A recurring theme in this magazine is the idea of potential. (There are two articles about it in the upcoming September/October issue. See the bottom of this post for a list of some of the other articles we’ve published on the topic.) It’s is a misunderstood concept that puts a great deal of pressure on children and young people. Those not familiar with self-directed learning wonder how children who don’t attend school will be motivated to work hard at anything (i.e. live up to their potential) because they’re not forced to. Parents of all sorts – schooling and homeschooling alike – worry about helping their kids live up to their potential (whether it’s written on a school report card or not). In some cases, it’s the mantra for success, for winning the competition of life.
Having never viewed life as a competition, I’ve never understood what’s so important about this mysterious and amorphous thing that we call “potential.” It’s really just about possibilities, about having the capacity to develop a skill or talent in the future. People act like we all contain some bundle of specific stuff inside us just waiting for us to let it out, and if we don’t strive to do that, we are less than whole people…unsuccessful and presumably wretched. In fact, we all have potential…we are potential! But we are also complete just as we are, no matter how old or young we are.
And here’s the thing – well two things, actually: What happens to choice and free will in this pressure cooker of potential-meeting (as in what if you are interested in something that you aren’t thought to have potential for, or dislike what those supposedly in the know think you have potential for)? And where does the present fit in to our lives if we’re always focused on a future possibility?
I grew up in a family that always lived for the future, anticipating future events, saving for a rainy day, worrying about what calamity could happen, sacrificing for my education, and yes, waiting for me to do all the wonderful things I supposedly had the potential to do (and those, I realized as a teenager, had little to do with what I was interested in.) But my parents seldom seemed happy or at peace with the current day. They always seemed to be trying to just get through today in anticipation of the potential held by tomorrow, although more often than not they seemed pessimistic about the future. Perhaps in reaction, I have cultivated living mindfully – enjoying, or at least appreciating, each moment as it happens. That doesn’t mean I don’t set goals or work hard, don’t appreciate/use my talents, or don’t consider myself successful; it does mean I don’t single-mindedly chase an invisible, possibly unreachable carrot called “potential.”
Wrestling with the notion of potential (and its cousin, expectations) has informed my beliefs about life learning. When our daughters were living the school-free life decades ago, we weren’t concerned about their future financial success or happiness (although, as parents, we wanted both for them – as they defined those terms), or what sorts of careers they’d have when they grew up. We were concerned about living, being, and learning with them every day; we figured the future would take care of itself if they had freedom, trust, and respect in the present. And it did. Have they lived up to their potential? Well, as adults, they still work hard at the things they care about and feel are important. They’re happy, and financially capable. They try to do their best and are still always learning. They’ve each developed some of their talents, and they’ve both become accomplished at things I never foresaw in their futures.
Over the years, we’ve covered this topic in many different ways in Life Learning Magazine. Here are just a few of those articles. (They are not all live on the website, but if you’re a subscriber, you will have access to them using your password and the back issue archives.)
On Expectations About Learning by Katherine Michalak in Life Learning Magazine, March/April 2003
Living for the Future And Why I’m Glad My Family is Unschooling by Charles Morris in Life Learning Magazine, July/August 2007
Whose Goal Is It, Anyway? by Pam Laricchia in Life Learning Magazine, March/April 2006
Doing Their Best Naturally by Rachel Gathercole in Life Learning Magazine, September/October 2007
Unschooling Helps Children Achieve Full Personhood by Tammy Takahashi in Life Learning Magazine, July/August 2007