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The Guilty Unschooler
By Jerritt Dayhoff

This article is not about your kids. My guess is that the majority of the books and articles that you read are about your kids. This is about you, because you deserve it. I swear, you do.

“I feel like I’m failing them, they fight all the time.…that can’t be right,” says my friend, and neighbor, J, as she stands in my entry hall. It’s nine pm, and it’s been a long day for her. “Sometimes it’s hard,” she says, as tears well up. “Maybe pulling them out of school was a huge mistake.”

Thankfully, we both have wonderful husbands who get that life learning is not always the delightful endeavor it appears to always be in many books. She and I hit the craft store, tooling around, venting.

She’s not alone; we have our issues at our house, too. We both have multiple children – me three biological, one stepchild and J with four kids age eleven and younger. Days are rarely quiet; both of us have very spirited children.

Our friend, S, also a life learning mother of four small children, has a wonderful habit of saying, within a few minutes of sitting down for a visit, “How’s unschooling working out for you right now?” It’s actually a wonderful tool. So many places we go we have to act like everything is perfect all the time; otherwise, why would we chose to take on this “extra” work? So having someone totally be like, “Lay it out, we’re cool,” – it helps.

“My job satisfaction is low right now,” said J, the last time the three of us got together. There were knowing and understanding nods. While we all agree that this life is beneficial and a wonderful experience for our children and ourselves, it can be unbelievably confusing and exhausting sometimes. Having friends – especially those who “get it” and don’t judge – helps a lot.

So why can it be so hard? And why, when we feel tired and worn to the bone, do we first and foremost blame ourselves? “I feel like I’m failing them,” says J, and “I feel like someday they may be laying on a therapist’s couch talking about what I did to them.” Why is this where we turn first? Why not, instead, realize that this is normal kid behavior that we can help them to learn to work through? Why? Because that’s not what society tells us to do with those feelings.

Parenting is hard work, especially when you’re trying to live as consensually as possible with your children. It means everyone gets a say and, when the adults are outnumbered by the kids, that can be really hard. It gets even more difficult when the kids don’t always get along, and when some of the kids are toddlers, while others are starting on the road to puberty, or when your kids may not be the most easy going of children.

Let’s face it, kids fight, even kids living consensually, and with parents who are committed to peaceful life learning. Sometimes they fight with other kids, sometimes they fight with their siblings, sometimes they fight with their parents. Our job as parents is not to make the fighting disappear, but to make sure everyone feels safe and heard, and to try, if possible, to help find a solution that appeases everyone.

Conflict is a part of a healthy society. We, as a family, are our own micro-society. It is how that conflict is expressed that makes the difference between whether we enjoy living in our society or not. So how can we assuage our own guilt over the conflict, and make life more enjoyable for everyone involved? It isn’t easy, my friends, but it can be done, at least somewhat successfully.

First, we mothers (and fathers, too, but mothers especially), need to stop blaming ourselves. Not everything is our “fault.” We need to stop focusing on blame and fault, and start focusing on positive solutions. Taking blame doesn’t make things better. It simply gives you guilt. It’s the “what if,” “maybe I should have,” “if only I had done this or not done that.” Guilt is the voice that creeps in when you’re tired, or frustrated, or feeling like something’s not working. It gnaws at your confidence as a parent and a life learner, and erodes living in peace with your family.

That guilt comes from many places – our families, our friends, how we were raised, the schools our kids may have left, the messages that come constantly from the media around us, the fact that there are few representations of our lifestyle in any mainstream forum. The guilt makes us afraid. It puts the blame on us, the mothers (yep, guys, it’s almost always mom who gets the blame), for not doing enough, being enough, trying hard enough. That guilt tells us our children “should be reading now,” “should know their multiplication tables,” “will never get into a good college.” That guilt convinces us that our children would “not argue,” “would be better socialized,” “or be more involved,” if they were in public school. It tells us our kids would be different, better, less difficult, if only we were not their parents, or were better parents, or didn’t unschool.

Be prepared, I’m going to shout:


It’s not helping you at all. Letting it go is easier said than done, of course. I struggle with it everyday. In fact, I am pretty sure that my husband may laugh out loud when he realizes that I am writing a piece about letting go of guilt, as he has spent the better part of our marriage trying to get me to do the same thing. I was raised in a culture with some heavy guilt overtones. So for me, it’s a struggle not to first blame myself, but it’s necessary — for me, and for you — if we’re going to truly enjoy our life as it is.

If you are able to do the following, the guilt will lessen. It will, I swear, but you have to commit to these things in the same wholehearted manner that you have committed to unschooling your children.

Own your Decisions

Honestly, they are yours, they are important to your life. Stop apologizing for them and rationalizing them, and just own them as yours, and right for your family. You don’t have to explain them to anyone. You are an adult. This is your family, no one else’s.

Find a Non-Judgmental, Non-Competitive Friend

Sometimes that’s also easier said than done, but it’s important. I’m talking about someone that you don’t have to clean your house for when they visit. Someone who isn’t going to talk constantly about how much better their kids are than yours. Someone who is okay with how you parent, even if it’s not how they parent. You deserve it. You owe it to yourself. Find them! You can search online, join local groups, talk to people at your kids’ activities, whatever; just don’t give up looking. I can guarantee you: That person may save your sanity, and allow you enough space to see that you’re not caught in the swirling vortex of crazy life that it sometimes feels like.

Realize That Life Isn’t Always Greener

It’s true. For a couple of years, I worked full time, had kids in day care, preschool, and public school. I was exhausted and felt crazy all the time. I never had time with my kids; we were always just revolving through our separate days. I felt like I could be good at my job, or a good mom, but never both. School always needed something, homework was horrible, and my kids weren’t happy or thriving. Every time I feel like I am nearing the end of my rope, my husband generally needs to only remind me that life wasn’t better then. In fact, now since my son, who has special needs, would also be in school, life would be even harder than before. I get it, I do, but in moments of difficulty, another’s grass always seems greener. I’m here to remind you, though, that it’s not. Not for you, or your kids.

Slow Down!

I would say eighty percent of my crazy days stem from me doing too much, planning too much, expecting too much, or trying to be Super Mom. Some of you are nodding. I know you are. The days when I slow down, when I truly follow my kids’ lead, when we aren’t over-scheduled, or I don’t try and grocery shop with cranky kids, are better. Of course, sometimes, it’s not an option to just stay home; I get that. I am there often myself, but if you can slow down in any way, do it. Stay at home for the day. Sit and watch your kids invent a new game or build a castle with the couch cushions. It will be better. I promise.

Find Something That is Yours

I mean find a hobby, something you have a passion for, something you love doing, or have always wanted to learn how to do. Maybe you like to knit, or garden, or write. Maybe it’s just reading romance novels. Maybe you work a few hours a week, or want to learn how to take better photographs, or spend some time volunteering.

Whatever it is, protect it. Don’t feel guilty about carving out time for yourself to be able to do it. Being a life learner doesn’t mean just facilitating your children’s learning; it means learning for an entire lifetime, including yours! You deserve to do that, too. It doesn’t have to cost a lot. In fact, it doesn’t have to cost anything, but it needs to be something you really like to do. I have several things, because I am one of those people who does not sit still well. When I need to relax, I knit. In the spring and summer, I love my garden. I also like to cook. My kids don’t always eat it, and I have come to be okay with that, because the cooking is really for me, not for them.

Stop Competing

There’s always going to be someone out there who does more than you, or at least they seem to. They are infinitely patient, their house is spotless, they have brilliant children who are quiet, patient, do volunteer work, and have already written their first novel. Their kids read at three, and do long division in their head. That mom bakes her own bread, buys her family’s food from local sustainable sources, and grows the rest of their vegetables in their backyard. They volunteer at local farms. They make all their own clothing, and their kids have no desire to ever watch TV. They have gone off the grid, and their son built the family’s electric car from spare parts. You can read about these people on a host of blogs throughout the Internet, and you may think you know some in real life.

These aren’t your kids. This isn’t your family, and that’s okay. The guilt over what you could be, or could be doing, or who your kids should be, is no different than any other guilt. It’s not doing anybody any good. Do what you can, without going crazy. If reading those blogs or magazines, or talking to that person frequently makes you feel twitchy, if you’ve starting making a list of your and your children’s accomplishments, or you’re pushing your kids to do things just so you can add things to your list, that’s not healthy. Back away. Stop reading that stuff. Limit your time with that friend. Save your sanity. Stop comparing. Enjoy your kids and your life as it is. That’s better than competition anyway.

Take Time for Yourself

Perhaps no phrase in the English language has been uttered more, and given less actual meaning for mothers, ever. I am absolutely giving you permission to actually make it mean something. Without guilt. Ask a friend to watch your kids so you can grocery shop alone – it’s amazing! Don’t call to check on them; they won’t die, I promise. Drop your kids off at the day care at the gym. Work out, or don’t. Take the whole hour. Don’t go by to check on them. They will be fine, I promise. Go to knitting night. I don’t care if your husband just worked a twelve hour shift, and looks tired. You just worked a twenty four, and you look even more tired. I promise.

I do understand that not everyone has tons of support or kids who are easy to leave. I’ve been there, too. I was a single mom for several years, and I have some wickedly active kiddos, but this is important. I have a friend who says that mental health is at the top of her hierarchy of needs. She budgets it in like she would groceries or the rent.

If you have to hire a sitter, do it! It will get better. Maybe not right away, but it will. You will be a better mom, a better life learning parent, a more sane and happy person. If you can’t leave, then try and stay up past the kids for half hour every now and again. Turn off the TV, light some candles, take a minute and meditate, or sit quietly. Don’t do anything. Just be you. Not anyone’s mom, but just you. You’ve forgotten that that person is there. I know that you have.

Life with kids is not always easy, but it is rewarding. Living as a life learning family is even more rewarding. I am going to leave you with a snippet of a recent day in our family’s life, which will illuminate why I live this way, and why slowing down and letting go of the guilt is absolutely worth it in the long run.

A Day in Our Life

It was cold, and so we couldn’t really do much outside; instead, we did this. In the morning, Angus and Wednesday decided to build a ball pit. They turned the coffee table upside down (oh yeah, not having nice furniture is extremely helpful for guilt-less parenting). Then they encased it in blankets and pillows (the only breakdown was when I tried to step in and help. Once I abandoned that attempt, things went much smoother). They filled it with balls and played in it for awhile.

Then Angus decided that if he put the big comforter over the top, he could hibernate in it like a bear. They even stored food in there, but Angus quickly became annoyed with little sister Wednesday’s presence inside, and she was ejected from the den. I helped her, at her request, to build her own den out of the dining room chairs. She spent some time “sunning” herself on the roof.

After lunch, the kids decided it would be better if the coffee table was a speaking podium for a king. They stood it up long ways. Each of the kids gave speeches, even Zhara. Then Angus went downstairs and got the hobby horse, and they took turns rescuing the princess/prince from the castle tower, which the podium had become. They even had to battle a dragon to do it, which required me to light candles, and them to blow them out to “defeat” the dragon. I insisted on being a part of the fire-related play – I figured that was pretty necessary.

All of this went on throughout the day. People took breaks for snacks, to watch TV, to play on the computer, to play with dolls, and to occasionally fight with their siblings, but it all came from them. They worked together, and despite having a TV on in the background, they were incredibly productive.

We recently moved into a new house, and it happens to have a hot tub in the backyard. We use it a lot. That day, in the late afternoon, we braved the cold to get into the hot tub, and I watched the steam rise off of my crazy kids as they jumped in off the side from the frigid cold. It was just one more part of the day. I suggested it, but the two youngest jumped at it and Zhara sat out this time. No one was angry because she chose TV over swimming; it just was. At that moment, she was practicing taking time for herself, and we knew it wouldn’t be forever.

As the weak winter sun started to set through the trees, and I watched my kids jump, steaming, into the hot tub, reflected in the pale yellow of that sunset, with dinner cooking inside the house, and another day of learning about life behind us, I realized that this is one kick ass life I get to lead. And guilt be damned!

Jerritt Dayhoff is the mother of three amazing unschooled children – Zhara, Angus, and Wednesday, (who were nine, six and three when this article was written in 2011) and step-mother to Dalton who was ten and attending public school. Jerritt and her husband Adam, a civil engineer, were living in Utah, but becoming accustomed to the frequent relocation that accompanies the life of a civil engineer. The kids have become happy nomads, and are making friends all over the country. In a former life, Jerritt was an attorney for the Public Defender’s Office of Missouri. These days, she spends her time exploring the wild lands of Utah with her kids, playing in the garden, knitting, reading, watching bad TV with her remarkable husband, and living as naturally as possible.

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