Love Against the Machine: The Enormous Joy of Discovering that Unschooling Works

Me in my garden - photo by my son Taliesin River.
I started unschooling my kids rather out of a place of despair, when my son's learning style (his way or no way at all!) didn't mesh with the system. I quickly realized how similar unschooling was to the way I already taught other children, using explorative creative play and art-making to teach them about the workings of the world and their own hearts and minds. So on pure blind faith and a good chunk of sheer determination, my husband and I just let our kids go, free-range for the most part, trying to follow their interests and our own, and cobble together some sort of symphony of it all.

And there's the machine, of course - the socio-political one. I've never been someone to follow the masses, myself, so unschooling suits my personality. It wasn't until recently that I realized (thanks to my mother) that everything in my life is a rebellion against the machine - even gardening. I grow food to prove to myself that I don't fully depend on the agriculture industry. I grow it to prove to my children that we're skilled and capable of looking after ourselves. I grow it to teach myself how - to feel less frightened about the looming possibility of social collapse, and to know that I'll be able to feed us, if need be. And I grow it because it's an interesting challenge. I garden exploratively. I unschool gardening. And recently - at long last - I'm having a bit of success with it.

My son, now seventeen, unschools photography. I'd love to say I taught him that, because I love photography too, but I didn't. I just gave him the freedom to teach himself. And I let him use my cameras. He explores photography. He breathes photography. He leaps around the city and wilderness, seeing it all in his unique way, and using whichever camera he has as a natural extension of his own eyes. He mastered the technology on his own, through exploration, as a child masters the use of a crayon, or his fingers. He mastered it intuitively, because he has freedom to explore.

He has a volunteer job, now, exploring beaches and documenting his discoveries in image and words for a forthcoming marine atlas. Yesterday he let me join him on one of his explorative adventures, and he told me that he was off to look for the anemones that he knew lived on the other side of the lighthouse. I realized with total delight that we were on the same sort of adventure we did almost every day of his younger childhood, but this time, with camera in hand and the confidence of a great strong wind, my son was leading me.

There was a day many years ago, when I led a wilderness exploration group (including my own kids) into the meadow, and somebody asked my daughter if she ever gets sick of being with her mother. I was offended, and then worried, and really questioned our decision to live so closely with our kids, especially because my daughter has always been looking for ways to engage separately from the family. There have been SO many days like this. So many doubts and fears and blaring warning signs cast up by others and by my own fearful mind telling me to turn and run back to the norm. But we didn't. My daughter is fiercely independent, and she taught me how to let go of her so she could go gallivanting in the city with her much-older friends. Unschooling demands of both of us to live bravely and trust. Our deep connection built over so many years of living life in close proximity makes her independence possible. I know I can trust her to look after herself, and to reach for us when we're actually needed.

And yesterday I looked into my son's lens, as he towered above me on the rocky beach, and realized he was taking a photo of my smile - his smile - the smile that exists because of him. Whatever he explores in this world, with or without me, I am reassured that he loves me and is happy in his life and in himself. Whatever more could I have wished for in the world? This is the enormous joy of discovering that unschooling works.

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