Thursday, March 12, 2009

The New York Times Guide to Unschooling

Over the past year, The Paper of Record has been printing articles and opinion pieces that have provoked my thoughts about unschooling. Most of these are not explicitly about homeschooling or unschooling, but once I start thinking about something, I tend to see everything through that lens, so I connect it all back to unschooling! Here are some examples:

First, a feature from October 15, 2008, which describes the leisurely and luxurious experience of parents who have opted out of the NYC school rat-race (which for private and even some public schools apparently involves applications and interviews for pre-K and kindergarten) and instead enjoy the city itself – and its myriad cultural institutions – as their school. It’s funny that this piece was in the Home and Garden section rather than the Education section but the focus of the article is on keeping your kids home from school as a lifestyle choice. And this is a good way to think about it. Though life in our city is more laid back than in New York, keeping N. home makes all our lives much less hectic and gives us the chance to fully enjoy and experience the resources of our community (though at the same time, we have to work harder to build social networks).

Even though we don’t live in New York, we can think of our city too as a school. We have several very good though small art museums that we love to explore. One is an art collection in a grand historic house and N. loves talking with us about the furnishings, the old kitchen, the pipe organ, the gardens. Our city has lots of interesting old industrial architecture, especially tobacco factories, which fascinate N.; talking about these buildings develops his sense of history and place, not to mention health and economics. There are parks, a science museum, the library. We recently went to a train museum, and N. and I have even talked about taking a tour of the city sewage treatment plant in the near future! One of our favorite outings is a coffee shop where they roast beans on site. We’ve spent long hours there asking the roaster, a neighbor of ours, lots of questions about the whole process of growing and making coffee. I think these outings are so much richer than the typical school field trip because N. can absorb the information at this own pace, ask all the questions he wants, and stay as long as he is interested (usually very long!).

Several recent articles about the lives of kids who go to school are not about unschooling or homeschooling, but they affirm our decision to provide a different kind of life for N. Holly at Unschool Days wrote about a Times article reporting the shocking results of research “suggest[ing] that play and down time may be as important to a child’s academic experience as reading, science and math, and that regular recess, fitness or nature time can influence behavior, concentration and even grades.” Duh! We love how much time outside N. gets, whether working in the garden with us, taking long walks through our neighborhood, or simply playing and daydreaming outside. It makes me so sad that most kids spend most of their days indoors.

There has been lots of research suggesting the inefficacy of rewards and punishments in learning, yet as another article describes, many schools use rewards programs to motivate kids to learn, from pizza parties to cash for good grades or test scores. In our parenting we have worked hard to move away from this model of external motivation; we focus on providing descriptive rather than evaluative responses and praising effort rather than results. This approach, which is so important to us, would be in conflict with the rewards model of school.

Another recent article
covers the often reported concern that most American kids, from toddlers to teenagers, don’t get enough sleep. This has a lot to do with the industrial schedule of our culture. Parents work long hours so they keep their kids up later at night to have some time with them. Yet schools start ridiculously early, especially high schools, despite research showing that teenagers’ circadian rhythms shift dramatically in those years, making them naturally night owls and morning slug-a-beds. Tim and I are both night owls (though we have always wanted to be morning people!) and N. has never been a particularly early riser (8 a.m. or so). Though we help him to sleep at a regular time every night, he is able to sleep as long as he needs to in the morning. Keeping N. home, combined with my flexible academic schedule, allows us to live our life the way it works for our bodies.

Finally, a recent description of a study of strollers also made me think about parenting and unschooling and how our earliest practices can set life patterns for our children. In this op-ed, the study authors explain that their small study of kids in Britain in forward-facing strollers vs. those in backwards- (or “toward-”) facing strollers shows that parents interact far more with the children in the latter group, thus providing rich opportunities for language development and social interaction. In other words, when your child is facing forward in a stroller (and looking at the knees of all the adults walking by!), you don’t have as many opportunities to interact with her as when you can make eye-contact with her and talk to her as you go about your errands. This seems obvious, yet the majority of strollers are forward-facing, especially as children get older.

For me, the real question raised by this study is not whether forward or backward is better, but whether strollers are really necessary. The study authors write, “Of course, infants do not spend all their time in strollers, but anecdotal evidence suggests that babies can easily spend a couple of hours a day in them.” That is a lot of time to be sitting in a folding contraption without much physical contact. Tim and I didn’t have a stroller until N. was able to sit up on his own, and even then we rarely used it. We never had the “baby bucket” kind of infant car seat that fits on a stroller because we didn’t want to have to buy another car seat when the baby grew out of the portable one, and as a small person with rather weak arms, I didn’t want to tote that thing around. It was so much easier and satisfying to carry Norris in a sling or Baby Bjorn everywhere. We could talk to him and hold his hands or feet while we ran our errands, and when carried in the forward-facing Baby Bjorn, he could make eye contact with people who talked to us, and people always commented on how alert he seemed, how much he was paying attention. It is also much easier to get through doors, up and down stairs and escalators, and navigate stores or airports with a sling or Baby Bjorn than with a stroller! When he got too big for the Baby Bjorn, I went back to the sling and used it for support when I carried him on my hip (all this was a good physical workout for me too!). Though of course what makes us the way we are is very complicated, I’d like to think this practice of carrying N. fostered both his attentiveness and his verbal precocity, traits which eventually led us to consider homeschool and unschool.

Before reading Sears’ Baby Book and Meredith Small’s fabulous study in “ethnopediatrics” Our Babies, Our Selves, I didn’t even know about baby slings. Strollers just seemed like a given accoutrement of parenthood; when I fantasized about motherhood, I pictured myself pushing a stroller, living the life of a hip urban mama (although now that I think about it, I don’t recall my parents using a stroller for their 4 kids very often – maybe because we drove where we needed to go, such as church or the grocery store, and didn’t need a stroller when we got there). But I was inspired by the accounts in Sears and Small of cultures for which physical connection with their children was the norm. So much of my experience of parenting so far has been like this: rethinking (sometimes overthinking?) ideas and practices that were once so familiar, so taken for granted as to be invisible to me. Once these ideas and practices have been made visible and subject to scrutiny, I find my response to them to be totally different than I would have imagined before becoming a parent.


Holly said...

I had the good fortune of taking an eye-opening course in college called The Anthropology of Medicine in which we discussed the childbirth and parenting practices of different cultures. We read The Woman in the Body by Emily Martin which (apart from my mom's horror stories about being anesthetized during my brother's birth and waking up later completely disoriented, no longer pregnant and without her baby) was my first opportunity to examine the medicalization of childbirth in our culture. Little did I know it at the time, but this book would spark a series of decisions that would shape our lives in a radical way. Unschooling is one of many major lifestyle choices we've made after questioning and rejecting widely accepted social norms. My pattern has been that I am urged to do something that doesn't feel at all right to me, I start doing it differently, and then later I find out there's a name for what I'm doing... and a controversy surrounding it! In this way I've discovered natural childbirth, demand-feeding (hate that name), co-sleeping, attachment parenting, baby-wearing, and unschooling.

Jena said...

I think I have found a friend. :) You sound like me fifteen years ago. I was trained as a school teacher, but then the thought of turning my child over to the system at age 5 just didn't sit right with me. I learned about homeschooling, but all the homeschoolers around me were "school at home" types. I followed my heart to let my child live a stress-free life and maintain the joy of childhood and the joy of learning. I kept it to myself as much as possible because most people either felt threatened or judgmental. Now he's a freshman at the University of Chicago, getting straight A's, on a full ride scholarship. I'm no longer shy about promoting unschooling through high school. :) You are in for a wonderful ride.