Something I often come across in unschooling groups is how alienated people can feel when they choose this path. And I admit that in quieter moments my mind does sometimes wander into Utopian dreams of living in a supportive community of likeminded people. In this green and lovely place, adults and children alike would be free to explore interesting activities and conversation with no agenda other than being with whatever fulfills them, and feeling cared for.
Interestingly though, the more we settle into this life, the less need I feel for that Utopia. I’ve come to see that not doing school is only one aspect of our lives, and doesn’t need to define or limit us. So, we don’t have a tribe as such, but we do have a lot of great people in our lives, and they all enrich us in different and valuable ways. Some of these people we see occasionally and some are regular visitors. They include old friends and new friends, family who come and visit, work colleagues past and present, neighbours, and interesting people just passing through. They are from here or elsewhere in Spain, or from other parts of the world, including Britain, Canada, Russia, Portugal and the US, to name a few.
Although we only know a couple of homeschooling families, we’re lucky to have supportive people around. The children have a couple of good friends nearby from their years at an alternative school. E has made new friends through his drama group and we still have some close friends with children from when D and E were small and we lived in the city centre. These children go to all sorts of different schools, from alternative to private international schools. Among parents, we often talk about education, but it’s from a place of mutual curiosity and learning. Our children enjoy being with interesting adults as much as we enjoy the company of their friends, and in fact, not having to divide ourselves up according to age is one of the joys of this lifestyle.
Living abroad adds an interesting angle to life so far as community goes. We live a long way from family and in a place where unschooling, or even homeschooling, is almost unheard of. It’s easy to feel alienated when you’re in a foreign land, not following the beaten path. And I think that behind this feeling of alienation lurks a fear of not belonging. But although living abroad has its particular challenges, alienation is just as likely to pop up when you’re living in your hometown, surrounded by family and old connections. I reflect sometimes on my own childhood. I grew up in a small town and went to the local school, yet I didn’t quite feel like I belonged there. Over the years I’ve lived abroad, I’ve found that my sense of belonging is more deeply rooted now in a state of being than a place. I am at my happiest when my sense of freedom and my sense of belonging are finely balanced. Too much freedom and I feel disconnected, too much belonging and life feels dull and compromised.
Whilst unschooling is definitely a bid for freedom in many ways, it’s important to create something that doesn’t lead to loneliness or disconnection, particularly if you don’t have a network of unschoolers nearby. Understanding that you’ll need to get creative and that it won’t necessarily look like anyone else’s version of life is key – if it works for you and your family, then all is good.
So, rather than create a sense of belonging by attempting to fit us into structures that don’t quite work for this family, I prefer to look for the joy and connection in simpler ways. Although a yearning for that tribe does pop up every now and again, I make an effort not to fall into wishful thinking. Instead, I focus on what belonging is for us, and making sure we have enough people in our lives to feel connected and grounded. Part of this means accepting that our rhythm here ebbs and flows in unpredictable ways. Some days are filled with people, while others are quiet and laid back, with just each other to take care of. On those days, rather than worrying that it feels a little too quiet, I remember that the following day is likely to have more action and people in it.
Something else to bear in mind are the individual needs within the family. For example, I think it’s common for an extrovert parent to find it hardgoing when their children are more introverted. Life can start feeling restrictive and lonely if you’re mostly at home, despite the freedom it offers. If that’s the case, then finding ways to keep yourself connected at the level you need is important. Happy unschooling requires happy parents. It can be challenging to balance our needs with our children’s, but I do believe that being true to ourselves is the only way to go. So listening to, and respecting, each person’s social needs and working out what compromises may have to happen to keep everyone happy is always helpful.
I also enjoy being part of online unschooling groups. On those days when I do feel like we’re the only people in the world doing this, it is comforting to check in with people who are in the same boat. And, when it comes to the finer points and challenges of unschooling, I want to share my thoughts with people who can give advice that resonates with me. There are some excellent Facebook groups with new and seasoned unschoolers, who are exceptionally supportive and thoughtful.
My best advice to anyone feeling lonely or alienated is to let go of any idea of what this ‘should’ look like, and focus instead on what relationships you have and what helps you feel connected. You may find, like us, that your tribe is a collection of all sorts of people, of all ages, who live near or far away, who you’ve known for years, or just cross paths with once in a while. It’s an odd kind of tribe, but it can still work.