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Learning, Without Any Embarrassing Side Effects
By Ralph Hogaboom

One dad's explanation of what learning looks like in his unschooling family.
Photo (c) Kao/Shutterstock

That great unschooling thought-leader Jeff Sabo said something to me a few weeks ago. Well, he said it to a room full of people at a conference and I happened to be in the same room, but I felt like it was directed at me: “You must have an elevator pitch for unschooling if you’re going to defend it.”

I’ve been working on it since. I don’t have that elevator pitch, the three-to-five sentence executive summary that gives curious people their “aha” moment. I don’t even know if unschooling is the same for most people.

But I can show you what it looks like in my family, at least sometimes. I’m going to tell you about my trip to the pharmacy and post office with my ten-year-old daughter.

It starts when I realize it’s getting late – 8:30 PM – and if I’m going to pick up a prescription, I have to get to the pharmacy before 9. As I grab my keys, I ask my family if anyone wants to go with me, flatly joking that perhaps one of our cats will jump in the front seat. My daughter jumps up and says, “Let me put on some socks and my boots, and I’ll go with you.”

This is not abnormal for our family, although it is for almost all my children’s peers of the same age. Our family does not have set bed times, and no one is forced to stay or go on errands. In the car, she asks if we can listen to a CD of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic songs we pulled off of YouTube. The songs were created by fans of the show, and all have a dance-techno vibe to them. We pop the CD in, and turn it up. Until recently, I did not realize I manipulated the music choices in my car with my kids. With friends and acquaintances, I’ve usually deferred to their tastes. But until recently with my own children, the voice in the back of my head said, “They’re just kids.” Once I discovered that voice, I squashed it. Denying a common courtesy from a group of human beings because they fit a demographic is wrong. Unschooling has taught me this, and I am a happier, better friend to others because of it.

At the pharmacy, we enter the store making jokes. She’s got a wicked sense of humor, and makes me giggle. While in line to get the medicine (she has Swimmer’s Ear, diagnosed just today), she reads the pharmacist’s name tag. “That’s an elaborate last name you have, Kelli,” she says. The pharmacist is a bit startled, then says, “Yes, I married into it.” The prescription gets filled but we discover my daughter’s name is misspelled. My daughter grabs a scrap of paper and writes her name, correctly and in all caps, then hands it to the pharmacist. She indicates that this is to correct the incorrect data in their system. By the time we are receiving directions for the medication, the pharmacist is speaking directly to my daughter, the ten-year-old. Phoenix listens, nodding in comprehension, a consenting participant in her own medical health process.

On the drive home, we stop by the post office. We each open one of the double doors for the other, laugh at the silliness, then go through our own individual door. Inside our PO box we find a glossy printout from a local car dealership, with a little black key-sized device stuck to it. The text hugely proclaims PULL TAB TO SEE IF YOU’VE WON! IF THE NUMBER ON THE FOB MATCHES THIS NUMBER, YOU HAVE WON TWO OF THE PRIZES BELOW!!!!!

We scan the list of prizes: a brand new Jeep, a $750 gift card, a string of freshwater pearls, etc.

My daughter pulls out the tab from the fob, and a tiny LED light in the fob displays the matching number. Her eyes widen, then go confused. “Did we win something? Is this real?” I scan the fine print (ODDS OF WINNING 1 in 15,000 ONLY 1 PRIZE AVAILABLE) and say, “No, it’s not real. It’s a clever but untrue advertisement to get you to go buy a new car from the dealership.”

I delight in what she does next. She directly, politely, questions my authority on the subject by asking me to back up my claim. “How do you know? It looks like we’ve won.”

“Well,” I say, looking around. “Let’s do some research.” We begin digging in the recycling bin of the post office. The bin is full of junk mail, including several of the glossy car dealership adverts. Many of them still have the black fobs on them, tabs intact.

Phoenix pulls the tabs out of three of them, and verifies the numbers are all the same – every fob is a “winner.” But instead of her face registering disappointment, it flushes with excitement. She begins gathering up a small number of unused fobs from the recycling bin. “This gives me an idea. For a trick I’m going to play on Nels.” Nels is her brother, age eight. He loves tricks, once renaming a traditional American holiday to Pranksgiving. “But I’ll need your help,” she continues. “With Photoshop.” “I’m in.”

We spend the next five minutes taking apart one of the fobs to see how they work. It’s wonderfully simple – two watch type batteries, a wire, and an LED light. I observe that the batteries are wired in series, not parallel. She expresses no interest in my observation, and now that we’ve got it taken apart, she’s rapidly losing interest in the guts of the device. This is also an important part of unschooling, for me – gauging my kids’ interest in things allows me to bring home resources that will fuel them. Electronics might not be one of them, right now anyway – good to know.

We make our way home, stash the remaining fobs in her closet, and our story is done.

* * *

My ten-year-old daughter learned more tonight in thirty minutes than I learned entire days in public school. I did not question the motives of car dealerships until I was twenty-two; I thought they were extravagant, luxurious places where rich people bought cars and treated you well. The real, practical insight my daughter gained is hers to use (or discard, really) and gained from real experience with a dealership, at nearly 9pm in an empty post office on a Tuesday night. That doesn’t happen in school. This isn’t an unusual example for my family, either. I’m not cherry picking the best bits to make us look slick or pretend something is happening that is not.

Life is learning. This is what it looks like for my family to go with that flow of learning, while everyone around us is boxing it up into districts, tests, education boards, tests, grades, denied bathroom breaks, and more tests. These are the moments that remind me why we unschool. These moments happen constantly, and they are natural. They are easy. They are fun. I love being a parent, and I love spending time with my children. They’re awesome people, and I’m grateful to be alive and that I get to see them live.

By day, Ralph Hogaboom runs the network and servers at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen, WA. The rest of his time is spent with his family, writing and playing music in the indie pop band Best F-Tigers Forever!!, baking and cooking, managing his 24/7 120-player global collocated Minecraft server, watching b-movies from the 1970s, tinkering with electronics, running his record label Mighty Kitten Records, and designing for print and the web as HQX Design Inc.

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