Growing into unschooling can be a bumpy, painful and lonely journey. It might surprise those new to the concept of unschooling, to hear that developing a life wholly based in freedom, trust and fun, often includes times of deep angst, shame and fear. Yet a majority of new unschoolers do describe their transition into unschooling as a very painful process, and even seasoned unschoolers experience times that are far from easy or carefree. Even with a vision of the peace and joy that unschooling offers, the struggle to get there can, at times, feel like too great a burden to endure. What can unschoolers do to manage and ease the painful times that seem to be an inherent part of manifesting this new way of life?
One way to describe the philosophy of unschooling is living as if human beings are already perfect. This is a radical concept, and for most of us, a dramatic reversal of what we’ve always thought about ourselves, our children and about humanity. The pervasive unconscious assumption about human beings, expressed overwhelmingly in our collective beliefs, is that we are naturally bad, lazy and dumb. These beliefs are responsible for most people’s approach toward children, thinking that they must be forced to learn, forced to be productive, and forced to be good. Healing this paradigm requires a deep shift in one’s psyche. Moving toward a place of trust in and respect for the inner selves of our children (not to mention of ourselves, and of all people) is usually uncomfortable, and it often takes longer than we’d like to fully arrive in a life of relaxed peace and fun.
Another way to describe unschooling is as a continual exploration into who we are and what we want. This unfolding is what unschooling families want for their children, but most adults haven’t had the opportunity to develop this in ourselves, and we may not be familiar or comfortable with the path from here to there. I imagine that for people who were always unschooled in a loving and supportive environment, this self-awareness and acceptance comes easily and naturally. Unfortunately most of us have not been this lucky, and we have spent many years focusing on who we are not, trying to become “better”, without much attention (if any) given to what we deeply want or who we really are.
In order to turn this upside-down, inside-out world right-side up for our children, we have to do it for ourselves at the same time. Their journey is our journey, and ours is theirs. As adults and as parents, staying with the intention of discovering who we truly are and what we truly want, requires an ongoing emotional process of uncovering the shame, fear and judgment that we have internalized and lived from for much of our lives. It is no wonder that society parks children in schools, protecting ourselves from having to deal with this painful reality head-on.
Most of us have believed for as long as we can remember that we are imperfect, that there are things we must change about ourselves, and that the goal of living is to improve. When we were children this “improvement” program was nearly constantly enforced and monitored by our parents, teachers, ministers, and other authority figures. By the time we reached adulthood most of us had accepted this version of reality, and had become expert at constantly evaluating ourselves and finding ourselves lacking. Although it isn’t fun for anyone, most people still manage to go through their entire lives thinking they are fundamentally incomplete and flawed, and believing that they must struggle in order for their lives to be of any real value. Giving our children the freedom and encouragement to be their true selves will likely illuminate our own lack of freedom and self-acceptance, which can leave us confused and floundering in the discomfort of it all.
It is common to interpret pain as a sign that something is wrong. Sometimes this interpretation is helpful, such as when one puts a hand into the fire. On the other hand, there is the pain of childbirth which, when resisted, impedes the good and natural process that is underway. Midwives support and encourage laboring women though the difficulties of birth, with the awareness that going with the flow of the pain, rather than working against it, will bring both the mother and the baby through with less struggle and more ease. Because unschooling is so rare, we do not have exposure to, nor a collective understanding of, the sometimes severe discomfort that most new unschoolers experience, and the doubts and fears that come back to haunt us periodically along the unschooling journey. Many of us have to go through these painful times alone, without midwives holding our hands.
In my first year of unschooling, although I was familiar with homeschooling, I didn’t know that something called “unschooling” existed. I had been going through what I had initially labeled my “midlife crisis” (I later saw things differently and called it my “midlife emergence”.) In light of all I was going through, I decided that I and my two daughters (8 and 10 at the time) would take a year off from life as we knew it, live as if we were perfect, and discover who we truly are. We called it “Essential Self School.” It was exciting and terrifying, and brought up lots of difficult feelings for me. Since I had no idea that unschooling existed in anyone’s head but mine, it couldn’t occur to me to find other unschoolers for encouragement, information and support. I didn’t even know anyone who schooled-at-home. In this adventure, I was on my own.
But not really. I have spent my life consciously surrounding myself with loving and supportive friends, who have been with me though the ups and downs of life. I call these women my “lollies” (they are as good as candy), and they have provided me with a large and wonderful sisterhood. Although they didn’t personally relate to the “Essential Self School” that I was doing, they knew and loved me, and as always, supported my inner journey towards happiness and peace. I asked these women to be my midwives.
In this first year of unschooling, I felt a huge range of difficult feelings- fear, sadness, annoyance, overwhelm, embarrassment – you name it. I would call one of my lollies and ask her to hold me (metaphorically or literally) while I cried. My lollies knew that I was on the right journey for me, and didn’t question my decisions or my request for support. They listened to me without judgment. They reminded me to breathe. They showed me that they loved me. Their enfolding presence helped me to be more in touch with who I am and what I want. Through this messy and unpredictable process, several magical things happened, but the most notable and exciting was an amazing new sense of fun, freedom, and peace for me and my children. Eventually, when I was describing this adventure to someone I met on a bus, he asked if we were “unschoolers.” I had never heard the word before, but as soon as I heard it I knew the answer was yes.
Since then I have seen many unschooling families attest to the kind of freedom, love and joy that I had been discovering. I have also heard many deschoolers and unschoolers express countless forms of fear, doubt, panic, anger, judgment, embarrassment, despair, concern and other painful feelings. I now see this as an unavoidable part of the process. When “becoming an unschooler” is realized as “re-evaluating everything that you thought it meant to be alive,” it becomes easier to understand why it feels at times so impossible and overwhelming. Since we are so vastly in the minority, unschoolers can be easily and often tempted to doubt the wisdom of trusting human beings. Not only do we lack role models and strong support systems, we also can find ourselves the unlucky recipients of other people’s fear and judgment as well. Whatever our own negative thoughts may be, there is always someone “out there” who is more than happy to give validity and voice to them. For many unschoolers this makes the process even more painful and isolating.
As with a birth, there is a lot we can learn about unschooling – new ideas, practical suggestions, philosophical background, and so on. All of this intellectual information can help women immensely. But when the real labor pain comes, the “facts” of the situation are of little help when compared with the midwife who looks us in the eyes, wipes our brow, holds our hand, and guides us to be consciously with the pain. The skills we gained in birthing our children can be used when we’re giving spiritual birth to our own and our children’s inner selves. When we need to, we can hold our midwife’s hands, cry our tears, and remember to breathe.
Taking time to breathe is crucial, as both a regular practice and an emergency measure. Conscious breathing can bring immediate physical and emotional relief, by relaxing our bodies and our minds, and bringing us back into the present moment. In this centered and calm place, we can reconnect again with our inner selves and our deeper wants. From this place we can remember our and our children’s perfection, no matter how confusing or messy the outer circumstances seem to be.
As I’ve trained myself to breathe more consciously and to release my own emotional pain, I’ve also found it useful to reward myself by indulging in the things that bring me pleasure: a short nap, a bath, a favorite snack, yoga, or sitting in the sun for a while. As I’ve treated myself with an abundance of love and compassion, I’ve grown better at trusting my children and treating them the same way. By following my heart and relaxing into my own perfection, I create an environment in which it is safe for my children to become who they really are.
Because most of us are accustomed to thinking that our desires and pleasures are suspicious (at best), this process does not usually come naturally. Just as a deschooling child may alternately binge on or refuse certain foods or activities, deschooling parents usually discover that their own natural instincts have been severely compromised. We might not know how to indulge ourselves; we might not know what we really want. It takes time. Giving ourselves the space to flounder will help remind us that our children need time and space to flounder as well, and we can lessen the discomfort by increasing our and our children’s pleasure as much as possible along the way.
Most importantly, wherever you can, find people to be with you in this journey. Consider seeking a therapist, counselor, or life-coach who is on a continuing personal healing journey, and who is comfortable with the approach to life that unschooling expresses. Some peer-counseling techniques and practices (e.g. Re-evaluation counseling, and others) can be a wonderful and inexpensive way to learn to become fluent with difficult emotions, and can help you to build a network of support and compassion. Find people who believe in you- friends, siblings, parents, or other unschooling parents. Tell them of your desire to unschool, and ask them to support you in the confusion and difficulty of it. We don’t have official unschooling midwives, so we need to train our birthing support team ourselves. Warn them that unschooling may look too hard, but that, as with childbirth, this is to be expected. It does not mean that you have made the wrong choices. It simply means that you have taken on a very big project, that is going to take awhile and is going to involve some pain.
We cannot fully trust others when we do not fully trust ourselves. The process of learning to trust ourselves is a long and bumpy road, and those of us who have chosen to traverse it need tender loving care along the way. This tenderness not only smoothes the way for unschooling, but also moves everyone further along toward a more happy and peaceful planet. A world that honors, respects and trusts people of all ages would be one well worth living in, and I deeply appreciate those who are willing to face the pain and uncertainty necessary for birthing it.
This article was previously published in Life Learning Magazine (May/June 2006)