by Ingrid Seger-Woznicki
I read with great interest the article written by Ruthe Friedner Matisky (February 2003 issue) and felt compelled to share my thoughts. The particular paragraph that stood out for me was:
Let’s talk about that stimulating environment. In Utopia a parent wouldn’t have to give this a thought. I’ve pictured Utopia for years – it’s an intentional community where the adults are all involved in meaningful pursuits and there are no housekeeping burdens because it’s all shared equally and there is always someone available to take care of the smaller children while the older children are able to pick and choose which adults to join in their meaningful work. There is never a deadline that prevents the adults from being anything but patient and charming with their children and there are no stupid television programs or mindless computer games to distract the children from the joy of real community. The environment in Utopia just naturally gives the kids much food for thought to stimulate their brain cells. The kids don’t have to be shuttled around to experience nature or to encounter people making music or playing chess or doing karate because its all around them.
The concept of a Utopian education makes me wonder how I am moulding my own son, because I can not at any point in time forget that I live in a Western, suburban, contemporary society where individuals life-continuums do not necessarily cross but bounce off each other. Utopia for me includes having a tribe/commune/extended family support – living in an interdependent culture. This lack of an interdependent culture is noticeable when I observe the play tactics of children in playgrounds; it amazes me how often children play as separate entities, irrespective of the number of children that happen to be at the playground at the same time. The exception is that if the child has a friend with them, then naturally these ‘friends’ play together and collectively they are their own little “island”, excluding other children from entering their world. This seems to hold true for all ages, even my own.
This means that if I want to make things happen for me, and for my child. If I want to pursue a “pure” form of education, the natural format, the one where my child will blossom true to his nature, I have to create this environment of interdependence, and in creating it, in manipulating it, I keep wondering how much I am merely creating a situation where my son will not fit in to his own culture. For there are many things that my own culture expects from me that I do not enjoy, that I in fact dislike but am forced to do, perform or contribute because this is what makes me a good citizen, a valuable member of society, and this is the basis of a form of stability in my own society, enabling all of us to live as peaceably together as much as possible. Take for instance, the company that my husband and I run. It is successful and allows me to be at home with my son. I keep the books for our business, I complete the BAS statements, I am a qualified Accountant – I also dislike very much doing that side of the business. In fact, the reality is, all I really want to do is to have the luxury of busying my mind with parenting issues, my various hobbies, my natural interests and to balance this with being a wife and woman. Having said that, I am finding that I have NO balance and because I do not live in Utopia, my role as a mother is all-consuming, and because I have chosen to home-school and try to provide the sort of natural upbringing that I see in my mind’s eye, I am finding that reality clashes with my visions and my own personal needs and growth as a person.
Every now and then, I feel resentful towards my own culture. It feels as though there is an army of negative vibes externally, beyond my control, forcing me towards conforming, by guiding my child to mainstream schooling, letting him experience the culture in which he will inevitably live, work and make friends. I fear these subliminal vibes and I also fear that I am moulding my child in such a way as to alienate him from his own culture, and yet the alternative does not make me feel comfortable because I know the alternative is soul destroying, and so I conclude (when I am feeling rational) that my role as a mother is to facilitate the moulding process and help him to see reality and to accept it without taking it personally and yet still feel at ease with being his own individual, embracing his own values, his own uniqueness.
Nevertheless, I also feel, as does Ruthe, “I think I’m starting to understand why not everybody does this”. Today at 36, I feel predominantly a mother and with it I wear the various hats: nurturer, home educator, nurse, comforter, psychologist, facilitator, etc., and sometimes I forget who I am as a person, an individual. I lose myself in my own role as mother, and the mental pictures that I have built as to what it means to be a mother. This all-consuming role as a mother means that I feel as though I am constantly juggling everybody’s needs, including my own, and I know this is because I do not live in Utopia, Other times, I feel as though I am a selfish person, incapable of giving to the biologically natural extent that I was meant to. Then there are times when I feel that I am a product of my own culture, my own upbringing and thus when it comes down to it I think that maybe I am subconsciously sabotaging my own visions in response to my dysfunctional instincts. Finally, there are times when I am too tired to feel guilty or inadequate and I give myself a pat on the back, just for trying, for trying to see things clearly. But my moods swing wildly, depending on various factors, namely my energy levels, my focused mind, and my ability to extend myself to the task at hand.
I do not live in a truly interdependent culture and as a result, I feel strongly, deep within the silence of my own heart that I am really not meeting anyone’s needs and all I am doing, in pragmatic terms, is living in a dream world where I just keep juggling until one day one of those balls in mid air will fall and reveal me to be “not enough”. And to top it off, because I do not live in Utopia, an interdependent culture, and because I am in many ways an “island” living against the grain of my own Western, suburban, contemporary culture, I am not totally convinced of the value for our family of unschooling or natural learning. It is not that I do not think it works; on the contrary, it feels instinctively correct, BUT I do not live in a culture which respects natural learning.
So, for instance, my child demonstrates no interest in the sciences, but has a natural knowledge about animals and has an intrinsic knowledge about how to ‘doctor’ them (which is a skill that my grandmother possessed, and yet she had very little formal education). Does this mean that my son can aim at practising professionally as a veterinary surgeon? Will he be able to open up his own clinic? I also wonder whether I am conveying to him that he does not have any responsibility towards unpleasant tasks. I often ponder whether I am giving him a twisted message about our reality because inevitably he will have to cross the various bridges and study the diverse subjects at a university or college, regardless of his feelings, thoughts or beliefs about these subjects. His feelings and thoughts about the process of institutionalised learning, the structural makeup, the various exams, etc., will also be unimportant if he wants to pursue, for instance, the veterinary profession. Do I agree with the education system? No, but to be frank, neither do I disagree. I do not have a simple and satisfactory answer whereby I feel completely satisfied with any one road, any one educational process where its goal is to educate a mass group of individuals at one and the same time.
Additionally, living in a non-interdependent culture means that often things just do not happen smoothly. At times my son does not want to contribute to or participate in the world that I live in, he does not want to clean up after himself, he does not ‘feel’ instinctively the point of team work, of learning from one’s elders, from those who have something special and unique to share. Thus much of my energy seems to be spent on trying to convey, persuade, cajole, him into seeing the point of teamwork and team effort, and to appreciate the gifts in other individuals. I find this tiring. Then there are days when he wants to be a fully participating team member, but these desires depend on his mood, his frame of mind, and not because he sees it as a normal way of life, the way that life should be. This is often followed by days when I think that I expect far too much from my son, BUT my own contrary view is that I have seen other cultures (outside of the Western culture) in action where children the same age as my child instinctively understand the point of the team process and these children intuitively appreciate the gifts in others. So, my heart either swells with annoyance or pride towards my own child. This, I know, would not happen in Utopia and I am forced to try to communicate clearly to my son my boundaries, the way I view being respected and appreciated and it instinctively feels absurd. Accordingly, I realize all of this is part and parcel of my son’s education. In Utopia, I would not need to communicate so clearly such matters because there would not be a need, the interdependent culture, the forces within the culture, the implicit cultural expectations, would communicate it for me.
I often hear, “Mama play with me”, and I know that within the framework of play, there is learning, there is much opportunity to explore his natural world and even go beyond it. Yet, this forces me often to be child-centred and what I am endeavouring to teach, or at least to convey subtly, is that our house, our family culture is relationship-centred; no one of us is alone important, but we are all important. For me, this is what being a family is about, what being interdependent is about. If I am successful at communicating this remarkable message, I somehow have persuaded myself to think that everything else should fall into place.
So, back to natural learning – in its Western suburban contemporary format, it requires me to be child-centred where my antennae are constantly on the alert. I personally find this incredibly draining and very intense. It does not feel natural to have such tightly wound attention centred around my child’s natural interests. The culture that I live in prevents this naturally occurring, my time seems consumed by reality, and by adult duties and for that reason alone I am veering towards structured learning, and simply being aware for the time being of my child’s interests and pacing myself accordingly in natural education.
Having said all that, this inevitably leads me to ask myself why I am home-schooling. My reasons are mainly due to the fact that I do not believe that there is an average child, an average person, and I believe that as individuals we learn various subjects not in a linear fashion, but more haphazardly, gaining knowledge spasmodically, our thought processes moving to and fro in a sort of chaotic “filing system” until our brain makes concepts, ideas, connections fit together. Consequently, the individual may seem ‘slow’ in some subjects and ‘advanced’ in others at a certain point in time. Thus, comparing individuals, calculating and manufacturing averages gives erroneous conclusions not only about the individual but also about the genuine comprehension of the subject matter at hand. My goal, therefore, is to see the academic individual in my child. This includes giving him the autonomy to feel at ease with his unique educational pace and to help him to view education as a continuous, life-long journey that one never quite masters nor stops enjoying. Hence, what one does not fully understand today is merely a wonderful opportunity, a satisfying challenge for tomorrow.
I also feel strongly that the education system as it stands today feeds anti-social behaviour, as the typical school environment, although meant to be stimulating, is boring intellectually and often an insult to intelligence, essentially because it tries to shape groups of individuals to conform to a standard that is impractical. Instead of fostering the individual, it spurns individuality. Prior to deciding to home-school, I looked at alternative schools of various kinds, and I noticed that despite their best intentions and philosophies, children felt a pull to conform, to blend in. One school even boasted how many of its students became successful naturopaths. I support alternative medicine wholeheartedly, but it felt uncanny and strange to hear that this particular school influenced so many individuals towards a singular path. This is the reality, however, and I do not feel I can evade cultural and unwelcome influences, the natural peer pressures that dominate all individuals to a lesser or greater degree. These cultural influences have a domino effect on the social skills displayed by the child or group of children, which can be observed by how they treat the individual: the culture either embraces unity or division, resulting in any one child being left out, teased, bullied, rejected or on the other hand compassionately treated, included, respected. Even if I lived within a truly interdependent culture, that arrangement would still promote a unique culture and thus a pull of certain values, expectations, tacit messages as to how to behave, how to fit in, and I also feel this is right and good. Otherwise, how else are we to find our fit in society?
For this reason, I feel in my repertoire of educational duties the necessity to develop in my son social skills that our family culture both admires and practises, enabling him to sift through the array of sub-family cultures/values, and find his social fit with mental adroitness and confidence and yet still be able to walk his own distinctive path.
When I am absolutely honest with myself, my core reason for home-schooling is that I want to manage the influences on my son, I want him to adopt our family culture, our family values and beliefs, our visions, and have a solid foundation, with strong and deep roots, before being thrown into the big wide Western contemporary world where there are so many diverse sub-cultures, values, beliefs and visions. I want him to be able to grow as an individual without having to sift out information when he does not possess the maturity to do so. I feel a deep need to protect him from being bombarded by the soup- mixture of cultures, beliefs and assortments of values which I strongly feel is the soul-destroying factor in our society, our school system, and our community. Large communities of people need to share a culture which embraces similar values and beliefs in order to stand firm, to connect emotionally and mentally, or to my mind they lose their own foundation, their roots and the individuals lose their sense of self. Some would declare that I do not trust my son’s sensibilities, or common sense. My reply to that is that I try very hard not to burden my son with too many responsibilities prematurely. I believe as humans we were meant to move away from our base, our home in micro-steps Hence, a baby’s only responsibility is to clearly communicate its needs. A toddler’s responsibility is to communicate his or her growing sense of individuality. A child’s responsibility is to progressively seek independence. It is my view that children and young adults are forced to make life decisions and enter the big arena prematurely and are given minimum skills or guidance, and are given an ineffectual foundation, with shallow roots. This leaves these same individuals with a weak base to work from, and ultimately leaves them vulnerable. I want my son to have a foundation and roots. I want him to feel intuitively strong. I want him to feel his strength from deep within himself, and thus be able to make life decisions based on self-awareness, and self-knowledge.
I honestly believe I can educate my own child as well as, if not better than any school system, in such a way that he will be able to make life choices that fit our Western contemporary societal expectations, and I feel that he will be emotionally and mentally prepared with a solid basis and thus become a stronger individual, and better equipped to face life challenges, and thus a functional human with the social skills to understand how to live being true to himself and at the same time be able to juggle his various roles in life with more aplomb than I ever will. If I achieve this for my son, I will consider myself a successful home-schooler, a successful mother and ultimately somewhere in that complex role I will feel complete as a woman and wife. For, after all, to parent is to be able to pro-create for the sake of posterity and in that is another conclusion; as a parent I was meant to be an educator and the most influential person in my child’s life, so that I nurture, guide, facilitate, protect and ultimately mould the human that grew within me, binding us indefinitely, ensuring that within OUR family the life-continuums cross most emphatically, giving solidarity to my family, its roots now and for the future.
The words a father speaks to his children in the privacy of the home are not overheard at the time, but as in whispering galleries, they will be clearly heard at the end and by posterity.
~Jean Paul Richter~
Ingrid Seger-Woznicki is a ‘Domestic manager’. Before her child was born she taught as a Lecturer in Business Ethics and Accounting at University. She lives in Mitcham, Victoria, Australia, with her husband, infant and child. She is home-schooling her child and is finding that home-schooling, like the human spirit, is a life-long education for all, and ever-changing.