Margot is only three and a half. So, technically, right now, she’s just “home” instead of being “homeschooled” because she is not legally required to be in school yet. But, still, not quite every day, but fairly often, I get asked the question “Where does Margot go to school?” Admittedly, I like being asked this question because it gives me an opportunity to dazzle (bore?) people with the theories which inspired us to choose unschooling for our family. But, also, when I’m asked this about my tiny child I feel a little overwhelmed by it. I know that the days of “why isn’t she in school?” are coming. I know that having a school aged child navigating the world with me on a daily basis is going to lead to lots of questions and comments. I also know that the comparisons will start.
My lovely insta-friend Jo wrote recently on her blog about comparisons, and it’s something that has been on my mind a lot recently as well. By “recently” it’s possible I mean “my entire life.” Being compared to my sister was always a part of my life. Whether the comparisons were innocuous or favorable to one or the other of us, they were always being made. By our family, by our friends, by ourselves. “Your sister is so pretty” is a phrase that I heard often through my high school years and that has shaped my self image. And I am sure there is some comparison to me that looms large in my sister’s mind. Margot does not have a sibling against whom to be constantly compared, for better or worse. But that does not bump her out of the comparison game all together.
It’s a bit of a nasty habit we parents have, comparing our child to others. It happens so early, too. We agonize over those first words and first steps and first everythings, looking sideways at the other babies at storytime wondering how old they are and in what ways they are more advanced than, or falling behind, our own child. It is insidious and we all do it. We parents have all had the moment where you hear another child, maybe even younger than your own, say something impressive… like… oh, I don’t know, like, “disestablishmentarianism” and you are so impressed and ashamed that your child isn’t also discussing 18th century British politics, so you head home and start repeating “disestablishmentarianism” to your child who refuses to repeat it and you both get frustrated. That’s the bad bit of comparing children, and we all know it is bad.
But, comparisons are also part of how we learn. Babies compare their bodies to the other bodies around them to establish their place in this world, they mirror us to learn speech and movement. And, as we get older, comparing ourselves to others help us to achieve more. Even as parents, comparing our children may sometimes be beneficial. Perhaps we see another child doing something we didn’t think our own child was old enough to do, and so, emboldened by seeing another 3 year old tearing down the street on a scooter, we find a scooter for our child and let them try it. As long as we are using comparisons as inspiration to try new things and we are not saying “why can’t you do this thing that someone else can do??” (the subtext being “what is wrong with you?”) then comparing is not all bad. But, to do this, we need to let go of the general idea that a (developmentally typical) child can be advanced or can fall behind their peers.
This is a big part of Unschooling, perhaps the biggest part of all. Recognizing that not all humans learn the same skills at the same time. Allowing ourselves that space to let knowledge come to us when we are ready to receive it. The biggest example of this is reading. It so happens that this is also my biggest hang up with unschooling. Reading is a huge part of my life and always has been. I hope that Margot shares my joy for reading (and writing) and I am eager for her to start. But, I know that she might not start reading at the same time as her schooled peers, and it’s a fact that I have to struggle with internally. I know that if she reaches a certain age and hasn’t begun reading, tongues will be clucked and comparisons will be made and it might be suggested that I am not doing what is required of me as her “teacher.” Thinking about that possibility feels really, really bad and it is something that I have to work on.
For now, the questions about Margot’s schooling have a tone of interest and perhaps mild discomfort at the idea. But, as her peers start entering school in greater quantities, I worry that the tone might change. Margot’s two best friends live kind of far away, too far to see them daily or even weekly, but not so far that we can’t see them about once a month. (They are the lovely children pictured here with Margot) Their families are planning to go to conventional schools and one of them has already begun preschool a few days a week. Margot’s little cousin (who I should probably stop calling her baby cousin since she will be ONE in less than a week…) will also be going to conventional school. And, well, I should stop listing them because most of the children that Margot already knows will be going to school. So, the comparisons are coming. Whether they are spoken or unspoken, harmful or helpful.
It’s going to be a difficult thing to navigate. I know that bad feelings will come up for me. I know that I will see unfavorable comparisons as an insult against my abilities as a mother and that I will need to deal with those feelings and not use them as a reason to push Margot to do something that isn’t right for her. I know that I will see favorable comparisons as a reason to feel superior to others who have chosen another path and I will need to deal with those feelings and not let them get in the way of valuing others’ experiences.
I hope that following different paths does not get in the way of Margot’s friendships with her schooled peers. I am hopeful that seeing other children having a different childhood experience will inspire Margot. I hope that she compares herself to her schooled peers in a way that makes her feel excited about learning. I hope that when she hears her best friends talking about some topic that they loved learning about in school, she seeks ways to learn about it herself. I hope that they will expose her to things I might never have thought of and that she will expose them to things that their schools didn’t cover in their curriculum. I hope that she (and I) will inspire those around us that education comes to us all in different ways and at different times. And I do really, really hope she likes to read.