A few days ago Good Morning America aired a segment on Unschooling that is roundly thought by thinky people to be unfair, sensationalist, and journalistically lazy. OK, well.  It is mainstream media, so what would one expect?

Rebuttals and responses popped up around the blogosphere.  Lee Stranahan, filmmaker and writer, responded on Huffington Post by offering up his unschooled 18-year old son as an example, a young man who spent most of his life out of any form of traditional learning.  “You can keep your theories; I have my son,” he writes; a statement that resonates strongly with me.  When I read the theoretical examples of the spoiled, self-indulgent, lazy, couch potato, socially- and intellectually-backward, junkfood-devouring, abysmally-low-impulse-control wretch that is sure to result by not having the child in school (no really, people say all these things and more) it’s almost humorous when I think of the Sophie and Nels I know.

Following up Stranahan’s article, Heather at SwissArmyWife.net wrote a piece fleshing out principles that many unschoolers (or life-learners, self-directed learners, autodidactic learners, etc. etc.) live by. Concerned with the “un-” in the label unschooling, she says, “It’s important to talk about Unschooling and Life Learning in a way that is positive, that explains what we do do.” In the vein of Heather’s post, some homeschoolers and unschoolers are beginning to dislike the terms unschooling and deschooling (and their negative connotations) and instead advocate using the terms “life learning”, “self-directed learning”, or simply reclaiming the more old-fashioned term “homeschooling”.

Of course, the onus shouldn’t be on individual families to provide the perfect picture, the perfect phrasing, to therefore give the “right impression” to families who do things differently, or to those who would (sometimes loudly and visciously) criticize with no or little reflection and study.  I hope those non-schooling families that worry over their self-applied labels keep this in perspective; because in talking about labels we are really talking about concepts and the mainstream reaction to them.

So on that note, really, is the discussion relating to the supposed fringe activities of a minority of families even important at all?  Oh yes.  Oh hell yes.

After all, it is hard for us homeschoolers to simply “go our own way” when public opinion could swing such that today’s rights become tomorrow’s threatened freedoms.  Many think homeschooling is here to stay in this country, and I tend to agree.  But other countries are less friendly towards home-education models, and there’s no real reason to believe things couldn’t move further in that direction in America, especially if we take our rights for granted and the mainstream hardens their hearts to us.

There is another reason we “fringe” should discuss both nomenclature and family life; because sadly, and in no small part due to the anonymity of the internet playground, dehumanizing language threatens to create enemies where there could instead flourish challenges and disagreements amidst a backdrop of united principles of human need.

Not everyone is committed to the goals of compassionate discussion.  Today in the Chicago Sun Times Betsy Hart writes an article entitled, “Careful, don’t ‘Unschool’ your kids”.  It’s a pretty rough read.  According to her, parents who unschool are “irresponsible” and engaging in “neglect”.  She claims she’s a “parent” and the people who unschool are “unparents”.

Anyone who reads here would not call me an “unparent” nor neglectful.  Agree or disagree with any particular choice of mine (and, um, what’s up with that weird clause we say to one another, anyway? Which one person agrees with every thing some other person does?) if you’ve read here long you know I give a hundred and twelve good goddamns about my kids, their development, their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual care.  Yet people with Betsy’s views would paint our family with the broad brushtroke of “nuts” (yes, this is in the article too).

I am no bodhisattva. At first when I read this sort of thing I feel so much hurt and anger. Yet today instead of being pissed or writing her off or sneering at her choices I attempt a conversation. Clicking through to her blog and feedback form I write the following:

I’m so sad to read your attacks ad hominem on unschooling families. We are one of these families, although I do not use the label unschooling for reasons I won’t go into here.

My kids are normal. Their names are Sophie and Nels, and they are 8 and 6. They read voraciously (having learned on their own at a very early age) and show natural interest in science, math, just about every subject one can imagine. And yes, they practice hygiene, play with other children, are affectionate and direct and the furthest thing from self-centered I can imagine. Incidentally, they are also physically fit, advanced in math, reading, and writing, and love learning. They do not watch television all day (we don’t own a set) nor eat only chocolate donuts.

I say these things not to “prove” I am a good parent (you used the words “nuts”, “irresponsible”, and “neglect” to describe unschoolers) but to tell you to please stop making sweeping value judgments on something you know little about. I know the concepts of unschooling are new and unfamiliar to many. If you are interested in the subject, there are so many places you can go to learn more. If you are not willing to learn more, I’m not sure you should be weighing in.

The Good Morning America piece was an unfair one. If you have a moment, you might like to read this article, taken from the perspective of a more traditional homeschooler:

“Unschooling and Unjournalism”, at themoderatevoice.com

I love exercising my rights as an American to live our life in freedom and the way we want to live. I’m sure you enjoy these rights as well. I’m equally sure that if we met in person you and I and our children would respond positively to one another and see opportunities to learn from one another.

If you’re interested in a dialogue about what our family life is like, I’d love to engage one with you! Please do email if this is the case. If not, thank you for reading.

Thank you for your time,

Kelly Hogaboom
Hoquiam, WA
kelly@hogaboom.org

A funny thing happened as I wrote.  I found myself weeding out words that were nasty or character attacks.  I found myself attempting to gently dance along the line of offering a dialogue and perspective without lecturing. I found myself between wanting to elucidate my wonderful life with my amazing children vs. risking sounding like the proof of happy, healthy, academically-advanced children is a requirement I owe the mainstream (I highly reject this concept, as the parents of the 98% of American children who attend school are not required to “prove” their choice of institutionalized school by their kids’ behaviors and accomplishments).

After I sent my email I read the article again, and I saw something new. Toward the end of her essay I began to hear her fear and concern she has for unschooled kids; she does not see how a consensual, free living life could create a human being with the capacity to make rational, altruistic, well-informed, self-sacrificial, and well-rounded decisions.  According to her, if I may be so bold to rephrase, she worries a child who is not raised with duties and commitments they “have to do” will develop to be entirely self-centered.

When I read Hart’s article with an openness and look past her personal attacks, I can relate to her fears and concerns.  I am sad she chose to spend the first 75% of the article maligning families like mine.  If someone like Hart – without knowing me nor choosing to get to know me – thinks of me as “nuts”, “irresponsible”, and an “unparent”, I can only try to engage with her.  It is certainly a reminder, too, to keep my own thrill at my children’s developments and freedoms in check that I do not allow my joy and engagement to morph into recrimination and dismissal of the many (majority) parents who do things the mainstream way.

By making the choices we do, we Hogabooms personally set ourselves apart in a way that can be painful for others and occasionally ourselves.  But this pain is not necessarily a bad thing.  Wendy Priesnitz, social activist, writer, founder and editor of Life Learning Magazine, veteran “unschooler”, and mother of two grown daughters who never went to school said a few days ago, to paraphrase, that her thirty years of experience have taught her any publicity is good publicity.  Today she posts a Facebook update reminding families who don’t traditionally school just how much they’re rocking the boat. She writes:

Change – of mind or actions – is difficult for most of us. The unschooling lifestyle challenges long-held beliefs about education as well as about children and parenting. I like to think that, by our very lives, we are encouraging and creating change, and making it easier for people to follow their own hearts instead of others’ opinions.

Sometimes I think that’s what I want most.  Not that every parent should see the wisdom in freeing themselves and their children (although it must be said, this would be a paradise of sorts), but that parents should follow their hearts – and I’d add, remain open to the experiences lived by others.  I am open to hearing views like Hart’s, even if she is not open to mine.

Each parent has the gift of self-awareness and a child whom they can continue to connect with, to learn to love anew. I have seen the power of this in my own life and my own family.  No one needs to live on autopilot; the joys, tribulations, and triumph of challenging our limitations is one of my favorite experiences in being human.