Whole Life Learning: When Do Kids Need Friends?

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“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…

Telomeres.

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.

You know who his best pal has been up to now? His Mom. 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.

Building Understanding Instead of Fearing Outsiders In Radical Unschooling

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It is the conversation many home schoolers dread.

What if the school board looks you up and wants to investigate what your day truly looks like? What if they needle your child?

When we first moved here just over three years ago, Sean was 6. That fall, he would turn 7, and we would need to write our letter of intent to home school for our district, per our state law.

We had chosen unschooling – radical unschooling at that, by the time he turned 5. It was a natural and seamless transition from the responsive, attachment parenting and mindfulness he’d experienced since birth.

The fall that Sean turned 7, a casual discussion with a writer (newspaper staff) at a Lego activity led to a front page spread about our family’s chosen lifestyle. It was both exciting and scary – putting ourselves out there in a public manner, telling the general public about our unorthodox strategies for raising our child in whole life learning. The article later won an award for that writer.

To my knowledge, we are still the only radical unschooling family in our town, and as far as I’ve been able to discern, we are the only truly unschooling family here as well.

That newspaper article was like riding a bike for the first time. It led to an increased openness about “what we do” with our child across personal and social perspectives.

Later that fall, I met one of our district’s school board members who had read the article. She wanted to know whether or not we really used curriculum. I responded to the question as an opportunity to build a bridge for understanding. I figured this would be a somewhat daunting task, as she was also a veteran teacher of 30+ years.

I picked up on her questions as being based in a combination of conditioned expectations and genuine, well-intentioned concern for all the poor little home schoolers who lacked socialization, or worse, were being kept at home in isolation for the sake of religious indoctrination.

I did my best to offer perspective, but it was a limited conversation. I later fantasized about a conversation with the school board to eliminate fears and stereotypes, but then I second-guessed whether this would be fruitful, or harmful to my family, personally.

Throughout our residency here, I’ve had several fly by conversations – run ins – with the same school board member. This is a small town. But, these contacts were never expansive enough to lengthen the bridge.

Now, Sean is 9 going on 13 with his YouTube and gaming fan boy attire and decided interests that decorate his identity. He holds his own in just about any adult conversation and inserts his fact-based knowledge into our days at random turns that continue to blow me away.

Just today, he asked me when our home was built. I told him it was built around 1938. He replied that it was built just before WWII. OK then. I had to google. My only knowledge about WWII relates to the year 1942. I have a Master’s Degree. I was public and parochial schooled. I should know these dates, right?

Google tells me that WWII is associated with the year 1939. How did he know this, better yet, how did he retain this information? I really wish I could convey what I’ve learned about this phenomena to the school board members, so that they might see that intrinsically gained knowledge wins in application and retention over extrinsically fed facts-for-the-test.

Alas, we had an opportunity to stretch the connection tonight. We ran into this same school board member at a social engagement, where she (once again) asked what grade Sean is in. This time, he spoke up before I could answer to say that he is unschooled. She said that she knew that much, but what grade would he be in right now?

This is always a tough one – I have to stop and think about it because we never really focus on what grade he would or should be in. So much of what he does or knows is high school or college level, his practical knowledge prepares him for the real world in ways kids in school can’t possibly experience, and in other ways he is behind his cohorts according to comparative measures. The answer is third grade.

She peppered him with questions…

What curriculum are you using? I just learn on my own.
Are you working on a science project right now? No.
What are you doing for (insert subject)? I learn from whatever I’m doing.
Do you take any tests? No.
How do you show what you’ve learned? I usually just tell my mom. (I loved that answer.)

Later, I asked how he felt being questioned that way. He said, he just figured “she was from a different generation.” I asked if it bothered him. It didn’t. He was perfectly confident, not put off, and did not feel threatened by the questions. Nine years of freedom has provided him with discernment and confidence.

As our friend (and truly, she is a very likeable, genuine acquaintance who always inquires as to our well-being), the school board member got pulled away to other conversation, I sought out an opportunity to carry things further. I was finally able to ask her if she would like to hear more about what we do, because I wish the board had some understanding for how we do things.

We had a fruitful conversation that involved what a typical day entails for us. We live our lives, facilitate his interests, go about our business, try to incorporate fun things when we can like adventures to museums or trips, such as our recent trips to Chicago and Denver.

I explained in great detail how he’d literally taught himself math and how he applies the higher concepts, how he absorbs constant historical knowledge, and how he has developed discernment and maturity beyond that of his peers in school.

She had already heard about his martial arts activities from his Dad, and the only other activities going on right now are related to our homeschool group meetups (swimming, and the monthly museum program).

We talked about the attention he receives, and the difficulty teachers have in reaching every student in a homogenous cohort, and how public schooling is a confluence of so many arbitrary factors like legislation, budgets, and standardized testing. She asked me more questions –

Aren’t you afraid of any gaps? No! He can fill in any gaps the same way we do as adults when we need to learn something.

How will he go to college? Will he go to college? He will take the ACT if necessary. Right now he wants to major in computers, if he goes to college. (I told her about the Sudbury Democratic School and its 40-year history with students picking up ACT math in weeks without issue).

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to explain how unschoolers are sought by colleges for their self-directed learning styles, and maturity. I also didn’t get to describe how many unschoolers become entrepreneurs or otherwise cultivate livelihoods from their passions.

As mingling once again interrupted the flow of our discussion, I found her a final time before we left. As she always offers a heartfelt hug, I offered back that if she ever has any questions for me about what we do, or if the board has questions, I am more than happy to talk about it.