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Mary Leppert Interview with Unschooler, Barb Lundgren

by Mary and Michael Leppert

(Excerpted from The Homeschooling Almanac 2002-2003, by Mary and Michael Leppert, published by Prima Publishing, a division of Random House)

Barb, a veteran homeschool mother, has a fearless attitude about parenting or at least she doesn't show any fear. Her confidence and strength come through when you talk to her and seem to pass to others through osmosis. Married and the mother of three, Barb is a leader in the homeschooling community of the state of Texas and is the founder of the annual Mindful Conference, which focuses on deeper issues than the actual "school" of homeschooling. A radical unschooler, Barb homeschools her children with almost total freedom. Her first influences in homeschooling were the late John Holt and the now-defunct Growing Without Schooling Magazine. I conducted this interview in 1998.

Q: Mary Leppert: What are the ages of your children?

A: Barb Lundgren: They are 16,14, and 10.

Q: What made you decide to homeschool?

A: Having a home birth. I planned a home birth while enmeshed in mainstream culture, which is where I was, with a full-time university contract in St. Louis, Missouri. Midwifery is illegal in Missouri, so I had to hire a doctor. As much as I tried to educate myself about home birthing and what could happen, I had a long labor (a pretty scary process); but once it was over, I was profoundly struck with the natural power of it all. Moments after that -- like a lightning bolt -- I was forced, almost in an organic way, to say, "If they were wrong about birth, what else are they wrong about?" "They" being all the nay-saying friends and professionals I'd consulted during my pregnancy, all of whom were saying I was crazy, careless, or both for attempting to home birth.

Q: Were you the sort of person who always listened to your intuition?

A: No. I had to train myself. Possibly when I was a teenager I was more in touch with myself. However, I lived in a world that did not support intuition -- a typical world of church officials, teachers, and parents who want you to check all the right boxes, their boxes. The boxes they think are important have titles like "Take this course," "Get this Degree," "Mind your manners," and "Do as you're told."

Q: What was school like for you?

A: I was brought up in public school just outside of Chicago, Illinois. I never remember liking anything about school. At times I really dreaded it. My mother tells me I would cry before I had to go to school in first grade. I was extremely shy, all the way through high school. I'm not anymore.

Q: So you decided you would homeschool?

A: It wasn't that I decided I was going to homeschool. What I realized was that they were wrong about the birthing process and could be wrong about other things. So as I went along, I got grief about not vaccinating; lots of grief about extended, on-demand nursing; lots of grief about our family bed -- all the while being fully enraptured in all of this thinking. To have my first baby latched onto me for eight hours straight was not hard work; it was the natural order of things. I simply saw it as something he needed; it never occurred to me that something was wrong with it. Of course, it all segued into homeschooling because what I found in the birth process was that I had the ability to listen to my child. Because he was born at home, that connection between him and me was there, never broken. I was able to listen to what he needed from the first millisecond he was born and help him get it. Of course, I mean much more than listening to his voice. I mean watching his facial expressions, his gestures, his body posturing, and connecting with my intuition -- metaphysical forces that exist between mother and child.

Q: You are definitely an "unschooler"! What is your everyday life like?

A: Well, I did not start out as an unschooler. Because my first son was an early and articulate talker, I assumed he would read and become a good student early and easily. We had a very active lifestyle -- lots of traveling and visiting friends, visiting museums, zoos, plays, concerts. We also went to the library once or twice a week. We had the typical, active life of any homeschool family. I thought that when he was six years old, we would sit down and start doing schoolwork, which back then was still pretty much my idea of education. When I tried to introduce formal structure in his learning, he laughed at me. As I think back on it now, I'm sure I was a little offended because I thought this was the way it was going to work. I bought this "stuff" for learning letters and practicing writing and doing workbooks, and we would do it. He looked at it like, "this looks like garbage. Why on earth would I want to sit and do this?" So we did not struggle with it very long. The turning point for me was when I had to say, "What are we going to do, then?" I can't force him to do this just because I'm the mother.

Q: What did you do then? Dive deeper into John Holt?

A: Yes, I started to piece together complex questions -- What is education? What is parenting? What makes a good parent, a bad parent? What is happiness? How do our kids get it? What are the components of good character? What creates a good quality of life? Through that much more complicated process of thinking and doing lots of reading of all kinds, and talking to people and observing them, I really began to feel comfortable with not the dogma of unschooling, but simply taking the cues from my child. In today's vernacular, "unschooling" is the best word for that.

Q: Do you listen to your children 100 percent of the time?

A: What I try to do is listen to them 100 percent of the time, but that doesn't mean I always do what they say. The listening process opens up the whole complex array of questions, such as: How do you create a stimulating atmosphere or environment that causes all those who live in that environment to want to "learn" (a silly word). What is and how do we create an environment, a home, community that stimulates our children to feel happy and productive? What is responsibility--something we teach, something we take away, or something they learn on their own?

Q: Have you found the answers to those questions?

A: I don't think I'll feel like I have conclusive answers until my kids are in their 30s, and maybe not even then. In fact, I'm not sure "answers" are the goal. But I've been experimenting enough that, yes, my two teens are extremely responsible, and more responsibility may come developmentally, with age. I see them taking on responsible roles in the world both within and outside our home through self-initiated interests. For example, I see their follow-through in both projects and work. I see them succeeding and being rewarded in "real world" opportunities, through jobs, volunteer opportunities, and friendship.

Q: So, you never force responsibility, never say: "You must do this at a certain time."

A: If they were on the verge of killing each other (and I really mean "killing" each other), then I would jump in. I make it a policy to bet involved in any disputes between my children unless they physically ask me to.

Q: You once mentioned that for a period your kids were sleeping until 1:00 in the afternoon and staying up almost all night.

A: Well, I didn't tell them they couldn't. I did say, "You know, I am really bummed by this schedule of yours. It just does not work for me to have you guys sleeping until 1:00 in the summer. If we want to do anything before it gets too hot, we need to be out of here by 9:00 in the morning!"

Q: Did they agree to what you wanted?

A: Yes. And that's closer to consensus, rather than dictatorial. They still had a choice and chose to give up the late-night experiment in deference to my unhappiness and my desire to spend time with them.

Q: So you're never dictatorial with the kids? You let them do -- within reason -- educationally and around the house whatever they want?

A: Definitely educationally (and everything is educational, right?). Clearly, I've learned to live with some chaos, commotion, and untidiness. I can let it drive me crazy or teach myself to adapt to the needs of my children. I've found almost no need to parent like a dictator. Instead, I've found that the more opportunities I give myself to challenge the traditional beliefs about children, the easier it is for all of us to live together.

Q: Getting back to the basics, how would you feel if your 15-year-old son couldn't read at all? Or if your kids never showed interest in the alphabet or learning?

A: I would be extremely nervous; but I was extremely nervous when they weren't reading weren't reading at age 6,7, or 8 (all three of my kids began reading at 9). I would say that having no interest in learning would be impossible in a home where the parents have written or printed material around. If you put a kid in a closet with a video game for his whole life, he'll probable never show an interest in reading. But if the child's parents read, write letters, receive letters, communicate with the written word, the child will want to emulate his or her role models.

Q: So you don't think a child should be forced to learn how to read -- or that it's even possible to force it?

A: Every situation is different. If I were helping someone figure out why their child wasn't reading, I would need to pick apart a lot of different variables -- developmental stages, learning environment, genetics, attitudes of the child and others around him, other interests, and so forth. I think it's really important for a parent, for example, to keep the TV off. If my kids knew I was watching soap operas while they're outside playing, it wouldn't make sense for me to say, " I don't want you watching TV because it isn't good for your brain." I would gibe up the television. My activities such as the reading and writing are examples, too. But on the other hand, I had to give up the idea that my kids would be like me.

Q: Were you hoping they would be?

A: I used to hope, even to believe, that they would adopt the same interests I have -- gardening, cooking, art, learning music, and enjoying lots of things that are natural interests to me. I just assumed that, because I was doing them, they would also do them; that did not happen. They develop interests of their own.

Q: What is the typical day like at your house?

A: It's different every day; we don't really have routines. I've found that the classes they take tend to be pretty short-lived because most are geared toward being extracurricular classes for public-school kids. They're treated like little subordinates. The things that work long-term for us are completely self-directed. My daughter is interested in reading, for instance. She reads all the time.

Q: What about writing? Do you make your kids write?

A: My kids have actually come to me and said things like, "I want to learn how to do cursive writing; will you make me do this until I learn it?" They knew it wasn't going to be much fun but they did want to learn and asked me to be the driving force behind their doing it. I did that for a time, until it became obvious I was the only one doing the work. When my son was in fifth grade, he really wanted to buy a curriculum. I couldn't talk him out of it, so we shopped around, picked one out, and bought it for around $300. Even though it was a nice selection of books, we could tell right away that it might not work. For example, all of the novels were ones he'd already read. He didn't want to do the science book because, he said, "These experiments are really stupid." When I asked, "What's stupid about them?" he said, "Well, they're so simple." I said, "How about picking an experiment out for the assignment and if you can predict the results and why it happened, then you don't have to do the experiment." So he would tell me, "Okay, this is what's going to happen and this is why it happened," just from living in the world and experimenting on his own terms.

Q: Did you do the rest of the curriculum?

A: No. I wanted him to do something like make a quilt. Now, he is just not the sort of person who would ever make a quilt. And some of the stuff seemed really boring -- very test-booky. He still very much wanted to do it, though, I think to show himself he could do it. But I found I was doing most so the work trying to get him to do it. At that point, someone called me right out of the blue and said, "I hear you have this fifth-grade curriculum you don't want; I'll pay you full price for it." I told my son, "Guess what, we can sell this curriculum and we haven't lost anything!" he said "No, I really want to do this." So I said, "The way it's been going so far, you're not very interested. If you decide to keep the curriculum, that's fine. I'm willing to pay for it. But, if you don't follow through, you have to pay me for it." We agreed that every week he didn't keep up with the curriculum, he would pay me $8, which was a lot of money for a 10-year-old. He wound up paying me for every penny of it from allowance, working, whatever. He paid me every week on his own accord.

Q: What did he ever say about it?

A: When the whole year was finally over, summertime had come, and we were talking about the future, he said, "You know, it probably makes more sense to do what I'm really interested in, instead of trying to force myself to do things that aren't very interesting."

Q: Why did he want to do a curriculum? Was it structure he wanted?

A: I don't think it was structure he wanted. His best friends were public schooled and . . . I'm sure you've run into this with some kids who come to your house and wind up so envious that your son is homeschooled, that they go home and ask their parents, "Can we homeschool?" Then the parents come up with all these weird reasons about why they can't homeschool. His best friends parents were saying, "Well, when Quinn does go to school, if he ever goes, he is going to have to start out as a kindergartner." That would always put their kids off wanting to be homeschooled. Even though he and the boy are still really good friends, this friend made my son feel insecure about how he fits in. He felt like, "Is he smarter than I am? Could I really do the work if I had to?"

Q: Why do you think most parents don't homeschool?

A: As popular as homeschooling is becoming, it will never appeal to Western civilization on a grand scale. Our culture has become inordinately focused on work to buy stuff, pay bills -- even though they all complain about it. Work outside the home has become far more important to many families than unpaid work at home. Many parents, too, simply don't enjoy the company of their children, which is certainly a requirement for homeschooling with any success. I believe that a major determinant to good health is psychological well-being, which is one reason I unschool. As I was dealing with the "happiness: issue--what makes a happy person, what's a good quality of life, what kind of environment do we need, what kind of messages do we need to hear -- everything pointed toward a child-led lifestyle. Everything pointed to, "We're born with wisdom, we're here to express it and get our needs met."

Q: Is your husband in favor of unschooling and homeschooling?

A: Yes, he is. He wasn't in the beginning and has never been one to read much about it, but I did the thinking, read the books, and told him about it. He has always been supportive of my ideas. He's very comfortable having me "do the homework" and recommend some action. Once in a while he gets nervous: One of our kids isn't reading, what if our teen doesn't do well on SAT, that sort of thing.

Q: What about academic excellence? Do you want your kids to be able to be excellent spellers or do math really well or be great writers?

A: I would love for all those things to be true, but I try consciously to separate the fantasies I have for my children from the fantasies they have for themselves. I think it's a parent's responsibility to present information, have intelligent conversations, and help the child see how the world works without too much bias. While I believe in expressing my opinions and beliefs, I also teach my children that they have an obligation to think things through on their own and come to their conclusions.

Q: How important is a homeschool (support) group in your life?

A: It's not very important to me now because my kids are older. Early on, however, the homeschool support group was integral to my succeeding. I very much needed to hear others' experience, bounce my ideas off other homeschoolers, make like-minded friends. To tell you the truth, I am not sure I could have been successful at homeschooling without a support group. I have found that homeschooled kids are quite different from "normal" kids. All ages and abilities can play and work together without prejudice. The degree of natural compatibility, the ability to cooperate and share that homeschooled children show, is remarkable. There are no words in our language to describe such children. They are different away from you than they are at home, and it's through their interactions with other people that you really step back and say, "Wow, these are really different kids." If I had to describe them, I guess "extraordinary" is the most useful nutshell sort of word. Extremely mature, responsible. Passionate, sensitive, careful, respectful. I would never use academic descriptions for my kids like "straight-A student," "good academically," or "college-bound." When I think about those phrases, I realize that I could describe almost no adults in that way. Before we end this interview, I want to tell you that my oldest son has enrolled in high school.

Q: How did that come about?

A: He just really wanted to go. I enrolled him in a little Jesuit school his first year, when he was 12. The classes were small, they didn't issue grades, and they were willing to enroll him despite his lack of prior formal instruction.

Q: Was he able to keep up with everything?

A: No. But he had no problem with some subjects because he liked them so much. For example, he really came to love classic literature that year. He still loves it, but the public school where he is now doesn't offer anything in classic lit. He made a lot of friends that first year, and even the older kids liked him because he was so different. I would say in terms of his academic work, even though they didn't issue grades, he probably succeeded with the equivalent of a C-average -- did enough and understood enough and kept up enough. But it was definitely a struggle because, until that point, there was no way I could find to manipulate his environment to get him interested in things like spelling, grammar, writing.

Q: So what happened when he went to public school?

A: He learned the ropes. He was interested in sports and computers and science, subjects that the Jesuit school wasn't offering. He went to the public school for his freshman year and did pretty well -- A's, B's and C's -- and figured out how the system works. This year, as a sophomore, he finds it quite easy to earn straight A's in algebra, chemistry, Spanish, anything he has taken. He gets all his homework done in school within the time they give him.

Q: Do you think he'll continue until he graduates?

A: I'm not sure. He was just asking me the other day if he could read the Encyclopedia Britannica and have that be his curriculum. And he is also talking about going to college. I have become comfortable with not needing to predict my children's futures. The best I can do for them comes one day at a time.

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