When a child leaves a traditional school environment to begin unschooling, the adjustment period is generally referred to as ‘deschooling’. It’s a time when, free from external expectations and pressure, they can rediscover their natural rhythms and who they are when no one expects them to be anything in particular. I keep coming across a piece of wisdom that says this process takes one month for every year the child was in traditional schooling. That seems a bit tidy to me, and I suspect it can take anything from weeks to years. The point is though, that there is certainly lots for a child to unravel when they’re allowed to take the lead in their own learning processes.
But children are never the stumbling block in unschooling. Issues in the unschooling home are likely to be all about the parents’ deschooling. That’s not surprising when you think how programmed we adults are by social norms and by our own experiences. An enlightened few may have already done the work before their children were born. The rest of us could have 40 years worth or more of social conditioning to unpack. Not only did we go to school the whole way through, but we then spent adulthood believing in the system and assuming our children would go through it just like us. For whatever reason, we found ourselves eventually unschooling, sometimes intentionally after taking the child out of school, sometimes as a natural progression from homeschooling.
Although the word ‘school’ appears to be the big deal (‘deschooling’, ‘unschooling’), this is about much more than whether a child is in school. It’s about the absence not only of school, but of all sorts of other ideas about how children best fare in life. It’s about getting beyond our own egos, our sense of entitlement over our children, the notion that we always know best. More than anything, it is about trusting that our children really do know what they need, and that we are there to facilitate them, not shape them to how we think they should be.
Deschooling is an intensely personal process, and most parents need to go through it in order to let their children live and learn naturally and coherently with who they are. Some parents find this journey a natural fit with their beliefs. For others, it’s a hugely challenging process that has them confronting everything they had ever thought about bringing up children. That ‘aha’ moment when you suddenly realise that unschooling really could work for your family is just the beginning. The hard part comes later. It’s easy for unschooling to seem like the best thing in the world after a harmonious morning of baking and nature walks, or after a long political discussion with your bright pre-teens. You can sit back satisfied that it’s all flowing rather nicely when you see them happily playing with their friends or with their nose in a good book. But how about a morning on the Playstation? How about when one doesn’t feel like doing anything at all? How about when the whole day seems to have been one long argument between siblings?
There are likely to be plenty of moments at the beginning that will make you jittery or frustrated. But it’s no good to say that unschooling isn’t working because it doesn’t look how we expect it to look. It can be hard, but the deep learning and moving forward really is contained in those triggering moments. That’s when we make a choice. We can accept the situation and respond in a way that is coherent and respectful, or we can react with annoyance or anger because it just wasn’t supposed to be this way. Taking a deep breath and letting go of our expectations is key to moving through these triggers. There’s a magic to this too. Often times I see things that wouldn’t have happened had I clung on to my desired outcome and insisted on another course. Even the sibling arguments often end with heartfelt hugs and apologies when there’s no adult directing who is supposed to say sorry to who. It is unfailingly rewarding when I let go and trust.
My own process of deschooling has taken several years and is still a work in progress. Just when I think I’m there, something comes up to challenge me, though I’ve come a long way in the last two years. I notice that as I gain confidence in this, I naturally move past certain triggers. Maths and handwriting lingered on for quite a while. In fact, I suspect that not worrying about maths is a good first milestone. Perhaps followed by handwriting, bedtimes and screens…
Of course, unschooling has a lot to do with learning. But, most importantly—and unexpectedly to me—my journey so far has meant letting go of any preconceived ideas of who my children ‘should be’ and embracing them for who they are. They’re all so different and so unlike me in many ways. I can see that each of them has talents and capabilities that I don’t have and which will take them in directions I couldn’t possibly know of right now. And all of this, it turns out, has also meant accepting myself more for who I am too. Such is the power of letting go.