02 June 2010

Un-Schooling - Child-Centered or Parental Laziness?

A few days ago over at In the Parenthood, Lylah M. Alphonse asks us, "Would you support your teen's decision to drop out of high school?" Most of the answers in the comment section were predictable - parents stating that they'd drag their child kicking and screaming if necessary;  that anyone who lets their kid do this is trying to be cool, hip, a friend and is, therefore, a bad parent.

I take a slightly different view because, frankly, in spite of my parents very best efforts, I was a wayward child and no amount of punishment, discipline, dragging (kicking and screaming inncluded), or other more serious efforts could curb my desire to live life on my terms, in my way. So, I support a parent who realizes that ultimately, there comes a time in a child's life when the parent has exhausted all available options except for prison (which seems a wee bit extreme here...) and it may be easier to support their child in their endeavors than fighting them tooth and nail.

But this afternoon, I came across a flipside to this coin: Un-schooling. At first blush (a light, grazing, almost non-existent blush at that), un-schooling seems to be an interesting method of exposing your children to the world. No cirriculum, no tests, child-driven learning through-and-through....a little like Montessori on serious steroids. Except, after reading more in depth and checking out this Nightline article where an un-schooler and her family were observed at "work", I had some serious questions about the veracity of this "radical, new school of thought".

My first question was, Didn't this philosophy die in the late 1990's? And if not, WHY?

While I don't trust the integrity of many news media sources, I have to admit that I believe that these kids are probably under-par when compared with other kids their own age in reading, math, and science - and I also believe that they're the sort of kids that other people post about as being "horrible brats" when they experience them in public places. These parents definitely struck me as really just being too lazy to enforce any sort of structure in these kids lives and not actually interested in doing what's best and right for their kids.

In thinking back, in spite of my wayward youth, I managed to keep myself out of serious trouble and on par with others my age as I grew simply because of the structure and discipline I had already been exposed to before I left home. I always, when making difficult decisions where one choice would have led me down a bad path, had this vision of my parents being sorely disappointed. Not angry, which would have been easy to deal with, but just disappointed and saddened by my own idiocy. That was perhaps the most important guiding light I have had to this day and I wouldn't have had it without that structure, those rules, the discipline and subsequent enforcement.

Let's face it - if I had been allowed to make my own decisions on every matter at age 2, 4, 5, or 10, I'd have been the most sleep deprived, sugar addled, fat, lazy child known to human-kind. Instead, my parents regulated what I ate, kicked me outside to play, enforced bedtime and TV viewing...but most importantly, thought about my future.

The most disturbing quote in the Nightline article (and there were so many to choose from!), in my mind, was this: "Martin said that she has "such a present-based mindset" that she doesn't think about her kids futures, and that she just wants them to be happy."

I don't know about you, but I am always thinking about my daughter's future. It impacts the choices I make in the military and at home. It also directly impacts her. I think of her future in education and am looking in to the best schools around (that we can afford) for her. I think of her future health and limit her sugar intake pretty significantly, along with bad fats and other junk food. I think of her physical needs and her physically demanding day and enforce a 7:30 p.m. bedtime during the week because she gets up earlier than most. Along those lines, we enforce routine doctor's visits and take her when she's sick (given my own choice at her age, I wouldn't have seen the doctor. Ever). I think of her safety and don't let her put pennies in the outlets or juggle knives, even though I know for a fact she really, really wants to and that would make her happy up until the moment it made her hurt.

In spite of all of this apparently cruel and unusual structure that must be stifling her, her teachers tell me that she's so very happy. Strangers on the street who meet her comment on how happy she is. Friends and family note the same. We see it too, in the easy way she laughs and the way she's now intentionally trying to make us laugh. We see it in the way that she loves and even in the way that she contentedly cares for, and plays with her favorite animals and dolls.

I realize that this un-school of thought is extreme and if only about 150,000 families are openly practicing and advocating it nationally, it's not even a drop in the parenting philosophy bucket. Nevertheless, as someone who will not say "No" when there's just no real good reason to, I can't see how this helps our children along the road of life, or even begins to prepare them for the world. There's also a part of me that nastily hopes that families like the Martins of Madison, NH keep their children close at home for all the rest of their days and don't inflict them on us as ill behaved as it sounds they may be - and as certainly as ill-prepared for dealing with anything in life that they surely will be.

It is a fine line and at it's surface, seems a bit hypocritical of me to say given my thoughts on letting children go after a certain point in their lives. I know.

Is un-schooling a damaging school of thought or is it no better or worse than allowing teenaged kids latitude to make potentially life-altering, bad decisions and supporting them along the way?


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