Unschooling 101

When I first heard of unschooling, I was not part of some radical, anti-vaccination group of hippies. I was studying a Master of Teaching at University. Yes, in a teaching degree, I heard about unschooling. Not only did the course mention it, it was discussed in detail as a philosophy which could improve the current education model which continued to advocate for a cookie-cutter mentality to produce workers for jobs which are disappearing, and have been for a long time. The pandemic has only accelerated some of the decline for specific industries and has greatly improved accessibility to work from home, study from home and use technology for more of our daily lives.

But what is unschooling? It is not neglectful, it is not just uncaring about your children’s education and future. It’s a philosophy that connects to freedom. It is about overthrowing systemic marginalisation and oppression. It’s about intersectionality; the idea that those in minority groups are discriminated against and oppressed on multiple fronts. For us, this is disability specific but for others it is gender, skin colour, nationality etc.

What is unschooling? It’s about giving your children a childhood. It’s freedom and choice. Autonomy. It’s about acknowledging that children know a lot about what they want to do. It’s about recognising that coercing children to value education models from more than 100 years ago is probably not very progressive. It’s about stopping, pausing, reflecting on what you actually think is important for your children’s future.

For us, the wellbeing of our children comes before anything else. Going to school for a lot of autistic, PDA, etc etc neurodivergent children is incredibly difficult and often leads to severe mental health issues. Not always, but often. So, for us, that is more important than getting good grades or conforming.

Why is conforming valued? Mostly because when society values the same things, it functions well, but it isn’t the whole story. Society operates through a system of discipline in which every person watches others, their choices and behaviour and mimics it to stay part of the in group, to be a part of society and not be the odd one out, the weird one.

However, there is absolutely nothing written anywhere in the entire universe which states that being part of the in group actually matters. In fact, what psychologists and academics understand is that personal autonomy, agency and being able to make your own choices and be yourself are incredibly important to a person’s sense of self.

For as long as I can remember I valued all the wrong things. But then I had my children and realised that they were not going to fit into my narrow perspective of the rest of my life. So I could rail against it, or I could change. I could adopt a different way of thinking and meet their needs. Which ultimately meant that my own wellbeing was prioritised and I finally felt free to make my own choices.

That is what unschooling is. It’s about stepping back, it’s a thought process. It’s courage to say ‘that’s not for me’ and take a different path.

Becoming

Motherhood shatters my identity.

Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

My face felt heavy as I stumbled out of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). My baby was connected to so many tubes and wires. Questions raged, and my heart raced, sweaty palms pulsing with anxiety. How could this be my life? How had this happened?

That morning, I had driven the car down the ramp into a dark underground space where the lights flickered above the ticket machine. While the machine beeped and printed, I’d tried to breathe slowly to steady my heart. I glanced at my husband Evan, his face gaunt and skin pallid. There was nothing to say, and the silence was deafening.

The gate finally lifted, and I followed the signs down endless ramps to find an empty car space. When we got out, I took a photo to remember the car’s location, among all the details we would rather forget. To retrieve our phone chargers, Evan sorts through presents and bags of baby clothes.

We’d ridden up the almost overflowing lift. There were mums with young children in prams, people dressed in scrubs and business attire.

I asked a man dressed in scrubs what level the NICU was on. His look of pity made my stomach turn, but he pressed the button labelled six on the wall.

“Good luck, love”, he replied.

The hospital was busy. It’s recently been renovated, and the sunlight streaked across the tiled floor. The smell of coffee brewing mixed with disinfectant was peculiar but memorable. As the lift moved slowly towards the top floor, everyone exited. The doors opened onto a long white corridor with a sign indicating the direction to the Butterfly ward. We came to a large room with animals, flowers and trees painted across the walls and stopped at heavy glass doors with an intercom.

It’s a neonatal intensive care unit for the sickest of babies. While we wait at the glass doors for the intercom to be answered, I looked around, imagining the designs are intended to make the hospital feel less sterile.

“Hello”, a voice asks.

“Umm. Hi, we’re here to see our baby. Ah, he was transferred”, I stumble.

“Are you Carla and Evan?” the voice asks.

I felt hollow then as if frozen in time. Evan glanced at me with a pale complexion. How could they know who we are?

“Yes”, I finally answered.

We were then led along the hall into the NICU, which opened up with several wings. The most critical babies surrounded the glass-walled office area, which was teeming with doctors and nurses. Suddenly, we realised the reason for the familiarity through the intercom is the small number of babies here. The nurses would know every family, and a new family would not enter too often.

The nurse showed us to a desk and asked us to fill in some paperwork. All I wanted was to see my baby. How could I not know where he was? 48 hours ago, he was still safely growing in my womb, and now he was separated by an unimaginable distance.

Finally, we were led to his room, and we walked into a clinical space looking out over the park. Our baby laid on an open cot, with his intubation tube, heart and blood oxygen monitoring cords, blue lights for jaundice, plus IV lines in each arm. His heels were pinpricked with tiny dots of blood from the four-hourly blood tests.

I felt myself fall heavily into the chair offered to me by the nurse, Sarah. I felt my stomach churning and my heart racing as I tried to make sense of the scene in front of me.

The nurses had made a printed sign with our baby’s name and placed it on the top of the machine keeping him alive. It was navy blue with polka dots and seemed so out of place.

Two days later, my eyes were stinging from the irregular sleep, my breasts in pain from the hourly pumping for expressed milk. We had family visiting each day, asking questions we couldn’t possibly answer. The doctor’s rounds at 9am made us feel invisible.

We asked ourselves, ‘who are we?’. We couldn’t answer our own simple questions.

Who was the child in the cot? Why did it feel so irregular, so distanced, so strange?

…………………………………..

Five weeks later…

We waved goodbye to the nurses and doctors and took our tiny baby down the lift to the car, waiting for us patiently. Putting the capsule into its tether in the car was surreal. A moment we’d dreamed of but not known when it would occur. We drove home listening to the noisy breathing of our five-week-old son. He was smaller than most newborns, but he was alive.

We began our new life as a family of three.

…………………………………..

Two years later…

I read the words again and again. ‘Who am I?’. I couldn’t really define myself. My journey into motherhood had completely changed my perception of life, let alone my own idea of my innermost desires and dreams. I knew that the driven force of my pre-motherhood being had been replaced by a slower and more deliberate sense of existence. I valued space and time now in a way I could never have appreciated before.

The trauma of having a baby in a life or death situation shattered any notions I’d held of motherhood and life. I finally felt a sense of peace and serenity. I felt free from expectation and obligation.

I am a new type of woman, a newly crafted woman more relaxed and freer to be herself. I am decisive and nonchalant about things that don’t matter.

Acceptance

Home education neurodivergent (autistic, ADHD etc) kids is a lesson in acceptance. Part of the unschooling philosophy is to follow your child’s lead. If you are the parent of an autistic or other neurodivergent diagnosis, actually doing this in practice is actually really difficult.

One of the ways to accept the less than ‘educational’ interests of your child is to look at their interests with a magnifying glass and recognising even the smallest things they are learning. For example, with YouTube, children can learn a lot. Firstly, exposure to lots of different language accents and styles of speaking is educational. Secondly, in our case, watching others play and build things in Minecraft then inspires his own creativity. Thirdly, the tech / coding / web side of the platform is obviously useful for a future that becomes more and more technological.

Furthermore, the branding of toys, games, activities as educational or non-educational is really problematic. A lot of the time it is an arbitrary line and is more about marketing than developmental science.

By sharing this, I hope that anyone searching the internet about this issue will find this and feel a little less alone.

Books I recommend

Becoming intentional is about learning how to value your time and money and use it in the best way you can. As a former high income earner, who is now a low income earner, I know what it is like to have to evaluate everything in terms of how useful it is. Becoming intentional began from my journey into minimalism more than seven years ago.

There are countless books available on minimalism, but for me, the most important aspect is to ask ‘why’ and to understand what is happening in your thoughts that is pushing you to consume and spend more, and on things you don’t actually value.

This post contains affiliate links and I may earn a small commission if you purchase.

We can’t say we didn’t know

I’m listening to a library audiobook copy of Sophie McNeil’s book “We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know”. I’ve followed her for many years and the book does not disappoint. I am equally in awe of her career (I did have aspirations of being a war correspondent after I finished uni), but it’s hard to think of anything else but the vividly described situations covered in the books. I’ve read lots of articles, books and listened to podcasts about Syria in particular, but every new account brings new information that hits me to my core.

We might not all know the details Sophie knew, but we can’t say we didn’t know at all. How can we as a society accept that people in another country, who were born there by chance, and not in a safe country such as Australia, suffer such violence and hardship? I can’t accept it, I don’t. But it is hard to know what to do.

Becoming intentional is about moving past the immediate concerns of life, letting go of the noise and consumption we are encouraged to embrace, to focus on what is important to us. For me, justice is important, so is understanding others. We are all born into families in which understanding is inherited. We learn and come to understand the world through the eyes and brains, so to speak, of our families and our ancestors. Hence why racism persists in some families, and why certain ideas about life prevail. In order to change this course, we have to take a step outside of that inherited understanding and rediscover the world on our own terms.

This means, finding our own information, reading reputable sources, reading more than one source, reading sources across the political spectrum and thinking. Thinking deeply. It means being open to changing your view, it means understanding we can’t understand everything. But we can try to understand more.

The best resource on human rights issues is Human Rights Watch in my opinion. They have countless reports verifying information provided by those on the ground. I also recommend watching the following documentaries online

  • E Team
  • Born in Syria
  • Born in Gaza
  • Under The Wire

A Private War detailing the life of Marie Colvin, foreign correspondent who died in Syria in 2012, is also on Stan with Rosemary Pike as Marie.

Racism

Did you know that skin colour is caused by different exposure to UV in different parts of the world?

Did you know humans share more DNA with each other than penguins? To us, penguins look very similar, and humans look more different. But it’s just an evolutionary adaptation.

To think that systematic racism based on skin colour has occurred because of misunderstanding about the causes of different skin tones, well it’s sad. To think that we as humans could so misjudge each other is sad. And today, we have the science to tell us all humans are one race. We are one.

Yet, still today we are divided. Women who were enslaved by ISIS are separated from their children, Syria’s economy is plummeting and more children and families are starving while bombs still fall, the US faces an election in a divisive environment with a pandemic raging, and many parts of the world are facing new waves of the coronavirus.

While we can never be totally harmonious, is it too naive to wish for a better world? Is it impossible to imagine a world where things are more equal, where gender, skin colour, ability do not determine your opportunities? Is it too hard to imagine things could be a little more fair?

Today, New Zealand decides whether to keep a liberal PM Jacinda Ardern or bring Judith Collins, a conservative, into power. Historic that it is two women facing off, but I hope Jacinda returns. I hope that Joe Biden is elected, I hope we can become a fairer world and come together. This divided world makes me sad for my children, and every child in this world.

The feminist cause

Growing up I was not really aware of feminism. It wasn’t a topic of discussion in my house. In my early university days, I came across it a little but it wasn’t until I became a mother that I began reading more in earnest.

Gloria Steinem’s documentary on SBS called ‘Women‘ is fantastic and I’ve really enjoyed reading Selma James and bell hooks lately, with Sara Ahmed a newer discovery.

The problem is, most women of my generation were taught that feminism was about burning bras and having hairy armpits (nothing wrong with that). We were taught that we had equality and we just had to act like men in order to succeed. We were told we could have everything, and we just had to be confident.

But now, in my late 30s, it’s pretty clear you can’t have it all, not at the same time. Sheryl Sandberg says to lean in, there is a bit of a resurgence in the housewife, homemaker movement, and women are obsessed with labelling food in their pantries and ‘tidying up’. But it distracts from the key issues. The patriarchal system is still alive and well, the rise of nationalist, white and populist governments, far-right white supremacy and the gender pay gap, are all issues that are present today. The latest Australian budget essentially ignores women and a twitter hashtag #crediblewomen was trending for a few days. The hashtag arose from the PM’s office who were quoted as saying ‘no credible women have complained about the budget’.

And in less industrialised nations, as highlighted in Gloria’s documentary, things are far more dire. We can’t give up, and we have to speak up for those who voice isn’t loud enough. We can’t speak for others, but we can speak to the issue, and to raise the stakes enough to allow for marginalised voices to be elevated.

I’m a feminist, and proud to be one.

Why?

I get so many questions about the choices we are making in parenting our kiddos. I’ve learned not to argue or justify. I just ask, why?

Why does it matter if they don’t go to school?

Why do they need to wear shoes?

Why do they need to cut their hair?

Why can’t they wear PJs all day?

Why do they need to fit society’s mold?

Why do they have to look at you?

Why do they need to conform to your expectations?

Why can’t they just be, who they are.

Turning 37

This week I am turning 37 and I was reflecting on what I’ve learned thus far in life and what that would mean to a 17 year old me. In our world heavily influenced by busy lives, media portrayls of perfection and the ‘good life’, I wondered, what would I do differently if I could go back.

I would stop criticising my body and all of my perceived imperfections. I would recognise that I was perfect the way I was (still am!) and my body is more than something to look at.

I would not let anyone stop me from exploring my dreams. I wouldn’t feel swayed to follow a particular path, I would choose my own experiences, make my own decisions.

I would be much more careful about relationships.

I would explore more of the world, have more adventures and be more in nature. After having kids, this becomes more difficult, not impossible, but certainly there is a regret for the things I could have done when it was easier.

I would take better care of my body with how I move and what I eat. I would pay more attention to the niggles, and do ALL of the exercises my physio gave me.

Becoming intentional is about learning from the past and making better, informed and deliberate decisions today, tomorrow and in the future.

The rebel, the black sheep

Growing up, the black sheep of the family was always considered a rebel and not a favourable person to be within an extended family.

Looking back on people I’ve known to be the rebel, I feel a respect for their confidence in eschewing social norms, the things that are expected of them.

Perhaps being a rebel is a way to feel more connected to our inner selves. Maybe the act of rebellion gives us a sense of power. Particularly for women who despite decades of feminism still do more housework, are expected to take pay cuts and career back steps to manage family life and work, to have perfect bodies and skin and do everything else in the exhaustive list.

I want to be the rebel. I will live how I see fit. I don’t mind being a black sheep!