Distilled Priorities

So the thing, for me, about unschooling, is that it doesn’t mean applying the same applicator brush to every child. I thought for a while that it did, and maybe I’ll change my mind again on that down the line. But in my current experience, unschooling offers the opportunity to really distill priorities into what is most crucial, and create time and opportunity for those.

A few of the distilled priorities in our family are broad things, like “discovery”; “love of literature”; “autonomy”. I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that I engineer our daily experiences around those types of priorities: reading books to my children and participating in the local library program; reading articles and books myself; allowing vast swathes of unscheduled time which lead to all kinds of discovery often enough; refusing to butter my five-year-old’s bread…it’s all part of my unschool “curriculum”.

But there are also those priorities that are more specific, which I find myself constantly needing to re-evaluate and thoughtfully consider. Things like religion; physical activity; musicality. I have wrestled with my philosophies on the value of letting children move freely within their interests versus my sense that some things are too important to be negotiable or left to chance–especially during their formative years. As John Holt put it,


We must ask how much of the sum of human knowledge anyone can know at the end of his schooling. Perhaps a millionth. Are we then to believe that one of these millionths is so much more important than another?

However, I have come, in this moment, to a place of feeling that there should be a difference in how these distilled priorities are addressed as opposed to those other valuable but infinite possible areas of interest. Or in other words, it can be valuable to place my own parameters and expectations on certain areas of interest and study. Just like I can make sure they come to the library, whether they participate in story time and check out books or not, I can for instance make sure they go to church, whether they enjoy every moment of it or not.

It is a constant balancing act, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s healthy to always be reassessing your choices and assumptions, and unschooling forces me to do that much more often than a different lifestyle, I believe. And as I said in the beginning, the balance will be struck differently with each child–just to keep it interesting!

So for instance, this “musicality” thing, that I have realized is a very huge priority to me. Up till September of this year, none of my children was capable of singing on key. I remember several months ago, taking the time to actually go through each note of a simple children’s song, getting them to sing higher or lower until they hit the correct notes. It took several minutes, and at the end they couldn’t hold onto what they had just done. It was torture for me, and exhausting for them. I felt encouraged that they were able, eventually, to meet me at the correct sound, but disturbed that they were this terrible! It was the beginning of my journey to September, when I signed the two oldest up, against their will, for singing lessons.

It was, I felt, very un-unschooly of me. But what was I to do? It was killing me inside, and I simply could not endure it a moment longer (see: distilled priorities. Soul wrenching inner death is a good indicator you have found one). You should have seen the fight E put up about it. You’d have thought I was selling her into slavery (was I though? Maybe just a little bit? Musical slavery?). It was all very dramatic. And the first few lessons she was ever so slightly rude to her teacher with her crabby, resistant attitude. It drove me nuts, because this is so her, to resist something simply on the basis of being required to do it. Did she really hate singing, as she so regularly and emphatically declared? Only time could tell. With her, no matter how deeply she feels something, the level is always the same. Also with her, if she does not master something within five minutes, it is not worth mastering at all. But she knew the expectations, so begrudgingly, she complied.

Jump ahead, now, a short two months later, and I am very confident in saying that both E and her brother are cured of their tonal deficiencies. What’s more, E has altered her proclamation to, “I like singing, but just not singing lessons.” And once more my take away was, this is so her. Now that she feels a little confident, she no longer resists it, and finds she rather enjoys it. And I have no intention of forcing her to become some kind of top level singer. Once the year is out, if she wants to quit as she surely will, she can never take another singing lesson again. What do I care, now that the foundation is laid? My oldest daughter and son can hold a freaking note. My dreams are fulfilled. More than fulfilled, because they are performing Jolly Old Saint Nicholas with me at the church Christmas dinner in a few weeks. They singing, I accompanying on the ukulele. I might cry for joy. And although they are nervous, they are loving it (otherwise I wouldn’t have made the plan), and so am I!

And you know what else I learned? E responds, under the right circumstances, really positively to a bit of coercion. Clearly I must use it sparingly and wisely–PRIORITIES–and I don’t think this tactic will be necessary for all of them (although I see the same stubborn streak maturing healthily in the two year old, F). But it has its place. Even in an unschooling home.

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