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Growing Up Unschooled
Unschooling or SDE Schools: What we all need is community

There is consistent discussion among the Self-Directed Education community about unschooling and SDE schools, the pros and cons of each, the ways in which they relate and are different, and which one is ultimately the best choice for children and families.

Growing up unschooled worked for me and my family. It did not, however, work for my stepson and our family for the brief period last year when we were unschooling.

When I was very young, it was difficult for me to find community and social interaction, and my parents often lamented that I did not have enough social opportunities. At that time, my older brother was shy and enjoyed his time alone. Time alone felt like a punishment to me, and my parents were somewhat unprepared for my social needs at the early age of five. As I got older, and found friends in our neighborhood and a wider community elsewhere, this problem dissipated.

There are components for each self-directed learner and family that makes their situation work for them. My magic formula was the following: a deep trust from my parents that I could and would take care of myself, an accessible community where I could be without my parents, partnership and support from my parents as it was needed, and a feeling of safety in our area so that I could roam freely.

From about age ten and on, the combination of freedom within the world, close friends nearby, the open time that comes with being an unschooler, and my parents trust in me, created what I see as a childhood that had room for vast amounts of independence, self-discovery, exploration, freedom, and the ability to solve problems for myself, away from my parents. I am close with my family, but as a young unschooler I did not feel that my parents were overly involved in my life. I didn’t feel enmeshed. I didn’t feel watched by my parents. I didn’t feel that what I wanted to do depended on what they had the time to make available. I sometimes hear from unschooling families that the kids’ experiences while unschooling depend on what the parents have time and energy to provide for them. However, in my experience, this did not come up at all. I didn’t feel like I was around my parents too often, or like I depended on my family too much. I felt free, with my own life and own decisions to make. I felt that my time was mine, and the one barrier I did experience was that some of my closest friends went to conventional school during the day. However, I remember no such feeling of dependence on what my parents decided we could do that day, or what they planned for us.

Growing up, we had a local homeschool resource center, called Cyberschool (no, it was not online or cyber in any way, but I think at its inception they planned it to be.) This center wasn’t your typical Self-Directed Education (SDE) center of today, with predominantly unschooled kids or self-directed learners who had parents who supported that type of education. It wasn’t a school that had language about SDE, or a clear and well-thought out system for conflict resolution, or many kids who even knew the term “unschooler” or recognized that that’s what they were (I had no idea). This was a government-funded homeschooling center with about 80% conservative, religious homeschoolers, and perhaps 10% free-range, unschooling kids like me, with the other 10% being somewhere in the middle. What they did have were classes, clubs, hangout spaces, resources, opportunities, kids that self-organized communities and groups, (some) accepting teachers, and a general sense of freedom to make your experience whatever you wanted.

It was there that I took about two classes a day, but spent all of my time for 2-3 days a week. It was there that I asked to become a Spanish teaching intern, created and managed a Spanish club, learned American Sign Language, and spent hours rehearsing for school musicals. It was there that my father fought administration on how old you had to be on campus without adult supervision (14, at first, and he got it down to 12, which just so happened to be my age at the time). It was there that I helped to create and run a fundraiser, starting a new tradition at the school and learning about money handling, marketing, and a fast-paced business environment along the way. It was there that I spent much of my time in their grassy fields or empty classrooms with my friends, revelling in our independence.

A lot of the independence we had was a result of the lack of adult-mandated structure within the school. We could make our own structure, and administration, though they didn’t quite understand the freedom of unschoolers, mostly looked the other way. It was there that, with supportive nudges from my father, I learned that asking for something you wanted to do, and making it happen, was possible, and also had the potential of blazing a trail for other people who wanted to do similar things. I created the Spanish intern program simply by asking, and others followed suit. My brother taught a programming class to other students, many of which were older than him. We even had overnights at the school, just because we were brave enough to ask and set them up ourselves.

I also had spaces outside of Cyberschool. I engaged on a Harry Potter forum. I took dance classes. I played D&D at a game shop once a week. I took Piano lessons from my neighbor. I played online RPGs. I had communities on online forums. The list goes on... I tried many things and always went looking for what I wanted to do.

I know now that I am a person who tends to have ideas and see less barriers to implementing them. A person who walks up to people, shares an idea, and asks if they’re interested (which is exactly how I started working with the Alliance). I know that I am the person who sees opportunities instead of boundaries. The person who doesn’t care if who I am talking to is five or 75. All of this started at a young age, with my parents’ encouragement, knowing that, whatever I wanted to make happen, I could simply ask the right people. I saw adults as my equals and my partners. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t – but it was always worth trying. And it started at a place (my homeschool resource center) that, for whatever reason, allowed it to happen. This center gave me freedom, resources, opportunities, and community. It opened the world up even more for me during my experience as an unschooler.

Fast forward 15 years, to a very different experience.

When my stepson moved in with us at the age of six, he was having trouble in school. With his parents’ consent, we decided to unschool him. My partner and I had just moved to Portland and had almost no community ourselves, let alone knew other families with children, let alone knew other unschooling families. My stepson was very shy and, exacerbated by his experiences in school, and he didn’t feel comfortable trying out new social situations. We lived in an apartment in an area that none of us, him included, felt comfortable with him playing outside or wandering the neighborhood on his own. Unschooling was not working. Unschooling was not what I remembered. I don’t even think what we were doing was truly unschooling — it was more like feeling trapped in the house with not enough to do.

Three months later we decided to enroll him at the local democratic free school. He was resistant at first, but, knowing how he doesn’t like trying new things and quickly changes his mind after experiencing them, we asked him to try for two weeks and then let us know how it was feeling. After about a week, he loved it. He went three days a week for the rest of the year, and then asked to switch to five days the following school year. New experiences are hard for him, so constantly finding new things to do, new friends, and new places like I did in my unschooling years isn’t the best fit for his current needs. He needs a stable community that is familiar where he has a group of friends, and knows what to expect. Is he still an unschooler? I won’t engage in that argument right now. My point is what every person needs is a community. We didn’t have one here, so we found another option. That community can look a thousand different ways. However, unschoolers without a community miss out on some of the key aspects that make Self-Directed Education so incredible: mixed age groups; free play with a variety of others; and time away from adults to solve your own problems, create your own worlds, make your own decisions, and have more freedom and autonomy over all aspects of your life.

As I got older, what I wanted out of my unschooling experience shifted. I spent five days a week rehearsing for our local production of Cats, the musical. I took classes for free at my local community college as a jumpstart for university, to see if I could keep up academically despite barely having experienced that (I could), and to dabble in many different subjects. I started volunteer teaching, and then working, at my local karate dojo. My brother left for college. I spent weekends at my friends’ house, going over take-home tests, dancing, plotting together, and leaving weird homemade gifts on friends’ doorsteps. I trained for and competed in an international karate competition. As my time at community college and the karate dojo increased, my time at Cyberschool (which had transitioned to being called Edmonds Homeschool Resource Center) decreased. I shifted my priorities, commitments, what I put my time into, and the communities I spent time in, as my life and interests changed and developed, as they always do, for every human, young or old. This was the freedom that unschooling allowed me. I just lived my life, with the ever-changing complexities, goals, and ideas that come with it.

My stepson is now eight. We have no idea what he will want in two years, five years, ten years. We don’t know how our family will change, our location, his needs, or our communities. He could stay at his free school until he’s 18, or he could decide to leave tomorrow. The choice to go to an SDE school doesn’t have to be a permanent one. It too can change based on the needs and desires of the self-directed learner. Right now, it’s what works best.

If I had stubbornly stuck to the idea that unschooling worked for me, so it must work for him, and had been unwilling to consider the realm of SDE schools, I don’t think he, or our family, would be half as happy and thriving as we all are today.

The parent-child bond, and deep family connections within unschooling families are a wonderful, necessary, fantastic part of unschooling. In fact, this aspect of unschooling is another one I deeply value in my own life. The commitment, and requirement, of taking care of a community is a wonderful, necessary, fantastic part of SDE schools, and I value that as well. But I don’t see these as mutually exclusive. Kids at an SDE school can have strong partnerships and bonds with their families, and kids who are unschooling can find other ways to understand what it’s like to be a part of a community.

Much of what I learned came from conversations with adults I trust, and my father, mother, and older brother all played huge roles in that. I value our closeness and the way we grew up together as a family. However, without the balance of both the close family connection, and the freedom to be independent and carve your own life separate from your family, I think there is something missing. I think the combination is what can make Self-Directed Education truly wonderful, and unlike any other experience of growing up.

So, unschooling or an SDE school? I take no sides. Both of them are close to my heart. Unschooling worked for me. An SDE school works for my stepson. Right now. Both offer wonderful things in different ways. Each family, each child, has to decide for themselves what works best. Perhaps that means unschooling for years and going to an SDE school for one or two, perhaps that means switching back and forth as it feels right. Perhaps you are an unschooler for life. Perhaps you’ve never been an unschooler a day in your life. It makes no difference to me. It’s the balance of community and family, independence and support, that’s what really matters. Whatever that balance looks like, and however your family and your child(ren) get that, is up to all of you.

I want to hear your stories about unschooling! How does your family unschool? How do you balance this freedom within a close-knit family that lives and cares for one another? How do you balance freedom in this ever increasingly restrictive society where young people’s freedom is demonized and sometimes even criminalized?

Send a letter to the editor if you are interested in sharing your story with everyone, or just a quick response, to me at bria@self-directed.org.