Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Can I go to school?" When homeschooled children asks to go to school...

by Beverley Paine

Today a friend was faced with a question that many of us dread: her child asking to go to school. This frequently happens when children are aged between 7 and 10, or at age 13. In this case the parent was against the idea but wanted to respect her child's choice. I know how she feels. Being a passionate advocate of home education there is no way I'd want to compromise my child's educational opportunities and development by enrolling her in school!

All we can do is talk about our fears and concerns and worries with our children as honestly and openly as we can without seeking to manipulate or guide their thoughts. That's hard. But if we preface our conversations with "this is my opinion, this is how I feel, I'm sharing my thoughts  and I don't expect you to do or think anything in response, just listen" it does a long way to removing that sense of obligation we all have as people to meet other people's needs, help them feel okay or do things we'd rather not to please them or seek their approval.

That's the natural learning/unschooling answer to the question.

As a homeschooler I was still learning to trust myself and my children. I understood the concept of natural learning but I had not yet re-grown the trust I needed to fully understand it. That was a long slow process.

Control is an illusion but it is one we cling to tenaciously in life. And that's okay. We need to feel in control so that we can learn and grow - we need to feel that we can master skills, actions, thoughts, 'be' and 'do' in the world. A sense of control is a stepping stone in the game of learning. Clinging onto the stepping stones instead of the lesson is where we go astray. And we're taught to cling on to control through reward and punishment and competition and fear, especially at school.

When the question of trying or going to school came up in our home I was lucky enough to be a position where I could attend all day every day with my child. We enrolled in an 'alternative' class set up on democratic principles with an emphasis on parent participation, where the teacher was a huge fan of John Holt. School became a second home for our family for eighteen months. But it was still school. It was still an educational compromise. It was still institutionalised education. And it was a lot of effort -- much more than homeschooling. In a way though, it was homeschool-at-school. I was there, doing what I did at home, attending to my children's needs (and the needs of lots of other people too!)

Our children don't have someone who loves them attending to their developmental, emotional and educational needs when they attend school. There are no parents at school, only teachers and staff members. And if parents are present they are thin on the ground and can't be attending to the needs of all the children all the time. That's the key to the success of home education. It's not the quality of our learning programs or the resources we use. It's our love and our attention, our desire for our children to be successful in what they need and want to do, to be safe and well all the time. We invest considerable emotional energy in our children: other people can like our children and care for them but at the end of the day they go home and think about something else.

School is a compromise. Compromise works. It's okay. Because we and they know that our children can come home and homeschool or unschool at any time, school for our children is experienced differently from other children. The coercion and competition is less effective on them. Reward and punishment only work if our children are willing to go along with it. Home education empowers individuals because it offers choice. Choice involves responsibility.

And that's how I looked at the question of going to school when our daughter was thinking of attending high school at the age of 13. It wasn't just a matter of her going to school. It would effect how life unfolded everyday for the whole family. Meeting her needs and desires had consequences for other people. Her choice entailed responsibility to work with others to meet their needs as they worked with her to meet hers. For me this meant making sure she understood the responsibility and consequences of going to school. Because of the disruption to the rest of the family her going to school would mean, we agreed that she could go, but that she needed to put effort into giving a reasonable go. We talked about not only the disruption to her family but also the teacher and the class: the effects of having a new student arrive and stay only a couple of days (which we'd both experienced and understood from our days in the alternative class).

I wish I could say I handled the situation perfectly without coercion or blaming or manipulating or being pushy with my values and beliefs and opinions. I wish I could say I was fair and respectful of her needs and feelings. But we did have enough open and honest conversations and although I never really approved of the idea of her going to school she knew she had my support. She knew that we'd do anything to help her meet her needs. It wasn't up to me to determine what those needs are - that was her developmental journey. My job was to be attentive, identify them and help her find ways to meet them, support her in that process. 

Home educated children want to give school a try - it's novel, it's different and all the other kids are doing it. However, I don't think that isn't an appropriate reason for doing anything. The questions that need to be answered is "will going to school meet my child's needs?" and if so, "can those needs be met any other way?". If not then all we can do as parents is support our children as they journey through and experience school.


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Friday, September 21, 2012

A definition of unschooling

by Beverley Paine
Unschooling definition: 
"Everyone crafts a self-directed life doing the things they love to do."
Barb Lundgren

How that differs from the 'norm': we're coerced and manipulated from an early age to see the things we love to do as aberrant, self-indulgent, not of any economic or intrinsic value, or worse, as evil and wrong. And on top of that we're persuaded not to trust our instincts or our growing knowledge, experience, wisdom and that we need to rely on others because we're learners...

Give a kid a chance. Trust in natural learning. It works. It always has.


Building Tolerance in Homeschooling and Unschooling Conversations which Mention Religion and Faith

by Beverley Paine

Today the media constantly reminds me of the need for tolerance and understanding regarding other people positions of faith and beliefs.

Sympathy for the perspective of others goes a long way when being tolerant: much further than intellectual understanding combined perhaps with the pressing need to feel like we 'belong' (sometimes expressed as the need for 'agreement').

Very few people I know talk or write from an impersonal viewpoint - we all tend to speak from our hearts what is in our minds and these thoughts are based on our personal beliefs, values and experiences. When I listen or read what people are saying, especially on my home education support groups, I acknowledge that the person is saying "I" not "one" (a general statement about everyone) and that responses reflect the views and beliefs of that individual. I could chose to read everything as a comment on what others should be doing if I want, but I tend to read people's posts as a comment on what that individual believes, how they live their lives, what is important to them... And I look to see what need is being expressed and how I can help that person fulfill that need. That's my role in that person's conversation with me. I don't want to judge what they say, or compare it to what I believe or think (though that is hard not to do) - I want to listen and see if there is anything that works for me, that I can take away and use to build a more informed life for me, or can use to help them feel reassured, comfortable and more empowered to do what they need to do in their life.

Obviously we can all communicate with more clarity and greater sense of purpose. And we can all let go of the need to tell everyone what we believe and think and so on. But that is what makes us human. We learn because we converse with each - learning is a social act. Our conversations with others and ourselves help us grow. Conversation is risky - that's what makes it an excellent learning tool! We take a chance when we speak our hearts and minds. When we are listened to with respect and tolerance and sympathy we open up and share more.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Trusting that we can find the balance with trusting, a key to allowing our children to learn naturally.

by Beverley Paine

"Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple - or more difficult.
Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves -
and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted."

John Holt
 
On my Unschool Australia Facebook support group the question of finding a balance between trusting our children's choices and our instinct to protect them from what we perceive as potential harm, especially for activities we feel are inherently harmful in some way is very difficult and takes time to cultivate. We need to patient and kind with ourselves and fall prey to feeling guilty, over-react and thus risk swinging from one end of the trust continuum to the other. This question often comes up in discussions around multimedia: television, computer and video games, and more recently phone applications. Funnily enough it rarely comes up when children obsessively play musical instruments or compulsively build model boats... 

My initial response was to advice the parent concerned to "talk, talk, talk." Talk about your fears openly and honestly and without coercion. I honestly feel that our children respond positively (even if they show some annoyance occasionally because we're overreacting and interrupting their play). Conversation and discussion are the main ways humans learn from each other. When we talk to our children we're not just talking, we're transmitting ideas and knowledge and values and attitudes but most of all we're building relationships. Talk to your children openly and honestly and you'll be right. They'll let you know if you are going overboard, they'll put you in your place, they'll reassure you, etc. 

Other parents on the group reassured that this current obsession with this novel game will pass, just like all the other obsessions and fads they've enjoyed. Just like all our childhood fads and obsessions passed... Other things soon came into our lives and fascinated us and took our attention. Children are hungry learners: growing demands it! Especially if life is full and busy and includes a variety of meaningful activities enjoyed together with people who care and take an interest in life and what is happening. 

Children are born trusting and little by little we help them become cautious and wary. It's too easy to extinguish that spark of trust that builds a sense of hope and love and is essential for healthy development. We need to be cautious about how we trample on our children's precious innate and natural trust. Fostering curiosity and interest and building supportive environments is our main work. Protecting our children is important too. Challenging our perceptions and beliefs, being open to learning and change, and allowing our children to guide us when making decisions around trust all help. 

Most of us have lost our sense of trust - we're in recovery mode! That makes it hard to parent our children, especially if we're coming to this idea of trust later in their childhood. It's easier to learn to trust in our babies ability to learn naturally: the challenges usually set in around the toddler years when they start to assert their growing sense of self-identity. We need to recognise that most of our problems with trust stem from a lack of trust in ourselves. We are insecure and unsure of our actions, thoughts and beliefs. We need a lot of reassurance. And these traits are those that we want to avoid our children to avoid when they become adults. Understanding this can help keep us on track: stay open to finding ways of building on the trust that already exists within your family. Work on it actively. Hunt down the source of your insecurities, own them, and then gently and gradually learn to let them go. 

The more we learn to trust the easier it gets. And trust is infectious. We can learn from our children how to trust us and as we improve in our ability to trust we help reinforce their ability to continue to trust. Living in trust offers incredible security and confidence in our abilities and sense of self. That promotes growth and healthy development. Confidence grows. It is easier to compromise and cooperate. Relationships are enhanced. Whatever effort we put into trust repays us enormously. And trust in self repels external pressure to be and do things that are not right or integral to our sense of self or values and makes us stronger, both as individuals and within relationships and communities.

At the same time though we need to acknowledge and do what is comfortable for ourselves or we risk swinging like pendulums and end up causing stress in both our lives and our children's. That's why I suggest we keep talking to our children about what we feel and our worries, let them know the inner workings of our minds, tell them about our limitations and why we think we are the way we are, apologise for what we perceive as faults and tell them about the work we are doing to overcome our limitations. Show them that we're not perfect people, that being perfect people isn't the aim of growing up, that learning is life long, ongoing, challenging and awesome. I have no regrets because I am a learner: I make mistakes and I stuff up life with my children every day but because I learn from them and they can see that we are all empowered and we all grow. And that's the best I can do.

So, if I don't trust myself or my children today, if I err on the side of caution or paranoia or get caught up in my own fear and project that onto others, all I can really do is forgive myself, share my insights, be honest, frank, open and apologise and ask for forgiveness. It's a dance, a wonderful relationship dance, with lots of give and take when we focus on building trust everyday. Our children know this. Our children are immensely forgiving. It's okay to be human. It's okay to be learning this trust thing alongside our children.

Ultimately we have values and attitudes we hold dear to ourselves: there is every chance our children will latch onto these values and attitudes and cherish them as we do. There is just as much chance they won't. That's one thing I've learned as a homeschooling / unschooling parent. Our children belong to their own time and culture, to their own hearts and needs. There are things we worry about that won't worry them at all.

Bottom line for me was safety: is my child in immediate danger? If the answer was yes, then I intervened. If no, I would assess the situation as to the potential danger. Should I encourage the child to consider options or distract the child? Often I would be observant and supervise but not intervene. Often I would talk through my worries and concerns. Sometimes I would foresee a problem for me and manipulate the environment so it wouldn't happen. My aim was to create a low stress learning environment for all of us. Did I do well? Was I an okay mum? My children seem to think so. But I wasn't perfect, I made huge mistakes, I still don't trust as completely as I'd love to, but that's okay.

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