Thursday, February 14, 2008

My Son, the Homeschooler

In 1979, soon after my youngest son was born at our ranch in Colorado, my wife, Luz, informed me that she wanted to try homeschooling. What? Hold on! I had been a private school teacher; she was a certified public school teacher. I was disturbed, even shocked by her intentions. I had never heard of homeschooling and, like many people, I could not imagine a child growing up without going to school. She knew better.

Luz handed me two books by John Holt, and I soon learned that she was right. Holt showed me that if there is one thing that holds children back as they mature and often turns them against learning, it's schooling -- sitting in unfriendly, often uncaring schools where children’s intelligence and interests are ignored.

For their first several years, children do not need schooling, but nurturing -- the natural care and feeding that most parents provide. As Cass reached “school-age” we remained inspired by Holt's words: “Children do not need to be made to learn, or shown how. They want to and they know how.” We decided that Cassidy would determine what, when, where, how much and with whom he would learn. We never used school books or taught lessons. We answered his questions when he asked and helped him gain access to the real world when he wanted it. We called it unschooling -- no school books, no curriculum, no teaching (unless he asked for it), no testing, none of it. Today, unschooling is surprisingly popular, with magazines and egroups devoted to it.

Unschooling did not mean un-education. It simply meant that we would be aware and supportive of our son's interests and would be paying close attention to his desires for information as well as his gains in essential knowledge. I carried Cass on my shoulders around our town, reading the signs, talking to the shopkeepers, bank clerks and others. He soon was speaking in long sentences and, at four, he could read virtually any book. He proved Holt right; he did not need urging in order to learn. He once told a librarian, "I'm interested in everything."

We did not believe, as schools claim, that it is more important to "feel good about yourself" than to know how to read, write and calculate. The reason is simple: if you can do those things well, you will feel good about yourself, no matter what others tell you.

All through his growing years, people observed that Cass was bright, confident and capable. They remarked, "He must be incredibly smart to have learned so much so young." I could only answer, "Children are born smart. It's just that nobody is dumbing him down." I truly believed that because we didn’t send him to school, he was able to easily acquire all the essentials while he avoided the many negative lessons that schools teach. Our job was to encourage his curiosity and to help him gain access to the world. His life was the polar opposite of sitting in boring classes and being told that his interests are not important.

Cassidy liked responsibility. He earned his own money with jobs he found. He became an expert in dinosaurs and fossils, so much so that the Peabody Museum used him as its Information Officer in the Great Hall of Dinosaurs when he was eleven. He also became a teacher at the Eli Whitney Museum, once giving an “enrichment” class to public school teachers when he was fourteen. He became world class at origami. He took the SAT, and scored higher than half the valedictorians in the state of CT, without ever looking at a school book.

Cass got himself into the college he chose, Hunter College, because it was in the middle of his favorite place, NYC. He lived in his own apartment downtown and took the subway to school. His friends told Luz and me that he always seemed to know the right thing to do. That was when we knew that our experiment was a success, because he had always chosen his own path, instead of being directed by others.

He breezed through – always in the top one percent of his class. He held jobs both in and out of the college; was president of the film society, and graduated Magna Cum Laude. For this one young man, school was not just unnecessary, but irrelevant and, we believe, would have been damaging to his mind and spirit.


Garth & Sandra said...

Your son sounds like he was an incredible young man! My only hesitation with your post is that people will get the wrong impression that all unschooled children read at age 4 and become teachers in their early teens and go on to be in the top 1 percent of their colleges.

I believe that the one thing that sets unschoolers apart from traditionally schooled children is their awareness of their strengths and weaknesses and their self confidence. My sons are very aware that they are not strong readers yet (ages 10+). But they know they will never be ridiculed or labeled because of it - they know that we are more than happy to read them Harry Potter and Roald Dahl and everything else that interests them. They love books, even as they recognize that they are still learning how to read.

This love of learning is most striking to outsiders. They see the confidence in my kids, versus their own kids and nieces and nephews who have been beaten down by the school system, who believe they are dumb, who hate books and the idea of learning. My kids know they have all of their lives to continue to learn and grow - they don't believe that if they are not reading 'at level' they are failures.

The greatest gift of unschooling is that the joy of learning continues forever.

Keith Brainard said...

As I begin the unschooling journey with my young kids, I see the intense potential in them. Just tonight, my 4 year old daughter flawlessly delegated bed-making tasks to my 2 year old son, in a way that made me wish for her skills. The best part is, we never asked her to make the bed.

Seeing this in my children makes me almost jealous at their untainted lives and loves of learning and doing.

Even better is their individual strengths and our willingness to cater to them. My son tries to count already, and does a pretty good job. But his language skills are iffy. While my daughter was speaking eloquently at just over a year. But a major part of it is rejecting "milestones" and embracing whatever it is that they are into.

So I never thought I'd have a princess-loving daughter and a monster-killing son, but it is what it is. And we love every minute of it.

Ned Vare said...

OK, let me qualify my post.
Our son liked to read and was good at it very early. He was good with language(s) in general. He did not sit around and calculate number problems...he did lots of sitting around reading.
Other kids do other things. Those other things can lead to "work" in various fields also and can lead to respectable college careers.
What I was getting at was that kids will find their way on their own with a little guidance, support and if given access to their interests, and as many choices as can be offered.
Our son happened to be good at what colleges do, so he got high marks.
I was not good at what my college did, but I was an exceptional athlete. I had to work hard to keep from flunking out, but was captain of the golf and squash teams. Later, I was professional in skiing and golf, while having many other interests and careers.
I did not enjoy reading until I was about forty.

The Reluctant Homeschooler said...

Great post. Our kids have gone to public school, and so far we've pulled only one out. He's in the middle of tenth grade, and I'm just starting to homeschool him. It's a challenge, but he does seem self-motivated. Perhaps its my own rather regimented personality that is driving him to follow somewhat of a schedule, but perhaps I'll relax with time. It's just that he's in HIGH SCHOOL, not a young child. I wish that he liked reading, like your son, but reading all his material each day takes him a long time. Perhaps by 40, he, too, will become a reader!

Ned Vare said...

Dear Reluctant,
The reason your son has trouble reading "all that material" is probably that he hates it. He hates it because it does not interest him. It is drudgery. School has taught him that reading is not enjoyable. The only reason he does it is that he does not want to disappoint you.
Our son never learned that reading is joyless and nobody dumbed him down. The books he read were always his own choices -- never school books, never school lessons. We did none of that.
Do you believe that being on a school-type schedule is a good thing? I strongly do not. "Success" at school does not translate into success at life. Schooling only prepares us for more schooling, not for real life.
Suggestion: let him begin his real life now. Tell him that he is old enough to be responsible for his own learning -- whatever it is. Let him follow his own interests. He will always love you for it.
Best wishes,