I wrote, “It wouldn’t take much for us to become unschoolers. Just a little more letting go…” I was writing to the fabulous Leonie, enthusiastic and experienced unschooler. I’d been reading her blog Living Without School, and what I read, excited me. I could relate to all she wrote. I wanted to find out more.
I remembered a book, Homeschooling with Gentleness: a Catholic Discovers Unschooling” by Suzie Andres. A friend had spoken about it at a homeschooling camp last year. I ordered a copy and impatiently awaited its arrival.
The book dropped into my mail box on a day when I was planning a lake-side adventure with my Speed Angel Sister daughters. We packed a basket with drawing books, afternoon tea, cameras and… Homeschooling With Gentleness. We arrived at the park, dumped our basket onto a picnic table, unpacked our supplies and then the girls went off eager to do what all adventurous girls do when they find themselves at a duck filled lake, on a beautiful sunny weekday afternoon. And I did what all sensible mothers do: I settled back in the shade, with a mug of coffee and relaxed with my new book.
I read and I pondered and then I almost yelled out loud: “We don’t need ‘just a little more letting go’. We're already unschoolers. We’re Catholic unschoolers!”
I hadn’t quite understood the concept of Catholic unschooling until I read Suzie’s book. My ideas about unschooling were being influenced by an experience that happened many years ago.
Let me explain:
When Felicity was six years old, Andy and I took our then three children to our very first homeschooling camp. We travelled for many hours in our old but trusty vehicle, all the way through Sydney and up the coast, to spend just three days with what we hoped were like-minded people.
We were so excited as we bumped along a windy dirt road which led to another world, a Gilligan’s Island world, a world which for three days was going to be an unschooling world. There was a sunny clearing edged by palm trees and tropical island huts and a communal building… and close by, down a hidden path, a beach with waves that gently lapped the fine golden sands. Between the clearing and the beach was bushland hiding a scientific observation centre. We looked around with anticipation. We knew we were going to have a fantastic weekend.
And we did. But we didn’t really meet any like-minded people. There were a number of sharing times dotted throughout the few days of the camp but I was a bit afraid to share too much. Though we were all supposedly unschoolers, I began to think I was an imposter. Perhaps I wasn’t a real unschooler at all.
All the other homeschoolers were lovely, friendly, welcoming people but they weren’t like us. Many of them lived on large sprawling properties and grew their own organic food, spun their own wool, bartered, built their own mud brick houses… which is fine, but they also talked about Mother Earth.
Their children were very intelligent and confident and mature but something was lacking. Perhaps it was respect. All the children called their parents by their first names. They were treated like little adults, not sons or daughters. They appeared very sure of themselves, perhaps even arrogant. And I wondered: where does parenting fit into unschooling? Where does Faith fit in? My own faith wasn’t strong but I knew I wasn’t an atheist or a Mother Earther.
And so we came home a little confused. We agreed with the unschooling principles of education, but we didn’t feel we could let go completely and trust our children to develop into respectful, disciplined, virtuous human beings all on their own. And later, we thought it was our duty to teach the Catholic Faith in an orderly manner. We didn’t want to take the risk of letting our children discover the Faith on their own. And there was one other thing I became concerned about. I had this idea that unschooling is very individual, even very self-centred, with children going off to discover the world entirely on their own. And we wanted to be a family that often shared and learnt together.
So maybe we were ready to turn away from unschooling when we met Anna whose disciplined children really were models of virtue, and who had a strong sense of responsibility to God (they were Protestants).
But back to dear Suzie and her book.
Suzie defines unschooling as “a form of education in which the child is trusted to be the primary agent in learning what he needs to know to lead him to happiness.” This doesn’t mean a parent sits back and does nothing, leaving her child to learn by himself. No, she will “recognise and honor his natural ability to learn” but she will also be there guiding and helping and taking an interest in his education. The focus is more on the child learning rather than the mother teaching.
And while some parents will apply the unschooling principles to all levels of their life including parenting and disciplining, I don’t have to. As I read Suzie’s book, I realised that I don’t have to treat my children as my equals (in experience, growth and development), let them call me by my first name, look upon them as small versions of adults instead of my sons and daughters. I don’t have to take the risk they may never discover their Catholic Faith. I can claim my duty as a Catholic parent to teach my children the virtues and their catechism. But while I am doing this, I can still call my family ‘unschoolers’. I discovered we are not just ‘unschoolers’. We are ‘Catholic unschoolers’.
I also found out that unschooling means different things to different families. Even the label 'Catholic unschooler' can mean different things to different families. This makes such a lot of sense. Aren’t all families very different? Why should one size fit all? Perhaps this is why we were never successful with Charlotte Mason or the Classical Curriculum. Although we liked living books, narration was a burden, and while I could see the value of the tools of learning, memorisation was so very painful. But picking and choosing what suits the needs of a family and the individuals within a family: that makes so much sense.
But who should do the picking and choosing? Well, Suzie has put forth the idea that our children are the primary agents in their own education and they will naturally learn what they need to know and what interests them. But this doesn’t mean we can’t make suggestions and even gently insist they learn something in particular (such as their catechism). They can even choose to learn something in a more formal way.  We can share our own interests and passions. Learning can be a family affair. And learning together in an unschooling manner can create strong bonds between everyone.
I read Suzie’s book and then I posted the following on Leonie’s Facebook wall:
“Don’t tell any of my friends. They might start to worry. WE’RE UNSCHOOLERS!”
Leonie’s reply jumped off the computer screen, the letters dancing up and down “WOO! HOO!” I could just imagine Leonie jumping up and down too. Immediately Leonie invited me to join a Catholic Unschooling forum.
I soon discovered other families ‘doing their own thing’. Yes, there are many parents unschooling their children. We are all educating our children using the same principles. But every family’s homeschooling looks a little bit different because every family IS different.
I know our homeschool is based on sound principles. Our children are learning. But I also now know we can be Catholics and teach the Faith to our children and still unschool. We can actively bring up our children, insisting on behaviour that is respectful and considerate towards others, and unschool. We can learn together as a family and unschool. We can even do some more formal type learning when there is a need, and still call ourselves unschoolers.
 I don’t need to crack the whip to make my children learn and we don’t spend time arguing over education. Like all families there are days when someone feels a bit out of sorts, but generally we live without conflict. And it is not because I take the path of least resistance, that I just let my children run free and do what they like. No. I am not being a lazy mother.  I think our peaceful and joyful days come as a result of listening to each other, respecting each other and trusting: trusting our children, trusting ourselves and trusting God.
So thank you Suzie for writing your book. You have given me the confidence to listen to my children, my own heart and God, and to continue ‘doing our own thing’.

I haven’t done justice to Suzie’s book. There is so much wisdom contained within its pages and I hope to explore it further in future posts. But nothing will replace reading Suzie’s own words, and pondering the whole book.

Post a Comment

  1. I really struggle with definitions, they all mean different things.
    I'm trying to write a follow up to your friends post and running into this problem.
    To me unschooling in many ways means respecting your children as people, encouraging dialogue, but then that would mean I'm an unschooler but maybe I'm not as much anymore. arghh definitions!!

  2. Sue thank you for your explanation. You see I can't put my finger on what we would call our style either. must read that book

  3. I know what you mean, Erin! Some people are reluctant to even define unschooling because it is hard to put into words what it really is. I am sure that there are similarities between the various recognised methods of homeschooling, some overlap between them. Suzie, in her book, discusses how Montessori, CM and unschooling do have things in common. Maybe definitions aren't really that important. Finding 'your own thing' that works for your own family; that's the real aim.

  4. I'd recommend the book, Leanne, but you already know that!

    I think I will write more about exactly what we DO each day next. Then we can discuss similarities and differences between our familys' methods. Maybe you do a bit of this and a bit of that, taking what suits you best as a family. Maybe it isn't important putting your finger on exactly what style that is, as long as it is working for you!

  5. I wonder how many people are technically unschooling without realising it. Unschooling is such an unpopular label for a lot of people. Maybe, we could rename it - I could think of quite a few better alternatives, what do you think?:)

  6. I'm sure a lot of people don't understand the term 'unschooling'. (I didn't.) Maybe some people think it is a way of education where the parents don't do anything and could be called negligent, and the children are allowed to do whatever they like without limits. I'm only just getting to grips with the label unschooling myself. I wonder if choosing another name would add further to the confusion. Tell me your thoughts: you said you have a few better alternatives. Please share!

  7. I blogged my thoughts about our way, on one of my pages. I used the similar ritles to you Sue- thanks, and when /i got the bottom..I realised we aren't as schooly as I thought.

  8. Leanne, I had to hop straight over and read your post. My! I'm enjoying this discussion. It is good to share and to think and to write everything down. These words of yours caught my attention:

    I know God has his hand on our schooling, because when it’s not right I have a distinct bad feeling. I have learnt to trust these feeling. It holds me accountable to God and what he wants for us."

    Yes! There is such a feeling of peace when we are doing what we think God wants us to do with our family. Sometimes discussing doesn't lead us to change, but confirms for us the decisions we have made. And this is good too!
    Thanks, Leanne!

  9. I love this post. When I first heard of unschooling I thought it was the most ridiculous concept but the longer I home school (I just finished up my 6th year) the more I see that my children learn so much more and enjoy the process so much more when they have an active role in what and how they learn. We do still do some teacher-directed lessons as well but it is the unschooling moments that make the biggest impact. Each year I relax and let go a little more, and slowly we are achieving the peaceful learning atmosphere I've always hoped for. Thanks so much for your blog. I am really enjoying it all!

  10. Sue-
    What wonderful reflections you write! After some days without online time, I have a moment now and first thing the Holy Spirit did was bring me to your post...God is so good and kind!

    I love to read about journeys - conversion stories about coming to the Faith, or in this case, coming to the place God brings you to educate your family in the freedom and joy only He can give.
    Thank you for telling part of your journey!

    My new book "A Little Way of Homeschooling" contains many such stories (as you know!), which is one reason I love it :) But I'm so glad you have enjoyed "Homeschooling with Gentleness." That was a labor of love too, and a book I still need to re-read about once a year!

    Regarding the whole question of names and definitions - wow, what big questions these are, huh?

    I used to be annoyed when I read unschooling books that refused to give a definition of unschooling, and just described different unschooling families instead. Then when I sat down to write the first book, I realized what they had been up against (the other authors) and why they had "punted."

    I can never say often enough that I strongly believe God loves variety. We see it everywhere: in nature, in the different religious orders and charisms, in our children's souls and faces.

    Consequently, what I most hope and pray for families is that they will discover God's way for their family. There are so many great options for Catholic education!

    We, like you, have found peace and freedom in Catholic unschooling, and then I write about it because I want to let the world know (and remind myself) that this is really an option - crazy as it sounds!

    As to the the word unschooling"...I don't know why I have such a soft spot in my heart for this word. Maybe because John Holt, who coined the term, is one of my heroes. He didn't know Christ in this life (as far as I can tell, though I pray he knows Him in love now), but he was full of common sense and clarity and great observations and so much love for children and for learning. So despite the sometimes negative associations people have, I still love the term "unschooling." Plus there is a simplicity about it:
    unschooling = not schooling.

    Yes to education!
    Yes to learning!
    Yes to family!
    Yes to Faith!
    But "school"?
    I think it is a great option for some, but for us we prefer not schooling...That's why the word sums up nicely what we do.

    Can unschooling mean many different things?
    And how I love to read what it means to others, so thanks again for writing Sue (and those who comment! Leanne, where is your blog? I'd love to hop over...).

    God bless us all as we scramble, walk, hop, leap, backtrack, dance, and rest together on our little ways.

  11. I won't offer suggestions for a name change:) It was a bit presumptious of me to suggest the need in the first place - I imagine most people are quite happy with being known as unschoolers. One thought, though - it's the idea of needing to be schooled which trips me up. I think unschooling is more like an apprenticeship of life.:)

  12. Kari, I am so pleased to have you here, joining in with this wonderful discussion!

    You said," Each year I relax and let go a little more, and slowly we are achieving the peaceful learning atmosphere I've always hoped for." That's my story exactly! I can see we are going to have so much to share.

    btw, I love your blog. I've been hopping over and dipping into your posts and enjoying! God bless.

  13. Suzie, you make me feel so special. You didn't have much online time but you have used it to write such beautiful and helpful comments that we can all share, on MY blog!

    I like your explanation of the term unschooling. John Holt is my hero too. I think he was the first author to influence our homeschooling. I have a falling apart copy of "How Children Learn" from years ago. You said, "He didn't know Christ in this life" - that is the missing element and why I love your books so much. You've added it in there for us.

    I have so many beautiful friends out there encouraging me along, especially in the new venture of this little blog. If you'd like to meet my friend, Leanne, her blog is called "Roses, Tea and Our Lady" and is easy to find.

    And one last thing you said, Suzie - variety. We are all different and looking for a way that suits us best. I want to share my family's story but only as a way of starting some discussion which will encourage all of us. We can share and learn from each other, whatever our method of homeschooling.

    Thank you, Suzie!

  14. Vicky, you weren't being presumptious. Please share your thoughts and know they are accepted. You said, "I think unschooling is more like an apprenticeship of life.:)" That is so true! I hope you enjoy Suzie's thoughts on the word, 'unschooling'.

    Thank you so much for supporting and encouraging me. You are a beautiful sister!

  15. Oh yes Vicky - please tell us more of what you are thinking! I like the word "unschooling" but you are still right - there might be a better word! Don't worry, I'll still use the old word because it's cozy for me. But the more words the merrier! And I do love "apprenticeship of life" too.

    Sue, thanks for Leanne's blog name. Hope to check it out soon! Any friend of yours is already a friend of mine :)

    Loving this conversation!

  16. Suzie, you are back! I'm lending Leanne your book. It has opened up a lot of discussion which we are thoroughly enjoying. Thank you!

  17. Sue and Suzie, I hesitate to admit to unschooling because a lot of people think it means 'no schooling' and, therefore,'no learning.' And, since we really don't need school to learn, I wonder if the word 'school' is actually necessary. Though, in the pioneering days of homeschooling, I guess there were only two identifiable choices - school or no school.

    The same applies, to some extent, with the word educate. Some people think it's not possible to educate oneself - an institution or a 'qualified' parent is needed, in their eyes.

    Personally, I don't really mind what it's called - I just do it:)

    Does 'impassioned learning' describe what we do? But then, here we go, again, with misinterpretations - in our modern rationalised world, anything which includes the word 'passion' is interpreted as frivolous, 19th century romanticism!

    That's the trouble with labels, I think - they put you in a box with no room for manouvre, and with all the vulnerability to be misinterpreted:)

    It is really nice to be able to identify with like-minded families and labels do help with that, but, sometimes, the label 'parent' can seem like label enough, do you think?

    Ooops - a comment that's rivalling the post in length and with enough toing and froing to cause sea-sickness!:D

  18. Sue, nearly all your comments are lengthy - I'm in good company! Must be a sign of a good discussion:)

  19. Hi Vicky,
    I'm so glad you came back and feel able to share your thoughts on labels. Yes, labels can be a problem. Sometimes I think I have taken a risk, coming out into the open and identifying myself as an unschooler. What if someone reads my blog and then says, "I don't think what you're doing is unschooling"? I might be thrown out of the unschooling world! It might have been safer just to have kept on saying "I'm doing my own thing." Except, as you say, labels are useful when connecting up with other people, to find other homeschoolers we can share and discuss things with. And no worries about the long comment! Yes, there are lots of long comments, mine included, which is wonderful as we must be sharing lots!

  20. I .ove the quotes, Sue. And while I know labels can be a problem, they can sometimes also be helpful. So, when I say we Homeschool and unschool, I am identifying with this who learn from life. Some may misunderstand that label but hopefully, through writing and knowledge of our family, the understanding of the label will come. Without the label we are less likely to make that effort of understanding. Anyway, so glad to read your blog and to see another non Mother Earth mum talk about Catholic unschooling! Lol!

  21. Hi Leonie, Welcome to my blog. And thank you for being part of my post even though you didn't know you were going to be! Your enthusiastic welcome to the unschooling world and UC list was appreciated. I like that bit about " another non Mother Earth mum" I was rather worried about this. What if some Earth Mother makes her way to this blog quite by accident, I wouldn't want to sound insulting. I quite liked all those Earth Mothers. I just knew I wasn't one. Nice though to meet some real kindred spirits on the Catholic list.

  22. Suzie, for the first time unschooling makes sense as a term, I always thought it a reaction to schooling and I'd rather be autonomous to the word altogether. If I had to use label I'm far more comfortable with Natural Learning or child led learning.

  23. Hi Sue, wow what a journey that has led you to Catholic Unschooling. I would have been concerned too at the unschooling camp where participants were talking about Mother Earth. Alarm bells would be going off!

    I like your statement about your duty as a Catholic parent to teach her children the virtues and their catechism. I think if there were more moms like you, (and I strive to be) that are raising children to embrace virtues and the Catechism, we'd be in a more loving and generous world!

    God Bless!

  24. I'm thrilled you are reading our story, Noreen.

    I am guessing that there really isn't much difference between how we teach the Faith to our children, and how you do it with your own son. I'm sure you'll agree that living the Faith is the most important thing, being an example to our children and letting them see the Faith in action. As parents, we all need to keep learning and growing spiritually. It's a life long process. Much of what I learn, I share with our children. We read books together, discuss our Faith, pray etc. It's just family stuff.

    I remember reading one of your posts about learning from example, when you prayed outside the abortion mill. Aren't these the best lessons?

    That reminds me, I still can't comment on your blog but I've been reading. And I followed all the links for the game you reviewed - that was interesting!


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