Tuesday, August 04, 2009

thoughts on radical unschooling I

(for the past three days, i have hardly slept, so enthralled am i by the concept of a radical unschooling lifestyle; i have read hundreds of pages, talked myself dry many a time, and my mind has been constantly churning, arranging and rearranging bits of the world, so that it all falls together in the most amazing rainbow i have seen since i began on this homeschooling journey two years ago. with the insights and the 'aha!'s also come the questions, in equal supply it would seem. it is all so much, i figured i would use this space to write down some of my tentative conclusions, to try and help myself understand what i understand and what i don't (yet) understand.)

The whole thing, as i understand it, is based on the following premise: children are people. No, really. Not as in ‘sort of people’, but as in ‘people like you and me'. From this incredibly radical position, the following seems to follow:

I treat my children the way I do the adults I cherish and love in my life, which means that I

- trust their capacity to choose for themselves;
- trust their capacity to take care of themselves;
- trust their capacity to learn all they need to learn;
- trust their wisdom;
- give advice and help only when required;
- listen when they talk;
- respect their opinions, and consider them to be completely valid, even if I happen to disagree;
- respect their right to choose things that might not, in my opinion, be optimal for their mental and/or physical well-being;
- humbly learn from them.

Behaviours I have indulged in that seem utterly nonsensical from this perspective:

- telling my children that they were tired
- telling them to go to bed now, and not come out again, or there would be no story
- telling them when to eat
- telling them what to eat
- telling them how much to eat
- telling them when to learn
- telling them how to learn
- telling them what to learn
- interrupting my children because an adult speaks
- telling my children to never interrupt adults speaking
- refusing them food when they were hungry (not the right time for a snack)
- refusing them sleep when they were tired (not the right time for a nap)
- forbidding them to watch tv when they wanted to
- forbidding them to eat candy when they wanted to
- forbidding them to use the computer when they wanted to
- forcing my children to go out when they wanted to be in
- forcing my children to stay in when they wanted to go out
- forcing them to wear A when they wanted to wear B
- selling some of their possessions, or sneakily giving them away, and then lying about these things being lost
- refusing to buy something for them which they really wanted, and i could afford, using the phrase ‘I don’t think it’s a nice book/toy/game’ as a justification

etc. etc. etc.

If I were to do any of these things to my husband I don’t think I would have a husband for very long (actually, I have occasionally tried some of it on my husband, obviously his response was not terribly enthusiastic, I can’t say this kind of thing ever really improved the atmosphere in our house…)

The important, basic thing here is, as far as I can tell, the paradigm-shift to actually trusting my child’s innate ability to take care of herself, to trust her self-preserving instinct, her growth instinct, her learning instinct, her self-actualization instinct, all of which means that left to her own devices, she will not, as predicted by skeptics, self-destruct, but instead turn into the amazing woman she was meant to turn into.

It also means there is nothing I or anybody else can ever ‘teach’ her, although there are zillions of things for her to learn. Learning cannot be induced, nor can it be stopped: It is automatic. In that sense, it is exactly like breathing, which can be modified, regulated, etc., but by its very nature can neither be induced nor stopped, except by, respectively, birth and death. If I let this truly sink into my system, I can stop worrying about ‘my’ role in her learning, and about her learning full stop. Away with the gnawing anxiety that she is 'not learning anything'. Away with the guilt trip about doing too little, too much, too soon, too late, too much like A and too little like B. ‘My’ only role is to get out of the way and let her. Breathe. Learn.

Respecting that although she always knows what is best for her (or rather is always in the process of finding this out), she may sometimes choose not to live that knowledge.

Acknowledging and respecting that she has different ideas/interests/learning styles/priorities/ideologies from mine. Yes, already now. And that mine are no better or worse than hers. In fact, i could learn a lot from her.

Having said that, I still have questions. Many questions. Philosophical and practical ones. So there will be other instalments.


Anonymous said...

Well that's radical alright! Imagine trusting your child not to fall out of the window if you leave it open on the fourth floor... trusting them not to burn themselves on the stove... trusting them to find an interest in Maths... trusting them not to hurt their little brother, or take advantage of their superior strength over younger children... It sounds like you would need more good faith then what wisdom would allow. But a challenging thought experiment worthy of analysis. Me thinks. `Jt

Véronique said...

actually, that's exactly it. the only one in your list where i think i would feel the need to keep a very watchful eye is the fourth-floor open window, and even then only until they are two or so. for the rest, i really do trust them to figure out and develop each and every one of these things by themselves (except the interest in mathematics, which many people still lack at a ripe adult age without this interferring in any way with the joy and significance of their lives ;)).

and i would contest the fact that this is faith rather than wisdom. it just might be both.

Anonymous said...

I think you have reached the first step in this leap of faith in the little ones (by far exceeding my trust in their "good" judgement). You are further into this than you think... but please be careful. I suppose there's no point in me summing up counter arguments as you must have read them (or ran them through your head) already. It is worth keeping in mind, that together with the home-schooling you run the risk of having your children at "another level" than might be expected by state authorities, which is not a bad thing in itself but might cause you grief.// As for Maths, mathematics and logic protect you from "fake" significance and fallacy. A fellow called John Allen Paulos wrote an interesting essay on the subject, published in NL under the name Ongecijferdheid (Ooievaar). But in the case of your little ones, maybe they will show an interest by themselves. But who will introduce them? Jt

Anonymous said...

And what about "taking pictures of the rain' with your husband's state-of-the-art camera... Jt

Véronique said...

i see you're hooked :), for which i am very grateful since i need an honest conversational partner in this. so, first things first, the love of mathematics question. here are some thoughts for you to ponder: a) if school did give people a love of mathematics, and in view of the fact that nearly everybody in the western world has gone to school, how come i've hardly ever met anyone who finds mathematics anything but horrid? b) the link between knowledge of mathematics and the kind of logical thinking required to lead a fallacy-free happy life is, in my humble and very incomplete experience, sadly lacking, since the three mathematics professors i grew up under are all three notorious for their of lack of logic and their propensity for fallacy and c) there is mathematics and mathematics: there is the multiplication tables, fractions, basic statistics, long division, multiplication, etc. and then there is all the other stuff (chaos theory, theorems, differentiation, integration, and all kinds of things i know not even the names of). i would say that the first type of mathematics you hardly need anybody to introduce you to: life will introduce you just fine. you'll need to figure out how much money you'll have left in your piggy-bank once you've spent 3 euros on that barbie dress; you'll need to know how many sweets everybody should get if you are dividing a bag of 32 among 13 children. and then you'll have to know how to cut up the remainder. you'll need to fill in your tax form and you'll need to know how much change the cassier at the supermarket is supposed to give you. i'm guessing by the time you're 10, you will know all that you need to know of mathematics to function in the world, and you will not even have noticed that you were learning it. As for the other type of mathematics, type B, very very very very few people ever use any of it. and those who do indeed LOVE the stuff. so methinks: if you do need it, and LOVE it, you'll learn it, and if you don't, no skin off your nose.

just out of curiosity: do you remember how to do a differentiation? can you name 5 theorems? do you know any of their proofs? if you have answered 'no' to any of the above, does your life feel heavier and less complete as a result?

Véronique said...

and now about that fancy camera getting wet: you are not supposed to just lie down on your martyr bed, give up on all your needs, desires, priorities, etc. and be overrun by your child's ideas of what should happen, and how and when. rather, the idea, as i understand it, is to consider BOTH your ideas AND your child's ideas as equally valid.

this is radical because the more standard idea is that whenever the needs of parents and children seem, on the surface, to clash, the parents' needs are automatically valid by virtue of being the parents' and the children's are automatically dismissed by virtue of being the children's. in contrast, in the radical version, you seek to meet everybody's needs by looking deeper than the surface.

incidentally, this is what you systematically do when dealing with another adult. for instance, if i visit you, and i want to go to the museum, and you want to go to the park, you are unlikely to say to me: "put your coat on, we are going to the park. why don't you ever listen! coat on, right now! i am counting to ten, and if you don't have your shoes on, i'm off. right, see you later! BYE!" and then dramatically slam the door. the more likely scenario is that we would talk and try to find out from each other why each of us wants what they want (i.e. uncover the deeper need) and then come up with a plan that suits us both. perhaps that plan would involve a compromise on the part of one of us, but this compromise would not have been forced on anyone, it would have arisen naturally in the person 'compromising', as a genuine wish to be helpful. more likely though, we would continue thinking until we came up with a solution that really suited us both.

now to come back to the camera in the rain: depending on the age of your child, you might gently distract them with an alternative (but in order for this to be respectful, you would have to take the time to figure out what their deeper need of the moment is: is it being outside in the rain? is it playing with the camera? is it holding something above their head? is it looking at the clouds? etc.) or, if they are old enough, you can explain to them, respectfully and kindly, that the camera gets damaged in the rain, that it is expensive and that you don't earn enough money to be able to replace it just like that. then, you and your child can together figure out something else to do that suits you both.

there is a great book, which i am reading, which is called 'Unconditional Parenting', by Alfie Kohn, and it is my fount of wisdom these days. i think you would like it, it's based on hundreds of studies done in the past hundred years on children of all ages, in many different countries. i.e. it's 'serious' research. and well-written too.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't have done my studies (philosophy) without a good basis in mathematics. I would probably have trouble following the online course I am now following while reading Godel Escher Bach (http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/hs/geb/VideoLectures/index.htm). I don't think school gives people a love in anything, at least not the one I did, but then you are not schooling your children so that does not concern you. What does concern you, is whether or not to force mathematics down their throat or not. Obviously that doesn't sound very attractive, but somethings have to be learnt in one way or another. (most other things, following a Montessori type system, children will aspire to learn for themselves.) If you see your child as an adult, someone who is relatively "finished" as a human being, the need for basics (other than the math you mentioned) is just going to be there. Refusing mathematics and refusing to think often go together in life. Of course that doesn't mean that if you have a basis in mathematics that you will be a regularly thinking person either... but at least your brain is exercised to be able to do so should you wish it. That perhaps is not enough to convince you (thinking of your 3 mathematicians), but perhaps you should think of people you admire for their logical thinking capacities, and consider their backgrounds in maths.

I am indeed suggesting the worst of the worst is best, and not to start too late - from set theory to algorithms to integration to statistics. It's mostly for exercise purposes, and to avoid this: http://www.ihatethemedia.com/bill-o-reilly-math-trouble

You question about my math skills - I've been using quite a bit of formula building over the last couple of years (excel), and still had quite a bit at university before. But don't forget, I did a regular school. That's not what you are considering here.

I think the photographing raindrops, with your answer, showed the difficulty, because you had to exercise your superior experience (cameras damage in the rain), taking you away from the equal footing as adults. -Figuring out deeper needs (if there are any) sounds wise.- It's a tricky business, and that is why I think it is such a captivating (scary?) idea. REALLY taking your child's opinion as seriously as an adult's, means they have to grow up much faster than other children (as street kids do) as they have to take on responsibilities they would not normally encounter. This reduces their development time. But I presume this type of argument is dealt with in the literature, so you don't have to explain it to me (I should read it myself).

But captivating stuff. (There are almost no formatting possibilities in your comment box making this all quite messy, sorry about that)


Mirjam said...

Erg interessant! Teveel gedachten alleen, om ze hier neer te zetten. Ik kan het niet (helemaal)....

Véronique said...

is it possible you might be confusing 'equally valid' with 'equal' full stop? i never said children are 'equal' to adults, i said their wishes and needs are 'equally valid'. clearly, children are different: for one thing, they almost completely depend on adults to have their basic needs met (safety, food, warmth, barbie dolls, etc.); what's more, clearly adults have knowledge and understanding that children (at least very young children) lack, about how our society, and the world at large, works, about the long-term consequences of certain actions, etc. i am clearly not arguing with this, and i certainly believe that the role of parents is to pass this knowledge on to their children in ways and at times that are appropriate to their developmental rhythm. what i (and luckily for my sense of safety, not just i :)) question here is the premise that children's needs and wishes are less important than the adult's because they happen to know less and be more dependent. in other words, we can get away with dismissing our children's needs because a) they can't fight back, and b) we feel superior to them.

to come back to the camera example, once more, if i were visiting you and you happened to have a piece of fancy equipment that i was not familiar with, and i happened to hold it the wrong way up or something, you would kindly and respectfully explain things to me, without necessarily feeling that i was not to be trusted with any of your electronic stuff ever again, and without feeling very superior to me (i hope :)).

Anonymous said...

If you wanna play with my iPhone, you could also just ask... haha!!

I'm not sure about your "equally valid" and "equal" reference, but I presumably would indeed confuse them in this context.

I've re-read your post many, many times, and think you might be able to pull it off better than someone who sends their kids to school, but it would seem likely that you would be forcing them into being adults prematurely, by virtue of treating them like adults.

There is some flexibility:

"Children are people like you and me" (you and me are not identical.)

"I treat my children the way I do the adults" (I do not treat all adults the same either, even the ones I love.)

I think your children's needs will presumably be more manageable than those who go to school. (Children tend to be desperate to be the same as the others are, and most schools only reinforce this.)

In the normal case: people protect their children ("they're only kids"), esp from adult matters. Not doing so could be depressing for them. People usually judge on an issue to issue basis, which is probably wiser than taking a "full disclosure" approach. But of course you can lump a lot under the "flexibility rules"...