I’ve been a home educator for a long time now. My eldest son is 18 and my youngest son is 14 and they’d both been home educated their whole lives, until my eldest son decided to try out high school when he turned 17. It’s been a very interesting, and a times challenging, home education journey and I’ve done a lot of deschooling over the years. This article is going to be about my process of deschooling over that long period. I’ll also be sharing the tool that I used to question my thinking and to dissolve my school mindset.
Starting from the beginning……..
I have a very “schooly” background because I come from an academic family. My Dad was a university professor, my Mum taught at university and I had a university education myself. I taught at university before I had children. So it was a very academic environment. Obviously, the “academic” type or style of learning was very highly valued in my family. I had kids quite late when I already had a career teaching Law. I had my eldest son when I was 35 and he changed SO much in my life. I’d never been more in love and I’d never been more emotional and sleep deprived.
Then everything changed even more dramatically when my son got to four years old. That was when he dropped out of preschool. He had been enrolled in preschool two days a week and had enjoyed it, but it had always been quite stressful for him. He’d started to have really big meltdowns after preschool and to resisting going and it was getting very stressful. When he was four and a half, he just refused to go anymore. He told me he just wanted to stay at home with me and his little brother. I was left thinking, well, what do I do now? I can’t get him to go to preschool. How’s he going to fit into a school environment?
I just couldn’t imagine how my son was going to fit into mainstream school. I looked at Montessori and Steiner and I couldn’t see how was going to fit in there either because he really valued his autonomy. He just wanted to do everything in his own time and in his own way. He was also experiencing quite a lot of emotional challenges at that time in his life. He would have these explosive meltdowns, very intense emotions outbursts and night terrors. I felt that school would have made these issues much worse.
At that point in time, I was really fortunate to meet some homeschoolers and they introduced me to this other way of educating children. That was very exciting because all of a sudden I had another option, but there were huge challenges ahead for me because I just didn’t know how it was going to work. I had absolutely no idea. I hadn’t been exposed to home education before and I had only just met some people who were doing it, so I was on a really steep learning curve. I brought my background in research to the task. I was thinking, okay, I’m going to research home education, I’m going to read all the books I can find, talk to homeschoolers and unschoolers and I’m going to find out how to do it.
Eventually I came to understand that unlearning was going to be more important than learning more about home education, because I was going to have to unlearn just about everything I knew about education in order for this to work.
The early years of home education – we start to clash with the school mindset.
Our first year of home education wasn’t stressful in terms of the school mindset because we mostly just played. I had another son when my eldest was 4, so I had two young kids and there was a lot of play. There was a lot of watching documentaries, playing in the park and in the back garden and talking about all sorts of interesting stuff. They were really curious about a whole lot of different things and it looked like home education was going to be fun and it wasn’t going to be difficult for them to absorb all this amazing information.
When my eldest son turned six some challenges started appearing. Even though it seemed to be working really well for us I hadn’t told my parents about homeschooling because I thought that they would really disapprove of the whole idea, given their academic backgrounds. I’d put off telling them as long as possible because I was scared of their reaction. I was right – they did hate the idea and they were strongly opposed to any sort of home education. My parents were not backwards sharing their opinions, so there was a bit of a drama.
At around about the same time, when my eldest was six, he went to a friend’s house and was introduced to video games. He fell in love straight away. He played a game at his friend’s house a few times and then all he could talk about was, “I want a gaming console, I want to play video games.” So, for Christmas that year we got him a gaming console and that became his number one passion. His little brother was then also exposed to video games at an early age and he was passionate about it too.
At this stage I was still reading everything I could find about home education and I’d realised that given how my kids were, their personalities and interests, that unschooling would probably suit us best. Both sons had an absolute passion for doing what they wanted to do and they hated to be pushed or directed by me. Self-directed learning was the only peaceful choice. Anything else would have been a horrible battle, and I didn’t want to go down that path. In making that choice I’d started the process of deschooling in earnest. I set out to learn all I could about people’s experiences as unschoolers. Hearing other people’s stories really made a difference for me.
At that stage in our home education journey, I had a whole pile of workbooks and all sorts of resources; everything you could imagine. The house was stuffed full of books and other “educational resources” and my sons did use some of them. But what they really wanted to do was play with Lego, play video games, play in the park with friends, have lots of conversations and ask lots of questions. They were learning lots every day, but it didn’t look anything like schooling.
My stress escalates.
Now that my eldest son was school aged, that became more of an issue. At that time, I was getting regular comments from my parents who were extremely concerned about my children not appearing to learn what they were supposed to be learning at that age.
I found myself reacting strongly to my parents’ disapproval and their fears about my sons’ education. I realised that I was defensive because at some level, I believed some of the stuff they were saying. I was getting stressed and anxious and some of the things that my parents were saying were also bubbling up in my thinking. I remember my mother saying, “There’s some things you just have to be taught” and “There’s a window for learning certain things and if you miss this window, then you might never learn that particular skill”.
The focus of all this was around reading and writing and my eldest son. My mother would say things like, “There are some things you just have to learn whether you like it or not.” She was pushing me to push my child. She thought I should to sit him down and try and teach him and she was really worried that I wasn’t doing that.
All of the things my mother was saying are part of the “school mindset”. You’re supposed to learn along with your peers and be at a certain level at a certain age. And if you’re not, then you’re falling behind and you’re failing. She had an overall concern that I could fail at this whole home education thing and that my children would never learn the basic skills that they needed. This was a nightmare scenario as far as my parents were concerned.
As the years went on, things didn’t really calm down because my sons didn’t learn to read. By this stage I’d done a lot of reading about home education and I was aware that boys, in particular, often read later than children in school and the same with writing. But I was surprised and worried by how long it seemed to be taking. For a long time they didn’t show any interest in learning to read or write. They were learning the alphabet, we would play with words and language and I would read to them all the time. There was a huge amount of “pre-reading” going on and learning about how English works, but it didn’t look like their skill levels were gaining momentum.
There was a lot of conflict in my head between the reality of my life with my sons and the school mindset and it was manifest in this conflict between my parents and me. It came to a head when my eldest son was around about nine or ten.
I discover self-inquiry and deschool my thinking
I was feeling pretty desperate at this stage and I knew I needed to deschool my thinking around reading and writing. At around about that time, I discovered a spiritual teacher, Byron Katie, and what she calls self-inquiry or The Work. Self-inquiry promised to be a way of examining what I was thinking and getting a different perspective on it. I hoped it could actually dissolve some of the belief system that is the “school mindset”.
Self-inquiry is not specifically about schooling. You can use the process on any issue that you are stressed or upset about. You simply identify what you are thinking about a person or issue and then ask yourself a series of four questions about that thought.
I applied the four questions to the stressful thoughts that I was having about my eldest son not learning to read. I’m going to use that as an example to demonstrate how the process works. While you’re reading this you might think of a stressful thought that you have been having, maybe something like; “She should be doing more maths.” or “I should be doing more to help my child learn.” or “He’s obsessed with playing games and it’s getting in the way of his learning.” You can follow along and ask yourself the four questions as you read. Be completely honest with yourself and find your deepest truth.
I’m going to use the thought, “He should have learned to read by now.”
I’m going to ask the questions of myself and give you my answers. My answers are in italics.
He should have learned to read by now.
- Is that true? Yes, I think he should have learned to read by now.
- Can you absolutely know it’s true? When I really went inside and found my deepest truth, it was, a No. I couldn’t absolutely know that he should have learned to read by now. The fact is – he hadn’t.
- How do you react, how do you feel when you believe that thought? When I believed the thought, “He should have learned to read by now,” I felt really frustrated, stressed and anxious. I imagined a future in which, my child still couldn’t read when he was 15, 18 or 20. I imagined a disastrous scenario of real difficulty for him and real difficulty for me. I imagined all the judgment that would come down on me from my parents and others. There was a lot of self-judgment as well; I haven’t done enough or I’ve done the wrong thing. The painful feelings that came with these thoughts exhausted me and made me less available for my son. I put pressure on him and this led to conflict between us. He resisted the pressure and pushed back. Sometimes my frustration spilled into anger. I assumed that he wasn’t trying hard enough and I judged him for this. He felt that judgment and it was painful for him. Because I judged my son, he now believed he had a problem and this started to get in the way of his learning. I knew an ideal learning environment is one that’s relaxed and stress free. We no longer had that in our house.
- Who would you be without that thought? When I wasn’t thinking “He should have learned to read by now” I was actually there to support my son, to engage with him in a relaxed way and to listen to his perspective. I was more available to help him find his unique style of learning and to support him in that. I was fully present with him rather than caught up in my worries and I was open to sharing in his playful, curious exploration of his world. I also didn’t feel bad about myself. It felt like such a relief! Like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I could enjoy life again.
By working through these four questions I got a really clear look at the effect that belief was having on my life and my relationship with my son. I could see that it was my belief about the situation that was causing so much stress and conflict, not the situation itself. Once I realised how wonderfully peaceful and connected I felt when I wasn’t believing that thought, it started to let me go. I got a fresh perspective on it and it didn’t have the same pull anymore. It still popped into my head from time to time, but I didn’t take it seriously. I was able to relax around my son and to stop projecting my anxiety and frustration onto him. As I stopped trying to push him, his internal motivation to learn to read began to emerge. I’ll say more about this below.
I start to question everything.
I’ve used these questions in a lot of other areas of my parenting life and our home education journey. For example, I used them to question my thoughts about video gaming, as my sons were so passionate about it for a long time, and also other aspects of the school mindset. Things like:
- There is a “right age” to learn certain skills like reading and writing.
- There is a “window” for learning certain things and if you miss it learning will be much harder.
- Children can’t know what is best for themselves.
- If I let my children do what they want they will never learn anything.
- There are some things you just have to learn whether you like it or not.
- If you don’t go to school and/or university you won’t get a good job.
It’s actually a lovely space to be in once that school mindset starts to fall away. Learning became this relaxed, enjoyable process that brought us together rather than pushing us apart. Over time I discovered what suited each child, their timing and their particular way of learning. For example, my youngest son wanted to be taught to read using phonics and workbooks – he asked for a completely different approach to his brother and it has worked well for him. When he was ready and motivated the learning happened much more easily.
My eldest son learns to read.
It turned out that my eldest son is dyslexic. I figured this out when he was about 11 or so, and he still hadn’t learned to read. I read lots of books about dyslexia and researched the different programs and approaches to help dyslexic children learn to read. I talked about some of the options with my son and we went and saw a specialist kinesiologist who started him on a program to help him learn to read and to write. After about three months, and some progress, my son said “I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to hear about any more programs or go and see anybody else. I just want to do this in my own way, in my own time.”
At that stage I’d dissolved most of the school mindset and recovered my clarity. My thinking was more in alignment with my highest values rather than what I’d absorbed during my own childhood. So I took a really deep breath and said, “Okay, you do it in your own way.” And he did. He went off and continued to play video games for most of his days and he taught himself to read. I don’t even know when it happened. I just know that by the age of 15 he could read competently. At 17 he decided to go to highschool and went straight into Year 11 at a local Secondary College. He’s had wonderful learning support for his difficulties with writing (spelling is still a struggle) and he’s thriving. He entered the school environment with a view to future higher education and he’s done it from his own inner motivation and on his own terms.
The greatest benefit of my deschooling
It’s amazing to have relationships with my two sons that aren’t affected by my fears and learned beliefs about education. Instead of worry and conflict there is openness, intimacy, playfulness and shared adventure. Questioning the school mindset made home education sustainable and enjoyable for all of us.
I’m now an unschooling mum, author and parent coach. I help parents reduce the stress and worry in their lives so they can finally feel liked the calm, mindful parent they’ve always wanted to be. If you would like to get my latest articles, you can sign up for my newsletter on my homepage here.
If you’d like more information about self-inquiry and the other skills that I learned to help me live joyfully with my sons you can find that in my book “Joyful Parenting” and in my Joyful Parenting Course. I am also available to help parents through one-on-one coaching sessions.