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Home Education Magazine Interview with Jan Hunt

Mary: How did the Natural Child Project come to be?

Jan: In 1996, I asked my son, Jason, who was 15 at the time, if we should start a website. Because he had unschooled from the beginning and learns everything he needs to know on his own, he taught himself how to design a website by looking at other sites' source pages. We started the website in December of 1996 with a few of my parenting columns from Natural Life Magazine. At that point, we had no plans to add anything more to the site. We would have been very surprised then to learn how large our website would become!

Back in 1989, my article "Ten Reasons Not to Hit Your Kids" happened to reach Alice Miller. She added my article to her next book, Breaking Down The Wall of Silence. When Jason and I started our website, Alice gave us permission to post some of her articles and book excerpts, and our website started to grow. We have since added more articles by Alice and many other leading writers.

In the spring of 1997 Jason realized that the website was all about children, but there was nothing by them or for them, so he started the Global Children's Art Gallery. In the beginning there were only a few pictures from friends' children, but CNN Headline News and Yahoo! both suddenly promoted it. Since then the gallery has had many submissions, and has become the largest collection of children's art on the Internet, with hundreds of images from over 60 countries. We offer prints, posters, greeting cards and clothing using images from the Gallery as a fundraiser.

Mary: Can you share a bit about the philosophy of attachment parenting?

Jan: It's interesting - some years ago, I wrote an article called "What is Attachment Parenting?" and showed it to a close fiend. She liked the article, but was surprised that I hadn't included a "laundry list" such as carrying, cosleeping and natural weaning. But attachment parenting is so much more than these specific choices. Its essence is loving and trusting our children - believing that they are doing the best they can at every given moment. It all comes down to trust. John Holt said it best in just two words: "Trust children".

Mary: It seems as if many families who enjoy attachment parenting also go on to homeschool or unschool. Do you feel that it's easier for those who do understand attachment parenting to understand unschooling?

Jan: If I were to write a laundry list for attachment parenting, unschooling would be on the list. It's the most consistent educational choice for attachment parents. In unschooling, we trust that the child knows what he wants to learn and how to go about learning it, and his natural curiosity is left intact. Unschooling children take joy in the intrinsic values of whatever they are learning. The structure of school (required attendance, school-selected topics and books, and constant checking of the child's progress) assumes that children are not natural learners, but must be compelled to learn through coercion, intimidation, and fear. Because school approaches are based on mistrust, they represent in many ways the polar opposite of attachment parenting.

Mary: How did you get started in unschooling?

We learned about unschooling when were living in Ontario. Jason was a baby and a free monthly magazine was delivered to our door. I was usually too busy to read it, but one day I noticed there was an article on homeschooling. Looking back, I can see that it was one of the best articles I have read on the subject. Before I was a parent, I thought that homeschooling was wonderful if someone could manage it, but I thought I wasn't organized or energetic enough to create a school in my home! Fortunately, my thinking was completely turned around when I read that first article.

We moved to BC when Jason was 2, and found a homeschooling support group based on John Holt's books. We loved being with these families - their children were friendly, content, curious and active. We knew right away that this was what we wanted for our son. But I've noticed that even the most structured homeschooling families tend to become more like unschoolers over time - they can't help but notice that less structure is better, and that teaching can in fact interfere with learning. They begin to trust their child's natural curiosity and enjoyment, which they can't help but observe every day.

In a sense, every parent is an unschooling parent until the child reaches so-called "school age". If their child is interested in trains, they get books on trains, toy trains, or go on train rides. Then their child turns 5 or 6, and the assumption seems to be that learning is now suddenly difficult and complicated - as though children that age are no longer natural learners.

Beyond the false assumptions about learning, no school can provide the close attention and compassion available from caring parents. It doesn't matter if it's a public school in a high crime area, or an expensive private school in a beautiful setting - both separate the child from their parents and siblings, and are not equipped to provide the kind of close attention and trusting acceptance available from a loving parent - who knows her child so much better than any teacher could.

Mary: While visiting your site, I read many of your articles, but one that I keep returning to is Subjective Vs. Objective Labels: A Plea for Occam's Razor. Can you explain the difference between subjective and objective labels?

Jan: Cancer is objective. You can take a biopsy, and see the cells. The diagnosis is open to evaluation - it can be proved or disproved. A subjective label is the opposite - it's arbitrary and unprovable - an opinion, not a fact. The existence of ADD/ADHD has never been proven in any scientific way. This is what Brian Beaumont of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights wrote: "The fact is, there is nothing in any medical or scientific literature that confirms the existence of ADHD. It was invented by a handful of psychiatrists by a show of hands at an American Psychiatric Association meeting in the 80's. Thus, psychiatrists are labeling and drugging a non-existent malady."

When parents call to say their child has been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, I ask "What lab results were you shown?" There weren't any, because there is no scientific test - just a short, subjective questionnaire, with such vague behavioral descriptions that virtually any child could receive this label. Yet psychiatrists confidently conclude from this deceptive questionnaire that a child has a serious "disorder", and needs dangerous medication - Ritalin is a form of speed. Such drugs often cause negative reactions. How do they treat those reactions? They increase the dosage or give another dangerous medication. It can be very difficult for a child to break free from this cycle. And of course, the danger isn't just physical, but emotional, because medicalized labels can't help but affect a child's self-image and self-esteem.

Mary: What is Occam's Razor?

Jan: Wikipedia defines it this way: "The explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory." A child in school may be bored by a dull teaching approach, may be reacting to teasing from other children, responding to family stress, or - most likely - is simply a healthy, active child who finds it difficult to sit still for unnaturally long periods of time. Any of those explanations are simpler and more logical than an unproven, hypothetical "disorder".

Mary: It appears that ADHD and other learning disabilities are being over-diagnosed. Why do you feel this trend is continuing?

Jan: One factor is money - every school district gets more money for every child with a mental health or special education "diagnosis". And parents may welcome a pseudoscientific label if they are intimidated by doctors or if they're not well informed. Circular thinking is inherent in the process. If a teacher sends a child for an ADHD evaluation, the evaluators assume the teacher knows there is a disorder. They see their job not as determining the existence or non-existence of a disorder, but rather of determining which label and which drugs to give. Once a child is sent to an evaluator, he is well on his way to being permanently labeled instead of being understood. In some states, children can be required to see an evaluator and required to take drugs to stay in school. And these are the same people who tell children to "just say no to drugs"! But in some areas, things are improving. Dr. John Breeding, author of The Wildest Colts Make the Best Horses, helped to change the law in Texas. Parents there can now refuse to have their child tested and they can refuse to have their child put on medication.

Mary: Do you have any tips for helping folks identify some of these causes or needs that might be confused as ADHD or for those who have been labeled as ADHD?

Jan: If the child is in school, boredom and frustration from being forced to endure this unnatural environment are the most likely causes. Many children are temporarily "cured" of this so-called disorder during summer vacation, or are permanently "cured" by being taken out of school.

Restlessness and aggression can be related to such things as food allergy, poor nutrition, emotional stress, or punishment. Instead of using an unhelpful label like "ADD" or "ADHD", attention to more realistic and specific factors can be much more constructive.

Mary: Before we close, what do you feel is the most important information that you share with unschoolers?

Jan: To enhance learning, see yourself as a "reference librarian". Be alert to interests that develop naturally, and help your child to find the resources that can answer her questions. Remember that everyone learns best by asking questions, not by answering them. Trust your child's unique timetable, and trust what your heart tells you.

Mary: Thank you for your excellent work and for sharing your time with us.

Jan: Thank you for the opportunity!

This interview appeared in the July - August 2007 issue of Home Education Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission from HEM.

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.