Trust is the Magical Element

Unschooling debates and opinions bring out quite a bit of fear and frustration. Here’s an example of the kinds of comments that show how out of touch we are with our own ability as humans to learn.

I certainly don’t believe unschooling is something that would work for anyone, just as I would say that attachment parenting and home birth aren’t for everyone either. Even though, I see nothing inherently prohibitive of these things in and of themselves. It’s the user that defines whether these things are workable or not – not the practice itself that is a problem. The fact that these things do work for someone, means that they are entirely workable for anyone, given a certain state of mind. The same is true for public school, bottle feeding or voluntary c-sections. They aren’t right for everyone, but given a certain set of variables, it works.

I’ve said this before, so why am I bringing it up again? I wanted to point out a particular argument against unschooling that, I totally get why people use it, but how it is a faulty argument.

The argument is, “If I had been unschooled, I would have learned nothing. It’s only because I was forced to learn that I did, because I would have read/skateboarded/watched TV all the time given the choice.”

The issue with this argument is that it is impossible to prove. Because if that person had been unschooled, or zen-schooled, particularly if it had been from birth, that person would not have taken the path that led them to today. And who can say whether the alternate path would have been better or worse, or even comparable at all? This person is talking from the point of view of having not been unschooled.

It has the same logic as, “If I had grown up in France, I would have never learned French because I was never able to learn it growing up in the US, no matter how hard I studied.”

Another problem with this argument, is that it proves a continued school-think. Of course, if we are stuck in school-think, unschooling will never make sense. If we still believe, as adults, that in order for ourselves to learn, or for the child version of ourselves to have learned, we had to be made to learn, then we are still deeply entrenched in the idea something outside of ourselves knows us better than we do. That is what schools teach by how they approach learning.

Unschoolers know, that even if sometimes we need a little shove here and there to get the confidence or spark of inspiration, that we do not need that all the time. And we certainly don’t need outside forces to keep us from self-destructing educationally. Everything we need is in us. If we think that we can’t figure out what we need unless someone makes us figure it out, we have had way too much of the school’s kool-aid.

I’m going to be bold and say something that most people who think that they would never have learned without school won’t like – school is the reason you think that you wouldn’t have learned without being forced. Children are not inherently lazy. People aren’t inherently lazy. Educational laziness is taught. Educational laziness is a perspective. It is an opinion that we create about ourselves and our children. In an instant, we can change everything by just knowing that we all have everything we need to be successful in our lives in us. Other people can not make us into a learner. That is a choice we have to make for ourselves.

That is a choice we can make right now, no matter what has been in our past. That’s the secret that children are not taught in school. That everything we need is inside us. And that it’s not up to someone “out there” to find it for us. We are capable of finding in ourselves the things that make us whole, successful and that make life meaningful. The teachers in our lives are not there because they have seen we need them, but because we are the ones who, in our own minds, are ready to learn from them. When we aren’t ready, no teacher can give us anything. We have to be ready in our own minds to accept someone teaching us. And when we are ready, teachers will appear in one way or another in our lives.

Sometimes when we are stuck, we need someone else to help us see who we are, and say, “hey, you have this in you, can’t you see?” As an unschooler or homeschooler or zen-schooler, we can do that for our kids when they are struggling to see their own potential due to fear or self-doubt. Their fear and self-doubt is their own way of asking for help. But if we try to be that light for them day in and day out, to constantly point at them to say “this is who you are, now follow me so I can keep showing you who you are” with the idea that people can’t really learn much without being pulled and pushed, this directs our children away from using their own inner voice to guide them. Instead of looking to create a clear idea of who they are, they learn to depend on the “help” of others to tell them what they can and can’t do. They see themselves as lazy, unable and hopelessly lost without someone telling them what’s next.

I often look back at my childhood and wonder, if my parents took a different approach to education, would I have turned out differently. Would I have been as successful, or as unhappy, or as whatever. And the answer is – maybe. I think what it ultimately boiled down to is this – my dad never, ever stopped believing in me. He believed in me so much, that my weaknesses were never all that important. He trusted me and supported my decisions even when he thought I was making mistakes. He told me what he thought of my choices, but in the end, never doubted me. I remember once, “I don’t agree with your choice, but I trust you.” And I wonder, sometimes, if maybe he should have pushed harder to get me to change my mind on things. But I think, his unwavering trust that I was a good person, and that I was fully capable of creating my own life, was the cornerstone of my education.

It wouldn’t have mattered at all where I got my education. His trust was the thing that made me capable of being able to see my own potential, even when I screwed up in so many ways. And I believe that kids, no matter where they go to school (or not), if they have that unwavering trust from somewhere, they will have a very good chance of being successful. More than any other factor, a stable role model of trust is what makes the difference.

And unschooling, even with its potential faults, is all about trust. Unschoolers completely trust their children. By trust I mean this – parents look at their children and just know that no matter what tough times they go through, or what problems they have, or whatever, their kids will succeed. They just know. Because their kids are born to learn. Even if they want to read or play video games every spare moment, or struggle with dividing house chores, or don’t seem to have a passion for anything “useful”, they know their kids will figure out their lives as they mature.

It’s not a blind trust – it’s an awake trust. Seeing through all the crap and knowing, underneath it all, is a powerful, strong, successful person, even if they aren’t showing it right at this moment. That they have it in them, and it’s up to us to help them believe in themselves. And the first step to helping them believe in themselves, is for us to believe in them first. If we don’t believe in them, and tell them with words or with actions that we think they are incapable of being able to manage their own educational needs and their own life success, then their learning to believe in themselves has to come from somewhere else, if they are to have it at all.

Now, that’s not to say that other forms of schooling are necessarily without trust. In fact, I think that if a parent honestly trusts their children, that it doesn’t matter what kind of education they get – children will be nurtured to succeed. But, in unschooling, that trust is part of the description of the educational philosophy. You can’t be an unschooler and not trust your kid. If you don’t trust your kid, you’re not an unschooler. There aren’t many other educational philosophies that are defined by this trust.

The argument about kids having to be made to do things because they aren’t doing the ‘right’ things, or because they can’t know their own abilities, is a point of view of distrust. And if we think, we, ourselves, couldn’t have been unschooled, because without being forced, we would have never learned, then we fail to see that the person who was ‘forcing’ us to learn wasn’t actually helping us. We were helping ourselves by allowing this person to show us the way because we were ready. Eventually, we would have found another teacher if that one hadn’t been the one to give us a spark. Or, perhaps we would have found the spark within ourselves somehow. The fact is, there are many ways to learn something. And whatever we remember learning in our lives, we could have easily have learned in a different way given different circumstances. It’s just that, in our own lives, that’s how we learned it. Other people learn the same things in different ways. And, if we hadn’t learned it in that particular way, it’s very likely we would have learned it another way. Just because something happened, doesn’t mean that was the only way it could have happened.

No method is perfect. There are negatives to every choice we make. But whether things are positive or negative is based on our perspective, not on any black and white indication of what is good. For our family, “good” means our kids growing up knowing that no matter how much they might mess up, fail or otherwise do things that other people don’t like, they are good people, worthy of trust, and have someone who will always, always believe in their abilities. How that plays out, in our family, ends up being something I like to call “zen-schooling”. But, it could have played out a million different ways, depending on who we happened to be. It doesn’t matter. Our kids believe in themselves. And are not expected to live up to anyone else’s idea of what success is. The details of how they get from here to there are not in our control, or predictable. And when we get there, we can easily look back and think that this was good or that was bad. But in reality, it could have happened in a million different ways. And each one of those ways could have been just as good (or just as bad). No way to know.

Trust, what is it really? To trust someone, whether it be a child or a spouse or a friend, is to say, ” I trust you to create your own idea of success, and to decide for yourself if you are happy.” This kind of trust is what keeps relationships strong, and gives people the most support. Believing that they are capable of being who they want to be, no matter who everyone else in the world thinks they should be, including what we think they should be.

If we trust our children like this, then so many fears fall away naturally. And without fear of how our children might disappoint us, we can be free to really see who our children are, who we are, and how the unfolding of what and how we learn is beautiful however it comes. It’s far more beautiful when we watch it unfold, and trust the process. When we are fearful and worried that our children will fail us, then it’s impossible to watch the beauty of them growing up. Trust them to truly enjoy the journey.

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5 Responses to “Trust is the Magical Element”

  1. Lena Says:

    When my daughter was one, I read about unschooling and it seemed like the coolest thing in the world. Then I read more about homeschooling in general and I thought unschooling was not a smart idea. Now my daughter is three and I am opening up to unschooling again (at least for the first years, until she’s eight or so). The main reason is that I find it so inspiring to see how much she learns. It is fascinating to me that she even learns things like math on her own (she started counting the pieces on her plate, removing one, counting them again, etc.) This gives me a lot of trust in her ability to learn.

    What put me off of unschooling were two things:
    – I only read about “radical unschooling” which was, well, too radical for me (I still want my child to brush her teeth and I do not want her too choose what she eats).
    – My contacts with unschoolers were not that impressive. I sometimes got the impression that children were left too much to themselves. I also wondered if I was capable to provide a rich enough environment for my children.

    Your comparison with learning French is very apt and I agree with it.

    By the way: in my country homebirth is the norm. Homeschooling is much less common than in the US though. I think that shows that many of these things are way more culture than we think them to be. People in the US who are terribly afraid of homebirth probably would have a homebirth here, just because everybody does.

  2. tobeme Says:

    Great article! The two themes that you drove home were, having trust and having a knowing. The other factor that must be present in the parent is to have the courage to do unschooling. This practice goes against the grain of society, family and many freinds. A parent must have the courage to know they are doing the best for their child, for they as parents will always be challanged on their decision to unschool!

  3. Tammy Says:

    You’re right tobeme. Not only does unschooling require trust in our children – but trust in ourselves, that just like our children, we are fully capable of making smart, strong decisions. If we can’t trust ourselves, then it’s impossible to unschool. And perhaps, that’s really the main thing that keeps people from feeling like they can’t do it.

    There’s a difference between thinking that something couldn’t work, and knowing it could work, but making a choice to go a different direction.

    If we trust ourselves, that’s what creates the courage to listen to our inner voice, instead of to what everyone else is telling us to do.

  4. Anna Says:

    I readily admit that I am not there yet. Our biggest hurdle is that there are so many things that I know that I think are cool, and I just have to push them. Can’t stop myself. Maybe when they are older they will be able to tell me to back off so that they can choose their own path. But at 5 and 2, I am still so excited to have them all to myself that I constantly pour things into their little heads.

  5. Tammy Says:

    I see nothing wrong with pushing our kids to try new things. In fact, I think that’s part of our jobs as parents. Trust comes in when, if we push, they say “no”, or they don’t really “bite”, we trust that they are still going to be just fine.

    Making a child do something for their own good and pushing a child to do things because we think they are cool, are two completely different things. One is based on fear, the other on enthusiasm for life.


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