Not too long ago, I met a woman whose primary interest right now is homeschooling her children. As we chatted, she told me about her kids’ educational history. At first, she followed the traditional route for foreign service families: her kids were enrolled in whichever international school was most promising at their current post. Then, at one post, there was only one international school of good repute, and it was a disastrously bad fit for her children. So she made the only decision that she felt she could make—she withdrew her kids and started homeschooling. It worked wonderfully for her family, so she’s continued it ever since. Along the way she evolved from a more structured curriculum to the least structured of all—unschooling. Now, the kids choose what to study based on their interests. Although my new acquaintance admitted to some stress over her children’s educational choices, she assured me that she trusts them to learn everything they need to learn in order to have successful futures as innovators, as entrepreneurs, as anything they want to be.
Of course I was interested in her journey because I am considering what Alexa’s education will look like: will we go the traditional route, or will I also become a homeschooling mom? As we chatted, I revealed my conflicted thoughts about how we will educate Alexa, and indicated that, while I commend her for following the route that works best for her family, unschooling will not be our route. She asked why not, an honest question, and I responded likewise: I am uncomfortable with such an important endeavor as Alexa’s education being that far out of my control. I want to choose what she studies, either by choosing the homeschool curriculum or by choosing the school(s) she attends.
“Ah, you don’t trust her!”
The sentence was delivered in an understanding, almost pitying, tone of voice. My response was automatic, not at all thought through, purely emotional: I denied a lack of trust in my child. I gave examples of how we let Alexa make her own decisions, explained our belief that children should be given the freedom (and responsibility) to make age-appropriate choices, and further explained that we believe in a balance between the need for her to make some choices and the need for her to learn to obey when we don’t give her choices.
“I wouldn’t phrase that as teaching her to obey, but as helping her learn to trust you.”
And on it went. I explained our parenting choices, using language that exemplifies our values: freedom and independence, balanced by responsibility, respect, and submission to authority. She rephrased my words into the language of her own value system: trust. During this conversation, I never felt attacked, yet I always felt defensive. My parenting philosophy was not assaulted, but it was steadily, incrementally, undermined: when we expect obedience regardless of Alexa’s preferences, we demand Trust that we have not earned; when we limit her choices, we withhold Trust from her—and the unspoken premise was that Trust is the most important thing to foster in and for a child.
Those of you who know me in real life know that I am not good at hearing and processing others’ arguments, rebutting them, and arguing for my own point of view in real-time conversation. I do much better with time—time to think, to ponder, to consider the alternative view and let its strengths and weaknesses become apparent. I need time to figure out how to articulate and evaluate logically the things that usually come first as intuitions. Although I felt strong disagreement during this conversation, I was unable to say why. So I thought about it over the course of several days.
I do agree that trust is important. My instinctive response reveals that it disturbed me to think that I do not trust Alexa. I want her to earn her own trust by making good decisions, but how will that happen if I don’t trust her enough to allow her to practice? And yet … she’s only a child, incapable of logic and long-term, future-oriented thinking. So I thought, and I reasoned, and I reflected on the conversation, the underlying premises, and how they compare to my knowledge of child development and to my goals for Alexa’s upbringing.
And I’ve come to a conclusion: Unschooling absolutely is not the route that I want to take with Alexa’s education. It never will be. It isn’t a matter of trust, and yet it is. It’s a matter of trusting that Alexa is a normal child. Some people believe that children are born with natural goodness and natural wisdom. I believe neither of those things. Goodness and wisdom must be taught; evil and folly come naturally, to all of us. Wisdom and the attendant ability to make good choices must develop, usually with the guidance of loving adults. The decision to trust a child to make good choices about critical matters before she has developed that ability is fundamentally incompatible with my responsibility as a parent.
As long as Alexa is a child, her father and I are responsible for her. These are formative years that shape what choices she has the opportunity to make in the future. It is our responsibility to do the long-term thinking for her, until such time as she is able to do it herself, and to give her the foundation that she will need to make those future choices. If you want to phrase that in terms of trust, it is almost entirely a one-way street at this point: Alexa must trust us to make good decisions for her, because we cannot trust her to make good decisions for herself.
Right now, at 22 months of age, Alexa is able to choose her clothing from within a set of seasonally and size appropriate options, but it would be folly to allow her to choose from all of her clothes, of all seasons and sizes. She chooses what she wants to wear based on how it looks, without regard for whether it fits, will provide sun protection, or will cause her to roast alive. When she turns 5 years old and is ready for kindergarten, she (presumably) will have mastered the choice of wearing clothes that fit her, but she most likely still will not consider the seasonality of her clothes—so we will make that choice for her by continuing to limit her options. When she is 8 years old, she (presumably) will have recognized that choosing not to wear a jacket on a chilly day means that she will be cold, but she may not have the maturity to recognize that she really should work on some math problems even if she’d rather go play with the cats—so we will make that choice for her. As she approaches adulthood, her ability to make good choices will increase, and her freedoms and responsibilities will change to reflect—and further develop—that ability. When she is 16 years old, if she decides that she would like to learn advanced physics, or graphic design, or the Arabic language, I will be supportive, and I will aid her in pursuing those interests. She will have some control over what she studies, but that control will not be absolute. Although she will be allowed the choice to add to her curriculum, she most likely will not be allowed to drop subjects—the addition of psychology will not allow her to forego mathematics, or writing, or biology.
Alexa’s growth from child to adult will be characterized by development: physical, social, emotional, and logical. Once she is an adult, she will have the right and the responsibility to make her own choices and to live with the consequences, good or bad. When that day comes, I hope that I am able to trust her to make good choices for herself. Until that day comes, she must trust us, her parents, to make many of her choices for her. Whether or not my hope is realized on that day depends, to a large extent, on how well we fulfill our responsibility to her now.
So I guess the time has come to admit it: I do not trust my child, not with important decisions, and I will not fully trust her with those decisions for a long, long time, certainly not during most of her school years. Her education is too important to leave to the whims of a child who has yet to learn how to engage in future-oriented abstract thinking. Once she has shown the ability to make good choices in less critical areas, she will be allowed to make them in more important matters—or at least, her preferences will have a greater influence on our choices for her. But until she is capable of making good choices in important matters, we will perform that function for her.
It turns out that my new acquaintance was both right and wrong: We do not trust Alexa enough, and we do not anticipate trusting Alexa enough during her childhood years, to unschool her. But that is not a bad thing.