I’ve recently begun to feel a deep sense of freedom. My life is much the same as it has been for the last year, with nothing shifting much beyond the changing seasons. I don’t suddenly have extra time on my hands, I haven’t cracked the key to passive income, and I am as weary of this lockdown as the next person. No, the roots to my newfound freedom are buried deeper. Something shifting in the foundations that were laid down decades ago, and held in place by layer upon layer of the same old beliefs and experiences. I think I always suspected those foundations were not quite solid. I talked to a friend recently who spoke of unschooling being a kind of liberation for her. This sounds right. But liberation from what?
Like most of us, I grew up with school as my benchmark. I had a lot of autonomy and freedom at home, but the outside world was all about other people’s expectations of me. To be successful seemed to require an enigmatic combination of getting the right results, looking right, and fitting in with the right people. To me, oversensitive and perfectionist, this meant relentless pressure, and always trying to figure out if I was getting things right. It never occurred to me that there may be some flaws in the system, and I internalised wildly unrealistic standards for myself. I was able to be quite successful within that system, and after leaving university, I moved abroad, started my own business, and to all extents was in charge of my own life. There were no longer any particular external structures dictating how I should be, but those rigorous ideals were etched on me now as my own ideals. For much of my adult life I wavered on the edge of burnout and exhaustion, attempting to be all things to all people, with approval being the ultimate prize.
Unschooling is a lesson in imperfection, in accepting what is and making peace with it. It is a challenging path for an approval-seeking perfectionist. There’s a quote by John Holt which I’ve probably used before in these pages, but it is a great quote. ‘To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves…and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”
I look back at this journey so far and I see that it is one of trust. I realised early on that it is about trusting my children but, it hadn’t occurred to me that I needed to trust myself. I didn’t realise that I didn’t trust myself. Now, when I look back, it is screamingly obvious.
Our children were born in Spain, where we lived at the time, and where there are few alternatives to mainstream school. The vast majority of children are in nursery school by the age of one and then in preschool for a full day at the age of three. Nonetheless, it was an easy choice not to put D in nursery school. Between myself, my partner and our babysitter, Valentina, we managed to juggle work and being at home, and this worked out well. When D was almost two, his brother was born, and this arrangement carried on. We lived near the beach in Barcelona, so in the afternoons, we’d head out and about, to the beach or to the park, where D was usually the only child over the age of one. In shops, cafes, or even just in the street, strangers would ask me why they weren’t at nursery. I would give some kind of explanation, sounding almost apologetic, or perhaps a little defensive. Occasionally, a grandma might tell me that was great, and that she herself didn’t go to school until she was six. But mostly there was disapproval in the air, and low mumblings about socialisation and independence. It didn’t make me doubt my choice, but it left leave me feeling uncomfortable.
When my sons were four and three, they began to spend their mornings at a gentle, child-led preschool, where they were given as much autonomy as possible, and cared for lovingly. A couple of years later, they went on to an alternative school that had just opened. In the school’s first year, there were just 32 children, who could turn up at any time they wanted between 9am and 4pm. We lived around the corner from the school and D and E were rarely there before 12, usually arriving just in time to shimmy up a tree or a wooden climbing frame to have their lunch up high with a friend, or to head to a table and immerse themselves in Lego. It was a slightly crazy, but enjoyable time. And for me, it was a kind of halfway house. The fact that this was called school was enough for general approval, and it allowed for us to stay in the system in some way. Although by this point, I knew that mainstream was never likely to be on our radar, it was still my point of reference. My children may not have been within that particular structure, but I certainly was.
Meanwhile, I was learning to trust my children. D and E learned to read by themselves at the ages of 10 and 9. This was my biggest lesson, and one I’ll ever be grateful for. I didn’t find it that hard to hold back, probably because they were vocal in not wanting my help. When they were ready and interested they learned easily, going from what seemed like zero to fluency within weeks. I only ever worried about them not reading when someone else expressed concern. Then I would be thrown back into that place of disapproval, and the resulting feeling in the pit of my stomach. Those shaky foundations. I have to admit that I felt relief when they started to read. Not because I didn’t think it would happen, but because I needed the strength of some evidence to back me up.
When we took them out of school completely, many people were incredulous (these people didn’t realise they spent most of their short school days up in the trees or playing Lego). There are home educators in Catalunya, but legally it is a grey area and so they mostly fly under the radar, and to other people, it seems odd, cultish even. I don’t particularly like conflict and I wasn’t out to change anyone’s mind, so I avoided discussions around home education or unschooling unless someone was expressing a genuine interest in it. Otherwise, I would feel triggered and fall into that old pattern of being apologetic or defensive, neither of which had anything to do with how I actually felt.
At this point, the local authorities caught wind of our rebellion and I found myself having regular phone calls with a local education inspector called Jaume. Every time Jaume’s number came up on the phone, I could feel a rush of adrenaline zip through my body. He was pleasant enough but the conversations were pointless and anxiety-inducing. Jaume was beside himself with worry about these children who wouldn’t get to be in a classroom all day and I had no answers that would make him feel better. I could feel his disapproval dripping down the phone line. It didn’t matter that I had no doubt that this decision was, for now at least, the best for our family. The sense of displeasure was powerful, and my voice was lost under its weight.
By our last conversation, Jaume sounded so upset and concerned that I found myself adopting a motherly tone and attempting to reassure him that my children would be fine. He must have had enough at this point as we were referred to social services and the education department, who might know what to do with us. We were called to meetings with both of these. They were agreeable and unintentionally intimidating, and like Jaume, unshakeable in their belief that they were right and we were wrong. Any wisdom, experience or insights I had about my own children felt small and insignificant when faced with the weight of their convictions. The physical sensations took me right back to school and the rare occasions that I found myself facing a stern teacher. The meetings must have gone well enough anyway, because eventually there was a sort of tacit agreement that no one would rock the boat.
Despite the reassuring stand off, this still didn’t feel quite like freedom. Monday mornings were particularly odd. I could feel the world cranking up outside, a certain busyness and purposefulness about life. All those hundreds of Monday mornings I had lived through at school and work were hard to shake off. I remembered that sinking feeling as a child, waking up to an early breakfast and a grey uniform. And now, some decades after leaving school, there I was in Spain, feeling like a guilty schoolgirl skiving off school. John Holt was right. How can a parent, who has a feeling deep in their bones that their adult choices are questionable, hold a space full of trust for their children? Probably not very convincingly.
After a year, we moved up the hill to an old house looking down over the town and out to the Mediterranean, and from this beautiful vantage point I felt free to be and do to my heart’s content. I hadn’t quite found peace with my need for (and lack of) approval, but here, I could mostly ignore the issue. We had a favourite little picnic spot up the hill, and sometimes, even on a Monday morning when the world was going full blast, we would sit up there and watch it from afar. We spent a peaceful two years in that house, though sometimes it felt too removed from the world. But up here, away from people who could trigger those old stories around conforming and approval, my sense of guilt or shame evolved into something calmer and more confident. This little sanctuary also gave me the time and space to see how my children were developing deep interests, and the trust I had in them was cemented daily by what I saw. I was less open to doubtful voices, because I knew them not to be true. But, my context was still the structures I grew up in. Now, if triggered, the peacefulness was more likely to give way to a sense of rebellion than guilt. The joyful satisfaction of thinking that I didn’t care. Though, of course, I did care, or I wouldn’t have been thinking about it. But still, it was certainly a pleasant step on from guilt or shame. One of my happiest memories from that time was going horse riding. On Thursday mornings we would head up the dirt track behind our house to a farm in the hills, where the children would have a riding class. From up there we had a clear view to the sea and all the way along the coast to Barcelona. After riding we would head back down the in our old car, windows wound down, sun streaming in, breathing in the pine scented air, sometimes quiet and sometimes singing as loud as we could. It felt like freedom and rebellion, and like someone else might not approve.
A couple of years on now, and I realise that I have no guilt, shame, or need to rebel, and I am no longer in need of anyone’s approval of my choices. I see my children learn and grow, capable of a depth of autonomy and self knowledge that I never possessed. And I find myself questioning all sorts of things. Things that once seemed to be absolute truths no longer are. Unschooling practically forces parents through a process of self examination, so I think it is always likely to end up in this place of endless questioning. In this unschooled space, where structures that once seemed so solid and that so confidently marked our paths into the world, start to look fragile and weak, and where power imbalances no longer feel like natural laws of the universe. This isn’t really about school, but about empowerment. I imagine that while we still seek approval from any structure that once disempowered us, that led us to not trust ourselves, real freedom will always be elusive.
And so, although this newfound freedom has made the world a less certain place, I feel grounded. Like finally reaching a firm shore after a long time at sea. Trusting my children has been the path back to trusting myself. And it does feel like a liberation.