A Math Story

Before I launch into my next post series, I wanted to share a quick story. I was at the park the other day with a friend who is not an unschooler. But her youngest son is 4, so for all intents and purposes, he’s unschooled (by happy chance of his age). He came over to his mom and asked, “How much is 60 hours?”
She answered, “2 1/2 days.”
“And, how much is 100 hours?”
“That’s a long time. Over 4 days.”

He  ran off to play and she told us that he had been asking a lot of math questions lately. He constantly wanted to know the answers to different math problems, and she was happily supplying them.

When the mom told me about this, she almost seemed mystified. And maybe a little proud (which is her right).

But, it isn’t mystifying. It’s perfectly natural. And, this desire to know (even about math!) sticks around long past the time kids turn five. If only we would be able to trust them, we would find ourselves continually telling stories to our friends about the amazing things our kids want to know.

Continue reading

What kinds of adults do we want to create?

I am planning a new blog-post series addressing the end result of all of our hard work: What characteristics do we want to see in our kids once they reach adulthood? What is the endgame?

So, I would like your help. What is your answer to this question? What type of people do you want to see in future? What traits are you hoping for in your own children once they become full-fledged adults? Please post in the comments section. Perhaps your suggestions will fuel a blog post.

Continue reading

Consequences or Punishment?

I have recently engaged in a Facebook conversation about punishment and consequences. I personally prefer to eschew the use of either word because, generally, the second is just a euphemism for the first. If we call it a “consequence” we don’t feel as bad as if we call it by it’s real name. What’s curious is that a parent thinks that taking away a toy because it was thrown is a consequence, and not a punishment. Um, I’m pretty sure that taking something from someone constitutes a punishment. Regardless of the situation.

Yes, there are consequences in life. Every cause has an effect. But, a natural consequence (a child throws a toy, and it breaks) is not that same as a parent-induced consequence (a child throws a toy, and the parent takes it from him). What do parent-made consequences teach? Usually, they teach the child to a) not get caught, and b) resent their parent. So, if punishments don’t work, how do we help our kids to do what’s right?

First, we have to find out what is at the heart of the matter. Focusing on the symptoms without addressing their cause never works. A child hits or screams or jumps on furniture. What is causing that? Is it anger? Frustration? A lot of excited energy? Instead of trying to curb the behavior with “consequences” (regardless of how “logical” they are), we should focus on the emotion behind it.

1. Identify it: “You seem frustrated!” or “Wow, you have a lot of energy!”

2. Set the limit: “But we don’t throw toys,” or “Couches aren’t for jumping on.”

3. Channel the emotion appropriately: “You can throw this bean bag as hard as you want against the wall,” or “I’m gonna get you! You better run!”

Usually, that’s it. Sometimes, there’s more work to be done to excavate the underlying emotion. In those cases, allow them to cry and rage. Don’t move your limit, but be empathetic to their sadness. They aren’t just mad that you stopped them from jumping or throwing. There’s something deeper happening here. Allow that emotion to be released in your loving presence, and then see how that original misbehavior evaporates. No consequences required.

It may be obvious that my example is from multiple interactions with my own pre-schooler. The same principles apply for older kids, though they need more space to talk about their emotions whereas a 3-year old might not be able to do that. 

Continue reading

How can we be sure?

I’ve finally reached the last in my series of blogs addressing a reader’s questions. The other posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.  This post covers two questions, mainly because one of them has already been answered in a previous post.

6) Many of the blogs/ articles I’ve read about unschooling demonize public schools. Why is that? Can’t one choice be good for one child and another choice be good for a different child?

I talked about public schools in Are Public Schools REALLY that Bad? and I think it should be pretty clear what my answer to this question is. However, to elaborate a little, I do think some kids do fine in public schools. They may be motivated by extrinsic rewards and happy to jump through hoops. I was one of those kids. I was fine. But, those same kids would still, for reasons I laid out in the earlier post, be better served in an unschooling or free schooling environment. There really are very few kids for whom traditional schooling would work better than free schooling. In fact, Sudbury Valley School, a prominent democratic school and one of the first of its kind, has pointed out that they have never seen a child who wouldn’t thrive in their environment. It is usually the parents who have a hard time with it.

7) Just as all public school teachers may not be at the top of their game, I’m sure there are some unschooling parents who aren’t at the top of their game. That being said, child one who goes to public school may have one bad year, but child two who is unschooled faces the possibility of 13 bad years.
Is there any accountability for unschoolers?

A few years ago, a friend of mine, after seeing a rather poorly done news report on unschooling, asked me something along the same lines. She said that it seemed a lazy way of parenting. Just let your kids do whatever. She even envisioned drug-addict parents letting their kids roam free and then call it “unschooling.”  My answer to her, and it went over like a lead balloon, was that actually sending your child to public school is probably the laziest option (I am not saying that every parent who sends their child to public school is lazy. But, that if you are a lazy parent, you would probably choose that option of schooling). Just think, you can do whatever you want while your child is locked up for 7 hours, and you aren’t even responsible for his/her learning or behavior.

But, I digress. Yes, some parents may not be “on their game.” But, in terms of unschooling, that might mean that they don’t strew materials around the house.  Since the locus of learning lies within the child, and their internal curiosity, the parents abilities and effort don’t matter as much. HOWEVER, that is not to say that a parent has nothing to do with their child’s learning.  They definitely positively affect learning by modeling, by exposing their child, by strewing resources, taking trips, etc.  And, from what I’ve found among unschoolers, most parents are very thoughtful about the model and are more likely to be involved in their child’s education than a typical traditional school parent. They have chosen this path thoughtfully and educate themselves on the philosophy. They often attend conferences, read (and write) blogs, devour books and magazine articles, and join communities of support and discussion.  You would be hard-pressed to find such investment from public school parents.

As for the second question regarding accountability, this is completely dependent on each state. Some states require portfolios from their homeschoolers, others don’t require anything. Some ask for kids to take tests, but usually don’t act on the outcome.  Regardless of who is looking over our shoulders and how they do it, I would have to ask what the measure should be. How do we assess whether a child has had a good education at home? Most people just assume that standardized tests would give us that answer, but once we evaluate what we actually WANT from to see in an educated child, those tests are worth less than the paper they’re printed on.  I don’t really care that every child knows the history and contributions of ancient Kush society (yes, that’s a Federal standard). What I want is for them to be passionate, respectful, thoughtful, creative, and independent.  There is no test for this.

So, Zoemaster, I hope I have answered your questions. I’m sorry it took nearly two months to do so. The path toward such a radical paradigm shift can be a long one, and not usually a straight one. But, I’m glad you’re here asking the questions. That is exactly what we all need to be doing.

Continue reading

The Great Fear: Television

Whoah, how is it mid-May already? Well, back to that post series I am writing based on questions from a reader. Next, Zoemaster asks:

5) What if your child just wants to watch tv?

This is not a new concern, nor is it one that has been unanswered. Almost every unschooling blog has addressed the concern of television or video games. I hope to be able to add a little to the conversation, but I’m not sure how new my comments will be.

So, the reader’s question is, “What if they watch TV?”  And my question in response is, yes, what if they did?

What is your concern about television? When adults watch TV to unwind, it’s completely normal, but when kids do it, it’s a tragedy.  I acknowledge, as would most unschoolers, that watching television isn’t preferable to getting outside and playing. But, everyone’s days ebb and flow. They may be ready to play and explore in the morning and more interested in a good movie that evening.  Not only that, television watching, as with many activities, is often seasonal. A child may be really interested in TV for a few weeks, and then not really want to watch it much after that. When they are allowed to choose, they will actually choose something else many times.  But, when it’s a forbidden fruit, they will jump at the chance to watch it any time they can.

Of course, every family has it’s own distinct culture. Let’s say that you have a child who constantly watches television ALL DAY LONG. I have not actually known of a child like this, but let’s take a worst-case scenario, and what every parent fears. If this situation is not working for your family, I would recommend having a family meeting to problem solve. The child gets a say in the solution, as does the rest of the family. Perhaps it’s a problem because others want to watch their own show, or maybe it’s because it is loud and interrupts a peaceful atmosphere desired by other members of the family. Or, perhaps television watching seems to negatively affect your child’s mood and therefore the general happiness of the family.  Living in a family means being respectful of the needs of others, so a child is not allowed to do whatever he or she wants if it infringes on others.

I have to be honest, this is an area that I do struggle with.  But, our house has become one in which the television just isn’t on very often. My husband and I don’t watch much, and my son rarely asks to turn it on. If he does ask, and I really don’t want him to watch, I will often suggest another activity we can do together. He usually just turns to TV when he is bored, so giving him an alternate idea often satisfies that need. But, if he needs a little chill time, I happily flip on the screen, and often plop right down next to him.

Continue reading

Rules above Dignity

I’m taking a break from my posting series to talk about a really disturbing story I read the other day. Unfortunately, it’s not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last as long as our educational system has its priorities upside down.

The story, which you can read here, is about a 6-year old kindergarten child who was not allowed to use the restroom during standardized testing (yes, there is standardized testing in kindergarten). So, in the middle of testing, the little girl, who was suffering from diarrhea, had no choice than to use the bathroom in her pants. Not only did she experience that embarrassment, but was then further humiliated by being made to SIT in it for the remainder of the test (about 15 minutes). It was only after that time that her mother was called, who then had to drive 20 minutes to the school. During this entire time, the little girl was never cleaned up. When her mother arrived, she was horrified to find her daughter sitting in poop, which was coming up out of her pants, and wrapped around her waist with a garbage bag.  I believe this experience will be a defining one in this little girl’s life. She had to be traumatized and humiliated. She will never forget that day, especially if the other kids choose to remind her.

In what world is it okay to treat any human being this way? Why would something as asinine as a standardized test come before the dignity and bodily needs of our youngest children?  Of course, the superintendent “wishes the school had handled it differently,” but the problem lies in our basic assumptions about children and education.

First, the teacher was being such a stickler for the rules because she was “preparing” the kids for the 3rd grade standardized tests, when they would not be allowed to use the bathroom during the test. This logic is baffling to me. They won’t be allowed to in three years, so we must prepare them now by using the same rules?  In fact, a lot of the decisions made in school are based on this type of logic. “You won’t be able to wear pajamas to work when you’re an adult, so you can’t wear them to school,” or “You won’t be able to play outside all day when you grow up, so you can’t do it now.” It seems to me, the opposite should be true: this is their chance to wear pajamas out and to play all day. They’re kids.  You don’t have to prepare someone for something restrictive by being restrictive. In fact, you should give them their freedom. If you knew you’d be going on a fast, wouldn’t you prepare by eating a lot of good food? Or, would you prepare by fasting? If you were going to go to jail, would you prepare by keeping yourself in your room all day?

Second, these rules, no matter what age, are an example of how our educational culture continues to place testing and assessment over the actual learning and needs of the individual child in the classroom.  Because of a fear of cheating on a test, which would thereby make the results of the test invalid, our children are confined to their desks for a long period of time. But, most educators would agree, this test measures very little in the first place. The results can change depending the kind of day the students are having, the weather outside, whether they ate breakfast or not, etc.  Yet our system places the outside chance of a child cheating on a test that measures very little over their basic human needs.

Of course, test time is not the only time that kids are restricted when it comes to bodily functions. They have to ask permission to drink water, go to a nurse, and use the restroom. Think about that. As an adult, what if your boss made you ask permission to the use the restroom? Not only that, but you had to ask in front of 30 of your peers, so that everyone knew what you were about to do. Furthermore, your boss may even tell you “no” and you would have to sit back down, with everyone around you knowing that you were holding your bladder.  Can you imagine working there? And, can you imagine trying to get your work done while having to pee but not being allowed? If an office like that existed, I would bet they wouldn’t keep their employees long, and the ones they had would hate it, feel resentful and frustrated, have low morale, and would not be very productive. And the employer would probably face lawsuits with those types of policies. But, if we do it to children, it’s okay.

Continue reading

Can kids go to school AND follow their interests?

Thanks for sticking with me on my prolonged post series answering questions from a reader: Zoemaster. Sorry it’s taking me a little longer to get through them than I intended. I’m also in the process of starting a new school, so blog writing is often lower on my list of priorities. If you want to read posts one, two and three, click on the links. The next question from Zoemaster is:

4) Can’t children go to a public school and isn’t it the parents’ job to nurture curiosity and exploration above and beyond school?

This is what many parents strive to do, with great intentions.  The problem is, there are only so many hours in the day. High school kids go to school for seven hours a day, then often have band or sports practice for two to three hours after school, come home around 6 or 7, eat dinner, start homework and finish around bedtime. Then they get up to do it all again the next day. If they are sports players, they usually have additional practice and games on weekends. If not, their weekends are taken up with family activities, more homework, or what adults think of as being “lazy.” (In reality, they just need a break or are pursuing their interests, but those interests are not valued by their parents. More on this in a future post.)

If parents try to “nurture curiosity and exploration,” they often go about it in a pushy way, and kids resist it. Many parents have a “you must play one instrument and one sport” rule. Or, “if you start something, you have to finish it, even if you hate it” rule.  This is tantamount to more coercive education and does little to actually pique the child’s interest. I believe that curiosity and the desire to explore are basic human functions. Children (and adults) do this automatically, without having to be nurtured towards that. In reality, our main role is to not get in the way, or try to push our own agenda.

Many parents can nod along with that last paragraph, but they put on the breaks with the final sentence. It’s difficult for parents to give up control of what their child learns. They may feel comfortable with it for one child, who loves to read and play the violin, but then would not allow it for another child who wants to play basketball and Dungeons and Dragons. When you give up control, and allow kids to explore, you can’t set limits on what they explore (well, except perhaps in the area of propriety).

Unschoolers have a term: strewing. This is the act of placing books, DVDs, CDs, computer programs around the house, so that it’s available for the students to pick and explore.  To me, this is basically living life. You can do this on purpose, or you can just live your life with interesting resources around you and see what your kids gravitate towards.

But, does it work in conjunction with compulsory schooling? I don’t think so. Kids need down time in order to explore their interests. Their brains need a break before they can throw their energy into something they love. But, we don’t give them a break.  Our kids are over-scheduled. They have very little free time, and what time they do have, they have to use for recuperation.  The first thing that is sacrificed in this struggle for time, is exactly what our students want to spend more time doing.  And they, along with our society as a whole, are suffering for it.

Up next: The big worry: What if they just want to watch TV all day?

Continue reading

Are Public Schools REALLY that bad?

I’m on the third of a continuing series answering a list of questions from a reader. You can also read my first and second posts.

3) Are public schools that damaging, horrific and why?

Oh boy. Are you trying to get me in trouble? First, the politically correct, not as offensive answer: traditional schooling does work for some people. It is set up for kids who enjoy pats on the back, pleasing others, external rewards, etc. I was actually one of those kids. I so liked to make people proud of me that I threw myself into schoolwork. Also, I loved the recognition and status that came along with a high GPA.  So, I was motivated to do the work. In such, I did not think that school was that terrible while I was there. Of course, I also remember very adamantly stating that I would not repeat high school if you paid me. Think about it: how many people actually enjoy school? No one expects you to enjoy it. It’s supposed to be boring and difficult, and you’re supposed to dislike it.

This brings me to my real answer: yes, it is horrific. Even the kids who “succeed” at doing school, are really being done such a disservice.  Have you seen the YouTube video of the high school valedictorian speaking out against school during her graduation speech?  She has done everything “right,” and has been a model student – a poster child for traditional schooling – and yet she has very few real skills and knows very little about her own passions and interests.

At this point, our school system has become all about standardization and assessment. There really is no room for actual learning.  So, what the system really teaches is how to “do school”: how to pass a test (memorize, regurgitate, forget), how to plagiarize without getting caught, how to “get through” a class.  A majority of information taught in school is completely forgotten by the time of graduation.

What’s more, it’s compulsory, i.e. forced, upon our children. Think about this: at what other time in life is it okay to force a person to be in a particular place for a lengthy period every day against their will? I know only of one other time that is okay – if you are in prison. In fact, this school/jail analogy has been used numerous times, and by people much smarter than me. Many students feel as though they are trapped. But, it’s not just a feeling. They really are trapped. They hate what they do all day. This is their childhood, the only one they get, and we are putting them in a situation where they don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. Many kids develop anxiety and physical illness because of how much they hate school. But, because they are kids, we feel as though we can force them do it. They don’t have the right to determine what to do with their own time, merely because of their age.

As adults, we have a particular standard for our own careers. We want to love our job. We want to enjoy going to work, and to feel as though we are doing something worthwhile. If my husband told me (as he has in the past) that he hates his career and wants to look into another career path that he would find more inspiring, we would make that a goal and work toward making it happen. Why do we not have the same standard for our children? They should enjoy their days even more. They’re children, for goodness sake. They should be playing, doing things they find interesting, and generally loving life. Instead, because of the basic assumption that kids must go to school, and that school must include a particular set of things they must learn, our children are hating their days much more than their parents are. At least their parents have some choice in their job, even if it’s not really something they love. And, the adults have the ability to make a change in what they do day-to-day, unlike their kids.

So, though I may be stepping on toes and I might offend some of my public school colleagues, I must argue that school really is that horrific. And that even the students who don’t feel like prisoners actually are, and they are losing a significant portion of their lives without gaining much from it. Because in the end, a degree from a traditional high school only signifies that you do what you are told. It has little to do with actual learning or thinking.

Up next: Can’t you encourage your child to follow his passions while he is in traditional school?

Continue reading

Meeting the Need to Learn

This is the second in my series answering questions from a reader. The first post is here.

2) If in fact, the child does decide that s/he would like to study physics, I’d venture to guess that the majority of unschooling parents don’t know enough about physics to do it justice. I know I certainly wouldn’t. What then?

This question is taken out of context, but essentially it is, “How do you meet your child’s desire to learn something about which you are ignorant?” The concept of learning physics as a whole subject (and the fact that the world isn’t really divided up that way) was addressed in my last post.

Thankfully, this is a relatively easy problem to solve. Assuming that a child is delving into a new area of learning, and they continue to show interest in it and want to get deeper, they have numerous resources other than their parents. In fact, most unschoolers learn things completely independent of their parents.  A parent may be called upon to be creative in finding ways to meet this need, but there is a whole world of possibilities out there, many of which are unavailable to children in school.  What’s more, this is exactly how an unschooled (or free schooled) child becomes an independent thinker, and a person who knows exactly how to learn something, rather than just sitting and waiting to be told information.

Let’s take a simple example. My son (who, granted, is three), is very interested in cars and trains. At this point, his main interaction with them is through toys. He holds races, tows cars around, etc.  But, we are always looking for ways to expand his experience with these things. (I would argue that most parents of pre-schoolers do the same. Our society just believes it is no longer a valid way of learning from the ages of 5 to 18.) So, we’ve taken our son on a train ride and to a car show. We borrow videos about rock crawler races. My father-in-law, an avid racing fan, talks to him about races and different parts of cars and my son helps my husband maintain our cars. What if he wants to know more about how a train works or what a conductor does? Well, we could easily look it up online or head to the library. We could go to a train museum or even find a local train enthusiast. We’ve even found very realistic train simulators for the computer.

What if the subject is more complex? What if a high schooler wants to learn about neuroscience? Well, at this age, kids are often very self-sufficient in their learning. If they have questions that can’t be answered online, you could take them to a local university library. You could also pursue classes at a local college or even an online university or find films on the topic.  You could even contact a local neuroscientist to talk to your student.  (Randomly, I have two friends I went to college with who are now neurologists. Hey, I bet you could look at your own alumni network and find someone who could teach your child about something they are interested in.)

We live in an age where finding out more about a topic is relatively easy. The important part is that they are allowed the freedom to do so. And, when they’re done with that topic and don’t really care to know more, we must respect that and give them the space to find their next passion.

What things have you done to help your child follow his or her interest?

Next post: Are public schools REALLY that horrible?

Continue reading

How do you know what you don’t know?

Recently, a reader commented on a post with a long list of questions. The questions seem to be coming from a curious outsider; a schooled person who doesn’t quite see what all these unschoolers are complaining about. So, instead of answering the questions with another comment, I decided to start a series of blog posts to answer them in depth and to the best of my abilities.

1.  How do children know what they don’t know? Unschoolers say that children pick their own curriculum, but if they have never been exposed to physics for example, how do they know whether or not they would like to study it?

The framing of this question tells me that the asker is coming from a schooled paradigm. The first thing to do is to completely shift your view of knowledge. In life, and in the “real” (a.k.a. non-school) world, knowledge is not divided into subject areas. We don’t really expect a child to suddenly take up an interest in physics as a complete subject area, because it’s a construct.  Also, unschoolers do not say that the children will pick their own curriculum. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find any unschooler who labels what their child learns as “curriculum.”  Throw out those schooly concepts of subject areas and curriculum entirely – they are not found in real life. Instead, allow a person, regardless of age, to follow their interests and watch how much they learn. If a child is particularly excited about, Legos, for example. He or she may first start by constructing buildings based on diagrams found in a kit. Then they may start designing their own buildings and even entering contests or communities in which they share their Lego creations. There are even contests where kids create Lego robots.  What subject area is this? Well, it may involve many things from different areas: architecture, design, problem solving, robotics, logic, artistic creation, and even being part of a community.

The question asker seems to be getting at another concern: exposure. If a child is not exposed to something (which, in this person’s mind, means being taught about it), how will they know that they like it?  Thankfully, this has never been much of an issue for unschoolers. We live in a world where underexposure is almost an impossibility. With multimedia and the internet, being exposed to information is a constant state of being. In fact, we may desire for our children to NOT be as exposed and to have more peace and quiet so they have a chance to process information.

On the flip side, I would argue that most schooled children are not exposed to many areas that would be more valuable and to which unschooled children may be exposed. From all the world of knowledge, school endeavors to “teach” children only a small sliver.  Much of the things they are taught will not be useful to them in their life paths. In fact, much of it will not actually be learned at all. So, schools spend an inordinate amount of time trying to force kids to learn information that is currently or will be obsolete, and which they will promptly forget anyway. They are thereby robbing that child of time they could spend actually learning (not memorizing, regurgitating, then forgetting) information that interests them.

Let me give you an example. Say a high school student loves photography, and she spends as much time as she can with her camera. But, soon her grades in math and history start slipping. What is our response? What would her parents do? What would her teachers recommend? Likely, they will make her stop playing around with her camera so much and start studying math and history. Photography is devalued in favor of information that she will never need in her career as a photographer. And, if she does need that information later? She will learn it as she needs it.

Just remember, the years between 5 and 18 are not times when humans magically stop learning on their own. Before five, our kids brains develop more than they will in the rest of their lives. They learn an incredible amount of stuff, and all without the benefit of direct instruction. After eighteen, adults go back to learning in that same way. We want to know about something that we’re interested in, so we pursue that knowledge.

So, how will our kids be exposed to information? By doing what the rest of us do – living life.  Whereas schools pull from a limited amount of information to teach kids, unschoolers and free schoolers pull from the entire world of information.

Next up: How do you meet your child’s desire for information when you know nothing about that subject?

Continue reading

prev posts prev posts
Unschooling Blogs
Powered By Ringsurf