How unschooling helped me find more of myself this year

At the beginning of the pandemic, like many other home educators, I was asked to write to offer advice to everyone who now found themselves “homeschooling”. I turned down most requests partly because I felt overwhelmed at the time but also because I knew that what I could offer wasn’t what they were asking for. For the same reason, I found the memes about homeschool mums getting an upgrade to superhero status both amusing and a bit worrying. 

Without me consciously deciding to make it so, the goals have significantly shifted for us over the years that we’ve home educated. We aren’t trying to keep up with or outdo the school system. The way it measures worth has gradually become more and more irrelevant to us the more we’ve got to know our young people. They don’t need shaping; they need space to stretch out. 

So being asked “how can we keep children stimulated at home?” sort of flummoxed me. There are as many answers as there are young people. What does your child like to do? If they don’t know, do they need time and space to discover what they like to do? For a lot of us, growing up in an adultist society means that we don’t see the innate value in many of the things children choose to do with their time. We don’t even trust them to be able to make their own choices. The mental shift this requires is often called deschooling and it can be intense, long term work, which hardly felt likely to appeal to people who were essentially “crisis schooling”.

Yet this is what many families did with their time during lockdown. I learned masses from observing these parents online, releasing their grip on norms imposed by the school system. Some deregistered their children from schools, others didn’t – all of us had to find our way. That’s essentially why I didn’t feel that what I said would be of much interest to those asking because sure I could name the resources we found fun and helpful but mostly all I had to say was: Listen to and trust your children. Listen to and trust yourself.

Rather than being a home education sage for whom everything was all sewn up, the pandemic exposed places where I wasn’t yet doing this myself. There were places where I still wasn’t listening, still wasn’t trusting. Despite not having to do the school run, I was busy. Perhaps busier than I would have been had I been doing the school run. I was overcommitted in terms of activities the kids were doing outside the home. Every week was a juggle of arranging who we were going to see and which groups we were going to. All this while also freelancing, contributing to the farm, volunteering and on and on. And when we were home, there was always a to-do list of things I felt the kids should be doing. “We’ll just get this out of the way and then you can spend the rest of the day doing what you want.” There was no time to listen, let alone trust.

But I wouldn’t have said that back in March. I felt that we took things pretty easy and were pretty self-knowing. While I’m not grateful for the pandemic (too many people have died and too many have suffered), I can see that it makes sense for something of this enormity to seismically shift the remnants. Yes, the children needed the time and space to stretch out. So did I. And I probably need more of it because I’ve spent so many more years holding my breath. 

In the aloneness and slowness, I finally exhaled. I saw that a little bit of freedom wasn’t freedom. A little bit of consent didn’t make our life together consensual. Previously I’d jokingly called us classical unschoolers because we were semi-structured in our approach to home education, combining the classical method with lots of free time. But as I got more free, I got more angry and I saw that we deserved more. We deserved an education, a life together, that respected US, every one of us. I’ve written about why we actively chose unschooling for decolonisation and a little about what this shift has meant for homeschoolers who were already pretty relaxed.

Home education has never been just about our young people or just about academic learning. The way our culture narrowly defines and separates needs is problematic and part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in socially, medically, politically, spiritually. The choice to home educate led to us starting a farm two years ago so we could both share work and time with our children. Dreaming of more for them allowed us to dream about more for us. The opposite needed to happen now. To let go and learn how to more fully hold space for their growth, we needed to actively divest from systems that were restricting ours. Some of that has been incredibly painful and some has been surprisingly simple. 

For me, I’ve ended this year having walked away from some things, hit pause on others, opened up to new ideas and moved in closer with some people, even at a distance. I’m probably always going to be deschooling, asking why I’m thinking something or responding to something the way I am – and in many respects I was already doing that – but it’s been a year of highly accelerated growth. Yes, unschooling is a form of self directed education but I’m the one who’s most needed to find her deepest self. 

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