Articles by or Featuring Sarah

 

Life Learning Jan/Feb 2010

from Life Learning magazine, January/February 2010
The Mother He Needs
By Sarah E. Parent

On a journey from extremely traditional upbringings and an extraordinary evolution of our own parenting and educational philosophies, my husband and I are the free-living, life learning, gentle parents of two children who couldn’t be more different from each other.

The story that follows is one of the many lessons that have come to us from the first-born of our children, our six-and-a-half year-old son Elijah. He is pensive, analytical, calculating, sweet, soft-spoken, sensitive and self-directed. Elijah has never been interested in anyone else’s direction, encouragement or desires. Even as a toddler, he would not mimic or repeat sounds or actions for entertainment value or video capture. He is not here to entertain but to experience and his actions are rooted in his desire to learn or express himself. All of his learning has occurred entirely organically and any imposition on his focus or suggestion to alter his style has, to this point, resulted in immediate emotional rebellion or future refusal to partake in that particular activity lest he be further derailed or manipulated.Here is an example, which took place at the very beginning of our decision not to school but before we discovered life learning. When noticing that his younger cousin could write her name (on the wall in marker, but she could write it, nonetheless), I held Elijah’s hand and tried to assist him with writing his own. The situation blew up into a full-blown battle of the wills as I held out an expectation and he exerted his will to be the director of his own learning path. He may have been barely four years old at the time and has only recently, over two years later, made occasional attempts to draw letters or words. He’s the reason, really, that we were drawn to life learning from our previously paved route directly to public school. Through frustration and intention to connect in any way possible with this intensely inquisitive and focused child, my husband and I slowly tore out the pages of our haphazardly laid plan to parent and educate our children and began to understand them, not as “our children” but as the incredible individuals that they are.

We are still and, I am convinced, will always be learning from our children but also from the people around us if we are open to the lessons. About a year-and- a-half-ago, Elijah began to exhibit an interest in building with LEGO®. Feeling still, at this time, that I could support his learning by identifying interests and manipulating environmental circumstances such that he would be stretched to growth in these areas, I became aware of a local LEGO class and immediately (and without consulting him) signed him up for it. And so our story begins with me rushing him out the door to a LEGO class that, although he loved LEGO, he was not thrilled with attending. The word “class” is immediately off-putting for him because of his thoroughly self-directed nature. He enjoys structure when it’s predictably self-defined but is very uncomfortable with relinquishing control over the stops and starts of his activities. But he loves LEGO and, so I convinced him, this was a different kind of class and he would love it.

As we walked into the center, discomfort started slowly creeping into me. A friend of mine sat among all of the other mothers in the waiting area and there were no LEGO-aged children to be seen. Elijah was encouraged by the receptionist to join the children in an interior room down the hall and he, in turn, looked at me with the expectation that I would come along. Though he functions independently, it is important for his sense of security that I am in sight. And so, much to the surprise of the instructor and my friend in the waiting area, I went with him. I sat in a little chair at a little table surrounded by little people and would have been completely at ease if the instructor had been. It was clear that having another adult in the room was a new situation for her. I allowed her discomfort to heighten my own and began to feel hypersensitive about Elijah’s body language and his talking to me as she was trying to gain the group’s attention.

The class began with a directive to build a set of Olympic rings using the LEGO blocks on the table. Elijah looked at the drawing on the dry-erase board, examined the color sequence of the rings and, with great care, began to attempt to make circles with angular blocks. Shortly after they had begun, a warning was given that the time period for this particular assignment was almost complete. My son was not quite half-way through. I looked around at the other children- all of whom had either completed their “rings” or were almost finished. Some, of course, were more ring-like than others. Some required some additional tweaking as encouraged by the instructor. I began to try to help Elijah by letting him know that his time was almost up, handing him blocks and generally interfering with his concentration. Immediately, a second project was described and assigned while Elijah was determined to accomplish perfection with the original ring assignment. The instructor moved his ring project aside and encouraged him to work on this second project.

The resulting scenario was similar to the first but now coupled with the distraction of the incomplete first project that he was focused on completing. Anxiety was building in both of us. My inner eager-to-please student residing (apparently) just below the surface felt compelled to rush him along, became frustrated with his intensity and desperately wanted him to turn out a product that was pleasing to the instructor. I wanted him to shine because, in truth, society tells us that our children are a reflection of ourselves. This instructor would not celebrate the fascination in the process, the joy of building, the focus or the planning. What she was looking for was a finished product and we (we?) had nothing tangibly complete to show for the time that we had been there. I was relieved when my friend from the waiting area popped in for the last few minutes of the class to see how her kids were doing. I retreated to the corner with her for moral support regarding this frustration that I was feeling. What was this compulsion that I had to pressure rather than to support my child in this clearly uncomfortable situation?

The ensuing conversation centered on my current frustration with my son’s slow progress on the assignments and my desire for him to be able to keep pace with the other kids. In her response, she spoke of her own children and her own experiences and I awaited the wisdom that would reassure and support me along my path to continually seek and understand the heart lessons of my children. I was at odds with myself and, more importantly, with my child’s needs. My heart sank and tears welled as I realized that her stories were being spun into a thread that was completely foreign to my core beliefs as a gentle parent and life learner. She told me of the child’s need to be pushed in order to excel and of severing maternal ties so that they may gain security and self-confidence via forced independence. She pointed out that no other mothers were in the tiny classroom and that Elijah should be made to understand that his separation was an expectation from which I could be assured that he would achieve personal growth. She encouraged me to see that turning the learning aspect of life over to other adults was probably the answer for us so that Elijah could gain independence and confidence while getting the education that he “needs.”

My core felt darker and heavier as she spoke and I focused less and less on her words and more on not crying in a room full of LEGO and children. The support I had sought in redirection of my own insecurities had actually been aimed at capitalizing on them. The betrayal and enlightenment was punctuated by her final sentence, “Sometimes you’re not the mother he needs.” My son left the center with an even firmer disdain for classroom settings. I was left feeling hurt and bewildered.

I pondered her final words and the source of the hurt. Both of us felt so strongly about natural living and health. I had thought that the deep care and understanding of our children would have come to her along with the desire to care holistically for their bodies. I knew that my friend had differing parenting philosophies but I had felt that she respected mine. I heard her words over and over again in my mind and gradually felt a shift in energy. “Sometimes you’re not the mother he needs.” I knew there was truth in it but not in the way that she had meant.

So what is the truth? The truth is sometimes I’m not the mother he needs me to be. The overwhelming truth is that parenting is not about me. I become compromised by my own insecurities, my childhood desire to shine and to be recognized, the feeling that a finished product should be displayed such that others realize the brilliance – of this child, of this life. This situation is one of many that have created the tremendous discomfort and life change that often accompanies growth. Although we see each other only in passing now, I hold gratitude in my heart for this friend who held the mirror to me so that I could see myself and what it means to me to be Elijah’s mother – to truly consider each moment as a choice to support him. Thanks to her, these instances of insecurity are few and far between now. Her words continue to echo in me and act as a touchpoint during the times of instability and doubt. Anytime I feel myself waiver and take a downturn into self-consciousness, I hear those words, remember, and ask myself, “How will I be the mother he needs me to be?”

I recall a lesson from undergraduate nursing school. It was a chapter focusing on cultural diversity in which we were encouraged not to follow the Golden Rule – treating others as we would like to be treated – but rather that we should truly consider that particular individual (with regard to their cultural, ethnic, familial and personal needs) and treat them as they would like to be treated. I take this into account when I consider what Elijah needs from me as a mother. He needs support, patience, kindness, regard for his positive intent and disregard for the expectations of others. This is the kind of mother I will be – the kind that he needs to grow in the light of love and support, to grow and experience self-confidence, learning in joy and taking on challenges in his own brilliant way.

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Unschooling: Where do we begin?  Hints and Tidbits.                    Sarah E. Parent

There are many ways and reasons that people come to unschooling. For some, it is a parenting philosophy such as Attachment Parenting that forms a familial bond that does not mesh with the traditional means of education. For others, it is an exciting educational option through which their children can thrive intellectually. When children are truly encouraged in their pursuits and appreciated in their individuality, it becomes a brilliant mixture of the two.

Life and school cannot be separated in unschooling. We cannot hope for our children to be unfettered in their intellectual explorations while maintaining controls over other areas of their lives. They will not feel the freedom that is necessary for true happiness and achievement if social expectations such as college or financial independence loom. It is of primary importance that unschooling be experienced as a journey rather than a means to an end.

When beginning on this path- no matter the age or experience of your children- you have a job. Your job is that of the facilitator and support person. The world is a vast and amazing place that can be accessed in any number of ways- museums, concerts, performances, zoos, state and local parks, wildlife refuges, local and congressional hearings, libraries, and so much more. Never underestimate, however, the daily activities through which any number of life skills and intellectual learning are absorbed- shopping, banking, work, cooking, cleaning, etc. The world comes right to our families everyday through television, radio, movies, music, and video games which are all invaluable ways to learn. I would encourage you not to place in higher regard any of these learning opportunities over any other. Explore whatever activity your child finds of interest and, if you like, try to discern what it is that your child finds satisfying or exciting about it. See the learning everywhere and in everything. Open the world to your children through activities, thoughtful discussion, and research. The most important thing in life is not to know the answer but to have the initiative and know-how to find it out.

In the end, if we are pursuing the life we choose, we all do the things we love the most or those which will help us to reach that goal. These are the innate qualities of the child that are superseded in institutional schooling by forcing them through predetermined and standardized channels. We do not need to create learners, just assist their already voracious appetite with possibilities, access, and support.

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fwchild   dallchild

March 2009

A Different Way to Learn    by Susan Mardele

When you think about homeschooling, what comes to mind? The family dining room converted to a classroom? Desks lined up just like in a schoolroom and the mother as the teacher? A large family with the girls in prairie-style dresses? Maybe a special-needs child learning at her or his own pace? If you thought of one of these scenarios, you would be partially right. There are certainly homeschooling families that fit these typecasts.

However, families today are homeschooling in a variety of ways and for a multitude of reasons — families just like yours and mine. Some families say they do it because they believe it will help their children keep their love of learning intact. Some say they want to experience the excitement of discovery with their children. What’s more, some families choose to take this philosophy one step further with unschooling (which is essentially homeschooling that is not curriculum based).

Unschooling Pioneer
Barb Lundgren was on the forefront of the secular homeschooling movement. She and her family moved to Colleyville in 1988. With her husband, Steve Eaker, she decided to homeschool their three children, Quinn, Brenna and Ike, who are now 25, 23 and 19 respectively.  “Ultimately, I was learning from listening to my children,” says Lundgren. “So I was not inclined to put them in school because the more I learned and dissected the process of learning, the less school made sense to me.”

The North Texas mom chose to unschool her children. “It’s self-designed. By self, I mean motivated by the child, resourced in large part by the parent and unstructured in that every day can be different,” says Lundgren. “A child’s focus on a thing can last 5 minutes or a lifetime.”

Lundgren says she raised her children in an environment where absolutely no boxes exist. She disagrees with criticism that young children are not capable of making their own decisions regarding what they should learn or how they should spend their days. “A child is not equipped to forecast the future at age 5 by saying ‘I want to go to college and this is going to be my path to get there.’ But it shouldn’t be the parents’ job either,” contends Lundgren. “Pleasure comes in the form of accomplishment and responsibility. In an unschooling household, those two things are part and parcel with being alive.”

To this end, Lundgren asserts that there should be no structured steering in a school-aged child’s day-to-day life. Her reaction to a 5-year-old who wants to spend his day holed up in his room playing video games? “Unconditionally, that is what you want to support. If you have raised your child with responsibility and respect, you know that video game is demonstrating what your child needs to experience in the world,” says Lundgren. “Your job as a parent is to recognize if your child is truly joyful about this world he created. That process never means telling your child ‘I know more than you do.’”

When Lundgren’s children were younger, she struggled to find non-religious social groups for her children to join. This prompted the mom to start her own meeting group with a friend — a group that later grew to encompass workshops for new homeschooling (and unschooling) parents. Lundgren now hosts an annual Metroplex conference for like-minded parents, called Rethinking Education.

The Rethinking Education Web site states that a typical unschooling family has two to four children, ages 4-18. Thirty-one percent of the children are ages 4-6, 21 percent are ages 7-9, 29 percent are ages 10-12 and 17 percent are 13-18. Typical household income is $45,000-$75,000, and parents are well-educated, many holding postgraduate degrees or doctorates. The average family spends $1,500 annually on educational materials. Virtually 100 percent of attendees use computers and the Internet as an important learning tool. The typical unschooling family does not unschool for religious reasons — the population holds a wide range of religious beliefs.

Does Lundgren think unschooling “worked” for her three adult children? “I believe that my children are disabled in the real world,” says Lundgren — however, not in the way one might think. “What I have observed in all three of my children is that they do have difficulty fitting in real-world circles because everyone else has so much baggage to complain about nonstop.”

Lundgren would not share her children’s current occupations, saying that they have all focused on things in which they find interest. She says she refuses to measure the idea of success through professional labels, college degrees or dollar signs.

“For a parent to take on unschooling with the idea that their child can still be a doctor or a lawyer, then that would not be true unschooling. That would be very structured homeschooling where you (the parent) are producing a product,” says Lundgren. “A desire to unschool should never be motivated to produce a child with a defined future.”

Freedom to Learn
Karen Nettles Schockmel has a bachelor’s degree in cell biology, and her husband, Nate Schockmel, is a software development engineer. They live in Frisco. The couple decided to homeschool their children, Catherine, 1, Benton, 5, and Alexandra, 8, because Nettles Schockmel had what she calls a “horrible experience in public school.” She believed she could give her children a better experience.  

Some families start out with the commitment to homeschool through age 18. Others take it child by child and year by year. The Schockmel family is one of the latter. “We’ll do it as long as it works,” says Nettles Schockmel. “If someone is feeling the drive to go to school, depending on the reasons, we’ll let them try it out.”

School offers a social experience for children that homeschooling does not, and this can loom as one of the greatest concerns for the homeschooling parent. Nettles Schockmel found a secular group that fits for her family called Sharing Adventures in Learning (SAIL). “I think they have more social experience with what we’re doing now than in public school. Anything we do, there are multi-age kids there; it’s not just 8-year-olds. I think it’s a healthy thing to mix it up. They’re learning from the older kids and they’re helping the younger kids.”

The Frisco mom uses some workbooks, but not a set curriculum. Since she is trained as a Montessori teacher, she has Montessori manipulatives available at home. “I’d call us eclectic,” she says. “We’re not totally curriculum, but we’re not totally unschool. Structure sometimes gives comfort. We’ve gone through periods of time when we’ll make a schedule and Alexandra will do it for a week or so. We do have a routine in the morning. Everyone has to have clothes on, hair brushed, teeth brushed and to breakfast, no dishes in the sink (that’s my job). Then we go. That’s my minimum for my family,” she says.

Dads Homeschool Too
The Singleton family of Carrollton has a rare homeschooling setup — dad Bill is in charge of son Brad’s education. Erin Singleton, Brad’s mom, who was a public elementary school teacher for five years, taught the 10-year-old through second grade, then her husband took over.  

The initial rationale for homeschooling was so the family could take an extended RV trip. The trip was originally planned for four months, but in the end it lasted more than four years. “These are irreplaceable years,” says Bill Singleton, a master’s-level licensed professional counselor in private practice. “If you’re lucky enough that you can homeschool, it’s a great thing to do. It’s not necessary to be down on the mainstream to homeschool.”

In the Singleton family, Brad not only participates in home life, but also in the family business. “Scale service, this is Brad, how may I help you?” is the bright, professional answer you get when you call Brad’s cell phone. He is an employee of the family business, taking service call

Right to (Un)SchoolAccording to the Texas Education Agency, “… a school-age child residing in Texas who is pursuing, under direct supervision of his/her parents, a curriculum designed to meet basic education goals is attending a private school within the meaning of Section 26.086(a)(1) of the Texas Education Code and is therefore exempt from compulsory school attendance.”Also from the TEA: “It is not necessary for the parents to make a personal appearance with school officials or present curriculum for review. School districts which become aware of a student who is potentially being homeschooled may request in writing a letter of assurance from the parents of the student regarding their intention to homeschool the student. The letter may require assurances that the homeschool curriculum is designed to meet basic education goals including reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics and a study of good citizenship. Please note that a letter of this type is not required each year.”According to the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA):

  • Homeschools can legally operate as private schools in Texas.
  • Homeschools must be conducted in a bona-fide manner, using a written curriculum consisting of reading, spelling, grammar, math and a course in good citizenship; no other requirements apply.
  • Homeschools do not have to initiate contact with a school district, submit to home visits, have curriculum approved or have any specific teacher certification.

 

s and cleaning coin-operated scales installed in various locations throughout the Metroplex. He receives a paycheck twice a month for $20.

Brad is primarily homeschooled, but he does attend a school in Richardson on Tuesdays called “Where Three Roads Meet.” The school was created by homeschooling parents and is similar to an educational co-op. Instruction is provided by experienced teachers, and the curriculum includes reading, writing, history, some science and physical education. About 60 percent of the academic planning is provided, and Singleton and Brad do math and science independently.

While Brad would like to homeschool all the way through high school, Singleton has a few doubts. “I worry that at about fifth grade, the culture among junior high and high schoolers becomes so specific and so different,” he says. “Brad now lives in a world that is made up of adults and kids. If he jumps into public school in sixth, seventh, eighth grade and up, I worry that he may be really underprepared, and then have a terrible adult image or self-esteem. I wonder if we should go ahead and get him into a regular school in a year or two. It’s a real balancing act.”

A Parent’s Perspective
Sarah and Chris Parent and their children Sadie, 4, and Elijah, 6, live in Keller. They are unschoolers through and through, using no curriculum at all. Before having a family, Sarah Parent worked as a nurse.

The decision to homeschool came when the family lived in New Hampshire. Although Parent didn’t feel that she and her son were ready to be separated, everyone else was putting their children in preschool, so she and her husband began investigating different facilities, finding the best ones filled. Children had already been registered for years.

A director of one of the preschools said that people brought their children to preschool for social connections for their children, friends for themselves and for stimulation if there wasn’t enough at home. Everything was fine in all those areas, so Parent decided to keep her son home, thinking, “If he belongs here at home with us now, why not next year and the year after?”

She began to look more deeply into different educational pathways, including homeschooling. “My husband was absolutely adamant not to homeschool because where we come from, growing up in the ’70s, homeschooling was unheard of,” says Parent. “If anybody did homeschool, it was generally for an odd reason — the child was extremely gifted or had a disability of some sort. We really just felt we were this run-of-the-mill family. Why would we want to homeschool and make our children ‘different?’”

At a homeschooling conference in New Hampshire, Parent and her husband heard a panel of unschooling parents speak about their experiences. “We walked out of that panel that day unschoolers,” says Parent. The family has chosen to unschool K-12 as long as it makes everyone happy. If a child has the desire to go to school, they will discuss it at that time.

In the Parent household, unschooling is something of a child-driven, laissez faire proposition. “When they ask for assistance, we are right there helping them with whatever they want,” says Parent. “But if you start forcing or trying to capitalize on those little learning moments and trying to feed more information than they’re ready for or they desire, then there’s immediately a block.”

Has Parent had doubts? “I had more doubts in the beginning,” she says. “You’re bucking a set-in-stone system that has been in place a very long time. But in the last three years I have seen my children come so far. They’re able to have the time, wherewithal and energy to wholeheartedly pursue the things they’re interested in. So we don’t have any doubts at all about the path we’ve taken.”

Adjusting Schooling to Life
Autumn McGinn and her husband, Justin, are both chiropractors in Dallas. They live and work in a loft space near downtown Dallas, interweaving their work and family lives. They intend to unschool their children, Kaya, 1, and Xalen, 5, all the way through their school years. What if the children want to go to public school? “I’d explore why they wanted to and make sure I was meeting those needs,” says McGinn. “If it was a social issue, or if it was something they really wanted to learn about, I would try to find a class that would help them get that skill. If they really wanted to, I would let them.”

“We chose this way of schooling as a family because we think our children are innately curious about the world,” says McGinn. “They learn naturally. We wanted to allow them to curiously explore their own planet and develop with ease. Part of it was my experience with education. Growing up, the public school system is designed to develop mediocre minds that don’t necessarily question what’s going on around them. I just don’t want my children to have that kind of experience.”

Because of their chiropractic profession, the McGinns trust that human bodies know what to do. “We ended up talking with a teacher in our practice who said, ‘Oh, there’s a group of people who are doing this, it’s called unschooling,’” says McGinn. “She gave me some information about John Holt, who was a teacher in New York and started unschooling. I read about it when Xalen was 2 or 3, and we’ve been pursuing it since.”

The McGinns do not use a curriculum. They use whatever Xalen is interested in as a tool to learn other skills.

McGinn feels that unschooling benefits children and parents. “My son, Xalen, is learning how to play the guitar. We spend time learning that skill rather than filling our day with wasted time. He doesn’t necessarily want to learn that at 10:30 every day. He gets to live his life rather than be on this regimented schedule of ‘it’s 9:30, it’s time to play guitar.’”

Who is qualified to be an unschooling parent? “I don’t think it takes any exceptional quality or genius in education,” says McGinn. “It takes a dedication to your core values and flexibility.

“There is this new face of homeschooling,” says McGinn. “It’s a part of society that has a higher level of consciousness. They have a different set of values. I don’t necessarily consider myself a successful parent if my child grows up and goes to college. I’d much rather know they’re a compassionate human being and have a set of experiences that they value. They’re going to be better people for it. I think the typical homeschooling family is thought of as sitting in little chairs in the corner doing their math homework with mom, and it just doesn’t look like that anymore.”

Measuring Success
Admission to college is a traditional way of measuring homeschooling success. According to a report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) called the “State of College Admission,” dated 2004, 83 percent of colleges at that time had a formal evaluation policy for applications from homeschoolers, up from only 52 percent four years earlier. The report states that, “… between 80 and 90 percent of all colleges require homeschooled students to submit standardized test scores and a transcript or record of grades to describe their educational achievement.” Universities as prestigious as Massachusetts Institute of Technology are willing to consider homeschoolers. Michigan State University, Oregon State University and the University of Texas are just three of the schools that post application procedures for homeschoolers on their Web sites.
Lundgren has “un-graduated” three young adults. As mentioned, she defines the success of her children’s education in non-traditional terms, just the way she defines education. “Ultimately I think that unschooling is a process of living,” she says. “My children are free to fail, to experiment, and are comfortable with that. By that definition, I feel very happy about my success.”

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