A bit about you …
What’s your name?
Where do you live?
Richmond Hill, ON, Canada
What does your family look like?
We’re a family of four, with my wife and two boys (6 and 3.5). Currently I write and work from home and my wife is home full-time.
The departure phase of your journey …
We discover and explore unschooling, and choose to begin.
How did you first hear about unschooling? What spurred you to begin exploring unschooling for your family?
I first read the term unschooling from the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents website, mentioning different forms of homeschooling. We had been seriously thinking about homeschooling since before our first son was born, and had been investigating different models. We were initially thinking we’d do something more eclectic and adapt/invent curriculum as we went along, and had looked into the theory of Montessori and other forms before discovering the idea of unschooling.
Did family and/or friends try to discourage you from setting out on your unschooling journey?
My mother was 100% supportive from the beginning, and wished she’d discovered John Holt’s writing back when we were kids. My in-laws are still uncomfortable with our decision to homeschool—they don’t even know we’re unschooling—and will try another wave of convincing to start each school year.
When you first started out, what were some of the things you were hoping to address by moving to unschooling?
Our key goal in all of this has been to foster the love of learning that comes naturally to every child, until negative experiences hamper that love. We were more worried about the potential negative impact of school on that love. Nurturing a strong long-term relationship with our kids is another, and giving them the flexibility to go as fast and far with any interest as possible is extremely exciting.
Were there any fears you needed to overcome initially?
Once I’d read enough to feel comfortable that my kids could catch up quickly at any point along their journey if it ever made sense for them to transition to school, and that there were options for pursuing higher education and work, then I was pretty comfortable. My wife had more areas she needed to get comfortable with, both in terms of so many years of being taught/needing an instructor and her own capability to be a teacher, until she got a handle on being a facilitator/learning partner instead.
The initiation phase of the journey …
We dive deeply into deschooling and our spiritual growth takes root.
What were some of your favourite ways to learn more about unschooling? Did you prefer to read about others’ experiences or ask questions directly? Meet up with other unschooling families in person?
I tried Sandra Dodd’s website first and found it a bit off-putting and extreme, so retreated to the woolier descriptions of life learning in Life Learning Magazine. We also read Jan Hunt’s Natural Child, where unschooling was one of the extension areas of attachment parenting, and that was very helpful for my wife. All through those we kept hearing about John Holt’s writing, so I finally took the plunge and read most of his books, and that changed everything for us.
That’s when we were ready for Sandra Dodd’s website, the Always Learning yahoo group, and began to devour every link and post and discuss it between the two of us. We didn’t post and ask questions, but would watch long-time unschoolers deconstruct the words of others and that was extremely valuable. I think her community is the best online for really coming to terms with the principles and why behind unschooling, and how they relate to your every day moment to moment choices. But very few people are ready for that right away, because there’s a lot of deschooling and learning that needs to happen before you can really process that without getting defensive. And many people will never want to go that far.
What allies did you discover along the way? What did you find helpful?
After that we were lucky enough to make it to the last Toronto Unschooling Conference (TUC) and met a wonderful mix of new and veteran unschoolers and their parents, including you. That felt like home, and proof of concept, and reaffirmed we were on the right track. Since then we’ve connected with other local homeschoolers with an unschooling bent, including a weekly group, but that is for our kids, rather than to continue our own deschooling journeys. My wife and I are each other’s best allies here.
How did you choose to move to unschooling with your family? Was it a gradual process of exploring/implementing one aspect at a time, or did you make bigger leaps at once? Did the process work out reasonably well for you?
Since our kids weren’t yet school age, and we’d already been exposing them to lots of different things and following their interests without any real structure to the learning, unschooling felt like a pretty seamless and natural next step. The changes were mainly for my wife and I, and how we reacted to different situations. It’s worked out great so far, but we’re still early in our journey.
How did you build trust in unschooling? Did you find that observing your children—seeing unschooling in action—helped?
Hearing about and observing other always unschooled kids helped us to build that trust and confidence. Once I saw that, I was very confident that it would work out just as well for my kids. Seeing them grow, develop and learn has been more a joy than a confirmation.
Keeping your children home from school and going so obviously against conventional wisdom day in and day out can be draining. Did you find yourself questioning your journey, tempted to turn back? How did you work through those times?
We’ve never really thought about turning back. Our own questions tend to be more about whether we’re doing enough in a certain area, or should expose them to some kind of potential area of instruction by others, but we always come back to trying out new little changes rather than anything major.
Moving to unschooling often sparks a deeper, more spiritual, journey. In my experience, one aspect of that is questioning the value of judging things and experiences as “good/bad” or “right/wrong,” and how that relates to learning in the bigger picture. Can you share an experience or two where you came to see things you used to judge as “bad” in a new light?
Food is the one area where that can happen for me. My mother has always been into nutrition and reading more and more about the bad aspects of different foods, modern or otherwise. My wife and I hear that in the background, but are more middle of the road and about balance. Partnering with our kids for food choices and not exerting much control has felt strange at times, especially when we’re eating with another family that is very controlling. The two families we eat with most often (both in school) are both like that, and seeing mealtimes as horrible and exhausting power struggles really validates our choice to apply unschooling principles to this area of life too. Our kids may not always make the best choices to a nutritionist (or my mother), but they know their bodies as well as anyone does, and have a very healthy relationship with food. As they get older we’ll expose them to more information so that they can make more and more informed choices and decide their own road for themselves.
Did you have an authority figure in your life who didn’t approve of your unschooling choice as you started out? Did that play out as a power struggle? Has it resolved? If so, how?
We had some very strange conversations with my mother-in-law, (and in the background but not discussing it with us, my father-in-law) about homeschooling in general. They immigrated to Canada for higher education, coming from large families where not all the kids would get to go to school at all, and their families had to pay. So for us to opt not to use an overall good quality service that we’re already paying for seems crazy to them. They also have a lot of fear about the kids falling behind, not being able to get into university, get a job, be social outcasts, and a million other worries. It’s an ongoing process with them, though they’re continually impressed with our kids overall. It did mean some tough times where my wife didn’t want to see them because the argument wasn’t worth it, but everything is back to fine again. Until September when they’ll see a new school year starting for the cousins and will freak out again.
The return phase of the journey …
Having fully embraced the unschooling lifestyle, we re-integrate with the conventional world.
Do you feel comfortable moving back and forth between the two worlds?
For the most part we just live our lives. Really the biggest issue for us is occasionally being present for harder-line parenting of our kids’ schooled friends. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, compared to the general peace of our home.
How often do you feel the urge to stay in your “unschooling bubble”? Are there common things that spark it?
I’ve never really thought about that. My wife is an introvert, so she’s the one who needs the time at home to re-energize anyway, quite apart from unschooling.
When others ask you questions about your unschooling lifestyle, do you usually feel their curiosity or their judgement? Do you find yourself defending your choices?
I’m willing and able to defend my choices to anyone who wants to challenge me. I’m almost too confident, so my wife urges me to just avoid the discussions like she does, and for the most part I have. If people are truly curious enough to want to explore it, based on what they observe in our kids, they’ll keep asking. If they’re being judgemental, they’ll tire out and go away. Or we will. But that hasn’t happened so far. Early on I wanted to show more people this amazing possibility, but now all I care about is my own kids and their journey. Though it would be fun to have some of our other long-time friends and their kids come along with us, I don’t see it happening.
With a well-developed sense of self, unschooling children are able to pursue learning in more formal settings without getting caught up in the trappings of the conventional system. Have your children chosen to attend group classes or structured courses? What was their experience?
We’re just about to try our first real forays into those kinds of classes, but in both cases it will be both boys with groups of homeschoolers that include some of their unschooling friends, and my wife will be around in the background as well. These ones will give us access to facilities or knowledge we don’t have.
We’ve waited until now for the little guy to get older, because they want to do things together and there aren’t many classes that make any sense for two-year olds. In the past we did some parent and child classes, and in those some of the circle-time type activities were either avoided or grudgingly tolerated. I can’t imagine putting them in a class they didn’t want to be in, though we’re continually urged to put the boys in Chinese school, which would be a very strict and painful experience that would probably drive away any interest in ever learning the language.
What, for you, was the most valuable thing to come from your journey to unschooling?
Watching these lovely boys grow and learn every single day.
Thanks, Jamie, I deeply appreciate you taking the time to share this snapshot of your unschooling journey!
I met Jamie and his family when they came to the Toronto Unschooling Conference in 2011 and have since always enjoyed when our paths have crossed. Jamie is a wonderful writer of fantasy (I told him last year that I get a Patrick Rothfuss vibe), and I love that the magic system is his Arts Reborn series is based on creativity. You can find him at jamiemaltman.com.
The road so far …
Departure phase of the journey
Call to adventure: We discover unschooling and excitedly imagine the possibilities.
Refusal of the call: The many implications of choosing unschooling hit. Do we commit?
Supernatural aid: Our children guide us on our unschooling journey.
Crossing of the first threshold: Confronting the guardians who claim to protect us.
The belly of the whale: Transitioning to a learning mindset.
Initiation phase of the journey
The road of trials: The heart of deschooling.
The meeting with the goddess: Seeing the value in all experiences.
Woman as the temptress: Accepting our nature.
Atonement with the father: Accepting others where they are.