Friday, October 1, 2010

Unschooling is Forever Part 3: Isolation, Socialization, and Doubters

Part 3 of a talk I gave at the Toronto Unschooling Conference.

Read part 1 and part 2.

Isolation and socialization

One of the reasons it took us, as a family, awhile to truly embrace unschooling was how isolated we felt: the fact that we didn’t really know any other local unschooling families.  I know that feelings of isolation are a problem for many unschoolers, who find the local community of school-at-home-ers don’t always provide the support and reassurance needed.  To unschool, for both parents and kids, can feel very difficult at times.  We all need to feel that we have a community, a “tribe” as some people put it.  People who think and feel similarly enough to you that they get it, and I think that finding that tribe is very important when you’re tackling living a lifestyle that’s different from the mainstream.  Finding this community can involve many things: joining Yahoo or Facebook groups, or becoming part of the unschooling or Twitter community online is a good start.  Going to unschooling conferences or gatherings, looking for local unschooling groups, or starting you own are even more important in my opinion, though.  Nothing beats face-to-face interaction, and being around other unschoolers is a truly wonderful thing!  So for anyone who doesn’t have a local group, I’d encourage you to consider starting your own.  I know that I was really surprised when I started a local unschooling group at just how many local families there were!  If you’re in a smaller town, there probably won’t be as many as I found in Montreal, but there are still quite likely a couple of other unschooling families within reasonable distance from you to connect with…

As much as finding other unschoolers can be difficult, finding people in general, the whole “socialization” thing that seems to worry so many school minded people, is not a problem, as every homeschoolers and unschooler knows.  Because this is such a big issue, in that pretty much everyone I’ve come across who’s against school-free learning brings it up, I feel like I should take a moment to address it.

I think we all know how untrue it is that those outside of school will lack in time spent with other people, if they so desire it.  And that’s the important part: if they desire it.  Inside of a school, children and teens experience a version of forced “socialization” found in no other part of life.  Whether they want to be around specific individuals or not, or whether they want to be around huge groups of people all day every day or not, they have no choice in the matter.  That’s just the way it is.  And being in this type of environment, from everything I’ve seen, is not healthy.  In every large group of random high schoolers I’ve ever been around, I’ve felt emotionally unsafe, and nervous about openly expressing myself.  The amount of politics, backstabbing, dishonesty, desperation to fit in, and social manoeuvring is always an onslaught to my senses.  This really isn’t meant as a criticism of schooled people, as much as it might sound like one.  Whenever I see school-free learners dissing schooled kids, it really bothers me.  I think it’s important to remember both all the wonderful schooled people out there, and the fact that even among the schooled social groups I would never choose to spend time around, it’s not their fault.  They didn’t choose to be in an environment where they’re often forced to be either a bully or victim.  That was forced upon them against their will: “for their own good”.

Good socialization, in my opinion, is making the conscious choice to be around a variety of people: choosing when to be around people and when to be alone.  Choosing to interact largely with people who lift you up, not knock you down, and having the freedom to leave people or situations that make you feel unsafe.  The option to interact with a wide variety of ages is another big bonus, and is something that I think is very important.  But ultimately, with socialization as with everything else, I think the most important aspect is freedom.  As Adele Caroll said:

“Forced association is not socialization.”

Dealing with doubters

It would be nice if socialization was the only thing that both strangers and loved ones frequently worried about, but sadly it’s not.  Doubters abound, and dealing with doubters usually isn’t much fun, especially when those doubters are people who are close to you, people you care about.  But, like it or not (and I’d generally say it’s a not), if you’re open about being unschoolers, constant questioning quickly becomes the norm.  However, though the repertoire of questions you get (over and over again) is pretty standard, the place individuals are coming from, the way they approach the questioning, differs more widely, and I think can be quite interesting… So I wanted to share something I wrote on my blog awhile back, about the different types of questioners you’re likely to run into…

What I've been thinking about today is the vast array of *types* of question you run into.  There are many different people that ask questions about this lifestyle in many ways, but there definitely seem to be some trends in what feeling is behind the questions.  Now, over-generalizing is rarely a good idea, and that's definitely what I'm doing, but most of the people who've asked me about unschooling do seem to fit (roughly) into one of these categories! :-P
  1. The hostile questioner.  "Aren't you ruining your life?  How will anyone ever hire you if you don't go to school?"  This person is instantly suspicious and disapproving.  For whatever reason, be it jealousy that they never had the option of learning (and living more) freely, or something entirely different, they are determined not to believe in any alternatives to conventional schooling, and will do anything to disprove whatever you say.  Their purpose is not to learn, but to devalue the lifestyle you're living.  To invalidate it, and thus validate their own choices as the clearly Right ones.
  2. The well-meaning yet ignorant questioner.  "But what about socialization?"  This individual is simply curious, and entirely uninformed, the questions asked being slightly annoying only because of how often you've answered them before!  This person hasn't usually thought through the questions at all, they're just repeating things they've heard before in regards to home and/or unschoolers.  They really do want to know more, and just haven't really thought much about any type of education, other than school, before.
  3. The confused questioner.  (After having just explained unschooling) "So, is your mom a good teacher...?"  This person, no matter how many different ways you try to explain things, just isn't grasping the concept.  They're not confrontational or anti-unschooling in the slightest, they're just either very set in their ways of seeing the world, so much so that nothing else even computes, or you just think in a way that's too different from them, and can't explain things in a way that they'll get.
  4. The cautiously optimistic questioner.  "So, you can get into university?"  The idea strikes a chord with this person.  They kind of like it, but aren't quite sure they should, and are worried they're missing something crucial.  This is one of the most rewarding scenarios for an unschooler who wants to share this philosophy with others.  This person is very likely to be helped by finding out about unschooling!
  5. And, recently at the anarchist bookfair, I've been exposed to another type of questioner.  I'll call those who approach things this way the constructive questioner.  They're coming from a place that's already supportive of freedom, and their questions are intelligent and well thought out.  Their desire is to learn, and build on the basic knowledge they have, not to tear down the idea.  I found that quite delightful, and really enjoyed the panel discussion I was a part of there.
And that’s the end of the blog post.

Read part 4.


  1. What a wonderful post. Thank you so much also for speaking out against criticizing individual schooled children/families. Just because we choose a life learning path does not mean we view mainstream families as Other or any other pejorative.

    I think it’s important to remember both all the wonderful schooled people out there, and the fact that even among the schooled social groups I would never choose to spend time around, it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose to be in an environment where they’re often forced to be either a bully or victim. That was forced upon them against their will: “for their own good”.

    Wonderfully said.

    We are open about being life learners. That doesn't mean I insert my opinions in every conversation. I do know lots of people who unschool are closeted about it. That's their right. However I appreciate the "out" unschoolers because they support the rest of us in ways deeply meaningful ... especially since yes, mainstream worldviews are often unhelpful or hostile.

  2. I do not agree with home schooling and I find this offensive. Like this quote above, it is ignorance as far as I am concerned. "It's not their fault, they didn't choose to be in an environment where they're often forced to be either a bully or a victim."

    First of all we live in a world surrounded by all types of people, religions, cultures and opinions. When our children grow up and it is time for us to let them out into the world they will have to encounter these people, religions, cultures and opinions. By them getting their education in the school system they get the chance early in life to socialize and communicate with all types of people and personalities. Rather than have them go through their childhood not experiencing this and then sending them into the world as an adult who is lacking this ability. You may think you are teaching your children to socialize but unless they are put into a situation with all types of people and personalities then they are going to be blindsided when they are adults. We as adults will be and are frequently faced with situations of dealing with people we do not know, whether it be in a work situation or a social situation. So as far as I am concerned it is beneficial to our children to be exposed to this at an early age. Yes there are situations of bullying, which nobody wants to see, I've watched my child deal with it. But these things as long as monitored and dealt with, not ignored, will teach our children how to deal with confrontation. No I don't think we should have to deal with confrontation but regardless it is a part of life whether we like it or not. I do not believe my children are going to benefit from me sheltering them from the diversities of the society we live in and then expecting them to know how to deal with it as adults. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of things that worry me every day when my children leave to go to the school for the day but if I am doing my job as a parent then I can only hope and pray that my children will have the knowledge and sensibility to deal with these situations. We would all love to shelter and protect our children from the nastiness that seems to surround us every where but it's just not possible and depriving them the experience of choosing their own friendships and choosing their own path will not help them become their own person. In my opinion.

  3. To the Anonymous commenter:

    " if I am doing my job as a parent then I can only hope and pray that my children will have the knowledge and sensibility to deal with these situations. "

    Um..its gonna take a lot more than "hopes" and "prayers" for kids to come out of school healthy minded, awake and prepared. Most of us unschoolers are choosing not to just throw are children to the wolves and hope and pray for the best. The sheer number of teens and adults on antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds is proof conventional wisdom just ain't workin'.

    Growing up I always kind of viewed the homeschooling families in our community as freaks. But in reality they were kind, artistic and have ALL gone on to be very happy and successful. Public school is a sure fire path to the middle. Only a select few can rise to the top, or sink to the bottom...the rest are left with mediocrity...and if it was working for them we would be a much healthier society....but...well you know.

    Try to not be offended and try to see if maybe you are missing something...

  4. Anon, you seem to have completely missed the point. I haven't had the time to read all of this yet (but I'm sure it's a great post as usual :D), but you have missed the point of unschooling, and are deluded about the school system. As a teen who has been in and out of the school system multiple times and experienced both sides of this quite thoroughly, I can say with confidence that the school system does not teach you how to be accepting or to deal with confrontation. Being bullied in school I learned to shut down and hate and hurt myself, and the administration, who just want to deal with things as quickly and legally easily as possible, did nothing to help with that. It took coming out of school and learning about myself and other people in a situation that was not so strictly defined and full of negativity to learn how to deal with confrontation and to deal with the differences in people.

    Unschooling doesn't have to be a way of sheltering your children--homeschooling can be, and public and private schooling can be, but if unschooling is then you're probably doing it wrong (or at least not the way that is most often talked about). Public school creates and teaches you to deal with a very certain kind of environment, one you're never going to deal with again once you're out of it, and it shelters you from the realities of the world outside the structure of the school system. Growing up in the world, going wherever life takes you, THAT is what keeps you from being sheltered and teaches you about people or all races, religions and sexual orientations.

  5. Wonderful comments to a great post. There is one more for your list of Doubters Idzie-or at least,it's more of an expectation that I am starting to notice-the "What jaw dropping things are unschoolers doing? You're doing this kooky thing-what are the BIG results? Prove to me that it works in a dramatic way!"

  6. Schooling and life learning are not mutually exclusive. Schooled children learn in a structured manner on school days for approximately 6 hours. The rest of their life is spent learning freely.

    Not all parents are as patient and nurturing as you experienced with your mother. There are many children who benefit greatly from the structure and separation that school provides. In some cases there are sad situations behind that reality. In other cases, it just works well. There are also many families who do not have the luxury of the stay-at-home-parent. There are many children who would not have the drive to learn to read, as you did. Schools do provide a service to our society, even if all it amounts to is increasing literacy of our community. Literacy opens the doors to so much other learning.

    It sounds like your objective is to promote unschooling as superior. What you should be doing is seeking acceptance of unschooling as an equivalently effective method for preparing our children to become productive adults in our society. There are so many children in our world that need schools.

  7. Hmmm. What comes to mind is the silly saying "Whatever floats your boat." By that I mean having the freedom to make a choice that best suits your own needs and preferences. Unschooling offers a viable and effective path of learning for many. Traditional homeschooling does the same. And for those who are given the choice, traditional schooling can also. The difference being: choice.

  8. Anonymous said ... "Schooling and life learning are not mutually exclusive. Schooled children learn in a structured manner on school days for approximately 6 hours. The rest of their life is spent learning freely."

    Is that really true? My now grown up daughter who excelled throughout 13 years of school (two schools in the UK, two here in Australia), graduating from high school in the top 1% in her year nationwide incidentally, spent her entire days learning freely before she started school and after she started school her opportunities to learn freely were minimalised by school requirements. Even though she continued to choose her own bedtime and was never required by her parents to do her homework and could take a day off school no questions asked or strings attached any time she felt like it, what opportunities to learn freely she had needed to be actively protected from the intrusion of 'what schools want'.

    The school my son attended for two years before he was removed at his request was by far the worst in that respect. It was so convinced it had the right to dictate how his home life should be that, figuratively speaking, I had to constantly push the bastards off my doorstep.