Coffee Cup

“If Nobody Makes You Do It...”
by Nancy Wooton

A conversation between Nancy, an unschooler, and a friend, a young mom starting to homeschool:

After being on the brink for more than a year, my 5-year-old is learning to read. Not that she's old enough to worry about it–she just loves books so much I thought it would happen earlier. I did do a TINY bit of sitting down and teaching, but it probably only nudged her a little sooner than she would have learned herself.

Probably not. It's so tempting to think we can teach kids, but the fact is that we present, and they learn. If she hadn't been ready, she wouldn't have been interested and she wouldn't have learned. Reading aloud is the start; demonstrating that reading is normal and interesting by reading yourself is part of the process, too.

My own son, Alex, “broke the code” for himself at about age 4 by typing a caption from National Geographic on the computer. He opened a word processing program, got a new document, chose a typeface and size, and started copying this rather lengthy photo caption about sea horses. He was so intent on what he was doing! He looked from the magazine, written in upper and lower case, to the keyboard to find the matching letter, to the screen, where he saw the connection between the printed magazine's words and the ones he was typing. You couldn't make a curriculum or a lesson or a method out of that; it was his way, in his time. Not too much later, he was reading aloud from Calvin and Hobbes into a tape recorder– his idea, not mine!

Anyway, any suggestions for what to get for her that would teach her to do math...

Okay, let's start with you. “Teach her to do math” is not what you want to do. Schools do that. If you want that, pack her off. At home you can let her explore the world we all inhabit, and discover the mathematical patterns that underlie it all. Let her have her own money to spend. Let her put fruit on the scale at the store, and see the numbers on each side of the dot, and the same kind of numbers on the cash register (ta-da, decimals, fractions, division!) Let her help figure out which is the best value, the five-pound bag of oranges for one dollar, or the fifty cents a pound ones? LIFE is education. REAL LIFE is the best education. Children sit in schools playing with plastic coins, setting up play stores to spend them. Come on. This is not necessary. Paper and pencil math can be approached later, with the foundation of real life experience to build on. (She's probably too young for strictly abstract math, by the way, although every child is unique.)

...or reading, or science?

One of Alex's great loves, dinosaurs, helped him in his reading quest. People have this idea of "the basics" that is backwards. You do not have to teach a child to read in order for them to pursue an interest; help them pursue the interest, and the basics, because they ARE basic, fall into place. Kids are forced to read boring little stories, when they'd rather hear about spaceships, with spaceships dangled like a carrot to get them through the little stories. READ the spaceship book aloud, show the kid the pictures of the moon and Tranquility Base and before you know it, she's reading them to you. No boring primers necessary. (And don't neglect Dr. Suess :-)

It's good to know someone who has been doing "unstructured" homeschooling for a few years. By the way, what do you think of the concept of unschooling? Is what you do unschooling? Someone told me they thought that unschooling is too "New Age." That element definitely exists in unschooling, but I'm not sure that's a basic tenet.

I unschool. I don't do unstructured homeschooling or relaxed homeschooling. In fact, if there were a different word people would recognize, I wouldn't say I “Homeschool” at all. I did do that with Laura, and she will tell you about it with tears. Alex, on the other hand, has never had a lesson from me that he didn't request and initiate. Laura will approach a subject with interest, but still looks for “the right answer.” Alex just gobbles everything up like a Pac-man. :-)

It bothers me a bit that unschooling is perceived as “New Age.” Labels exist to stop discussion. Give it a name, put it in a category, and you've captured it and made yourself safe from it. Label a person, and you have a pretty good idea of what they are; you can feel safe by either embracing them or excluding them, depending on what you label yourself. Call unschooling “new age,” and you might dismiss it from the possibilities before you, just as another person might label structured homeschooling “conservative Christian,” and thus overlook what could be the ideal learning environment for her child.

Unschooling scares people, because there are no guarantees. What they fail to realize is that public school, private school, or school-at-home offer no guarantees, either. What unschooling is about is freedom. How it appears in different homes is as individual as the child himself. It does not mean “unparenting,” though a wide range of parenting philosophies are practiced (most unschoolers are pretty relaxed, though, since you aren't trying to force the kids to do things all day long). The basic tenet is not New Age; it's “what is best for this individual person, my child?” In some cases, unschooling parents will find their child desires a structured curriculum, and they provide it. The difference is in WHO is asking for the curriculum, and who is responsible for doing it.

It is possible to have a structured, orderly life, and still unschool. Your child's day can include lessons outside the home, or lessons within it, if it is the child who initiates. If you're dragging her to the table because 9a.m. is Math Time, and she really wants to play with her Legos, you're not unschooling. What a school-at-home person would see as “just playing,” an unschooler sees as learning. Sandra Dodd uses the saying “Everything is Educational.” And she means everything. Even if your daughter wanted to play dolls, or with stuffed animals, instead of “doing math,” that is okay; math is no more or less important than whatever is in her mind with the dolls and animals. Math will still be there when she's done with serving tea to Princess Wilhelmina Bear and Mr. Pterodactyl. (And you never know; she may have discovered division as she set out the 3 cups and 3 saucers and served the 10 cookies, 3 each with one left over!)

One thing school does that you don't ever, ever have to do is this: By making certain things “subjects,” other things are not subjects, and in school, only subjects matter. What you learn “on your own time” is unimportant, and in fact detracts from the time you should be spending on subjects. Homeschools can end up making this same mistake: You buy a curriculum and you “do school,” and THEN you can play (i.e., then you have “free time”). IF you do your lesson, you can play. Unschoolers turn the whole thing upside down: If you follow your interest (play), you will learn in the process.

Think about how an adult learns something new, how you yourself do it; there is no reason why a child can't learn in the same way. You have an interest, let's say, in tying flies for fishing, or in the Civil War, or in chinchillas. What do you do? Research, for one. What kind? The library, perhaps. You find books on the subject. You find movies about the Civil War. You go to the zoo or a pet shop or a state fair to see chinchillas and talk to people who raise them. You find a TV program about tying flies and how to cast, and you go to the lake and see people fishing, and talk to them. You realize you can't quite understand how to do it by reading, so you find someone who can show you. You want to have some fun interaction with others, so you join a Civil War reenactment society. Now, imagine you are in school, and you have to “study” tying flies, or raising chinchillas. You have no interest in these things at all; you are totally absorbed by the Civil War right now. It would take coercion (rewards/grades and punishments/grades) to make you “learn” about flies and chinchillas, and as soon as that last final is done, you forget it all and go back to that fascinating book on Antietam.

People learn because they are interested in learning something, for some reason. A man learns Greek to fulfill a goal important to him; a girl learns to keep her heels down and her reins even, because she wants to advance to using a bit. If these things, being a priest or horseback riding, were not important to the individuals in question, would either of them learn them? Would they be happy doing so if someone were making them do it? Children will learn long division, and algebra, and calculus in the same way. If they truly are not interested in mathematics, then they don't need it. They will most likely not pursue careers that require it. Basic arithmetic, sure. People need that, and without the interference of school, kids find it fun.

It's very common for us parents to panic about our kids' education, particularly in the area we had the most trouble with ourselves. And taking on all the responsibility by homeschooling is very scary -- we can't pass the buck to anyone! Educating yourself about school is important, too. John Holt and John Taylor Gatto will help there. The origins of public school in America are not entirely noble or honorable. That schools continue to operate in the same way as at the turn of the century is part of their failure today. We don't have the same need for obedient factory workers, yet we keep educating as though we did. What industry needs are innovative thinkers, people who are flexible and agile learners.

I've often thought how great it would have been if I'd known then what I know now, so I guess I get pretty enthusiastic when someone asks about homeschooling. Make good use of the resources readily available in books and on the Web; they will be really helpful. Trust yourself. Don't be in a big hurry about anything, especially spending money on curricula. Watch how your children discover the world around them, and trust their innate curiosity to spur them along. Realize that what you think is the most fascinating thing on earth may be met with a yawn on Tuesday, then eagerly sopped up three months later. Present whatever you think is cool, but always allow your children the freedom to say, “No thank you.” Then, keep on enjoying the cool thing for yourself. Unschooling is for moms and dads as much as for kids!

And always remember the wisdom of Hobbes (the tiger, that is): "If nobody makes you do it, it counts as fun."

Nancy Wooton is a 42 year-old wife and mom of two unschooled children, ages 14 and 11. She spends her free time writing for internet sites and magazines devoted to homeschooling, training her dog, and learning the ancient art of Eastern Orthodox Christian iconography, specifically, embroidering icons for church use.

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