Unschooling When You're Not Okay

Today I'm sharing my thoughts on continuing to unschool when you're not okay - through depression, grief, and other emotional upheaval. I started writing this nearly ten years ago, reflecting on a time 5+ years before that...when I was deeply apathetic and miserable, and not yet aware that I was experiencing psychological abuse from those closest to me.

I started unschooling when my kids were 4 and 1 - and I was 22.

I didn’t learn about attachment parenting and never even considered unschooling until I had my second child.

I have to wholeheartedly agree with parenting expert and unschooling mom Laurie A Couture, when she says that unschooling is a natural extension of attachment parenting.

Unschooling is more than a parenting style, it’s simply the natural way of relating to human children, from birth onward, into what most people call the “school years”.

However, a good education arguably needs to go beyond just survival. When I was struggling with depression, grief, and other challenges...were my kids thriving back then?

Well, they were fed and safe, and their most basic needs were met, but we weren’t really living a rich, full life together. I wasn't capable of following their interests much, because I just didn't have the bandwidth, the finances, the stability...

In my zeal to unschool, I’d somehow lost sight of mySelf along the way, and neglected my own needs--or more appropriately, pretended I didn't have any.

In hindsight, I believe I ended up doing a disservice to my kids by modeling that I, their parent, was expendable and not worthy of care.

I didn’t fully integrate that lesson for a long time. I learned that being true to myself is in the best interest of my kids as well. If I am honest with myself, whatever I need is very likely to also benefit my children - either directly, or as a result of me having my own needs met and therefore able to show up for them more fully.

As a mother and as an unschooler, I think many people get hung up on thinking unschooling is supposed to be an extension of helicopter parenting, where the kids’ preferences overshadow the adults’ needs - and this isn’t true. There needs to be a balance, and part of that involves respect for each and every family member--meeting the needs of each person as best as we can do so together.

I think for many unschoolers (especially those who consider themselves “child centered”), the underlying attitude is almost reactionary to mainstream culture.

Mainstream culture is very anti-child, very adultist, and so a misconception of unschooling is that it’s child-centered almost to the point of ignoring the needs or wants of the adult family members.

I think in smaller families this is less of a problem, but once you’ve got a big clan like I do, it becomes abundantly clear that you cannot really be child-centered and function well as a family--you’ve got to meet everyone’s needs, you’ve got to be family-centered, not-child-centered.

For us, this takes the shape of prioritizing sleep, and having the expectation of boundaries around sleep needs being honored (ages of children obviously matter here). This looks like certain shows and movies being viewed on headphones only, to respect mutually-shared spaces and noise sensitivities. This looks like skipping social outings and ordering in, when leaving the house feels too painful (either emotionally, physically, or both). This looks like expectations around how shared spaces are kept and left after use, so that visually, there's not mountains of clutter (i.e. stress), and so that the first step of a new activity is not always to clear away the previous one.

You run into problems when you've got a kitchen full of head chefs, and nobody's willing to chop the onions.

Now, do I think my kids would have been better off in public school? Absolutely not. In my opinion, even in the worst of times, forced institutionalized schooling is worse than staying at home and being reasonably cared for, even if you don't get in all the field trips and 'educational' activities.

Togetherness as a family is itself educational.

Not all homeschooling has to look like school, AND not all unschoolers have to continually provide their children with engaging, amazing opportunities in order to “do it right”. Life flows, life has ups and downs, and in my opinion it’s not natural to panic and give up, rip out the roots and shift your entire mode of living, just because you’ve come upon some hard times.

Of course, there are a million shades of possibility when considering this question...because I don’t mean to minimize the seriousness of depression, anxiety, or other health challenges for parents. In all cases, I encourage self-exploration and radical honesty with yourSELF before you decide to follow the advice of anyone.

I hate gurus on the internet who position themselves as having all the answers for others. People and families are unique, and we each need different things.

I do not recommend dedicating yourself to an ideology of what you think "good families" look like. They look just like your family, when you trust in your own heart and follow its lead with courage.

My kids do not have the delusion (comforting as it may be) that parents--that adults--are always in control, always 'okay'. They have an understanding that reaches beyond their years about how everyone has feelings and needs, and everyone matters..

i know a lot of parents start homeschooling and feel like they have to do things a certain way--meet certain objectives, or expose their kids to certain things, or even go to some arbitrary number of social and community events.. Anything quantifiable that they can make note of, in order to feel like it’s “enough”, like their homeschooling efforts are “okay”.

I also know mamas who have fallen on hard times and put their children back into school--which, from my perspective, actually complicated their lives even more, when their objective was to make things easier on them! Now they're scrambling to buy school supplies and uniforms, making school lunches, waking up early, catching the bus...this is easier?

A profound disconnect is bound to occur when you and your kids are separate for so many waking hours of the day. Then homework creeps in to monopolize the rest of your time..?! Personally, it's a no from me (dawg).

I think we've become entirely too fearful of benign neglect - which is something we can safely appreciate as a family during rough times.

It’s not going to ruin your unschooling mojo if your kids are left to their own devices and watch YouTube or make origami for the better part of a week.

They’re most likely learning some very valuable lessons about the basic humanity of their parents while they’re doing these things - because one of the most important (and missing) lessons that's missing from modern life has to do with mutual awareness and cooperation.

Every day won't be bursting at the seams with fun, and that is not indicative of failure! Sometimes you'll have lousy days, boring days, days with effort and struggle, and your kids will complain. Why do we have to do X? Why can't we have Y instead?

Sometimes, life is challenging. It doesn't mean you're doing it wrong or failing, just because it's hard.

Better to learn this in childhood than as an adult, wouldn't you agree?

No mud, no lotus.

I think that protecting our kids too well from struggle can rob them of their capacity to develop resilience. Hard things and bad things will continue to show up, but avoiding them entirely and ducking out when it's hard is a scam. It means our kids won't see us step up and get our hands dirty, keep moving forward, and focus on a brighter future.

"Good vibes only" might sound upbeat, but it's kind of a toxic life philosophy - because we don't want our kids to decide that it's only worth showing up for the 'good parts' of life.

The light seems flat without some darkness for contrast.

Unschooled kids are not as likely to be hidden from the rawness, the authenticity of day-to-day interactions between family members, if for no other reason than the amount of time they spend in close proximity with each other. Kids in school see their parents for a handful of hours a day at most, and seem to miss out on the dozens of conversation-opportunities that unschoolers have each week.

Don’t stress yourself out by upholding some fake facade of infallibility or stoicism. Kids benefit from the knowledge that their parents are real people who have real problems, make mistakes, and feel big feelings.

Modern life is so fixated on separation, achievement, and individualism...but the child who chooses solitude is very different than the child who is forced to separate from their family before they feel safe in solitude.

***HOWEVER*** All of this comes with the disclaimer of, PLEASE seek help if you need it.

This piece is called unschooling when you're not okay....but DON'T convince yourself that because you're an unschooling family, that no therapist or counselor would ever understand your struggles or take you seriously. This is a twisted form of spiritual bypassing, because being an unschooler does not make you so enlightened that you are beyond needing support.

It's okay to not have your shit together, but it's not okay to never even try to fix it. People need each other, and while unschooling may be a high-ranked value for you (as it is for me), it should not be an altar upon which you sacrifice your own wellbeing. Part of modeling self-care for your kids is to know when and how to seek support from others when you're overwhelmed.

Sending you love and clarity, always.