Whole Life Learning: When Do Kids Need Friends?


“They were dragging out sentences with lots of stuttering and trying to remember details. They were so nervous when they had to recall the facts. They were looking away, moving around a lot, repeating the same things over and over in incomplete sentences, and it was hard to understand what they were saying.”

“Isn’t it funny how the school stereotype is that it imparts socialization when the kids’ social skills in general are so awkward? When the [adult] asks a child who won’t stop talking and interrupting the kids who are answering, they continue to do it even more.”

That was Sean’s perspective about what he noticed about the school kids when asked to talk about what they learned (in school) today at the Y’s after school program.

They were playing a game, and they had to answer the question to be a leader. He wanted to choose a team, so he raised his hand.

I asked him what he said when they asked him what he had learned, today. He told them he learned about…


I nearly split my gut.

It was a few weeks back that he learned about telomeres in a MatPat video on YouTube. I wrote about this in a blog post, but never published it because I can’t seem to finish blog posts these days.

Except for this one. I have literally 39 different drafts from my many months hiatus about everything from our recent separation from his Dad, compassion, frugality, and numerous Whole Life Learning topics, but somehow this particular would-be-Facebook-post made it to the blogosphere.

Anyway… I have this response when he zips out humdingers like the topic of telomeres. Genuinely amazed, I say, What nine-year-old in school learns about telomeres? I add as a side note to my mother-of-an-unschooler self, What nine-year-old also applies such knowledge in personally meaningful ways to real life?

He was able to relate that telomeres pertain to your DNA and health and how over time your lifestyle can destroy the tips of your chromosomes (which are in fact the actual telomeres). He was never tested on this information. He learned it of his own interest and free will, and retained it and applied it, meaningfully.

We spontaneously high-fived each other as I burst out laughing upon hearing that he relied upon that particular example, because it wasn’t lost on him how he’d humorously adapted to the situation when faced with that arbitrary question, and how in his every day life he represents radical unschooling.

Believe me, he’s in no way perfect, but he is truly authentic, and aware of the differences in how he self directs his own learning (more truthfully, his own “living”) every single day compared with the process kids in school endure being overly scheduled, trained to the test, coerced, and herded. He also fully gets that while they are in school, there is very little to any actual socialization.

He has control over where his attention goes, whether it is a rabbit hole of discovery or total vegging out. He has never been punished by his parents (disappointment is a fact of life, and does happen, naturally), experiences empathy from his family when things don’t work out, and his voice is equal to that of adults. He has not been shielded from media or adult discussions. He’s been given the freedom to develop discernment and critical thinking.

Aside from this, he’s having a blast forming a “posse” (his term) with some of the kids who are also in Martial Arts and go to the Y program, and some of their other friends. He picked them to be on his team for the aforementioned game at the Y, but he also judiciously chose other kids he didn’t know. Our town is very small – under 5K – so forming a sense of community is in many ways more essential than in larger cities. As a Radical Unschooling family, we are also under the microscope in such a small town. He’s watched his parents model how to operate in such groups and puts that knowledge to good use.

At an age and developmentally appropriate time he has formed a group of friends to bond with, but that certainly doesn’t exclude the Whole Life Learning friends he has bonded with long distance through gaming and Skype. He’s also not the only “homeschooler” at the Y, so some kids he knows already from occasional homeschool group activities, but he hasn’t really bonded as much with them as he has with the kids from the Dojo. The only child he really felt close to from the homeschool group moved out-of-state last year.

Of note here is that often unschooling or homeschooling parents worry if their kids aren’t making friends at three and four years old. Even though we know from those who have experience that there is no hurry, we often compare ourselves to conventional settings and wonder if we are on the right path when we are first starting out in this lifestyle. I feel like a veteran now, and I sometimes find myself in unschooling groups, telling moms not to worry.

Childhood isn’t a race. Every kid is different. The homogeneity of School isn’t a framework for determining what is right or desirable for childhood development, by any means. The comparisons are a waste of energy that could be spent soaking in the spectacular and affirming (and healing) dynamics of a child free to grow at their own, individual pace.

We’ve moved a lot. Sean has never really formed a lot of meaningful friendships along the way – he’s been close to his unschooling friends who live out-of-state, and he’s been forming friendships with other long distance whole life learners with whom we’ve been connected over time. He’s tended towards one-on-one relationships until now.

One such friend started branching out in the last year and she is a few months older than Sean. In some ways, her doing so stung a little, as he realized he might not be her only best friend. They are close still, and I hope they remain so long-term, but she’s also gravitating towards groups of girl friends.

I kind of think that led to him internalizing some of his own desires to become part of something more complex and dynamic. He started wanting to get to the Dojo early to play hide and seek before class with the other boys. Then, he decided he wanted to try the Y program. He went from having only one-to-one relationships to suddenly having his self-designated posse, that at the Y, includes one or two girls as well as the boys. He noted that the posse has no leader, everyone is equal.

Throughout his childhood, I’ve always been his best friend, by both intention and default. But, now, he’s stretching his legs. He hasn’t had pressure to form close bonds with a lot of kids in a group dynamic. But, the time is right for him, and he has reached out all on his own, independently. He had a need and set out by his own initiative to get it met. Because that’s how Whole Life Learners live. That’s how they learn traditional things like math and reading in untraditional ways that stick and serve them well. It’s how they decide their preferences, tastes, and inclinations. There never has been any actual need to set up play dates, to compare, or to fret.

I never had a posse growing up. School and parochialism insured that I was too insecure for more than one or two friends at a time, and while I could mingle if necessary, I generally remained quiet on the fringes, attaching desperately to the few. As an adult, I’ve embraced my introverted tendencies and really like being by myself much of the time, but there is a stark difference between how I’ve reconciled my own self reliance, and the independent and interdependent child before me.

Even though his mother can be socially awkward and blunt, and many days hates to even human, he is putting himself out there and giving me a glimpse of how this is going to look down the road.

Whole Life Learning provides everything a child needs to live in the adult world without the conditioning that thwarts authenticity. I am so incredibly proud of him, and so excited for the stories he brings back home to share with me. I still miss the three-year-old, the afternoons of Little Bear on TV, and all of the baby talk. But, when in essence, you’ve never left your kid’s side since birth, letting go as he practices using his wings to experience the dynamic of community on his own terms is in no way bitter-sweet. It is just damn sweet.


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