Of everything that has happened to me as a parent, perhaps nothing has surprised me and bewildered me more than the fact that we have ended up as (almost) unschoolers. Homeschooling was always on my radar. Unschooling was not.
I have a teaching degree. I was in a specialized program that focused on creating effective learning curriculum. How is it that I could end up basically unschooling my daughter?
In reality, it has been a slow process of me letting go of preconceived ideas, but if I could do it over again we would have fully embraced unschooling from the start. It’s how Caroline has learned best to this point and it would have saved me a lot of grief and angst and money. If you aren’t familiar with our homeschooling and parenting journey, there are zillions of posts that I have written about that under Home Education and Gifted/2e Children. I’m not going to rehash all of those topics again, but look at a bigger picture aspect of how we ended up here.
Along the way, I’ve come to the conclusion that unschooling is often something you grow into as a homeschooling parent. Once you start homeschooling you realize that so much of what kids are asked to do is mindless busywork – even from the best programs. Kids have better things to do with their childhood than spend half a year learning how to multiply when if you wait another year or two they will master it in literally thirty minutes. You can spend a month teaching them to write a five sentence paragraph when they are eight or you can do it in three days when they are ten. And so you begin to realize how much learning can take place without traditional structures.
Train Up a Child
As I mentioned when I wrote about discipling children in Christ outside of traditional church structures, our understanding of the power of unschooling has developed and evolved along with going deeper in our faith. In that post, I shared two videos. I’m going to share one of them again here. Wayne Jacobson is answering a question about what it means to “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). He has an interesting take on this and I encourage you to watch just a couple of minutes from 27:57 to 30:40.
There are a few things he said that resonated loudly with me where my faith and my homeschooling world intersect (which is actually every place).
“Train up a child according to the way that he is and he will not depart from that. It’s not indoctrinating to a kind of standard or ethic, but rather raising a child true to who God has made them to be… It’s not the standardizing of behavior…”
When I listen to this, I think not only of trying to point Caroline to God as her heavenly Father, but also pointing her to God as the Creator of who she is. She is going to relate to God differently than I do because she is a different person. Yes, we want to instruct her on the basics of the Christian faith because we want her to have a framework to understand the Bible, the Holy Spirit, salvation, etc. But I need to be pointing her as an individual to God, not instructing her on a list of acceptable behaviors that will make people at church think she is a good little girl. Sometimes the behaviors that will make people think someone is a good little girl are in direct opposition to who God has created a child to be.
Jacobson describes Sunday Schools as teaching children morality plays that school kids in performance-based stuff. That makes sense to me because school is typically all performance based. That carries over into the traditional church as churches adopt school structures while attempting to help children in their spiritual growth – often in ways that don’t work for indiviudal children who don’t fit the traditional grade level parameters. Christianity ultimately becomes for many children about performance instead of walking with the Creator who made them unique and delightful individuals.
Unschooling, Faith and Relationships
Unschooling is above all about relationships. It has to be. When you unschool you have to be very in tune with what your child is thinking, learning, exploring, etc. so you can support her in those area. Unschooling doesn’t equal neglect which is what people often think when they first hear of it. It’s just the opposite of neglecting your child’s education. It’s being very relational and intentional with your child’s learning. But there is no doubt it looks and feels completely different than performance-based school.
Because unschooling is highly relational, it also fits well with Christian discipleship. As Jacobson explains elsewhere in the video, discipleship works best in close one-on-one relationships. Unschooling is the perfect vehicle for that.
When I was on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, my very favorite part of student ministry was meeting one-on-one with students to encourage them in their walk with Christ. It was never my intention to come in and tell them what they needed to do. I would talk with them, understand where they were on their faith journey, and we would try to devise a plan of something to do together. We might do a Bible study. We might read a book and discuss it. It was always driven by where they were and where they wanted to go or grow in their faith. I was there to encourage and bounce ideas off of. Their journey was their own. I was just someone sent along at that point of the journey to help equip them for the next step.
Discipling my child should be no different. Yes, I am the parent and there are some things I know she needs to learn. But if I am discipling her as the unique individual God has made her to be, our homeschooling journey isn’t going to look like anyone else’s. We’re going to make intensely personal and focused decisions along the way, refine our choices and keep going.
This is part of the reason why I don’t do extensive planning for our homeschooling. How can I? I don’t know what we’ll be interested in next November. I don’t know when I will sense a learning leap coming on and we can learn a bunch of stuff in a short and easy amount of time. I choose to focus on the relationship each day and know that the rest of it will fall into place.
We are (Almost) Unschoolers
So why is the (almost) in the title? We are almost unschoolers because I do require some work from Caroline. We do handwriting and math primarily, but not every day. We’ll do no formal math for quite some time and then we’ll do it for a few weeks. Most of the time when I ask her to do something she picks it up very quickly. I think oftentimes I’m more affirming she has learned something than I am trying to teach her something. I find that fits better with the unschooling model, but also gives me some peace of mind.
I expect how this all happens will change as Caroline grows. At nine and a half, I’m starting to see her take bits of initiative in new ways that lean toward the academic (something she has usually resisted). But I’m in no hurry to push her along. She’s only nine and she has plenty of time to focus on more formal academics in the years ahead if that seems prudent for our family. Will we always be unschoolers? I don’t know. She may surprise me and want to move in another direction at some point. But that will be because it is best for who God created her to be, not because I decided it was what I wanted. It’s her learning and faith journey. I’m here to point her to God, help her understand who she is, and find the best ways to joyfully bring that all together as her gift to the world.