When I was young, there were a lot of homeschooling parents who would brag about the chapter books their children were reading and how many grade levels ahead they were. I wasn’t reading yet, and my mother — feeling somewhat overwhelmed I’m sure — repeated for years, “She’ll learn to read when she’s ready.” It became a mantra of sorts, in the face of surrounding pressure. When she’s ready, she’ll learn.
My mother was right, of course. I was growing up in a very literate household, and without any learning disabilities. By the time I was 10, I was reading at least as well as my same-age peers. Surrounded by other parents who were very pleased to have poster children, my mother had resisted outside pressure and held true to her beliefs in natural learning.
When my family shifted more into unschooling-friendly circles, we started seeing less comparing of children to each other within the community. But holding up unschooling poster children — and poster young adults — to those new to or outside of the unschooling community seems every bit as common.
The message seems clear: In the face of widespread misunderstanding and criticism, we have something to prove — and the best way to prove it is to show how spectacularly impressive unschoolers can be.
I get the drive behind it. It’s hard to be such a small group doing something so unconventional, and it can be easy to feel a ton of pressure to prove the validity of our choices.
But, it can be really hard being one of those teens and young adults who are held up as examples, and even more difficult for the ones who end up feeling they don’t measure up to poster child status.
What success means is pretty subjective. In our culture it generally boils down to college degrees, a “good” job, money, prestige… Unschoolers often add some less conventional items, like traveling the world or starting a business, to the list. But whatever judgements are used, I think all young adults feel a lot of pressure to prove themselves capable adults. When you’re coming from an unschooling background, not only do you have something to prove personally, but suddenly you’ve become a stand-in for all unschoolers, a metric by which to judge the worth of an entire educational philosophy and group of people. Any success is seen as proof that maybe unschooling has some merit to it — and any failure? Well, that’s seen as proof that unschooling is a really bad idea to start with.
With that type of pressure coming from outside the community, it can feel especially hard to have that pressure coming from within the community as well.
I sort of accidentally fell into the role of unschooling example. When I first started writing my blog I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write. I never knew it would end up being so popular or lead to conference engagements and some level of notoriety in alternative education circles.
It’s a position that I sometimes feel very proud of, and that, at other times, makes me kind of uncomfortable. I love that my existence and my writing can help people see how valuable unschooling can be, but at the same time, I want to be looked at as just me, and to be representative only of my own life.
I want what I think we all want, no matter our education: to be seen as a unique individual with my very own aspirations and goals and experiences. I want my successes to be celebrated, and I want support and encouragement when I fail.
As a community, school-free learners want greater recognition and understanding. I want this as well, and have chosen to do what I can to advance that cause. But I also want each and every homeschooler and unschooler to be seen primarily as themselves, not as products of a philosophy, whether it’s believed to be good or bad.
As I wrote in a post last year:
I just hope, as unschoolers, we can hold tight to our shared value of appreciating learning for learning’s sake, whether it’s big or small, sung from the stages of a national singing competition, or curled up in a comfy chair in a nondescript house reading about Arthurian legends or the history of comics.
The goal should never be raising children who are impressive. It should be, instead, about nurturing and celebrating each individual, no matter who they are.