Unschooling Ourselves: re-thinking how we interact with our kids

img_5598.jpgYou’ve just given birth. You feel like your body has been turned inside-out, but the joy you feel when those tiny eyes open and squint up at you is palpable. It’s like falling in love, multiplied by a thousand. In this moment, it seems a given that your love is unconditional.

Then, that baby turns two and you need to brush his teeth and he doesn’t want you to…and the power struggle begins. One human being’s will against another.

So many of us wish to reject the old authoritarian paradigm, to move away from control and manipulation, to move towards kindness and respect with our children. But what does that actually look like?

Because teeth still need to be brushed.

Sometimes we parents move away from carrot-and-stick parenting, but towards…nothing. We say “do this please”, Child says “No”, We say “Now what??” We wish so deeply to respect our children as autonomous individuals, to support them in self-determining, that it’s easy to forget that we’re still the parent. That our children still need a leader. Still need guidance. Still need correction.

Without these things the balance is thrown off. A child is like a leaderless puppy. When a human being’s will never comes up against the natural limits of what is right, what is respectful, what is polite, what is thoughtful, what is desired or needed by others, then empathy fails to develop.

Likewise, if the will is always controlled by punishments and manipulated by rewards, the human being naturally rebels. Or withdraws. We are not asking them to consider how their behavior affects others, we are only teaching them to consider the affect on themselves: will I be punished for this? Rewarded for this? And again, empathy fails to develop.

So what is empathy, and why does it matter so much?

We are social animals. Empathy is the ability to take in another’s experience. To maintain awareness of how our actions and words affect other people. To maintain awareness of their needs and feelings, separate from ours. Without empathy, our relationships will never be mutually satisfying, and a human who cannot maintain healthy connections with other humans and the world around them will fail to thrive. Other people are the mirrors through which we see ourselves. We act, and then see how those actions affect those around us, and learn to adjust.

Beyond the basic needs like food and shelter, social animals need connection and interaction. Our job as parents is to connect and interact with our children in ways that support the development of empathy. To model social skills. To interact with them in the way we want them to interact with the world.

But what does this interaction look like? When so many of us were parented in less-than-healthy ways, in a generation where hitting a child was still the prevalent form of discipline, how do we turn off the auto-pilot and form new neural pathways so that we don’t pass on the same unhealthy patterns to our children? The voices of society are loud, and most accepted ways of interacting with children are still based in the old paradigm. The messages we are surrounded with are strong. It’s a difficult thing to tune them out. What helps is to turn up the voice of our hearts so loud that it becomes all we hear.

In this way, we can become new pattern-makers.

Several years ago, when I was feeling lost in my parenting as to how to interact with my children in healthy ways, I made a list for myself to guide my own behavior when managing my children. Are you a list-maker? I’m a list-maker. It helps to organize my brain. This is a list I have come back to again and again and again over the years as my children grow, rewiring myself by repetition until what once felt forced became habitual.

My own list starts with the culturally-accepted behaviors which I find to be harmful, and do not wish to perpetuate in my own parenting. I used to refer to this part often, because boy do old habits die hard!

You DO NOT have the right to:

Attempt to manipulate another’s behavior… with threats of punishment, or promises of reward. When we do this, it destroys intrinsic motivation and instead makes external fear/reward the motivating factor for behavior.

Use violence when they refuse to comply… because I do not want to teach my children to use violence when someone hinders their will. This includes yelling, shaming, witholding help or affection, and other forms of emotional harm.

Take away their belongings when they refuse to comply… Oi! This is a big one. It’s commonly accepted to remove “privileges” or take away access to technology, or otherwise use deprivation to control behavior. But would it work with you? I think if my husband tried to take away my car keys because I didn’t do the laundry, I’d probably just get pissed off. I think for kids it has the same affect. It’s just more control and manipulation.
I also don’t want to teach my kids to take other people’s belongings if they offend them, or in an effort to make them upset as payment for wrong-doing.
Now, to clarify: if my two year old whacks my five year old repeatedly with a plastic sword after being asked not to, of course the sword is gone. Obviously he’s showing he’s not able to control himself with that object right then. This is different than “you didn’t be quiet when I asked you to at the chiropractors, so now I’m going to not let you play the iPad this evening.”

Make unpleasant things happen to them when they refuse to comply… this is what we parents often turn to instead of spanking or other more punitive measures. Child doesn’t clean up when asked, or fails to conduct themselves in public like a human instead of a wild monkey, or otherwise frustrates us, and so we assign a task, or ground them, or, again, take away their belongings or privileges. And again, these are just more ways of attempting to manipulate another’s behavior by external means.

Shame them or be disrespectful when you are displeased… because we do not want to teach them to shame or disrespect others when they are displeased. Living with other humans, small or large ones, and bumping up against one another’s desires/wills/needs/wishes, is going to cause displeasure at times. If we give ourselves license to disrespect each other when that occurs, it not only destroys closeness and connection, but creates a general atmosphere of anxiety. No one can relax if they know they will be berated every time they display an emotion or perform an action which others find irritating or unacceptable.
Most importantly, if we wish our children to respect us, and to treat others with respect, than we must first treat them with respect.

So, goodness, I know what I’m NOT supposed to do, but what tools does that leave me? Shall I just let the children walk all over me then? Do nothing when they behave innapropriately? Definitely not. Children need a calm, firm, generous leader. The second part of my list I read when I need to remind myself how to be that leader.

As a parent I DO have the right to:


Lead by example...

If there is one thing I have learned it is that my children learn by what I do, not what I say. It’s my own behavior they follow, not the list of “house rules” dutifully pinned on the bulletin board. If I speak in a tone of constant irritation, soon enough I start hearing this tone echoed all over my house.
As parents, it is easy to think it is our duty to control our children’s behavior. When really, all we can control is our own. We must model for them the tone and behavior we hope they will emulate. When I start to hear and see unkindness or impatience or quick-temperedness in my children, I have learned to turn my eyes inward and examine myself. They are my mirrors.
When we start to see things this way, parenting can provide the opportunity for endless personal growth.
I’ve found it to be helpful, when faced with a defiant or melting-down child, to change my thinking. Instead of asking “how do I change this behavior?” I think “thankyou for this opportunity to practice patience.” This instantly swaps out the lenses through which I’m viewing the situation.

Keep my child and others safe...

Violence. It’s one of the most difficult things to know how to react to when one is trying to parent non-punitively. But let’s face it: the old paradigm of hitting a child for hitting is about as non-sensical as it gets. As is any kind of violent reaction on our part.
So what do we do instead?
When my children fight (and they do…but only every hour on the hour!), first I remind them simply “we don’t hit/pull hair/pinch/stick one’s fingers up your sisters nose”. But usually, if a child has gone as far as to lose their temper, then words are like using a spray bottle on a bonfire. One has to intervene. So I calmly remove the offending child to someplace where they can’t cause harm. I might tell them “sorry, I won’t let you hurt your sister. Take a minute to calm down.”
This is my line in the sand. Violence is not allowed. It’s good to try and communicate this firmly, with as few words as possible, but then let it go. Shaming, berating, and preaching at the offender only causes them to internalize their embarrassement. Instead, focus on comforting the child who was hurt.
When the offender returns, assume they are there to be sweet and make amends. Allow them to do so.

Get my own needs met

We cannot pour from an empty cup. We hear it all the time, but so often we still try and attempt it! If we are running on empty, it is important to find ways to meet our own needs. This is our responsibility to ourselves, and to our children. Part of modeling is showing them how to prioritize self-care. What self-care means to you will probably look entirely different than for me or someone else. It is doing whatever makes you tick, whatever brings you joy, whatever makes you feel grounded and creative.
When I care for myself, I naturally have more patience for my children. When I don’t, I feel irritated with everyone. Prioritizing our own needs as well as theirs can do wonders for our parenting.

Say no...

Let’s face it parents, sometimes, because we are so used to meeting the needs of others, we unwittingly start to martyr ourselves. In an effort to be giving, we end up sacrificing our own authenticity. One cannot live harmoniously in relationship with any other human being if one does not feel able to say no. “No” is how we draw boundaries. Modeling healthy boundaries for our kids is very important.
When one is trying to parent gently, it’s easy to become uncomfortable with saying no. Why? Well, because often “no” is not a welcomed word. We try to so hard to make our children happy, that sometimes we forget that it is ok for them to experience unpleasant emotions. We naturally do, as humans, if our will is thwarted. Them having unpleasant emotions, even if they only have the capacity to express them in a flailing puddle on the floor, should not rouse our frustration. If anything, it should rouse our empathy.
But we still have to say no, even if we know it will cause a puddle. We are still the leader.
Let me toss in here the caveat that there are also a million moments in every day in which we can probably say “yes” instead. You want to wear your cinderella dress to the grocery store? Why not. You want to take off your clothes outside and smear you and your brothers from head to toe with mud? Sounds fun (and yes, my children do this. Don’t laugh, it’s called “mud monsters”, and we have a hose!). You want to eat three bananas in a row even though I’ve planned a gourmet dinner in a hour? Maybe you need the potassium.
But for all of those moments when we, for whatever reason, have to correct our children, or turn down a request, or insist they perform a task, or tell them to stop something they are doing, we should do so confidently and kindly, providing empathy for whatever emotions fly back at us.

Discipline (‘to teach’)…

And this leads us to the idea of discipline. Often we confuse the word discipline with punishment, when really they are very different concepts. Punishing someone means to make something unpleasant happen to them in payment for a wrongdoing. While discipline literally means ‘to teach and instruct’.
This pretty much sums up our job as parents. We are here to be their gentle guide, their teachers, instructing them (mostly by example!) in what is good, and right, and fair, and kind.



What Is Unschooling?

Unschooling is the opposite of dogma. IMG_1436

Unschooling is taking all of the words like “never” and “should” out of your vocabulary and replacing them with a lot of sit-back-and watch.

Unschooling is trust.

Trusting that the newborn who entered the world knowing nothing but his mother’s smell, his father’s voice, his sister’s laughter, and learned, in such a short amount of time, to crawl, to walk, to speak an entire language, will continue to pursue with curiousity and purpose anything and everything which he is surrounded by.

Surround the child with good things, and she will soak them up. Offer them to her like a buffet of interesting information, let her pick them up along the way of your adventures like puzzle pieces. Leave her free to sort the pieces into piles and put them together in the privacy of her own mind.

Unschooling is not a system of “don’t”s. Don’t use a curriculum. Don’t pick up a workbook. Don’t do anything which might be construed as teaching.

Here’s my dogma: Don’t listen to anyone who tells you don’t.

Unschooling is a system of do’s. Do step back and give the child freedom. Do trust that they will learn everything relevant to them, in their own time. Do answer as many of their questions as you can, always. Do take tremendous joy and effort and delight in offering them pieces of the world. In adventuring with them. In discussing things with them. In asking them their thoughts and ideas, and listening, honestly listening. Do be your child’s partner, and a good, kind, generous leader. Do find and use any tool that brings delight, and use it, until it ceases to bring delight.

Unschooling is not a system. It is the term for a desire to have no term. It is living. It is taking that box in which we’ve placed everything that we call ‘education’ and dumping it upside-down and mixing the contents up with all of the other things which we just call ‘life’.

And just as the infant who watched your mouth move as you formed words grew into the toddler who asked you “what this?” About everything, so will the child ask you for information about the input he receives.

Make yourself available to answer those questions. Many answers you won’t know. Take joy in seeking out the answers together. Build on knowledge like constructing a sand castle.

Dogma is everywhere, and it only ever stands in the way of direct perception. Of your child, of yourself, of when and where learning is happening. Dogma is the opposite of unschooling.



Parenting in a Collapsing World

We are living in a state of biosphere collapse.IMG_1694

The Sixth Mass Extinction.

The last great extinction event, which occurred over 250 million years ago, saw the loss of 97% of the earth’s ocean species and 70% of its’ land species. They say it was likely caused by volcanic gases trapping heat in the atmosphere and causing temperatures to rise beyond the habitat required for life.

This time, we are the volcano.

Since the industrial “revolution” began, we have been gleefully pumping the same greenhouse gases which the planet had managed to sequester back into the ground through the incredible process of photosynthesis, and pouring them back into the sky.

Idiot children. We thought to become as gods, and now it’s our turn to be expelled from the Garden of Eden.

If only we would stop believing the faerie tale of our own seperation. If only we would remember who we are. If only we would remember what our stories mean instead of quibbering over them like children on a playground.

Once upon a time, the root mass of living, breathing forests stretched underground across entire continents. Indigineous peoples practiced eco-forestry, “forest gardening”, as a functional part of a living ecosystem.

That is our niche.

We evolved to be the shepherds and managers of ecosystems. It is why we sat around our fires and told the story of a God who created us to name and care for all of the animals, to ‘have dominion’ over the earth.

What a shame we turned ‘have dominion over’ into ‘use as you please’. What a shame we use the stories of our ancestors in such twisted ways.

Having long since forgotten what it means to be a functional part of an ecosystem, we have spilled out of our niche and overrun the earth like a parasite. We burn the bones of our ancestors in the bellies of our cars, as we drive to a premature end on the roadway of consumption.

Why are so few of us awake? Why do the masses stumble around, enslaved to our created god Economy, drugged by disconnection masquerading as conveniences. In the words of Deb Ozarko “We are the zombie apocalypse we fear so much.”

I believe we all feel it. There’s a reason every other person you talk to is on antidepressants.

Is this the fault of the individual? We are born into a broken system.

But every day, with every decision we make, can we not choose to participate in that system or create an entirely new one? Apathy is not an excuse for statis, but part of the cause. There is a reason we tell stories of a God who hands out mercy for guilt we cannot seem to assuage.

We have long-since forgotten the truth that in every single moment we have the opportunity to be ‘born again’. To see the reality of our oneness with everything. To drop the flawed perception of our seperation. To see that we are the creator in our own stories. That we are not this ego. This story. This name. To see that non-duality is the structure of everything; that consciousness begets matter and one infinitely dissolves into the other. To see that the energy which is us is no different than that which is the tree, or the deer, or the living, breathing planet. To see that when we rape and pillage the earth and other sentient beings, we are doing so to ourselves. And when we see this then, like Krishnamurti says, we can change in an instant.

In an instant. In this moment. With the choices we have before us right now.

How will we choose to live on this planet?

Will we learn again as a species how to fulfill our biological niche and participate in the creation of a healthy biosphere?

Looking around today, the answers seems to be no. We have barely danced around the edges of a systems change thus far. And even if we had one now, today, the cry is from all corners of the globe: it might already be too late.

We may be the ones to witness our own species join the millions of others in extinction.

Us, as in our generation. As in our children’s generation.

But when did life ever come without death? We have been dying since the moment of our birth. All of life leads to death. Death of the individual. Death of the species. Death of a planet.

We are all stardust, and we all end up as stardust in the end. Just because we are a wave for a moment, does not mean we don’t all roll back into the sea.

Should we then just roll over and die? It would be so easy, wouldn’t it? To be even a little bit awake in our collapsing world is to face crushing depression. On a deep, visceral level, we all feel the pain of where our collective choices have led us.

Perhaps we should all just refuse to procreate, and let our species be stamped out as a failed evolutionary experiment.

We could do that. But why? When was the future ever promised to us? Did we have children under the impression that they would never die?

Life is participation. It is energy interacting with itself in a motion which our senses interpret as matter.

So how do we choose to participate? Do we choose to participate in murder and destruction, in enslavement of other beings, in enslavement of ourselves to the trappings of a collapsing human society?

Or do we choose to create something new. To create it today, whether or not we have a promise of tomorrow. To create it because to not do so would be to die having never really lived anyway.

If there are homo sapiens left after our population contracts, they will need to find a wholly different way of living. Those humans will be experiencing the climate affects of industrial civilization for tens of thousands of years.

Rather than simply refusing to procreate, why don’t we instead create a new kind of human. A human who is unconditioned by industrial society. A human who is capable of living differently on this planet. A human who is not affected with seperation-sickness.

First comes unconditioning ourselves.

It takes a lot of humility to take apart everything that is familiar, everything we thought we knew. But take it apart we must.

We must take apart our ideas about everything. About food–what to eat and how to obtain it not only without harm, but with benefit to ecosystems. About the nutrient cycle and how to manage our excrements and how to interact with water. We must take apart our schools and our gods and our churches and everything which currently conditions subsequent generations. We must take apart our ideas about conveniences and electricity and what constitutes a civilized life. We must take apart our ideas about who we are, and how we can affect the world around us.

We can take it all apart now, or our children will be left with the pieces.


A Pocket Full of Leaves: Unschooling Science


Children are natural scientists. The same curiosity which drives the human child to acquire language and mobility in order to explore and connect with their environment, also drives them to learn everything they can about that environment.

All we have to do is keep up with their questions.

Children want to know everything. How big is a blue whale and where does it swim, and where do all the toads go in the winter, and where does the sun go when it sets, and where was I before I was in your belly? All we have to do is explore these questions with them. And to give them exposure so the questions have opportunity to arise.

Exposure to what? Everything. Anything. The local library. Lakes. Forests. Ponds. Rivers. The ocean. Cities. People. Museums. Planetariums. The stars. Science Centers. Ideas. Islands. Boats. Planes. Trains. People. Art. Language. Music. People. Books. The internet. Pop culture. Mountains. Religions. People. Animals. People. People. People.

The world is a puzzle and each piece of it we can give to the child is a gift. It doesn’t matter what pieces. Any pieces. All of the pieces we can, however we can. How the child puts them together is their job. Our only job is to provide access.

To say yes to the bug house living on the kitchen table because someone is raising caterpillars; yes to standing in front of the chrysalis display at the science center for 20 min, even though it is hot and crowded, because someone is captivated; yes to
having your pockets stuffed full of rocks and sticks and berries and leaves on every hike; yes to having your windowsill “decorated” with rocks and pinecones.


And to be curious ourselves.

When a child is around adults who discuss politics and world issues, and ask questions, and read books, and listen to music, and plant seeds, and explore nature, and do meaningful work…they naturally do the same. What we wish the child to be doing always begins with ourselves, right? That’s what I’ve found.

We must do what is authentic to ourselves, and allow the child to do what is authentic to them.

And when we include the child in the conversation, he learns to see himself as capable of examining on his own. Or rather, he never stops doing so in the first place. All of the questions are never answered. And every question leads to another. The science is never ‘all in’, it is a dynamic process. A conversation. Talk with the child about new discoveries. And take joy in the child’s discoveries.

Be authentic. Be curious. And cultivate a sincere love for answering questions. No need to plan science. Just plan adventures. Plan opportunities. Allow experiments, even when it involves all of the couch cushions, or your sewing scissors, or a mess you know they’ll need assistance cleaning up.

A scientist is just a grownup who never lost their curiosity.


Making Curiosity Your Curriculum: Unschooling Literacy


He’s two. He plays with a copy of Goodnight Moon in the car, practicing turning the pages and finding the mouse in the pictures. The symbols on the pages mean nothing to him, yet, but someday he will make sense of them. Just two years ago, he was still inside of me, listening to my voice and not comprehending the words. Now he points at the page with a chubby finger: “Night-night moon! Where’s mouse?” He’ll make sense of the written word the same way he made sense of the spoken word. By soaking it up from the big people around him.

His sister is seven. She looks up from a copy of The Neverending Story that rests in her lap, and helps him find the mouse on the page.

“How long till we’re there, Mamma?”

I point out the next sign. More symbols. Reading is as useful as talking, if the world around you is full of words. I try to make sure my children’s world is full of words. I help them make sense of those words when they ask. That’s my curriculum.

It’s the same one my mother followed, back when “Unschooling” was barely a term. I learned to read leaning up against the soft cushion of her arm, scanning the words as she read them. I don’t remember many lessons. I do remember hours upon hours of adventuring through stories together. She read whether we were sitting still or not. She read as we rolled around on the floor, and hung upside-down on the sofa.

I learned to write because I had stories bursting out of my veins, and parents who took joy in them. The first time I decided I wanted to be published, I was nine. Instead of treating me like a child, as adults are prone to doing, she helped me write out an admission letter and send it off.

My daughter presses her nose against the window. She’s always been my early riser. When she was two I used to set her up a little “nest” next to the heater, with pillows and books and a cup of cereal, so that when she woke early she could sit quietly and look at the pictures. She’d make up the stories as she turned the pages.

At age four she enjoyed phonics workbooks, occassionally. Words were fascinating to her, and she desperately wanted to puzzle them out.

Never listen to someone who says an Unschooler can’t use a workbook. Learning by choice means using any tool you choose. Provide lots of tools. Let kids pick and choose the ones that work for them. Unschooling isn’t about “can’t”. About what you don’t do. It’s about following curiousity wherever it leads.

Make curiosity your curriculum.

And if the workbook doesn’t work, if the child doesn’t choose it, if it’s like a wet towel on their curiosity instead of fanning the flame…then toss it. Leave it on the shelf. Stick it in the burn bin. A tool is only helpful if it works.

Mostly she just looked at books alot. We used to joke that you could find her by the trail of books she left behind her. And I read to her a lot. I remember when suddenly around age three she made the connection that the symbols on the page were what I was deriving the story from, and wanting me to show her what each word said.

When she was almost six, her Farmor came to visit from Stockholm and brought her an abridged copy of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream. The pictures of dancing faeries sent her over the edge. For weeks she carried that book everywhere she went, reading paragraphs over and over and over until she had them memorized. By the time she’d puzzled out that book, she could officially read. Her own strong desire to know the story had taken her from sounding out short, three letter words, to reading Shakespeare. Since then, she has gobbled up books like candy, bringing stacks home from the library every week.

Books are the resevior of human knowledge. Through the written word, we discover pieces of history and walk the trails of human ideas. To read is to be empowered to teach oneself anything one wants to know. To read is to join in the human conversation.

Spelling and grammar and punctuation and writing have all followed naturally. Mostly she picks it up from what she’s read, but she’ll also ask how to spell things. Usually in the car, when she’s writing in her journal about where we’re going. “Listen to this mama: ‘April 2, we are going to the greenhouse to get more seeds and some fruit trees.’ Is that how you spell fruit? F-R-O-O-T?”

This is my curriculum: Be available when questions are asked.

Sometimes we are the teachers, but usually we are the facilitators.

She likes to write letters to grandparents and cousins. I make sure she is stocked in stationary and stamps. I write down all of the addresses for her to copy. She likes to staple paper together and write stories. I sort through broken crayons and stacks of paper scraps.

Right now she is working on a story for her daddy’s birthday “Everything you have taught me about trees”. Her last pen runs out of ink on the third page. Pens is becoming a permanent item on my grocery list. Better teach this kid how to type so I’m not sending gazillions of plastic pens to land on a beach somewhere.

“Mommy, look! I got a high score!” This one is five. He holds up his iPad in the back seat for me to see. Playing games on the touch screen has really helped him develop his fine motor skills.

Screens are just tools. Use the tools that work.

Until recently this guy didn’t have much interest in letters. He preferred his sister reading to him. He could never seem to grip the pencil properly and make it cooperate, and his hand quickly became tired. As his motor skills have improved on the iPad, he has suddenly developed an intense desire to master letters. He asks me or his dad or his sister to write out the alphabet for him, and he copies it. He likes it when I quiz him on what the letters are, or what sounds they make. A couple of weeks ago he copied the word “toad” out of a book.

This boy is frog and toad crazy. There’s never a day in the spring that you won’t find some bucket or other on the porch, filled with pets that he’s collected. So it’s fitting that he’d choose “toad” as his first independently written word.

The second word he mastered was “butt”. Which you know is also fitting, if you’ve ever met a 5-yr-old boy.

He’s gone back to his game. There are symbols on the screen, too. I know it won’t be long before he puzzles these out, because they are relevant to him. Learning happens when there is context. Skills “taught” out of context can feel like a burden. Skills mastered, in context, are thrilling and joyful.

Do only what is joyful. That is my curriculum.

Look for where the learning is happening, and do more of that. Be present. Answer questions. And if you hope a child will develop a love of the written word, then pick up a book (or two, or ten), and read it where they can see.

Tomorrow’s Child

“Mommy? Mommy?”
It’s nine o’clock. I’m trying to nurse the baby to sleep. Rain patters on the yurt roof.
“Mommy, I have some questions I need to ask you. Can we do some school tomorrow and I can ask you my questions?” My 6 yr old daughter snuggles closer.
“I have three. Three questions.”
She is quiet for a couple of minutes. Firelight flickers across the walls. I think she is asleep, till a head pops over my shoulder again. “Here is one of them that I’ve been wondering FOREVER mom. It’s about the planet that is cold on one side and hot on the other.”
I’m exhausted. It would be so much easier to tell her to just go to sleep. But we have a rule in our house: never interrupt learning. “Venus?”
“Yeah, that one. So here’s my question: is there, like, a line dividing the hot side and the cold side, and if you cross the line then you’re on the other side, or is it more like, you know, you keep walking and then it slowly gets colder?”
I smile in the dark. “I’d say it’s gradual.” We talk for a bit about planetary rotation. My four year son joins in from his futon on the other side, and they move on to the fascinating discussion of other galaxies, and how long it would take to get there, and what you might find.

Learning. It happens at all hours of the day and night, if I allow it to. When I stop trying to control, and just follow their lead. This is the essence of Unschooling. It’s messy. And magical.

“Can you help me with my letters Mommy?” Is usually asked when I’m in the middle of cooking dinner. It’s so easy to say no, not right now, later. But we have a rule in our house: never interrupt learning. So he pulls a stool up to the bar counter and I help him while I chop onions. Soon the workbook is abandoned for a knife, and he helps me chop the potatoes. He chops them too small and misses half the skin, but this is learning too.

A young human, if all of the needs that thousands of years of evolution have programmed into them have been met, is so naturally curious that you could not stop their learning if you tried. We are wired this way. It is how we acquire information about the world around us. By exploring, by watching, by asking questions, by creating hypothesis and testing them out. A young human is full of a burning desire to know…everything.

They don’t need nor desire constant attention or intervention, but they do require us to be present in each moment. Willing to slow down and answer their questions. Young humans mimic everything. They want to do everything that we do, and will keep coming back to a task again and again until they have mastered it.

Watch a very young child attempting to move a heavy object from one place to another, and you will see the determination of the human being.

The other morning, my two oldest children were up and outside before I’d even gotten out of bed. I could hear their excited voices through the canvas walls, discussing the collection of slugs which they’d put in a bucket the night before. They were having such a good time outside, that an hour later they popped in, sweaty and muddy, and asked if they could have breakfast in their fort under the grapes.

Why not? We have a rule in our house: never interrupt learning. Even when it involves slugs.

As I was packing up their breakfast picnic, I could hear them attempting to move a table (quite a heavy metal table!) up the steep hill to the grape arbour. They tried one way, and then around to the other side of the hill. They tried pushing, and pulling, and got into an argument about how it should be done, and resolved the argument, and came up with a plan, and eventually succeeded in manuevering this heavy table up the hill.

Humans do not easily give up. Not if our instincts are intact. The natural drive of a species to continue to exist, pushes us to learn, to create, to problem-solve.

It is only if a human has their time and efforts controlled, regimented; is told the right way to do things at the expense of all creative thought; is manipulated by the carrot-and-stick game of punishments and rewards, that our intrinsic motivation is broken.

When all motivation becomes extrinsic, we cease to be human and become cogs in a wheel. Worker bees, whose only function is to serve the ecomony. Slaves to the bank and the corporations and the bottom line.

The goal of modern schooling is not only to impart knowledge, but to acclimatize children to our society. To take all of the wildness which resides in their very genetic makeup, and “civilize” it out of them, just as we thought to civilize the native “savages” of this land and so many others. To teach order, and obedience, and focus, and work ethic.

But as technology increasingly takes over the functional roles that humans once filled in our societies, I would argue that what we need, now more than ever, are our uniquely human capabilities. Intuition. Assessment. Creativity. Critical thinking.

A child in a first-grade classroom might be able to name the letters of the alphabet, perhaps to read, perhaps to work some simple sums. But how much of the precious moments of her childhood were squandered to be taught these simple skills? 2,400 hours. Was it worth that time? Was it necessary? Would she have gained these skills otherwise? And more importantly: what does she not know? Does she know where a frog will go if you follow it for an hour, or what the different calls of the raven mean? Can she show you which sprout will turn into broccoli, or carrots, or cabbage, or peas, and identify the weeds from among the vegetables? Can she tell you at what season you can find mushrooms in the forest, and where, and which ones are edible?

There’s so very, very much a child can do with 2,400 hours. And very little of it would they naturally choose to spend sitting at a desk. Or sitting at all. Hiking, swimming, jumping, rolling, climbing, running, bike-riding, yes. But rarely sitting.

And what happens to the child who cannot sit? The child who’s evolutionary drive screams at them to move, to explore, to create, to connect. The child who revolts at being subdued in a plastic chair, in a concrete room, behind a closed door. That child is labeled “disfunctional”, “ADHD”. Medicated. Put in therapy.

Today, 10 million school-age children in the US are being prescribed stimulants, antidepressants, and other phsychotropic (mild-altering) drugs for educational and behaviorial issues. Children 5 years old and younger are the fastest-growing segment of the non-adult population prescribed antidepressants in the U.S. Either a huge percentage of American children have serious disabilities, or they are normal kids having normal reactions to boredom. To lack of movement. To lack of connection. Why is it that we forever blame the child if they cannot focus on the material, rather than question whether the material is worth the child’s focus?

We cannot institutionalize our young from the moment they’re steady on their feet, keep them indoors or in front of screens for the majority of their waking hours, and then turn them lose on the world and expect them to care about our planet. About her oceans and her forests and her creatures.

And right now, as humanity hovers on the edge of the climate tipping point, we need humans who care deeply.

We’ve spent generations now pillaging the earth’s resources, disrupting her complex ecosystems, and destroying her rich biodiversity. We can be the generation who stops. In our schools and in our homes, we can raise people who are capable of rethinking the way we humans live on this precious planet.

While there is benefit to the brevity of our human lives in that we can acclimatize to vast changes rather quickly, these very acclimations become ingrained into our culture in such a way that we cease to question the validity of their existence. We need humans who are capable of questioning the validity of everything. Of the way we build our homes, and use our groundwater, and fish our oceans, and raise our food.

We are born concious beings. Empathy is our natural state. Because of our awareness of how our actions affect our people, other creatures, and the world around us, society has naturally evolved, in many ways, towards equality, fairness, and non-harm.

But in many ways, we are still in our infancy as a species. A brief blip in the history of our planet. We have so much farther to go if we wish to not only survive as a species, but create a society that is fair, just, and in balance with the ecology we depend on.

There are endless ways in which humans can expend their efforts towards this end, but nothing is so important as the way in which we raise our young. The way we care for our children directly affects the way in which they will care for the following generation. It affects the decisions they will make, and the society they will create.

Scientists have seen with lab rats that if a newborn is taken from it’s mother and raised in isolation, not receiving the constant licking from it’s parent, then it literally changes the biology of that rodents’ offspring. They become aggressive, and cease to care for their own young. Not that we need lab rats to tell us this. It’s evident in everything.

I had a goat once. A beautiful nubian doe who I brought to our place from another farm when she was already an adult, and bred. At her previous farm she had not been allowed to raise her kids. She had birthed a couple of sets of twins already, but they had been taken from her at birth and bottle-fed.

It was the middle of winter when it came time for her to kid. I had just had a baby of my own three weeks before, and was up to my neck in milk and exhaustion. I was expecting to be able to lend a watchful eye at the birth, and then leave the doe with her new babies and get back to my own newborn. I held the idealistic view that I would be giving this doe what she had missed out on previously: the chance to raise her own young. How naive I was.

Beatrix wanted nothing to do with her triplets. She blocked out the sensations of birth to the point that she didn’t even stop munching her alfalfa when her kids dropped to the barn floor, and then walked away from them without a lick or a second glance. This is not natural animal behavior. This only occurred because of human interference. Her natural instincts were broken.

This is the great responsibility of our human lives. Choice.

We humans choose, with each generation, whether we will break or nuture our natural instincts. Every time we mothers carry a child in our wombs, every time we feel those contractions blissfully opening us, we choose, not just for that child, but for all future generations, whether to nurture empathy and compassion. We choose it in the way we birth, we choose it in the way we handle them, the way we feed them, speak to them, and in the way we respond to their thousand questions.

The rain pounds harder on the yurt roof. The children next to me are snoring softly now. I think about the tilled rows and young trees outside, and wonder if my grandchildren will collect walnuts and apples from their branches. I wonder what kind of world they will be born into. And I am keenly aware that I am creating that world, with every choice I make.

Raising World-Changers: Second-Generation Unschooling

When I think of doing school as a child, I think of sunny days spent hanging upside-down on the monkey bars while my mom sat on the grass reading to us. I think of cuddling next to her on the couch, watching the rain on the windows as she read. Always reading. I think of doing math at the grocery store as we shopped. I think of endless days spent in deep play with my brother, building forts, building robots, building mud villages in our backyard, building a rocket, building our imaginations. Neither of my parents had even graduated from college themselves, but they managed to give us what I now consider the most important facet of education: freedom. Freedom from clocks and rules and manipulation and control. Freedom to be ourselves. To learn, and discover, and BE, at our own pace and according to our own interests. And from this freedom the ability to teach oneself, to learn naturally from the world all around us, as every human is wired to do. The drive to learn, to discover, to pursue goals, to sort through information without outside control or pressure. My mother instilled in us the belief that this drive is present in every human being, and that learning is a lifelong pursuit.

Still…when my first child was born, I found myself conflicted. I had this romantic idea about “school” as this place where all knowledge lay at one’s fingertips. An idea born from those endless clips on Sesame Street of happy children dancing off to school to have adventures. A vague feeling that I had somehow missed those adventures. An anxious worry that perhaps I, who had spent most of my teenage years traipsing around the globe versus doing algebra, had somehow missed the important knowledge imbued in my public school counterparts. There was a part of me that wanted all of that for my children. Wanted it for myself maybe. To have that moment where I stood at the end of the driveway waving a cheerful goodbye to my backpack-laden child with her put-together outfit and neatly combed ponytails. I wanted to pack sweet little school lunches, and go shopping for all those neat packages of pencils and markers. Did I really want to raise my children “outside” of society, like I had been? I wasn’t sure.

So when my daughter was preschool age, we joined a mainstream co-op preschool. It’s just to socialize, I said. It’s a co-op, I can go with her to class if I want, it’s not “real” school. I needed to stick a toe in the door of normal and see if it felt right. See if those adventures were all they cracked up to be.

And in many ways, they were. She was only two at the time, and the program was entirely play-based. We spent a year with a wonderful group of people, many of whom are still close friends. Normal wasn’t so bad! True, there were things that annoyed me. Tiny red flags that I tucked in my back pocket. Like the daily coercion of the children to do the day’s art project, even though they were busy building a block tower. My “unschooled” mind said: wait! They’re busy! They’re cooperating with each other, testing balance, learning engineering! You’re going to interrupt their play to insist they glue some cotton balls on a piece of paper? Just so you can stick said cotton-ball creation in their cubby to prove they “did” something to the smiling parents who pick them up?

Still, we enrolled the next year. It was still just preschool. We hadn’t joined the Dark Side. Not yet. And then, I began to see changes in my daughter. Tiny, subtle changes that I might not have noticed had my brain not been unschooled. I noticed her mindlessly scribbling some color on paper at school, because that’s what the other children were doing, or because she didn’t feel like painting at that moment, when at home she would draw people with bodies and faces and expressions. I noticed her play and her attention becoming fragmented.

And one day I had an epiphany.

I was trying to get her out the door for school, anxiously watching the clock because we were running late. I walked into the living room with a put-together outfit in my hand and a coax on my tongue…and stopped. There she was, building a train track, warm and cozy in her footy jammies, deep in her play. One train was discussing with another train how to help a third train who was sad. She was learning. Really learning, not coerced, manipulated adult-agenda learning. Learning how to entertain herself. Acting out conflict resolution. And I was going to interrupt this…to what? Force her into clothes, drag her out in the rain, and take her to squish play dough somewhere else? So we didn’t go. And then we didn’t go the next day. Finally, I pulled her out.

It was just preschool, I said. No rush. Still, I wasn’t quite ready to pull my toe out of the door of normal. I still had romantic ideas of sending her to that sweet little building down the street where we went to ride our bikes, with it’s organized eraser-smelling classrooms. Surely wonderful adventures in learning happen there! But of course, being an unschooler, I had to find out myself. So I volunteered in the kindergarten class.

And in one day all of my romantic ideas of school melted into a puddle like sidewalk chalk in the rain. I did not see learning. I saw control. I saw manipulation. I saw children too young to sit still for five minutes being expected to keep their bottoms in a chair and focus, while their little bodies squrimed to be let loose. Until they finally were, for an appallingly short recess whereupon they ran like frenzied puppies around a too-small patch of concrete, before being lined back up and marched back to their desks, fed a sugar-filled snack, and expected to focus again on their “work”. And what boring, relentlessly repetetive work it was!

It happened to be Earth Day that day. I watched this group of children sitting, with bored, blank stares, watching a bored teacher reading a boring book about the ocean (“in honor of Earth Day!”)…while outside the sun was shining! And then came the real clincher: the sticker chart. As a final ending note to the day, the children were made to sit on the rug while the teacher placed a sticker (or didn’t) on a chart under the name of each child who had had “good behavior” that day. My goodness! Sesame Street never said anything about public shaming. My unschooled brain recoiled. And even worse was the bar by which the teacher was measuring “good behavior”: did you A) sit still, B) stay in your chair, and C) raise your hand instead of shouting out an answer. Really?? Not: were you kind, did you help a friend, did you learn something new? Wow, said my inner Unschooler. Not what I expected.

So I went home. And I sat on my couch with my sweet little girl and read, like my mother before me. I read as she hung upside-down next to me, in her underwear. And I didn’t tell her to sit still. We planted some seeds, for Earth Day. And the toe I’d been keeping in the door of normal slipped out for good. If that was normal, then we were very happy to stay outside, thankyou.

Now, that little girl is six. She reads Tolkien to her two little brothers, and does math two grades beyond her level…when she feels like it. Which is sometimes while eating pancakes, and sometimes outside under the grapes, and sometimes at night by candlelight. And I feel content, knowing that I’m giving her and her brothers the greatest gift I can: freedom.

What our earth needs is World-Changers. Free-Thinkers. More people who question the status quo, who are willing to live outside the box. Because the box is getting smaller. Our planet is on the edge of an ecological tipping point. And meanwhile our society is tossing up the likes of Donald Trump as the best option we have? There’s no time left to push things off on the next generation. WE ARE the generation who must change.

The very last thing we need is more automatons. More adults who just plug in the fridge, even though is cold outside; who drive the car, when they could ride a bike; who continue to purchase food from across the globe instead of their own neighborhood; who empty our precious groundwater onto green lawns instead of planting their dinner. Change is hard. It doesn’t happen in a day. But it can easily happen in a generation. However we choose to educate our children, it is the responsibility of us parents to raise children who will live differently. Children who do not just memorize facts to pass a test, but who have a deep relationship to the natural world around them, and a mind that is free enough to re-invent the way we humans live on this precious planet.




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