It seems most people who come to radical unschooling first adopt the educational philosophy and then gradually extend the freedom they give children in their education to include other aspects of life, such as chores, food limitations, and bedtimes. For myself, however, I did it the other way around. I first loved the respect shown to children in living consensually, but I had questions about allowing children to freely explore the world in place of curriculum, assignments, and tests.
I have already described in a previous post on the subject of radical unschooling how, after feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with my more conventional way of parenting, I prayed to Mary to help me become the mother my children needed me to be. The day after I prayed this I discovered whole life learning. Here, it seemed, was a parenting philosophy that was in line with my pro-life, pro-dignity beliefs. It doesn't make sense to me how people who talk about the inherent dignity of a person from the moment of conception, are sometimes those who are quite dismissive of the opinions and feelings of children, and can be quite strict and even harsh in dealing with them. Before discovering radical unschooling, my parenting style was strict and controlling. I thought I was doing things "for their own good" but now it seems to me what is in my children's best interests is for them to know that I have their best interests at heart. Learning to love a person in the way that they feel most loved can be a challenge, but it is necessary. We can love someone with our whole heart, but if we are not communicating that love in a way that they understand, it seems to do little good.
Furthermore, I realize now that a lot of the things that I said was for the good of my child, was really for my own convenience. I didn't feel like playing at the park any longer; I didn't feel like helping my daughter find a different outfit to put on that she would like better; I didn't feel like fulfilling her requests that were inconvenient to me, so I said no. Of course, when I am with my friends I like to take as much time as I need; if I wish to change my outfit, I can do so. But small children are not able to do many tasks by themselves and they rely on our help and on our patience in taking the time they need to explore and play (which is their work). How ironic that we expect children to learn to be patient and thoughtful, but we can so often be impatient and dismissive of their wants! I must be thoughtful my child's wants before I can expect her to be thoughtful of my own or anyone else's. I must be willing to change my schedule to accommodate her, before I can expect that she will stop doing what she is absorbed in to accommodate my needs. If children have equal dignity, then we should take their feelings seriously.
In regards to dignity, in some ways society is making progress. Society used to accept that beating a disobedient wife was acceptable and even necessary training. After all, she needed to learn how to obey. Luckily today we recognize domestic violence as a crime. Yet, when it comes to raising children, society still emphasizes obedience of children over the respect owed to them. I am certain of this: The smaller and more vulnerable a person is, the more careful others must be to respect that person's rights and uphold that person's dignity. I feel people must go out of their way to ensure that they never take advantage of a person's smallness or vulnerabilities, whether physical, intellectual, or emotional.
One value that I greatly respect in the radical unschooling ideology is not showing preference for one set of interests over others, for instance by showing approval for a child's interests in Shakespeare, but expressing disdain for his interest in video games. I feel doing so sends the message to the child that his interests aren't worthy (and therefore he himself is not worthy). I feel it also encourages the millions of ways that people invent to place distinctions among ourselves, to tier people into those deserving or undeserving, smart or dumb, valuable or expendable. I do not want to foster a competitive atmosphere where people bend themselves to fit the desired image so they can gain the admiration of others. Self esteem that comes from academic success (as mine did until about a year ago), money, beauty, or any achievement is based on a lie. I want my children's self worth to come from the unalterable fact of the Father's unconditional love for them and I want them to have the audacity to pursue the unique arrangement of talents and ways that they image God. ALL people are beautiful and amazing, and I hope we can grow as a society to appreciate the myriad ways that people are awesome.
People, children included, should be able to have their own thoughts and questions, and to pursue their curiosities, and to have such thoughts respected and not be trampled upon as not good enough or unworthy. I feel that controlling what children learn, how children learn, and when children learn conspires to send the message to the child that she cannot be trusted. Furthermore, having many rules and constantly doing things "for the child's own good" reinforces the same message. For myself, I would prefer that my children never learn one academic thing than to learn to distrust their own thoughts. If someone were to mistreat or abuse my children, I want them to trust themselves when something doesn't feel right, and not think that how they feel isn't important. If they are at the park and they are feeling pressure to make fun of the kid that everyone else is making fun of, I hope they will not do something that makes them feel bad in order to fit in with the other kids. If my daughter is dating someone who is pressuring her to have sex because everyone else is doing it and she'll be weird if she doesn't, I hope she knows that clearly such a person demonstrates that he is not worthy of such a gift as her whole self. If my daughter were to one day face an unplanned pregnancy and everyone is telling her that she has no choice but to abort, I hope she will listen to her own inner guidance. If her employer is pressuring her to take part in unethical business practices, I want her to trust herself. What she thinks and how she feels matters. It matters to me and it should matter to everyone else. Every day people cave to often tremendous pressure to do the wrong thing; they forsake their own judgement and beliefs about right and wrong to satisfy other people. I feel that respecting children's autonomy and freedom of thought reinforces the belief in their dignity. I feel this belief is essential for genuine success in life. And as Sandra Dodd says, "Children who are trusted, will trust others. Children who are given all the time they need, will be free to share that time with others. Children who are given all the freedom they need, will not begrudge freedom in others."
One area of great concern to me is the language that has crept into educational speech. School administrators that talk about children as "raw materials to be processed" and the many behavioral modification techniques that view the child as an animal to be trained rather than a complex person to be understood should have no place among those striving to truly advance humanity. I greatly wish every parent and educator would read How Children Learn by John Holt. His way of facilitating learning seems to me to be a truly human way of educating persons, whether in school or out.
Some people express reservations about life learning (a.k.a. unschooling) because they confuse it with educational neglect. I hope people will not make this mistake. We do not put a seed in a room and hope it will grow. We put a seed in soil and try to make that soil as healthy as possible; we water that seed, and put it in sunlight. If these conditions are met, the seed grows. Likewise, if children's natural curiosity is fed and nourished, they thrive. As other unschoolers have pointed out, checking their progress by constant questions and testing is like repeatedly digging up the plant to measure how deep its roots are getting. It doesn't help the plant grow, and if it is a sensitive plant, it will likely stop its growth altogether. As John Holt observes, children constantly tested stop learning for learning's sake—because the world is intrinsically fascinating and because learning is joyful—and instead lose their curiosity and busy themselves with storing pieces of information in their minds long enough to get a decent grade on a test or assignment. Holt also believes that it isn't really possible to teach someone against his or her will. If it is, why do so many adults spend so much time reviewing what their students already supposedly learned? If children are interested in something to begin with and learn about it through their own choice, they retain the information.
Most importantly, though, the main reason why children and adults should do things is because it is enjoyable. We ought to allow games to be games, moments to be moments, and we should not ruin such moments by always insisting that we turn them into "teaching opportunities." That only serves to make children believe that we don't enjoy their presence, that we don't delight in who they are as people, but that we are only interested in pressing our own agenda. How heartbreaking that must be for a child.
My four-year-old loves letters, rhyming, computers, running, mazes, art, and astronomy. I'm happy to finally love being around her. She constantly asks me to add numbers or what number two or three numbers together make. Simply from answering her questions and offering help when it was wanted, she is now able to count backwards and do simple addition in her head. She often manipulates letters and plays with letter magnets and scrabble letters and asks "What word does this make?" She can pick out Venus in the sky and she knows it's a planet, not a star. She knows our sun is a star and we live on the planet Earth that goes around the sun. She knows Jupiter is the biggest planet and it protects us from meteors. She knows the speed of the Earth is just perfect to keep us from spinning away from the sun or from falling into the sun. She asks questions about everything and if I can answer them, I do. Otherwise I help her find the answer. We live in the information age; anything is available at our fingertips. If there is something that I would like to introduce her to, I do. If she is interested, we explore it. If not, we don't.
Living this life and witnessing the many others respecting the autonomy and dignity of children through consensual living gives me hope for the future. It gives me hope that one day governments will be able to peacefully communicate with each other and seek peaceful solutions to the different ways people see things. It gives me hope that human history will stop being so peppered by power-hungry individuals trampling on the rights of those without it. It gives me hope that maybe one day people won't be concerned with what's "in" or what's "popular" but rather they will only be interested in asking themselves what they themselves truly like. It gives me hope that maybe one day we will truly believe that we are all created equal and we will strive to see the giftedness of others rather than proving our own selves worthy.
"All I am saying [in How Children Learn] can be summed up in two words—Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves—and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted."—John Holt.