In just over one short year, Baby Ethan had morphed from a 6 lb, 11 oz peanut into a bona fide toddler. He had learned to sit up, crawl, walk, run, do yoga push-ups, feed himself, and speak many words… seemingly all through instinct, observation and osmosis. Jason and I were suspended in the flow of universal amazement that all parents surely experience as their babes change so quickly.
What I most loved watching was Ethan’s complete surrender to the present moment. The focus, wonder, and excitement with which he approached the simplest moments was stunning to behold. The mundane world to which I had grown accustomed became exciting and vibrant as I watched life unfold through his eyes. Ants, puddles, the floating specks of dust sparkling in light through a window in late afternoon… all sources of amazement and wonder. This, I thought, is surely what it means to be a yoga master. Why must humans lose this as we age?
I continued reading about unschooling after I nursed Ethan to sleep each night, often awakened by my iPhone crashing down on my head as I dozed off. I joined an online group, remaining silent in the background but observing the discussions. Answers to some of my questions came easily. Yes, unschooling was entirely legal. I learned that each state has its own regulations, some more permissive and than others. As a style of homeschooling, unschooling fell under the same regulations as homeschooling. We lived in a state with little government intervention, and though I didn’t know it then, in two short years we would move west to an even better state for unschooling.
Some of my questions provided more of a challenge, such as the ever-present elephant in the room each time the topic of homeschooling came up with friends or acquaintances. Socialization. I certainly had my own assumptions to examine. In middle school, a homeschooled boy enrolled in my class, and I remembered him as socially awkward and well, just different. Come to think of it, most kids seemed different that transferred in from other schools too – at least for a while, until they adjusted – yet that single memory had formed my long-standing opinion of homeschoolers. I needed to dig deeper and find some sort of credible evidence that my kid wouldn’t turn out to be an antisocial, can’t-carry-on-a-decent-conversation-with-an-adult, video game addict with text neck if we decided not to send him to school. Because there aren’t any kids like that in our nation’s schools, are there?
So, I read and I read. I actually cracked open a book or two on the topic too, and my beloved Google did not fail me. I read countless anecdotes about unschoolers presented with such a vast smorgasbord of social outings that it was difficult for families to keep up. Stories of unschooled kids being involved in their communities, even taking leadership roles alongside adults — to such an extent that just wasn’t feasible for kids spending 30 hours a week in school plus time spent on homework. I found interesting autobiographies of successful and happy grown-ups who were unschooled as children, and even a video of an articulate unschooled kid named Logan LaPlante, who gave a stellar Ted-x talk about his self-directed path.
Come to find out, there’s some fascinating research on unschoolers, such as a study in Psychology Today that claimed unschoolers actually do turn out to be functional and productive adults. I learned that unschooling was a growing movement within the techie community because of its ability to foster creativity and innovative thinking – skills clearly needed for the next generation. Innovative leaders such Elon Musk were unschooling their children. In fact, there were oodles of examples of influential autodidacts from history… Abigail Adams, Maya Angelou, Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein to name a few.
Looking back over my own life, I realized that my set of social skills developed mostly through my part-time job from age 15 up and later in the professional working world. The funny thing is, during school I remember chatty classmates being told to “quiet down – we aren’t here to socialize.” The friendships of my youth blossomed mainly through extra curricular activities and time spent together on weekends. In hindsight, even the required group work in school wasn’t necessarily very representative of how teams actually collaborated in my workplaces. I couldn’t deny that spending 6-7 hours a day, 5 days a week in a classroom with other kids all the same age did seem a bit unnatural and not so “real world,” and I wondered about the possible effects of same-age classrooms on peer pressure and even bullying.
Ultimately I realized that determining if a person is well socialized is a rather subjective matter. I was coming around to the idea that as long as we let our child freely engage in the world, follow his interests, make friends and get involved in our community, he had a pretty good chance of turning out decently. And if we let values such as kindness, empathy, and compassion guide us, could we really go wrong?
After absorbing it all, we felt comfortable that our child could be properly socialized living a life free of school. But, what if, after all our learning and explorations and adventures…<GULP>…he did turn out to be different??? Well, perhaps he might turn out to be like other creative, free thinking, different people that have served as catalysts for positive social change, innovation, and even helped drive our collective evolution as a species. So, truth be told, I’m cool with non-conformity.
The biggest question remaining was, could we really opt out of school? Meaning, were we comfortable coloring this far outside the lines…traveling the road so less traveled by that it’s going to be messy and muddy with all the signs torn down? I certainly had some experience taking a path counter to the mainstream, having left my solid and respectable career for a spiritual quest that led to becoming a yoga teacher, much to the bewilderment of both my peers and the firm’s partners. (“But how could I?? I was on the partner track?!?”) And we did some fairly crunchy things like buying organic, composting our kitchen scraps, cloth diapering and using a neti pot… but unschooling was definitely next level. Weren’t we worried about what the neighbors might think if young Ethan was running around like a wild child catching bugs and puddle jumping mid-day on a Tuesday? Didn’t we care what the proverbial Joneses would say??? Well, sure, to some degree. But since this is a story about how we became unschoolers, I think you already know the answer. We pulled on our galoshes and geared up for the muddy road, with supplies in hand to paint our own signs.
All in all, we realized that all of our questions didn’t need to have answers, at least not right away. We could try this and see where it led. We didn’t have to commit to 17 years of anything, we could change course at any time if it wasn’t working for our son. We could continue to explore ways to meet his needs for social contact with diverse groups of both children and adults, and learn more about how children can and do learn organically when they are intrinsically motivated. We could connect with like-minded families to enrich the journey and to learn alongside. We could do this.
As Ethan’s development unfolded so naturally from baby to toddler, we had witnessed first-hand his innate instinctual desire to learn, grow, experience and expand –and it had all happened naturally within the secure and attached environment we had forged, and mostly without having overtly taught him. Why, all of a sudden, should we expect that to change? And why should we not listen to the voice within rather than what society would have us believe – that we had to send our child away at such a young age for him to develop and grow? I think that may have been the moment I knew… I truly knew…we were already unschoolers.