Unschooling: Am I Failing My Kids?

My nine-year-old son sat staring at his comic book, lengthily, before raising his eyes to meet mine in the glassy glare that has always alerted me to my failings. He told me his friend, who was a year younger, was already doing grade five math. 

"So?" I said, wanting to reassure him, but already knowing that the river of his disappointment would overcome my small boat of hope before it launched. "You're unschooled. We don't even know what level of math you do. Who cares."

His eyes pierced me, and he muttered, "I can't even do math."

I knew it wasn't true. Sure, he would probably test 'below grade level' if we tested him, but I disagreed with testing, and besides, though he was ignorant of long division at the time, he was able to Google a useful formula and calculate the speed at which his theoretical space-station would need to spin in order to simulate earth-gravity for those on-board. I didn't really have any concerns about his ability to 'do math'. But his eyes told me that I had, indeed, failed him. If not academically, then socially. Or maybe in supporting his sensitive heart and competitive nature. There's always something. My boat was sunk.

I've been consulting for unschooling families since the beginning of the pandemic, and by far the biggest and most common reason people call me is because they're afraid of failing their children. I struggled with that so much, myself, in the earlier years (and off and on even now that my kids are grown!) I struggle with it as a teacher, too, and I'm pretty sure it's actually most parents' niggling deep fear. 

I think we always want to do the absolute best we can for our kids, but the truth is we can't ever know what the best is for each individual kid, and for our family as a whole. We won't even know when our kids are grown if we've done what might have been best for them. All we can do is to keep an open heart, an agile mind, and work through every challenge as it arrives. But picking through our human insecurities and finding ways to re-imagine them is kind of my life's work, so I've decided to dig into this one a bit. Every one of my thoughts won't apply to every one who reads this, because we're all unique, and in that uniqueness is an infinity of different possibilities and outcomes. So don't take this essay as advice, please--just some thoughts on our mutual journey and a jumping-off place for your own thoughts and conversations. And be reassured, although this list may bring up many deep-seated fears, I'm going to talk about how to overcome them later on.

Have I set my kids up for failure if they want to go to school (or quit school) later on?

Luckily, in most places, if you have the legal right to homeschool your kids, then you also have the legal right to send them to school, later on. Some systems make you jump through hoops in order to determine appropriate placements for new students, but some also make coming and going from school quite easy. And regardless, we can rest assured that many kids leave school for a variety of reasons (travel, illness, poverty, or exploring different education options) and manage to return when the time is right. The system is always willing to take kids back. 

Then there's the fear that kids will be 'behind' if they join school later than their peers. From the experiences I've had as a parent and also witnessed in other eclectic homeschooling families, I can say this is actually rarely the case. Sure, there will be differences between our home/unschooled kids' experiences and the schooled kids' experiences, but every school year begins with quite a bit of review, and home/unschooled kids are often quite skilled at harnessing learning opportunities. They 'catch up' quite quickly. 

The bigger issue I see here is the possibility of failing our kids' learning and self-esteem in general by succumbing to our own fears about 'grade levels' or 'keeping up' or 'being behind'. These competitive thoughts often lead to our kids feeling insecure about their learning. My son's insecurities about math were absolutely rooted in my own 'encouraging' him to practice math. I thought I was being mostly positive, but my actions made him aware that there was a bar he needed to reach, and he always felt in danger of failing. That's really no different than the very visible bar that school-going kids are expected to reach, so I'm not going to kick myself too much for bringing it into his world. Still, since my conviction that competition and coercion is detrimental to learning was a big part of the reason we chose to unschool, I really did fail myself, in this case. And my son's ongoing insecurity about his own intelligence is the result.

I don't know if [insert educational philosophy here] was the best choice for my child!

It might not be. Maybe you chose unschooling and now your kid is passionately yearning for the excitement and rigidity of the school her friend attends. Maybe you and your child researched the hell out of all the school options, then maxed all your credit on 'the best school', and now you're all miserable. Both of these situations have happened to me. Things change. Things can change. And the way we navigate these needs and unexpected changes with agility will be the greatest lesson to our kids. And after it all? Our kids will almost certainly blame us for choices we made that didn't serve them. That, too, is an opportunity for growth. How we work through our feelings of regret and uncertainty as a family is another of life's greatest learning opportunities.

I'm antisocial. How can I socialize my kids?

This one is hard for me. I have really deep social insecurities, and I passed them on to my children long before we even considered educational options. Unschooling, and being a part of an incredibly small homeschool cohort, was in some ways easier for me, because of the possibility of forging closer relationships with fewer people. But it was also devastating to all of us when friends moved on to school, or other communities, or just other friendships. My kids have witnessed my depression upon realizing that close friends had moved on, and this didn't help their social confidence at all. My experience with this led me to see, yet again, that the way I navigate this challenge is hugely important to how my kids will grow. Yes, unschooling in a small community amplified this problem for us, but that just gave us a chance to meet it, head on. 

My kids and I talk a lot about our social lives; our thoughts and feelings about why we or others behave the way we do. They know I don't have many answers, and frequently I have learned more from them than they have from me. As a whole, these conversations are one of the most important things we do. We all know that our house is the place we can safely air all our thoughts and feelings, that we'll love each other no matter what, and that we'll always have our hearts held, here. Dr. Gabor Maté "believes that most mental health conditions originate from unresolved childhood trauma" (Human Window, 2020). We can't avoid emotional trauma, but we can work to resolve it. So, rather than hold back about topics that challenge or frighten us, we talk about them. I'm not a psychologist and I'm not confident in my understanding of humanity, but I am my children's confidante, and that means it's my job to support them and to take their social and emotional journeys with them. Wherever we go, we go together. At least there will be someone there at the end of the road, holding their hand.

I'm no good at [insert subject here]. What if my kids want to learn things I know nothing about?

In my consulting work as well as on homeschool and unschooling discussion groups, this question comes up often, and in many different forms: 'My daughter is interested in sewing clothes, but I have no idea where to begin!' 'My child is asking to learn to read, and I don't know how to teach them.' 'I failed math in high school, how can I teach my kid at home?' In fact, the reason my son was so worried about his math level was likely because he sensed my own and his father's lack of confidence in math. I really don't understand much about math, but his father studied engineering and physics in university. His actual skill may have passed on to his son, but so did his lack of confidence. The confidence we lack as parents is normal, but it's also a detriment to learning, both for ourselves and for our children.

This issue is complex, but relatively simple to solve. First of all, we need to dismantle our thinking that learning is a top-town dissemination of knowledge. Many of us were raised in the school system and/or at home to believe that that's how learning works, but this system no longer serves our population, and even school boards across the world are beginning to change. While it's entirely possible to seek out a more experienced person as a guide or mentor in a specific subject area, that person is still growing, too, and there is always more to learn; more to share, and more ways to grow than just by collecting knowledge. The best mentors are just sharing their enthusiasm for learning with others. As parents, we can be those best mentors simply by finding some kind of enthusiasm as we go on the learning journey with our kids.

The learning can be direct, where we (or our kids) seek out information and learn it through whatever means suit us best (my own kids have variously accessed local experts, online courses, YouTube tutorials, in-school classes, and library resources). But it can also happen through undirected exploration and play, which happens to be how most of my kids' lifelong passions and skills have developed. The point is that my own skills were not needed for any of this. Maybe, especially when they were younger, I helped them access the resources they needed, but I didn't have to actually understand the subject matter to do so. My enthusiasm was for supporting their learning--whatever that was. I was the excited buyer-of-microscopes. I was the diligent driver-to-the-library. I was the supervisor of Googling, and the provider of the computer. I was the lady who made the muffins and insisted we were going to eat them in the woods, because I like the woods, damnit! That's our role, as parents: to be unflinchingly passionate, supportive, and true to ourselves. This is how our children learn to do the same, and how they learn to learn.

How to Support Our Kids:

Our kids are watching us, and they're learning 'how to human' from every nuance of our lives and behaviour. Working through our own insecurities is always the best work we can do, as parents. We will most definitely fail our children. All we can hope is that we've done our best to model resilience, agility, and a kind, supportive heart, so that when our failings rear their heads in our children's lives, our children are prepared to meet them with confidence, and grow.


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