Unsuccessful Unschoolers

I think one of the more common questions about unschooling is, bottom line, does it work? Are grown unschoolers functional members of society? Are they happier than everyone else? Are they successful? Was unschooling a help or a hindrance?

I know a bunch of grown unschoolers, enough that I’m going to go ahead and pretend I’m an expert. The oldest ones I know are about in their mid thirties, although I did meet this awesome family once who are probably in their 40s by now. (Courage, if you’re out there, thanks for the sailboat ride, I still remember it 10+ years later!) They have a wide variety of professions: major league baseball pitcher, doctor, stay at home parent, accountant, actor, entrepreneur, art therapist, baker, unemployed, programmer, preschool teacher, nurse, farmer. Some of them love their jobs, some of them hate their jobs. Some of them went to college, some of them didn’t. Some of them have gone to college for the last 10 years and counting. Some of them are following their passion, some of them are struggling to figure out how to follow their passion and still pay rent, some of them think the idea of a single passion is absurd.

But that’s not really what people are asking when they want to know whether unschoolers can be successful. Of course they can be–that’s obvious from a quick web search these days. The real question is whether unschoolers are more successful than they would have been if they’d gone to school.

Here’s the thing about all the unschoolers I know: all of them work primarily with people who were not unschooled.

Anything a grown unschooler is doing, you can bet other people got to the exact same spot by going to school. Most people who hate their jobs went to school. Most people who love their jobs went to school. Most people who don’t have a job went to school. Most of the time I don’t think unschooling actually makes that much of a difference in adulthood. Or, it does make a difference, but your personality and family and background make so much more of a difference that it all equals out by the time everyone else has been out of school for a few years too. Unschooling isn’t a guarantee of either success or failure, no matter how you define either.

I think the real question behind this is whether any particular individual does better unschooling than they would if they’d been in school. Of course it’s impossible to know, but my guess for those I know is that they wouldn’t. They would have had less time to develop passion and expertise. And I really can’t imagine anyone I know saying, “If only I’d learned geometry in middle school, I’d have a much better job now!” A lot of my unschooled friends have problems with the way they were unschooled–too little structure or too much, weren’t encouraged to learn a thing it turned out they needed, were too isolated or given too much responsibility for themselves too young. I’ve heard second and third hand of people who’s parents kept them out of school as part of a pattern of abuse or neglect, and it’s very possible those people could have met positive adult role models in school that could have changed their lives. Or, to be completely blunt, they could have been invisible among the hundreds or thousands of other abused and neglected children that go to school every day without any intervention. No disrespect to school employees, I’ve seen first hand how much most of them care and how hard most of them work, but I think most of them would agree that the system is not set up very well to allow them to help everyone who needs it.

Anyway, that’s a bit of a subject on its own. Point is, school can do a lot of great things for needy kids, but won’t necessarily do anything for a specific needy kid.

And isn’t that really the bottom line of unschooling? Unschooling is about finding what works for your kid, not your neighbor’s kid, not a statistically average kid, not what you would have wanted when you were a kid.

So what do you think? Will unschooling make your unique child successful?

An Open Letter to my Daughter about Trayvon Martin

Dear Busy Bee,

Last night the verdict came in that George Zimmerman was acquitted. Everyone agrees that he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. Everyone agrees that he followed Trayvon, that he confronted him against direct police instructions. But according to our justice system, he did nothing illegal.

How am I going to explain this to you?

This verdict means that what happened to Trayvon will happen again, and again. This time you’re too young for me to explain that a young boy was killed simply for walking down the street while being Black. But the next time, or the time after that, or any of the hundred or thousand times after that, you’ll be old enough to understand. Some day, probably sooner than I anticipate, you’re going to look up at me and ask, “Why?” Why did this happen in the first place? Why does our legal system say it’s okay? Why is there no justice?

We have a book out from the library right now called Shades of People. You like it because it has lots of pictures of children doing interesting things, like climbing on playgrounds and hugging their parents. I like it because I hope it gives you a good baseline to think about race in the future. That your default assumption will not be that some people look different from you and that’s scary, but that some people look different from you and that’s beautiful.

But if you have that as your baseline, like I hope you will, some day you’re going to be shocked, and hurt, and unable to understand how and why people are hurt and harassed and imprisoned and assaulted and killed because of the shade of their skin. I’m deliberately putting you in a position where you will have to feel as shocked and sick and hopeless as I do right now, and that’s hard to admit as a parent.

But here’s what I want you to understand: in our country, in our world, it’s not an inherent right to safely walk down the street. It’s a privilege. It’s a privilege to trust the police, or to fight back against an attacker. It’s a privilege to ignore the news, or to feel like a verdict like this has no direct affect on your life. It’s a privilege to think that what happened to Trayvon Martin will never happen to your own children. I want you to understand that deeply, with every level of your being. I want you to be furious about it. I want you to understand it so that you never, ever turn that fury on someone because they do not have those privileges. I want you to use every scrap of privilege you have, every privilege I hope to give you, to fight against these injustices.

If I expect you to do that, I’m going to have to step up. I’m going to have to do what I want you to do and use my own privilege to fight this fight. I don’t know how to do that right now–I feel helpless and hopeless and unsure of what the first step is–but it’s clear to me today that I need to step up. I need to figure this out, I need to come up with something to say when you someday ask me, “Why are people so awful, mama? Why does this happen?”

Because the only thing worse than hearing that question would be hearing you say, “I don’t understand, mama–why are people so upset about this?” The only thing worse than seeing your pain and anger would be seeing confusion about why it matters.

I still hope, with all my heart, that some day you will live in a world where we can talk about this as something that used to happen, and won’t happen again. I don’t think it’s very likely, though. So I want to be your partner in fixing it. I want you to know that even when awful things happen, I’ve got your back. I’m by your side. You won’t be alone fighting this hopeless fight.

Rules and principles

I’ve been enjoying discussions on the Unschooling facebook page recently. Here’s my contribution to a recent conversation about rules and unschooling (with some minor editing for clarification):

“Rules are top-down. The adults set the rules (“don’t come into my bedroom without knocking”) and the children follow them or else. Principles are something everyone has internally, and the focus changes to getting everyone’s needs being met.

I assume that having your privacy is a priority for you, but probably not your absolute #1 priority in your life. You sound like a thoughtful and kind person, so I imagine that “raising happy and healthy kids” might be a higher priority for you. Your fiance may also prioritize things like “children have an equal role in setting family rules” higher than privacy. For me, changing my mindset from rules to principles meant I had to take a really close look at my own principles and figure out where my priorities really were. The question becomes “How do I get my needs met while still honoring both my larger principles and the principles of other people in my family?” You may be able to brainstorm a surprising number of ways to feel like you have private space without a specific rule about knocking on bedroom doors. At ages 6 and 8, kids can help with this brainstorming too, and may value the opportunity to define some of their own space as well.

But even if all together you decide to knock on each other’s bedroom doors and wait for an answer before entering, it doesn’t feel like a rule. There are exceptions to every rule (you don’t have to wait for an answer if there’s an emergency) but the exceptions become obvious and not worth quibbling over if it’s rooted in principles.”

Which all sounds very high-minded and black and white. But as is usual with me, one of the reasons I have opinions about this is that it’s something I struggle with in day to day life.

I have lots of rules for Busy Bee. Don’t go in the street without holding hands. Be gentle with people and objects. Don’t throw your food on the floor or else I will take it away from you. Don’t bite me while you’re nursing. Brush your teeth before bed. If your diaper is poopy I will change it immediately. You have to stay in your carseat while the car is moving. Most of these are rooted in principles like health or kindness (I like the idea that a principle can usually be expressed in a single word) and I like to think that I’m pretty good about being flexible with the surface rule to honor a deeper principle. For instance, skipping one night of tooth brushing isn’t going to seriously compromise health, so if tooth brushing seems like it’s going to seriously compromise Busy Bee’s sense of autonomy we can probably skip it for one night. If it seems to be an issue night after night I’d want to try some different ways to help her maintain her autonomy while still getting her teeth brushed. (The current favorite is for me to tell her what animals are in her mouth, and “chase” them around with the toothbrush while she makes the animal noises.)

But a lot of times I just say “no” because it’s easier for me. No, you can’t play with my phone unsupervised because sometimes you delete my apps. No, we can’t go outside at 7:30pm because I really want you to be in bed at 8pm so I can get some quiet time and it takes you like an hour to wind down once you’ve started playing outside. No, you can’t watch more videos because my mom and Dr. Google think that screen time is bad for developing brains and it makes me feel twitchy and like a bad mom to ignore that. All perfectly reasonable as far as rules go… if you start from a place of thinking of rules as something that adults set and children follow. I feel really grumpy when I think of giving up some of my rules. I love bedtime. I love knowing that at 8pm I can zone out or eat or do chores uninterrupted. It makes it easier at 6pm and 7pm to focus on Busy Bee when I know what time I’m going to be able to focus on me. The radical unschooling community challenges me to ask whether that’s really a good enough reason to have an 8pm bedtime rule. I hate that. It’s so annoying. I want my toddler to have an 8pm bedtime, it makes me happy, most nights my toddler is pretty ok with it, Dr. Google says it’s healthy, can’t I just stop thinking about it?

I like rules. I like schedules. I like externally imposed structure. I think Busy Bee likes those things too. Paranoid Husband does not. Maybe a future child of ours also will not, and we’ll have to totally reevaluate how we parent. Right now, having rules works pretty well. But when I think about principles instead of rules, I’m a happier parent. I feel more flexible. The superego voice in my head telling me I’m a bad mom is quieter. It’s easier to give Busy Bee my full attention without thinking about other things I want to be doing.

And really, perhaps my favorite thing about parenting is that you get nice long practice periods. Taking care of myself while pregnant was great practice for taking care of myself with a newborn. Learning my newborn’s cues was great practice for paying attention to my toddler’s cues. Working on basing my time with my toddler around principles rather than rules will probably be pretty good practice for shifting the balance more towards principles and less towards rules as she gets older.

Pulling myself up short

I am so twitchy today. I want to do all these things, but each thing would work better if I do something else first.

Image representing ModCloth as depicted in Cru...

ModCloth, why you so cute? (Image via CrunchBase)

For instance I have a shopping cart full of cute dresses and shoes on ModCloth, but I feel weird about dropping a couple hundred bucks on clothes even though half my work-appropriate clothes have minor tears or don’t quite fit right or don’t work for pumping and nursing. Seriously, I have one pair of pants right now where nothing is wrong with them. But I feel like I should be saving that money, I have so many long term savings goals: retirement, Busy Bee’s college fund, Busy Bee’s preschool fund (I’m only half joking), the what-if-the-water-heater-and-the-roof-break-in-the-same-week emergency fund, an MBA for me, Paranoid Husband starting a massage therapy business someday, building a raised bed garden next year (garden soil is expensive!)… Ugh, it just feels like any way I cut it, I come up short on long term goals and don’t have any left for short term goals like pretty dresses from ModCloth.

So I want to go see a financial planner. I want someone professional to help me figure out how to prioritize among long-term savings goals and get the best bang for my buck in a world of 0.25% savings rates. I’ve told Paranoid Husband that’s what I want for our fourth wedding anniversary this summer. (Also that I want marital counseling for our fifth, not because I think anything will be wrong then, just for fun. What, learning how to communicate better about our sex life sounds like a totally romantic date.) I even know exactly who I want to go to, I found a fee-only financial planner who’s a fellow alumni of my tiny hippie college.

Except it doesn’t really seem like a good time to make an appointment. Our car is in the shop for the forseeable future after a stupid fender bender, my parents are visiting next week, I’m up for a promotion and raise at work sometime soon but I don’t know exactly when… Shouldn’t I wait until things have calmed down a little? I mean, even two or three weeks from now should be better.

So… I’m just stuck. Twiddling my thumbs.

Actually, now that I think about it, pretty much everything I want to do, at home or at work, is waiting on this stupid raise/promotion. Volunteer recruitment. Program planning. Collateral redesign. Developing a personal/family budget. Looking at preschools for Busy Bee in the fall. Having another baby. Buying some cute dresses already. I’ve been waiting six months now since the promotion was first proposed, and at this point it feels completely out of my control. It could be another three months, or it could be next week.

So… I should just buy the dresses, right?

Ask Dr. Google! Or don’t.

I got to have a learning experience this week.

On Tuesday we took Busy Bee to the doctor for what turned out to be FTPS (First Time Parent Syndrome). Busy Bee had a cold and a low fever and by Wednesday afternoon was basically back to normal.

Things I learned:

1) A puffy eye along with a fever could be periorbital cellulitis which could lead to orbital cellulitis which could lead to permanent neurological damage.
2) Or it could be a mildly irritated sinus.
3) Don’t google “puffy eye fever toddler”. Just don’t.
4) When Paranoid Husband thinks an illness isn’t a big deal, and rest and hydration is going to be healthier than letting the toddler touch everything in the doctor’s office, trust him.
5) Goat’s milk is low in folate.
6) Sometimes, the doctors at giant HMOs are actually pretty cool.

Somehow this wasn’t quite what came to mind every time I told someone that unschooling is about lifelong learning.

Lake Wobegon syndrome

I’m not boasting on Facebook, because who wants to be that parent? But this blog is semi-anonymous so I might as well boast here. Today’s achievement in toddler-land is that Busy Bee can count up to five objects unprompted, and up to ten with prompts. She’s 17 months! She’s a genius!

Well, I don’t really know whether she’s a genius. She’s my first kid, I have no idea what’s normal. A quick query to Dr. Google makes it sound like there are plenty of children her age and younger who can count to ten. But I think she’s on the upper end of average? There are plenty of children her age and older who don’t say five words, period.

Plus, one of my favorite things I learned from unschooling is that everybody has strengths and weaknesses. My favorite example is that I learned to read early, while Paranoid Husband didn’t read for pleasure until age 12 and is still a slow reader. But Paranoid Husband has a talent for health care I’ll never come close to–he’s the guy who will give you a casual shoulder rub and somehow hit every trigger point to make you feel amazing afterwards, and let me tell you he is my #1 person to have around when gross bodily fluids are being spilled. (Uh. Not in that way. Ok, in that way too.)

Anyway… Right, I was talking about strengths and weaknesses. Everyone is good at some things and not good at others, and that’s just how the world works. Nobody’s smarter than anybody else, our society just values some skills above other skills and calls the people who have those skills smarter.

Lake Wobegon Days

Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s just that all the things Busy Bee is good at are things our society values. She has a vocabulary of several hundred words. She’s social with other adults and children, and gentle with animals and babies. She thinks cleaning up her toys is an awesome game, and if you ever need to distract her all you need to do is ask her to help you with something. She’s memorized a dozen of her favorite books. She started walking just before her first birthday and is now a confident and safe climber. She does a mean somersault. She talks to her favorite stuffed animals in the most adorable little voice I’ve ever heard. She is a tenacious problem-solver. Unless she’s tired or hungry or over-stimulated she stops when you ask her to stop. She doesn’t throw tantrums. (Seriously. No tantrums. She gets angry but is always easy to redirect. I don’t know what’s up with that.)

I know I’m biased, but I can’t really think of things she’s not good at. Oh! Wait, I know, the sleeping thing. The waking up every two hours for the entire first year of her life thing, and the still waking up at least once a night and usually twice thing. That definitely sucks. And she’s a picky eater? She hated her carseat for most of her first year, which was annoying, but actually requests car rides now. That’s about it, though.

So, okay, she’s awesome, she’s fabulous. (I haven’t even mentioned her sense of humor. I think she’s hilarious. The first joke she ever played on me was around 9 or 10 months, when she closed a baby gate in my face and crawled away as fast as she could, laughing hysterically. That’s my kind of humor.) So what? What does it mean if she’s someday labeled “gifted”? What do I care?

If she goes to school it could come in handy–she might end up with access to programs that are more challenging and/or more flexible than standard curricula. If she homeschools it’ll definitely come in handy–there are far fewer questions and raised eyebrows for a child who meets or exceeds standard school requirements. On a personal and kind of ugly level, it makes me feel better about myself–I can’t be a bad parent if I have such a smart/talented/easy child. It could encourage her self-esteem to have people telling her she’s smart all the time.

Or it could convince her that anything she doesn’t do well right away isn’t worth doing. (One of my big problems.) Or it could stress her out, trying to measure up to some external goalpost of academic skill. Or I could be really, really freaking annoying on Facebook and end up with my fellow parents cursing me out for making them cry into their cheerios about little Timmy only knowing 50 words, and leave my childfree friends muttering, “Who the fuck cares that a toddler can count to five, I can count to five and also I don’t poop my pants.”

I know I’m borrowing trouble. She’s not even a year and a half old. She poops in her pants daily. Most of this stuff will even out in the next few years, and the stuff that doesn’t will matter less. She’ll develop a wider range of talents and interests, which will automatically mean she’ll focus on some things and not on others. And in the big picture it really, really doesn’t matter. The Big Question of life is not “Is it easy for you to learn to read and count?” but “Are you happy? Have you made others happy? Do you leave people and places better than they were?” I mean, absolutely I think Busy Bee makes the world a better place by existing and being awesome, but counting to five has nothing to do with that.

So I don’t boast on Facebook about this stuff. I try to limit my stories to fun things we did together, or at least funny stories. I try to use language with Busy Bee that emphasizes what she does rather than what she is. And as always, I trust. I trust Busy Bee to figure out her own path, and I trust myself to not screw her up.

It’s working out pretty well so far.

That awkward moment when…

… you realize the reason your life is difficult is because you’ve been hoarding work in an attempt to make yourself feel more important.

Oops.

It’s been a good week for self-realization. (And even better to have it followed by a three day weekend!) I got a new boss after being without for the last four months, and let me tell you, it might sound fun on paper to not have a boss, but after about half a day of gleefully reading buzzfeed articles instead of working it actually sucks monkey balls. I’ve been struggling with not knowing where to prioritize, not feeling like I could commit to long term projects, and just plain feeling burned out. I really, really like working as part of a team, being able to bounce ideas off other people, catching enthusiasm from other people rather than trying to stare at the wall to motivate myself.

Plus my new boss is awesome. She asks all the right questions, which if I had to pick a single trait for anyone I work with to have, it’d be that all the time. On top of getting some good questions, I made it out of the office to some great trainings on staff/volunteer engagement with Betty Stallings, who is one of the big international gurus of volunteerism. She had some great things to say about delegation, changing language from “my volunteers” to “our volunteers”, and why the volunteer coordinator should be a leader for the organization on involving volunteers in traditionally staff-driven work. None of it new information, exactly, but it came at the right time and I actually heard it for once.

Turns out, after thinking about it, all that stuff I’ve been going home every night and complaining about to my husband? It’d be pretty easy to ask volunteers to do that. Delegation will not make me look like I can’t do my own job. Training and supervising will be worth the time. People besides me can do it correctly, without messing up. Okay, yes, I will have to actually work on major projects instead of filling up my hours with busywork. But I think I can cope.

After a really frustrating four months, life at work is looking up.

Now if I just can get that raise and promotion I was told to expect back in January…