Monday, March 28, 2011

Unschooling Rant: The Label Babble

I've never been a fan of labels.
At least not the ones assigned to people. Since becoming a parent, my experience with labels has become a source of stress and self-doubt. I have often found myself looking up to mothers who seemed to identify themselves as this type of parent or that type of parent and then, in my desperate attempt to find my niche and become more like those I admired, beginning to beat myself up because I couldn't quite live up to said label.

Of course, this was earlier on in my parenting years. But it was real. And detrimental.

I always knew I would homeschool my children. Okay, maybe not always. I remember being a child and having one of my best friends, who was already "weird" in my mind because she was a Mormon, being taken out of school to be educated at home. Her parents didn't think that the school (or I??) was a good influence. I remember being so weirded out by that concept. What kind of freak didn't go to school? You mean, that was actually an option? I don't recall wishing I could be taken out of school but I do recall eventually landing upon the conclusion that it would take a really devoted and loving parent to do something like that... keep their child at home with them every day, all day long. My mom always said she couldn't do it, she wasn't smart enough, which struck me as a cop out (but that's a whole different post). At any rate, I went into my teenage and adult years with a positive view of homeschooling just because of the Mitchell family. I recently contacted that friend (thanks Facebook) and told her what an influence her family had been on me at such a young age and that now I am a homeschool mom. I think it's important to know what impact you are having on people when you don't realize that anyone is watching.

So, when did I go from thinking that homeschool sounded okay by me to knowing that I would prefer to never send my children to school? When I went back to college (after I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelors in Psychology) to get my license to teach. I *think* I intended to become a high school English teacher but honestly, I don't even remember. To tell the truth, I didn't want to be a teacher. I was just stalling until the man I loved came to his senses and realized he wanted to marry me. But I figured in the mean time, teaching would be okay. I was accepted into the program. I aced all of my insanely simple classes. I went into the schools as a requirement for those classes. And that was where I realized that I didn't want to work for this system. Not only did I not want to work for the system, but I didn't want to participate in it by injecting my kids into it one day. I can't tell you one specific thing that happened. But I can tell you that being there, in the schools, was not pleasant. Furthermore, it just didn't feel right for me. It kinda felt icky.

Shortly there after, I did get married and I soon started having babies. So, I already knew that one day I'd homeschool but I assumed that would look like... well... school at home. I didn't know anyone who homeschooled at the time. I didn't really know what homeschooling looked like for anyone. But when I began to picture it in my head during those months of pregnancy when I would dream about the future, I pictured schedules and sitting down at tables and searching for curriculum and doing science and history and reading at specific times of day. I imagined tests and worksheets and all of the other things that I had experienced in school... only I imagined doing them at home around the kitchen table. And that suited me just fine at the time. I was weird and homeschooling was weird so it was a perfect fit.

I don't know how I became friends with Dina on livejournal (do you remember, Dina?) but somehow, during Hunter's early months, I became connected through my very first blog to a mama named Dina who lived in Texas. She had a son slightly older than Hunter and she was APish like I was. As I read her blog entries, I started to notice that she would talk about something called "unschooling". I may have looked it up. I may have asked her what in the world it was. But when she told me, I remember thinking "Yeah, right." But that thought quickly evolved into, "Yeah! Right ON!" It clicked. It absolutely made more sense to me than anything else in the world ever. Right then and there I knew that I would at least begin to investigate unschooling as an option for Hunter.

A couple of years later, I was part of a mom's group (dragged kicking and screaming by a friend who was the leader, I found that, despite the drama, I really liked the support.) One night, my friend Corinna was doing research for her website. She asked, on our forum, what had been some of our greatest challenges as parents. I chimed in, listing a good number of things. One thing that I listed was, "Deciding whether or not unschooling will be right for my family." Oh boy. That was when all hell broke loose. There was a group of women, who I later discovered had a *secret* forum where they would go to make fun of me and few others in the group (I know, right?), who verbally assaulted me that night. They hit me from every angle... breastfeeding, vaccinations, you name it. I could see that they had been saving this all up for just the right moment and then BAM. My friend Jill was the only person who defended me. I could tell that nearly everyone in the group was online that night, watching it all unfold. Those women really let me have it. They were especially critical of unschooling. When I sent them to this website so that maybe they could read a little for themselves, one of them came back making fun of "that woman quoted on the front page." I explained that THAT WOMAN was Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller's teacher, but that didn't seem to change their opinion of her words. They did a very good job of proving themselves to be morons and it was then and there that, as I argued in favor of unschooling as best as I possibly could without ever having witnessed it or lived it, I decided that I would, in fact, begin my homeschooling journey as an unschooler.

Perhaps it is my intense dislike for women like those who have made me cling so hard to the label. Perhaps it is because I identified with the concept so long ago and found it to be so different and so perfect that I cannot let go of the label. Or perhaps I like to keep identifying myself as an unschooler because I love to be weird and different.

But I don't think so.

This week I had the unique opportunity to accompany my daughter to her homeschool gymnastics class. While I sat on the bleachers, staring at my hands, trying to avoid eye contact with people, I overheard a conversation that went something like this:
Mom 1: Do you guys do spring break?
Mom 2: Normally yes but we aren't finished with history.
Mom 1: Yeah, there are a few subjects we are behind on.

Now, if you happen to be one of these moms (hey, a lot of people who I don't know read my blog it seems) or if you have had similar conversations with people about your homeschooling, please don't be offended. I am in no way criticizing or saying that you are wrong or that I am more right than you are. I am saying this...
I am very different from you. So much different that I cannot even imagine how I would have responded had I been somehow involved in the conversation.
And I believe it is because of these very VAST differences that I cling to the label "unschooler". Because, if I am in a situation where I have to answer the question, "Do you do spring break?" I want to be able to say, "No, we are unschoolers" and have that answer the question and any other related follow up questions so that I don't end up engrossed in some conversation about subjects, grades, tests, TCAP scores etc. I want to be able to make the distinction between myself, as an unschooler, and people who are homeschoolers... who are doing school at home. Because the reality is that what we are doing here at my house is extremely different from what those people at the gymnastics studio are doing. And I feel that the label "unschooler" helps to distinguish between the two different philosophies and lifestyles.
Now, that said, I must admit that I'm not crazy about the word "unschool" as the label chosen to describe what we are doing. I feel like there might be a better word out there but no one asked me. I have considered dropping the label, yes. I have considered making up my own label and embracing it instead. But what would be the point in that? For now, I believe I will continue to embrace the label unschooler much like I've continued to embrace my maiden name. I have a long history with the word and it has done right by me so far.

I might eventually give up the label. But until then feel free to continue to refer to us as unschoolers. We would be much obliged.


  1. Mandy,

    Thanks for these blog posts and the article. Before we started homeschooling, I did research and read books and it seemed they all focused on what type of home schooler you should "be".

    When the rubber hit the road, I found that "being" one or another of these labels was very difficult.

    My home school style is pulled from many different methods, ideas, needs, and more. At first I kinda felt like a failure and then a kook because I didn't fit in any of the "molds".

    Thanks for helping bring awareness and therefore helping me feel a little more comfortable in my own skin.

    Boo to labels! Yeah to figuring what works for your family!

  2. Oh man. The part about the forum sounded a little TOO familiar. :)

  3. I know a lot of people don't like labels. Izzy over at "I'm Unschooled, Yes I Can Write" just did a post on labels. I think that if we choose our labels as a way to identify ourselves it is our choice. I don't think assigning labels to others is right. Huge difference! I love the unschooling label, personally, and I am proud to call us an unschooling family.

    Great post!

  4. I hate the unschooling label. At least I hate it when I have to tell people what "kind" of homeschoolers we are and they are unfamiliar with unschooling. I have to admit the first time I heard of it I thought it basically meant "unLEARNING" which it is not! I like "life learning" or "free learning" or something. When I talk to people who aren't familiar AT ALL with homeschooling I don't say "unschooling" because they'll have no idea what that is. It even sounds offensive to some people, "UNschool" sounds really anti-school and that isn't an easy way to enter a conversation with a person who sends their children to school. I usually say my sons learn based on their interests and leave it at that.

  5. This is an awesome post, Mandy. I admire your strength and I completely understand what you are saying about those types of mom groups and about unschooling as a lifestyle, and even about the word itself. I just cannot break away from the UNlearning impression, but it's good you don't care. I have similar reasons for saying we are secular homeschoolers even though I am not secular in life. It is a conversation stopper. Makes it a non-issue IMO and if someone has an issue with the fact that our school subjects are secular, then I'm better off not knowing them. I strive for religious tolerance as it seem like you strive for educational method tolerance. It is a test of sorts. If I liked the word better I would use it. I find that most unschoolers dabble in all kinds of methods and curriculum but cannot imagine doing it on a schedule or feeling the necessity to *finish* it. :D We find our dedication in life, not in curriculum too. Although I am exploring CM pretty heavily right now. I feel it gives me some missing pieces but I won't really schedule it. hehe Another CM friend of mine is starting to say that they "live an educational life." ha! I like that one.


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