My Unschooling Journey
My Unschooling Journey
Cradling my precious baby in my arms, I knew that I would never hand over responsibility for her care to someone who didn’t love her (even though, at that point, I still pretended that I might make some conventional parenting choices).
I might even say that my unschooling journey began earlier with my first unconventional parenting choice, the one to give birth naturally. And yes (I see you nodding or rolling your eyes), thus followed the rest of the “attachment parenting” Baby B’s: breastfeeding, babywearing, bed sharing, etc. All of which contributed to the development of a wonderfully strong, loving, and resilient family bond.
Perhaps I’ve made these unconventional parenting choices in the natural course of having lived an unconventional life, from my birth to a 70s subculture teenage drug addict and a feral man who lived in the woods, to my pre-parent life when my husband and I belonged to a misfit wolf pack and slept each night on the garage floor in a pile of large dogs.
So sometimes I wonder how my image of mainstream actually compares to common-reality, since I haven’t ever really experienced it. As a baby, I breastfed, napped in a soft pack on my mother’s bosom (or sometimes in a dresser drawer), and slept each night til around age four cuddled with my mother. Not to say I had an idyllic babyhood, but I felt loved, if not safe.
Back to my new little family: As if life without pacifiers and bottles, cribs and playpens, and even diapers! didn’t already give my little ones a distinctly different experience than their diapered peers, life without school (or daycare, same thing?) has probably constituted their most pronounced departure from the disconnected mainstream way of life (at least in American culture, but spreading like a plague on us all).
The early breastfeeding bond and relationship with my babies acted as a significant catalyst for tuning in to my instincts, intuition, and internal guidance. It started a big shift in the way I perceived and interacted with the world, especially the way I feel about children.
I worked for years as a babysitter, nanny, home daycare provider, professional daycare provider, substitute parent, and foster aunt. However, until I had my own baby and began that primal bonding and attachment process, I didn’t fully acknowledge the disrespect toward children inherent in Western culture. Even though I had experienced it myself as a child and teen (especially then), I still resigned myself to accept it, until I had responsibility for a new little person.
These sentiments echo words from my early writings during the years in which I participated in full-on feisty conflict with the personifications of Mother Culture, Conventional Wisdom, and Mainstream Parenting. Argh! And my kids weren’t even school age yet. I wrote:
The primal experience of childbirth shocked me into awareness, into rediscovering the natural rhythms of my place in the world. Once a numb follower of the voice of cultural authority, I began to question the organization of society (and who enforces it), why I should act against my instincts (my own inner guiding voice) as that hypnotic cultural voice insisted (threatened) I must.
I began to make changes in my life that further separated me from the false-connection of the mainstream (and from dependency on commercial products and services), which in turn inspired me to seek out and form nurturing communities that would support my needs for true and full life. Through this process I reconnected to my simple mammalian animal nature.
Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept (Da Capo Press, 1986) significantly affected my early parenting choices and lamentations. Liedloff described a peaceful way of living with children, observed during her time with an indigenous South American people. She proposed that all babies have instinctual expectations of reliable, responsive care, including an in-arms period (babywearing), breastfeeding on-cue, a family bed (cosleeping), etc.
She further proposed that when caregivers consistently ignore babies, the babies learn to disregard their own needs and sense of worth, and that toddler tantrums, considered normal in Western cultures, result from confusion and frustration from not experiencing the natural human expectations for love and freedom.
These babies grow into adults who disregard their inner guidance and sense of rightness. In Dr. James Kimmel’s article “Sociopathic Parenting” (NaturalChild.org), he asserted that our society is rapidly becoming a nation of sociopaths as a result of conventional parenting practices under which most children are reared by strangers who have no commitment to them.
Kimmel’s assertion echoed my instinct not to hand over my child to someone who does not love her, not for day care and not for school.
Kimmel further noted that “If we treated another adult the way we commonly treat our children, we would be subject to criminal and/or civil action. Imposing one’s will on another person is considered a crime in our society. Yet with children, it is actively encouraged. The only conclusion is that children are not seen as persons.”
Think about that.
During my readings, I also encountered a series of newsletters, GEMS and REBOUND, published by the Gentle Wind School (a secret “school” of mysterious origin). The newsletters focused on the damaging effects of modern education on the human consciousness. The authors frequently pointed out the common misidentification of “conditioned existence” as natural reality.
I thought a lot about “conditioned existence,” especially because people who critiqued the ideas I put forth in early writings often used the word “unrealistic,” or “idealistic,” as if that’s a bad thing.
What’s idealistic about my assertion that breastfeeding and unschooling can save the world? I don’t get it. Alfie Kohn remarked upon idealism in No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Houghton Mifflin, 1992):
“Occasionally a critic will refuse to resign himself to the way things are or to believe that we are helpless to make change. Such an individual should immediately be labeled “idealistic.” Do not be concerned about the vaguely complimentary connotations of having ideals. It will be understood that an idealist is someone who does not understand “the world as it is” (“world” = “our society;” “as it is” = “as it will always be”). This label efficiently calls attention to the critic’s faulty understanding of reality or “human nature” and insures that he is not taken seriously. Those who are “pragmatic,” by contrast, know that we must work within the confines of what we are given. After all, if alternative models really were workable, we would already be using them.”
During those early parenting years when I so voraciously read, conversed, challenged “reality,” etc., my husband went to work every day. While he didn’t exactly fit conventional mainstream either, he hadn’t amassed the contrary bunch of information I had to back up my gripes. Sometimes, when I’d go off ranting, he would sigh with a weary “What now?” gesture.
So I would say, “You think I like not fitting in?” For all my fiery heartfelt opinions, in person, I tend to quietly listen more than I speak up and I usually acquiesce or avoid eye contact in attempts to avoid confrontations over breastfeeding or overly joyful children. Can’t we all just get along and love the beauty of diversity?
Moving forward to the present: I find myself the mother of three girls who have never attended school, but who have taken numerous classes in the community that support their unique and diverging passions (They just completed Jedi Training!)
Seriously, my two eldest daughters have set themselves upon specific career paths toward meaningful life work. They began their purposeful life’s journeys at birth. More on those later.
As my family continues in this unschooling lifestyle (and loves it more all the time!), I feel inspired to delve deeper into the topic in my way as a person who expresses herself comfortably through writing. I’ve done so in my new book, “The Unschooling Happiness Project.”
At its first conception, I thought I would use the project to move forward with my ideas about unschooling. However, I found myself retrospecting, bridging earlier thought processes from a more emotionally tumultuous (exciting!) time with the relatively peaceful present. Interesting… And so the book turned into a memoir.
Sara McGrath, author of The Unschooling Happiness Project, lives near Seattle with her husband and three daughters