Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Can I go to school?" When homeschooled children asks to go to school...

by Beverley Paine

Today a friend was faced with a question that many of us dread: her child asking to go to school. This frequently happens when children are aged between 7 and 10, or at age 13. In this case the parent was against the idea but wanted to respect her child's choice. I know how she feels. Being a passionate advocate of home education there is no way I'd want to compromise my child's educational opportunities and development by enrolling her in school!

All we can do is talk about our fears and concerns and worries with our children as honestly and openly as we can without seeking to manipulate or guide their thoughts. That's hard. But if we preface our conversations with "this is my opinion, this is how I feel, I'm sharing my thoughts  and I don't expect you to do or think anything in response, just listen" it does a long way to removing that sense of obligation we all have as people to meet other people's needs, help them feel okay or do things we'd rather not to please them or seek their approval.

That's the natural learning/unschooling answer to the question.

As a homeschooler I was still learning to trust myself and my children. I understood the concept of natural learning but I had not yet re-grown the trust I needed to fully understand it. That was a long slow process.

Control is an illusion but it is one we cling to tenaciously in life. And that's okay. We need to feel in control so that we can learn and grow - we need to feel that we can master skills, actions, thoughts, 'be' and 'do' in the world. A sense of control is a stepping stone in the game of learning. Clinging onto the stepping stones instead of the lesson is where we go astray. And we're taught to cling on to control through reward and punishment and competition and fear, especially at school.

When the question of trying or going to school came up in our home I was lucky enough to be a position where I could attend all day every day with my child. We enrolled in an 'alternative' class set up on democratic principles with an emphasis on parent participation, where the teacher was a huge fan of John Holt. School became a second home for our family for eighteen months. But it was still school. It was still an educational compromise. It was still institutionalised education. And it was a lot of effort -- much more than homeschooling. In a way though, it was homeschool-at-school. I was there, doing what I did at home, attending to my children's needs (and the needs of lots of other people too!)

Our children don't have someone who loves them attending to their developmental, emotional and educational needs when they attend school. There are no parents at school, only teachers and staff members. And if parents are present they are thin on the ground and can't be attending to the needs of all the children all the time. That's the key to the success of home education. It's not the quality of our learning programs or the resources we use. It's our love and our attention, our desire for our children to be successful in what they need and want to do, to be safe and well all the time. We invest considerable emotional energy in our children: other people can like our children and care for them but at the end of the day they go home and think about something else.

School is a compromise. Compromise works. It's okay. Because we and they know that our children can come home and homeschool or unschool at any time, school for our children is experienced differently from other children. The coercion and competition is less effective on them. Reward and punishment only work if our children are willing to go along with it. Home education empowers individuals because it offers choice. Choice involves responsibility.

And that's how I looked at the question of going to school when our daughter was thinking of attending high school at the age of 13. It wasn't just a matter of her going to school. It would effect how life unfolded everyday for the whole family. Meeting her needs and desires had consequences for other people. Her choice entailed responsibility to work with others to meet their needs as they worked with her to meet hers. For me this meant making sure she understood the responsibility and consequences of going to school. Because of the disruption to the rest of the family her going to school would mean, we agreed that she could go, but that she needed to put effort into giving a reasonable go. We talked about not only the disruption to her family but also the teacher and the class: the effects of having a new student arrive and stay only a couple of days (which we'd both experienced and understood from our days in the alternative class).

I wish I could say I handled the situation perfectly without coercion or blaming or manipulating or being pushy with my values and beliefs and opinions. I wish I could say I was fair and respectful of her needs and feelings. But we did have enough open and honest conversations and although I never really approved of the idea of her going to school she knew she had my support. She knew that we'd do anything to help her meet her needs. It wasn't up to me to determine what those needs are - that was her developmental journey. My job was to be attentive, identify them and help her find ways to meet them, support her in that process. 

Home educated children want to give school a try - it's novel, it's different and all the other kids are doing it. However, I don't think that isn't an appropriate reason for doing anything. The questions that need to be answered is "will going to school meet my child's needs?" and if so, "can those needs be met any other way?". If not then all we can do as parents is support our children as they journey through and experience school.


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