Unschooling Possibilities

Last summer I hit the pre-school vs homeschool debate pretty hard in my head (read the original post if you have time, the following will make more sense.) The outcome of all my obsessing was joining a homeschool group and rallying a subset of families with smaller kids for a weekly playgroup. We’ve been meeting every Thursday for seven months now, a group of 14 kids if everyone comes, aged 1-6. In the beginning I was just trying to get my girl enough peer time but as the group has grown and blossomed, I have really begun to feel very strongly about it. Strongly wonderful.

It feels so right to sit and talk with other grown-ups while a pack of kids swirls around playing, discovering, fighting, getting over it, and playing some more. They have had the time and consistency now to develop a real social dynamic, and I feel an unexplainable satisfaction watching them interact on that group level.

(Before I go on and on about homeschool, I should explain that we fully intend to send our girl to public school after we move back to our quaintly tiny Alaskan town this summer. I’ve heard good things about the kindergarten teacher and I think our very gregarious girl will be ready for the class setting. I do have some latent dreams of homeschooling and keeping my kids’ innocence intact a bit longer, but I don’t have very strong feelings about it. Especially not when there is a good, age appropriate public school available two blocks away. And honestly, I do look forward to having a bit more time to be a grown up. I sought out the homeschool group because “school” these days apparently starts at 3, and I was having trouble finding my girl playmates. If you are having a similar problem, try searching Yahoo Groups or Meetup.com for groups in your area.)

The group that I found most active here in New Orleans is an ‘unschooling’ group. I didn’t know what that meant, and have since read up a bit. To summarize, unschooling is basically just following your child’s lead and having faith in their inborn desire and motivation to learn, rather than imposing a standardized curriculum. This translates to varying degrees of radicalism, but generally speaking for the younger ages: more playing, less workbooks.

I am definitely a fan of kids playing. Especially at 4! I believe “playing” offers all kinds of learning experiences, and that conversely sitting at a desk and being taught lessons can squelch a child’s natural fervor to learn. The schools here are incredibly competitive and academic, yes even at 4. They advertise on things like longer school days and less recess (!) But I don’t have it out against school on principle. I myself adored elementary school, and I do think there is something to it that homeschooled kids will never get. It’s not the academics– home is a fine place to learn the kinds of things you learn from books. It’s more about that group dynamic, the social aspect of school.

If there were a homeschool group back in Cordova, I would certainly consider unschooling. But there isn’t. Furthermore, our girl needs a social group, and loves the classroom setting. She is in both music and ballet here, and she just eats it up. Watching her little face so rapt with attention I can’t help but remember why I loved school. It’s not just about being with other kids your age, it’s about learning in fellowship, about working towards common goals as a group, functioning as a community. We are so disjointed these days, each little nuclear family sequestered into their own scene. I’m quite sure that schools overall miss this point, but the good ones, the small ones have the ability to infuse that sense of community that I have always craved on a visceral level.

None but the most devoted homeschool group could get there. And so for me, it adds up on both sides to a counterbalance. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Depending on the school available, the child, the parent, the balance is thrown one way or the other.

I was talking to some friends recently about the either/or issue, and one said, “I wish you could do both.” Well, I personally think you can do both. Hard-core unschoolers would probably disagree, there is a fair amount of anti-school in with the pro-home ideology. And like many parenting topics, this one can ignite a big blaze. I myself could argue both sides– school destroys children vs school more adequately prepares kids for life in this world. I definitely fall closer to the unschooling side of things, I can even sympathize with the borderline conspiracy theory of school as a factory to produce complacent citizens, but I don’t really feel that the issue is so black and white. Public school is far from perfect, no one would argue that. But there are lots of good schools, and some awesome teachers. I sure had more than my share of dedicated, caring, wonderful teachers and I thoroughly enjoyed elementary school (no one enjoys high school, right?)

Apart from the dichotomy, at it’s most fundamental, unschooling is just a way of respecting and enjoying your child’s authentic self, and encouraging rather than discouraging their autonomy. It might be hard for even the best teacher to really get into it in the school setting given the usual class size, but I think there is plenty of space and time for practicing unschooling at home. Even if your kid is in school for 6 hours a day, they still have another 6 hours out of school. And, at least for these younger years, we as parents make the most profound impact on our kids– if you trust your child’s self-determination on that level, then she will trust herself.

Maybe school for unschooler types can just be the beginning of learning to balance your strong self with the impositions of the world. Lord knows, that’s a useful skill. If we as parents model it and encourage our kids towards it in the home environment, I believe we can overcome the failings of (decent) public schools.

School is important, but home will aways be more important.

Parenting Advice and Where to Stick It

Our almost 4yo started her first day of camp today at the local Waldorf school. She has never been to any kind of camp/school/day-care before, and has only been left with a babysitter a handful of times. This is a big deal for our family.

Not because I’m worried about her– she is incredibly gregarious and was so excited that at 7:45 this morning she was laying on the kitchen floor, dressed for camp, with her backpack on, just waiting until I said it was late enough to get her lunchbox out of the fridge. She explained carefully to the 1.5yo that Papa would drop her off on his way to work and not pick her up until after lunch. Her eyes are wide open with excitement, and my only fear is that she will be heartbroken when the two weeks are over.

No, it’s a big deal because she’s growing up and this is the beginning of her very own solo adventures in the world. Because it means a shift for our family, a whole new era. Of course, it’s only two weeks, but this is the first tiny budding.

This whole school situation is such a perfect example of what I have come to think of as partnership parenting. I didn’t want to send her to school. I advocate being home with your kiddos, if you can and want to. I can, and want to. But she is so hungry for other kids, and in fact the whole school experience– the teacher figure, the cohesive group activities.

She wants it, and so I am doing my best to reconsider my ideas. In my fantasy parenting model, we are both partners, she leads her own life with great consideration for our family, and I lead my own, with great consideration for her. Freedom, not license.

In practice it looks like this: I am trying to find a way for her to freely pursue her desire for a school-like experience, while considering the fact that our family doesn’t have much money to spare.

This is not the way I imagined it. I thought I would be the Great Decider, and she would raft in my wake. Then again, I assumed she would be happy rafting in my wake. I had no idea how early and how extremely they become themselves. Full grown-up persons, in little pudgy bodies.

We always think so black and white. I try to see gray, but it’s hard, it truly is. You have to work at it. I have always thought whether a parent stayed home with their kid was a flexible notion, but before I had thought flexible to the parent. Did the parent want to be home? Did they have a job they were passionate about and didn’t want to give up? Was there childcare available that they felt good about and could afford?

As is continually happening since I had kids, I am realizing the enormous hole in my thinking where the kid’s very own disposition and desires should be.

Before I had kids, I knew there was a range of what was healthy and good. But I had no idea how vast that range was. The epic eye-opening started with pregnancy and kept emphasizing itself throughout the birth, and then every day since. I thought a woman might gain 20-50 pounds with her pregnancy, when in fact I know women who gained as little as 12 pounds and as much as 80, both perfectly healthy pregnancies. I thought labor lasted 6-24 hours. I didn’t know it could take three motherfucking days, as mine did (apparently quite normal for a first). I thought some babies cried more than others. But in truth some babies don’t cry at all, and I heard of one that cried 18 hours a day for the first three months and turned out to be, again, perfectly healthy.

Just as there is this fantastically huge range of pregnancies and babies, there is an exponential range to families considered as a whole. My mind boggles at the possibly infinite variations. That’s why I think parenting advice just isn’t that useful, and judgment is downright blaspheme. I always figure, the best we can do for each other is to pool ideas, to share our own experience in as much detail as possible. Then the other mama can compare notes and see what jives, what feels right for her own family, without fear or shame.

I like to think that’s my patent expression here at Apron Stringz. A resounding, ‘To each their own!’ It’s the honest way I feel, though I am as pulled as anyone by the inherent judgment of our human culture. In writing, I find it especially hard to keep the high-horse voice out. It’s the standard way to write, the formula. Conflict, resolution. Here’s a problem, here’s what to do about it. And consequently we are so convinced by what we read, as if the fact of print means someone didn’t just pull it out of their ass.

Please understand that no matter what I say, no matter what I commit to text, I am just pulling it out of my ass. Sometimes I might really hit the nail on the head for you. And that’s great, my words are true, for you. On the other side of the world some mama stares at her computer screen and shakes her head, ‘what a load of shit.’ And that’s the truth, for her.

To each their own.

So, my girl is off to camp. She has impressed upon the world and our family her very own vision for life, her very own agenda. I can only stand back in awe. What will she do with that beautiful, headstrong will? Where will her adventures lead her? She is at the beginning of her journey. I feel so grateful to be here, to pack her lunch and send her off with a kiss.


To School or Not to School

I’ve been obsessing lately. It’s not unusual. I always seem to have some kind of bees in my bonnet. Lately the sujet du obsession is school.

Or should I say “school.”

Maybe this is just the way it is now, but here they call it “school,” no matter the age. “Day care” is practically blasphemy. And everybody puts their kids in “school” by the age of 2. Some real radicals wait until age 3. As my eldest approaches the age of 4, we are entering into an entirely new category of weird.

Which is fine by me, you all know. The prevalence of nursery school is enough to make me dig my heels. But even besides rebellion for rebellion’s sake, and despite all the bitching I do here, I love having my kids home. They’re little, they won’t be for long, it’s a distinct privleged to be able to watch them bloom on such an intimate level.

But my little girl has always been a gregarious creature. When we first moved here 2 years ago she was clearly suffering some clinical deprival (so was I to be honest). She would practically attack anyone her size on the street, holding their hand, stroking their face and gleefully announcing her new friend. I had to work hard to provide her with the socializing she needed. It took awhile, but I got it under control. Among other things I happened to meet a soul-mate mama at the park who had two kids of very similar ages. We started hanging out every afternoon. We were both going crazy and doing two outings a day anyway, so it worked.

But as time went on our kids grew out of their crazy rough patches, nobody was quite so desperate and our afternoon meetings dwindled. She lives a 15-20 minute drive from us, and it just seemed hard to coordinate. Lately we only hang out once every week or two.

And that was okay for awhile. But recently, my little girl’s been having a rebirth of social desperation. We have a few great friends now, even right in our own neighborhood, but they all have younger kids. She very obviously needs peers or older. In one sad scene last week she followed a random 5yo girl around like a puppy, drooling on her shoes and gazing at her with rapt attention. The older girl was less than amused by the attention. It was excruciating.

At least it beat it into my head that it’s time to take action. I realized that all the other 4yos (and most of the 3yos) were in school, and therefore casual exposure to kid places like the park and the Parenting Center wasn’t going to cut it anymore. If I wanted my girl to get peer interactions I would have to get back to work actively and specifically socializing with kids her age, or join the crowd and put her in school.

I am not opposed to school, even when it’s just day-care in disguise. I had looked into it once, back when I was going crazy. I would have considered it very seriously if there were any openings, but child care is tight around here, and mid-year was hopeless. I stuck it out because I had to and in the end, once things mellowed out a bit, I was glad I hadn’t found a spot for her. Glad she had stayed home with us.

Not that I think one mama cloistered at home with one or two kids, all day every day represents a perfect situation. It’s too much, for everyone involved. Too intense, too hard, too inbred. This work is meant to be shared. I think the ideal for most families would be that antiquated model of the feral kid pack, running around doing who knows what, entertaining each other and moderately supervised by the community at large. The parents would be generally around, and kids would drift in and out of their parent’s day. Parallel, nearby.

More modern possibilities are splitting the parenting, with both parents working part-time outside the home. Or childcare help from grandparents and families. Any kind of spreading out is good. But these ideals are hard to achieve or simply not available to most of us nowadays.

So we make do with whatever we can manage, basing our decisions on our kiddos’ and our own needs. I have perhaps higher than normal needs for time to myself. My girl has perhaps higher than normal needs for social interactions with kids her age. Some sort of group care makes a lot of sense at first glance.

But the more I think it through, the more confused I get. The options are so limited. The 3 hours a day/3 days a week option that was available when she was 2 has apparently expired. Now, at 4 years old, if she wants to go to “school” it’s pre-K, and it’s 5 hours a day, five days a week.

Just a little rant here. When I was a kid, kindergarden was 3 hours a day. For 5 year olds. Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but 5 hours a day seems like a long time to be entirely absent from my 4yo’s world, and vise-versa. I mean, I know lots of people do 8 hours a day, from 6 months old. And their kids grow up perfectly fine. But, for myself and our family, that just feels too long.

Then there is, quite critically, the issue of the 1.5 year old. He has every bit as much social need as his big sis, so I would still have to do a morning outing or playdate. Not to mention that the schools run from 8-1 and let out in the middle of his naptime. I’d have to leave sis in the “aftercare” for another hour I guess, which brings it to 6 hours away.

In my perfect world I could take the 4yo to school from 12-3. Then I would have the Babe’s naptime to myself, free and clear. But even if I could find a school with those hours (which I can’t) she kind of needs that quiet time in the middle of the day. She watches a movie or plays by herself, and it looks to be quite restorative. I don’t think replacing that down time with a manic kid environment would be helpful in the long run.

Lastly, it always comes back to money. Regardless of what would or wouldn’t work, we can’t afford it. The reputable places add up to at least $6,000/school year. That’s a lot of dough. I’d still have the little guy, so it’s not like I can go to work in the free time.

So after thinking everything through 6 or 7 times, I arrived at the expected conclusion of no, I don’t want to send her to school yet. I did enroll her in a short summer “camp” at the Waldorf school. Four hours a day, five days a week for two weeks. $200, which is on the low end around here. I think she’ll love it.

We have been doing a music class for a year now, which both kids adore. She graduates into the older kids’ session in the fall, which will be even better. I think I will sign her up for a dance class too, since there’s a ballet studio nearby. I don’t give a rat’s ass about ballet, but it’s 6 blocks away, and the prices are reasonable.

Apart from that, I’m just going to work harder to socialize. Make regular dates with my soul-mate mama friend and her eligibly aged, un-schooled son. And see if I can’t find a few more un-schooled 4 year olds in this damned city.

That’s when I had my epiphany. I remembered a friend telling me she’d heard rumors of an unschooling group in New Orleans. I had always thought school started at 5, but if everyone else’s 4yo is in school, then 4 (or even 3) is the new 5. So, if my 4yo daughter stays home with me while all her peers are in school, that means I am homeschooling her. There’s a name for it! And implicitly, possibly, other families like ours!

I searched online. It took some looking, but eventually I found them. 2 homeschool groups and an unschooling group. Oh joy! I signed up for all three and almost immediately got a sympathetic email from one of the coordinators, hooking me up with a woman who also had younger kids and lived in my part of town. I emailed her, and she emailed me and the long and short of it is that she lives–




She has two boys, a 3yo and a 6yo, and she’s pregnant. I had her over this morning and we talked almost non-stop for two hours. Not a soul-mate perhaps, but darn good company. The kids took a little while to warm up, but eventually my girl had a wonderful time following the 6yo around.

What if I hadn’t joined that group? How long would we have kept passing like ships in the night, never knowing the other was there?

I’m telling you this story because you may know someone in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if you’re in a situation like this there’s only one thing you can do (bonus points to anyone who gets this random refferrence)–

Never give up!

Some freak a lot like you might live just around the corner.