After I wrote about unschoolers and potential a few months ago, somebody asked me how successful my life learning daughters’ adult lives have been. I responded that they’ve been just as successful as their childhood lives were. That didn’t satisfy this person, who began to ask more pointed questions about what kind of careers they have, how much money they’re making, if they have lots of friends, and other common measures. I realized that he was, in fact, quizzing me about unschooling success or failure…and what my daughters have turned out like without teachers and parents goading them to perform to their potential.
Success is personal. I don’t like to speak for other people, including my daughters. I think his questions were rude. And, as important as one’s childhood is, there are many contributors to success. But I did tell this person that I don’t personally define success as the ability to have acquired things, monetary or otherwise. And it’s certainly not something that can be standardized. (I think my evasiveness led him to assume they are both in the poorhouse or jail!)
In fact, I’m not even sure that success is a condition or even a permanent state of being. It is a process of accomplishing what is required to achieve a task or realize a dream, plus the lessons you learn along the way. And those lessons are invaluable even if the goal is not realized. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t see it this way – maybe because most people think the product is more important than process, while unschoolers see it the other way around.
Success and failure are seen as black or white, good or bad, proud or shameful. If being successful is good, then failing is bad. Failure often is accompanied by shame and ridicule. This just leads, in most cases, to a paralyzing fear of failure. We become focused on trying not to fail. We avoid taking risks. We hold ourselves back from fully living, from the process of learning and, inevitably and somewhat paradoxically, from experiencing opportunities for success.
Young children – especially those who haven’t been exposed to school – are good at being successful. They ask incisive questions, they acquire information, they experiment…they undertake the process of that leads to success in whatever they’re doing. But they, too, can learn to fear failure if their inquisitiveness gets turned off by teachers or parents or if they are made to feel self-conscious if they don’t appear to be achieving success.
I think our school-free lifestyle protected my daughters from that. One is a successfully self-employed graphic designer and writer, the other is a passionate conservation horticulturalist who runs a native plant botanical garden attached to a university. They both have loving partners and friends, and appear to me to have remained as happy, curious, creative, self-directed, and fearless as they were as children, while accumulating the wisdom of midlife. And that is the kind of “unschooling success” I hoped they would achieve.