So last week I mentioned that I would get back to this discussion on the kind of schooling we do in our home. We call it “unschool” because that is the philosophy that most broadly describes our version of educating our little ones. Lately, I prefer to call it Cro-Magnon School — but realistically, we know nothing of spear-making or brain-tanning, yet, so we don’t truly deserve such a prestigious name, I guess… But though we lack the curriculum for full accreditation, and though we do regularly rely on technology that Cro-Mags never had, our methodology (that’s pedagogy in edu-speak), and more specifically, our reliance on a particular set of bio-mechanisms is CMS all the way. It’s also my jokey way of remembering the perspective I want to hold on teaching our kids: “They all three were CMS’ed early on — the older ones have gone on to Montessori, the little one is going all the way to cave college if she wants…”
Let me begin at the beginning. No, not age 2 or 3, not baby, not newborn, not even in-utero — I’m talking totally non-baby. We start with the parents. I happen to be educated in education, but I don’t think that is a prerequisite, and in most other cases might actually be a detriment to any type of unschooling because of the expectations such training presupposes and perpetuates. Natalie isn’t “trained in education”, but has educated herself on what has resonated with our interests as parents. And that is the vital piece about the parents — we do, and I think any aspiring unschooling parent must, see educating our children as part of our whole process of parenting them. It is a commitment to a specific version of parenting and life, not just a particular way of educating our kids. Of course, that version of parenting doesn’t have to lead to unschooling or any other type of home education, but I believe it is necessary if you do want to unschool. And further, I believe this commitment must come naturally from who the parents are, who they want to be, and who they feel they can be in their parenting.
Neither homeschooling nor unschooling is for the parent who wants to accomplish numerous other personal goals, and/or work 40+ hours every week, and/or have an especially active individual/personal life at the same time that her kids are getting educated. If you have other goals you really want or need to accomplish, and you can’t wait until your kids are old enough to work, study, and explore on their own, before you really focus on those goals more than an hour or two each night, then (please) don’t endeavor to homeschool, and definitely steer clear of anything labeled “unschool”. You’ll just wind up miserable, and so will your kids, not to mention that you’ll also be another example for those who say, “It can’t be done…”
For the following discussion, I am going to use Echo a lot as the primary example, though I have home-educated all of my children to greater and lesser degrees. Bella was exclusively home educated until almost 2, then for a long list of reasons, began going to daycare/preschool for a couple of days each week, and being with me on the other days. As she got older, our schedule switched to “week on week off”, and our homeschool clashed with preschool, until Bella entered Montessori kindergarten, and I could no longer have her for a week at a time out of school. Xi was unschooled until just this year (age 7) and has now entered Montessori, at the request of her mother who wasn’t interested in being a home educator. Each one got versions of what I’ll describe, but only Echo has received all of it. I think after our individual and collective child-rearing experiences leading up to Echo, Natalie and I got it even more right with her than we’d intended, but I’ll say more about that in a minute.
As parents who want(ed) to offer our children the best possible beginnings, all three mothers and I began early, proceeded often, and have endured long in the cultivation of our parent-child bonds. With each, we endeavored in what generally might be considered radical attachment therapy, and we began from the moment we knew each child was coming. We built early bonds playing games, talking to, and playing music for them while they were still in the belly. We played with light, with gentle rhythms finger-drummed on mom’s taught tummy, and with prenatal yoga classes or meditation classes (depending on the baby). We intentionally focused love and attention into mom and baby’s shared womb the whole time and at specific moments each day. Xi and Echo got Reiki in-utero, Bella shortly after she was born. With each, this intentional connecting during the womb time became more intentional and intense.
This is another vital point, which I am going to come back to immediately but want to underscore from the outset: unschooling parents will succeed in their endeavor to help their children learn in direct proportion to how much time they spend nurturing the parent-child bond. There’s no getting around this. If you want to unschool, in particular, then you will want to be able to rely on the bio-mechanisms to which deep, thorough bonding provides access. They are innate mechanisms like identification, mimicry, and parental intuition, but like unused neural pathways, they fade from experience if they aren’t nurtured. And yes, I believe deep bonding works on both parents and child, offering both enhanced opportunities for connection and understanding, among other things.
The next vital choices we made were essentially in service of continuing the bonding process in the most natural and fullest way(s) we could muster in each situation. Bella and Echo were home births in water, and Xi was born in a new, private birth room at the hospital. All three were born naturally, without pharmaceutical intervention(s), and all three enjoyed immediate nursing and skin to skin contact between mom and baby following the gentle, intentional, conscientious labor and delivery. We played some of the music the babies already knew during the whole process (and for years following). Then we stayed home and snuggled — just smoothing the way for this new being each time. We didn’t rush back toward life “as normal”, and didn’t rush the newborn out of her cocoon either. With Echo, we let her have another 3 full months of muffled sound, tightly snugged receiving blankets, low lights, and regular opportunities to get smooshed naked into her mother’s bosom or sprawled on her papa’s chest. For optimum brain development, Natalie and I think it’s best to conceptualize this period as the 4th trimester, and do everything possible to make the baby feel like she’s been born to marsupials and has just moved from a womb to a pouch.
All of this hyper-gentility, ultra-conscientious natal unfolding process, and uber-bonding was ultimately in service of each girl’s sense of security and connection with us, but has had developmental and cognitive benefits as well. With Echo, in particular, I believe we did such a good job with in-utero and 4th trimester bonding that we gave her (the most noticeable version of) what I now refer to as an “empowered nervous system”. As I described it recently, “The parent focuses maximum time in the early years to form the most secure bond possible. This simple focus, alone, empowers the child’s nervous system for the most open stance with regard to sense input. And that makes her a more efficient and more comprehensive learner.”
I believe there are possibilities to human ability that we have barely begun to recognize locked within the baby brain’s response to signals we send it up until and in the months (and years) following birth. If we send it the right signals — you are safe, you can grow and unfold fully, and we’ll care for your every need — then the brain turns up the reception, sends serotonin instead of cortisol to the nervous system (leaving the entire body calmer, less stressed, and more open to learning), and reaches outward to explore in safety. If we go really far with it, I think the brain does too.
And that’s the ground floor of our home education system. Not unlike many of you, perhaps, except maybe by degrees, and except that we intended to make use of the bonds we were developing for Echo’s education process as well as for parenting her. Though, admittedly, you are involved in your kids’ education whether you intend it or not, right?
In part II of this post, I’ll talk about what we’ve done with the “empowered nervous system”, how we’ve continued to nurture it, and some of our unschooling activities.