The most important lesson learnt as an #unschooling parent
We had ignored our anxieties and meltdowns long enough. We learnt to pay attention to what our body and mind were telling us. Our children would guide us.
In 2018, when our daughters were 14 and 12 and 9, we decided to quit mainstream schooling for our children. We took a leap of faith into the unknown.
We became an unschooling family.
In December 2017, we spent four days at the annual Learning Societies UnConference (LSUC) in Bangalore, meeting with various individuals, groups and families who have made unconventional choices in how they live, learn and work. Among nearly 1,000 people, the five of us roamed about—together and separately—exploring, listening, connecting and getting in tune with our own needs. I had not experienced freedom like this since I had become a parent. I felt happy. And light.
With barely two sentences exchanged between my husband and me, we decided that we were ready to stop doing what was clearly not working for our children and us. We were going to trust ourselves to figure out our own path of growth. We had ignored our anxieties and meltdowns long enough. Now we would pay attention to what our body and mind were telling us. Our children would guide us.
Individually, we spoke to each of our daughters and told them that they were free to decide whether they wanted to continue going to school. We were encouraging them to think things through from their own perspective. The ‘little women’ were quick with their responses.
“I don’t want to continue with school. I’ve been holding my breath for too long,” said Sahar, our firstborn.
“Mamma, I want a break from school, but I want to take my final exams at the end of term,” said our middle child, Aliza. “I love exams.”
Naseem, our youngest, was studying in a small Waldorf school called Ukti at that time and was part of a class of six students. “I want to continue school,” she said with conviction. Two years later, on her 11th birthday, she informed us that she was choosing unschooling. “Mamma, I am ready,” she said. Just like that.
One of the side effects of life as an unschooler is that one’s daily (un)routine becomes a permanent object of curiosity for others. Self-learners, who choose to not study according to predetermined curricula and develop their own rhythm of learning, leisure and lethargy find that their lifestyle no longer fits into a multiple-choice questions format. Routine queries like which class are you studying in and what is your favourite subject can no longer be answered accurately with simple, pat replies.
Every question deserves an essay-type exploratory response. One isn’t always sure of the motives of the examiner of the day, who could be a neighbour, family friend, random relative or train co-passenger. Well-meaning people spend considerable energy trying to convince you to return to the cruel embrace of conformity. It can be tricky and tiresome.
“When you apply for a job, will you write high school dropout as your qualification,” a 15-year-old friend asked Aliza.
“What are they learning? What level are they at? What will be their area of excellence? What about their board exams?” our parents and siblings often quiz us, trying to knock some sense into the parents in the family.
In my diary, I have made notes of some of our experiences as we navigate the highs and lows of unschooling. Six months after she took her exams and said goodbye to school, Aliza said to me, “Mamma, I feel smarter now than my school-going self. We can learn whatever we want, however we want, whenever we want. We can spend the whole day in the sun when we want to. I love maths now. I don’t feel dependent.”
In her own way, Aliza was expressing her newfound sense of agency. “We don't have to worry about people’s comments on our haircut anymore. In fact, we have to worry less altogether.”
“In school, we are supposed to pretend that we can’t really see what we do. That somehow what we feel terrible about isn’t so bad,” wrote Sahar in an essay on her decision to choose unschooling that was published in a weekend newspaper. “I’m glad I don’t have to live that pretend life anymore. I’ll figure out something more authentic on my own. I feel confident about that.”
In a long-winded way, finding ourselves in a place where we are often explaining our choices to those who love us offers us a chance to sharpen our own arguments. We gain clarity en route.
As parents, we have learnt that the real work of unschooling is when we turn our focus towards re-parenting our own selves. When we learn to draw boundaries and protect our emotional energies, we show our children that they have the right to honour their intuitive selves, too.
Socialization and etiquette training ravage the integrity of our self. We perpetuate historical injustices as well as class, caste and gender inequalities when we live the unexamined life.
Children crave the feeling of discovery. ‘We did it ourselves’ is the fuel that drives them. No one benefits from being made to feel foolish. We don’t need one more generation paralysed by the shame and fear of failure.
Our unschooling lifestyle has taught us to become comfortable with uncertainty. Be friends with inertia and boredom. Know patience.
“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.” This counterintuitive wisdom from Tim Kreider, columnist and author of We Learn Nothing, makes perfect sense. Instead of making fewer mistakes, I want to make more of them. It is how I learn.
We want our children and us to know how we can replenish our life force.
As I sit here tapping away at this essay, two daughters are sitting near me despite the fact that this is probably the hottest corner of the house right now. The youngest is on the floor with a pair of knitting needles. She is contributing a square patch for her sibling’s DIY project of creating a patchwork quilt. The middle sister has a laptop balanced on her knees while she crochets a black toy for her elder sister’s birthday gift. Songs from Coke Studio Season 14 are the background score for our collective activities.
“What are you making,” I ask her.
“Amigurumi,” she answers me, as she follows precise instructions on how to create a well-rounded bottom for this character from How To Train Your Dragon, their one-time favourite animation film.
“What?” I am startled by this unfamiliar word.
“It’s the Japanese art of crocheting or knitting small stuffed yarn creatures,” I am informed.
“I was asking for this creature’s name,” I say.
“Toothless!” Both sisters say in chorus, reminding me of the adorable dragon we were all once besotted with.
Our peaceful presence is the best resource parents can offer children. This is the greatest lesson I have learnt as we go forward—sometimes doing nothing, often being late, forever being friends with each other.
Read the full essay on #Unschooling in The Morning Context here:
Rejecting Conformity...and Other Lessons Learnt as an Unschooling Parent