I’ve been part of a few conversations recently about life learning kids who want to try school. The range of opinions has been wide, from “Why not?” to concern about the brutal social climate in most schools, to “Why unschool at all if public school is viewed as an acceptable option?” Sometimes, the request has fed a parent’s insecurity about the rightness of their unschooling choice in the first place. And sometimes, the request has resulted from a kid’s insecurity about the same thing!
As Ann Lloyd wrote in her 2008 Life Learning Magazine article about her daughter wanting to try school, “Walking the line between parental intervention and child self-direction is never easy.” After all, in our society, trusting kids is pretty radical. Respecting children’s ability to understand and communicate their own needs – and allowing them the freedom to act on that – is unusual. But if life learning parents are true to those principles, it seems to me that we must seriously consider our children’s choice to attend school.
Sometimes, the request can prompt changes at home to accommodate a child or teen that will eliminate the desire for school. Generally, I’ve found that when unschoolers try school, they quickly realize how much freedom they’ve lost, how the reality of school isn’t as good as the hype, and that they know a lot more academic type stuff than they thought. Often, they end up missing the intellectual and bodily autonomy they used to have and switch back to free-range learning, none the worse for wear and grateful for the choice.
My two daughters each chose to try high school. They wanted to test themselves and their prior learning, and they wanted to know for themselves if this thing their mother had been speaking out against for so many years was truly as awful as all of that. I wasn’t thrilled with the choice, but supported it. Their dad and I felt they were both mature enough to decide for themselves. We knew that their lives to date had provided them with the self-esteem, security, and ability to handle the experience well – to take from it what they wanted and leave the rest. And they knew that they could leave whenever they wanted, which I think is a crucial part of real choice.
And we were right; they handled the experience well. They were surprised at the injustices and other abuses that they witnessed at school. They took control of those things they wanted/needed to control, and stood up to authority for what they felt was right. They made changes to many adults’ perceptions of young people’s rights while they were there…and helped eliminate a few arbitrary rules along the way. And they felt able to leave when they wanted.
Our eldest daughter Heidi said years later in Natural Life Magazine that school had been a learning experience just like any other she’d had. And in an essay written when she was eighteen and published in my book School Free, she wrote about both the downside of school (lack of time for “real life,” boredom, lack of control over her own time, injustices) and the balance between unschooling and schooling: “Being at home when I was younger gave me time to understand who I am and what I like to do. School then opened up a whole spectrum of other exciting possibilities.”
Our instinct to trust her and her sister proved to be the right one…over and over and over. And that’s what life learning / unschooling is all about, after all.