• How Long Will I Continue To Trust My Child?

    Parenting has a lot to do with trust. You set the stage for so many things. You prepare, you explain, you suggest, you encourage, you discourage, you show and you tell. But you also trust your child to pick up on the other side of the equation, to take what you’ve offered and run with it, to be a person, and specifically to be a new person. To be an individual who has never existed before.

    A lot of parents want to do more than set the stage. They want to guide their kids in a particular direction. From the day their kids are born they are pushing them to make the next milestone.

    But that isn’t me.

    I was excited to see when Dylan would roll over, but I never laid interesting toys just outside his grasp and encouraged him to roll towards them. No matter, he learned to roll over anyway. We never did any “practice walking” with me leading him around the house held up by his hands. No worries, he learned to walk plenty quickly! Right now I’m not doing much in the way of teaching him to say certain words. I talk to him, and I figure he’ll learn how to talk.

    Even for the more milestone oriented parents, most of them don’t institute some kind of “walking program” or “sitting up training” or “first words school”. The early years are pretty educationally laid back. The years go by, and somehow your child learns to do a million things – roll over, sit up, crawl, walk, jump, run, climb, talk, point, turn the pages of a book, stack blocks, eat with a spoon, help put on clothes, pull the cat’s tail and then not – all without any kind of formal instructional effort on the part of parents.

    Check out the beginning of this post, Natural Learning: One family’s story:

    I have 3 daughters. Tannah, my eldest at 5, walked at almost 18 months. Willow, the middle child, walked at 10 months. And Harper, my baby who has just had her first birthday, is yet to walk-but she can climb!

    I did not put Tannah in remedial walking. I was not taken aside by an expert to say that she was behind her peers and we would have to work hard to have her catch up. Willow was not in a gifted walkers program. There was no pressure on her to then perform all her milestones early to keep that “gifted” label.  Harper does not have a “walking difficulty” because she is learning in a different way to other walkers.

    That’s the language of schooling, of course, and many of us are familiar with that language. School is about making sure a child learns certain things and fits in certain boxes. It’s the opposite of trust. It’s control instead.

    I’ve long been intrigued by unschooling. I read the blog I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write which is written by a person who did not go to school and is now an adult. In the post Unschooling and Trust, the author explicitly ties the two together in several different ways:

    Trusting that Nature/evolution/the Divine/God/Goddess has created human beings capable of learning, capable of following their innate drive to learn, capable of making the important decisions in their lives.  It’s trusting that nature got things right.

    Trusting, as a parent, that you have the capability (and strength, ability, surety) to make the decision to take your kids out of school, or to never send them to school to begin with.  And trusting that your children are capable people, able to learn and grow guided by their innate desire to explore the world around them.

    Trusting yourself, as someone who is themselves of an age to be in compulsory schooling, to have the insight, foresight, strength and ability to take the leap of leaving school, or if your parents made that decision at an earlier point for you, trusting that you really have always been and continue to be capable of controlling your own learning, “education,” and life.

    What causes us to go from the trusting days of early childhood to the controlling schoolhouse years? Some people might say that school subjects “matter” more than babyhood skills. But surely walking and talking are pretty damn important. Maybe you would say that walking and talking are “instincts”, but that doesn’t account for all the other things young children learn to do.

    Right now I feel very trusting about my relationship with Dylan, his desire to learn and grow, and our ability to navigate an enriching experience together. But how long will I continue to hold onto that trust?

20 Responsesso far.

  1. Shae says:

    I wrote about my daughters Tannah, Willow and Harper in the piece you quoted above.

    Tannah is almost 8 now, Willow is 5 and Harper is 3 & a half.
    Unschooling was such a natural progression for us that I just can’t imagine another way of life. Tannah is learning to read in her own time which is undoubtedly behind her schooled peers but she is very passionate about animals and conservation and her knowledge on these subjects is leaps ahead!
    Meeting older unschooled kids really helped me when I was unsure. That and seeing my kids thrive without school :)

    Good luck on your journey

    • Issa says:

      Thank you so much for commenting, Shae. I found that post of yours so inspirational. When I clicked through this time, I found your new blog at Free Range in Suburbia, and I’m subscribed to you over there now. :-)

  2. Samantha says:

    I will preface this upfront by saying I’m not a parent, and probably never will be. I know for some people, that will automatically negate what I say without any further consideration.

    The “problem” with unschooling, and even homeschooling to a certain degree, is that it presumes that we are still living in a world in which our natural learning paths are capable of getting us to a sustainable adult lifestyle. For many people, that’s just not the case any more. It’s great to watch kids examine frogs one day and then learn the basics of physics with their toys and a table another. But there’s no guarantee that the learning they are doing is going to drive them towards skills that will lead to employment. While it’s awful to be thinking about a first job when a kid is only a few years old, there does have to be some consideration for the future needs of that child. It’s great to raise a child who’s so fascinated by growing things that he decides to be an organic farmer, but without any enforced structure on his education, will he know enough to make sure his profit margins allow him to eat and keep the heat on? There has to be a balance between what a kid wants to learn, and the basic skills that do make up a part of the average adult’s life.

    Another problem is that not all parents and/or locations are equipped to fully provide for some interests. If you live in a rural area, it’s necessary to accept that you probably can’t unschool/homeschool a kid that’s rabid about chemistry or some forms of biology, at least not much past 14 or 15. If you and your partner and all of your readily accessible family hate math, it’s going to be hard to raise and teach a kid who loves everything about calculus. There are sometimes options from other parents that you are connected with, but not always, and in those situations it may be better to accept more traditional forms of schooling.

    Obviously, unschooling/homeschooling can and has worked for many people. Those who are considering it should certainly trust in the things you have listed, because they are important. But it’s simply not always the right choice, and sometimes just going based on blind faith might lead to making a decision that isn’t right for a particular situation. It is absolutely difficult to know what a child might become when they are at the age most formal schooling starts, and parents have to do their best to look at both their abilities, their resources, and their child and then make a decision based on those factors. They should also keep in mind that they can alter their decision either way at a later date (though in some cases it may require children entering initially in a lower grade).

    And, from the perspective of someone who spent nearly 22 years straight in formal education (from preschool at 2.5 to a Master’s at 24), it’s not guaranteed to stifle creativity and a lust for learning. I still have both of those in spades, despite all that time spent in classrooms. In fact, I’d say I’m personally better off for having been formally schooled, considering my parents’ weaknesses in Math, French and the Sciences.

    • Issa says:

      I don’t care whether or not you’re a parent. People can have educated opinions about childrearing issues without having their own children. I was a nanny for 13 years, and frankly, I did a much better job being informed about childcare issues during those years than I’m doing as a parent.

      I also disagree with the rest of your comment. All the things you mention as the “problem” with unschooling are potential problems with schooling, as well: whether it can support a sustainable adult lifestyle, guarantee of employment (haha, I’m kind of surprised you could even type that with a straight face these days), adequate learning of basic skills, access to advanced sciences, etc. Some people live in areas with shitty schools with shitty teachers. Some people are literally traumatized by traditional schooling. Let’s not pretend that unschooling is a huge risk and school is the safe, reliable option.

      “While it’s awful to be thinking about a first job when a kid is only a few years old” Stop right there. Yes, it is. It is this kind of mindset that I really want to avoid. There is simply NO reason except fear of the unknown and bowing to social pressure to worry about a JOB when a child is a child.

      Then you say that unschooling isn’t always the right choice and offer yourself as an example of someone who thrived with school. Do you think I don’t know that unschooling isn’t a perfect match for every kid? Do you think I don’t know that some people like school? What is the purpose of communicating that?

  3. Grace says:

    Agree with you that small children don’t really need much guidance. Certainly my own child has a tremendous drive to learn (she will spend every waking moment trying to master her latest skill, even to the point of total exhaustion). She desperately wanted to walk (if it was up to her I would have spent every waking moment doing practice walking: think you lucked out w. Dylan in that regard!) and now is equally intent on talking, “quizzing” me on the names of everything she sees. She taught herself how to sit up, walk, run, climb, use utensils, etc.

    The thing is, even though she has such a strong drive to learn, she is incredibly ignorant. She can’t learn about anything unless I make the effort to expose her to it (because she doesn’t know it exists otherwise): and therefore just adopting a “go with the flow” philosophy is not an ideal parenting choice.

    Here’s an example: We live in Singapore in a 25 story highrise, as does everyone else. Exposure to the natural world is incredibly limited, as everything is either paved or manicured within an inch of its life. I took her to a gardening class recently, which was the first time in her memory that she had ever had the chance to play in the dirt (which she refused to touch). She saw an ant and screamed in terror. With some experience, she learned about these things and became enthusiastic (because little children have an instinctive love of dirt), but if I didn’t make the effort she, like most children here, would have a complete disinterest in the natural world and the outdoors.

    You can only expose your children to things which you are familiar with (because otherwise you don’t know the opportunity exists). That is why unschooling/homeschooling is a terrible idea, because most people are quite ignorant (especially in the US). Even highly educated people tend to have HUGE glaring blindspots. You need to have other people educate your child, so that they can make up for your deficiencies.

    • Issa says:

      My kid lives in rural Tennessee on a small farm. Your kid lives in Singapore in a 25 story highrise. Their lives and experiences and interests are going to be different. Isn’t that okay?

      Blindspots? Do you seriously think that schooling doesn’t involve blindspots?

      You say that “unschooling is a terrible idea” and “you need to have other people educate your child” and these statements are not universal statements of fact. Do you know any adults who unschooled? Do you know any families currently unschooling? Have you researched the college graduation and employment rates of unschooled kids? Are you aware of what should be the really obvious fact that different people have different values and prioritize them differently and that “comprehensive education” is but one value?

      • Grace says:

        Well, this does come down to some extent to a question of values. I think it’s important for individuals to freely make their own decisions about what lifestyle/choices are best for them (whatever the specifics of that choice are-polyamorous homesteading hippie, married suburbanite with an office job, childless city-dweller living a bohemian lifestyle–being not as important).

        But it’s impossible to make a free choice without access to information. If you are never exposed to science, then you have no way of realizing that it is your passion and you would be happiest dedicating your life to research (and the same goes for organic farming, music or anything else). I feel like the role of a parent ought to be exposing their child to as many options/experiences as possible, and then allowing (trusting, if you will) the child to select what is best, for them personally.

        Traditional schooling certainly has blindspots: the point is that the blindspots will vary from your own. Each person’s deficiencies are therefore compensated for by other’s strengths. For instance, I hate crafts and sports: but my daughter can still get exposure to them at school, and decide for herself whether she has an interest.

        Sometimes advocates of homeschooling/unschooling will argue that they can make the same thing happen by deliberately involving others in their child’s education (the whole “It takes a village” thing). This is a lot better than reducing the child’s only knowledge of the world to what their parent personally knows, but the problem remains that the parent still selected all of those people, meaning they probably share the same biases and knowledge base (unlike the case in a typical school, where every teacher and student will have a unique and unconnected life experience).

        I very much dislike the idea of parents deliberately indoctrinating their children into a particular way of life, purposefully restricting their knowledge of the world in order to make this happen. It is abusive, because it prevents children from exercising their free will and agency.

        • Issa says:

          “I feel like the role of a parent ought to be exposing their child to as many options/experiences as possible, and then allowing (trusting, if you will) the child to select what is best, for them personally.”

          I agree with what you’ve written here. I think where we differ is in whether or not school is a valuable thing to expose a child to by coercive default. (If Dylan WANTS to go to school, that’s another story.)

          For example, you go on to say: “in a typical school, where every teacher and student will have a unique and unconnected life experience”… and I don’t feel that way AT ALL. I think the life experiences and perspectives offered in schools are deliberately limited: the children are segregated by age, the teacher are strictly restrained by law and by their bosses with what they are allowed to do and how they are allowed to express themselves, the children follow a tightly controlled schedule that leaves very little room for organic relating, etc. The people may be different from one another, but they are being pressed by the same cookie-cutter system. Of course some people love school and get a lot out of it, but let’s not pretend that school is the be-all-end-all of knowledge and broad experiences. It is a certain kind of knowledge, a certain kind of experience, presented in a certain kind of way.

          “I very much dislike the idea of parents deliberately indoctrinating their children into a particular way of life, purposefully restricting their knowledge of the world in order to make this happen. It is abusive, because it prevents children from exercising their free will and agency.”

          First off, every parent deliberately indoctrinates their children. Children spend their childhood learning to be the kind of people their parents are. Period. When you say “indoctrinates” I basically interpret you to mean that you think there are some kinds of people who shouldn’t be parents. I don’t appreciate that attitude.

          You go on to clarify that you mean to criticize people who purposefully restrict their children’s knowledge of the world. But ALL parents do that. ALL parents make choices about what is appropriate to expose their children to and what isn’t. Complaining that parents shouldn’t do that is absurd.

          And preventing children’s free will and agency? Are you fucking kidding me? You cannot throw that into an argument against compulsory schooling. Compulsory schooling is practically the very definition of squashing children’s free will and agency.

    • Joshua says:

      The thing is, even though she has such a strong drive to learn, she is incredibly ignorant. She can’t learn about anything unless I make the effort to expose her to it (because she doesn’t know it exists otherwise): and therefore just adopting a “go with the flow” philosophy is not an ideal parenting choice.

      I have seen this same logical error made when people hear about consensual parenting. They hear, “I want to interact consensually with my child,” and they hyperbolically take that to, “I am going to let my child do whatever he or she wants.” Not true! Just because a person unschools doesn’t mean that he or she totally detaches from their child’s learning experience. I am going to expose Dylan to all sorts of things that he may be interested in. Just yesterday, he started nodding his head in response to the classical music theme of a movie we were watching, and I paused the movie to play some of my favorite Beethoven and Mozart pieces for him (he preferred Mozart). That was unschooling.

      You can only expose your children to things which you are familiar with (because otherwise you don’t know the opportunity exists).

      Categorically untrue. Do you think that I’m incapable of looking up the public school curriculum for my area? I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head what a fourth-grader is expected to know, but I can easily find out any time I want to.

      On the flip-side, publicly-schooled kids will ONLY get exposed to the things in that curriculum, whereas an unschooled kid can be exposed to anything the parent or kid decides to explore. So whose knowledge is being limited here?

      • Grace says:

        Your example proves my point. You enjoy classical music, so you expose Dylan to it (of course, whether he likes it or not is up to him); but you probably aren’t exposing him to music you dislike (R&B maybe?). Even if you do make the effort, because you want him to have a varied experience, you aren’t going to play him types of music that you don’t even know exist (Tuvan throat singers? or Buddhist hymns maybe? I’m not sure what your background is, but you get the idea I hope).

        Everyone is ignorant in at least some ways, even the smartest and most highly educated. What sets the knowledgeable person apart from others is having a good sense of their limitations. (Think Socrates at the Oracle of Delphi: he was the wisest man in Athens because he knew that he was ignorant.) It is the height of unwisdom to assume you can teach your child all they will need to know.

        Also, I have heard your last point often from homeschooling/unschooling advocates, but it still doesn’t ring true to me. American school is not that onerous (the average child spends far more time watching TV than attending school), so even children in public school have plenty of time to pursue their other interests.

        • Joshua says:

          Your example proves my point.

          That example was in response to a different point, so I don’t think that’s a fair response. I was bringing up “playing classical music” as an example of how I was not advocating taking a totally hands-off approach to Dylan’s learning.

          lso, I have heard your last point often from homeschooling/unschooling advocates, but it still doesn’t ring true to me. So even children in public school have plenty of time to pursue their other interests.

          I’ll tell you what: I’ll concede that the average public-schooled kid has plenty of time to pursue other interests if you’ll concede that an un-schooling parent is perfectly capable of looking up what a public-school curriculum is and exposing ou’s child to that information.

          Your statement, that I can’t expose Dylan to things that I’m not personally familiar with, has a grain of truth. There are types of music that we don’t listen to in our house because we don’t enjoy it or aren’t aware that it exists. Dylan won’t be exposed to that type of music. But nobody said that every child must be exposed to every nugget of information that exists in the world. How ridiculous would that be? So it’s a given that every person will grow up being exposed to some things and not exposed to others. That’s just a fact, so it neither supports nor opposes any argument about unschooling.

          You’re making a value-judgement, that the things that I am unaware of and will not expose Dylan to are so valuable that I ought to put him into public school where, presumably he will be exposed to those things. But the public school curriculum is available to everyone, so if I agree with you that it contains valuable information, I am perfectly capable of acquiring that information and exposing Dylan to it. I don’t need to participate in all the parts of schooling that I disagree with in order to get access to the information that Dylan would be exposed to in school. I assure you that, when Dylan gets to first-grade age, I will be looking at what is taught in the first grade and thinking about what parts of that I think are important, and how to consensually introduce those topics to him.

        • Joshua says:

          It is the height of unwisdom to assume you can teach your child all they will need to know.

          The hyperbolic fallacy rears its head here. Again: unschooling is neither a totally hands-off approach to learning, nor is it based on the premise that the parent is the sole educator.

  4. Nikki says:

    This is a fascinating topic for me to explore, given that I, like some of the commenters, am a product of the rigorously structured, milestone / grade driven, economic-success-oriented school system. I’ve had plenty of friends who were home-schooled to various extents, and while as a teen I couldn’t see outside my college-preparatory box, past senior high school I really began to envy them their early freedoms to explore and set their own goals. Upon reflection, as I got into college, many of my goals seem to have been the goals of one or both of my parents. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – of course my parents wanted what they saw as the best for me – but it caused no end of anxiety & confusion to me whenever I “slipped up” but had little more than internalized fears about the course of my entire working life to motivate me.

    That said, I believe that many of the commenters advising caution around unschooling feel that they DO come at their child’s education from a position of trust. My parents very forthrightly trusted me to be able to excel within the framework given me, the formal education system. I performed to their expectations, and so they also trusted that I would be a strong enough person to deal with the baggage Issa so clearly highlighted that goes with the milestone-oriented perspective. Unfortunately, whether by inborn inclination or upbringing or a mixture of both, I did not have the emotional resilience to get through that system unscathed. But neither did I ever have the heart to speak honestly to my family about it, so deeply-ingrained was the imperative that I had to not only excel but to thrive whilst excelling.

    So I suppose my parents, and many others, could be described as operating on trust, but I acknowledge and encourage other parents to consider that their trust may be short-sighted. And what they see as expressions of trust in their child can easily become, from the child’s perspective, another form of pressure or coercion.

    • Issa says:

      Your comment really resonates with me. It makes me think about how trust is about more than school or not-school. You have to think about what else goes into your relationship so that the child is able to tell you when things are off. When I think of “schooling”, I associate that word with more than just “do you go to class in a building somewhere”. Schooling to me is the idea of following the unquestioned rules, being on the person-building assembly-line. Whether Dylan actually goes to school or not is of secondary importance to whether we maintain a relationship where he can communicate his needs and feelings and we can adjust and re-imagine based on his actual experiences and the person he wants to be.

      • Amy K says:

        “Whether Dylan actually goes to school or not is of secondary importance to whether we maintain a relationship where he can communicate his needs and feelings and we can adjust and re-imagine based on his actual experiences and the person he wants to be.”

        This! So totally this!

  5. Really love your post here, especially as we’re unschooling and learning our own trust. Take walking as one of your examples: Mikko started at 18 months (and we were patient about it), and Alrik started earlier (and we were intrigued but not irrationally proud), and you know, they both can walk now. Big whoop about when it started! I really do feel the unschooling mindset has helped me back off so much of the developmental timeline hoopla.

    I appreciate your responses to the commenters here as well. I fear that if I responded to each of their points my blood pressure would soar. I love (snark) when people don’t do any research or deep thinking into a learning style and then profess to know exactly what it’s about and all its weaknesses.

    One element that stood out to me: Children can’t learn advanced biology and chemistry from a parent who’s uneducated in such topics? Then they can learn them from an expert in biology and chemistry! Duh. I’m not sure why everyone assumes homeschooling = no influence from the outside world, and unschooling = no resources used, ever, but the fairy-rainbow-crystal power of our imaginations. Unschooling and homeschooling are bigger than those perceived limitations.

    I also like how the “rural area” comes into play in limiting how well you can homeschool your kids. Wouldn’t this (theoretically deprived) location also play into how good the school systems are?

    Sigh.

    Thanks for the lovely article. I think I’ll stop reading comments now…

    • Issa says:

      “the fairy-rainbow-crystal power of our imaginations”

      Lol, love this! I was thinking, you know, when you get Hobo Mama pissed and snarking, you have fucked up! You are usually pretty sweet online, Lauren! :-)

      Yeah, I wasn’t really sure how to reply to those comments. I feel like I’m going towards unschooling really gently. I don’t feel fanatically attached to it, and if Dylan says he wants to go to school I’ll appreciate the time to myself. But, I don’t really need people coming here and explaining at me. Eh.

    • Joshua says:

      I also like how the “rural area” comes into play in limiting how well you can homeschool your kids.

      I had a similar thought. If the hypothetical rural kid will have less access to, say, advanced science or arts instruction, isn’t it just as true that the hypothetical urban kid will have less access to, say, agriculture or animal husbandry? That kid in a high-rise in Singapore is not going to grow up caring for and living with chickens, ducks, pigs, and sheep like Dylan is. Oh, but of course that doesn’t matter, because those are low-class things, not like nice clean wonderful science.

      • Grace says:

        This comment rather hurt my feelings. I never said that agriculture was “low-class”: in fact, in my original comment I specifically said that I was concerned about my daughter’s lack of exposure to the natural world and was trying my best (given my life circumstances) to remedy that. Seems kind of mean to gloat over how Dylan’s life is superior in that circumstance.

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