By Brooke Cowley
When I started home education (fifteen years ago) I used to dread being asked the *S Question*. You know, “How will your kids learn to socialise if they don’t get to go to school?” I dreaded it because I found that if I had time (and the inclination) I used to launch into a positively soap-box worthy rant explaining that the social skills we claim to want our children to possess such as compassion, empathy, honesty, co-cooperativeness etc are not encouraged at school far less modelled and in fact way too often children at school see that bullies often do get their own way, making fun of someone else can assure you of being popular (well at least, more popular than the kid you are mocking) and that fierce competition both on the sports field and the classroom is the norm.
By the time I had finished my rant my questioner was often left looking rather stunned and visibly regretting having incurred my polemic. If on the other hand, I was short of time and feeling harried (a more usual state for the single mother of four homeschooling children under 10) I tended to snap *I would rather my kids were civilised than socialised* and take myself off dragging the children like ducklings in my wake.
Over time though I did become both less harried and less defensive and these days can usually be counted on for a rather more leisurely and two-way discussion about socialisation, how we acquire those skills and how we decide what constitutes being socialised. I feel more secure now and more benign in my attitude to people who really are just curious.
So – as my children entered adolescence I felt that all was going rather swimmingly in my little home-schooling world! I had gained confidence and therefore was more open to suggestions and advice, my children could all read and write (at least passably) and none of them showed signs of becoming anti-social pariahs. Time to breathe out and allow myself the first very tentative pat on the back for a job well done.
And then …..it happened. A well-meaning relative asked one of my kids *So what do you do all day?” and the child limply replied “Nothing really. We are home-schooled.”
I assumed that said child was feeling a bit tired of answering questions about home-schooling and had chosen this answer to render any further interrogation obsolete. Fair enough! But then it happened again….and again…..
Any one asking my kids what they did all day could not be blamed for assuming they sat on the floor of their unfurnished house staring blankly at the walls in total silence while I lay on the couch watching talk shows in my dressing gown all day!
Driving home after yet another such incident where a family friend, the Principal of a highly thought of Catholic school in Melbourne had again been told “We don’t really do anything all day. Mum homeschools us.” I confess………. I lost my temper.
“But darling,* I said through gritted teeth “What do you mean we don’t do anything? You had piano lessons and then we took your sister to her dance classes and then we visited your friends for two hours and then we picked up your brother and went to drop your other sister off at horse-riding classes and then we went to the pools with Dad for the afternoon.”
“Yes,” was the apathetic response “but we don’t do anything EXCITING!”
My first response was to think of things we could do that my spoilt little angels would consider exciting but frankly short of heading to the Gold Coast to the Theme Parks every weekend and letting them all attend R18 concerts every Friday I really couldn’t seem to find anything that was both parentally acceptable and teenager deemed *exciting*
Now I simply rush to explain while smiling maniacally “Well the kids don’t consider the things we do exciting because they take them for granted but really we do actually do LOTS of things – that’s the beauty of home-schooling – all the freedom to pursue individual interests and activities!”
Perhaps it is a mixture of two different thoughts. One is that the kids do consider themselves to be just living their lives and that no one activity is any more *special* or noteworthy than another. For example, watching a litter of kittens being born is just as normal and *non-exciting* as building a model of an atom or spending the day curled up watching TV. Whereas for school-children often what stands out for them in the day is the one event that was *unusual* perhaps a sports day or an excursion somewhere etc.
Perhaps the other element at play here is that when people ask the children *What did you do all day?* more often than not they really mean *What educational academic activities did you do?* and unschoolers in particular simply do not differentiate between academic subjects and anything else they do. I firmly believe that a child playing Runescape on his computer for three hours is learning just as validly as another student who is poring over an algebra textbook and they are both learning to the same extent that their older sister who is babysitting a neighbours’ 15 month old is learning!
So…. I took a deep breath, re-read John Holt and John Taylor Gatto and a few other more radical unschoolers’ books and after convincing myself that we really did do quite a lot of things and the children were not living their days in a completely barren, unstimulating environment I relaxed again. Silly me!
My oldest daughter entered a competition where she had to both deliver a speech in a public forum and write an essay. One of the judges commented on how well-read she was and how beautifully written her essay was. Ashley smiled and looked gracious. The judge then asked *Where did you learn to write so well?” I could feel my chest puff with pride as I waited to hear a glowing ode to her mother – her teacher who taught her to love books by reading to her every single night from her birth until she was eight years old, who sat with her for hours listening to her painfully slow renditions of “This is a cat. This is a mat. The cat is on the mat. See the cat on the mat? The cat is a fat cat.” Her mother who helped her learn to read by painstakingly cutting out every letter of the alphabet in different textured sandpaper so she could run her finger along it while she practised saying the sounds (full body learning, yeah?) and who had been there every step of the way from Hairy Maclarey to The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe…….
Ashley gave the judge a radiant smile sand said “Well nobody really. I basically taught myself.”
My husband commented afterwards that I looked at that moment rather as though I had been slapped in the face with a fish that had been dead for a week.
Taught herself? Taught HERSELF??? Homeschooling my kids was my life! I had endured hours and hours of interrogation from relatives, friends, total strangers and outraged teachers, days of soul-searching, weeks of researching and months of reading everything I could about education styles and learning styles and educational models. I had attended every conference within a three hundred mile radius on home-schooling and travelled every week via bus, ferry and then another bus to get my children to the only home-schoolers’ support group anywhere near us for two years so that they would make friends with other home-educated kids and now, at the penultimate moment – she announces “She did it all herself!”
Luckily I was so gob-smacked that I was unable to question her further but after a few days had passed I casually posited to her that I had played perhaps rather a vital role in her learning to read. Whereupon she looked at me and said lovingly *Mmmmmmmmmmmmm I suppose so but basically I taught myself. Just like the other kids did!*
Oh no! This skewed view of my life’s work was held by the three other ingrates who shared my home? Surely not?
While speed-reading and then highlighting various articles in newspapers and magazines to help my Year Ten Studying son complete his TAFE assignments, I asked my beloved boy if he thought I had helped him learn to do anything. He gave me a gorgeous smile, took the sheaf of articles out of my hand and said *Well I guess you explained stuff to me but I basically learnt it all.*
Reeling now I staggered into the bedroom of my creative and artistic daughter who is a voracious reader and asked her if I had been of any assistance, no matter how small, in teaching her to read or write. She looked up from her latest Elizabeth Berg book (that I had recommended!!) and said dreamily *Maybe. I don’t really remember.* On seeing my crestfallen face, she added sweetly *You probably did though.* and disappeared back into her book.
I sat down in the living room thinking that perhaps I had just been some sort of mute bystander all these years in the lives of the people I cared most about. Could it be that I would be remembered in years to come as a shadowy presence in their lives as they manfully learnt to translate the alphabet into phonetic symbols and discovered the mysteries of algebra with nothing to guide them but their own unerring nose for knowledge?
As I sat there, lost in thought, my 11 year old came up to me and I listlessly asked her who had taught her to read and she answered “You did!” I looked into her beautiful beaming face and hugged her to me. *Really, sweetie?* I asked *You really remember me teaching you?”
*Of course you did,* she said twining her arms around my neck *everyone else was too busy!*
Brooke Cowley is a radical Unschooler who has been happily, messily and gloriously unschooling her four children for the past 20 years. Her children are all unashamedly auto-didacts!!
From Otherways 122
Illustration by Steve Parsons