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Unschooling Ourselves: Car Seats and Unschooling

by Alison McKee

Alison McKee
Alison McKee

My husband and I, along with our children, used to make annual treks to Colorado and California to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Since we always drove, we developed a list of favorite places to stay. One was Yellowstone. During the day, the four of us saw the sights, swam, and enjoyed leisurely time at our camp site. In the early evening, Christian and David (my son and husband, respectively) could fish to their hearts content while Georgina and I enjoyed programs put on by park naturalists. Once, my sister, Janet, her husband, Mark, and their two children joined us at our Yellowstone stop-over. Since Janet’s children were quite young (one still in diapers, the other a very energetic four-year-old) she and Mark decided to stay in a motel in West Yellowstone. We camped nearby. During the day, the cousins cavorted at our campsite while the adults visited and kept an eye on the young ones.

Alice, my sister’s one-year-old, and Jacob, the four-year-old, were entertained by our two children, then twelve and sixteen. As Georgina and Christian played with Jacob and Alice they were delighted. They were having fun watching their young cousins experience the joy of doing things for the first time: Wade in the cold waters of the Madison River and see bison and moose. Alice was learning to walk then too. One afternoon, during the younger children’s nap time, Georgina asked if she could visit the folks in the campsite next to ours. We had noticed the family: A mom, dad and two kids about the same age as Alice and Jacob, and figured there would be no harm in Georgina’s visiting them. With an OK from us, our social butterfly took off. Christian remained behind to tie flies and talk with the adults. Eventually, Georgina rejoined us.

Georgina seemed concerned. We could hear it in her voice, “Do you know that their baby is as old as Alice and just started to sit up last month?” This concerned me a bit, but I told her that all kids grow and mature at different rates. Over the course of the next few days, Janet and I began to notice what we thought were pretty significant developmental differences between Alice and the little boy next door. What caught our attention most significantly, was the amount of time this baby spent in his car seat, sometimes three or more hours at a time, according to our observations. During this time Janet regaled me with all that she’d read about some of the developmental delays that seem to be appearing due to significant amounts of time children are spending in car seats. She told me how babies, left to do push-ups on the floor in a effort to see what is around them, develop upper arm and neck strength while remaining flexible in their spine. Many “car seat babies” don’t get the opportunity to develop this arm and neck strength, let alone maintain flexibility. She also told me that many “car seat babies” are slow to learn to walk, not because they spend so much time in their car seats, but because their brains don’t get the opportunity to develop a sense of balance. Evidently children who are carried about, learn to balance and re-balance themselves, in the gentle embrace of adult arms who hold them as they are shifted from hip to hip, or when they lean from side to side to peer out into the world beyond them. The shifting and leaning that takes place while babies are being held help promote the development of neurological connections necessary for sustaining balance that will be needed later when they begin walking. She mentioned other things that I have since forgotten. Never the less, I was excited to see Catherine McKenzie’s recent Mothering magazine article on this very subject.

I always remembered what Janet had told me, so I read the Mothering article with great interest. Although Catherine McKenzie didn’t write about things my sister mentioned, I couldn’t help but see a connection between car seat babies/held babies and schooling/unschooling. The issues may seem completely unrelated and yet, in my unschooled mind, they go hand-in-hand. You see, I agree with what my sister was telling me: Artificial support has a negative affect on natural developmental processes. If we consider traditional schooling to be a form of “artificial support,” and are conversant with unschooling philosophy, it is not a far leap to make the connection between traditional schooling practices and delayed learning experiences.

My history with unschooling and raising unschooled kids goes back thirty years. In those thirty years, I have seen more connection between traditional schooling and how it has hindered the learning of our children than I care to mention. On the other hand, when I’ve looked at unschooled kids, over the same period of time, I continue to be struck by how well they are fairing in this complex world. The artificial support that traditional schooling methods provide, whether in a school or homeschool setting, are much like the car seat a baby may spend hours sitting in. The baby is nestled in a car seat with a view of the world it cannot touch or manipulate and therefore only gains a limited understanding of. When that baby is set free, it often lacks some of the fundamental understandings of the world it needs in order to function in it.

School, and the traditional methods used in school, are much like the car seat. Traditional schooling limits a child’s ability to explore the world, ask questions of it, and manipulate it. Even the most innovative curriculum limits a child. How? It does so by providing a preconceived plan for learning about a limited number of subjects which educators deem important for children to learn. In my opinion, anything that is preconceived, is limited in its scope as far as the learner is concerned. The definition of the word tells us so: Formed before having evidence for its truth or usefulness. Generally speaking, experience tells me that curriculum, even the most innovative and unique, has its limits for individual learners. No matter how well written, a curriculum will define limits for the learner, whether through the scope and sequence of its lessons or via the tests and evaluations it suggests we provide. How can it be otherwise? Children subjected to this sort of learning regimen soon intuit the limits set upon them and function accordingly. Reading the almost imperceptible cues given by teacher/tutor/materials they begin to fashion their responses to the curriculum/teacher/tutor/ accordingly. Like the child propped up in a car seat who has learned the limits of the safety belt, the child working with a curriculum, and being directed to do so by others, soon learns the limits of what is safe to conjecture and stays well within them.

I was never the perfect unschooling parent, and when I failed to be true to the tenets of the unschooled philosophy, I often found myself being slapped in the face by my foolishness. When Christian and Georgina were small, and I lapsed into my fear that they could never make it in the world unless they learned this or that specific thing, I’d resort to traditional schooling methods in order to assuage my fear. Often they’d call me on it immediately, “Mom this is really stupid, why do I have to do it,” or their piercing whine would tell me I’d over-stepped my bounds. Like the child who cries from the car seat to be free to move about, my children’s curiosity hated being sequestered by my personal notions of what was important for them to learn. As soon as I’d loosen the grip on my expectations regarding what was necessary/safe to learn, I’d see the foolishness of my ways. In my wildest dreams, could I have ever conceived of a child wanting to be a radio engineer? No, because I never really knew that such a job existed. Could I have imagined that a child who struggled to learn to read, would learn to read well and come to love Shakespeare at age twelve? The answer again is “No,” because the unspoken lesson of my schooling taught me that children who have trouble learning to read never enjoy reading, and since I really disliked Shakespeare, trouble with reading and disliking Shakespeare seemed to be a foregone conclusion. My daughter, thank heaven, broke free of the “car seated” education I was trying to provide for her. She fell in love with spoken expression and eventually acting, and then Shakespeare, on her way to becoming a good reader. Nothing in all my educational experience allowed me to imagine that this is the way learning to read could unfold. I’d been educated to believe that mastery of reading came before enjoying Shakespeare and that one encountered Shakespeare through high school English classes, not acting classes. My limits had been set by my traditional knowledge of how learning takes place, while Georgina’s opportunity to explore and encounter the world as it presented itself to her, in response to her unique interactions with it, set her in better stead to pursue her life as an actress than I could have ever imagined.

Today when I see children being carried about in car seats I wonder how the restraint of that seat will limit their physical interactions with the world about them and how that may affect their unique development. My feelings about standardized curriculum are the same. How does it affect a child’s unique intellectual, emotional and moral development? When I see small children being carried in the arms of their parents, I wonder how their unique positioning is affecting their development and I think about unschooling. Unschooling sets children free, free of the car seat of standardized curriculum, to explore the world in ways unimaginable. — A. McK ■