Unschooling Articles from Live Free Learn Free

Be Realistic!
by Kathryn Baptista

Okay, I have to start out with a confession: I have a wonderful sixteen-year-old son. He is kind, funny and smart. We’ve been unschooling since he was eight years old, and he already has three college courses under his belt, two from Harvard. He has successfully been hired for, and done well at, two different jobs that are usually reserved for grownups. When non-unschoolers meet him, they tend to be impressed with him. He’s a great Unschooling Poster Boy.

That’s not the confession part.

Julian wants to be a rock star. The experienced, true-believer unschoolers are now all thinking, “That’s wonderful!” Others are telling their partners, “See, I told you that’s what comes from this unschooling! He should be applying to law school!”

Grownups know that wanting to become a rock star isn’t… well… practical. Very few musicians really make it. Very few musicians even get recording contracts, and of those who do, most don’t even make enough money to live on. Besides, even if you make it, what kind of life is that? Let’s be realistic.

But… what if Julian has something, or a lot of things, that other kids who start out wanting to be rock stars don’t have?

Some of the things that Julian has are within him. He has a passion for music. When I was pregnant, I lived in Portland, Maine and traveled to a birthing center in Wiscasset for prenatal visits. It was about an hour drive, and very beautiful and pleasant. I’d usually crank up the radio and enjoy the ride.

Late in my pregnancy I was driving to Wiscasset, and a song came on the radio. I don’t remember what it was, but it had a heavy beat, and the baby started kicking – in time to the music! It was pretty cool.

So, Julian’s love of music seems to have come about pretty early. He has been singing longer than talking. So, even if Julian’s dreams of being a rock star don’t pan out, he’s very clear that he wants to be a musician.

Julian also has a lot of drive. He works very hard on his music, and his goal is to become a better and better musician.

A Supportive Environment

Some of Julian’s advantages are outside himself, though. He’s had access to excellent teachers both for guitar and voice. We’ve found teachers that are able to let go of the usual teacher-y power-over stuff, and work with him with respect, as they’d work with an adult. They’ve also shown him that, even if he doesn’t become a rock star, that there are lots of ways to be a musician and make a reasonable living.
As he works to meet his goal, he also has something else that lots of aspiring rock stars don’t. I am reminded of this story the writer David Wolpe tells in his book Teaching Your Children about God (Harper Paperbacks, 1995):

“A boy and his father were walking along a road when they came across a large stone. The boy said to his father, “Do you think if I use all my strength, I can move this rock?” His father answered, “If you use all your strength, I am sure you can do it.” The boy began to push the rock. Exerting himself as much as he could, he pushed and pushed. The rock did not move. Discouraged, he said to his father, “You were wrong. I can’t do it.” His father placed his arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, “No, son. You didn’t use all your strength – you didn’t ask me to help.”

He has his parents. In Julian’s case, three of them.

Did you ever have an impractical dream when you were a kid? Did you tell your parents? Did your parents respond by saying, “That sounds wonderful! How can I help?”

That’s the thing. I have no idea if Julian will beat the odds and become a rock star. But I do know that he has people who will help. He has people who can make press kits and phone calls, and listen sympathetically, and find resources, and do all kinds of things that musicians usually can’t get until they can pay for it.

I think about all the things that everyone “knows.” You have to make kids learn stuff. If you don’t, they’ll just want to play all the time, and then their lives will be ruined. Teenagers always rebel against their parents, and if you try to be friends with your kids they’ll do drugs and then live with you forever. Or go to jail and you’ll have to visit them there.
My favorite one is that parenting is a one-way street – parents give, kids take.

But, my family doesn’t look like that. So, my next confession is about me and how my family deals with me. Trust me, it’s not easy!

I am what my idol Barbara Sher calls a “scanner.” I suspect many unschoolers are. I have lots and lots of interests, and like to do lots of different things. Some of the jobs I have held include working in many different kinds of museums, owning a feminist bookstore, working with a battered woman’s shelter, working at a halfway house for ex-offenders, Director of Religious Education at two Unitarian Universalist churches, unschooling conference organizer, publishing and editing a monthly parenting magazine…. I could go on.

In addition, I have written a book about spiritual learning for families that I need to finish, as well as a curriculum for Unitarian Universalist church religious education programs about science and religion. I crochet, knit a little, draw, make beaded jewelry, play with polymer clay, read incessantly, play the computer game Sims 2, watch lots of TV, listen to music…. Again, I could go on.

Back to my family. It would be really easy for them to become exasperated with me. I often announce a new passion or plan, and the response I get – from my partner of almost sixteen years, wife of two, and from my sixteen year old son – is, “That sounds wonderful! How can I help?”

As a result of responses like this, I have been able to plan two conferences, write the aforementioned books, be an artist, and many, many other things. When I struggled with maybe becoming a minister, they were immediately supportive and willing to help in any way they could. When I realized that it really wasn’t what I wanted, they understood, acknowledged my process, and celebrated me for making a hard decision.

I mentioned Barbara Sher, who is the author of the book Wishcraft, and now a new one called Refuse to Choose: A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything That You Love (Rodale, 2006). Barbara was probably one of the biggest influences for me in deciding what kind of parent I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life.

You’ll notice I called her Barbara. I get to do that because two years ago, when I was planning the 2004 Live and Learn Conference, I had the brilliant idea that I wanted her to come and speak. The thing is, this is a woman with many books to her credit. She makes big bucks to speak to groups, and she’s often seen on PBS during pledge weeks. It just wasn’t realistic to expect her to come to a conference for a bunch of weird, fringe homeschooler people.

We worked it out, because when I told her about unschoolers, she thought it was so cool that she agreed not only to come, but to stay for the whole conference and get to know these people!

I actually do believe we need to be realistic when making goals, and help our children to be realistic too. Years ago I read books like Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization that suggested that, to get what you want, all you had to do was use the power of your mind and the energy of the universe. It was kind of fun doing that meditation and visualizing and trusting the universe, but, ultimately, what’s more useful is having access to real tools and support.
As adults, we have resources that our children don’t. We have access to money and transportation, and we know stuff that our kids don’t know.

Practical Goals

Adults often don’t take kids’ dreams seriously. If an adult friend came to us and told us that they really wanted to start a dog-grooming business, probably our minds would start racing. I know a really cool vet; I could ask her if she ever needs to recommend groomers. And doing conferences, I’ve learned how to make a simple web site, so I could help with that too.

We often don’t offer the same to our kids, and that’s unfortunate. Is it because sometimes their dreams seem too big and scary? I mean, it’s a lot easier to start a dog grooming business than to become a rock star, isn’t it?
You know, when we first decided to homeschool, I called my mother to tell her. I had no idea what her reaction would be. She was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. She always knew all the Jeopardy answers. What she said when I told her was, “That’s practical,” which for her was about the biggest compliment in the world.

I, of course, laughed. I could think of lots of reasons to homeschool, but practicality was NOT one of them!

Now, though, I think she was right.

You can learn some good things in school. But most of those things are NOT practical! They work really hard at teaching math in school, for example. Did you take trigonometry in high school? How about calculus? If you are not a mathematician, when was the last time you ever used either of those things?

I never took trig or calculus. I was not a math girl. And you know what – neither is my kid. However, as I wrote this, I went in and asked Julian this question: Suppose you had an apartment and wanted to paint the living room. How would you figure out how much paint to buy?

He said, “I’d ask the paint people at the hardware store.”

See, that’s practical! Now, Julian does math all the time. From years of playing Dungeons and Dragons he can do percentages in his head, so when something is on sale for a percentage off, he can figure it out easily. But, if you ask him what 7x8 is, he’ll have to think about it. You might consider that a gap in his education. He might suggest to you that, as a musician, he really only needs to be able to count to four.

Following Passions

Now, here’s another disclaimer. One of the things new unschoolers struggle with is that they constantly hear stories from experienced unschoolers about how wonderful their kids are and about the amazing things they do. By virtue of conferences and other things I do in the community, I sometimes get panicked phone calls or e-mail from new unschoolers. They often meet my kid, who really is truly cool. Then, they worry because, well, Julian must be gifted, and their kids would never be motivated enough, or smart enough, or… whatever enough.

Now, I think Julian has always been wonderful. He’s sweet and caring, funny and smart. But he is not, and never has been, one of those super-gifted prodigy kids. As a little kid he was kind of spacey and would drift off into thoughts about eagles or something when he was supposed to be doing school-y stuff. He spends hours leafing through Musician’s Friend catalogs with the same kinds of expressions some young men have looking at pictures of naked women.

Julian IS a genius, though, and so are your kids, and so are you! He gets to do the things he loves, and he has people in his life who support him and offer tools and help and resources. He has time to explore his passions, and to work on them. So, of course he’s successful.

I don’t know if Julian will become a rock star or not. It’s possible that, as he approaches that goal, he may discover that that’s not what he really wants anyway, and then he’ll have the space and support to go onto the next thing. What I do know is that all of our dreams can be real, and realistic, too.

Kathryn Baptista lives in Salem, Massachusetts with her wife, Beth, and her children, Julian and Jackie. They all do lots of different things, both practical and impractical. Kathryn has coordinated two unschooling conferences, including the 2004 Live and Learn Conference. You can reach her at KathrynJB@aol.com.



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