How I decided to Unschool

Throwback to the year 2008 when I was living in Edmonton and I only had two kids: a two year old and a baby. I had just found a new playgroup that met down the street from me which was run in the cheerfully decorated downstairs of a small house. This playgroup was different from the church-based one I had previously attended. It was run by and for home birth and midwifery advocates. I hadn’t had any home births myself at that time, but I was interested in the idea, and I was interested in meeting these people. So I tamped down my anxiety at going to a place where I didn’t know anybody, packed up my two babies into our junky old station wagon, drove through the icy Edmontonian air and met a roomful of women who kinda changed my life.

Among the new ideas I encountered in that basement full of awesome hippie moms was the idea that homeschooling was still a thing. One day, one of the women mentioned that she was planning on homeschooling her kids. Most of the other moms in the room just fell silent. When you live a life full of screaming, pooping, needy babies, it’s hard to imagine giving up what is usually seen as your ONE legitimate break from them and their needs: school. Most young mothers look forward to kindergarten like inmates looking forward to the end of a jail sentence. In that moment, I had nothing but the harshest judgements for that mom and her plans. I thought she was ridiculous.

One thing you need to know about me: when I hear an idea that I hate, I am immediately drawn to learn more about it. I’ve learned that when I have a strong emotional response to an idea, it means there’s something in it for me. I don’t remember all the steps I took in getting from that moment in playgroup to the decision not to send my kid to school, but I know it was a gradual process.

In fact, I was reluctant to learn more about homeschooling because I was afraid I would learn it was a really great idea, and then I would HAVE to do it. Because here is another thing you should know about me: I have a pathological need to get everything right (I know it’s a problem. I’m working on it).

For me, the books that really convinced me were a couple of very worn and yellowed volumes by John Holt that I borrowed from the library. I think it might have been Jacqui who recommended them.

I learned from my reading about the unsavory origins of the public school system, the harm that it does to children’s innate curiosity and talent for learning, the emotional pain that the system inflicts, and the negative lifelong consequences of those things which are evident in society.

If you hated that paragraph, I encourage you to examine your emotional response and go read some John Holt. Heads up, it’s a trap. You’ll get convinced and end up in the same boat as me. Mwahaha!

We had moved to Ontario when my oldest was 3 years old. In this province, kids are eligible for fully funded all day school the year they turn 4. I had a year after moving here to decide what I was going to do with her.

In the spring of the year she was old enough for Junior Kindergarten, I registered my oldest for school, feeling very uncertain about the whole idea, but not feeling ready to commit to keeping her at home. At that time I had had my third child and was a stay at home mom to three kids aged 4, 2 and newborn. I was tired. I needed a break.

The summer before she was to start school, I signed her up for a half-day summer camp to get her used to being away from me for part of the day. Every day at lunchtime I’d pick her up from camp and ask her what she had done that day, and how it had gone. Invariably she would smile and say it had been “fun” and “good”, but I quickly realized that my four year old didn’t really have the ability to give me a run down of her morning’s activities or the details of what had gone on. As it got closer to September, I just knew that I was not comfortable sending a child that young away to school for six or seven hours every day and having almost no information about exactly what was happening.

Would she have been able to tell me if she was being bullied? Would she have been able to tell me if she had felt scared? On the other side, would she have been able to tell me all the fun things she had done, or what she had learned? I decided that the answer to all these questions was no, and that I was not comfortable having so little knowledge of my child’s daily life when she was so very young.

I called the school during the last week of September and cancelled her registration. I decided that the following year I would decide if I thought she was old enough for school.

Every year that passed after that I watched my children learn without schooling, compared them to their schooled peers (the children of friends), and didn’t see that they were lacking anything in their lives from not attending school. So every September after that I decided again not to register them.

Now it has been so long, and my oldest is going to be 12 soon, and I still haven’t seen my kids lacking anything that school could provide. I never felt the need to try to replicate school in my own home because I’ve watched the way my kids absorb information and skills through living their life, and have never seen any need for me to push them to do any more than they already do except in a few cases. I am also deeply convinced on a theoretical and philosophical level about the merits of unschooling.

For the first several years after choosing life without school, I would have bouts of panic where I would question whether unschooling was really the right life path or whether I was ruining my kids’ lives. I guess most parents, no matter how they raise their kids feel that way sometimes. But another thing you should know about me: I’m pretty bold and strong in my convictions. If I believe a thing is right, it takes a lot to sway me from it.

So that’s the story of how I chose unschooling! Hope you enjoyed reading it. I’d love to hear how your experience compares. Share in the comments.

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