I have thought about writing this post for a while, and I haven’t up until now for a variety of reasons. Firstly, each of my children have a story and it is theirs to tell. I try not to share their highs and lows, successes and vulnerabilities without their permission. The second reason is because I don’t really think there is any difference in approach to unschooling a neuroatypical child vs a neurotypical child.
My eldest child is the former. My other two children are the latter.
Every child has needs and as parents we try to accommodate these within our family unit. Just as it is not my place to cast judgment on how vitally important it is to my three year old to have her snack in the red bowl, it is not my place to judge how incredibly uncomfortable it is for my eight year old to wear long pants. The needs of our children are respected, regardless of how relatable they are, because they not about us.
In our family, it feels the same because it is the same. We don’t compare our children to each other and we don’t compare them ‘to other children their age.’ That is the beauty of unschooling. We are giving our children space to learn about the world and themselves on their own terms and at their own pace.
So why did I want to write about this? Because there is more to this story for me. It applies to all of my children, but in particular to my eldest. And as I see him grow, it becomes more and more evident.
As I reflect on our journey and the changes we have seen, there is one thing that I realise we have given our child. I realise it is the greatest gift that we could ever give him. As an adult, it feels shameful to write this, because it is a gift that should be afforded to all children. We have given our son the opportunity to grow in an environment where people love him, people celebrate who he is, where his needs are taken seriously, where he is wanted, where he is included and where he is enough.
He is incredibly proud of who he is, as he should be, because he is amazing. He sees his differences in the context of everyone being different. He understands that some things are much more difficult for him and he is ok with that. He also realises that things he finds incredibly simple are a struggle for others. He sees his strengths and weaknesses and owns them.
So, I want to share a story with you. Last week, we were at a meetup of unschoolers and my son was playing with one of his friends. I didn’t see or hear the conversation, but the mother of the girl relayed the story to me when we met up a few days later.
Her daughter had playfully bumped my son on the bottom. He retaliated in a disproportionate way by smacking her on the behind. They both had hurt feelings.
They had some space and then came back together. The girl asked my son why he had hit her when she was just joking around.
I don’t know verbatim what was said in reply, but it was along these lines, ‘I’m sorry. My brain works a little bit differently to yours and sometimes I find it hard to know if someone is joking or being serious.’
She said, ‘well maybe you can just ask next time.’ He agreed, and off they went.
He is eight years old. There was no shame or embarrassment. He showed so much insight and owned his difficulty in this situation. Hearing this story filled my heart with pride. My hope is that our family is always the safe and loving base he needs, that will see him continue to self advocate and grow in confidence.
He has a strong sense of self, a strong sense of community and a strong sense of self worth.
I think back to the little boy at school a couple of years ago and I feel a lump in my throat. The little boy who on his last day told me that he was so sick of getting in trouble at school he thought it would be better for everyone if he never existed. The boy who saw himself as a burden, as bad, as not good enough. It seems like such a distant memory, and it is such a polar extreme to who he is today.
School is not a place that celebrates difference. Despite the best intentions of amazing and passionate teachers and ‘inclusive’ schools, the structure of schooling does not make space for difference. School is a place where everyone needs to be the same. Same age, same schoolwork regardless of interest, same time to eat, same clothes to wear, same, same, same. When you are not the same, you are filled with guilt, shame and anxiety.
Life in general isn’t like this, so why do we insist on this for our children? I truly feel that every person has their place in this world. Everyone has the ability to find their purpose and a community of likeminded individuals if they are comfortable and in tune with who they are. I used to think that this was some kind of utopia afforded only to adults. I feel differently now as I see my children grow with this freedom.
The quote from Albert Einstein comes to mind – ‘Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life feeling like it is stupid.’ For my son, asking him to be successful in a space where the lights were too bright, the noises were too loud, the people were too many, the clothes were uncomfortable and the teachers spread thin, was akin to asking a fish to climb a tree.
I see that now. What I am here to tell you is that unschooling has given my fish the ocean.