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Deschooling a Parent: Learning to Trust

It's only natural for parents to feel uneasy and uncertain when contemplating a path for their children other than the one they themselves traveled. Those of us who decide to unschool - even when we are convinced that this is the best option for our child - must unlearn many unfounded assumptions about learning that we were conditioned to believe for so many years. If we can do that, we can rediscover the natural love of learning we were born with.

Most of us were taught at school to see a false dichotomy between "learning" and "fun". We came to believe that if it's "educational", it can't be fun, and if it's fun, it can't be learning! A child who is unschooled from the beginning, as my son Jason has been, enjoys life free of such preconceptions, and continues to see all learning as a wondrous and rewarding experience. In contrast, schools operate under the very different assumption that learning can be imposed from outside the child through various types of coercion, manipulation, rewards and punishments, and that there are distinct deadlines a child "has to" reach or he will never "catch up" (one must ask, catch up with whom, and why?) These are false assumptions, but it can be difficult to let them go when they were so ingrained in our own childhood.

While an understanding of the true spirit of learning comes naturally to Jason, I have had to unlearn many of these assumptions. In that sense, Jason has been my mentor, continually reminding me that learning is not restricted to a specific curriculum, location, time of day, or even to the presence of a "teacher". Jason has taught himself much of what he now uses in his work as our Natural Child Project webmaster and editor.

In a way, we are a generation with a most difficult task, because we are truly forging new trails and gaining new understandings. As I often remind parents in my workshops, unschooling should be much easier when children who were themselves unschooled choose this path for their own children. For them, unschooling will be the norm, and they will have no need to unlearn so many well-meant but harmful beliefs. They will have a much simpler and truer understanding: every child grows at their own natural pace, and, like flower gardeners, parents simply need to trust their children's unique schedules.

Just as we trust a rose to bloom on its own built-in timetable, so too should we expect children to bloom at their own best pace, and in their own way. There is so much time for a child to grow! If he or she reads fluently at three, at six, or even at twelve, what difference does that really make in the long run? The only real difference it can make is a positive one: a child who is trusted to read when he is ready has the best chance of enjoying a lifetime of pleasurable reading. Yet, because we attended years of school, such understandings can be hard to grasp. Every unschooling parent has likely felt intimidated and unsure at some point. Unschooling is a leap of faith for any parent who attended school in their own childhood.

Jason is now a young adult. When I look back over the years, I see joyful, enthusiastic learning that I have been privileged to share. It has been a happy experience that couldn't have been further from the six daily hours of drudgery that I had first imagined it would be! Jason not only enjoys learning many things, he sees learning as an interesting, integral part of all life, not a separate activity confined to specific locations, days, or times. In that sense, he is still "unschooling" and always will be. For Jason, this path has been far more than just an alternative to formal schooling; it has prepared him to live a life full of curiosity and wonder.

As John Holt once wrote, "Living is learning." This statement appears in an engaging collection of Holt's letters called A Life Worth Living. Judging from my own experience, I believe that unschooling is a leap worth taking, one that can lead to a life worth living. But this leap does not need to be attempted alone. Unschooling friends and support groups, books, articles, and websites can be very enlightening. But most of all, we can allow our child to teach us how joyful and natural learning can be. For instruction on unschooling, our children are the single best source of encouragement, inspiration, and reassurance we can have.

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Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.