-- By Marie Goodwin
When I talk to anyone contemplating homeschooling, the conversation always takes a turn into the realm of fear. Other topics, like laws or whether to use a curriculum or even thorny issues like finances and priorities, seem to be relatively easy to overcome -- or at least assuage for the moment. But there is always a part of the conversation, arriving after a thoughtful pause, that opens up to the dark forest of one's fears. Parents fear they will not do enough, not be enough, not know enough. Fear that the child will be doomed to a life of isolation, illiteracy, or incompetence. They fear being different or setting themselves apart. They fear that college will not be possible. They fear being judged by their friends and, most especially, their families. They fear being lonely on the path. Sometimes all of this is rolled up into a big anxious ball of "Oh, it's nice that you can do this and I agree it is important, but I can't do it. I just can't."
I know how it feels because I've been there. I've walked it too. I continue to walk it. I do not know anyone who has removed their children from school (or never sent them in the first place) that hasn't felt this fear at different times, in different ways, as they made their path in this world along the edges of our culture. These questions and concerns were stronger for me when my children were very little, before I knew teen and grown unschoolers, all of them successful and thriving. These fears still surface every now and again. They've been surfacing a lot over the last two years. Here's why.
Right after my daughter's tenth birthday, she came home sullen from a playdate with some friends. She has many friends. These friends happen to go to school. It didn't take very long to get to the bottom of why she was so unhappy. "I'm stupid." she said, the tears popping up into her eyes. "I can't read, and all my friends can. They are making fun of me, and they don't even like to play with stuffed animals and do imaginary play anymore. They make fun of me!"
My heart broke in about a million pieces right there in the kitchen. It was true that she was a late bloomer in reading. We tried over and over again to introduce it to her: the alphabet, easy-reader books with great pictures, fairy-tales. We read to her all the time. But she always flat-out refused to even try when we asked her to work on reading or writing. I consulted a couple of specialists I knew at around age eight, when she still didn't even know her alphabet, and they told me just to back off. She would read in time. The unschooler in me agreed. She would read when reading was important to her, and not before. And man, was she determined not to read...stating that, "Reading is the colonization of childhood!" (I mean, really, what eight year old says that?) So I had her vision checked at a doctor's appointment (it was fine) and then I backed off.
But two years later here she was, crying to me, asking me for help. That day she agreed to begin making an effort to read. Her self-esteem was in the dumpster at this point, and I realized we had some repairing to do. She is a super-intelligent, artistic, creative, out-of-the-box thinker with a memory like an elephant. Surely she could read if she put her mind to it.
But she couldn't. She couldn't remember sight words. She couldn't track the lines. She tired after one or two pages, saying her brain hurt.
We had her eyes checked again, this time by a pediatric specialist. She needed bi-focals. (The earlier doctor's visit had only included a checkup on her distance vision, not mid- and short- range vision.) That helped the situation a little, but still did not solve the major problems. She made up words that didn't exist in the reading; she read things backwards -- from right to left -- and wrote them that way too. She could not figure out lower case "b" and "d" and "g" and "j" and so many other combinations. I felt like we were in deep water and not swimming very well. She was starting to give up hope, and I was extremely frustrated. I often felt that she was just being stubborn or refusing to do the work she needed to do to read, even though she wanted very badly to read. How could a kid who could remember a park we went to when she was 18 months old not remember how to spell the word "horse" or her best friend's name? How could a kid who lectured me at age eight about "the colonization of childhood" not be interested in books?
So I started to research. A lot. And the more I read and talked to specialists, the more I realized... she has dyslexia. And not just a little. She is very dyslexic.
I also found out that I had been doing pretty much everything wrong to help her. In fact, I was probably making it worse. Cue: all my fears of failing. Pretty much every one of them. I could hear the wolves howling in the darkness of the Forest of Uncertainty and I was really afraid.
What you have to understand about dyslexia is that it isn't simply a learning difference that makes learning to read and write harder for some kids and that's the end of it. It does make reading and writing harder -- that's for sure -- but it impacts virtually every aspect of a child's development: social, emotional, intellectual, physical. These impacts are rooted in brain connectivity between the right and left hemispheres and are often hereditary. And this isn't bad! It is just different from the norm-as-dictated-by-industrialized-schooling, and it is estimated that one-fifth of the population may have this difference. There are significant upsides to being dyslexic and there are significant challenges.
The upsides often include:
The challenges are many, varied, and often subtle. On top of the reading and writing issues that most people know about, dyslexic kids have fairly important struggles in their social lives as well. This I didn't know before I began researching, and so much began to make sense once I understood it.
Dyslexic kids often suffer from a negative self image because they are teased by their peers about all of these issues I've just mentioned, and this cascades into other areas of their life even into adulthood. Kids who go to school suffer the most from these social issues because peers and teachers often think they are lazy or dumb, and this often causes acting out in a variety of different ways. At least my daughter was buffered from the full brunt of these difficulties because she's at home, but she got a good dose of it regardless.
Understanding these nuances of this learning difference, I began confronting the issue head on and involved Sadie in every part of the discovery. I explained how she learned differently and invited her to consider both the positives and the hardships of this kind of learning style. She and I researched people who were dyslexic in the past and what they achieved -- Leonardo da Vinci is now her hero. I read up on programs and tools to help her jump start her reading and her engagement with books. Using these tools she is now reading. It is still hard for her and it will always be, but she is able to read. It feels like we have a path now through this uncertainty. In truth, however, this is always going to be a challenge for her in some ways and a gift to her in others. We are focusing on the gifts.
I feel like one of my biggest fears about choosing this path to unschool my children hit me head on. I have a child with a learning difference (and one without) and she did what so many people fear will happen to their kid -- she struggled with reading. This is a bogey-man that is so often held up to people choosing homeschooling. "You aren't an expert! What if your child never learns to read!?" they say. But you know what? We were able to give Sadie years of stress-free learning when play was the best way to explore the world. And she loves to play, even now. We then identified the problem when it became a concern, and she is working hard to learn in her own particular way. She is a painter and is beginning to learn the violin. She designs clothes for her dolls and stuffed animals. And best of all, the hard-ship she's had to endure has given her a very strong backbone. She knows who she is and is not afraid. And even though my fear came true, we walked through the forest of that fear together as a family. And now it is something beautiful.
Nothing in life is certain. I cannot guarantee you that, if you choose unschooling, it will be a effortless path of all light and joy. You are going to have to walk the rocky, uphill path through woods of uncertainty. You are going to have to confront your own fears and help your children do the same. There are no certainties anywhere in life, and we all know this. Meeting and solving big and frustrating problems as a family is a gift that you give to each other. You are a team, and if you are lost in the woods and the wolves are howling, don't you want to have your team by your side? I know I do.