Monday, May 26, 2014

Youth Rights, Community, and Why Everyone Should Care About Children

This past weekend while sitting anxiously behind a table at the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair, watching people walk by, and only very occasionally stop by, I pulled out my new flower-patterned notebook to scribble some budding thoughts.

Sitting at the table, I keep watching people's eyes catch and then skim over the offerings laid out before me. Some of it could definitely be to do with how our table looks. Compared to the DVDs on one side and the rows of books on the other, all new and colourful and shiny, the slightly messy stacks of zines (and a single stack of a free issue of a three-year-old-journal), it might not seem so exciting.

But I can't help but wonder if some of the reason is that our stuff is all about educating children. Our culture doesn't value children very much [or values them only in certain very narrow ways], and I haven't seen much proof that the radical community [or various radical communities I've had any experience with] values them any more so.


Perhaps this observation was born more out of insecurity at all the disinterest being shown in my zines than as a reflection on people's actual feelings on or interest in children and education. Looking around, there was certainly much eye-skimming to be seen, as I think there kind of has to be at any large event with such a wide variety of tables to peruse. What you find personally most interesting is the only thing likely to catch your eye and make you pause for more than a moment when you're faced with such an overwhelming array of things to see.

However, if there's that little interest, not even enough for a brief flip through a book or zine, it seems to show that the majority of people there don't find the educating of children of particular interest. Or, maybe even more than a lack of interest, perhaps many people simply don't believe it to be of particular relevance. One young person said they didn't have kids, so didn't know if there was any point in signing up for more information.

People love to talk about children, child-raising, and education. Everyone's an armchair critic expert on those subjects when it comes to talk of kids-these-days-and-their-disrespect, or how badly parents are at parenting, or the failure of teachers to teach properly. But there seems to be a profound disconnect when it comes to talk of the actual nuts and bolts of parenting or education. Once it moves beyond vague criticism, there seems to be the idea that the only ones who have any interest or stake in the matter is parents. If you're not a parent, why should you care?

This type of attitude seems to me to be all part and parcel with the general disregard for children in this culture. Everyone can agree that children are important ("they're our future!"), yet somehow no one wants to see them in public (unless they're perfectly behaved, never crying or fussing or yelling or inconveniencing anyone in the slightest), or see them on Facebook ("why do parents post so many annoying photos of their snotty kids?"), or have to interact with them in any way ("I just don't like kids!"). And people certainly don't seem to want children to be treated with respect and kindness, or as autonomous young people deserving of more agency than they're currently being given ("More freedom? More pampering?? They already get too much of that!").

I needed a picture of children, so I figured why not use one of me and
my sister? This is us being cute, circa '96 or '97.

To change the way children are treated, it seems to me that people should come to a few realizations.
  1. Children are people. Obvious, I know, but it seems like it still needs to be said. All people deserve to be treated with a basic level of dignity, kindness, and respect for their personal autonomy and well-being. Children are a group with different needs than adults, for sure, but that doesn't change their worth, or their right to be treated well. All it means is that more environments should make an effort to be accommodating to the needs of children, not just the needs (or perceived needs) of adults.
  2. If you claim to be against any oppression, and then say how much you hate children, then you're not really against that form of oppression. Why? Because children also suffer from all other different forms of oppression. Anti-racism, you say? A feminist? A queer ally? Against ableism? There are children of colour; children who are girls; disabled children; queer children; trans children... Childhood is intimately affected by the identities a child holds (and the identities and experiences of their families), and a child marginalized by some other aspect of their identity is doubly marginalized.
  3. The well-being of children is in all of our hands. Whether you have children or want children or want never to have children, whether you're young or old, whether you spend much of your time in the company of children or almost none, it's up to all of us to look critically at the way children are treated and viewed in our culture (and the way we personally treat and look at children), and to work in whatever ways are open to us to make our environments safer and more hospitable to children. 
  4. This means caring about children, caring about parents and care-givers, and caring about education. This might mean more intimate personal involvement, it might mean educating yourself about the state of schooling and educational alternatives, or it might mean simply being nicer to hassled parents out in public with unhappy kids.
I don't think everyone should have the same interests as I do (unschooling and radical education), or that a childless person should care as deeply as a parent does about the harm standardized testing is causing (they're just not going to), but I do think that we should all be concerned with how other people are treated. We should all desire and strive for a world that treats everyone with dignity and respect, and where the important needs of everyone are met.

I just think that, when we talk about revolution at the anarchist bookfair, or ways to improve local services at the community center, or about our ideal world with our friends, we should always remember to make children both a subject of and a part of those important conversations.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Unschooling Doesn't Mean There's No Hard Work

One of the biggest criticisms of unschooling rests on a fundamental belief about children (and teenagers) and their ability to stay motivated and do difficult things.

People say that, if not forced to, children will never do hard things. Never apply themselves, practice skills intensively, or push through challenging material.

I suppose if you believe so strongly that children and teens aren't capable of doing anything difficult, then that would naturally make you rather unimpressed with the idea of unschooling. Because the truth is, a lot of things are hard. Often even things we find fun are also difficult!

Take writing, for instance. No matter how much you love the written word, love reading, love finding the perfect turn of phrase to convey exactly the mood you're looking for, or to explain a difficult concept in a way people can relate to, it's also work. Every writer, whether they're a novelist or blogger, is going to be familiar with the dread of an entirely blank page that needs to be filled; the difficulty of finding a word you know you know, but you just can't think of; pushing through when it feels like you have to fight for every single sentence.

No matter how you cut it, writing is hard.

So is cooking, my other main passion. Only with cooking, the "hard" comes with a big physical component: mixing batter, kneading dough, hoisting around heavy pots and pans, chopping huge bowls of vegetables... Though working in a commercial kitchen is the hardest, I'm regularly drained by home cooking and baking, as well. When I finish a big project--an oven full of entirely from-scratch hand-pies, for instance--I drop down, extremely tired, on the nearest cushy sitting surface, my back aching and sore from hunching over food stuffs for long periods of time, and mentally tired from focusing for hours on getting everything just right with whatever I'm creating.

Cooking, too, is hard work.

Butternut squash and caramelized onion galette with cheddar cheese.
Daunting to begin with, and satisfyingly delicious once it was done!

Now, I suppose some could say I'm an adult, and that's why I manage such things now. But my writing started before I hit my teens, and my ability to write as well as I do now comes from years of facing that daunting blank page.

My sister as a child and a teenager wrote (and writes) voraciously; she started playing marching snare drum when she was 12, started taking lessons in highland snare drum when she was 14 or 15, and now plays professionally, for pay; she's been practicing Ninjutsu since she was 16, and has progressed through several belts; she's completed NaNoWriMo on multiple occasions.

All of those things, too, were not easy to do, not things that came without much work and dedication.

Unschoolers, too, can be prone to procrastination, to avoiding doing hard things that need to be done and dropping hobbies they like when they get too difficult. I wouldn't say unschoolers are necessarily more likely to be motivated and work hard at things than people in school (they might be! I'm just not confident enough of that to attempt to make that claim). But what unschoolers do have is the time to really pursue things, to dig in deep and build skills they care about.

There are important elements that need to be in place to provide the best possible environment for managing hard things. One of those elements is having people (often parents, or mentors or teachers or friends or other family members) who are dedicated to helping you learn, who will cheer you on and encourage you when the going gets tough. Who will help you come up with goals, find the resources you need, and get important projects finished. Who will remind you that you said you wanted to practice violin every single day, and that you swore you'd get that chapter you've been working on finished by the end of the week.

It's hard to stay motivated if you've got no one in your corner who's invested in what you're doing and wants you to succeed at whatever you're trying to succeed at. But we do children and teens a huge disservice when we think, with the needed support, that they're incapable of dealing with difficulty.

A whole lot of what feels exciting and interesting is going to come along with a certain amount of difficulty and hard work. That holds true no matter your age. Beyond that all-important support, I think several other things contribute to people working hard:

  • Doing things you're genuinely excited about, things that feel joyful and fascinating. I feel this when I'm enthusiastically telling someone about the process behind a fermentation technique I've been reading about, or when I embark with determination and a deep breath on an intimidating yet exciting new baking project.
  • Finding meaning in your projects. When you choose what you do, instead of having someone else choose what they think you should be learning or doing, you're doing it because it has meaning to you. It's something you care about, something that actually seems important and relevant to you. You're going to put a lot more effort into something if it has importance in your life than if it's something someone else says you have to do.
  • The time to devote to learning and skill building. While deadlines, either self-imposed or imposed by a relevant external force (the print deadline of a magazine, the entry deadline for a contest, or the date for a performance), can certainly prove helpful, if you're tired out and mentally drained from too many things then you're not going to have the energy to truly apply yourself to something. I feel like this is something that gets in the way of school students focusing on what's really important to them. All the hours spent in school, going to and from school, doing homework, and often plenty of extra-curricular activities besides, suck up time and leave little left over for other pursuits. Hopefully some of those extra-curriculars are things the student really cares about, but with too much time taken up by school, it can be difficult or near impossible to focus on what the individual truly wants to be focusing on.
None of this is a guarantee: sometimes unschoolers don't feel challenged enough, are frequently bored, or have great difficulty sticking with things they care about when they get difficult. Sometimes maybe something in the environment or parental approach or personal attitude needs to change for things to improve, and sometimes, because we're human, no matter how good the surrounding circumstances are, hard things are hard.

We can do them, though. Unschoolers are proving every day that you don't need schools, don't need teachers or parents, to force young people to do hard things. Young people are more than capable of working, and working hard, because they care, and want to improve, and enjoy the warm glow you get upon accomplishing something difficult. All that's needed is for the individual to have access to the tools and support to help them in achieving all the things that children and teens are excited and motivated to do.

Learning is exciting, and learning is also hard. Let's start realizing that kids are naturally great at learning, no matter how hard it can sometimes be.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

In Praise of The Unexceptional: Because Unschooling Doesn't Have to Be Impressive

In some ways, this feels like an redux of a post of a couple months ago, Uncollege, Hackschooling, and When Success and Profit Hijack the Message. I'm starting with inspiration from two of the same posts that launched the earlier piece, but I'm shifting focus here, and concentrating more directly on ideas of what, exactly, constitutes success for unschoolers, and the pressure we feel to be extraordinary.

There’s an attitude that seems to have been quietly sneaking into unschooling discourse and advocacy. Never outright stated, yet there nonetheless: that unschoolers doing Big Impressive Things is the way to prove that unschooling works. Which seems to imply that it’s only working if it’s, well, impressive.

I suppose it’s not all that surprising this attitude is being found even in unschooling circles, as the idea of there being winners and losers--the winners distinguishing themselves with grand accomplishments, prestigious jobs, and lots of money--is a pervasive and widely held view in our culture at large. Though he's talking about the anger many adults feel at children receiving what they see as undeserved praise, or having it "too easy" in life, I think this recent op-ed in the New York Times by Alfie Kohn still serves as a really good point to illustrate some commonly held attitudes about what success is and how it works. He notes one of three underlying values in how people often view children and success is that “children ought never to receive something desirable — a sum of money, a trophy, a commendation — unless they’ve done enough to merit it. They shouldn’t even be allowed to feel good about themselves without being able to point to tangible accomplishments. In this view, we have a moral obligation to reward the deserving and, equally important, make sure the undeserving go conspicuously unrewarded. Hence the anger over participation trophies. The losers mustn’t receive something that even looks like a reward.”

While no one in unschooling circles is advocating for punishing or putting down those who aren’t obviously “succeeding” in impressive ways, the idea that the proof is in the accomplishments, and that’s what we should be aiming for, definitely seems to be there. Gillian Goddard noted the same thing, saying:
Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, [is] jumping on the 'self-directed learning' bandwagon these days. And they are bringing to it all the same old bullshit - children who are 'more'. More curious, more motivated, more more more. These children are not circus performers. So stop showcasing who did what at the youngest age, who gives the best TED teen presentations and not think that to me it will look no different except now the child is at home.
This is also something that can be felt very keenly by those of us who grew up unschooling, or who have chosen to forego college in favour of “uncolleging” or otherwise learning into adulthood without institutionalized education. Jessica Barker recently wrote a post on her blog College Rebellion that really hit me hard, where one of the things she said about her own journey was that:
I’ve been really upset for quite a while because try as I might, I can’t live up to all the "aim for your dreams!" mantra I preach on this website, because I feel like I have to as part of the Uncollege Movement. I say "those of us" because the person I’ve been trying to fit into the Epic Box the most is myself – I haven’t allowed myself to accept the fact that I want to live a normal life, that I feel my success depends neither on going to college nor not going to college, nor even what I do in or out specifically. I have dreams, yes: but I also have finally reached the point where I am confident that following certain Big Dreams is actually not the most important thing to me in life.
Whether it’s deliberate or not (I'd say it's almost never deliberate), the attitude that to be successful we have to dream and do big definitely exists, and it definitely does harm.

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I was discussing this article, and some comments people made on Facebook about this post in the works, with my mother today. "I've never said I'm proud of you deliberately, because pleasing me isn't important. I just want you to be happy, and if you're happy with your life, then I'll be happy!" she said. "I hope you haven't wanted me to say I'm proud of you," she continued, looking worried. "No," I assured her, "I'm good."

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So often when people find out you're an unschooler they say "well you must be very smart/self-motivated/brave for it to have worked!" I never know how to point out that that's not the case at all. I'm no genius, I procrastinate like all hell, and sometimes just leaving the house feels like it takes more bravery than I posses. Unschooling is for anyone with the time, support, and resources to be able to do it, not just for special people.

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Me and my sister, (almost entirely) lifelong school-free learners, aren’t exceptional. Sure, we’ve both done plenty of things we’re proud of: speaking in front of people for me and playing music in front of people for Emilie; she's recieved multiple belts in Ninjitsu and I’ve cooked professionally. Some of the things we've done, like my blog and unschooling advocacy work, are things that have gotten a lot of praise and attention from other people. I suppose my blogging/writing/speaking could be considered “impressive,” though it doesn’t usually feel that way to me. That one thing though is the only thing I can think of that could possibly be considered really impressive. I haven’t traveled beyond North America, have never hitch-hiked or bused across the country. I haven’t started my own business (besides the very half-hearted attempt at selling thrifted clothing, which I *do* plan to put more effort into), and sadly people are not lining up to hire me. There are other things I’m good at, for sure. Cooking and baking come to mind instantly. But that? That’s a quiet skill, hidden away in kitchens. Most of my skills and hobbies and interests are quiet, nothing huge or eye-catching.

I love going on road trips, with both family and friends, but they're usually
within a 6 hour drive from my home. Exploring the New England States, into
Ontario to visit family, or Northeast up into Quebec to visit where some
family comes from. Places chosen for their beauty and abundance of good
people, not for a grand and exciting adventure.

But what’s more important for the moment than whether or not I, or my family, fits the narrative of The Successful Unschooler, is just what that narrative is. Us unschoolers are feeling pressure to do more and be more: to become world travelers or successful entrepreneurs, to win prestigious awards or get head hunted by Google. Somehow, through both the greater culture and through those same messages making their way into our own, smaller, unschooling communities, we’ve gotten the idea that quiet skills aren’t enough. That if we’re not doing big things with obvious rewards, then we’re not enough.

That’s why the quote from Alfie Kohn I shared at the beginning of this article, and the article I pulled it from, really resonated with me when I read it. My whole generation, both schooled and not, has been messed up by those messages.

What complicates it for unschoolers is that, well, we’ve got something to prove. Not only unschoolers feel this added pressure: children coming from any “unusual” family, or any type of family likely to be looked at suspiciously by the dominant culture almost certainly also face a similar type of added pressure. We want to show that this unschooling thing works. Parents of unschoolers want to show that it works! So people turn to tangible, big things they can point at: Look! Look how impressive! And people talk about following your dreams, with the implication that “dreams” must be pretty special looking. I think without consciously realizing it, those forces play off of each other: parents and unschooling advocates talk about all the exciting special things unschoolers get up to and can do; unschoolers themselves want to prove with their lives that the way they’ve lived is successful. It goes in circles of lots of people talking about impressive things, unschoolers starting to feel like impressive is the norm, and thus if they’re not doing Impressive Things, then they must be failing, instead.

Which is rather sad, because the reality for many unschoolers, and many young adults foregoing college, is much more complicated. Life looks so different for different people. For many unschoolers life looks like video games, and Google searches, and craft projects at midnight. Playing with neighbors and homeschooling park days and trips to the library. For adult uncollegers life might look like reading lots of books, both non-fiction and fiction, keeping a blog, marathoning TV shows, having email discussions on history with friends, and volunteering at the local animal shelter. Life might feel exciting to the individual (very hopefully it does!), because it’s your life, your interests, your goals. But from outside? It probably doesn’t look that exciting. It might, with TEDx talks and a series of ebooks about travel adventures. There might be aspects of your life that look impressive, and other parts that don't. The impressive activities are every bit as valid as the quieter ones, for sure. But they're not better.

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Laura Parrish had the following to say in a Facebook conversation sparked by my mentioning of this post I was writing.
I've always had a hard time with the language people use about grown children: They "turn out" well. (Or they don't.) We're "so proud" of them. (Or we aren't.) It doesn't jibe with the way we've focused on helping clear the way for our kids to see what's what for themselves and make their own choices. It's not about using a method to produce a superior product. They don't "reflect on me". They're just themselves, and that's enough. It's a lot.
I love that. And I think it points to such an important thing when it comes to unschooling: this isn't a method meant to turn out superior products humans. The point isn't, or certainly shouldn't be, about superiority, about being better, more successful people. It should be about all those far less tangible things: people who are kind, and capable, and enjoy learning. As Stephanie Sims said:
[T]he unschooling path is meant to be a joyful and natural one, not an exemplary one that can be held up as proof as Unquestionable, Absolute Success. At the end of the day, my unschooled children may only look different by their memories and how much they love and expect to love their lives--that's good enough for me.
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Just like everyone else, the lives of each unschooler will vary quite a bit. What unschoolers, no matter their age, share is a similar attitude towards learning. How that manifests in the lives of each unschooler is going to be different, and how closely it aligns with the dominant culture’s version of success (or the unschooling community’s prioritization of travel and entrepreneurship as success) is going to depend on the person you're looking at.

I just hope, as unschoolers, we can hold tight to our shared value of appreciating learning for learning’s sake, whether it’s big or small, sung from the stages of a national singing competition, or curled up in a comfy chair in a nondescript house reading about Arthurian legends or the history of comics. As older unschoolers, we’re going to continue getting a lot of pressure from the general population, both the pressure all young adults face to be productive and “useful” members of society, and the added pressure to prove ourselves as successful unschoolers. The unschooling community doesn’t need to fall into that same trap of judging peoples success by their productivity, or large achievements, or traveling lifestyle. Instead, let's just make sure that we convey, in all our words, in our speech and writing and advocacy, that all learning is important. We need to celebrate all those quiet lives, too.
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