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The Hardest Thing is the Unknown: A Grandparent's Perspective on Unschooling

The Hardest Thing is the Unknown:
A Grandparent's Perspective on Life Learning
By Karen Ridd

“It’s the hardest part of my job,” said the affable Manitoba government liaison for homeschooling. He was talking about dealing with concerned extended family members of homeschoolers. As he went on to describe these encounters, I thought of my own life learning friends, and the complaints I have heard about relatives – often, and understandably, grandparents – who keep asking when the kids will finally be sent to school or who insist on “testing” the children whenever they see them. One friend’s mother cried out, when she heard that her grandchildren wouldn’t be attending school, “But the boys will grow up to be drug dealers and your daughter will be a prostitute at 16!” Phew!

I have been fortunate. My extended family has been at least tolerant and, at best, very supportive. But as I thought about these questions, it dawned on me that in all the reading I’ve done about homeschooling – and believe me, I’ve done lots! – I’ve never read anything about the grandparents’ journey. What is it like to have unschooled grandchildren? How do you explain it to your friends and co-workers? There are lots of ways that I, as a parent, can access support (although never enough!). But how can a grandparent get support? Filled with these questions, I arranged to interview a grandparent of homeschooled children: my mother.

Karen: Tell me about when you first learned that I was going to be homeschooling your grandchildren [neither Daniel, now eight, nor Ben, who is four, has ever attended school.] How did you feel? What did you think?

Bev: I had a mixed reaction. Homeschooling wasn’t a new idea to me, since I had met other homeschoolers a long time ago. I liked these parents; they were solid people, people I admired, not wingnuts. So the only people that I knew who were doing it were good people, which was helpful.

Now back to you – I could see right from the beginning that it would be difficult for Daniel to be in the classroom. He was so smart and didn’t find it easy being in large groups of people, so I could see that homeschooling was a really positive thing for him. The one concern that came into my mind was about socialization. I was quite relieved to hear about the homeschooling association, and glad you had him in soccer. Also, when I heard that you were going to do this I did some research on my own and talked to some excellent teachers that I know. One in particular was really enthusiastic. She said, “If you have a child one-on-one you can teach them the whole curriculum in two months and then they can spend the rest of the time playing – and that is what children should do.” She was very positive. I never did talk to another grandparent though, because I didn’t know any.

Karen: I’m assuming that you see both good and bad in this, but let’s start with the positive. What do you like about having home-educated grandchildren?

The other thing I thought about was how children learn, and they learn so much through play. Every moment is a teachable moment – even raising my own children, I was always doing that, quite naturally. Another big thing for me was trusting that you were doing the best for your kids. Right from the time you were pregnant you did research and did things differently – midwives and home birth for instance. The most radical thing I had done was “Childbirth Without Fear!” You were doing things differently than me, but that you were doing them thoughtfully and responsibly, and that is what mattered.

Bev: I like being able to have time with my grandchildren, time that I wouldn’t have if they were in school. I think that it has been very exciting to see them take off on a topic that they are interested in, research it and become really confident in their knowledge. Another one of the neat things is how much Ben, as the younger child, has learned – just from osmosis. It’s been fun – and challenging – because Ben comes out with things that I would not expect him to know about. You just don’t expect three-year-olds to be talking about machicolations or “Romans against the Gauls,” for instance.

Karen: What about concerns?

Bev: You do wonder if they want to go into the public system at some point, how they will cope. Fortunately, I talked to a teacher at the high school level who knew kids who had been homeschooled and then entered the school system and did well. It’s a big step for a grandparent, having been in school yourself and then having your kids in it – it’s a big, big shift from that to homeschooling. When I was in school there were 48 kids in class! And when you were in school, we could see for ourselves that if you got one good teacher out of the system you were lucky.  We had concerns about the system ourselves but we didn’t know there were other options, so we just tried to fix the system. You have left the system entirely – and that is really different. The biggest downside, though, is that I don’t know what the overall framework is. It’s hard not quite knowing where this is all going. You and I haven’t had time to talk about this, and it would be something that would be good for grandparents to know about.

Karen: As you are talking I realize that I really haven’t given you a lot of information, have I? I’m glad that doing this interview has made that come out! If it is okay with you, can I finish this interview and then talk more with you about it? I’d love to know, for example, how you explain homeschooling to other people who ask you about what your grandchildren are doing. Especially since I seem to have explained so little to you!

Bev: I do get questions, mostly around socialization, which is interesting. I tell them about the homeschooling association and the children playing community club soccer. People assume that a homeschooling association would be all the same kinds of kids, and they think that it is good that they are playing with other kids who aren’t homeschooled, who are different.

I don’t think people think that they won’t learn. But people do think that you must do some form of school-at-home. Unschooling is quite different and new – I haven’t actually explained unschooling to anyone at this point, because I don’t know enough about it!

Karen: What support do you, as a grandparent, need? Where do you get it from?

Bev: I think right off the top that it would be good for homeschooling associations to have a pamphlet for grandparents that describes what this is all about, and then maybe more elaborate material after that. Something in print means a lot to people, psychologically. Also, it would be great if there were other people grandparents could talk to if they were really anxious, especially if their relationship with their children wasn’t easy.

Karen: Any “last words?” What advice/guidance do you have for other grandparents of homeschooled children?

Bev: The hardest thing for grandparents is the unknown. There are no books, pamphlets or support groups for grandparents. People will be anxious, of course, because they love their grandchildren, but there is nowhere to go with that anxiety. There seem to be support groups for everything else, but not for that. So grandparents need to find more information, talk to their children, talk to teachers. You need to go to your grandchildren’s activities and meet other homeschooling families.

I really do think that the grandparents have to let go and trust – trust the values that you have instilled in your own children. You need to be open to doing things differently – these children will be growing up into a very different world than we did, or our children. It is not always easy to let go when you are older, and it is easier for some than others. But if you get involved with your grandchildren you can see for yourself the good things that are coming to them from homeschooling.

Karen: It is clear, isn’t it, why my mother is one of my heroes?

Karen Ridd is an activist, educator, retired clown, and delighted unschooling mother. Her children Daniel and Ben are responsible for the biggest growth curve in her life – and she appreciates that! Karen lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. She has contributed a number of articles to Life Learning Magazine. This interview was included in the book Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier.

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