The Apocalypse Is Trickling In, and Unschooling Accidentally Prepared Us for It

dragonfly coming out of its larval skin - photo by Taliesin van Lidth de Jeude Roemer

I went in this morning to look at my eighteen-year-old son while he slept. He looked so peaceful. I wanted to wrap him up in my arms and cherish that peaceful face, now so much longer and with stubble around the chin, as I used to when it was round and soft and chubby, and the whole world seemed so much safer. It's not safe anymore. His whole future is in question, as is my daughter's, and how will we get from here to there? From pandemics to fascism to economic and social collapse to apocalyptic storms and other disasters wrought by climate change, holy this is a crazy time we're living in. Back in the 90's people were talking about this. 2020 was a year that I heard spoken of as a turning point. Would society as we know it even make it to 2020, we asked? Would it be worth having children if in fact things would be as dire as predicted?

Well we did have children. And climate change is pretty much as predicted. Turns out (also as predicted) that the rise in climate change disasters really did trigger global anxiety and a tightening of the screws of power. We're watching in real time as fascism rises, power is abused by corporations and government, the gulf between rich and poor widens, and communities are just beginning to be wiped out by floods, fires, storms, and now rioting. Social collapse is increasingly looking likely. Three years ago, Rachel Nuwer wrote on BBC Future that "Putting aside species-ending events like an asteroid strike, nuclear winter or deadly pandemic, history tells us that it’s usually a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse. What are they, and which, if any, have already begun to surface? It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path – but just how close are we to reaching the point of no return?" Well guess what--pandemics are here too. This doesn't bode well for our children's future, or even our own. Our family is now home in isolation for the foreseeable future, and learning to grow what crops we can, hoping to develop survival skills. Pretty extreme, right? But for an increasing number of us, this is the new reality. And unexpectedly, unschooling prepared us for this.

We didn't even want to call it unschooling, in the beginning. I valiantly tried to use the terms "life-learning" or "self-directed education", because they seemed so much less confrontational. But as the wave of unschoolers grew across the world, my pacified terms increasingly met with blank stares, and we relented. We unschooled our kids because it seemed like a natural extension of attachment-parenting and the non-coercive learning environment my mother created in her preschool program. We unschooled because it made our kids happy. We continued unschooling because, as time went on, we saw that they were thriving, and that their developing interests, skills, and personal values were increasingly supported by our way of life. Now, in this time of global pandemic and societal upheaval, we are aware that the basic benefits of unschooling are what are keeping our whole family sane and together.

First, we're comfortable being maverick. This seems not like something we'd strive for, and it definitely wasn't. It just came of always being the family with the weird lifestyle. But here we are, accustomed to gently explaining our choices to people and carrying on despite the criticism. This is a very useful skill when our autoimmune-afflicted family is choosing to wear masks during a pandemic when so many others seem to find this practice ridiculous or even offensive. It's a useful skill when isolating ourselves even as the rest of our community returns to normal. Feeling comfortable with being maverick is a useful skill when staying home as a family raising chickens and vegetables and doing "farm things" that many of our kids' city friends find bizarre. My daughter and her friends like to joke that she sleeps in a pile of hay. She updated her zoom background accordingly with a hay pile, and rode the wave of her maverick.

Speaking of being home as a family and farming together (truly we can hardly call it a farm; it's 1/4 acre, but we're doing our best!), we're happy as a family. That is pretty amazing, and like any relationship, it's always a struggle and a rollicking adventure to keep the harmony alive. Especially during this pandemic when we're now having to look at all four of each other's faces most of every hour, every day. But unschooling prepared us for this. Once when my daughter was about six or seven, and we were out on adventure with a wilderness program I led, she came to me with a confused look on her face. She explained that a woman had stopped her on the trail and asked if she's sick of having to be with her mother all the time instead of going to school. She didn't understand why she would be! That is the gift of unschooling, or of any situation that leads to more family togetherness: we have to work out the kinks and create a harmonious living situation. It's not that there aren't times we're frustrated, hurt, or angry; where our various needs or values clash. Of course there are! And plenty of them. However, like in any democratic society, we have to work those issues out with as much respect and listening as possible, if we want to maintain the harmony. Yes of course there have been many times when as parents we put our feet down, because sometimes kids just really don't understand the risks of their actions. But we explain our demands, and we try very hard (not always successfully) to give our kids freedom within the structure of a family all living together. In this way we have all managed to find happiness in each other's company.

Like all democracy, sorting out ongoing life and relationships is always a struggle, and we keep persevering. Jeff Goodell says in Rolling Stone that "the other big takeaway from [the 2018 IPCC] report is that it’s time to get serious about adapting to a rapidly changing world. If we don’t, a good percentage of civilization as we know it today won’t survive." Unschooling has helped us in this by providing endless opportunities for adaptation. A kid with lots of free time and options necessarily learns to manage those options herself, to solve problems herself, to research and find solutions when nobody is presenting any. She learns to compromise and to stay strong when needed; she learns the difference between wants and needs. These are things we all learn as adults, but unschooling, in removing kids from the pre-ordained structure of school, gives them an opportunity to learn these things sooner. They gain confidence in making life-choices for themselves, confidence in standing up for their needs and values, and confidence in their ability to adapt to new situations.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, unschooling has taught us resilience. I suppose resilience is a confluence of all the things I've talked about already. It's being a person who is able to stand strong when faced with a challenge, adapt to the moment, and persevere. It's about having a positive outlook even when circumstances are dire, and using that outlook to chart a path to a happy outcome. My Dad had Parkinson's for most of my adult life, and when people asked him how he was doing, he sometimes responded "better than I look". And he managed to have a fulfilling and active life for more than a decade beyond what the doctors predicted. In the last few years of his life, when his disease made him severely disabled, he said his cup was not half full, but "overflowing". Life is always, always going to give us challenges, and some of them are going to seem insurmountable. Some of them actually will be insurmountable, and eventually we'll lose loved ones, and die. But we can go down feeling bad, or we can go down with our hearts full, knowing we lived the best life we could. That is what I hope for my weird little unschooling family.

Last night our family put the chickens to bed, made some popcorn, and went out to the beach to look at comet Neowise. We brought our telescope and my son brought all the cameras to capture the gorgeousness of our night sky. After much standing around looking at eyepieces and setting up lenses and tripods, the sky darkened enough that we saw Neowise above the northwestern horizon. My daughter in her hedgehog onesie that feels like a mop leaned into me as we stood in the warm breeze. Eventually her brother's and father's arms wrapped around us both as we watched bats flit by against the starry sky. Soon we all found ourselves lying on the pebbly beach, comfortable being in each other's company, gazing at the amazingly vast collection of stars, meteors, clouds, satellites and black-blue space. Maybe the apocalypse is trickling in. We're as ready as we'll ever be, because our cup is overflowing.

comet Neowise - photo by Taliesin van Lidth de Jeude Roemer


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