I have a confession: even as an ardent proponent of self-directed education and unschooling, I still constantly get drawn into the larger societal messages about education. The relentless stream of messages suggesting I need to prepare my kids for their next academic leap–they’re inescapable.
They’re all over my social media feeds, implied within the questions of my family and friends. Is he ready for kindergarten? When is he getting ready to read? Is your one-year-old set up for preschool? They start sneaking into my mind too, and I find myself measuring my kids against these arbitrary standards. Luckily I can snap out of it long enough to ask–what’s the damn rush?
After all, my children are not in first grade or preschool yet. Why must I prepare my children for a future stage that will naturally unfold when the time comes? In this fervor to anticipate the future, how much do I lose when I lose sight of the present?
Consider the current focus on always preparing our children for what’s next. The popular narrative insists that I should be preparing my 5-year-old son for kindergarten, and once he’s in kindergarten, I should be preparing him for first grade, and then second grade, etc.. The cycle is unending. Preparing him for a future in sports at the age of 8 because he might miss out if he doesn’t start now. Guiding him on a path towards a particular college based on his IQ scores right now. It feels like society is presupposing the person my son should be. And it is really damn hard not to internalize the narrative.
It’s this constant pressure to measure up. And it’s one I think a lot of parents are feeling–this shared anxiety that I’ve seen as a teacher and a coach, and among my siblings, friends, and colleagues. We all want what’s best for our children, but the mountain of expectations seems insurmountable, especially when the future landscape is so uncertain.
Admittedly, I have my own aspirations for my children. They might not align with conventional expectations, but that doesn’t mean they are any less significant. I don’t prioritize when my children start reading, if they get straight A’s, or if they participate in a sports team. And like all parents I know, I’m worried about guiding my children to live self-sufficient, emotionally balanced, and socially competent lives–especially when they are adults outside my home.
And I also want my children to detach from the relentless push for more. I want them to appreciate the beauty in the present moment, to recognize the joy, love, creativity, and wonder within themselves and others.
For my own family, we have found that embracing self-directed education is the best means of achieving this because it allows for a holistic, flexible, and child-centered approach to learning. However, I’m still plagued by uncertainty and apprehension about how to facilitate these skills.
The education system I grew up in didn’t accommodate divergent development or encourage creativity. So while my hope is to create an environment that nurtures joy, love, creativity, and wonder in my children–the task can feel overwhelming and often hopeless. The trick, perhaps, is to not get caught up in the noise and filter through all these messages to figure out what’s most important for my children and our family unit. Instead of stressing about the future, I can switch my focus to how our everyday actions can achieve these broader goals. I don’t need to solve all these problems before they arise.
It’s not my duty to shape my child into who they will be as adults, (in fact, I think that’s my child’s primary “job.”). Rather, I am a guide, facilitator, mentor, coach... whatever the moniker, my objective is to accompany my children on their personal journey.
As our children grow, the balance of responsibility will naturally shift and evolve. This transformation doesn’t need to be planned or prepared in advance. After all, it’s their journey to undertake, not ours to dictate. And in shifting to this mindset, I am able to prioritize the present and cultivate joy in the journey.
Now, this isn’t to discount those parents who find the conventional milestones important. Every family has its own vision for their children–and each individual family’s vision and values are worthy of respect. The key lies in ensuring that these visions don’t stifle the present joy and growth of our developing humans.
There’s always room to challenge the conventional systems of education, even for families functioning within them. There’s room to question the emphasis on constant preparation for the future. To embrace learning in a more natural, child-led manner.
We do not have all the answers, and that’s okay! The beauty of this approach lies in its unpredictability, in its allowance for organic growth and development. The journey can seem daunting at first, but it’s also an opportunity for growth – both for parents and their children. (In fact, it’s a great opportunity to model these important skills for our kids–working through the anxieties and figuring out the answers together.)
Remember, it is not our job to mold our children into the adults they will one day be. We are not the sculptors of their futures; rather, we are the companions on their journey. We are there to support, to guide, to love them, and to help them grow into their truest selves.
In the end, I want to cherish these precious moments with my children, appreciating their current phase of development without the pressure of what comes next. And the next time I feel the pressure to prepare my child for a particular milestone, I can take a deep breath, look into their eyes, and remember: their journey is just beginning; don’t rush them.