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Home Education Magazine

March-April 2001 - Articles and Columns

On Unschooling and Life - Ruthe Matilsky

My Aunt Rose (may she rest in peace) used to say, "Little children, little problems, big children, big problems." This phrase annoyed me when my children were small, but lately I know what she means. I've been fairly relaxed about the kids and their learning patterns, but now that I have two teenagers and one twenty-something, I am finding new things to worry about. Will they find rewarding work to do? Are they Prepared? Did I let them down by not spending more money on tutors and force-feeding them math? Did I do my job? These are not exactly new questions, but they are taking on a new intensity.

For years I've smugly parroted the unschooling party line: "Provide your children with a stimulating environment, and they will learn what they need to know to get on in life," and outside of homeschooling circles I've refused to admit that I have a care in the world. However, I'm uncomfortably aware that I'm nervous.

Being a homeschooling parent has meant being "different." There has been no formula for us to follow and no prescribed set of goals and achievements to mark the way. While I do it because it feels right, there are times when I envy the parents who unquestioningly accept the School Education Plan. How nice it must be to adhere to the Program and march right along, complaining sometimes, but basically feeling secure that following someone else's script is the right thing to do. How reassuring to have someone else lay out the rules - car pool her to preschool, be a first grade class mother, help her with her homework, join the P. T. A., sign up for Operation Graduation and drive her to college, and your child will be a success. How unsettling it is sometimes when I think that we have scoffed at the script and now we have to take responsibility for how it all turns out. If we'd done what was expected of us, nothing would ever be our fault. Right?

Of course my husband and I don't believe that, but I can't help worrying.

The standard good-parent line is, "All I want is for my child to be happy." That's easy to say when the kids are little, but what about a twenty-one-year-old daughter who is not on the college track? When I was her age I didn't even know anyone who wasn't college track. I realize that if she had started some business and was making a hundred grand a year I'd be basking in my know-it-all-homeschooling-mother smugness and who'd care about college. The fact that she's not completely supporting herself at twenty-one is not so unusual, but I worry. Will she ever find enjoyable work that will make her economically independent? What if she can't make enough money to be happy? What if a childhood of following her rhythms leads my daughter to a lifetime of dissatisfaction with boring jobs? What if she just settles into being a housewife out of default?

And then there's my son. He wants to go to college. Of course he never did much math, but what the hey! John Holt always said to trust our children - they will learn what they need to know in order to do what they want to do. So... Jacob is planning to go to college and he's going to learn math. Right?

I'm encountering new aggravations even as the old ones fade away. I no longer have to worry about Sara's social life. She's got lots of friends, she's totally in love with someone that we all like, and she's forging a life for herself in Boston. The angst I felt during Jake's days of being a late reader seems almost comical, now that he is reading philosophy and writing poetry. But things aren't settled yet and I can't categorize my children the way other parents can. I can't say that Sara is majoring in something. I have to ignore the fact that Jake probably needs to take the S.A.T.'s, and his math skills need a Giant Push Very Soon.

To a lot of people in the homeschooling world it might sound like I am worrying needlessly, because Sara and Jake look like superstars. Jake started winning photography contests when he was nine or ten, and his work gets better all the time. In the last two years he has traveled extensively, paying his own way while he sees the world. People he has met marvel over his self sufficiency and ingenuity in surviving on his own. I get the same comments about Sara. Three years ago she became the youngest female to ride her bike solo on the Trans Am trail from Virginia to Oregon. Articles about her trip have been published in several different places, and she's been working on a book of her own. She too has impressed people with her maturity and self reliance.

In fact, they've both impressed me with what they can do, but I come from a long line of worrywarts, and now I'm worrying that maybe they won't be able to keep this up in the Real World. For so long I've loftily said that homeschoolers are already in the Real World, and I always meant it, but now we've arrived at a new stage. While there are a whole lot more unschoolers now, there aren't a whole lot of older unschoolers and the territory is uncharted. Just because Sara and Jake have always earned their own money and their employers have consistently found them to be quick learners, reliable and conscientious, does that mean they can continue to ignore the standard route? Just because opportunities have come their way over and over in the past, will there be more opportunities in the future? Where's the guarantee? Will Jacob learn math? Will Sara use her writing and piano and dance to create satisfying work? Am I just bourgeois?

This business of being different from other people is continuing right along. I guess I thought that our kids would get to high school graduation age and just join up with their schooled peers and follow the Program. I don't know why I ever thought that. It should have been obvious to me that my children would be finding new paths to new goals.

Unschooling calls for a whole new way of viewing not just the early years, but the "adjustment" years when our young people leave their homes and strike out on their own. The School Program calls for eighteen year olds to either sign on for four more years of financial dependency or settle for an unskilled, usually low-paying job. Sara is choosing to explore another option. Many families spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to support a college student. For much less money that young person could be subsidized while she tries out the skills she already has to see where she can go with them.

Sarabeth is getting part-time work here and there. She has been in Boston for ten months and has already led a bike trip and completed a writing internship and is now a paid intern at the Boston Science Museum. She has a couple of music students and is taking classes at the Adult Ed Center. And she is dancing and working on choreography. She calls it "Sara College."

As for Jacob, he has a loyal friend who is tutoring him in math while he polishes off his portfolio and figures out what kind of school he wants to attend. He is convinced that math will not get in his way, and he even found one or two reputable schools that agreed with him. I keep reminding myself that it's not so unrealistic to think that Jake will prepare himself to take the entrance exams. We all know that it doesn't take twelve years to learn the subjects taught in school. I've said it enough times that I ought to believe it. He's certainly intelligent enough to do it. If he wants to go to college he will do what he needs to do to get in. I've repeated that so many times it's like my mantra, but it's actually the truth. There's nothing wrong with his brain. There's no reason he can't learn math.

It's time for me to let go of angst. These kids had a great childhood. Terry and I wish we'd had the kind of opportunities our children have had. They know they have to make their own way financially and would be insulted to think we thought otherwise. Our job now is to sit back and enjoy watching their journey. I am reminded of the time, several years ago, when I had a small part in a local production of Fiddler on the Roof. After months of rehearsals it was finally opening night, and I recall the director giving us last minute comments and then standing back and saying, "I've done all I can do. It's your show now. It belongs to you."

Well, we gave it our best shot. We made mistakes and we did some great things. Now it's up to them.

(c) 2001 Ruthe Matilsky

March-April 2001 Issue

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