Would unschooling actually make my kids happier? – The cut | Team Cansler

Pictured: Hannah Buckman

Bad news for uptight pencil pushers like me: the consensus seems to be that you can’t force your kids to like school. In fact, a chilling atmosphere of authoritarian coercion probably makes it worse. As Malcolm Harris recently wrote, the feeling that children and adolescents have no control over their own lives is at the root of the epidemic of pessimism and depression in young adults.

Children happily rushing to elementary and high school each morning are balm in a burning world. Orderly, obedient and virtuous: What more could a parent ask for? But kids who struggle at school hand their parents a whole new round of mysterious and terrifying responsibilities. How dare you?

Some parents love and honor their school-hating children. This is usually – and I’m not sorry to say – because the children’s attitudes are fulfilling a selfish need on the part of the parents. Is the parent a proud nonconformist, a person who has spent their entire life kicking the spikes and will never stop even when the spikes have retreated? Almost always. Having grown up with hippies, I know a lot of people like that. Good for you. But most of us are, demographically, aspiring norms, and we want our children to “do well” as determined by our social fabric. When our kids hate school, it feels like a crime against God.

One approach to helping children enjoy school more seems, somewhat counterintuitively, to encourage them to do their own thing instead of doing their homework. This approach exists on a spectrum. On one side is the practice of letting your child relax for an hour after school instead of doing their homework, and on the other side is the unschooling movement.

Unschooling is homeschooling for people who find curriculum of any kind too restrictive. Like Judy Arnall, the author of Unschooling to universityShe told me her children were “totally, utterly” opposed to any form of organized learning. When she took them to home school from school, they ignored her attempts to get their attention. So she said, “I just gave up doing the curriculum and we just played for ten years.”

Unschooling is the idea that children learn best when they are in complete control of themselves, that hitting “milestones” about when to learn something is arbitrary and foolish. Unschooling argues that when you let kids do what they want, they end up learning what they need to know to live happy, engaged lives. What if they don’t learn fractions until they’re 12? The “learning objectives” of conventional schools are intended to provide taxpayers with proof that their tax money “works”. Unschooling avoids these kinds of responsibilities and centers the child’s inner compass.

All of this has limited appeal for me because his approach is generally individualistic, a horseshoe-theoretic encounter of radically progressive permissiveness and separatist-libertarian self-determination. People who advocate for unschooling, like filmmaker Astra Taylor, who didn’t go to school until she was 13, are usually extraordinary people with unconventional families. Most of us are ordinary people with jobs. We are foot soldiers of conformity and we are trapped in our mortgages, college debt, limited skills and sedentary habits. You can pity us and call us “sheep,” but if you are not willing to forgive our debts, we will continue to work and will not have time to look after our children while they leave school themselves.

Arnall admits childcare can be a problem during school hours when you have to leave home to work. She was part of a childcare cooperative, but the other children went to school, so few parents were available to care for their children during school hours. In the midst of a childcare crisis across North America, the idea of ​​introducing more childcare needs into one’s life is frankly quite offensive, and many readers will surely slam the book on unschooling for that reason alone.

But despite my distaste for the exclusion built into unschooling, I cannot entirely reject its principles. In 2018, neuropsychologist William Stixrud and test prep expert Ned Johnson published The Self-Directed Child: The Science and Feeling of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. The book is essentially based on the same data we use today to talk about the mental health crisis of young people during the pandemic period, so clearly this crisis is only partly about the ongoing impact of the pandemic. Children have felt out of control over their lives for years, and the authors argue that parents’ best intentions play an important unintended role in the crisis. One point I have to give, albeit reluctantly, to the unschooling side.

The authors convincingly argue that when we feel “in control,” our prefrontal cortex is able to manage our amygdala, from which fight-or-flight reflexes emanate. The experience of control allows us to control our own emotions. Autonomy over our time also helps to develop feelings of motivation. Pushing children through an education system that gives them limited choices about how they spend their time and virtually no choice about what they learn appears to be detrimental to children’s mental health. Children who master and are content with the structure of school life will pull through—but that may be fewer children than one would hope.

In the course of the pandemic, the entire concept of office work is being reassessed, but everyday school life is not. Office workers prefer the autonomy that comes with hybrid work and want to be confident that they are managing their time appropriately. Most officers’ morale suffers when they are constantly monitored – is it any wonder many children feel the same way about school? School trains for the office, so if we change offices, when do we change schools?

Proponents of unschooling will tell you their approach is understudied because academics are “afraid of what they might find out.” It’s weird when people think that (“They’re scared of us because we might knock them out”). That’s what Deadheads say about people who hate the Grateful Dead. The unschooling movement’s continued marginality is no secret: it is defined as opposition to organized learning, and governments are charged with the organized education of their citizens. The reason governments have no incentive to critically rethink pedagogy is that elementary school students, unlike office workers, cannot (yet) en masse quit or unionize. Without this threat, the status quo feels immobile.

It turns out that kids who love school could benefit from a change just as much as kids who hate it. My older son is in seventh grade, which is the first year of high school in Quebec. Earlier this fall, his school hosted an information night for parents of seventh graders to give us advice on how to help our children transition into high school. The school has a good reputation and although it is public, there is an entrance exam to be admitted. It was a room full of parents whose children had enjoyed going to school until recently.

I attended the information night with my friend Laura, a co-parent of a seventh grader. We both agree that while it is satisfying to send our children to a good school, it would be nice if schools made less of a fuss about it – for the good of the children. But these days, it seems like a kid who enjoys school enough to be considered a “high performer” is doomed to circulate in a stressful greenhouse environment. What if there were good public schools that didn’t put a lot of pressure on students? If that seems impossible, maybe we should ask ourselves why.

We took our places in the cafeteria with about 50 other parents. One of the teachers present was a former guidance counselor, an elderly man with a light sense of humor who at times became so emotionally involved in his subject that he was close to tears. The point he emphasized throughout his presentation was that our primary responsibility as parents is to maintain a good relationship with our children, whatever happens to the schoolwork. “It’s all about the relationship,” he reiterated.

These intelligent children will experience stress, the teachers told us. You will fear failure. It’s inevitable. Homework will limit your life. They are tied to their desks. It’s going to suck – but that’s the lot of the academically elite kid, and we’ve all been fortunate enough to be there, even a conscientious group of trials. Give the kids a break, the former careers adviser advised us. From time to time, let them take a night off from homework. “Let them be children,” he pleaded.

On the drive home, Laura and I reviewed what we had learned. On the one hand, our kids would have a lot of homework for the foreseeable future, and they’d better get used to it. Reviews would give them routine anxiety. Instead of putting additional pressure on them, parents should encourage their children to relax and have fun. The school asked parents to repair some of the damage routinely done in the name of academic rigor.

For parents of school-hating kids, the task is the same: just make them feel like they have an impact on how they spend their own time. Maybe that means giving up a tutor or giving up hope that a kid who hates school will turn out to be a secret SAT genius. Maybe failure is an option.

If motivation from autonomy and well-being stems from a sense of control over one’s environment, I think every child, no matter how they fare at school, deserves an equal chance to find out a few things for themselves.

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