Thursday, January 19, 2012

Held Hostage by Small Metal Implements: a Guest Post by Kelly Hogaboom

I'm delighted to present a guest post by my friend and all 'round awesome person Kelly Hogaboom!  We've all experienced similar questioning and reactions from people as school-free learners, and I greatly enjoyed hearing Kelly's take on the experience of "being held hostage by small metal implements." I hope you'll enjoy it too!

Getting talked at, while pinned down.
Today, the dental hygienist: "Do you have the day off of school?"
My nine year old daughter Phoenix: "No. I don't do school."
Hygienist: "Oh... do you homeschool?"
Phoenix: "Yes."
Hygienist: "So it's just like school, but at home!"
Phoenix: "Not really. It's quite different."
If you delve into almost any alternative education blog (homeschooling, unschooling, life learning, or any other related variation) you'll soon find author(s) discussing the seemingly endless querying we practitioners receive. Strangers, family, and friends regularly ask us not only to explain why and how we do things differently, but to in fact justify our life choices in a way seldom required of compulsory education adherents. More surprising still, although I admit I should no longer be surprised, many of these questioners will listen very little before proceeding to tell us how education really works, regardless of our perhaps relevant experience. Confirmation bias runs rampant and deep: often in these outsider assessments of our family life, children who give the appearance of excelling (by their manners, displayed intelligence, or skill acumen) are often labeled as "exceptions" (or "smart" or "bright", etc); while children who display any different-ness or perceived social faux pas are taken as proof that such alternative methods Don't Work (and of course, you rarely hear the compulsory schooling model being blamed for the sum and summation in the reciprocal case of a schooled child with "behavior problems", etc).
This is familiar ground for any family who has, with confidence, been navigating the alternative education or life learning waters.
We're a life learning family; radical unschoolers, if you will. For us, this means our children do not go to school and are not required to perform curriculum at home. In other words, we do nothing approximating "school at home", unless the children want to play a "school" game, which I'm just now realizing they haven't for some time. Our children are also not required to sleep at certain times or eat certain things (or forbidden others). They are not punished nor grounded when they make mistakes. They are not forced to do chores. They live with as much freedom as their father and I can afford them in safety, and any difficulties that come up are discussed as a family - and each voice has an equal say.
Obviously you can see this type of family model extends far beyond the scope of "education", although as many astute minds have pointed out, each of us is learning all the time, every waking (and possibly sleeping) moment. Family life is part of our education, of course.
So look - some time ago I gave up trying to argue why I think this is one ideal and perfectly lovely way to raise children. I am at peace with our choices; we are learning every day. Like everyone, we make mistakes and (hopefully) grow from them. My children continue to thrive emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. I'm hearing daily, in relative order, how "smart", "good", "cute", "well-behaved", etc. they are. And I guess those who have negative opinions are keeping them to, or amongst, themselves.
So yeah, I've got nothing to prove. I'd be happy most days to just go about my thing - and let other people do theirs.
But you know what? The number one question my children and I hear when out and about during daytime hours is, "You have a break from school?" And every time we get that question, in some form or another, these murky waters of JUSTIFY YOUR LIFE get stirred up.
We have options, of course, when asked this question. We can just say "Yes." We can say we "homeschool" and let people have their imaginations (this usually involves me being perceived as doing a Lot of Work to cram information into the children's otherwise thick, clay-like noggins). Sometimes I say we "unschool". That nearly always elicits an alarmed response. Sometimes I say, "My kids don't go to school," which is usually assumed as "homeschooling" - but also, occasionally, seriously rattles grownups. I have yet to meet someone who jumps to the correct conclusion: autodidacticism, but I know some day that will happen.
I should point out these are the reactions I get from adults; I notice other children seem to quickly understand what our life is about. These kids have, to a soul, enthused quite a bit about a new possibility. Some children have taken a request to homeschool ("homeschool") back to their families; and a handful of these have reported on their parents' opinions of our lifestyle (probably not something those parents would be happy to know got back to us, because many times their opinions were expressed in a very Meany-Pants way).
I let my kids field the questions sometimes. As you can see from today's example, my daughter handled the hygienist's questions (and assumptions) quite well; but later in the day I stopped at a spa for $15 worth of a treatment I hadn't had in a couple years and within minutes, on the table, I was once again cornered. "Oh you homeschool... how fun. My sister in ______________ does it too. I know how much WORK it is. You know, kids don't just learn on their own..."
You know what lady? They actually do. They really do just "learn on their own", just like you and me - like regular people, almost!
No. Scratch that. "Uh-hmm," I say. Just please finish grooming those ferocious eyebrows of mine. Thank you.
It's not that I am shy about our lifestyle. I've accepted some people get upset if we mess with their worldview, just by living our life. It's that SOMETIMES I am a little tired out and I just want to have a Normal Life. "Hey Bob, how's the wife and kids?" "Fine, Jim."
It's tricky enough that by being a minority in this country; our lifestyle's a bit cramped as it is. A life learning advocate and mentor I respect very much describes the life learning experience as "living as if school doesn't exist". I think I know what she means by this, but of course that is not possible in the United States. Even if you didn't have strangers, friends, and family quizzing you (or outright pressuring you in hostile fashion), the 98% (or so) rate of by-rote institutionalization of children, often since infancy, has major environmental effects. Many adults don't really know how to handle kids and have all sorts of (authoritarian, Scarcity Principle) ideas. Social life is skewed in the most child-segregationist manner: other people's children are not available during the day, and due to intense scheduling, often not available for much during the afternoons, evenings, or weekends, either. When I take my children out and about, I am discouraged from having them enter public spaces - either implicitly or explicitly (I have dozens of examples in my life; here's one - in Olympia, Washington, the closest "city" to my small town, restaurants that serve alcohol - that is most of them - disallow any children to enter after ten PM, even when accompanied by their parents).
It's not really possible to "live as if school doesn't exist", because so many depend on it existing and do not question the order of things. And you know, a lot of days that whole business is tricky enough without the pressure of WHY WHY WHY, EXPLAIN YOURSELF.
My son Nels, with a post dentist-visit treat. I love we get to have special dates frequently during the week.
So yeah, as breathlessly lovely as it's been to be exposed to, learn about, and thrive by life learning, and as excited as I am to share our journey (you can read my blog if you'd like to know more), I do sometimes get weary of being reminded we're black sheep.
And please don't, as my aunt once said, tell me I'm "naive" to think if I do things differently than most, I'll get treated differently.
You can't really say I'm "naive" when actually, No I Actually Very Much Know What It's Like to live as a minority in this way.
It's like - but sometimes? I. Just. Want. To. Get. My. Brows. Waxed. Or Whatever.
Kelly Hogaboom is a 34-year old wife, mother, seamstress, writer, volunteer, and social wellbeing activist living in lush and verdant Hoquiam, WA, the United States. She enjoys daily life with family and friends, sobriety, B-movies, and lots of snuggles with the kids and the four kitties under the roof. You can read her blog at, her social wellbeing site at, add her on G+, and/or follow her on Twitter (@kellyhogaboom & @underbellie, resp).


  1. Exactly! Sometimes I get tired of that "So what exactly do you do all day??" question.

  2. We feel the same for soooooo long ! That's what we write about sometimes to make people around us understand. Sometimes written words are better than spoken words.
    Thank you so much for your written words, Kelly. And thank you Idzie to share those on your blog.

  3. I'm just discovering unschooling, but I'm already on the weird fringe mama train, homebirthing, cloth diapering, breastfeeding into toddlerhood, no-crib for a bed, etc. There is something quite exhilarating about rejecting the mainstream. Thanks for sharing!