"Mommy, I Want to Go to School!"
"I have a five-year-old who wants to go to school. I am dedicated wholeheartedly to unschooling. I'm confused about what he is seeking and what he has in mind when he says 'school' and ask him questions to try to understand. My hunch is feeling grown up, being part of something, perhaps thinking he will learn things there that he can't learn in life. My concern is that he is receiving the message that he is 'not allowed' to go to school because I stumble all over my words when I try to explain what I want for our family and for him. What would you recommend I say to him? What have you said to others in this situation?"
At age 5, an unschooling child has very little idea about what school is all about. I doubt that he thinks he will learn things there that he can't learn elsewhere, unless someone has told him that. It's far more likely that he is simply curious about school in the same way that he is curious about anything else new to him. If his curiosity has always been respected, then curiosity about school is very natural, since it is something he has heard about so often from relatives, friends, neighbors, books, etc.
The challenge for a parent dedicated to unschooling is to support that curiosity without putting the child into a harmful situation. Because a young child has a built-in curiosity about everything, it's inevitable that he will be curious about many things that are too dangerous to allow him to experience directly - things like fire, wild animals, poisonous chemicals, a busy street, and so on. Those things are also "not allowed" and for good reasons. When a child wants to explore something we know to be potentially harmful, we answer his questions as fully as possible, and at the same time we protect him from the danger. As unschoolers, we know that the school environment has many harmful elements; given that awareness, it is our responsibility to protect our child from it.
The critical step when a child announces he wants to go to school is to determine very specifically and clearly what the child means by "school": what it is that he thinks he would enjoy there, or what need it might fulfill - and then meet that need as well as possible outside of school. When this topic was discussed in Growing Without Schooling some years ago, the general consensus was that the parents should ask the child to be as specific as possible about why they want to go to school. The parents were amazed at some of the answers. One boy wanted only to ride the school bus (which his parents then arranged for him); one girl wanted to have something to say when strangers asked her what school she was going to (they created a name and put a sign on the front of their house - problem solved); another girl just wanted to play in the playground (which they then did on weekends) and so on. Had these parents not asked this critical question, and simply put their child in school, one need may have been met, but at great expense to the child and to the parent-child bond.
In each of those situations, the solution was to identify a very specific need, and to find a creative way of meeting that need outside of school. If the child's need is more general than the examples given - if it is simply an understandable curiosity about what school is like, then the parent can show him the inside of a school and let him see what happens there. An unschooling child who is used to having the free use of his time can't help but notice that the seated children look constrained and unhappy.
It can be easy to forget to ask children this critical question and to assume that they somehow have all
the information necessary to make such an important decision. It's also easy to assume that they are using the
term "school" in the same way that we use it based on all of our memories of school attendance. As
in any discussion, it's essential that all terms are clearly defined. The simple reality is that a young child
does not have the information or experience necessary to understand the full meaning of the word
"school". The most helpful thing we can do when confronted with this type of request is to learn
exactly what it is that the child has in mind, and then do our best to meet that need in an alternative and
safe way. After all, identifying a child's need and meeting it with respect and compassion is at the heart of
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.