Carpe Diem

© Ciprian.d | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock PhotosYou know the saying, “Where did the time go?” When did my first tiny (or not so tiny!) baby become a man with a car licence, a serious girlfriend, and facial hair? Wasn’t it only yesterday that I was gazing into those newborn eyes and comparing our features in the mirror, in absolute awe that this little being was my flesh and blood? Wasn’t it only yesterday that he took his first teetering steps, holding on to a postage cylinder thinking that it was something that would keep him on his feet, not realising it wasn’t attached to anything? Wasn’t it only yesterday that he said “I wuv you Mummy” for the first time?

I am so incredibly happy that we made the decision to pull our two eldest children out of school, and that the younger two have never been. I am so thankful for the time that we have been able to spend together; that I have been here to wipe snotty noses, dry tears, laugh at jokes, and reminisce together rather than have to ask “What did you do at school today?”

But how am I using the time that we have together? It is so easy for the days to drift along, and to be gone like sand blowing away in the breeze. It is so easy to get caught up in the daily stuff of life, that we forget to really LIVE our lives to the full.

I recently saw an ENORMOUS sand timer, and I thought, “I want one of those!” I guess my desire symbolised the fact that right now, with my oldest on the cusp of adulthood, I want time to  s  l  o  w    d  o  w  n…….  But alas, as the saying goes, “Time waits for no man”.

So my motto for this year is Carpe Diem – seize the day! Make the most of the moments. And my reason for this is that the sands of time are beginning to rush through the hourglass and this phase of life is beginning to draw to a close: that of having all four of our children at home together. My oldest child is now 18 and working full time, with a serious girlfriend taking up much of  his time and attention. This is a good thing, of course! But it reminds me that life as we know it, with our children under our wings, is changing. I delight in what lies ahead, but I also intensely treasure these moments in the here and now.

I have on my bookshelf the highly acclaimed book The Power of Now. I also have the audio version of it. So really, I have no excuse for not having read it yet! I guess it just hasn’t been enough of a priority for me. It has been overshadowed by the other stuff of life. And that’s how it goes with most things really. I’m a full-on IDEAS person. Actually fleshing out those ideas, bringing them into our daily lives as things we actually DO is not such a strength for me. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve started my other blog, Unshackled Adventures, where I can chronicle some of the things we do. Because it’s not enough to DREAM of doing things. It means little or nothing if those dreams aren’t actualised.

I do love to dream! And I believe that the dreaming is essential to the doing. But the doing is also essential to the dreaming. DO THE DREAM!

From what I understand, one of the secrets to “living in the now” is fully immersing myself in this moment. Feeling the sensations in my surroundings, allowing my senses to come alive, and really engaging in life to the full, right here right now. It’s not living in this moment whilst dreaming of the next.

Sandra Dodd’s “Do It!” page about unschooling really spoke to me recently, and I strongly advise all unschoolers, and in fact all parents, to read it. Today. And…. to do it! As I wrote in my last post we just don’t know how long we have with our children. Why waste one minute of it!

One of the challenges in our family is that until recently we had three, yes three, shift workers in our family of 6 people. This made for almost non-existent shared family dinners, because it is extremely rare to have everyone home in the house at dinner time on the same night. So because there was usually at least one or two people not present, I started to get out of the habit of preparing a proper sit down family meal. Then it became a habit for us not to eat together, so that on the nights when we actually were all home I wasn’t thinking ahead about planning for a shared meal, and one or both of the teens would end up going off to do something with friends. We gradually became quite disconnected as a family unit, and whilst I’d been blaming it on the broad ages of the children, the older two becoming more and more independent, and the fact that there was so often one to three people not present in the evening, I began to slowly realise that it was also partly my fault. As the home maker, I had let that shared family meal slip away. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that family meals should be compulsory or a meaningless habit, particularly for home ed families that spend a lot of time together anyway. There are many ways to connect as a family and this is only one of them. But I realised that for us, with the older teens gradually spending more and more time with friends, the shared family dinner is something that brings us together, something that represents home as a warm and welcoming place, something that invites them to the table and invites them to family life. So I decided that I needed to make the preparation and presentation of the family meal a habit again.

I also realised that, with our family calendar on the fridge, it is usually possible to find one meal time in the week when no one is working, and I decided to make that a special family meal, whether it be brunch, lunch or dinner. This week, that happened to be tonight. It took effort to protect that time. There was talk of extra children sleeping over, or for a couple of our children to go elsewhere, but I decided to prioritise our family time together. And it was wonderful. This is the second week in a row now when we have planned for and achieved a special shared meal. I know that for most families this is common place, but for us, having everyone in the house at the same time to share in a meal is something worth CELEBRATING! So we helped prepare for the meal together, we put flowers on the table, music on the stereo, we shared delicious food together, laughed and chatted, cleaned up together, and then a few of us enjoyed a couple of games of Hearts (a card game). Is it showing off to say that I got a “slam”? 🙂 I am so glad we did this, and I hope to make it a regular event, but not so regular that it loses its specialness. Whilst we don’t have the privilege of eating together most nights, it is nice compensation to make it a bit special when we do. And I’m hoping that it establishes a habit that can continue even after the nest starts to empty, because once a week or so is quite sustainable I think!

I have many other ideas for ways that I hope to live by the motto of Carpe Diem this year; this is just one.

What about you? What will you do to seize the day, capture the moment, and create special memories with your family? What will you do to make the most of this day and the time you have together with your family?

My “Unsocialised” Teen

Hervey Bay Pier

Well, I must admit, people did warn me. They knew that keeping my children out of school would be a disaster, socially. That they would be totally inept in social settings, and unable to relate to people.

But you know what?

They were so very wrong. 🙂

Take tonight, for example. I picked up my fifteen year old son from the cafe where he is currently working as a barista. In the car driving home, we had a very typical conversation, centred around his insights into human personality, behaviour, and interactions. Tonight it was about the cafe manager. Nobody particularly likes him, and since he has been managing the cafe, he has fired at least one person a week, for hard to understand reasons. My son commented (not rudely) that he is “Like a robot. He treats everybody the same. He talks to people, but he interacts the same way with each person. He doesn’t respond differently based on who he is talking to. He doesn’t connect with them or respond to them as individuals.” This is with both staff and customers.

My son then went on to talk about how differently he interacts with the customers. If a family is there with children, he speaks directly to the children and asks them what they’d like. He commented that “So many people just don’t treat children like real people”. When he noticed a child eye balling the jar of marshmallows recently, he quietly checked with the parent if is was ok for the child to have one, and he brought it over to the child specially. He talked about how important it is for both parents and children to feel comfortable at the cafe.

He even said (don’t be too shocked!) that sometimes swearing a little bit helps people to feel more comfortable, if the person themselves is swearing. The example he gave was of a customer who was swearing a bit in talking to his cafe friends, and also when interacting with the staff. He wasn’t angry; it was just the way he spoke. He asked my son how his night was going, and my son responded with a mild swear word in his answer, believing that it would make the customer feel a bit more comfortable, which it seemed to do. He realises that this isn’t appropriate with lots of people, particularly children and older people, or just people who aren’t swearing themselves.

He just seems to understand that it is helpful to interact differently with different people, and that it is important to respond appropriately to particular situations.

He reads people so well, often making insightful comments about someone’s body language or tone of voice, and accurately interprets what that means. He understands the social intricacies of a variety of relationships and human interactions. He contemplated being a counsellor for awhile, although he is currently thinking he won’t do that after all. I know, however, that his “people skills” will come in handy no matter what long term career path he chooses, and the steps he takes along the way.

These social skills were obviously honed in the school setting. Oh, that’s right. He hasn’t been to school since he was 7 years old. 🙂

I’d love to hear some comments from people who are unschooling or home educating their children, with examples of their social skills. Let’s show the world that our kids are ok, and that they don’t need to go to school to “be socialised”. In fact, they’re socialised more fully by living in the real world rather than being sequestered at school. Unschooling rocks! 🙂

Gaining from Gaming

gainingfromgaming

I recently wrote about “Scary Screens” and my journey towards trusting rather than fearing THE SCREEN!

One form of “screens” seems to cause many parents so much angst, and can often have journalists racing to their editors with an alarmist article ready for release upon the easily-scared, anti-screens public. It is commonly known as gaming, and includes Xbox, Playstation, Wii, Nintendo DS, Computer games and probably other mediums I can’t even think of right now.

Gaming (also known as video gaming, or digital gaming) has come a long, long way since the Parker brothers created Monopoly. And it’s also progressed in cyber leaps and bounds since the first ever “video game” was developed way back in 1947 (bet you didn’t know they’ve been around that long!). And there is certainly very little resemblance to the games my brothers and I used to play on our Atari. Gosh, the excitement of the various line drawing designs of basketball, hockey, table tennis and soccer were almost as exciting back then as Xbox Kinect is today! The sound of the ping and the pong of the little cyber “ball”, and the race to stop that little dot from getting between the gaps in the lines kept us glued to our big old chunky TV set for hours! 🙂

The parents of this current generation (that includes me) grew up in a VERY different reality to the children of today. Marc Prensky first coined the term “digital native” to describe the children who have grown up in the age of digital technologies. Some digital native children will be lucky enough to have “digital immigrants” for parents (those who were born before the existence of digital technology but have adapted to it to some extent later in life). However, it is still common for us to struggle with the degree to which our children seek to embrace and interact with their digital world. It is something we never really experienced as children. The attraction of the screen, and its saturation in our culture, is something we don’t really understand, in spite of the fact that we use computers etc. Our experience with digital technologies is something we’ve adapted to. In contrast, it has been part of our children’s worlds for their entire life.

According to the Interactive Australia 2009 report on the state of gaming in Australian culture, the average age of gamers is now 30. Are these, perhaps, adults who were forbidden or limited as kids, and who are now able to play when and for how long they choose, and so they are reveling in their new freedom?  Or does it simply speak of the fact that gaming is, dare I say it, fascinating and enjoyable? Yes, I can hear the naysayers crying out, “But what about the South Korean couple who got so obsessed by their gaming that they neglected their real baby?” And I will say, there is something more going on there! There was something seriously wrong with this picture, and with the people themselves, to be able to make a choice such as that. It is not the game designers neglecting to feed and care for the baby. It is the parents. Out of the multitude of people who play video games, when there is one case of something going wrong, everyone blames the game. When David Staniforth recently died after a blood clot in the lung, apparently caused by sitting still for too long, it was the video gaming that was the featured issue in the media. The father was actually quoted as saying, “He had probably been on all night, on the computer at his desk, on Facebook or gaming — one or the other.” After that, his son’s friend said Chris felt a pounding in his chest but eventually fell asleep. The next morning, Chris and his friend were going to apply for jobs and Chris collapsed outside the job center.” So it was assumed he spent all night gaming, then fell asleep, then woke “the next morning” (after staying up all night?) and then collapsed and died. If he’d been sitting down for that length of time reading a book, I can’t imagine anyone blaming books for his death! But once they would have. It was once the humble novel that was the target of suspicion and fear mongering. It was said that people who read novels would be day dreamers, and unable to fit in to society. Reading books was not revered in the same way that it is today.

When tennis ace Serena Williams underwent emergency surgery for a blood clot, no one suggested that people should stop playing tennis. When people suffer from the same condition after a long plane flight, no one suggests that plane flights are bad and should be severely limited. Instead, it is recognised that getting up and moving around occasionally, and keeping the blood flowing, will help to prevent this problem.

If gaming is the cause of neglected babies, or deep vein thrombosis, then why aren’t more gamers suffering from these problems? The reality is that many, many people play video games, and they often play for many hours in one session. And the vast majority of them lead happy, productive lives! If they don’t, then instead of blaming the game, perhaps it would be more pertinent to ponder the big picture of their life, and contemplate the possible causes behind why the person is drawn to games, or screens of some kind, to that degree, and to the detriment of their own happiness. Are they unhappy because they’re gaming? Or are they gaming because they’re unhappy?  The people I know who enjoy video games play them simply because they… enjoy them! And they do not neglect other areas of their lives.

Researchers are beginning to realise some of the benefits of video games. Research carried out at Bristol University on 700 children aged from 7-16, showed that children learn a range of strategic thinking and planning skills as well as other valuable learning outcomes, through playing video games. An article in The Wall Street Journal suggests that gaming increases creativity and the ability to pay attention to more than six things at once (coimpared to four with non-gamers). Research Professor, Peter Gray, Ph.D., outlines the many benefits of playing video games in his recent article. The supposed “link” between video games that depict violence, and violence in real life, is now being questioned. And Science Daily reported in September last year that gamers had solved a science problem that had stumped scientists for over a decade. It took the gamers three weeks.

I could write more, but realistically people will usually be able to find evidence to supposedly support almost any theory anyway, so I will simply finish by sharing our family’s experience; what we’ve found to be GREAT about gaming, the ways in which I have seen my children benefit from playing video games.

  • Joy!
  • Social connection (the pleasure of gaming with friends or family IRL or via Xbox Live or Skype)
  • Teamwork
  • Opportunities to practise conflict resolution skills when aforesaid teamwork is lacking! 🙂
  • Problem solving skills
  • Strategic thinking
  • Spatial reasoning (Have you ever tried to navigate a virtual race track at high speed?!)
  • Memorisation (I get so lost when watching them navigate their way around complex worlds)
  • Reading skills (no, it’s not “reading the classics”, but it is culturally relevant contemporary language)
  • Mathematical thinking and calculations
  • Computer programming skills
  • An all-round good time! 🙂

There would be more, if I stopped to think about it. What about you? Have you discovered benefits in addition to the ones I have listed?

Please note that for unschooled kids and teens, gaming usually plays a very different role when compared to school kids. It is one option of many on offer throughout the days and nights of “free time”, whereas school children often use gaming to detox from the hours spent in the school environment. So the two scenarios will tend to look and be very different. I highly recommend this page, if you’d like to learn more about gaming within an unschooling context.

I promise that my next post will not be about screens! But it will certainly be written on one. And read on one too.

Image credit: lhfgraphics / 123RF Stock Photo

“Scary” Screens?

scaryscreensI am constantly surprised by the number of people who are prejudiced against electronic screens (gaming consoles, TV, computer  etc).

Mind you, I probably shouldn’t be surprised, because I used to be one of them.

I used to see it as “less than”; as in, a less desirable use of my children’s time in comparison to, say, reading a book, or playing outside, or doing art & craft (the golden choices of childhood).

I used to fear that it would spin out of control if I let go of control.

I used to strictly limit my children’s “screen time” (often whilst using a computer myself), and it required an awful lot of negotiation (“If I use 5 minutes of my hour today, can I add 5 minutes to tomorrow’s time?” etc) and then I read the wonderful article on Sandra Dodd’s site, about the economics of restricting screen time and I started to think…..

And gradually, ever so gradually, I began to let go of my fears.

To trust that my children would be ok.

And to actually support them in their interests (yes, even if that interest is TV, or computer, or gaming), rather than trying to entice them to do something…. DIFFERENT.

Why is it that so many people worship books but fear screens?  Many of us use screens a lot in our own lives, but fear our children using them “too much”. Why are people so judgemental of children who are on screens “a lot”? Why do so many people put strict limits on screen time, but never think of limiting other activities such as book reading or playing outside? Why are people so quick to use words like “addictive” when talking about screens, but wouldn’t use it if speaking of a child who whiles away endless days reading novels? Why is it so rare to hear words such as  “wonderful” or “enjoyable” or “fascinating” in the same sentence as screens or gaming? Why is it that so many parents would be proud to announce that their child spent the whole morning reading a book, but would feel shame if someone found out their child spent the same amount of time “staring at a screen”? Why are we so afraid of screens when it comes to our children?

What are we afraid of?

I think I may have some clues to this strange phenomenon, because I’ve been in that place myself. I too used to be one of those parents who was prejudiced against and fearful of screens, although I didn’t tangibly recognise it as this. I remember having lots of strong feelings around the issue. I remember wishing they’d do something else. Anything else. I remember fearing that their lives were becoming unbalanced. I even remember (in all seriousness) wishing we could live on a desert island somewhere, with close friends and families, but no electronic media at all! Yes, seriously. I thought I wanted that.

I knew I felt tense about the screens issue. I was conscious of how much my children enjoyed their screen time (TV, Xbox, Computer etc)! But I also knew what most others thought of that. I also knew I felt somewhat embarrassed and self-conscious if people walked into our home and saw them having screen time “again”. (Actually, I still struggle with that sometimes!)

I used to be a “No TV for Kids” type of Mum and I was proud of it! When our first son was a toddler, I decided that he should be TV-free, and this lasted for a couple of years (I can hear all the anti-TV people cheering in the grandstands!). I did like some aspects of that lifestyle; however, my husband and I still used to watch TV in the evenings after our son was in bed, because we found it an enjoyable thing to do. In spite of this, I continued to see TV as a big scary NO for my son. Is that hypocritical? I know I felt somewhat guilty about it. I had a niggling feeling that I kept burying deep down inside, that we were living a double standard, waiting for our screen-free son to go to bed, so that we could kick back and enjoy some TV watching. I would sometimes allow myself to wonder what he thought of it as he was lying in his bed, or hopping up to go to the toilet, and seeing the TV on. Did he think it must be something that only adults “get to do”? Did this increase his desire to watch it, too, so he could be “grown up” like us?

I think there was an element of pride in me, too. “MY child doesn’t watch television. WE provide a stimulating environment. WE don’t rely on television as a babysitter.”

It is said that pride goes before the fall. I still remember the telling moment when my husband commented on the stress in the house on a particular day when we were trying to get ready to go somewhere, with a toddler or two under our feet, saying something like, “You know what? This tension and stress is probably more damaging that the TV would be!” And I realised he was right! I mean, I knew there were obviously more options than just putting the TV on to keep kids away, but his point was that we were getting upset with kids underfoot, while the TV sat in the other room like a silent unopened gift! I had been so against our child/ren watching the TV because I’d deemed it ”bad”, but I suddenly realised it could have a place after all! Of course, I limited it to “nice videos” and ABC TV only in the early days…. 🙂 I remember intentionally putting Playschool on, WANTING my son to watch it because I’d decided it was a good program!

Fast track a few years… I had 2 children in school, one very wild 3 year old, and a baby. Our  aerial had blown off the roof and we’d not bothered getting another one. We did have a TV though, and we used it for watching videos (yes, we actually let the kids watch videos too this time!). I used to restrict any morning viewing, and then at lunchtime I’d put a video on for my wild child, to try to keep him out of trouble so I could have a rest time with the baby. That seemed to work well. (I think this routine began the day that I came out from the bedroom after settling my baby to sleep, only to discover my 3yo sitting on a beanbag with his feet in the electric foot soaker, which he’d filled with water and plugged into the power point himself!!! We also got a safety switch on the electrical circuit that day!)

When we moved into a house that happened to have a TV aerial, we didn’t mind. We had finally begun to move past our previous judgemental attitudes towards screen time. We did enforce “Screen Free Sundays” for awhile, and we still had some residual, usually silent, negative thoughts towards screens, but for the most part, TV and other forms of “screens” (Xbox and computers) had become one of the resources in our house, amongst many other things. It has been quite a long journey to get to a place where screens are neither elevated or denigrated, and the decision to unschool our children has been instrumental in helping us get to this place. Screens are now just a tool for us to use as we see fit. I no longer fear their mutinous power. I now trust that my children (and I) are more powerful than any supposedly magnetic pull of electronic gadgetry. Yes, we are even more powerful than the advertising companies. We are quite capable of interpreting advertising, and critiquing its message, and we often have conversations about this kind of thing.

For those of you who are experiencing fears and judgements (or perhaps self-righteous pride like I did) regarding screens, I invite you to consider the possibility that your children are picking up the anti-screen vibe (or very clear message), and that it is possibly having a negative effect on them in one of these ways:

  • It could be causing them to view their own desire to engage with screen time as “bad”.  And if their desire is bad, then maybe THEY are bad too.
  • It may be causing your children to resent those who are allowed to use screens more than they are.
  • Another option (and one that my own children have been on the receiving end of) is that your anti-screen judgement may be causing your children to pass that same judgement on to others who use screens more than is considered ideal in your family.

What would happen if the TV or computer or gaming console wasn’t held out as a carrot on a stick, as a reward for having done something less desirable first? If it wasn’t given that much power by its “reward” status?

What would happen if screens weren’t seen as “less than”, but rather as simply another resource in the home?

What would happen if we could find another word to use instead of “watching”, which implies passivity?  When you watch TV, is your mind ever totally switched off? Perhaps you are engaging with the characters or plot, immersing yourself in the storyline; perhaps it’s connecting with something in your own life; perhaps you’re imagining yourself in the movie, or relating at some level to one of the characters or experiences ; perhaps you’re noticing something about the cinematography, or the characterisation or acting, or the costuming, or the way a scene is depicted. Or perhaps you’re just enjoying the experience of “losing yourself”; full immersion relaxation.

Perhaps it’s a documentary, and you’re being transported to a time or place you will never get to experience in “real life”.

Perhaps we’re better off referring to ourselves as “enjoying some TV time”. Because truly, it’s not just “watching”, it’s audio visual at the very least. And if we’re talking about computers or gaming consoles, it’s far from passive.

If you’re still finding yourself judging your child’s use of screens, or fearing that it’s “all they’ll ever do”, or just resenting it somehow, consider this.

There is a solution. But it requires something from you.

Instead of pointing the finger at your child, or at those “nasty screens”, have the courage to look within.

When our children are switched on to a screen, it can become easy for us to switch off to our children. This isn’t to say that we need to always watch every show with them, or sit beside them every time they’re engaged in some screen time. We do have our own interests to pursue. And we do have other things that beg our attention. But we can still do those things whilst staying connected in some way with our children’s screen experience. Hopefully we’ll be in the same room as them, enabling us to keep one eye on our child and the screen that has their attention, and another on what we’re wanting to do. It might mean occasionally commenting or asking a question. It might mean bringing them something nutritious to eat or drink. It might mean stopping for a brief snuggle. Or better yet, a long, lingering one. It might mean seeking out opportunities or products or books or games that support their interest. And it will, hopefully, sometimes involve watching and engaging with our children!

It’s not screens versus outdoor play, or screens versus art and craft, or screens versus anything else.

It’s screens with my presence versus screens in my absence, and with my judgement (even the covert type).

It’s connection that makes the difference.

I think it’s also really important to ensure that life is more exciting than TV; that the children aren’t engaging in screen time simply out of habit or boredom, because there’s nothing more interesting calling out to them. Screens are a totally valid resource, as one among many. But if the other options are static, never changing, hidden in cupboards, covered in dust, or simply not accessible due to us not helping our children engage with them (maybe they need us to drive them somewhere, or invite someone over, or play a game with them, or help them fix something that’s broken so they can use it again…..), then it’s understandable that our children will gravitate to the ever changing screen, rather than the never changing alternatives. Rather than feeding feelings of judgement towards our children’s choice of screens over other options, it is more helpful to engage with them in their screen activity, or invite them to do something else with us (the magic “let’s” word); to be truly present with them, and to have plenty of exciting options for them to engage with, in addition to screens. It is really important, however, that it doesn’t come across as “Why don’t you stop watching so much TV and do something INTERESTING for once!” We might not say those words, but it can come across that way to our children whether we intend it to or not. I think the secret here is not to always suggest something different, but to sometimes sit and watch with them, supporting them in their screen interests, and to sometimes offer alternative ideas, and invite them to explore the non-screen world with you.

In summary, the lessons I’ve learned (and keep on learning!) are:

Stop judging the box! It’s just a thing. An object.

Limits increase desire

Instead of disconnecting, consider… connecting (with your children)!

Be more interesting than the screen!

Just in case this blog post wasn’t long enough for you, and you’d like to read more, you could check out What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy, by James Paul Gee. There are other books also, although I haven’t read any myself, because I usually find that they’re more relevant to parents of school children.

In view of the fact that the use of screens is very different for a school child (and it’s helpful to remember that all the anti-TV studies are based on children like this) and an unschooled child, I thoroughly recommend reading these web pages, because they are written from an unschooling perspective. In fact, I probably needn’t have written this blog post at all!

Sandra Dodd’s TV webpage

Arguments Against Arguments Against TV

TV and Other Addictions

If I Let Them, They’d Watch TV All Day Long

No Child Can Benefit from Watching all the TV They Want

How can TV in any Amount be OK?

There are Much Better Things they could do than Watch TV

My Values versus TV’s Values

Letting Go of the TV Controls

Other Comments About TV

Disclaimer: I still sometimes feel embarrassed if I think someone might be judging the children’s (or my) screen time, and in moments like that I don’t do my best parenting, because I am reacting to my fear and shame, rather than delighting in my children, and the choices we can freely make regarding how we spend our time. I know that in moments like this, the best results come when I am mindful of my own issues, aware of the child’s environment and whether I’ve been successfully strewing a path of wonderland before them, and choosing to delight in who my child is. Then I am free to consciously and joyfully engage in the screen time with my child, or delight in them choosing it for themselves, or suggest something different out of a place of joy rather than fear.

Unschooling Teens

So……. the big t.t.t.t.teenager question!! Many people feel confident to homeschool or unschool the primary years, but when it comes to the high school age group their legs turn to jelly! I guess I can understand this in a way. I mean, we all dropped out of school before the high school years didn’t we? So we wouldn’t have a clue, of course! But the truth is, most of us (if not all of us) went to high school and even graduated from high school, but somehow we don’t feel confident to walk through these years alongside our teenagers. We can so easily sit in a place of fear, biting our nails, and looking anxiously over our shoulder to see how everyone else is performing, and looking at our own child, wondering if they’ll “turn out okay”.

The truth is, though, that if they know how to find out answers to their questions, and they have curious minds, and a good relationship with their family, THEY. WILL. BE. OKAY!! In fact, they will be more than okay, they will thrive!!

But here is the disclaimer: it might not look anything like you expect it to, or like you hoped it would! My husband had expected that our kids would grow up to be academic types, following the traditional university route, but at this point in time, that doesn’t seem to be the case. And you know what? It really doesn’t matter! The world needs a huge variety of people to make it interesting, and to make it function well. I don’t see any of us telling the garbage truck driver to leave the bin on the side of the road thanks, we’re happy to take it to the tip ourselves every week! My teens aren’t planning to drive a garbage truck for a living, but you know what? Someone has to have that job, or we’re all going to bemoan the day we thought “everyone should go to uni”. Of course, we all want our children to be “successful”; but it’s helpful to think about what success really means!

So what about my teenagers?? Well it’s a long time since we’ve done any kind of traditional “school work”. My oldest just turned 18 (how did THAT happen!!) and he left school when he was in Year 5. My second oldest is 15 and he left school when he was in Year 3. Since then (after about one week of grade level, schoolish workbooks), our life has really been totally free-form, free-ranging, come-what-may….. We’ve done what we wanted to do, when we wanted to do it. We’ve been to interesting places, done interesting things, met interesting people, and also done a whole lot of ……. NOTHING!

And you know what? I think teenagers really need the opportunity to do that! Or NOT to do it, as the case may be! 🙂  Time to daydream, sleep in, stay up late, eat lots of food, read books & magazines (or not), sleep in, play games of all types (yes, including the electrical kind), sleep in, hang out with friends, eat lots of food, spend long days at the beach, sleep in, go to the skate park, kick a football around, eat lots of food, join a gym, sleep in, watch movies, eat lots of food, explore their interests, go on family holidays, sleep in, ….. Oh did I mention food?? And sleeping???

Seriously, sometimes it feels like teenagers (well, boys at least, I haven’t had a girl teen yet) go to sleep as boys one day, and wake up about 2 years later all hairy and with deep voices. (And sometimes the hair is a bit on the wild side!!)

Somehow they manage to get up for food, but apart from that it can seem that for quite some time they’re not doing much else. And you know what? That’s OK! In fact, I think it’s probably exactly what they need.

And it’s exactly what they usually DON’T get if they go to school. I am so glad my boys have had the chance to take life at their own pace, rather than being swept along in the madness and driven-ness of school and all the extra-curricular activities. I still remember the sadness I felt when watching an SBS documentary where they were trying to help a teenager who was very depressed and had been suicidal. He was having trouble sleeping, and having trouble getting up for school. They tested him and found that he had “delayed sleep phase syndrome”. The solution they prescribed included light therapy etc, to try to get his body clock to be more synchronised with the hours of the school system, so he could cope with getting up for school etc. He tried the therapy for awhile but did not stick with it. At the end of the program there was a discussion with the psychologist and the boys’ mother, and the comment was made that he “simply has to go to school” so they had to do whatever they could to get him through. I thought it was tragic, and I’d hate to think how they would feel if he ended up acting on his suicidal thoughts. I beg to differ about the idea that he “has to go to school”. He could leave school, and live in harmony with his natural sleep patterns! I imagine they didn’t realise homeschooling or unschooling was a valid option? I know that I would never make my child stay in a situation where they were depressed and suicidal because they were so chronically tired. And I am so thankful that my teenagers have been able to sleep when they’re tired, and get up when they’ve had enough sleep. And you know what? They spent a lot of time sleeping in very late, but they’re also very capable of getting up at the crack or dawn or before, if they want to go for an early surf, or if they have to be at work early, or if they just decide they want to get up earlier. No problems.

There’s also another aspect of adolescence that seems vital, and that’s having the opportunity to do something REAL, that matters. Schools do this by offering leadership opportunities, etc, but this will only suit the cream of the crop. The vast majority will be going through the motions that have been chosen for them. What I love about unschooling teens is that they get to do what matters – to them! It’s authentic, it’s real, it’s usually self-initiated (yet supported by their parents where necessary or helpful)! They get to be true to themselves, and really get to know themselves, their likes and dislikes & their interests (without being limited to school type subjects, or having to choose electives that are on the right strand, or that the school offers).

For quite awhile it seemed that my teenagers’ only “subject” was bodyboarding! Outside of that it seemed they just “loafed around”, spent time on Facebook, watched TV etc. I felt concerned for awhile. OK, I admit it, I was very concerned. I was worried that they “weren’t learning anything”. I kept suggesting things they could be “doing” but was usually met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. I kept trying to think of ways to bring more things into their life in keeping with their passion. I subscribed them to bodyboarding magazines (English: check), I bought a book they seemed interested in called “The Science of Surfing” (English/Science: check) etc…… I’m sure those things helped, but what was most important, I think, was to really learn to TRUST. Not to fear.

I am so glad I didn’t interfere out of panic. I offered lots of ideas and possibilities, and I learned (eventually) not to judge their “No thanks” answer, either with a sigh or rolled eyes (I didn’t even realise I was doing that until they pointed it out, because it was very subtle).

My now 18 year old son (as of a couple of days ago) decided a couple of years back that he REALLY wanted to get his “Year 10 Certificate” through the TAFE system. This came about mostly because all of his friends from his work went to school, and that’s what they were doing. They were getting that piece of paper that said they’d made it to that level of education. My son placed a lot more value on it than I did, I have to say!. I tried to encourage him to study a specific subject area at TAFE, rather than the “General Vocation & Education” course that was the equivalency to Year 10 at school. But he was absolutely determined. He started off studying by correspondence but realised that didn’t suit him, so the following year he applied to go to TAFE face to face and complete his studies there. And you know what? He THRIVED. His teachers rave about him, referring to him as their “best student”, and he has finished off the year with distinctions in most subjects. Personally, I found the TAFE system to be a good follow-on from unschooling, because the students are treated as adults and with a lot more autonomy than the school system can give. Admittedly, most kids his age have completed their next level of schooling, but I honestly don’t think that matters. My son has enjoyed a rich and interesting adolescence, and he has chosen of his own volition to get this formal qualification. He how has a few eggs in the basket and he’s not sure which one he will act on. He is applying for an apprenticeship, he has applied to do a Certificate 3 in Fitness at TAFE, and he’s doing a Barista course later this year. These are all things of his own choosing. In fact, I didn’t even realise he’d started the proceedings for procuring an apprenticeship until after it had happened! He has also entertained the idea of perhaps studying teaching at uni (which is kind of funny!) or even the police force. I can really see him doing any of these things, and he has the determination and perseverance to achieve whatever he sets his mind to.

My 15 year old son ended up getting a job at McDonalds when he was 14 (his big brother had done the same thing), and while he was still 14 he was promoted to crew trainer. After 6-12 months he’d had enough of that type of work and decided to leave. When he told his boss at work that he was considering leaving and going to TAFE, his boss really didn’t want to let him go, and convinced him to study a Certificate 2 in Retail through his work. My son, being the wise one that he is, decided it seemed logical, since they would supervise his course and also pay for it! He’s almost finished that Certificate now. They said it would take 2 years. It has taken about 3 months. Now he’s decided that he’s very keen to get into the cafe scene, so he is going to do a barista course, and has applied to study a Certificate 3 in Hospitality at TAFE next year. He’s been looking up to see how far he can go with studies in that subject area, because he’d probably like to go to uni one day. He’s very keen to explore the possibility of owning or managing a cafe, too. He’s also contemplated the idea of counselling, which doesn’t surprise me, because people are often turning to him for advice, support and encouragement. He is incredibly insightful, perceptive and intuitive, with a deep understanding of human nature and behaviour. And that would come in really handy in the hospitality industry too. In fact, it’s a skill that will help him immensely, no matter what he decides to do.

I feel so blessed to have had these boys at home throughout their teenage years. Well, not always at home! Often gallavanting around the countryside! But I’m glad that home has been their base, not the schoolyard. I’m glad they’ve been free to be themselves, and to now step out and explore various opportunities for study and work outside of the family unit. It has not been a bed of roses, and living in close proximity can at times put stresses and strains on the familial relationships, but when all is said and done, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I don’t know what the future holds for them, but I know it will be just what they want it to be, which means it will be wonderful.

It will be interesting to see if there are any differences in terms of process and outcome with my younger two children, who have never been to school.

Unschooling (Un)defined

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I figured I’d put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and try to explain a little bit about our life outside of school.

It’s easy to define “schooling”, because we all went to school when we were growing up. And yet most people are unaware of the history of compulsory schooling, and might be surprised at its roots!

It’s easy to define homeschooling (although people still often misunderstand it) because in essence it is replicating in the home what is done/taught in schools, often with the mindset that the curriculum can be taught more effectively at home, because of the higher ratio of adult to student.

But what about when kids don’t go to school, or even do “schoolwork” at home? Now THAT is mindbloggling to most people! It is hard to imagine or understand, so therefore it is feared, judged, misunderstood. Funnily, in spite of the fact that the majority of people didn’t really enjoy their school experience growing up, and that most people recognise the shortcomings of the education system, the idea of doing away with it can be terrifying! The idea that children might be able to grow up freely, outside of the structure of the educational system seems preposterous to most people. This, in and of itself, is evidence that schooling worked on most people! Most people have learned that they themselves can’t be trusted to learn what they need to know unless a teacher “teaches” them. In spite of the fact that most people don’t doubt the ability of children to learn at home up to the age of 5, and recognise that people continue learning after the age of 17, we somehow think that between the ages of 5 and 17 human beings are suddenly unable to learn without a school teacher, or school materials!

Call it what you will – unschooling, life learning, autodidactism, self-learning, natural learning, organic learning…. it can seem hard to describe, and hard to understand, but basically it’s living as though school doesn’t exist, similar to what you did before you ever went to school, and after you finished. It’s a form of homeschooling, but it’s not homeschooling because it’s not SCHOOLING at all. It’s living and learning from real life, rather than in a classroom with prescribed lessons and required outcomes. It’s not learning to a schedule or by coercion, because someone else “out there” has decided that all children of a certain age should know a certain thing. It’s learning naturally from the experiences that come your way, or that you realise it would be helpful to know. It’s more about finding out the answers to the questions you’re asking, than trying to answer the questions someone else is asking. Oh, that our children will never stop asking, “Why?”

For me, it has been an interesting and at times challenging process to try to get “school think” out of my own head, in order to create a free unschooling environment in our home. This process, often called “deschooling“, can be much easier said than done, being as most of us were schooled for at least 12 years, and continue to see schools and school-children all around us. It’s so easy to consider the “norm” to be the only, or best, way. For me, my deschooling has been compounded by my childhood desire to be a primary school teacher. In fact, when my older two children first came home from school I was very excited that I could finally be a teacher AND a mum. It wasn’t long before I realised that life was going to teach us all!! I wasn’t going to get to “play schools” with my kids! And I no longer want to! We’re having too much fun living life to limit ourselves to playing schools.

Of course one of the difficult parts of unschooling for most people is that, well…… it just doesn’t look like… school!! And we’ve been raised to doubt our own ability to learn, if it’s not taught to us by a teacher in an “educational” setting. So it can be hard to trust that when they’re living their life (which usually means playing in its various forms!), they’re also learning just what they need right now. And it can be hard to trust that when they find a need to know something they will do what they need to do to learn it! They won’t fear it, or be afraid of “getting the answer wrong if the teacher asks”, or looking stupid by asking questions. They won’t be bored by learning (“But the bell’s gone, Miss! Can’t we go?”) or separate learning into something they only do at school or when they’re doing homework. But trust can be so hard.

And unschooling requires trust. Trust that children have a natural drive to learn, that they are naturally curious (at least until school deadens their senses or dampens their curiosity, as it does for many). It’s not teaching to the test, or even thinking about what would be on a test! It’s delighting in the joy of living, and trusting that a child (or adult) who’s fully engaged in an activity, will be learning. Try going a day without learning anything! John Holt wrote, “To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves … and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

In response to the question “What happens when you grow up and find you haven’t learned something you needed to learn?” one very smart 10-year-old simply said: “I’ll learn it then!” We ALL have gaps in our knowledge. We don’t need to fear them. We can learn what we need to know, when we need to know it. As can children of school age. Why do we fear the future so much? Let’s live this moment with joy, and the next… and the next…. And before we know it, our children will be looking back at lives lived joyfully, and continuing to do so as they move into the next chapter. As will we.

It can be helpful, as adults, to look back on our life and consider what we’ve learned and how we’ve learned it; to compare the way we were taught in school, with the way we learn now. I know that for me, if I want to learn about something or need to know something, I’ll draw on all sorts of resources to find the answers I need to know: people who know more than me, books from the library, magazines, instruction manuals, experience, maybe a course or two if I think it will be interesting and relevant. And …. wait for it, even TV (yes, TV – it is as valid a resource as any other)! Of course, there’s also the internet.

Ah, the internet….. an unschooler’s best friend. It really has opened up the world of knowledge to the masses. It was amusing, and yet hardly surprising, when my daughter, at the age of about 4, said, “Let’s just ‘Google it’, Mum!”  So many universities have lectures by their top professors available for free online. If you want to learn about something, you’re sure to get a pretty good head start on the internet. Even the school curriculum is available for free on there if you’re really interested in finding out what school kids are apparently supposed to be learning during their 12 years of confinement. It’s all nicely set out year by year, so you can make sure your child is “keeping up”, not “getting behind”. As if that really matters in the grand scheme of life.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”  One night we happened to be watching it on TV and I said to the kids, “Do you realise that the kinds of things they ask on this show are pretty much basic facts that you can just look up the answers to if you really want to know?” So I did a little experiment. I opened up my trusty Google page and raced the contestants each time a question was asked. Every single time I had the answer before they did. There wasn’t one thing I wasn’t able to find out really easily and quickly. Sometimes the answer even popped up as I was typing the key words into the search engine! I didn’t even have to open the site.

I don’t think heads need to be stuffed full of knowledge just in case it’s needed one day. It’s far more joyful and exciting and normal to learn what you need to know when you need to know it, because you want to know it or appreciate the side benefits of knowing it. Have you ever tried to learn about something you’re just not interested in? A friend said to me recently that her son is really into a particular type of computer game. He likes to tell her about it, and she really really tries to listen to what he says with interest, but lo and behold the next time he talks to her about it, it becomes painfully obvious that she just hasn’t retained much of the information he told her last time, so he has to repeat it again. She just isn’t all that interested in the game. Even though she adores her son and tries to be interested in the game because it matters to him, it’s really hard for her to absorb and retain information about subject matter that doesn’t relate to her life and that she sees no need for or has no interest in, outside of her love for her son.

Some people think unschooling is “doing nothing”, just because you’re not “doing school”. But far from that! Unschooling isn’t doing nothing – it’s doing anything! And everything! Whatever your heart desires (both parent and child)! Finding ways to follow your passions, finding out what you need to know along the way; learning by doing, rather than before doing.

As a parent, my responsibility is to provide a rich, exciting, wonderland for my children to explore, both within our home, and in the world outside. It’s up to me to find resources to support them in their interests, to suggest opportunities to them that they might not stumble upon by themselves. To engage with them, observe them, delight in them, listen to them, REALLY listen, talk with them, watch the 700th rerun of their favourite TV show or movie with them, validate their passions rather than undermine them or worry about “broadening their interests”, share the things I love with them and share in the things THEY love with them too. To give them time and space to just “be”. To appreciate and delight in who my child is, rather than put all my effort into preparing for a future that may never come. To bring wonderful things and people into their lives. And to be fascinated by life myself! It’s not about just focussing on what they’re doing, but living it myself, alongside them. It’s being their partner as they journey through life, pursuing my passions too, not just watching passively and disconnectedly while they pursue theirs. That can make it all sound very glamorous. It certainly is a priveleged life; one which I feel blessed to be able to live. But it isn’t perfect! It’s just life, warts and all. It just doesn’t have school in it.

It’s been said, “Homeschooling: the whole world is our classroom”.
I prefer to say, “Unschooling: the whole world is our PLAYGROUND!”

When I first started blogging I was going to have one blog for social justice issues, one for ethical/environmental issues, one for unschooling, etc. But then I realised that I just couldn’t separate our unschooling from everything else that we do, because it’s all part of one big connected whole. We don’t separate living from learning. We don’t separate life into subjects.

You probably noticed from my heading for this post that it’s really hard to think of the best word to use to describe this philosophy of learning. In reality, it existed long before schools were ever thought of, and the human race did pretty well up to that point. Some people feel that unschooling sounds negative, and in some ways it does, but on the other hand some things are so undefinable that the easiest way to say what it is, is simply by defining what it isn’t. So unschooling is like everything outside of the school system, outside of “school think”. School, by its very nature, has a fence around it. So unschooling is everything outside the fence. The trick is seeing the fence that is in our thinking too – the invisible fence. And finding the courage to climb over it and be free!

I thought it’d be good to finish off with some validation by a few famous people from times gone by, whose wonderful words give credibility and validation to this grand adventure called unschooling… natural learning…  life learning….

“If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” William Hull
“Do not train children to learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” Plato! (428-348BC)
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Elbert Einstein