The Unschooling Iceberg: What’s Beneath The Surface?

I have a confession. Our life is not how it appears. I have been thinking about this a lot and I want to clear up any confusion. If you check out my Instagram or any of the ‘Unschooling on Tuesday’ posts I write showing you a glimpse of what we get up to in a day, I think it is painting an inaccurate picture. There is a LOT that is left out. And I think it is the most important work.

You see, I truly believe that in a supportive environment, the learning takes care of itself. It is also simple to capture. A child reading a book or doing a science experiment or creating. Obviously, a lot is missed here too, but it is easy to get a quick picture and write a few sentences of your child excavating a fossil and for everyone to feel all warm and fuzzy and think, “oh when they are unschooling they do LEARN. They are MOTIVATED.”

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But confession time. I feel like my involvement in this – reading to my kids, answering questions, facilitating research, finding activities and exhibitions and groups I think my children would enjoy, is only about 20% of my time. It could be a bit more or a bit less on any given day, but it is a minority percentage. Always. My kids are interested and motivated and curious and they cover a lot of academic learning themselves. Sometimes I think my role in this can appear to be a lot more online.

So where does this leave the bulk? It isn’t where your mind typically goes when you think of ‘unschooling’. When we talk about our fears and concerns around child led learning, they are almost entirely centred around measurable academic learning. Will they hit the milestones of reading and writing? Will they be able to access higher education if they choose? What about maths?? I know these are questions I have asked myself at one point or another. But to be honest, in our home, as we travel further down this path, I can see that this is the easy part. It really does happen. And quite effortlessly. I realise that I find myself in this position where the vast bulk of my time guiding, listening, modelling, discussing, is spent on emotional development and connection. And this is hard to capture in words and photos.

I am very much involved with my children and what they are up to in every part of my day, and sometimes this feels all consuming. Yet, how much of this time is spent connecting with and supporting my children emotionally has also been a big surprise for me, particularly with my older children. It is something we don’t even really think about when we think about school. And that is scary. With unschooling we think about the loss of formal academic direction and either celebrate or fear that. But what about everything that is gained with emotional direction?

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This morning, I watched my son discover a new game recommended by a friend. It is called Prodigy. It is a maths game online where you battle wizards with equations. He loved it and played solidly for a few hours. He started at first grade level. After he logged off and moved on to something else, I had a quick look to see where he was up to because the maths seemed quite difficult even though he seemed to be figuring it out. My seven year old had breezed through three grade levels in a couple of hours and was doing fourth grade maths.

We seem SO concerned with academics. THERE IS NO BOAT TO MISS HERE. At any time we can learn what we need, when we need to. But can the same be said about emotional regulation? If your child misses out on the guidance they need in early development, in my opinion, the opportunity cost is much greater. It is something we are not talking about enough. This morning my son did the entire curriculum for a subject area in about an hour. He would have spent a year in school doing the same, no doubt a million different ways. What is lost and what is gained with formal instruction, five days a week? My son isn’t doing sit down math each day, but he is doing a lot of emotional ground work. There is no way that the lessons he has learned in the last year about himself, about his emotions and the tools he prefers for emotional regulation or the deep connections he has made in his relationships could be condensed into an hour revision. There is no way that this kind of supported self work could have occurred as comprehensively in a school setting. There is no way that he could have done this in isolation at seven years old, on someone else’s timetable or squished in to a couple of hours in the afternoon. The loss of academic direction is not equal to the loss of emotional direction. The two cannot be interchanged. You can miss out on maths or chemistry or literature studies now and learn it whenever you please later. The same cannot be said as readily for the building blocks of emotional literacy.

When I think about the many, many, many hours spent supporting his development this past year, providing a safe place for him to explore his emotions, allowing this development to occur without shame when his exploration oversteps boundaries, helping him navigate his relationship with himself and others, connecting with him and his interests, it dominates the experience of our time together. It is complex and beautiful to nurture this growth. When something big comes up for us, it can take an hour, an entire morning, a day or even weeks to explore properly. It requires a lot of thought, discussion, reflection and modelling. I think of how this could possibly happen if he were spending his days with twenty other children his age, all navigating their own emotional growth, and one adult focused almost entirely on academic learning. It isn’t possible. And that is very, very concerning.

My experience is not unique. All of my unschooling friends report the same. Guiding our children emotionally is where we are making the greatest time investment and also the greatest impact. When I look around our group, things are not perfect. Obviously! We are all human. I have seen all of the kids at one time or another do things that affect others. I have seen all of the children encounter conflict together. But because there are so many adults and a multi-age peer group around to provide support and guidance, these issues never grow. Everyone is working together every step of the way to help our children navigate and understand the situations they are faced with each day. When difficulties are addressed with respect and understanding in their infancy, there is less scope for them to develop into anything more pervasive. I look around our group of children and I see social interactions and relationships that are overwhelmingly positive and healthy. There is no chance to get lost when you are walking together with people who know the way. Perhaps it is only when you are left to navigate alone, unsure of the path, that you can arrive in a scary place.

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I feel like this is what we see over and over in the education system. There are no bad children. There are no children incapable of learning the tools they need to process their emotional responses. But there are a lot of children left to walk alone and further isolated with each misstep. There are a lot of children burdened with shame when they are unable to learn emotional regulation at the pace of their peers. There are a lot of children ignoring their emotions so they can toe the line. And I see now, if we forget for a minute all of the academic stuff, there is something much greater at stake. It is impossible to condense the kind of emotional mentorship that a young child requires into the time they spend outside the classroom. It is the kind of support that needs to happen in the moment with all of the information at hand, with a person who has time to offer the support needed, no matter how long it takes.

We are not all fortunate enough to be able to opt out of the education system, but we are all capable of lending voice to this issue. We are all able to stand up and say that the emotional health of our child is more important than learning to read at four. We are all able to say that if our child is coming home and falling apart or shutting down, something isn’t right. We are all able to say that it is time to shift focus. I want people to know that unschooling isn’t about learning everything you learn in school, in a different format. It isn’t about what is equal or what is lost. It is a seized opportunity. Because I can see now, that there is so much that is gained.

5 thoughts on “The Unschooling Iceberg: What’s Beneath The Surface?

  1. And now my feelings about the importance of choosing to walk the path of unconventionality with my family has words! Wow! Thank you for this. My favorite line that seems like it sums it all up, “The loss of academic direction is not equal to the loss of emotional direction”…YES!

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  2. Love this Courtney. Definitely sums up how we feel too about the opportunities to be gained by not going to school. The emotional stuff is what really matters at this age. I also read somewhere that it is easier to make a strong child than to fix a broken adult.

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  3. Pingback: The Value Of Respectful Parenting | The Untamed

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