Tuesday, September 20, 2016

So You've Started Unschooling... Now What? Tips On Not Stressing Out As You Start Your First Unschool Year

For the majority of people, a new school year has just begun. But for a small yet growing portion of the population, there’s none of this “back to school” thing happening. Instead, they’re celebrating a new year of school-free life learning, and for some of you, this will be your first ever NOT back-to-school year, as you embark on a new unschooling adventure.

I’m a grown unschooler, so I’ve never experienced this through the lens of a parent, but as someone who has been writing and speaking about unschooling for over eight years, I’ve become very familiar with the types of concerns and worries new-to-unschooling parents have. With those in mind, I wanted to put together a post on how not to worry (too much) in these early days.

So if you’re new to unschooling, take a deep breath and read on!

You’re doing this for a reason

Your friends keep looking at you with reproach, your extended family thinks you’re ruining your children’s lives, and everyone around you keeps talking about the importance of schooling. The panic might just be starting to set in. But the thing is, you didn’t make this decision on a whim. You chose to start unschooling for a reason. Maybe your kids were struggling in school, or maybe they were bored. Maybe you feel as if your family has become disconnected, and you want the time to build stronger relationships. Maybe the lack of freedom in schools seems stifling, and you want your children to learn to trust their own judgement and make their own decisions. Maybe it’s all of the above. But whatever led to your choice, they were darn good reasons. Focus on that. Remember why you’re doing this.

This is YOUR choice. Set boundaries when dealing with friends, family members, and assorted concerned citizens

Think about how much you want to share or explain when talking to family, to friends, and to strangers. Talk to your kids about ways they can respond both to concerned friends and nosy neighbors. If you know what you’re comfortable saying (or not saying) ahead of time, have some answers prepared, and are ready to politely but firmly shut down the conversation when it gets too intrusive or judgmental, then dealing with the inevitable reactions to your unconventional choices will quickly become less stressful.

See also: How to Talk About Homeschooling (So That People Will Listen)

You probably won’t find your groove right away

When you decided to unschool, you probably had an idealized image in your head: children driven to learning by excitement and delight, the whole family reading together, exploring local museums, jumping head first into volunteering, whatever. And maybe things aren’t looking quite the way you thought they would. Your kids just want to watch TV and play quietly by themselves, and no one even seems to want to leave the house! Well, here there are a few things to consider:
  1. What's happening, in part at least, is deschooling. Pam Laricchia, one of my favourite unschooling authors and bloggers, explores just what this is and how to deal with it on her website, which I highly recommend. The (very) short version? If your children were previously in school, they need time to recover, to relax, and to know that they really, truly can decide to do what they want to do with their time now, whether that’s TV or otherwise.
  2. Your children are not you, and they’re not necessarily going to make the choices that you would make, or do the things that you think they should be doing. One of the most defining aspects of unschooling is trust, and now is the time to start practicing that by trusting that they’re making the choices they need to, for themselves, at this time. Suggest and offer, by all means, but respect that you’re now creating a partnership, not acting as a teacher, and your children get to learn how they want to learn.
  3. Learning happens all the time and everywhere. Just because it doesn’t look the way you expect learning to look doesn’t mean it isn’t happening!
See also: Fun Is More Important Than “Education” and The Role of Boredom and Dabbling in Pursuit of Passionate Learning

The goal is creating a great unschooling experience for your family, not re-creating a different family’s experience

Some of your expectations of what unschooling would look like probably came from other unschoolers--a family you know in your town, a blogger who inspires you, etc. Gaining inspiration from others is great, and looking to more experienced unschooling parents can be so helpful! But ultimately, you’re not re-creating someone else’s unschooling experience. You’re creating your own. Each family and each individual is different, and so every single unschooling family--every unschooling lifestyle--will also be different. This is good. This is great! Genuinely individualized living and learning is something few people are lucky enough to experience. So embrace it, and work on creating an unschooling lifestyle that is a perfect fit for YOUR family.

Find mentors and supporters

That said, it is important to have support! You need people who understand your choices, and people who have more experience with unschooling can be really helpful. See if there’s a homeschooling or unschooling group in your area that suits your family, join Facebook unschooling groups in which experienced unschooling parents are ready and willing to give suggestions and advice, go to an unschooling conference. Wherever and however you find it, make sure you get that support.

Experiment, and prepare to be flexible

Congratulations, you now have the ability to tailor your lifestyle to your own family! But what exactly is ideal for your family? Now’s the time to experiment, and I use that word not in the “try it and drop it if it doesn’t work out at first” way, but in the “try lots of different things and see what works and what doesn’t” sense. How much time at home or out is ideal for your family? What do each of you enjoy doing, and how do you most enjoy doing it? What are the different needs of each family member, how do they compliment or clash with each other, and how can you best handle things so that everyone feels heard and respected? I think that one of the things I’ve always loved the most about this lifestyle is the ability to be flexible, to change things up when they’re not working, and to allow your daily routine to evolve and change as you and your children grow and change. It’s likely going to take a lot of trial and error, but it is most definitely worth it.

See also: Authentic, Personalized, Flexible Learning: Why Curriculum Will Never Be Good Enough

Focus on the here and now, not the future

It’s so easy to get caught up in the “what ifs:” What if your kids want to go back to school? What if your kids want to go to college? What if you’re not preparing them well enough for the future? Schooling is very focused on building future adults, not nurturing the little (or not so little) people who are actually there, and the idea that education is only or primarily a preparation for the future is so pervasive in our culture, that it’s easy to let that attitude slip into our personal lives. But, is that really what you want learning--and life--to be for children? A race to the finish line that is adulthood? Instead, you can focus on the here and now, the person who exists right in front of you. Build strong relationships. Learn. Do your thing. And handle the “what ifs” as they become relevant, instead of panicking about the future long before it’s arrived. After all, children can always do the necessary academic work to “catch up” if and when it's needed if they choose to go to school; teenagers can always study for the tests they need to take to get into college or university if they decide that’s a goal of theirs. Outside of school, without the busywork and classroom management, and with genuine desire and motivation behind their choices, children and teens can usually gain the academic knowledge and skills they need in a much shorter amount of time, and with a great deal less stress.

Enjoy each other

As Pam Laricchia has said: "There is a foundation of living and relationships and connecting and trust that lies in the foundation beneath the learning. So instead of focusing on the learning, when we focus on creating that strong foundation, learning naturally and beautifully bubbles up." So let that be your focus. Step by step, work on building relationships, connecting with each other, creating partnerships. No one is leading or following. Instead you’re just doing your best to create a rich life, one with joy, one in which you share conversations and closeness through both the good and bad that gets thrown your way.

It won’t always go perfectly. But with commitment--and yes, excitement, joy, focus, all those good things--it will probably be pretty darn great.

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  1. This is an excellent post. I've unschooled my now 16 year old daughter her whole life, and you have perfectly addressed all those things I graveled with on our journey.

  2. I needed to see this at exactlythis time! This is the first my kids didn't have to go back to prison,uh, I mean school,and we are really enjoying the process so far. We are still deschooling but it is moving nicely, I think. The biggest issue we are having is the people outside of our family who don't understand. Thank you so much for helping me with that!

  3. Idzie, you are such a lovely voice, and a lovely person. I miss you - but know that as my own kids get older (15 and 12 already?!! Wait - HOW?!), it's the older unschoolers like you who have helped me on this journey. You're so generous with your experiences, and you have incredibly skill for expressing them in writing.

    Much love!

  4. Deschooling - the perfect term for what I see happening in my daughter right now. We pulled her out of middle school prison after her first couple weeks as a sixth grader. We're trying to find our groove as a homeschool/unschool family. Some days, we fly through math stuff and she wants to know how to solve equations and is really motivated to finally "get" fractions. But we've had a lot of days when that isn't happening. Yesterday, she spent all day practicing with a magic kit she picked up at the museum gift store. I've worried and struggles with how to explain this to nosy family and friends. I'm so glad that I stumbled upon your blog! It is exactly what I needed!

  5. I came across your blog years ago when I took my daughter out of public school when she was in the 3rd grade. She's now in the 10th and I just passed this along to my sister for her two kids. Thank you so much for posting all these and helping apprehensive parents everywhere. <3