My oldest son has always hated school. He cried when I dropped him off in preschool. He complained in kindergarten, and by the time he was in grade 4, there were many mornings he just plain refused to go. And he was in Montessori. Most mornings involved fights; sometimes I had to physically pick him up kicking and screaming to get him into the car. Looking back, I cringe at the damage I was doing to him – but I didn’t know there were other options. When I preach about unschooling, it’s because I want other parents to know that there are options. That you don’t need to fight with your kids and they don’t need to spend the bulk of their waking lives in places that they hate.
When I realized that life was not working for us back in 2019, I started researching alternative school systems and came across the Sudbury schools in the US. Sudbury uses a self-directed model that gives the attending kids the freedom to learn based on their interests with staff there to help support their journey as needed. It’s totally child-led. I became enamoured. Alas, the closest school that could be comparable was over 100km away, so I decided to try and create a free school in my town. It was a bumpy ride and we ended up closing just before COVID hit but it did teach me a lot about self-directed education, autonomy, and all the failings of the school system. But it also taught me that my kid hated ANY kind of compulsory schooling – he didn’t want to be in an environment where there was perceived authority over his time or judgement from adults about his activities.
So our entry into unschooling came with a bit of a crash, simply because there were no other options left to us. I spent a year diving deep into the books, blogs, podcasts, and Facebook groups to try and navigate my very rocky deschooling process (made complicated by hormonal changes in my body) and my son’s deschooling process (made complicated by living in split homes with a father that was not supportive of this new way of learning). It was a hard year but we stuck with it because I knew that this was an important transition for us. I didn’t fully understand unschooling, but I knew that this was how I wanted to parent, how our family should live together. There was a lot of fights, tears, apologies, hugs, and eventually laughter. I’m happy to report that year two has gone much more smoothly. But in this second year, I’ve also come to a very important understanding that I felt deep inside but couldn’t fully comprehend.
When I was doing that initial deep dive into unschooling, I missed a very key component that made our first year so hard. Unschooling gurus taught that I needed to put my child first, at the expense of myself, and at the expense of others. I was told that anything less was not “radical unschooling” and I actually gaslit myself into believing this was true. But it was exhausting and continually sent me into spirals of self-doubt because I was not listening to my gut. About time spent alone watching YouTube, about getting enough sleep, about getting exercise. I was told that my concerns were too big and if I talked to my son about them, I’d be putting my adult issues onto his shoulders. I just needed to “deschool more”. But it wasn’t healthy at all.
It wasn’t until the fall of 2020 that I started exploring intersectional unschooling, a term I learned from Zakiyya Ishmael in an amazing article she wrote here: https://www.growingminds.co.za/intersectional-unschooling-a-new-semantic-musing/ As someone who was already exploring ideas of intersectionality between environmentalism and racism, this clicked automatically. It explained why unschooling felt like the right approach, but I had been looked at it from the wrong angle. Rather than putting the onus on prioritizing my child’s needs over my own, it reframed the picture as removing the power dynamic between us as two fully formed individuals. But this was a two-way street: just as I shouldn’t have power over my child, they should also not have power over me. We needed to learn how to live in harmony, respecting each other as people, and also respecting each others needs, fears, wants, etc. This left room for bringing my concerns to the relationship rather than pushing them down inside and, better yet, modeled that behaviour for my kids! In showing them respect, in removing that authority over them, they can now experience how to live in relationships – in community – without the need to assert power over others. I think this is what Lucy AitkenRead is referring to as “Third Wave” unschooling in a recent Youtube video.
Without classrooms or books, my kids are learning how to live in non-oppressive community. This is honestly the only thing I wish to show them about the world, because it is the change that is needed in coming generations to end (or even lessen) oppressive institutions and culture. I don’t know if it will be enough, but it’s all I have to offer.