R.L. SAUNDERS

writer attempting real life in the middle of everybody else's vacation

Beating the rush

I grew up with a lot of structure. We didn’t miss a day of Catholic school unless we were hospitalized, and I mean that literally. Puking? Bring a bucket. My mom and stepdad were dedicated teachers who couldn’t bail on their classes at the last minute to stay home every time a kid sneezed. My perfect attendance for first through twelfth grades was soiled solely by that week I spent in the hospital in junior high. But I went on to have perfect attendance for all four years of high school. I was the poster child for compulsory education. (Nonetheless, to this day, I count on my fingers. So much for quantity.)

My school days were followed by afternoons and evenings rushing from activity to activity. There were both group and private lessons for dance, music, and voice. There was Girl Scouting, karate, theater, 4-H, and some other things I’m sure I’m forgetting. Point is, I learned all about keeping a schedule. And I’m grateful, by the way, for all the sacrifices my parents made to give us every advantage they could afford, and many they couldn’t, but did it anyway. My biggest takeaway was how important it is to do your very best for your family–whatever that means to you.

But guess what. I’m no better structured as an adult than anybody else in the world. In fact, by the time I turned 30, I resented structure so much that I quit life as I knew it, packed up my family and ran away to a subtropical island. Most of you know that story. Real life followed me, of course, but during the process, I went off-script and slowed down enough to think about what I really wanted my life to look like, from the inside out, instead of the other way around.

So when people wonder about the potential detriment I’m causing my youngest son by unschooling him, I feel bad about the energy they’re wasting worrying about his unstructured, unrushed life. To answer the questions I see in your eyes (along with the ones you ask me outright), our slow, mostly unplanned days look something like this:

We send Dad off to work and sister off to a school she loves and at which she thrives. He knows that’s an option for him, too, if he wants to go back someday. He also knows there are all kinds of families, including those with two parents who go away to work every day. He comprehends (at his own level) that we have less than some families because only one parent gets paid a living wage for working right now. It’s a choice we make.

In the morning, I try to write (my Job job) while my son plays Minecraft and Terraria, and sometimes a little Scribblenauts. He loves to stop and YouTube new techniques, then go back and implement what he’s learned. He asks me to type or read the words he struggles with. I see him making progress with typing and reading at his own pace, when it means something to him.

He’d also like to play Dumb Ways to Die, which is a no for now because it’s too far outside my own comfort zone. But those kinds of requests spark good conversation. He forms arguments that start like, “Mom, seriously, it’s not real. It’s actually a bit hilarious and that’s it.” He’s right. I need to spend some time thinking about the root of my fears.

As a kindergarten dropout, he has lots of time and freedom to form and articulate whatever case he wants to make on any subject. And he’s getting better at integrating feedback into his arguments. That’s a real-life skill. One that’s nearly impossible to develop in a classroom of 20+ kids his own age who are largely shushed all day so that “real” learning can occur. What he’d learn there (at too high a cost for this child, from my perspective) is how to survive in a classroom setting.

There’s lots of affection and affirmation during our day. I’m not afraid of spoiling him that way. Natural consequences of his actions throughout his life will teach him enough about losing and about when being tough matters more than being kind.

My son sees me reading during the day and knows it’s something I value. Sometimes we read together. I encourage him to read but I back off immediately when he’s not into it.

Some days we go to the grocery store. He helps with price comparison and with the cash or credit card machine. He takes the receipt and thanks the cashier. He says things like, “Welp, it was sure nice to see ya today.” It’s slow but people are generally patient. And I like that he’s comfortable interacting with people of all ages.

He also helps tend the lime tree out back. We need to figure out why it won’t grow even though it produces limes like mad. We think it might be a sunlight issue so we moved it. Now we wait and see.

Some days we paint or draw or write to a pen pal or walk down to the ocean or go to the park. Some days we don’t. Sometimes he plays with Legos for what seems like hours on end. Some days he Skypes grandparents who listen with superhuman patience as he describes his creations in painstaking detail. When they can get a word in, they ask good thinking questions.

Speaking of questions, my son asks them all day long. So we stop what we’re doing to talk about (and often Google or YouTube answers to) things like: Is the whole Earth really just about staying alive? When will the Earth die? Is Mother Nature a ghost? How do you make plastic? How are marrying hugs different from regular love hugs? If you throw lava into outer space, will it just turn into shards of obsidian right away? We’re learning that some sources of information on the Internet are better than others.

Yesterday we finished painting a Hotwheels ramp then we tried again to glue together the pathetic Hotwheels garage we’re trying to make. He says we’re going to need nails. I think he’s right. Before we started, we brainstormed then took a trip to Home Depot for supplies. When we got there, we compared sizes and prices of items. He watched me struggle to cut wood with a hand saw, begging all the while to help. That was a no, too, for which he had many good arguments, all of which I considered. None of which outweighed safety concerns.

On the way home, he helped me pump gas. We talked about the gallons and the price. He knows about how much money it costs to fill the tank. As it happens, we encounter a lot of math word problems, only they’re in real life, presented at a time it’s relevant to him, because that’s the only time we really retain new information. (That’s why it takes about five minutes to sum up everything you actually retained from 13 years in a classroom. Go ahead, try it.)

I have no idea if he’s “behind” or “ahead of” the average kindergartner. And I don’t care about measuring him at this point. Americans love to measure, don’t we? We love to see where we rank. But our measurement tools are so broken that the results don’t mean very much to me anymore.

There are no set meal times at our house. Same goes for bed time. My kids have learned through trial and error to listen to their bodies. This makes a lot of people twitchy, I know. Right now, the unschooler is falling asleep around 9:30 and waking up around 7:30. Ten hours of unprovoked rest seems adequate. But on days when something exciting keeps him up late, he pays the next day by feeling icky and crabby, and we talk about why that happened.

If this child grows up to be an unhappy, unsuccessful adult, will we blame his early unschooling experience? I don’t know. What do we blame for the overflowing prison system full of people who went to traditional schools?

Our days don’t have much structure, but they’re calm, good days. I can’t imagine we’ll ever regret this peaceful living experiment, even if he chooses a traditional classroom environment in the future. And if there’s only one thing my son takes with him to adulthood from these early unschooled years, I hope it’s that THERE IS NO RUSH. Humans invented The Rush, and no matter how poorly it serves us during our single shot at life, it’s hard to leave it behind. I mean, what will people think?

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