I realize that in most of my blogs, I have been writing as if the people who might come across my blog ages and ages from now already know who I am and what my believes and approaches towards learning and parenting has been. A few weeks ago, I asked my 11-year old daughter to read one of the hundreds of blogs I now keep, just to have a different pair of eyes read it. She said, “…you’re writing like you’re lecturing. It’s like you’re trying to slice into people’s brains and make them buy what you’re saying.”
I’m going to transfer several blogs that I wrote at the beginning of my unschooling journey and I hope the timeline would provide valuable insight into my journey as an unschooling parent. But this blog will talk about my experience, something I didn’t get a chance to talk about at the Homeschooler’s Dinner organized by FamilyPlace due to scheduling commitments.
First of all, it might seem that unschooling is an easier decision because I was a school teacher. There were times when teaching seemed utterly pointless. I went in gung-ho and was stonewalled by the incredibly low standards in ethics, intellect, ability, social, moral and emotional responsibility, personal integrity and not the least, administrative functions of schools.
We know that no credible person enters the profession to make money and to know I wasn’t going to actually make any difference to the world, despite everything I’ve tried, was pretty depressing. But that was until a wise woman told me, “Sloane, if not for anything else, you’ll become a better parent to Thea.”
My daughter was 4 when I took my first paying job teaching part-time. In the following years, sanity would not have been possible if I depended only on my salary as a teacher. I don’t know how things worked but it did and the pot of gold was the confidence I now have in issues of language learning, teaching and learning and how they all matter to me in order to become a more empowered parent.
It might seem that being finally, ‘trained’ and ‘qualified’ as a teacher would make homeschooling/unschooling so much easier. Let me share with all parents what I’ve learned in the last few years in my perspective as both a school teacher and a parent. I stress that point because I was teaching students in the upper-secondary levels and got to know their feelings and thoughts about schooling, life and their future. Things did not look good for them and we can trace all their lack of learning,skills, and eroded sense of self to what they experienced after 10 years or so of schooling.
2 years ago I started my own learning centre. When a few of them got to see how I teach my own child and children who came to me for private lessons, they expressed how much they regretted not having experienced the same things when they were younger.
Just today I showed my class of 17-19 year olds examples of stories children below 10 in another class did. They were completely in awe and asked me why they were not capable of that when they were that age and not even now. Upon discussion, they realized they were never allowed to go through a processes of learning that made things meaningful. I had an article nearby from ERIC digest which talked about teaching emergent literacy. As I read the do-s and dont’s,they nodded that they practised ALL the things that impeded and destroyed the creative writing process throughout their schooling experience. Is it any wonder we have people who seem to suffer from aphasia each time they have to speak in public or produce a piece of meaningful writing?
Being a teacher did not make the choice to unschool any easier. From personal experience and upon reflection I would really like to stress the first point I’m going to make about choosing to unschool: Choosing to homeschool/unschool your child is a HIGHLY PERSONAL CHOICE.When you’ve reached a point in your life where you are confident to take full responsibility for your life and your family’s interactions with the neighborhood, extended family, community and society at large – then you’re probably more ready to homeschool. The philosophy I adopt is, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” No one, I repeat, no one is going to change the world for us or our children. No matter how much we complain, campaign or picket, the world is made up of the collective actions of each individual.
Before I started a family I had always thought that when the time came, I wouldn’t school my children. Truth be told, school left such a bitter aftertaste that I could never bear to revisit it even when I became a teacher. But for the sake of closure, I made myself face my greatest impediment and regret in my life : schooling. To prove to no one else but myself that I could be an adult about my past, I accepted my role as a schoolteacher, to try and make a change from the other side of the classroom.
Since I’ve always told myself I’d homeschool I assumed it would be easy when the time came. But boy, the pull towards conformity and the fear of rejection should not be underestimated. And so, in some semi-conscious decision,I enrolled her in a Chinese school, horror of horrors! It’s still a mystery how I could contradict myself and everything I’ve ever learned about schools by making such a decision.
Nothing made the choice to unschool her easy. More money, more freedom, more qualifications, more time, more information, more opinions, more courage – nothing was going to create the deciding point where I just ‘know’ this would be the right thing to do. It felt as if I’m heading towards a point of no return.
However, once I’d made that decision to unschool it gave me the distance I needed to look back and realize how much of a tunnel vision I was suffering due to pressures I had put on myself. Whether or not it was because I was by then a single parent, having no one else to refer to or support me in a decision to ‘go against the grain’, I can’t be sure. Every one of my peers and people whose opinions were dear to me warned me about how competition to get into schools and unis and jobs is getting fiercer, and what I would be doing would be tantamount to destroying my child’s future.
There is nothing more scary to a single parent than to tell them they’re messing up the way everyone else is waiting for them to mess up. I was under incredible pressure to NOT pull her out from school. I spoke to friends who had grown up children, the same friends who complain about the schooling system in Malaysia. I talked to friends who had friends who migrated to give their child a better schooling elsewhere. I talked to school counsellors, both at my daughter’s schools and elsewhere. I talked to people who hated school, people who didn’t have that much trouble in school. I talked to both single and married university lecturers, working and middle-class folk, my daughter’s teachers who cared enough to ask about her. I pretty much put my market research field work experience to good use, collecting qualitative and quantitative data to mine in order to extract an informed decision from!
In the end I found a way to categorize the myriad of answers and opinions I was getting. I first decided, with all due respects, I had to exclude those people who don’t have their own children nor had experience raising their own children hands-on. That still left a lot of opinions to consider. Then I chose from those who complained more and those who complained less about schooling and life in general. I focussed on those who complained less and were more apolotical in general. I figured that people who complained less about things in general were simply people who are more enlightened, who have found more answers that thus gave them less reasons to complain in general.
And among those who complained less I looked at those who had a quality of life I desired for myself ; people who were comfortable with themselves, fulfilled, financially free, confident, calm, happy, composed, proactive, spirited, etc etc. When I was 21 I wrote myself a Master Law : Don’t listen to anyone on anything you don’t think they are a model of success in. – This doesn’t mean I don’t respect people’s opinions. It simply means that when I have to make a decision for myself, I should take into account how close to the ‘inner circle of effective information’ the source is.
I know people often give well-meaning advice out of their own hidden fears and doubts. I know a lot of people care for me and are worried for me and want to look out for me. But I cannot take advice from people who are saying things from a premise of fear or doubt because I learned earlier on that all decisions that are based on fear and doubt echoes back fear and doubt. I can only take advice from people who have used the same principles themselves and achieved the results I wanted to see in my own life. And in the end, I used that to find my way through the mass of opinions I had gathered.
So as you can see, the decision is a highly personal one and one that does not have a ‘deciding, 100%, confirmed, point.’ You simply need to arrive at a level where you feel you’re informed enough to make or not make a decision. I suppose it’s like marriage; no one can tell you whether this is going to be Mr. or Ms. Right for the rest of your life but it’s tepuk dada, tanya selera.
In the end parents shouldn’t see unschooling as a finale. There’s always affordable private schools and many more alternatives. If you live in Penang, I can give you leads on where to ask. Besides, schools take 13-15 years to teach what a young person can learn in under 2 years. We have a lot of time to waste in between.
I would like to stress that contrary to popular belief, you cannot possibly ‘fall behind’ in any significant or damaging way by taking a few years out of school. If anything, your child would most likely benefit. Do not underestimate the potential of the willing child to learn and do not overestimate the school’s or their teachers’ ability to teach. Trust me, if the school your child has been attending is really one of those rare schools where teachers live up to what we expect of them, you’d know and never even consider homeschooling in the first place!
Another reason why unschooling/homeschooling is such a highly personal choice is because the root of being a teacher/parent is the same thing : to look into ourselves, to reflect on our own learning and to be sensitive to the fact that intelligence manifests in each of us in these three ways : Diversity (multiple intelligence), Interaction (what we learn and how we learn is dynamic) and Creativity. When I say Creativity, I mean how each of our brain DECIDES to filter, absorb, create and expressmeaning from learning.
Somewhere throughout history, and I suspect it’s somewhere in the last 200-300 years, parents became separated from their role as teachers and teachers became separated from their role as light-bearers. Education became commodified and a state-controlled one at that. Teachers became well-meaning public servants. Even those who became teachers because they truly believed they could make a difference in the world end up finding themselves merely a number, an instrument, a dispoable one, in the machinery that churns out workers for Industrialism.
I don’t mean to preach but it is my personal opinion that choosing to not conform to the brokeness in society also means a necessity for a person to revert back to a spiritual consciousness where they reclaim their right as a whole-being, an intelligent being that is a bearer of both the light of love and knowledge. Discovering Jiddu Krishnamurthi’s words on Education opened a floodgate of emotions in me that I had kept locked for many years. In his talks on education, it reminded me so much of how I was as a student and the thousands of pages of writings I had made on arguments against schooling. I had spent more time in school writing diatribes about it than I did so-called “enjoying my time” as a student. I am surprised that in spite of my bipolar II and the tragedy of my mis-education I have turned out to be a perfectly functional and moral individual by my 30s. But perhaps it is the rebellion and refusal to accept the indoctrination that preserved my Light and morality. It seems to me, in retrospect, that the degree to which a person succumbs to the propaganda weaving school with happiness and security and success later in life is in direct relation to the degree of their cognitive dissonance and dysfunction as a human being.
But back thenI was only a child who eventually suffered from severe self-esteem issues in trying to defend my rights as a learner, I chose to forget everything that I was in order to ‘grow up’. To borrow from Si Tenggang’s Homecoming by Muhammad Haji Salleh, “The unschooling journey that I traversed is a journey of the soul“…….
So you see why I stress that choosing to unschool is such a highly personal choice. To me the decision eventually awakened my spiritual responsibility, forced me to reconcile the pains that made me borderline dysfunctional, made me live up to my innate potential as a storyteller and vessel of hope for young people. I began to have so much teaching energy after finally choosing. I felt myself expand, being more open to people who still choose to school their children. I felt myself being more capable of being honest when listening to young people who wanted to kill themselves because of schooling and parental pressures. Instead of simply being angry at schools or societal pressures on children or simplifying their depression by saying, “You’ll get over it”, I could offer them a sort of courage and strength that helps them see life differently even when things remained the same.
Each person will eventually arrive at their own logic or reason which drove them to do what they do. I’ve always been an advocate of fearlessness, freedom and joy. It’s just who I’ve always been and choosing to not conform now seems the most logical and rational thing for me to do. To be fearless is not about the total absence of fear and doubt, but to be able to eventually grow bigger than those fears and doubts and to decide based on higher qualities than them. I’m not able to do that in every aspect of my life, but I somehow could for my stand as a parent.
Because unschooling was also a part of my spiritual journey it eventually gave rise to an awareness that I had to stop being afraid of the Past, the Future and to remain in my Present and to deliberately Create – to be the Change I want to See in the World. I had to do that to be more able to see who I am. And in that, it made me more transparent in my understanding of my child, her nature and purpose in this world, as God intended.
One simple way of getting rid of our irrational fears is to notice that in no Holy Book did God/Yahweh/Allah/Christ declare : Thou shalt deliver thy children to government or private institutions of schoolig to become disposable resources supplying industries that greedily mine Earth’s bowels for Her resources. Thou shalt allow Industrialism and its Mistress; Authority, together with their spawn; Fear, to fool all of you to turn into Hungry Consumers worshipping a Material god.
It may or may not be helpful to you but it sure did all my fears away in one single breath! I arrived at almost perfect clarity when I realized, even if no one else gave me permission to do this, God did not forbid. So if it is not Haram nor even Makruh, I can do it. And I am only answerable to Him.
Did God ask that I protect and nurture my child? Yes. Did God allow me to feel the deep dysfunction and brokeness of schooling even when I was a student? Yes. Did God allow me to stir with these feelings that something is not right, that I have to go out and learn what it takes to understand that gnawing gut feeling? Yes. – All this talk about God and yet I am an Atheist. Replace the word God with any word you see fit. Unschooling is not the domain of religiosity.
One we get past the layers of conformity, fear and tradition and revert to ourselves, we will come to understand our role as a parent and the Yellow Brick Road unfolds itself. From understanding the Divine Duty as Parent, we will be able to get rid of our fears as Material Servants. We will start to see the Child as an embodiment of our Love, of God’s Love and God’s Will incarnate. We will understand our intentions and that our intentions to teach them are above what the elected government’s intentions will ever be. We will see with clarity the goals we want for ourselves, our children; we will examine our ambitions, our competitive attitudes, anxieties, stress, fears, insecurities – we will see the root of all those layers as they are. And when we do, all those questions that gave us tunnel vision will melt away.
I know what I’m saying is pretty presumptuous and preachy but thank goodness everyone understands that a blog entitles its owner to their own opinions.
When I decided to unschool my child, never did I imagine that the greatest gift would be the one to myself. The greatest reward was being able to reclaim my rightful relationship with her – to finally be able to see her as an embodiment of Love and Intelligence instead of all my fears projected unto her.
In the beginning, it was all about my dissatisfaction with my own schooling, with schools at large, with the standards, social problems, government, etc. My own fears about being a ‘failure’ in life, failure to launch. The ‘failure’ as a parent was a subconscius presence that dominated and drove many of my beliefs and intentions before. Without realizing it, I was projecting all my unfulfilled potential unto my child, relying on her to be an extension of life, a life that I believed had passed me by. I had become so insecure and afraid of myself that I had shut that out of my consciousness completely and projecting them unto my child. How unfair to her! I was trying to live through her, to see in her all the things I could not be, to make her not be the sum of all the mistakes I see in myself.
On the day I signed the letter to take her out of school, I was still full of the fears and doubts about whether I’d be able to prepare for exams and uni and this and that. I was still very worried about being “Mom Failure No.1”. I was worried about whether I would always be financially able to give her a life where she did not have to be without, education and social wise. I was at my wits’ end wondering if I’d ever be able to customize the perfect curriculum to ‘maximize her potential’. I worried about how my work schedule and my easygoing nature was going to work around giving her a ‘structured life’ and ‘routine’.
In the end, I realized, emak borek, anak rintik. I cannot dictate a routine or schedule that is not ‘me’. Children pick up the habits, lifestyles and behaviour of the adults in their life. I quit being who I wasn’t and leveraged on what made me an effective adult thus far. I eventually allowed her to slack as much as she wanted because I remembered how it was like after SPM. It was during that period that I couldn’t believe that I could actually get bored from complete inertia. Guess what! She eventually complained she NEEDED to create a routine for herself, she REALIZED “Mum, I need to have goals.”
I raised her using the only tools I really have : Honesty and Integrity. I work with young people enough to know that they have an uncanny ability to see right through adults. I knew I did when I was a young person! I didn’t try to make her do things I wasn’t very good at myself which eventually got her complaining about how imperfect I am. She complained that I’m not like Bree Van Der Kemp (Bree Hodge) and Martha Stewart rolled into one. She said I’m not ‘a perfect mom’. What’s funny was that once I became OK with myself, I became OK with being seen as not perfect. I realized I had caused so much conflict in our relationship before because I was trying to make her think I’m perfect, even when I’m wrong. And in doing so, she started feeling like there was everything wrong with her because she couldn’t be perfect enough for me.
In giving up trying to be perfect for each other we both became more honest, respectful and supportive of each other. It’s still a work in progress but I wouldn’t trade what we have now for what we had then. The new level of the relationship I’m sharing with my only child is more meaningful to me than any dime a dozen university degree or ‘job’. And along with this paradigm shift was the realization that I don’t even want my daughter to have a job anymore. I’m learning financial intelligence and investment so my daughter will become an entrepreneur and investor, not a worker. Imagine, if I had continued to kill myself over a sense of being a failure to launch in my life and career, I’d never be able to try and learn something new to help my daughter. And she’s taken to the idea very, very well. She has been admiring Martha Stewart since she was 5 and I couldn’t see the attraction in that. When she was about 7 or 8 she asked me how Martha Stewart ended up in jail. But now I realize her fascination; it’s part of her blueprint that being a domestic goddess, boss and investor is one and the same thing. The reason I never saw this before was because I am completely uninterested in domestic life and was more an ‘academic sort’ and took it for granted that that’s going to be her blueprint for life too. The miracle that stopping to try creates!
She asks me like clockwork, every few months, about how Oprah and Martha and JK Rowling make their fortunes. She asks me the difference between criminals and Martha Stewart. I had to tell her it’s about taxes and stuff. She said she’s going to learn about how taxes work to avoid going to jail for tax evasions! And here I am, grumbling about how mah-fan filing taxes is while my 11-year-old is already having an end in mind. She asks me if people can make money without working so damn hard and just do what they love. And because she asks me these questions I have to go out and magnetize all this information to me so I can digest them for her.
Like I said, I only had Honesty and Integrity as tools. I couldn’t teach her anything domestic at all except grocery shopping. I suppose that’s why she writes me Father’s Day cards as well, I’m like the father who uses money to solve all problems. Buy, buy and buy. Kau-tim til next time.
Since I’m a domestic pariah, I told her to go watch her grandfather cook. He does on an almost daily basis. She reports that her grandfather is more of a mad scientist than a cook. But she’s learned gardening and sorting spices and herbs and pounding this and that and preserving and marinading this and that, etc. And I asked her grandmother to teach her needlework.
I teach her Economics and lecture to her about Finance. Last night, we were at a mamak and I was reading a financial magazine I had picked up. I then illustrated to her the story of subprime loans, an article which was in there. I also showed her an article about how to invest in gold because I’d picked up some brochures from Public Bank and she had asked how buying gold works. Things like that.
I know, it’s a little crazy, but that’s from the premise of Integrity and Honesty. We can only teach them from things which we are ourselves, “we” meaning the adults in children’s lives. From different friends of mine she learns different things, such as, why one friend of mine is perpetually attracting mentally unstable acquaintances into her life! At her age, she figured out that it’s only helpful to be nice as long as we don’t become suckers because after that, we suffer the consequences of being afraid to draw the line between what we find acceptable or otherwise.
My life has gotten pretty exciting and more adventurous now that I don’t have that dreary routine of sending her to an intellectual and creative prison every morning. I make effort to be more Honest and to have more Integrity as a person because I see how directly relevant that is in becoming a Highly Effective adult, role-model in her life. I don’t know if I get it easier or harder, being a single parent. It’s easier in the sense that my invisible spouse seems to agree and support every decision I make. You can only imagine in what sense things may become harder.
What’s our typical day like now? Conflicts don’t carry over time. Do we get tired of spending time with each other? All individuals need their own space sometimes. The important thing is, we’re there for each other once we start to miss each other. Is she learning above and beyond her peers? I don’t really care anymore. If I want a PhD in the family, then I’d better be that change I want to see. After all, learning is a journey, not a competition for status. And learning happens best without competition and fear. And how’s her behaviour and self-directedness? Improved by leaps and bounds.
The last thing I had expected when I unschooled her was for her to become more responsible, mature and independent. I (used to) live with my aunt (my daughter’s Grandmother 2) and my aunt is perpetually worried about my lack of concern with domestic duties and career regularity. (Not anymore. Today, she is one of my biggest fans.) To some onlookers, I seem like I have no direction or purpose in life and I admit, their opinions about me affect me sometimes and I’m constantly worried about what sort of role-model am I to my daughter. But maybe somewhere in me I am a responsible, mature and independent person. Maybe not in my domestic duties and race for social prestige…..
She does the laundry……….when it suits her. She helps me clean my office and home. She takes pretty good care of the cats. She now knows what to do during domestic emergencies. She’s grown in confidence. She spends a great deal of time reading.
I suppose a child with different influences will find different ways to express what they need for their being to flourish. It’s a happy coincidence that she turned out to be a reader (didn’t send her to any programmes, she started kindy only at age 6) because it has made parenting for me so much more convenient. I don’t mind spending thousands of dollars on books. But I’m really sakit when she asks for $50 for art equipment. I remember how it was when I was a child; I didn’t get books because my guardian thinks books are a waste of money. It made me realize that how we choose to spend money on things that matter to our child has a lot to do with who we are ourselves. I admit it’s really difficult for me to do things like take her to parks, sending her for camps, going with her on field trips, etc. She thinks Nature is FUN! Nature is nice but can somebody airlift me and just drop me at the waiting point?
I do feel bad about a lot of things I cannot be for her. It doesn’t help that everyone else in my family is as much of an outdoor slob as I am. She likes swimming, not me. She likes hiking! I’d rather read an entire set of encycloepedia Brittanica than go hiking! She likes visits to butterfly park and anything that has lots of nature, the beach, hills, forest. But Mommy’s a mall-rat. Thea hates the mall. She likes cooking, baking, gardening and painting. I can even kill a cactus. I’ve tried buying plants several times but each time Thea doesn’t visit the office for some time, they die. I’m pure vegetation assassin.
I found myself wanting to buy her a bread-maker to not feel so guilty. Again, using money to solve problems. She said she didn’t want one coz it would make the bread hard in the middle. Is that true? I don’t know…..not like I bake. I tried compensating for not bringing her to the parks enough by asking her to like a pair of Rollerblades. Since they cost like RM1,000, that should keep my guilt at bay for a few months. She refused them! She gets angry at me and says I never listen to her! How not true! I’m trying to listen to her by negotiating a different choice for her. I know how much she likes parks. With a pair of rollerblades we can pretend the mall is a park too, right?
I asked if she’d like a PSP. Sigh. No. I bought her seasons and seasons’ worth of Pokemon and any Japanese animation on offer. Since Pokemon is Japanese animation, any type of Japanese animation would do too, right? And if they’re on offer, that sweetens the deal. Apparently not. She says my taste in Japanese animation is horrible. I asked if she’d be interested in foreign indie films instead; she says I don’t listen. How is that? Japanese animation is foreign, indie films are like animated shows too – they have a storyline and their characters speak in a tongue we don’t understand.
Recently, she asked to be enrolled in an art class. So every Friday, I sit for 2 hours at a Starbucks cafe waiting for her to do her ‘art’ a few floors up. I bought her a folder to keep her art pieces, not because I’ve become more supportive but because I cannot bear to see her art pieces lying around the house. Anything that indicated she had a ‘artist’ side triggered a great uneasiness in me. I bought ‘her’ a nice piano which she liked merely as a furniture piece. I asked if she’d like a Clavinova instead? She told me to get it for myself. One day, I accidentally said out loud that, “I’d die if you became an artist. I really wished you didn’t like art and liked playing music instead.”
Instead of being angry at me, she laughed at me. This wouldn’t have happened a year ago. 2 years ago, I used to threaten her with the cane so she could get her major scales right. But why is Mommy like this, actually? So Mommy learned the piano instead.
So why does Mommy hate the idea of her being an artist so much? Following her lead, I revisited another ‘bad memory’ from my past. I bought myself a sketch pad and borrowed her brushes and paints. I know why I hated art : because my teachers told me I was bad at it. My art has a very psychedelic element to it and Thea thought it was nice. But I said, Mommy’s art teachers said I was stupid because I was too colorful and I represented feelings in symbols and ambient contours and lines, not the way they wanted, to scale and with correct lighting, color and perspective.
So that’s how our journey had turned out to be – we just let learning and things evolve. I let her own interest unfold and show me the way but I need to give her enough breathing space and time to arrive at one. I have to be aware of and resist my own prejudices and ambitions. We just trust in the invisible hand that Love invites into our live, to guide us. We just do our best and trust in God because there are just too many things in life that cause struggle and misery. I don’t want parenting and love to be one of them.
So this has been the story of my unschooling journey. I’ve decided to make my choices simplere by just trusting God and trusting His reason for giving me this Child.