On Choosing to Unschool

When I started this blog, it was with the Albert Einstein quote:  Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.

While I’m certainly no Einstein, this recently came to bear in the context of our choosing to not re-enroll Avery in cooperative preschool. Which we had done last fall because, after three years of full-time primary parenting, Brendan really needed some breaks during the week, and we wanted to start exposing Avery to a more complicated social structure than existed at home. And besides, school is what you do with kids of a certain age, right? Attending school and getting ready to be a “productive adult” is the primary job for kids in this country. I mean school and its associated activities comprised essentially – what – 60% of my childhood? That’s how it went. How it’s allegedly supposed to go.

Preschool seemed innocent enough, especially one based in play. Right? But our hearts were suspicious and our minds undecided. We weren’t sure preschool was right for Avery, even a cooperative play-based one, because we had already chosen to raise him non-traditionally in a lot of ways. He was born naturally without my being medicated. He isn’t circumcised. We co-sleep and don’t use time-outs/cry-it-outs. We’re parenting him from a perspective of and commitment to a strong attachment, daily play, and respect/trust.

He moves slowly and we encourage that; we try not to rush him without something approximating a very good reason (catching the bus, X starts in 30 minutes and we can’t be late *this time*, poop in an unapproved spot is involved). We encourage him to be in the moment and listen to his body’s signals, and we try to do the same. We mirror his emotional state back to him as accurately as we can as often as seems reasonable and productive.

So, to transition him three times a week from a mostly free-flowing home experience to a mostly structured school experience seemed counter-intuitive and perhaps more trouble than it would ultimately be worth. But you don’t know until you know; and, with a willingness to Try and See (even though we weren’t wholly sure), we decided to go for it.

Two months went by and Avery wasn’t really into preschool all that much. He didn’t like Circle Time (where everyone gathers in a circle for songs/group chat and is expected to sit still), didn’t respond to being directed, didn’t want to play with the other kids (only the adults). We worried about it, wondering if it meant something was Wrong with him developmentally or if it was just, you know, a small child finding his way around this really abstract concept called “sharing resources and space.” We reminded ourselves that yes, you do have to LEARN how to be with other people, it isn’t automatic, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Hell, I’m still having trouble with it.

But there were other things; things we’d missed when checking out the school. There was a distinct power-over structure in place; that is, adults and kids were NOT equals, and the latter were expected to do what the former dictated. This mirrored our own experience from school, which was essentially “Do what we want you to do when and how we want you to do it. Or else.” In this case, the else was a time-out. The day Brendan described how one of Avery’s classmates was sent, crying, to time-out all by himself, my heart sank.

Humans go a little bit crazy when abandoned to isolation. And for a child, who lives exclusively in the moment, for whom “time” has no real meaning, that’s exactly what it feels like: abandonment.

Then there was all the “redirecting” (AKA an attempt to ignore something distressing). You find a child crying, standing next to a puddle of water and an overturned cup. What do you do? At this preschool, the standard approach seemed to be saying “You’re okay, honey. Here, let me help you clean up that mess.” I see this as an attempt by the adult to redirect the child away from their feelings and then take action that will remove the offending source of sadness, thus helping the adult feel better about having to see both a crying child AND a mess on the floor.

This course of action does not serve the child; it is expressly for the adult’s comfort. In fact, it invalidates the child’s experience completely and tells them that the adult’s experience is more important. But it’s just a cup of spilled water, you say. Yes. It is. This time. Tomorrow it may be sadness over a sick/dying pet, fear around fighting parents, or anxiety around moving to a new house.

Were it Avery in that situation, with difficult-to-express feelings bubbling up and no parent immediately at hand, I most definitely would NOT want someone minimizing his experience by trying to make it go away. What I’d like to hear is “You look sad and upset. Do you want comfort?” And then let him decide how the interaction will progress based on his needs. You know, give him some agency and control over the situation; like an actual person.

So, even in a reasonably progressive, cooperative Seattle preschool we found ourselves increasingly uncomfortable with how things were going. To be fair, by six months in Avery was actively looking forward to school, had made some best friends who he referred to outside of class, and seemed to really be enjoying himself.

But the reality is that when a child goes to a school, the whole family goes too, to varying degrees, and Brendan (who was the in-class parent) wasn’t looking forward to going. The continued inflexibility he reported seeing in the parents and teachers, their seeming refusal to respect the kids’ perspectives and positions (and thus alter their own) was making the free time he got out of the bargain taste increasingly bloody.

Because inflexibility is the enemy of learning, and the majority of existing education systems are inflexible to the core. They are systems that disrespect the humanity of teachers and students alike, treating children as second-class citizens at best and an inconvenience at worst. They are systems that:

  • Crush creativity and passion.
  • Believe ideas can be learned in 45-minute increments.
  • Rely on disruptive bells and punitive discipline.
  • Don’t trust children to know themselves or what they need to flourish.
  • Are increasingly beholden to corporate interests and government funding predicated on test scores that test nothing except a child’s ability to take a racist, biased test.

This is not what Brendan and I envision for Avery; not by a long shot. We refuse to adopt the perspective that “traditional school was shitty enough for us, it’s shitty enough for our kid.” No way. Not gonna do it. I remember how much I disliked school (even though I was really good at it), how small and invisible it made me feel; how thoroughly it killed my already limited confidence, how I ultimately came to hate having to go.

There IS a better way, and it’s backed up by real-world people who have succeeded in educating themselves far more respectfully, powerfully, and comprehensively than if they had attended those traditional schools. These people follow their passions and make choices for themselves. That’s the future I envision for Avery, for my family, for all people.

For more information on unschooling, researched by the amazing Maria Popova of Brain Pickings (herself a partially-unschooled person), check out her recent post on the topic. She offers numerous powerful arguments against traditional schooling as presented in the book “Don’t Go Back to School” by Kio Stark.

The Sudbury Valley School is the grand-daddy of unschooling, founded in 1968.

The Clearwater School is the closest thing Seattle has to a Sudbury-style organization, founded 15 years ago.

2 thoughts on “On Choosing to Unschool

  1. Layna

    Yay for Seattle unschoolers! If you like the Sudbury Valley model, you may enjoy a book about AS Neill’s Summerhill, the school in England that inspired SVS. There is a really wonderful illustrated one out there somewhere, that I recall reading maybe 15 years ago. I enjoy attending one of the Seattle co-op preschools with my son, but since it’s on Saturday, either I am there or my partner attends every session. I do find however that I am uncomfortable with occasional pressure on my son to do crafts that distress him sensorily. I really enjoy reading your blog and finding out the perspectives of parents who are more explicitly and thoughtfully child-respecting than I am, since I am still working out my reasoning and learning about my blind spots. And I think unschooling will be a great learning path for respect and gentleness as well.

    1. christinalouisedietrich Post author

      Thank you for the the book recommendation, tidbits about Summerhill, and sharing some thoughts on schooling for young children. I very much appreciate your both taking the time to leave a comment and for reading my posts. 🙂


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