by Alison McKee
Although I was unaware of it at the time, my life as a homeschooling parent began on income tax day in 1978. That was the day our son, Christian, was born. I knew nothing about homeschooling then. I was a teacher, glad to be able to take an extended maternity leave. Soon after that, without realizing it, David and I made our preliminary commitment to homeschooling. We decided David was going to be our stay-at-home parent when I went back to work in the fall. We didn't realize it at the time, but our commitment to home care rather than day care was a milestone event.
Two years later, I heard about homeschooling. Actually it was unschooling that I was hearing about, but because it was taking place in homes, it was called homeschooling. Almost immediately I knew this was for our family. As is often the case, I was the parent who had to convince my husband that unschooling would be a worthwhile endeavor to pursue. It didn't take much to convince him. He understood that by keeping Christian home from school, Christian would have a richer and more interesting life. Milestone two had been reached.For the next few years, we anxiously looked forward to becoming "real" homeschoolers; i.e., when Christian became "school" age. Christian was at home with us most of the time. Not yet realizing that we were already unschooling, I continued to wait to get started. I was anxious to see how homeschooling would play out. Would Christian be different from his schooled peers? At that time, literature about homeschooled children was hard to come by, but Growing Without Schooling magazine, Nancy Wallace's book Better Than School, and the story of the Colfax family (Hard Times in Paradise by David and Micki Colfax) led me to believe that homeschooled children would be self-directed, dedicated learners who found specialized interests which carried them forward into a world of highly-developed, creative study. I couldn't help but wonder about this for Christian. From what I was reading, this positive outcome seemed to be inevitable. As we waited to "start," Georgina was born and my questions about life to come continued to percolate to the surface. I wanted kids who were better socialized than their peers, I wanted kids who had driving passions, and I wanted kids who were academically better off. I had this mystical belief that somehow, on the day our son and daughter became school age, they would begin to be the children that homeschooling magazines spoke of. I waited, day by day, for the beginning.
Unexpectedly, our beginning came and went without much hoopla. We were in the midst of packing to move from Minnesota to Wisconsin on the day Christian should have turned up for his first kindergarten class. I don't even remember what the day was like. I don't remember thinking that our homeschooling venture really began until we got to Madison in mid-September, 1983. In my mind, our "first day" began on the Monday after our arrival in Madison. Nothing remarkable happened. We went for a walk together to explore the neighborhood, met a new friend, had lunch, went through our nap and quiet time routines, and welcomed David home at the end of the day. Somehow, though, I felt as though this was The Beginning.During the course of the next few months, I was actively involved with the legislative process of writing and passing a decent homeschooling law for Wisconsin homeschoolers. The kids were part of this. Sometimes I found myself smugly thinking that Christian's experiences at the capitol were providing him with a better learning opportunity than any kindergarten classroom could. While this may have been true, I was still waiting for the magical change in my child that would mark him as different, even better, than all the other kids who were in school. It didn't seem to be coming about. Christian and Georgina were simply kids enjoying life. There was no burning interest that seemed to drive their daily routines, and, academically, Christian was an average five-year-old with some interest in learning to read. I continued to look for the signs that unschooling was really under-way.
Soon Georgina was school age, and still no real changes in the way my kids lived their lives were evident. David and I had introduced a little academic instruction, but otherwise, Christian and Georgina were entirely on their own to do as they pleased. And do as they please they did. That thing called "unschooling" that I continued to look for was still too illusive for me to recognize. You see, my definition of unschooling was based on a traditional, school-based model of learning. I was expecting unschooling to look like "school without walls." Part of me expected my children to find a textbook and study from it or come to me and ask to be assigned some other form of school work. Slowly, ever so slowly, I began to understand that any term, "unschooling" or "homeschooling," simply labeled children's lives in the institutional terms of school. The magical changes that I had expected of my children would never come about. School, as I knew it, was something they'd never experienced, so how could they possibly "do school?" With the exception of small bits of reading and math instruction, our children had never been stuffed into the educational box from which they were going to emerge like some butterfly. They were simply living their lives and becoming well-rounded individuals as they did so. Somewhere around 1987, I reached, without realizing it, another homeschooling milestone. It dawned on me that, for my children, homeschooling didn't really exist because schooling, as most of us understand it, had no concrete meaning for them.With this understanding a huge weight seemed to be lifted from my chest. I'd spent years waiting for the sign that unschooling was really happening, because I was anxious to see who my kids would be. Now I only needed to look at them, without the labels, and see that they were who they were: Christian and Georgina. Christian, at that time, was a boy who enjoyed, among other things, reading, singing, and some special friendships. Georgina was a girl who liked to be read to, had an unlimited imagination, was highly energetic, and loved animals. During their early years at home, Christian and Georgina were nothing more nor less than this. So, the magical change that I had been looking for in them took place in me instead. I'd started to learn to live without the labels and expectations I was hoping would define my children.
As I was learning to accept life without school on its own terms, David was making his own adjustments to the fact that his children were not at school. David was, at that time, the out-of-home breadwinner. I was diligent about keeping him abreast of our activities. We shared our concerns with one another. When I had rough days, David was able to help me work through my doubts. When he had rough days, I was able to do the same for him. One time, though, David allowed himself to get back into the familiar educational box and said, "Homeschooling is fine for this age, but not for high school." This shocked me, but I put the comment aside, knowing that high school was six years down the road.Five years later, I understood how blessed I was. David had supported my proposal to unschool our children unconditionally. Between the time he had voiced concern about keeping the children home during the high school years and the year that Christian should have gone to high school, our family went through many changes. As was expected, the children became more independent and were beginning to find ways to focus their energy. At the time, neither child had an all-consuming passion that occupied his and her every breathing moment, but it was quite obvious that they were happy, capable individuals. They were involved in community activities that brought them pleasure, and their lives were real; that is, they were not being forced to frame their days around meaningless academic studies. Through this process, David saw his children bloom and become interesting individuals who had no need for what high school might offer. They were competent individuals who had not had their lives sequestered into the standard educational box which may have limited their abilities. They could perform some standard academic tasks but were more interested in living their lives in the larger community. David saw this, knew it in his heart, and never mentioned high school again. So we'd passed yet another homeschooling milestone. By observing our children's well-lived lives, we'd embraced them as they were, not as school might form them to be.
Throughout our homeschooling years, there were many ups and downs. Like most parents, we had moments of doubt and concern. These moments arose when life seemed to be full of bumps in the road rather than smooth sailing. At these times we carefully considered our options: School, homeschooling with a traditional curriculum or unschooling. We always chose unschooling. It seemed to serve Christian's and Georgina's best interests and it seemed to offer the best opportunities for them to make a smooth transition from home into the world of their adult lives. Today I am aware that occasional worries about our children still surface. Now that they are adults, we have a different perspective on their unschooled lives. We see that the ups and downs of their unschooling experience prepared them well to handle the ups and downs that real life brings. Both children made the decision to go to college and easily adjusted to that life. Since graduating, Christian has been able to make significant occupational transitions and move about the country with ease. Georgina, still in school, has earned a scholarship for her program based upon hard work and her contributions to her department. She has created a strong support network among her peers. Both children have much ahead, and because their unschooled lives let them learn how to learn, ask questions and make decisions for themselves, we are confident they will continue to do well in this complex world.
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