Natural Life Magazine

Hope for Heliophobes* and Life After Video Games
by Jim Strickland
* A heliophobe is someone who is afraid of the sun.

Hope for Heliophobes - and life after video games.

Dad: What advice would you give to parents raising kids who don’t attend school?

Avery (pictured above): Give them freedom. If I couldn’t do what I really want, I wouldn’t learn anything.

Have you ever made a decision and committed yourself to a course of action, only to awaken one night in a cold, panicking sweat, convinced that you made a terrible, terrible mistake? If so, then welcome to the human family and to my world in particular. Mistakes seem to have become somewhat of a hobby of mine more often than I’d like to admit. But I’ve also learned that not everything that scares us sleepless has to be wrong. In fact, fear can often mean that we are doing something exactly right.

In their book You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear, Frances Moore Lappé and Jeffrey Perkins write about fear as an evolved survival mechanism warning us to stay with the pack – or else!

“But here’s the rub: To create solutions for our lives right now, and to reverse planet wide decimation of our very life-support system, requires two things of us: that we do something different than we are doing today, which is just another way of saying we must walk into the unknown and that we be different than we are today, which by definition means that we risk separating from others.”

Lappé and Perkins go on to say that whereas “staying with the pack” once meant life, “now it means death, death for our spirits, and ultimately for our planet.”

Which brings me to what has been keeping me up at nights over this past year or so – namely, unschooling my 12-year-old son. My wife Dana and I made the decision to unschool Avery very early on, when he was virtually indistinguishable from a butterbean-sized alien (or so the ultrasound images led us to believe). We were both teachers and knew firsthand what a spirit-squashing, soul-sucking place schools can be, especially for kids (and adults) who are inclined to march to the beat of their own drummer. We wanted to give Avery the freedom, trust, and respect that would allow him to naturally grow into the wonderfully unique person he was destined to be.

And we did. And he did. For 10 years. And then came the dreaded “N-word.” No, our son was not a prepubescent racist. The “N-word” I am referring to is NINTENDO! Ahhhhhhhhhhh! After a few years of successfully fending off this video game beast, we finally let our guard down and allowed a handheld Gameboy to cross the sacred threshold of our home. But there was no way in heck we were ever going to lower ourselves to purchase one of those game systems that you play on a full-sized television set! I mean, we had to draw the line somewhere, right?

And we did. For one year. And then came the Gameboy Advanced and the DS and the DS Light and the Playstation 2 and the on-line RPGs (role playing games, for those of us who may have actually fallen off a turnip truck) and blah, blah, blah…. You know the story: Healthy, exuberant youngster turns into pale, cave-dwelling heliophobe. Now, I’m not saying that getting out into the sunlight would actually harm Avery but, until he finally does, I guess I’ll just have to hope for the best.

I’m kidding, of course. Avery doesn’t actually live in a cave (although I have found what appear to be bat droppings in his bedroom – go figure). But Dana and I were becoming increasingly concerned with the amount of time he spent indoors on the computer. Yes, Avery is a voracious reader. Yes, he writes impressively and creatively. Yes, he has an excellent grasp of numbers (though actually doing math problems on paper produces symptoms similar to those of anaphylactic shock). Yes, Avery is intelligent and thoughtful and articulate and caring and self-directing and all those things we want our kids to be. But he doesn’t seem to need or want to be around a lot of people. I mean, he’s nice  to people and all, but he doesn’t tend to seek out the company of more than his family and a couple of close friends. Is that okay?

After a few of my aforementioned 2:00 AM panic attacks, Dana and I freaked out and enrolled Avery in a public school parent partnership program that met three days a week, one of which was outdoors “in the field.” Sounds great, right? Well, it turns out that “in the field” generally meant digging holes or pulling blackberry vines all day in the freezing rain. Avery would come home shivering, teeth chattering and muttering about his increasing distaste for planting trees. Don’t get me wrong. The kids were doing good work, but we all know it’s possible to get too much of a good thing, especially if that thing is someone else’s definition of “good.”

The bigger problem with this program was just that – Avery was being compelled to follow someone else’s predetermined agenda with no chance for input from him or the other kids. We human beings have a natural drive to create and Avery is an extremely creative person. This amazing source of natural motivation is thwarted, however, when we are denied participation in the decisions that affect our lives. (There is a great word sometimes used for giving people this real voice – it is “democracy.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Careful though, I don’t think it is allowed at most schools.)

So, after many emotional battles that reduced us all to tears and reactive threats that I’m not proud of, we finally allowed Avery to pull out of the program or to “go on strike,” as he puts it. Amazingly, our son quickly returned to his normal happy and creative self. How’s that for a quick recovery? Have a thorn in your foot? Well, pull it out – duh! Dana and I resolved that his happiness and sense of self-direction was, indeed, important to us and certainly healthier than what we had been going through with the school program.

It’s been about six months since Avery abandoned his short-lived foray into structured schooling. Since then, he has continued his love of the computer, but it’s not all games. Avery has made movies, created and edited videos, solved puzzles, done amazing artwork, written stories, learned to type and created his own website. Off the computer, he has taken up biking (Avery vows he will never own a car), participated in several “Youth for Peace” rallies in our area, volunteered at a local coffee shop and attends a youth group at our nearby Unitarian Universalist fellowship. I am very involved in our community and I include Avery in as many of my activities as he can tolerate.

To check up on how Avery himself was feeling about his life in general and how things were going for him, I conducted a short interview. Here are the highlights:

Dad: What makes you happy?

Avery: Happy? That’s a hard question. I play video games. I also enjoy reading, biking, hiking, drawing, writing…. I like to hear people laugh. If possible, I prefer to be the one making them laugh. Laughing feels good and expresses a feeling of happiness for me.

Dad: What is something you’re proud of?

Avery: I’m very proud of my artwork – drawing, writing – any kind of artwork. I like to twist things to make them darker in a Tim Burton sort of way.

Dad: What do you believe is important in life?

Avery: Love, friends. And I hope when I’m older not to be one of those people who spends hours a day working in a job they cannot stand.

Dad: How do you learn new things or skills?

Avery: I’ve been given a lot of freedom. Through that, I think I have learned a lot of things that are more important than what I might learn in school. I’m pretty good at taking in my surroundings and understanding other people.

Dad: Who are your heroes or mentors?

Avery: I like to think I follow people in history who have helped create peace using nonviolence – people like Gandhi.

Dad: How would your life be different if you went to school?

Avery: Well, it would give me more chances to connect with people, my friends and others, but if the program doesn’t fit, the tradeoff isn’t worth it.

Dad: How are your social and intellectual needs being met?

Avery: I don’t really miss connecting with people face-to-face every day. I don’t really have a strong need to be around that many people that often. I enjoy getting together with friends occasionally and interacting on-line. As for my intellectual needs, I feel I’m learning all the time. I’m being challenged but not pressured to do things that I don’t want to do. That works for me.

Dad: What is something you want to accomplish or experience in life?

Avery: I’d like to learn to play an instrument. Actually, I want to play, not learn. I’d like to publish a book. Someday I want to go to Venice, Italy.

Dad: Would you consider attending college or some other structured learning program if it helped you meet your goals?

Avery: Definitely. So far, though, none of my goals were being met by any type of school program I’ve been in.

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Dad: What advice would you give to parents raising kids who don’t attend school?

Avery: Give them freedom. If I couldn’t do what I really want, I wouldn’t learn anything.

So, there you have it. I can’t say we’re not making a million mistakes that will eventually come back to haunt us later, but something tells me that life learning is the right decision for Avery. The fear that creeps up on me every now and then proves only that we are straying from the pack, not that we are on the wrong path.

What is the source of my optimistic hope? Well, in a word, Avery. I am proud of the person he is becoming. He inspires me, challenges me, impresses me and teaches me. Our world needs creative, free-thinking people who are willing to ponder, to question and to blaze their own trails through life – 12-year-olds who claim Gandhi as their hero.

John Dewey liked to define education as growth. Growth can be nurtured, but it cannot be controlled. Are we bold enough and courageous enough to trust this natural process? It may just lead us to the world of our dreams.

Jim Strickland lives in Everett, Washington with his wife Dana and children, Avery, Jamison and Owen. He is a community-based educator in nearby Marysville and works to create democratic, non-coercive learning opportunities. He is a community organizer and passionate promoter of sustainable living in his local area. He attributes his commitment to unschooling to his hero of many years, John Holt.

This article was published in Natural Life Magazine in 2008. You might also be interested in our unschooling magazine Life Learning.


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