lives. Some have made choices that led them to consequences they wouldn’t ordinarily have chosen but with the support of their family, they have moved through the tunnel and gone on to be happy with their lot.

Some of the young teenagers enrolled in schools to attain high school certificates, some enrolled in correspondence courses to attain certificates and some never sought any certificates, preferring instead to add to their portfolios through whatever opportunities came their way. Their life skills continue to be fashioned by their relationships with their community. Most of them did some form of volunteer work.

When I reflect on this I see that we make our decisions depending on our personality traits. If we are the kind of person who likes to see what’s ahead and to see order in our lives, then we are likely to choose a path that is more structured. If we are the type of person who enjoys surprises and chaos, then we are more likely to be comfortable with a path that places no restrictions on our movements. It doesn’t make one way better than the other. Different intelligences thrive in different situations. That’s what makes our world so diverse. I can see a little bit of myself in everybody I meet! By leading our children to see this, we help them to accept themselves, as well as those who are different from them. I don’t agree with everyone but I can accept our differences.

Oh Yes! One other important thing I’ve noticed when canvassing different families is the relationships between teenagers and parents. Most of the mothers I’ve spoken with are enjoying friendly relationships with their teenagers and young adults. A few are not. Why do you think this would be so? I see that in each of those families one or both of the parents has had the time, space and energy to work through any arising conflicts with their children. I see that some were more flexible in their discipline than others, applying discipline according to the personality of the child rather than using a single approach for all children. I don’t have all the answers but I do like to ask the questions and consider possibilities.

With the benefit of personal and shared experiences from young adults, I would tell anyone who is contemplating home based learning to keep this in mind: If you choose to be a home based learner and can identify your goals, then you will most likely reach them. Home based learning works! Value what you are doing. What’s the big deal really? As parents, those of us who choose to assume the bulk of the responsibility for the holistic education of our children are doing what comes naturally. We are raising our children. Raising children is the most natural thing to do. Those of us who choose to learn outside the confines of a school are giving our children the freedom to learn about themselves as well as the ways of our society through direct involvement, not through simulation.

By choosing home based learning, we have made choices that do not fit in with the way that our society has become. It isn’t yet the most common choice made by families but with an increasing number of people questioning their lifestyles and wanting to strengthen their family relationships, I see that our society is being remodeled—slowly but surely.

From where I’m standing, I can see that our family is loving the benefits of free range, home based, self directed living. I might not have the best floor coverings in the world, but boy do I feel rich!

© Grace Chapman.