Time to Unschool

Gemma-Rose had a loose front tooth. Every spare moment she had, she could be found, fingers in her mouth, wiggling and twisting and turning that little tooth. Soon it was hanging by a thread. At lunch time, two days ago, it finally fell out after one bite of her sandwich, much to my youngest daughter’s delight and relief. She presented it to me on the palm of her hand as if it were a trophy, as if she’d achieved something tremendous. And of course we all congratulated her and shared in her happy moment.

“You can write a blog post about your tooth,” someone suggested.

“You’ll need some photos,” someone else added.

“I’ll get the camera.”

Gemma-Rose obligingly opened her mouth wide in a huge grin and snap! snap! this childhood milestone was captured forever.

Gemma-Rose looks so cute. My mother’s heart goes soft and gooey looking at her.  I just want to pick her up and hug and kiss her.

I guess you are wondering what all this has to do with unschooling. It’s all to do with time.

We have been homeschooling nearly 20 years. Wow! That looks a long time when you write the number down. But it doesn’t feel like a long time. Only yesterday we were undercover homeschoolers teaching our first child, behind closed doors. And the day after tomorrow, our last child will be off into the wide world ready to live her own life. Or that’s how it feels.

Let’s go back to yesterday.

Felicity sometimes complains she was the guinea pig child. I know how she feels. I was the oldest child in my family too. I was a guinea pig child myself. Yes, her upbringing and the way we homeschooled her was a bit of an experiment. I guess it’s that way with most first children.

I remember the day we brought Felicity home from the hospital. I gathered her in my arms, that tiny tightly wrapped bundle of newborn baby, and I walked out through the hospital doors rather hesitantly, expecting to be stopped any moment: “Excuse me Madam, but we can’t just let you walk out of here with that baby. Where’s your experience? Do you know how to bring up a baby? She’s too precious to be given to just anyone.” But of course, no one stopped me. Felicity belonged to us and it was our job to discover the best way of raising her.

We did our best and she survived the first five years, despite our rather bumbling style of parenting. And then the day arrived when we had to consider her education.  I’ve already told you our homeschooling story from undercover homeschoolers to Catholic unschoolers. It wasn’t a perfect pathway. Sometimes I wish I could go right back to the beginning and do it all over again properly. I guess a lot of people feel this way about a lot of things.

I think about those up and down years as we tried to gain experience and confidence and find the best way to educate our children. It wasn’t easy. Quite often I felt so stressed out trying to do what was right for my children. I had to be not only the best mother, but the best homeschooling mother. And I didn’t really know how I was to achieve that. At times I felt such a sense of responsibility. I felt as if I were carrying a huge burden.

There were days when I’d crack: “If you don’t do your school work… if you don’t learn this… or that… if you don’t try… I will send you to school. I can’t take any more.”  I’d rush out the back door and sit on the garden wall, my head pounding, my heart racing. I’d kept my children home so we could enjoy each other, so I could give the best to my children. And some days we didn’t enjoy anything at all: the baby would be crying, the toddler was demanding, and I didn’t seem to have the energy to encourage the older ones along, to make them do the work I thought they should be doing.  I didn’t enjoy feeling so tired and helpless and frustrated. I felt I was failing both as a mother and a homeschooling parent. Was it worth it? Should I just carry out my threat and send my children to school? But I couldn’t quite do it. I knew this job of raising and educating my children was mine alone and I had to find a way that worked.

After some time sitting on my sun-drenched wall trying to calm down, with my children peering anxiously out the window at their ‘dragon’ mother, I’d return and force a smile on my face saying, “Grab the picnic basket and make some sandwiches, we’re going bushwalking.” Worried expressions would instantly disappear and everyone would fly around the kitchen gathering the necessary supplies. Part of me would think, “You should make them return to the work they didn’t complete. What kind of lesson are you teaching them?” But most of me didn’t care. I just wanted to forget all the problems, leave them behind at home and set out on an adventure.

Soon we’d be tramping down the bush track, taking turns carrying the baby and swinging the toddler along. And I would look at my kids, with love and think, “This is what it’s all about.” Joy had returned to the day. I’d come home thinking, “I want to homeschool my children but I don’t want to fight with them. They won’t learn anything in an atmosphere of conflict, and our relationship will be ruined. We are a family. And a family should be a place of love, joy, encouragement, support and peace as well as a place of growth and learning.”

Gradually I was discovering what was really important. And gradually I rejected anything that led us away from that close and happy relationship that I knew was the most important thing in the world. I realised that a lot of what was causing our conflict was other people’s expectations and timetables – my children had to do this… that… and the other, not because it fulfilled their needs but because someone (not very important) expected them to achieve this …or that…  Worse, sometimes this… or that… had to be achieved by a particular age. And sometimes I brought trouble upon myself: I simply wanted my children to do certain things to impress certain (not very important) people.

Also, our homeschooling routine didn’t take into account the needs of our little people. Either I taught the older children or I looked after the younger ones. I couldn’t seem to do both at the same time.

But we learn with prayer and time and experience. And God leads us onto new and better ways. He is so good.
I eventually let go of all those expectations imposed on us from outside. I have learnt to listen to my children. I am trusting them and myself and God. We are homeschooling the gentle way, the little way, the unschooling way. The children are learning, but not at the expense of our family relationships.

And so here we are, after nearly twenty years, our last child seven years old. And my problem these days isn’t finding a method that works for our family. No. Our problem is time, time that passes so quickly. The day after tomorrow will arrive very soon and my homeschooling days will be over. So I have to make every moment count. I have to live for today and enjoy every minute.

And how I wish I could have had the confidence to do that with our first child.

“What shall we do this morning?” I ask my younger two girls. They look longingly at the book that’s lying on the coffee table.

“Could you start Ballet Shoes, Mum?”

I remember this old childhood friend and settle down, with the girls snuggled up one on each side.

Soon we are absorbed in the tale with me reading and an occasional question from Gemma-Rose: “What’s a fossil, Mum?”
I come to the end of the first chapter. “Ohhh! Couldn’t you read just a bit more, Mum? Please!”

Both girls have pleading looks on their faces. Who could resist?

Later, my throat dry and my voice scratchy, I finally close the book. And Gemma-Rose smiles. She opens her mouth wide and I see the gap where once she had a tooth. She looks so cute. I just want to hug her and kiss her. I think about time and how it passes so quickly. Soon I won’t have a little girl.

And I reach out and I pull Gemma-Rose onto my lap and close my eyes and I enjoy.

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  1. Reply

    'I don't want to have brilliant children at the expense of our relationship.' – I totally agree with you, Sue!

    I think of the many people I know who are not brilliant, but are honest, good, loving and holy people – they are the role models I want for my children. I, also, think brilliance is a gift, rather than a goal.

    I love the way unschooling allows the children to develop their own special talents, and doesn't restrict them to other people's ideas of success:)

  2. Reply

    Hi Vicky! I guess I used to think of homeschooling as a means to academic success eg I can teach my children better than school can. Later I thought good family, personal and spiritual relationships were more important than attaining a high level of learning. But maybe it's not one or the other. Perhaps unschooling can develop a child's academic gifts but good relationships won't be lost in the process. Yes, some children aren't headed for academic brilliance and other gifts are equally valid or even more important. And these will be nurtured in the unschool environment too.

  3. Reply

    So precious our time with our children. Its not long enough before they fly….another great inspiring post…leanne

  4. Reply

    Thank you, Leanne. Perhaps we spend too much of that precious time we have with our children worrying, instead of enjoying.

  5. Reply

    Yes Sue, and how good does it feel when we stop worrying and just live in the moment…and enjoying

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