I have learnt so much since I wrote this post. I could delete this story, but I leave it here as a record of our unschooling journey.
I wrote, “It wouldn’t take much for us to become unschoolers. Just a little more letting go…” I was writing to the fabulous Leonie, enthusiastic and experienced unschooler. I’d been reading her blog Living Without School, and what I read, excited me. I could relate to all she wrote. I wanted to find out more.
The book dropped into my mail box on a day when I was planning a lake-side adventure with my Speed Angel Sister
daughters. We packed a basket with drawing books, afternoon tea, cameras and… Homeschooling With Gentleness
. We arrived at the park, dumped our basket onto a picnic table, unpacked our supplies and then the girls went off eager to do what all adventurous girls do when they find themselves at a duck filled lake, on a beautiful sunny weekday afternoon. And I did what all sensible mothers do: I settled back in the shade, with a mug of coffee and relaxed with my new book.
I read and I pondered and then I almost yelled out loud: “We don’t need ‘just a little more letting go’. We’re already unschoolers. We’re Catholic unschoolers!”
I hadn’t quite understood the concept of Catholic unschooling until I read Suzie’s book. My ideas about unschooling were being influenced by an experience that happened many years ago.
Let me explain:
When Felicity was six years old, Andy and I took our then three children to our very first homeschooling camp. We travelled for many hours in our old but trusty vehicle, all the way through Sydney and up the coast, to spend just three days with what we hoped were like-minded people.
We were so excited as we bumped along a windy dirt road which led to another world, a Gilligan’s Island world, a world which for three days was going to be an unschooling world. There was a sunny clearing edged by palm trees and tropical island huts and a communal building… and close by, down a hidden path, a beach with waves that gently lapped the fine golden sands. Between the clearing and the beach was bushland hiding a scientific observation centre. We looked around with anticipation. We knew we were going to have a fantastic weekend.
And we did. But we didn’t really meet any like-minded people. There were a number of sharing times dotted throughout the few days of the camp, but I was a bit afraid to share too much. Though we were all supposedly unschoolers, I began to think I was an imposter. Perhaps I wasn’t a real unschooler at all.
All the other homeschoolers were lovely, friendly, welcoming people, but they weren’t like us. Many of them lived on large sprawling properties and grew their own organic food, spun their own wool, bartered, built their own mud brick houses… which is fine, but they also talked about Mother Earth. I wondered: Where does faith fit into unschooling? My own faith wasn’t strong, but I knew I wasn’t an atheist or a Mother Earther. I also wondered about parenting. Could I parent like the unschoolers I’d met at the camp? I didn’t want to be on first name terms with my kids like these people. I wasn’t comfortable with the amount of freedom they gave to their kids. I wanted us to be a more traditional family.
And so we came home a little confused. We agreed with the unschooling principles of education, but we didn’t feel we could let go completely and trust our children to develop into respectful, disciplined, virtuous human beings all on their own. And later, we thought it was our duty to teach the Catholic faith in an orderly manner. We didn’t want to take the risk of letting our children discover the faith on their own. And there was one other thing I became concerned about. I had this idea that unschooling is very individual, even very self-centred, with children going off to discover the world entirely on their own. And we wanted to be a family that often shared and learnt together.
So maybe we were ready to turn away from unschooling when we met Anna
whose disciplined children really were models of virtue, and who had a strong sense of responsibility to God (they were Protestants).
But back to dear Suzie and her book.
Suzie defines unschooling as “a form of education in which the child is trusted to be the primary agent in learning what he needs to know to lead him to happiness.” This doesn’t mean a parent sits back and does nothing, leaving her child to learn by himself. No, she will “recognise and honor his natural ability to learn” but she will also be there guiding and helping and taking an interest in his education. The focus is more on the child learning rather than the mother teaching.
And while some parents will apply the unschooling principles to all levels of their life including parenting and disciplining, I don’t have to. As I read Suzie’s book, I realised that I don’t have to treat my children as my equals (in experience, growth and development), let them call me by my first name, look upon them as small versions of adults instead of my sons and daughters. I don’t have to take the risk they may never discover their Catholic faith. I can claim my duty as a Catholic parent to teach my children the virtues and their catechism. But while I am doing this, I can still call my family ‘unschoolers’. I discovered we are not just ‘unschoolers’. We are ‘Catholic unschoolers’.
I also found out that unschooling means different things to different families. Even the label ‘Catholic unschooler’ can mean different things to different families. This makes such a lot of sense. Aren’t all families very different? Why should one size fit all? Perhaps this is why we were never successful with Charlotte Mason or the Classical Curriculum. Although we liked living books, narration was a burden, and while I could see the value of the tools of learning, memorisation was so very painful. But picking and choosing what suits the needs of a family and the individuals within a family: that makes so much sense.
But who should do the picking and choosing? Well, Suzie has put forth the idea that our children are the primary agents in their own education and they will naturally learn what they need to know and what interests them. But this doesn’t mean we can’t make suggestions and even gently insist they learn something in particular (such as their catechism). They can even choose to learn something in a more formal way. We can share our own interests and passions. Learning can be a family affair. And learning together in an unschooling manner can create strong bonds between everyone.
I read Suzie’s book and then I posted the following on Leonie’s Facebook wall:
“Don’t tell any of my friends. They might start to worry. WE’RE UNSCHOOLERS!”
Leonie’s reply jumped off the computer screen, the letters dancing up and down “WOO! HOO!” I could just imagine Leonie jumping up and down too. Immediately Leonie invited me to join a Catholic Unschooling forum.
I soon discovered other families ‘doing their own thing’. Yes, there are many parents unschooling their children. We are all educating our children using the same principles. But every family’s homeschooling looks a little bit different because every family IS different.
I know our homeschool is based on sound principles. Our children are learning. But I also now know we can be Catholics and teach the faith to our children and still unschool. We can actively bring up our children, insisting on behaviour that is respectful and considerate towards others, and unschool. We can learn together as a family and unschool. We can even do some more formal type learning when there is a need, and still call ourselves unschoolers.
I don’t need to crack the whip to make my children learn and we don’t spend time arguing over education. Like all families there are days when someone feels a bit out of sorts, but generally we live without conflict. And it is not because I take the path of least resistance, that I just let my children run free and do what they like. No. I am not being a lazy mother. I think our peaceful and joyful days come as a result of listening to each other, respecting each other and trusting: trusting our children, trusting ourselves and trusting God.
So thank you Suzie for writing your book. You have given me the confidence to listen to my children, my own heart and God, and to continue ‘doing our own thing’.
I haven’t done justice to Suzie’s book. There is so much wisdom contained within its pages and I hope to explore it further in future posts. But nothing will replace reading Suzie’s own words, and pondering the whole book.
Do you ever go back and read old posts you’ve written? I occasionally do. And sometimes I find that I have learnt even more since I wrote a particular story. With experience, and the opportunity to ponder ideas further, I sometimes want to go back and adjust what I’ve written. I think this is only natural. Homeschooling and parenting are never stagnant. We are always learning.
What would I change about this post? I don’t think there is any need for me to insist my children are respectful and helpful. Unschooling eventually spilt over into our parenting, and we realised that unconditional love, strong bonds of connection, a good example, and trust encourage our kids to grow into considerate and virtuous people. And I don’t need to ‘teach’ my children the faith. I have discovered these can be approached in an unschooling way, just like everything else. Have I confused you? Perhaps you’d like to read some of my later posts to see what I mean!