Monday, April 8, 2019

Unschooling, Defiance and Motivation

"No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them."                ~Assata Shakur

Our family didn't originally discover unschooling because it aligned with our beliefs. We discovered it during a desperate-feeling time when my five-year-old son was so defiant that school seemed an impossibility. He was only interested in pursuing the things he'd thought of himself, and even then would lose interest as soon as somebody tried to push or even encourage him. Many days he flatly refused to leave the house. Unschooling seemed at the time like the only way, and I can say now that he's on the brink of graduation that although it has been extremely difficult, I think it was the best way.

I'm a bossy person, my controlling nature fueled by the fear drilled into me at school that any wrong action could lead to failure, or even death. So I make decisions that feel right to me, and I expect people to see reason and follow my lead. My son has defied me every day of his life, to the extreme frustration and benefit of both of us. So unschooling, which challenges me to allow him complete autonomy, and challenges him to take responsibility for his actions, has been our solution over these past twelve years.

This road has never been without struggle. I watch him every day like a mother owl whose fluffy chick is teetering on the edge of the nest, knowing that if he falls out he'll be prey for the wolves. At every turn I feel like he's making grave miscalculations of safety and feasibility. At every turn I attempt to warn him, coax him, steer him to safety or provide him with advice. All of my efforts are unwanted, and many, I admit with shame, lead to arguments and threats. Worst of all, my controlling behaviour causes my son to lose faith in himself, and then I know I have truly failed him.

I pick up the baton again and again, setting myself back on the unschooling track I chose, and he makes some gains of confidence and autonomy before I fall of the rails again. It has never, ever been easy. But it has been right.

In their 2009 article for the Journal of Educational Psychology, Maarten van Steenkiste et al. revealed that "to foster good quality motivation, teachers and school principals need to create a school and class environment that allows students to satisfy their basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness." This is what unschooling does for us. And if we've truly given our children autonomy, they are bound to defy us when we try to control them.

Defiance is necessary for autonomy. A wholly obedient person can never go very far along a path of inspiration before being led astray by somebody else's advice or admonishments. How will our children learn to make safe decisions if they aren't given an open testing ground for experimenting with decision-making? They need the freedom to tell us no when we're interfering with their autonomous motivation. We need the courage to watch them make mistakes.

My son, after all this unschooling, is now considering getting his highschool diploma, and may graduate in a couple of months. This very short timeline has meant a lot of work and stress for him, and a correlational rise in my level of parenting fears. I find myself constantly checking in on him, begging him to stop playing video games, get working on whatever is most urgent for his courses, or just get some exercise and eat a proper meal. He is learning to deflect my concerns with less bitterness than he once did, and I am learning to keep my mouth closed more often. I find cooking him a healthy meal is a better use of my energy than standing in his door lecturing him about time management.

Respecting our children's interests, decisions, and independence means that they don't want to be compliant when we ask them to. It's hard for us as parents, but in the end it gives them the experience and confidence to succeed. Our kids' defiance is an essential part of the desired outcome, whether we like it or not.

It is not lost on me that parents of unschoolers are by default defying the current school system, and it's not likely that many of us have relinquished control to our children without a struggle. After all, our children began life nearly helpless in our arms, but the measure of our success as parents will be when they overthrow us, making their world far better than we imagined. So keep going, brave parents - the terrifying struggle to empower our children is worth it.