Learning To Be Happy

(Originally written for and printed by The Mother magazine, 2014)

To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself – Soren Kierkegaard

On the day that my daughter, L, would have started Primary School, I literally felt sick. What had I done? All her playschool friends were off to school, such a huge milestone in their lives and here we were at home just carrying on as before. We didn’t know even one person home educating on that day. It felt such a lonely choice and I was not completely sure it was the right one. The certainty I felt at taking my son, T, out of playschool where he was not thriving, the gut instinct that it was right for him was coupled with reservations about my daughter. Would she have loved school? Was she missing out? Yet, I felt I needed to do this for her and give her the same opportunity as T. It was important she knew that she was wanted at home just as much and I believed she could benefit enormously, if we just gave it a chance.

Education is in my blood: it runs through my veins. I grew up in the grounds of a boys’ boarding school where my Dad was a house master and head of English. I followed a conventional educational route myself from primary school to University, whereupon I studied for a degree in Education and English. I later taught for over 10 years in primary schools. I have nothing against schools per se; in fact, I would be the first person to tell you that a good teacher can literally change a child’s life and that schools are crucial to some families.

Yet, I had also seen first-hand that schools can fail children. I saw it many times in my own teaching career with young children who were burdened with academic teaching in the wrong way, at the wrong time. I saw children whose time was consumed by school, after school clubs and homework.

I had always known vaguely of the choice to home educate, but it was the act of sending my children to playschool that triggered the thought of it as a serious possibility. I began to feel strongly that what I wanted for my children, at this stage of their childhood, would not be provided in a school setting. I wanted them to have the freedom and time to play and learn at their own developmental pace. I wanted them to be able to run about outdoors and learn about life through living it, and, yes, I wanted to “hang out” with them and have the joy of witnessing those eureka moments.

I get by with a little help from my friends – John Lennon

We threw ourselves into the home education social scene for a couple of years. It seemed more important than anything else that the kids had solid friendships. The home education community can be so transitional and my main concern was giving my children some consistency.

My children are growing up with their friends, just as children do with their classmates in school. They have both developed close friendships over the years. They have play dates, sleepovers and parties to go to, just like their school going peers.

The question of how home educated children socialise is a familiar one. It can indeed be a real concern for some families who live rurally or in areas where there are no local home educators, but, for us, it is not a problem at all. Our area is literally buzzing with other home educators and there are many groups to attend, both in our locality and a little farther afield.

At times, I find the socialising exhausting and I look forward to the day when the kids can manage their own friendships and meet up independently from me. This is a genuine downside as there is very little opportunity for my children to attend groups on their own. L would really value more independence, and I am forever trying to find ways to address this need. Sometimes, I do think it would just be easier to send her to school and, about once every year, we think about it seriously, visiting schools and weighing up our options. L is curious about what school would be like and she would like to try a day some time, but she always says she doesn’t actually want to go long-term because she enjoys being home educated and would miss her friends and all the fun we have.

My son has never once expressed an interest in going to school. He enjoys a pretty nice lifestyle at home. He has a handful of quality friendships and does not appear to enjoy being surrounded by lots of people all the time. He also does not like noisy places (though he can be pretty loud himself!) and let’s face it, schools are busy, full of people, and noisy. Our local primary schools certainly are; some with 400-600 pupils on roll.

There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots; the other, wings — Hodding Carter

I remember, at the beginning of our home education journey, my husband, Sean, said: “You can’t just take them on lots of picnics in the woods you know.” But, if you throw in stacks of painting and crafting and literally hundreds of books then that is exactly what I did: lots of days out and about, splashing in puddles, seeing friends, running around woods and feeding the ducks, and spending time with the people who love them the most. My children really have had amazing early years and I am very proud of that. My hope is that it will stand them in good stead for their whole lives and give them an inner confidence with which to deal with all life’s challenges.

As my daughter has got closer to 9, I have noticed a big change in her. She is suddenly hungry for information. Over the year that she has been reading, she has literally exhausted all the books in our house, our local library and our local charity shop. She has taken over my kindle and cost me a fortune on Amazon. At first, her interest was limited to reading, but in the last few months she has become a keen writer too. I started a writing group at home and, being a very social learner, she has thrived and her writing has taken off.

‘Do you think you’re such a book worm because I didn’t rush you to read, but let you figure it out in your own time?’ I asked L one day.

‘Mum’, she answered honestly ‘I think I was born to be a big reader, it’s just how I am. I think I would have always been into books no matter what.”

The wisdom of this made me smile. There I was a bit smug, thinking I had something to do with her truly awesome progress, when, in reality, there is an undercurrent of learning happening all the time that we cannot see until it reaches the surface and bursts through. We cannot always control it, or indeed take credit for it.

“The highest form of wisdom is kindness”-The Talmud.

I don’t like to label the kind of home educators we are, I find it is always evolving but we identify with the principles of unschooling. We don’t follow a curriculum, we are child-led but I do teach formally at times, when it feels appropriate to do so and when the children have specifically asked. We do not use text books but instead read great works of fact and fiction together. We have a time-table to show when our weekly groups or outings are, because the kids like that, but I don’t structure all their time either. They can play when they want and I don’t stop them doing so where possible. I love the philosophy behind Waldorf education and we have used some of their ideas as a springboard in the past when the kids were younger. We enjoy being outside in the fresh air, and, as the weather warms up, we will be outdoors most of the time.

We learn by having conversations and asking questions. I learn alongside them, too, and they certainly know by now that I am not the fountain of all knowledge. We are always looking things up together. We have a project-based learning style, which requires that I facilitate and mentor and, on occasion, seek out experts in their field to teach a particular skill.

I think it’s important that the children see me learning and witness me making mistakes too. Over the years, I have been on a variety of courses such as sewing, felting, woodcarving, crochet and in recent months they have seen the process of my writing articles for ”The Mother”, learning how to paint dogs for a commissioned oil painting and doing paid tutoring. I have noticed that when I immerse myself in an activity, they tend to emulate. It seems essential that I do meaningful work, not simply address their needs and whims. Over time, I am trying to encourage independent learning so that gradually my role will become increasingly unnecessary. Hopefully, they will understand the process well enough to source their own information and experts in time.

Sometimes working towards badges or awards can be fun, and the children feel good about reaching set goals but I am more interested in authentic learning experiences such as learning life skills or helping in the community. This spring and summer we are hoping to volunteer in a community garden, helping to grow food.

We don’t centre our learning on academic achievement, but have a more holistic approach which values all kinds of intelligence. Recently, I have been trying to build on their emotional intelligence (by building on my own emotional intelligence!); I feel it’s the foundation of all learning.

There appears to be this feeling in our society that children must go to school in order to be able to deal with ‘real life’. It is an odd notion really since school is not real life; it is life in an institution. My children mix with all kinds of people, different age groups, different cultural groups and people from a range of social backgrounds. Home education does not divide as state or public schools do; pretty much anyone can home educate. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth – Pharrell Williams

According to “The Good Childhood Report”, children in the UK are supposed to be amongst the unhappiest in the world. In the UK, we seem to indulge our children in terms of possessions but load them down with anxiety about achievement and their future. We rush around in the endless attempt to expand our children’s horizons and to give them opportunities, but, recently, I have begun to wonder whether, rather than expanding their world, we should be concentrating on what is right before our eyes. We should be investing in our families and our local community and keeping life simple. It is amazing how well children respond to a quieter life and it is truly astonishing how much learning takes place when you slow down enough to notice.

The more demanding society and, indeed, our school system become, the more labels we seem to need for children who do not keep up or fit in. The children of the Bajau, a nomadic sea tribe living in Borneo, do not even know their ages. Conversely, we pin children down to ages, stages, levels and grades for everything from reading to swimming. The Bajau’s livelihood is centred on catching fish and they learn to swim and hunt. They need to be proficient swimmers, since their very lives depend on it, but I doubt the Bajau children are drilled about the finer points of the butterfly stroke for weeks on end.

Our home education ethos centres on equipping our children with the tools to be happy and fulfilled in their lives; not successful (at least not in the way our society tends to measure success), not rich, just happy. It is so easy to go along on life’s treadmill and never evaluate why we are doing it. I want my children to live their lives bravely and passionately, doing what they love. It is a romantic vision perhaps, but a life of freedom and simplicity coupled with the emotional tools to live contentedly in the moment seem to provide a certain measure of happiness.

My son once said to me that he wished he lived in the house near us because it is surrounded by trees and bushes.

‘Why would you want to live there?’ I asked.

“Because then no one would be able to find us Mum.”

It was a little insight into the mind of my son, who I am always trying to speed up. My children teach me as much as I teach them, and it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if he turns out to be the tortoise who ultimately wins the race.

I don’t feel I have achieved the ultimate balance yet for my family: we are certainly not immune from life in the fast lane but home educating does give us a golden opportunity to slow down and find happiness in the here and now.

Any day spent with you is my favourite day. So, today is my new favourite day – Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne

I can honestly say there is never a day when I wish my children were in school. That is not to say I don’t have really bad days! There are days when the kids spend every spare second wrestling or my son decides to attempt to do everything with his toes instead of his hands and I feel like crying with frustration, or no-one will get dressed and I can’t bear the sight of pyjamas for another second. But this is just family life, albeit never-ending family life!

As a family, we remain open-minded about the possibility of school at some stage: it has not been ruled out. However, we are also committed to home educating all the way through if it meets the children’s needs and our needs as a family unit. We have had to make some compromises financially but it feels worth it to us. Ultimately, whether our children end up in school or continue down a home educating path, our philosophy of education will stay the same, there are many ways of reaching the same goal.

The truth is that, as parents, we are all teachers: that responsibility is ours whether we want it or not. We are responsible for our children’s education whether we choose school or not.

Looking back at our first official day of home educating, I am glad we chose a different path. I have never doubted for a second the choice to home educate T and though I may have had passing doubts about L, she has thrived. She is such a free spirited child and home educating has given her the chance to flutter her wings and soar.

I’m going to give the final word to Pippi Longstocking; it sounds exactly like the kind of thing my daughter, Lois, would say:

‘All right Pippi. How much do you think eight plus four is?’

‘About sixty-seven or so’, Pippi guessed.

‘Not at all’, said the teacher. ’Eight plus four equals twelve’.

‘Now wait a minute, my dear lady, that’s going too far’, said Pippi. ‘You just told me that seven plus five equals twelve. I should think there have to be some rules, even in a school. Besides, if you get such childish delight out of silly things like this, why don’t you go and sit by yourself in the corner to do arithmetic and leave us in peace so we can play tag?”

Pippi Longstocking



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