Unschooling with Public School

I have been wrestling the past few days with a philosophical paradox. It started when E complained to me about a couple schooled cohorts of hers who like to quiz her on some of the dubiously useful trivia they picked up in school. She didn’t have the answer, and she doesn’t have trivia of her own to quiz them on, because her life doesn’t work in tests. It was clear from the conversation that she was beginning to feel “less than”.

E is an interesting sort of kid. She is the most socially minded person I may ever have met. I think largely because of this, she’s been a little…obsessed with school, since pretty much the day she learned what school was. Of course at first it was all these grand, completely delusional fantasies: basically, what you see in the story books. I will always remember how perfectly engaged and fulfilled the students and teachers seem to be in the Franklin books.

Good for them, you know. Gotta have ideals.

But over the past couple years, after talking to other schooled kids and reading How Children Fail together, and having many conversations, her ideas have shifted to a much more realistic understanding of the issues with the school life. And also the benefits (read: being like other kids). And she still wanted to go.

So. E is also the kind of child who thinks about things frequently, unabatedly, and also speaks aloud nearly every thought that comes to her precious mind. Meaning: the school thing has come up a lot, and I’ve had to do some deep thinking about it over the years.

In the past, my decision to keep her home came down to two reasons: first, that unschooling isn’t just an educational philosophy; it is also a lifestyle. And we have an entire family living that lifestyle. If one of my young children attends school, it means we all are beholden to that schedule, and we lose half the benefit of the unschooling lifestyle! It was not a sacrifice I was willing to force on the rest of the family to fulfill a childish whimsy. Second, that I did not feel E was mature enough to rise above the more troubling social and academic downsides to the school environment: getting swept up in competition with peers; living life to please a teacher; dealing with bullies; developing math anxiety or feeling “stupid” for not grasping concepts deemed important by some distant elected representative; equating “schooling” with “learning” and losing that ever so precious love of learning! So I told her: when you’re 14. That’s when you can choose school.

Except…our conversation. And the many over the past year that have been just like it. The wistful longing to not be “weird”. The deep hatred of the question, “What’s homeschool like? Are you stupid?!” And the realization that, at ten years of age, my daughter is old enough to manage her own schedule and food prep, and even be home alone occasionally if needed. Reason first, gone.

Which brings me to the philosophical paradox, or, The Question of Reason Second. For you see, my philosophy is that a child flourishes when trusted; when given educational freedom; when allowed agency. So, wrestled I, does that philosophy lead me to trust that E will eventually get past this hump and to protect her freedom and agency by keeping her home, or does it lead me to give her the trust, freedom, and agency to make her own decision? In short, do I feel she is mature enough to make that call?

I don’t think there’s a stock answer here. From personal experience, literally no one in the history of unschooling has dealt with a child as obsessed with school as mine–or so it appears from the [lack of] answers I gleaned from unschooling forums. Also from personal experience, asking for the perspective of a friend whose kids are already attending the school is a terrible idea. It just gives you an opportunity to realize that your friend deeply believes your life choices are utterly idiotic. Asking God to help you sort it out is useful, though, if that’s your thing—it really is the kind of question that requires some degree of perfect omniscience to confidently settle on an answer.

For the past many months, my big question has been: in a case like E’s, is sending my child to public school actually unschooling? I’ve decided that it is. I’m a little excited about it myself. I think, despite the melodrama and histrionics that she puts on occasionally, the truth is she has a pretty thoughtful head on her shoulders. And she knows that if she dislikes it, she can quit. We both agree that life is all a negotiation between cost and benefit–and that although many of the requirements of school may be inane, and although many of the social aspects may be detrimental, it can be worth the benefits, if you want them bad enough. And she’s allowed to decide what it is that she wants.

So the coming months will be a very new kind of adventure for me, and for her. We had a discussion tonight about how, although I feel that fostering “love of learning” is paramount, the schools are somewhat more focused on retaining specific information, and she may need to update herself on some of that information to be set up to succeed in her chosen path. I told her, if she quits, I want it to be on her own terms; not because she felt she couldn’t hack it. I think, at the very heart of it all, she needs to be able to prove to herself that she can “do” school if she wants to.

My initial plan was for her to prepare to enter grade six, next September. But when I said “next year”, she responded, “So, like January?” and I told her that we’d at least look into it. Can I cancel the government homeschool funding halfway through the year? Can she get herself prepared to slide confidently into grade 5.5 in just two months? Am I going to go broke on school supplies? I don’t know. Deadline seems tight. At any rate my first step is to set up an appointment with the principal.

[GULP] Why do I feel so nervous?!

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