“Just let your child follow his interests!” say unschooling advocates to unsuspecting young parents. As free spirits, not wanting traditional schooling, some naive individuals will unplug from the grid and unschool.
Unschooling gets a bad rap. And deservedly so. Its principles–if you can find them–are to let your child learn what he is interested in. Let him go with the flow. If he shows that he likes sciencey things, then let him do some science. If he likes to take apart the toaster, give him the space heater too.
I’m simplifying, but not too much. For some in the post-hippie world, it sounds, like, great to let your child raise himself and teach himself whatever he wants. For those of us who teach–even those of us who have homeschooled for many years–unschooling is a disaster waiting to happen.
I am certain that young men and women who come out of unschooling are nice, respectful, kind, and love their parents. No doubt they were raised by parents who loved them. I will ask, though, if it is loving to pull them so far out of academia that they cannot function to meet the goals they might have liked for themselves farther down the road?
For instance–and I can give you MANY very similar instances–a mom of a 17-year-old told me her child wanted to go to college, and she proceeded to ask me about what classes he needed for his final year of high school. We began with math. “He is just now finishing Algebra 1,” she said. She explained that he really wasn’t interested in math as a younger child, so they didn’t do it. A college bound teen needs four years of high school math in his tool belt. Algebra 1 does not even qualify as high school math, since it is normally taken in 8th grade. So he is already three years behind. After a long pause, the mom admitted that she had probably done her son a disservice.
“My friends just told me to let him do whatever he wanted!” she protested.
Did that mom love her child? Undoubtedly–most definitely. So remember, I am not equating unschooling with unloving. I just want to remind parents that loving your child means doing hard things once in a while. Sometimes it means saying no. Sometimes it means insisting on doing hard work.
Yes, math is hard. My children often reminded me that it was painful. Yet because we loved them, we insisted that the hard work needed to be done, and done well. They learned from the DOING as well as from the subject itself. Doing the hard work built their little characters. It showed them how to apply their hard work to other areas. It showed them how to be disciplined, how to manage time and frustration. It instilled a work ethic and taught them the VALUE of hard work done well. It taught them how to think.
Just as I would not let my toddler run out into a busy parking lot without holding my hand, I also would not let my child decide his own path of schooling. Some unschooling, I propose, happens because parents don’t want to hear the whining of little voices lifted in protest. It is easier to take them to the children’s museum than to plan a four-week science curriculum. Go to the museum, call it science. If he liked it, get him a couple of books at the museum gift store. Done.
One mom told me her daughter was a “real science kid.” In fact, she wanted to focus on science when she got to college. But heading into 9th grade, the child had never done any science before. Fortunately she will have time to get some training from some science teachers so that she will be able to pursue what she says is her real love–science.
My daughter and I had a conversation recently about schooling. She graduated from home school, graduated from university with a Bachelor’s degree, and is moving to graduate school in just a few weeks. I reminded her how much she hated doing school work when she was younger. She got tears in her eyes. “But I am so thankful that you made us do that hard work,” she said. “I don’t know anyone I went to school with who regretted doing hard work in school. They complained, but they appreciated having done the work.” We insisted she do hard things so that she could be ready for whatever. Her “whatever” begins at grad school in not too many weeks.
Let me be honest: we have tried all sorts of schooling: public, private, and home. Never “un.” One child graduated from a public high school and a public university before getting his masters degree at a private university. We didn’t always do it right. We were, however, quick to make changes if what we tried wasn’t working. We admitted our mistakes and moved on. But we never once regretted having our children learn to do the hard work of their academic classes.
“Why do math, if you can’t find math in the real world?” I found this question on an unschooling web site. Really? There is no math to be found in the real world? On what planet? Math is not just about numbers or finding the value of x, which I always found just a bit confounding myself (and thus the reason I majored in English…). Math is about thinking well, logically applying knowledge learned in one area into another. Math is about cars and cell phones, travel and technology, recipes and retirement accounts, measurements and medicine. Math is about statistics and economics and politics. Lack of understanding in math may really get you into trouble with your bank or your boss. Think you can just hire someone to do it for you? Then you need to be smart enough to earn enough for that.
(I thought, with an English degree, that I could just escape math altogether. God has a sense of humor, though, because my first job out of college was as a communications consultant in an actuarial firm. Translating math-speak into English.)
Look, there are lots of kids out there who will never go to college because they don’t want to. Because they have figured out their own path to life. Because they have already been hired somewhere and earning enough. That’s fine. But what about those kids who unschooled all the way through, like our unfortunate 17-year-old at the beginning of this article, who has doors closed to them because they were unprepared for what they really wanted to do later on? How did unschooling work for him?
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