Are My Kids ‘Keeping Up’?
My kids are young – 7 and 9. The familial and societal pressure for them to ‘keep up’ and ‘succeed’ is great. One of the first questions I’m asked when I tell people we are life learners is, “how do you know they’re keeping up?” My children don’t go to school. They never have. We thought about it long and hard and then again. We’ve investigated every nook and cranny of our highly educated brains and it always comes back to learning through living. I’ve podcasted about our difficult and thoughtful coming to awareness of what our lives would be – are – together as our children grow. We are together. My husband and I sometimes step back and marvel at the constant learning that goes on for our children. Yes, sometimes it is validating for our ever-shrinking educationally enculturated alter EGOs to have a translation of our children’s life learning education. We giggle at a complicated, life-induced mathematical word problem they’ve solved through discussion and critical thinking. We marvel at their operational analysis of a place of business we visit and thoughtful consideration of how to improve revenue. Their intake of information isn’t boxed up nicely into compartments broken up by bells and processionals to the next segmented piece. But then I remind myself that, boxed up, it’s not really learning.
So, are they ‘keeping up’? I used to justify this with research and analysis of test taking scores of homeschoolers being consistently higher than their schooled counterparts. We can talk about colleges and universities seeking out young people who are intrinsically driven to learn through curiosity and desire; whose interests rather than expectations have fueled their collegiate aspirations. As my children grow older and maybe even as I grow a little wiser, I wonder what ‘keeping up’ means. Will my children easily fit into one of those neat little institutional boxes if they should at some point ‘need’ or desire to go to school? That is really the question, isn’t it? Will my kids grow up to feel disempowered by their lack of knowledge in a particular area? As I have relished in living and growing together with my children, these fears have dissolved into the abyss along with any concerns I once had about my own ability to fit in with cultural currents.
I love the comfortable, empowered feeling I get when I read what you’ve written here. Of course, nothing has changed since my kids were younger and not in school either. A common question I got from others was ‘how do you know they are learning everything they are supposed to learn?’ My answer varied, depending upon who I was talking to, but one I liked was ‘I don’t.’ Huh?
My early years of unschooling with my kids was mentored from afar by John Holt – an author, teacher drop-out, and proponent of taking kids out of school and keeping them out. As a keynote speaker on the topic of child-initiated education one year, he was asked by a parent in the audience, ‘what are the things every child must learn?’ John said, ‘Nothing. There is nothing every child or person needs to learn to live fulfilled and productively in this world.’ Wow, this was profoundly provoking and life changing for me at the time. Nothing. Not reading, not basic math, not grammar, not … anything. Not anything!
Over the years, I have reflected on this wisdom a great deal, as I watch my kids experiment, inquire, maneuver the world on their self-designed terms. I try to stay out of the way and help them, teach them, advise them only when they ask for my help (this is definitely worthy of a whole separate blog post). I have challenged myself to limit my need for control to controlling myself and no one else. I have committed myself to continual upgrades of my life and environment, in thought and action. I have developed a life long hobby of interviewing folks who LOVE their lives, dissecting their actions that got them to their blissful, fully alive states. I have wholeheartedly arrived at the conclusion that I agree with John Holt. There is absolutely NOTHING that every person, every child, must learn or know in order to get on this world as a happy, fulfilled individual.
“True learning – learning that is permanent and useful, that leads to intelligent action and further learning — can arise only out of the experience, interest, and concerns of the learner.”
– John Holt
And yet that answer is also ‘Everything.’ My kids know everything they need and want to know in any given moment or they know how to find out. This is truly the education that they are getting. They are learning true competence and self-confidence in knowing that they can know or do anything such that when there is some new interest, challenge, or obstacle, they can easily navigate in their desired direction. How much of what we ‘learn’ in school is actually retained? The truth of it is that it’s short-term memorization for the purposes of regurgitation. That regurgitation is then measured to a standard bell curve of how effective the memorization training and test taking skills are on the whole. These are not life skills nor are they learning or measures thereof. Ironically enough, Laura Grace Weldon points out, there has actually been shown to be no association between national test scores and determinants of ‘success’ and a positive correlation between individual test scores and shallow thinking. People who do well in school (myself included) are able to assess the objectives of the game and determine a strategy to do well at it; that is, if they have a desire to play. Many children are wise to the fruitlessness of the game and choose to preserve their efforts and some semblance of integrity.
Since the dreams, pursuits, and goals of each individual are unique, so will be their learning needs and desires. So, no, there is nothing that EVERY person must learn. The ‘fundamentals’ as they are called- reading, writing, and mathematics – also fall under this in the world of the child who is empowered to their own, individual, personal greatness. They can and will learn exactly as much of these as is necessary or desired for their lives.
So, are they ‘keeping up’? I actually feel like we’re not even playing the same game. My children are learning and thriving in a way that is so exciting, chaotic, and rich that I couldn’t begin to envision myself sweeping up the mangled, lovely knots of learning and trying to untangle and sort them into boxes for you to measure. Standard or average would be derogatory and inaccurate ways to describe my children’s experiences of learning. They’re not ‘keeping up’… they’re flying.
Well said, Sarah. I think it’s critical for one, perhaps for everyone, to remove themselves from this ‘keeping up’ game. Is it really any different at all than the much criticized ‘keeping up with the joneses’ game? Actually, it’s the same drive, the same motivation that’s behind it – one that gives the views, values, perspectives, opinions and evaluations of others more importance than one’s own self-designed, always changing view of oneself. Children are at least as capable, if not more so, of self evaluation, self direction and self education than us highly conditioned adults. As parents, we have the golden opportunity of creating environments that support this intelligence and ability to fly, as you state it, and self design in the most powerful ways imaginable. I love the magical feeling of this brave new world every single day. I am so grateful to have no desire whatsoever to compare myself or my children to another, and that includes all the high end, rich and intelligent and empowered stuff.
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