An Unschooling Story

61zwjop60rL._SL125_The following is an excerpt from Ben Hewitt’s new book, Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World. It is reprinted here with permission of the author. Ben and his wife, Penny, live and learn with their two unschooled boys in Vermont. Ben writes at www.benhewitt.net.

 A question I ask myself with some frequency, and particularly as I struggle with one or another of our parenting choices is this: “What is an education?” And, not inconsequently, “What is a childhood? Should it be one thing, and not another?” It’s a silly question, really, a bit like asking, “What is a person? Should she be one thing and not another?” But even if it is silly, it grounds me. It reminds me that the assumptions we have arrived at regarding education are just that: assumptions. They are stories born of a culture, and like all stories, we can choose to believe them or not. We can choose to listen or not. We can choose, even, to write our own stories.

Part of the story I am attempting to write with my children is the story of trust. Of letting go and trusting my instincts as a parent, which is a luxury I can allow myself only if I can learn to have trust in my boys. Simple trust, the confidence in our children and in ourselves to allow them to unfold at their own pace. The confidence that they will unfold, even when it seems as if they are falling behind the manufactured expectations set by institutionalized schooling.

Not so long ago, when Rye was seven, I mentioned to someone that he did not yet read. She was shocked, and not only because my son couldn’t read but, I believe, because I was so unconcerned. “Really?” she kept asking. “Really?” As if this were some unconquerable failing that would haunt him all his life. I was not offended. I know what the expectations are, what they have become. I know that by age seven, my children are expected to be reading, to be multiplying endless rows of numbers across a page, to be sitting for hours on end, bent over pencil and paper or, as is increasingly likely, a laptop or iPad. I know what they’re expected to know, and often, in this regard, I recognize how my children fall short.

Yet it is what Fin and Rye are not expected to know that is so fascinating to me. To identify every tree in our woodlot. To butcher a hog. To wield a splitting maul and use a chop saw. To make a fire. To know when a windrow of hay is dry enough for baling. To build a cabin. To sew and knit and carve. To disappear into the woods below our home and return an hour later with a bag full of chanterelle and hedgehog mushrooms. To operate Melvin’s bale wrapper, so they can help him during the crush of summer. These skills feel important to me because they are the skills of a particular place, having arisen from their connection to this land and community. And they feel important because they are true life skills. They are instilling in my boys a degree of hands-on resourcefulness that is rapidly being lost in a society where many people do not even know how to change a tire, or hold an ax. Finally, I see how the skills and the knowledge they embody are the direct result of my sons’ innate curiosity and love of learning. To be sure, their exposure to the particulars of this place has played a role in defining the subjects their love of learning has landed upon. Such a thing is unavoidable.

But none of it has been forced. None of it has come attached to reward or acclaim beyond the quiet satisfaction inherent in the process of learning and the completion of a task. Penny and I believe in presence, not praise. We are here to support and facilitate, but not to cajole and manipulate, through either threat or incentive. The boys’ unhampered curiosity is incentive enough. The learning is its own reward.

–excerpted from Home Grown, p. 71-73.