spaceship earth, circa 1983

In part in response to my previous post, a friend sent me “The Bitter Homeschooler’s Wishlist” from secular-homeschooling.com.  I must admit I laughed a bit (although in general I do not consider it a part of my mission to spread snark) which was then replaced by fervent noddings at numbers 21, 22, and 23. In reading this I also felt quite grateful to be surrounded by friends and family who are generally supportive and don’t say too many silly things regarding my kids’ exemption from school.

Oh and:

From the archives: I grew up in a bus.  I used to call myself “So Cal hippie trash” before I decided I should not use the word “trash” to refer to anyone, my own roots notwithstanding.  My parents smoked pot and sort of parented all groovy (which means: assily), but they fed us and loved us pretty good.  So here I am, rockin’ the raspberry beret and breaking the hearts of my brother and some other boy we met at Yosemite Park.

El Autobús Mágico

It’s hard to see, but beneath the white wave-like motif on this bewheemoth drift the words “Inner Space”; this must be before my mom added planets as well.  Yes, that is a real wooden door with stained glass (my mom handcrafted that too).  Click on the photo if you’d like to read a bit more about our exodus from sunny CA to rainy WA.

ETA: Ralph told me this post made me sound like a hippie who was kind of proud of being a hippie.  I pulled out my cloth menstrual pad and slapped him across the face. And then I went and ate some bark, or something.

so today i hear i’m a neglectful parent, or: why “living my life” isn’t just a solo event

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.

“it’s called ‘self-directed learning’, dad. & no, i don’t have to live here.”

Relatively frequently I get an an email, a DM from Twitter, or an in-person inquiry regarding our choice to homeschool. Over the last couple years I’ve observed the concerns are almost always a select few: “But what about socialization?” being the (predictable) first query (answer: Ha! You have to be joking!* although perhaps soon I will write an actual answer in detail), followed by, “I think it’s best for kids but… I could never get so organized / stand being with my kids all day” as a close second (more about this in a minute).  Finally, trailing third but still frequent enough, I get a form of: “Um, I wonder if homeschooling is right for me?” (or the emphatic “I know homeschooling would not be for us because blah-blah-blah”, although most who say this A. were not asked, personally, to consider homeschooling as far as I know and B. do not have an informed or well-rounded view of what it can and does mean to have kids out of school). In my inbox rests a handful of earnest, lengthy email queries to the latter effect; and this question – or occasional emphatic statement – is one I’d like to address here for a minute.

First, there’s so much to unpack on the subject, and the public sphere has done poorly in creating an intelligible, honest discussion. Like, so many people think if your kids aren’t in school – and you aren’t doing something nefarious with them – that you are “homeschooling”, and it means means you get up in the morning, have breakfast, your kids do some cirriculum according to a color-coded lesson plan, you take field trips with like-minded gentle Subaru-driving families, then sit at a picnic table and eat granola and drink goats’ milk kefir.  And maybe Bible study to boot.

Of course, this is only a (generalized and stereotyped) structure that some families hold to – that is (food-snark aside): a lesson plan and curriculum, possibly faith-based, taught in the home bolstered by organized group activities within the family or a narrow group of friends.  And this is where the lack of realistic, open discussion around out-of-school kiddos fosters a lot of ignorance.  Because besides a vague idea along those lines, many people accustomed to the mainstream don’t even know the differences or philosophies that can be referenced through various terminologies: homeschooling, unschooling, radical unschooling, deschooling, life learning, and self-directed learning (like, reader! I literally know you do not know what the hell I am talking about here!). Wendy Priesnitz writes a wonderful article making several relevant points about such terminology – although if you aren’t a homeschooler and familiar with authors, articles, and movements concerning those who live without traditional education, I fear this article will make little sense and seem an exercise in hair-splitting.  And yet the terminology isn’t throw-way or frivolous, whatever you many initially think, any more than knowing the much-beloved traditions, details and foibles of anyone’s unique family life are throw-away or frivolous.

To get back to the stereotypes: my kids are not in school.  But this does not mean, as their parent and caregiver, I am especially fearful of the World At Large (anyone reading here for long knows I am decidedly not), especially groovy or granola, especially fringe or religious, especially mellow and able to handle a messy house and rowdy kids (I actually totally cannot handle these things!), or especially organized. Getting up at the crack of dawn, sitting at the table and gently leading my youngsters through my well-researched lesson plan?  This is so not me.  Eating stone-ground wheat and stuff I dug out of the garden, then drinking deeply from our recycled-urine-greywater system? – okay, at this point, I’m being a dick.  But still?  Not me.  Reading about Jesus and praying as a family?  Nope.

I am also not neglectful, lazy, or interested in keeping my kids “special” and excluded because they’re smart / “slow” / ADHD / special / bullies / bullied (by the way, why, in your view, would those be those such assy motives anyway?).  Nope, nope, nope.

Enough about what I’m not.

Here’s something that living without formal childhood education does mean: you can’t use Public School as babysitting in order to pursue paid employment.  And that, yup.  It’s a bit rough.  Many people I know could afford to do this (even if they don’t currently believe this), but can’t bring themselves to.  And: fine.  Most America does use Public School as both an economic help and/or to avoid the realities of living with children.  You’re in good company if that’s what your family is doing.

And of course there are those who cannot lose a job to be home with kids – although it must be pointed out most who directly consult me would stack up pretty well according to the Global Rich List.

Here’s the other thing about keeping your children out of school: yes, you have to be around your kids.  The idea of “me time” – or the “real life” of having a job / career / money and business-casual wardrobe – because, you know, if you get paid for something it means it’s worthwhile!  That’s awesome because as a worldview, it means if I can pull in a dollar no one needs to question anything! –  yeah, you will not get the benefit of those!  Sure, you can carve out that “me time” – in fact, I think I do a rather excellent job, maybe better than lots of Mamas I know.  But you won’t get a most-days-guaranteed eight hours worth.  So yes, you will be around your kids.  A lot.  Kind of weird how some people believe Nature made us these babies and coincidentally we can care for them up until four or five years of age but then something happens where you would literally tear their head off if you were to not immediately farm them out for eight/nine hours a day five days a week! Nature is so crazy that way!

That’s about it: those two things listed above.  That’s all it really requires, and really means FO SHO, to have your kids home.

And you know, I really don’t have time – not here, not right now – to go into the many benefits of deciding to keep them home, the individual challenges and frustrations, the glorious and amazing bits, and my whole WHY do I keep them home thingy.  Some other time.  I just wanted to give you a little chat, unless you were deciding to Other me as a completely different person than you with a totally different family.

See, some (most?) people like labels.  Some like the idea that if I chose to have my kids home, instead of in school, it means I’m a Supermom who has all my shit together (Ha! Ha hahaha! < sob! >).  Alternatively, they might enjoy thinking I believe my darlings are more precious than other kids and should be separated from the Grimy Masses (so in other words, I’m an Elitest Asshole), or that I’m trying to insulate and isolate them (in other words, I’m fearful and controlling), or that I have a series of unconventional faith-based beliefs (America was partially founded on freedom to worship but please don’t worship TOO WEIRDLY!).  So if I’m a “homeschooler” maybe I’m preaching to them from the Wiccan handbook or the New Testament (or both!), maybe I’m feeding them Class Five Vegan cuisine and braiding my armpit hair into thick, supple ropes.  So, you know, these people want me to subscribe to a label so they can decide what it means without thinking much about it.  Those who are threatened by my concept of staying home with my (perfectly smart, active, academically proficient, happy and healthy) kiddos, will want to make fun of me or – a more charitable diagnoses on my part – suddenly come forth (unasked) to me and tell me all the reasons they don’t or can’t stay home (this latter means they don’t have to go through the scary experience of actually considering it!). This is why, online and in books, you’ll see a lot of articles trying to define Unschooling, Life Learning, all the above – simply because in doing something different, you are too-often assumed to be doing something weird.

My life is profundly normal, and yet I’m put at a social disadvantage where people assume it’s freakish, uncanny, odd, or exceptional.  And I really don’t know a way around this odd little facet of living a non-mainstream life. A summation up at the end of the article “Does the unschooling label help or harm?” (unschoolinglifestyle.com) reveals an existence so typical, family-based, reasonable, non-SCARY or -FRINGE**, that it’s almost easy to wonder why one would have to pen it at all:

My family learns through life experiences, as well as through direct academic pursuit, as well as through play. We live spontaneously, as well as by design. We take classes, as well as pursue new skills autonomously. We follow a biological clock, i.e., sleeping when tired, as well as a schedule when we choose to make appointments, i.e., classes, play dates, parties. We live flexibly and authentically, adapting to new needs and wants. We live communally and respectfully, aiming for peaceful and contented family relationships. We attend to discord one situation at a time, knowing we need not take disharmony for granted. We continually create our life.

Ha!  What weirdos, AMIRITE?

Photo By One Of My Kids

* Socialization? See: Hogaboom kids, and how fucking awesome they are at all times in pretty much every social setting, ever! Maybe because they get to hang out with all-ages in a more varied setting…  I dunno.

** Oh and P.S.? You can’t honestly think I, personally, am scared of “fringe” or think it’s wrong; my point is, “fringe” often ends up being used in a pejorative sense and to dehumanize or distance those who think, believe, or do differently than the herd.