For the past two-some years, we’ve been engaged in a discussion that we cannot seem to resolve: should we unschool our children or not? Adam recently used an illustration from The Odyssey*to describe our perilous attempt to parent–Odysseus must choose to navigate near a six-headed monster or a whirlpool. Having a trained philosopher in the house can sometimes be useful.
Sixfinger threadfins, Polydactylus sexfilis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Can there be a middle ground, or are we always choosing between dangers? And how does one navigate it?
(I have lately preferred this illustration of our dilemma–as James Fitzjames Stephen wrote in 1873:
We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do?)
This, of course, is what anxious people are so anxious about.
But when it comes to schooling our children, is either option monstrous and terrible? Are we not choosing, merely, between two non-ideal things?
I used to blog about unschooling a lot. I was really into the idea, which seemed an extension of the kind of attachment parenting we’d been doing. I was also into the idea that people were essentially good and that people’s natural goodness and curiosity gets dulled or corrupted by the civilized world. I was into the idea that families were democracies, and children should have a say in what happens to them.
I would be in situations where all the children were encouraged to sing in a story time, and Fiona wouldn’t want to, and she would be treated like she wasn’t being “good”, and then I would get angry and defensive. Didn’t the world have enough groupthink?
But then the time came for us to sign Fiona up for school, and we did. We thought we’d just try it out. On the first day, she ran screaming and I took her home, crying myself. But when I then committed myself to homeschooling, realizing I had left it up to the overblown reaction of my almost-four-year-old, I felt terrified and upset. I didn’t know why, but when it came down to it, I did not want to homeschool.
When I was talking about it with another AP friend of mine, I said, “Well, we don’t want to let her know that she has the power to choose this for herself,” and it sounded distasteful to me.
And yet, as bad as it sounds, we don’t want her to have power of choice. Because having power of choice also entails having a burden of responsibility. And what a child prone to anxiety needs is parents who are benevolent dictators.
Unfortunately, I am more of a hotheaded jellyfish.
(What are People Like?
Are people like wild horses? Will schooling break them, break their spirit and their rebellious hearts? Is it a shame, does it diminish them?
Or will they be broken in like the breaking in of shoes? Will they be softened, made flexible?
Or are people like sheep who need a shepherd, better when we obey?
We know that everything we do is teaching them. We do not know exactly what it is we are teaching).
The Best, the Best, the Best
As it turns out, we needed to have real faith in one direction or another. And faith is what we’re lacking. Unschooling seems great, really great–all the stories online really appeal to me–except that we don’t want to be home all the time with our kids. Choosing to follow AP dictates has in the past caused really serious depression and resentment for me.
As with tandem nursing and co-sleeping and many other decisions regarding our children, this frantic question reveals our anxiety and despair:
What is the best? What is the best?
Well, maybe there is no possibility of best. Maybe there is the situation as it is, with its limitations and variables built in: that father is trying to build an academic career, and that mother if she doesn’t work away from the kids finds herself short-tempered and overbrimming with despair, and that they are not good at organizing other people’s time, and that these particular children if not pushed would never do anything at all, and that going to school, as it happens, is not the very end of the world.
Raised by Weaklings
Because I said so and because everybody else does and because you just have to, I’m sorry.
As it turns out, it is very difficult to both promote school and promote criticism of school. At least at this point. At this point my grade 1 and SK kids are both balking, running, crying, sobbing, kicking, trying to escape. It does not feel good to have my child pried off my body and forced into a classroom; it feels like I am violating her rights. On the other hand, this is not a prison, not really. This is a just an imperfect, sometimes-boring, sometimes-fun little place in the world. I want to take their protests seriously, but I think I have taken them too seriously. Now we are letting those feelings and anxieties rule us.
So we are still left with our difficulty. We, like our children, and like that enthusiastic group of bear-hunters in the child’s rhyme, “Gotta go through it.”
Illustrations of Odyssey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
(*Adam’s philosophical illustrations of The Odyssey have also given me the idea for my next novel.)