Sunday, February 6, 2011


This is an excerpt from one of my talks at LIFE is Good 2009. It was titled, "Unschooling Teenagers: RATS in the House." RATS stands for Respect, Acceptance, Trust, and Support.

Here’s my little bombshell: I don’t trust my kids.

What I mean is, I don't trust my kids in the way traditional parents mean when they talk about trusting their kids.

Think about it. When a mainstream parent says she trusts her teenager, what does she really mean? I think she means she trusts her teenager to make good choices. And what does that mean? What constitutes a good choice?

Well, that’s subjective, isn’t it? I knew a woman once whose father had encouraged her to be promiscuous when she was a teenager. To him, sleeping around was a good choice. But maybe more conventional philosophies come to mind. Maybe you think about abstinence, or condom use, or saying no to drugs, or putting money in a savings account, or looking both ways before you cross the street. Maybe you think about safety issues.

Fair enough. So, teens who make good choices keep themselves safe.

It sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But here’s a question: When are our kids safe enough? Where do we draw the line between safety and experience? And more importantly, where do they draw that line?

A couple of years ago, Frank and the girls and I loaded ourselves into a small sailboat and crossed the Gulf of Mexico. During hurricane season. My mother probably thought we had lost our ever-lovin’ minds. And, considering it was the year of Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, she just might have been right.

But my point is, we made our own choices. My parents didn’t choose for us. Now, was our choice a good choice? That’s debatable. Every one of you probably has an opinion on that. I'm sure my mother does.

But here’s the thing: The right and wrong of every single choice each of us makes is debatable. All we can know when we judge another person’s choice is what we would have chosen in the same situation.

So what a traditional parent really means when she says she trusts her kid to make good choices is that she trusts her teen to make the same choices she would choose for him. She expects her kid’s brain to be an extension of her own, to assess and react to a situation just as she would, and to choose the behavior that she would choose.

Well, like I said, I don’t trust my kids that way. The idea that their brains are an extension of mine is silly. Their brains are their own. They will assess and react and choose in their own ways, not mine.

How many of you have seen the movie "Risky Business"? Joel’s parents are out of town, and when they call to check in one evening, they can tell by the noise level that he’s having a party. “Just a few friends,” Joel tells them, and his mother says it’s all right. “You know we trust you.” Of course, at that moment, Joel is running a brothel out of their home and there are prostitutes wearing his mother’s clothes.

Now, my point with this little story is not to say that teenagers are not trustworthy. It is simply to say that even good kids like Joel make their own choices. And then they handle what comes. In the movie, Joel does a lot of scrambling to handle what comes, but he does in fact handle it.

And that is where my authentic trust for my kids comes in. I trust my daughters to make their own choices and to handle what comes. I also trust them to ask for help if they need it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Learning mystique

On Twitter today, someone referred to unschooling as "the lazy parent's approach to school." The author's username includes "sarcasm," so I didn't take offense. But this opinion of unschooling is one we hear from time to time. It has its roots in the multilayered belief that (1) teaching is hard,
(2) the stuff they teach in school is terribly important but so obscure that no one in the real world is likely to stumble upon it anywhere else, and if they do they won't be able to figure it out on their own, and (3) learning the terribly important things must be insisted upon, enforced, and even coerced.

Viewed from that belief system, I can see why unschoolers look like lazybones. We skip the hard part, let our kids play video games if they'd rather, and don't seem to care very much about the terribly important stuff (obscure or not).

But let's take a closer look...

Teaching is hard.

You bet your ass. Teaching is damned hard. Classroom management is hard. Engaging one or two little brains that would rather be playing video games is hard; engaging 25 to 30 of them is all but impossible. Butting up against district policies that get in the way of that engagement is hard. Sacrificing class time to idiotic curriculum choices is hard. Hurting kids to make a living is hard (see the last paragraph on the first page of that link, which is the resignation letter of John Taylor Gatto, who at that time was NY State Teacher of the Year).

And at home? Sitting your kids down at the kitchen table with a lesson plan and standing over them until they complete it is hard. In many cases, it is so hard that the kids end up back in school because neither the kids nor the parents can take it anymore.

Do unschoolers skip all that? You bet your ass.

The stuff they teach in school is terribly important...

Let's do a little experiment. Yesterday, somewhere between playing Minecraft with some friends from Not Back to School Camp and looking at vlogs, Chloe learned about Queen Ranavalona the First.

So, let's pretend I'm the school board and I have determined that it is terribly important for people your age—yes, your age, the exact age that you are right this minute as you read this blog post—it is terribly important for you to learn what Minecraft is and how much it costs, what the policy is on bedtimes at Not Back to School Camp, and all about Queen Ranavalona and why she might be of interest to an unschooler.

What's that? You don't think those things are terribly important? Welcome to the life of a schooled child.

But since we're pretending, let's pretend that one of those items in my little curriculum has piqued your interest. Maybe you're a teen or the parent of a teen who is interested in attending Not Back to School Camp and you would actually like to know about the bedtime policy. Or maybe you've never heard of Minecraft or Not Back to School Camp or Queen Ranavalona or vlogs, and I've made you curious.

Welcome to the life of a lucky schooled child.

But what about the basics?

They call them the basics for a reason. To reach age 15 without learning everything that is taught in elementary school is virtually impossible, provided no one has gotten in your way.

Don't believe me? Take a look at the typical course of study for grades 1 through 5.

But what about math?

At the very first LIFE is Good, my friend Mary Lewis gave a talk about math in which she discussed the work she was doing teaching math to math-phobic adults—that is, adults who had been through 10 to 13 years of school math and were so traumatized by it that they would freeze in terror if someone asked them to add some numbers together. Mary said these people would be far better off if they had never had a math lesson. This article by David Albert certainly makes her point.

But what about core concepts/a balanced education/learning history so it doesn't repeat itself/etc.?

I could argue (and if I can find an article I read recently about the origins of the phrase "balanced education" I just might). But let's say I concede the point. Let's say there is a core set of knowledge that an educated person must have. Terribly important stuff. obscure that no one in the real world is likely to stumble upon it anywhere else...

But the obscure stuff—like Queen Ranavalona to your average American—is stuff that doesn't belong in the core set.

...and if they do they won't be able to figure it out on their own.

The rest? The not-obscure stuff? Kids will encounter it in the real world. When they do, they will have a reason to learn about it, and they will seek out the latest information about it instead of relying on some possibly propagandized, probably censored information they got a decade or more ago.

How will they do that? Well, let's go back to our pretend school and find out. I am your teacher now, working from the curriculum I've received from the school board, here to give you your assignment for the day: Open a new tab right now and find out who Queen Ranavalona was. If you already know who she was, find out the bedtime policy at NBTSC or how much Minecraft costs.

Everybody, get to work! You have two minutes.

Two minutes later... I suspect at most a third of you have done your assignment and the rest of you are faking it and hoping there won't be a test.

But even the fakers should be able to get my point here: what a person needs to know, she finds out.

Learning must be insisted upon, enforced, and even coerced.

Today, after hearing a radio snippet about the U.S. cutting aid to Egypt, Emma asked why we send money to other countries instead of spending it here. Why did she ask me that? Because she didn't understand. Because she was curious. Because it's relevant to her life, being related to current events that we've been discussing a bit here and to the financial situation of people she knows who are struggling in the recession.

Also today, Chloe finished reading "Lord of the Flies." Why? For entertainment. Because it's relevant to her life, having been mentioned in a vlog she's been enjoying. Because it's classic fiction that gets mentioned occasionally and she was curious.

Also today, you are reading the blog of an unschooling parent. Why? Why are you here? You don't have to answer that. Just think about it. What drove you to come to this page of the Internet? No wait, I changed my mind. Leave me a comment and tell me why you're here. I am curious.

And that's the answer to the test we're not having: Human beings are inherently curious. We seek out new information instinctively, even greedily. Learning does not need to be coerced; it is a given.

The greatest trick the educational system ever pulled was convincing people they couldn't learn without it.

The school system is not what it appears to be. It is past time to start looking beyond the disguise.

Point, meet counterpoint.

The other origin of unschooling as "the lazy parent's approach to school" is the idea that unschooling is easy. Umm, no. Unschooling is fun, make no mistake, but it is also quite a lot of work. My post The cons of unschooling describes some of the work that is involved.