Getting Out of Their Way
by Alison McKee
Recently my husband and I were in the position of providing temporary housing for a young man who was trying to make the decision about whether or not to continue his college education. He had graduated in June, from a public school in his home town. The school was an accredited alternative school which provides education for children from kindergarten through their senior year. Our houseguest had been in attendance at the school since kindergarten. There, he had developed a love of learning that I felt was unequaled by most traditionally-schooled children. In fact, he reminded me of my own unschooled childrenís love of learning, and I was delighted that a public school had been able to educate a young person without dampening that love. In my experience, it is rare that children can graduate from a traditional educational institution and still feel connected to the joys that life-long learning can provide.
As this young man grappled with the decision of whether or not to continue his education, I couldnít help but wonder why. From discussions with him, I had gleaned that his schooling was, in some ways, similar to my own childrenís unschooling experiences. He had supportive teachers, was able to learn at his own pace, and was encouraged to explore his interests. The only significant difference between these experiences and my childrenís was that my children used adults in our community as their teachers, not certified personnel. This young manís school had been able to avoid the standardized testing routines that are be so frequently administered now that we have "No Child Left Behind" laws in place -- another similarity to my childrenís learning experience. Why then, with such a supportive learning environment, was this young man floundering in college? One of my sisters, an unschooling parent herself, asked me the same question. "Alison, your kids never did traditional school work like this boy, and yet they both managed to do well when they left home for college. What was different for them?" Youíd expect, if you pay attention to what educational institutions say about their ability to prepare children for college and work, that school would have better prepared this boy for greater success, yet it hadnít. Indeed, traditional schooling is failing to prepare many children, like him, for the rigors of college or life beyond the nest. We must ask ourselves "Why do some kids succeed with relative ease, while others donít?" These are good and yet difficult questions to be asking ourselves, particularly when we choose to homeschool our own children.
As parents who made the choice to homeschool, before homeschooling became such a common practice, and particularly because we chose to unschool, my husband and I developed the habit of asking ourselves just such difficult questions. When we considered questions about whether or not our children would be able to weather the rigors of their future adult lives, we always looked at our circumstances from the perspective of "real life" situations. Could it have been our unschooling outlook that has allowed our children to move beyond the nest with relative ease, that has made a real difference in their lives? Iím not sure and yet I do know that the young man who came to live with us had grown up in an environment that was artificially constructed. By this I mean, institutionally educated. Although that institution provided him with opportunity to
learn about things he wanted to learn, he was only able to choose to learn things that fit within the framework of what the teachers were willing to allow. He was required, through paper writing or projects, to demonstrate mastery of certain benchmark skills before moving on. At the end of his educational journey, marked by having spent the required number of years in school and attaining the age of eighteen, he was granted a diploma. As he described the situation, I realized that he rarely had to make choices about his learning that were not related to some pre-set framework or plan of action. What he found to be most overwhelming, when he got to college, was that he was suddenly put in charge of making personal decisions about how to continue learning and living without the familiar comforts of a pre-existing framework. He no longer had parents or teachers to help him when the going got rough and he had no idea about how to access the assistance he needed when things began to fall apart for him. This young man was truly adrift and had no sense about how to anchor himself so that he could succeed in his quest to become an independent young adult.
From the earliest of ages right up until they are ready to leave home, unschoolers have an abundance of opportunity to develop skills of independence. These opportunities are developmentally suited to each individual and often have no resemblance to adult pre-conceived notions about how children become independent individuals. Most frequently, parents base their ideas of how to help their children become independent on institutionally focused guidelines rather than allowing a childís individual developmental process set the course. There are many ways that this can happen. As parents, we need to be vigilant with ourselves. We need to get out of the way and allow our children to experience the natural consequences of living in a world which is ever-changing, demanding and often a bit hostile. If we can do this, our children will be ready to maneuver the transitions to adult independence with grace. The question is then, "How do we get ourselves out of the way so that this process can unfold?"
In order to be able to begin the process of dissecting this question we need to focus on the broadest notions of what functional adults look like. Most of us would agree that they need to be self-supporting. If this is the underlying goal, then we must look at the skills one must develop in order to be able to achieve this milestone. I can think of a few characteristics a self-supporting individual must have. In no particular order, self-supporting individuals must be able to problem-solve, work with others, make good decisions, handle discomfort, and know when to seek the support of others. This list is nowhere near complete but it gives me a place to start the process of trying to explain how we might try to foster the skills of independence. The only thing missing is a situational context. For that I shall draw upon my own experience as a parent. Iíll use my daughter as a case in point.
Georgina has always been a very independent individual, never following traditionally-expected paths through life. As such, she was the child we often worried about. Our concerns had to do with the fact that, in our opinion, she might have great difficulty becoming an independent adult. She was after all, the child who indulged in childhood play well beyond the normal limits. She, unlike her older brother, was relatively uninterested in learning anything traditional. Her major gifts seemed to be expressive, she had a magnetic personality and tons of physical energy, not to mention her ability to perform theatrically and musically. As parents well-versed in traditional notions of what makes a successful adult, we were worried for this free-spirited child. Georgina was well aware of our worries and even said to us, at one time, "I want to do things my own way." This declaration of independence forced us to sit back and let her take hold of her own life. This was difficult to do and yet, thankfully, we had no choice in the matter. We had to learn to accept that she was going to learn more about becoming an independent adult through her own declaration of freedom than through our need to protect her from that freedom. Over and over again, we were forced to recognize that there are many paths to success, and our daughter was choosing her own path. Never would she allow parental or institutional notions of living and learning get in her way! We learned to live with this. For her part, she learned from her own mistakes about good and bad decisions. Much to our surprise, many decisions that we would have dismissed as poor choices, worked to her benefit. When they did not, we tried our best not to overreact with the typical, "I told you so." We needed Georgina to learn from her own experience of the world rather than focusing on our reactions to her experiences. If we could not do this, she might end up living with us indefinitely. She had to learn from experience, unpleasant or not, how to survive on her own. She was a child we could easily have labeled hyper-active and maybe even learning disabled. What good would that have done, though? She is the vibrant person she is and she had to learn to turn that personality into an asset rather than experience it as a disability. In so doing, she has managed to become a highly-talented actress. By allowing this child to forge her own way, via many unconventional paths, she has become an independent adult. Along the way she has learned to solve her own problems, work with others, make good decisions, handle the discomforts of life and is able to support herself while pursuing her acting career.
So, what did my husband and I learn from raising this unschooled child that might help you raise independent children? There seem to be no specifics other than to be true to the great unschooling premise: Follow the learner. Our children will teach us this lesson over and over again, if we just let them. From them we can learn how important it is to let go and let the natural developmental process unfold. Lives lived in the heart of oneís community, rather than framed by the constraints of curriculum, allow children to experience the natural consequences of their own actions, thus gently readying them to become survivors. As Georginaís declaration of independence implied, she didnít want to be over-protected. She wanted to experience life on her own terms and learn from that experience. She needed us to get out of her way. A.Mc.
Alison McKee is a homeschooling mom of two grown children. She is also the author of "Homeschooling Our Children Unschooling Ourselves" published by Bittersweet House. You can write to her at email@example.com. Please see her ad on p. 17.
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