The Economics of Unschooling
by Ren Allen
by Ren Allen
When we begin this homeschooling journey, a lot of us think about the cost of books or movies or other “educational” materials. As we move towards unschooling (for those of us that didn’t get it right away), we start to look at costs a bit differently. We want to buy things that expand our children's worlds, that support their interests, but how far are we willing to take it? How many items do we see as frivolous or unnecessary? How many day to day costs are we factoring into the journey? Is our accounting realistic, and are we really being supportive of our children at the economic level?
I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately, as I examine the deeply ingrained messages I received as a child. One day, as I stood in the kitchen scraping food into the composting bin, I was surprised how the feelings of “wasted food” began surging up. We have never been members of the clean-your-plate club, so why the uncomfortable twinges when throwing food away? There are probably many levels to my discomfort, layers of limited money, my own childhood and the idea of hungry children in other places. When I break it down logically, however, based on my unschooling lifestyle, there is no such thing as “wasted” food. Every meal my children eat is part of their life experience. Every new food they try, every ingredient they learn about, every item we cook together is part of their learning.
As I was having these thoughts, I wondered how much money a typical home schooling parent might choose to spend on a health curriculum. Probably more than all the food my children “waste” in an entire year! Eating and food are part of my children’s learning experiences as much as anything else. They are learning with the real thing, with actual FOOD, rather than some prepackaged curriculum designed to teach them about health. More than that, the learning that happens from these real life experiences goes so much deeper than simple nutrition. From Japan, wasabe and sushi, to composting, worms and seeds, my children are learning about the rich connections to their world (of which food is one part) as they build an internal model of the universe.
Composting has helped ease my guilt about throwing food away. We go to “feed the worms” each night, and my children are learning about another connection to their world and to the lifecycle. From an economic standpoint, feeding the worms is making new compost for our garden, saving us the cost of purchasing fertilizer or compost for the plants we’re going to eat.
When we're planting vegetables, or digging in the dirt to find worms, Jalen, fascinated with the plant's lifecycle, frequently asks, "what is this going to grow into?" We often meander our way through the wild backyard, picking blackberries and discussing the many interesting insects we find eating the food with us, later looking up actual names like "Jumping, Daring Spider" (yes, there really IS a spider that bears such a name!).
Giving my children freedom to listen to their bodies in regards to food, trusting them to know how much and when they want to eat, probably adds up to more money spent on groceries. I could dole out portions and meals and save money temporarily, I’m pretty sure. But, what are the long-term consequences of such actions?
If we think of in terms of financial cost, freedom makes a lot more sense.
What does one trip to the psychologist's office to treat an eating disorder cost?
What does a diet cost, buying the meal plan or the books or other accoutrements?
What does a health club membership cost?
A trainer to help you lose weight?
How about a childhood lived in freedom, listening to one’s body and learning its signals?
A childhood spent learning about food in its many forms and how one's own body responds to varying foods is a fabulous insulator against potential problems. The cost of more groceries or more time spent in the kitchen seems well worth it when one considers the alternatives.
Which brings us to the emotional costs of limits. Guilt, shame or feelings of lack are far greater prices to pay in regards to food than any grocery budget damage. Spending a childhood controlled and portioned will likely result in an emotional cost far greater than most parents realize. Every choice we make, every action we take has some kind of cost attached to it. What price are we asking our kids to pay each time we take action? Or, rather than making withdrawls, are we paying into the relationship bank with kindness, respect and freedom of choice?
Food controls do exhort a price on our children, a price that will cost more in the long-run, not only to the self-awareness of our children, but also to the relationship and to the physical balance that's denied in the process.
Food should be a celebration of life. Ideally, it is a source of pleasure and connectedness, not stress. Even with a smaller budget, approaching food and nourishment with an attitude of abundance will do so much for the level of calm and peace in a family. Portioning and worrying and talking about what one does not have isn’t going to help children feel the warmth or joy that a family exploring food with an open mind can create.
Peace and joy are more healing than any food of which I know. Healthy relationships, in which all members of the family are respected and given choice, create enough harmony to overcome any ill-effects of the “junk food” so many parents worry about constantly.
This is not to say that all foods are equally valuable. They aren’t. But when a loving parent is creating an environment of abundance, in which healthier choices are consistently available, there need not be worry about the “balanced diet.” Children will balance themselves quite nicely given a wide range of choices. All the worry and stress surrounding food choices is robbing people more than the actual “junk food” would.
From an economic standpoint, what is the price of freedom? What is the price of joy and peace in a home?
Judging by the stress level inherent in so many families, I’d wager it would fetch a pretty high price, yet we can have it for the cost of detaching ourselves from other people’s choices. We can have it by honoring ourselves and our children, listening to our bodies and letting go of worry.
Seems so simple—letting go of controlling others—but it can be a monumental hurdle when our own childhood was riddled with food (or other) controls. However, the price we pay for our childhood issues does not have to be exacted on the next generation. We have the power to make different choices each and every time we interact with our children.
Nagging voices about waste often have as much impact on our attitude towards food as nutrition. Another way we choose to spend money on food in my family, for example, is on “experiment” items. My children always love getting into food items and making goop or some strange witches' brew. I used to have a hard time watching my food get used that way. My solution? Purchase specific items just for that purpose.
I buy the most inexpensive flour, baking soda, vinegar, eggs and food dye (or whatever else they need) in order to supply my budding geniuses with the tools they need to build their curiosity. We’ve had egg drops from the deck, very strange looking “soup,”, some major vinegar/baking soda explosions and flour/water mixture plastered to everything in the kitchen!
Every time I felt that old familiar “but it’s being wasted” voice rise up in my head, I just thought about what one “educational” book would cost. I thought about the mere pennies spent on the flour and compared that to some workbooks or manipulative. Cheap flour wins every time!
Thinking about the economics of my children's choices has helped me release any angst over the projects and use of materials. Supporting whatever fascinates them at the moment leads to real learning, the kind that will be theirs for life. The cost of providing that is minimal, really, when I think of the money we could spend on experiences and materials that wouldn’t truly be their own.
I think of my husband's attitude one day when he saw them smashing watermelon, milk, tomatoes and banana into a bowl for “soup”. They were so proud of this concoction, smiling and telling me all about the features. Markus walked into the room and said, “did you know they’re wasting food?”
“No, actually dear, they’re USING food,” I responded. In the wake of his comment, I could see the joy vanish for an instant, a brief cloud passing over their eyes. But, Daddy moved on, and the experiment continued joyfully. My children looked to me for affirmation, and my smile reminded them that the experiment was worthy. This moment was a good reminder to me that my choice of words about their projects, my judgments, and messages are SO important to filter. The money used that day will be forgotten. The empowerment Jalen and Sierra felt from making their very own recipe will stay with them.
So really then, what is the cost of unschooling?
The answer, of course, is going to vary drastically from family to family, depending on available resources. How we think about these costs, however, can really transform the support we’re lending to our children’s interests. When certain costs rise up, I sometimes cringe, but when I start comparing whatever item is drawing attention, whatever interest requires some support, all I have to do is think of it in school terms. Maybe that sounds crazy, but this comparison allows me more fully to embrace the financial impact of this unschooling lifestyle.
For instance, when Jalen is passionate about a movie and all the toys or characters that go with it, all I have to think about is the cost of preschool. The monthly school fee is far greater than all the desires he could have in a month. His world is expanded to a much greater degree by having his choices supported than by being sent to some institution.
When Trevor wants another video game or computer part, all I have to do is think about the college prep courses and schooling that so many parents would rather spend their money on. Trevor's education is his own, and I have no doubt that his learning is more fluid, more adaptable, and more useful to him both now and in the future than that of many of his schooled counterparts.
Sierra has gotten very excited about watercolor paints lately, and the paper is not exactly the least expensive paper you can find in the art store. She adores nicely textured watercolor paper. We stand in the aisle, touching, comparing, and discussing the features of each paper. How we crave that 300# cold pressed sheet! Instead, we buy a tablet of 140# and call it good…for now.
When the cost of the paint or paper causes me to shudder, I think about the cost of a painting class. What would I be willing to pay for Sierra to sit down with a group of children in a class situation? Why would that hold any more value than simply supplying her with the proper materials and trusting her to find her own way into the world of art? How would most teachers understand her desire to paint exactly what she chooses, in the way she chooses? Would they trust her own processes more than their desire to teach? What kind of materials would they provide for a group of nine year olds? I bet it wouldn’t be decent quality paper or Van Gogh paints!
I can provide that and more for a mere fraction of the class cost, and I’m happy to do so. The look in her eyes and the joy on her face is something I treasure. They tell me that these materials are money well spent, regardless of any final product. Exploration and process are more important as she continues to trust her own efforts.
Thinking about what I would be willing to spend if my children were using a curriculum, attending private school or participating in “educational” activities has allowed me more joyfully to fund the things that really matter to them.
What are the costs that get supported in your home? What are the costs that are harder to swallow? Are you truly honoring the choices that your children make? I find it useful to ask myself these questions time and time again, as I continue to make different choices that help me grow into being a better parent.
Rather than an investment in school or curriculum, I've chosen to invest in my children, in their interests, their passions, their real lives. Some of the items I have struggled with affording at one time, but now make a bigger effort to juggle are things like
* Video games and game systems;
* entry fees and memberships for parks, museums, galleries etc.;
* magazine subscriptions;
* books; never had a problem supporting book buying in general, but what about when they want a $20 Audubon guide or a $30 Dungeons and Dragons guide?;
* extra gas to explore more in our area;
These are just a few examples of what our “curriculum” consists of as natural learners. With my schooled mind, I still find it easier to get excited when they want a globe or science kit or geography book. Yes, that schooling is still part of me and probably always will be. But, I can choose to ignore the brainwashing and embrace the fullness and richness of getting outside that narrow box. Trusting and supporting my children’s curiosity has helped quiet those voices from my past.
Ask yourself, is your child’s joy enough to convince you to spend the money? Are you looking for a certain result or outcome with money spent? Does the money you spend come with strings attached and expectations?
Our children's happiness in exploration should be enough. Their freedom to try something new should be enough. Experimenting, dabbling, and discarding are important parts of the learning process. These explorations don't have to lead to great paintings, well-known music or a new business proposition; the fact that they’ve added something to their internal model of the universe means learning is happening. Those experiences are theirs, and the likelihood that they will draw upon those experiences later in life is very high. Trust the process, support the process, and take joy in the fact that by giving them materials to explore, you’re avoiding the truly high cost of schooling which often exacts its price in the form of crushing creativity, sense of self, and joy in learning.
Paying attention to our own inner dialogue and responses can be crucial in this unschooling journey. I remember the night of my Birthday this year. My sister had wrapped my gift in an assortment of tissue papers, all brightly colored and inspiring thoughts of art projects. The children gathered at my house joyfully snatched up the amalgam of paper and started sculpting it into “clothes” and creatively smashing, tearing and otherwise using it. My first reaction was “Oh wait you guys, I want to use that for ATC’s and altered books.” The reaction surprised me. I thought to myself how much tissue costs. I could pick up an entire pack of lovely colors at the Dollar Store!
In the meantime, the tissue WAS being used for art projects as my sister gently reminded me. The most important kind of art, the stuff that swirls up out of joy and interest in the moment. If I had to replace $10 worth of paper, it wasn’t worth interrupting their play. It was just tissue paper—inexpensive, easily replaced, and oh-so-fun in the moment. Interestingly, we have used it in projects since that night; the crumpling it received has only added an interesting texture.
As unschooling parents, we can do a lot to change our ingrained reactions and beliefs in life. When I have an internal reaction that does not jibe with my current lifestyle or belief system, my children don’t even have to know. I can carry on these dialogues internally to further my understanding and make choices that don’t inhibit the joyful blossoming of learning that happens in our home.
Comparing costs and considering the impact of these choices helps me weigh what is truly important in our family. Self questioning is one more tool that assists me in releasing irrational behaviors from my past that are no longer helpful as my family and I pursue the path of unschooling, creating an environment that enables curiosity, joy, and learning to blossom naturally.
Natural learning does have a cost attached to it. So does school. In choosing this unschooling path, we are choosing to put our money into people, into interests, into passions, into the things that really matter for each of us. I look at myself as an investor. I invest time, money and creative energy into helping my children explore their world more fully. I am investing in them as human beings. Human beings who have the potential to affect change in this world. Human beings who aren’t crushed by school thought and the paralysis it can bring. Human beings who will have the ability to see their passions as the most important path in life and who possess a deep inner knowledge that learning is a life-long endeavor. Along the way I am also investing in my own passions and interests alongside them. My children know what it means to honor those inner urgings because they see it played out from day to day as we all learn together and apart.
The economics of this unschooling journey affect us all, regardless of socio-economic status. If we can choose to see the world as a place full of opportunity and new experiences and view ourselves as a creative force that can change our reality, then natural learning can unfold more joyfully in our homes. James Russel Lowe once said, “Creativity is not the finding of a thing, but the making something out of it after it is found.” Let us all strive to sculpt more beautifully and mindfully the life that we possess, with money, time and energy given to that which makes our own and our children's souls sing.