It shocks me how much I don't know. I sometimes wonder how I am a functioning adult at all, frankly. For instance, I have enormous gaps in my knowledge about world history, like most Americans do. We still seem to be able to adult and get on with our lives, not knowing when the Glorious Revolution happened (1688, I looked it up) or when, exactly, Charlemagne lived, ruled and destroyed pagan cultures (742-814. I looked that up too.) I got a job when I was 23 years old at the Museum of Modern Art, despite not knowing anything about art history past the death of Alexander the Great. I learned right quick, I can tell you that. I've never hunted for my own food, and wouldn't know how to dress a deer carcass if my life depended on it, but I greatly admire those who can (and do.) Until I traveled in Asia, I knew little about Asian geography, religious traditions, art, and the various histories. I can't trigonometry my way out of a paper bag. And my inner-feminist is ashamed to admit that I've never changed a tire, and I have no plans on doing so. That is why AAA exists.
The list is endless.
As I have aged, I have learned many things and filled in some of the gaps. I'm generally pretty curious and like to dive deep into learning subjects. Unschooling the kids has actually provided me with incentive to look things up and be curious about my own blinkers and the rather broad empty spaces in my own learning.
I know you are nodding your head, fully commiserating with what I'm saying. Right? After all, who doesn't have gaps in their education? So much to know…! You understand that there are things you need and should learn, but somehow you don't get around to it. But you can still function as an adult. Hold down a job. Feed your family. Should it become truly necessary to learn some particular thing or another, you know you can learn it. It might take a little time, but isn't that what life is about?
Now what if I told you my children have gaps in their learning too. Big ones.
"She-who-will-not-be-tamed" (a.k.a. my daughter) has steadfastly refused to learn some things in her ten years of life: she did not know her alphabet until she was seven, maybe eight. She's beginning to read now, at age ten, and the only reason she is even trying to do that at all is because her friends who go to school make fun of her for being behind. (Sigh.) Yesterday, through sheer force of will, she finally learned to ride a bike. She was too embarrassed about doing it in front of people who might see her or judge her as being "behind" at the grand old age of ten, so she made her dad take her to a parking lot at 10 pm so she could practice in peace. She learned in two days and she is as pleased at her accomplishment as anything I've ever seen her do. Yet, she is not an intellectual slouch or lazy in any way. And she is fierce in her determination when she sets her mind to something. She was the earliest "deep-end" swimmer at our pool - ever - and she could at age three or four name and quote facts about rare animals the world over. She is sometimes better at math than I am. And, most importantly, she has stories and philosophical questions inside her waiting to come out. She can play for hours uninterrupted in her room, lost in imaginary play -- even now, on the cusp of teen-dom. In this age of plugged-in childhoods, I don't know many kids like her. She is glorious.
My son, by contrast, learned things pretty much as expected by our culture -- alphabet by age three, bike at age six, reading at age seven, tie-shoes at age eight, Harry Potter at age nine, cursive at age ten, Minecraft at age eleven, D & D at age thirteen. (The last one is a joke.) But he has huge gaps in his knowledge too, just not ones that elicit concern from "professionals," random strangers, and old-school relatives. On the flip side, he knows things that many adults have never had exposure to their whole lives. Ask him about Norse, Greek, or Roman mythology. You'll see.
The difference is that my son learned a few key skills according to the arbitrary measure we have instituted for all children, skills that we've enshrined, somehow, into the culture as "holy." Thou shalt read by age eight or else! Thou shalt ride a bike by age eight or you are pitiable! Thou shalt play baseball (or be sporty in some way) if you are a boy or take ballet/dance if you are a girl. Though shalt know thy multiplication tables by 4th grade or you will end up a pauper on the street! And if a young learner in our culture deviates from that path, they are suspect in some way. They are slow. They are a failure. And as parents -- for the most part brought up in school culture -- we see ourselves as a failure alongside our child if the path is not strictly followed. And the whole thing is even more crazy because our culture is just plain wrong with all these expectations as it is in so many other areas as well.
I want to encourage you to step away from your preconceived ideas about when children should learn what and how they should learn it. Step away from the idea that you, the adult, needs to be in the driver's seat. Let them guide you. If they resist you in some way in your attempts to introduce things to them, take that as a strong reminder that you are there to assist, not push. Facilitate, not direct. They are interested and capable human beings developing in their own time. You might have a child or two who is happy to go along with "the program" and learn things "on time." But you might have a "she-who-will-not-be-tamed" on your hands, and she will push back, fight, and resist your attempts to colonize her childhood with your concern-trolling over her inability to read at age eight. She doesn't care. She won't do it. And you can't make her. So don't try. Learn to let go and deftly navigate the waters of uncertainty. Place the importance of the relationship above the dictates of cultural norms. Do this every time. For everything.
Someday she will come to you and say, "I want to learn to ride a bike." And she will learn. Faster than fast. And, at that moment, you will realize that it all didn't matter -- these agendas we have for our children in this culture. The pressure and angst you felt for years over this and that was all for naught. You will see that we are all works in progress and that they learn when they are ready, and, truth be told -- without exception -- everyone has gaps. Everyone. Even your children.
Some days, this is what unschooling looks like.
A table strewn with craft supplies, everything pulled out of the shelves. Where is that one perfect thing needed to finish the project? Nothing is put away. Chaos reigns. It is a mess that some people I know cannot tolerate even for a moment. However, to tell you the truth, I don't mind the mess at all because the house is never more joyful than when this is happening.
Today, the project was costume creation for a game created A YEAR AGO at our annual trip (with 10-15 other families) to Assateague Island National Seashore in May. As the weekend for the trip this year approaches, Eli is in high design mode, and Sadie is his muse and the costume-wearer. There is nothing that cannot be achieved with duct tape, foam, paper, cardboard, markers, scissors, and uninterrupted time. The key here is "uninterrupted." Hours and hours of plotting and planning, laughing and excited agreement. And no hovering mother trying to micro-manage stuff getting picked up, or better ideas for how to do things.
On days like today, I've learned to step aside and let all of the plans for the day take a backseat. On days like today, they become acquainted with the words "creative flow" and the phrase, "necessity being the mother of invention." On days like today, rain or shine, more learning happens than can ever be achieved in some well-lit room with 25 other well-behaved learners in desks listening to an adult. On days like today, they rarely ask me for help at all. On days like today, they forget the meaning of the word "boredom."
On days like today, despite the chaos in the kitchen, I am truly my most happy as a mother.
My daughter has been sick. Not terribly sick, just unwell enough to not feel a lot of motivation to see friends or play with her stuffed animals. She wants to cuddle a lot and do art. Mostly on her whiteboard, so that she can both cuddle and do art at the same time.
Today, as I was bitching about politics on Facebook, she sat next to me and drew a spotted wolf, his face raised to the moon, howling. The moon had a happy, benevolent face. The wolf sat on Mother Earth, in a long, flowing black dress (she only had a black marker), and star-friends looked down lovingly on the whole scene.
She asked me, "How do you write my name in cursive." So I showed her… and over the next hour, she practiced and practiced her signature after the cursive alphabet I carefully wrote for her on the board. Word after word. This is the first time she's ever mentioned cursive to me, other than handing me hand-written notes from her grandparents and saying, "I can't read this." This is how learning happens. In the sick moments on the couch, snuggled under covers, drawing and erasing, and drawing over again…creating questions, answering them, and then asking new ones.
We are now on to "how to draw anime eyes."