Precisely How to Unschool

Sandra Dodd

Occasionally it comes up and recently did again—the question of exactly how to unschool. No philosophical nattering, some folks say; just tell us what we have to do. Of all the things in the world that don't work like that, unschooling must be in the top ten. Unschooling and I both are all about philosophical nattering. One of the truest and clearest answers I can give is often "It depends," after which much "if/then" ensues.

Explaining unschooling is kind of like "Let's play knock-knock. You go first."

I did ask, on one discussion list recently, for people to give me their best practical advice. Guess how many responses I got! Zero. None. So I thought about the answers I didn't get, and thought the best two answers are "Take your child out of school" and "Don't buy a curriculum." But that's not enough. There's much more, but I can't tell you exactly what it is.

Then I thought about another periodic "it depends" question, which is "How much time will this take?" or more specifically, "How many hours should I spend with my child?" And the answer came to me.

I have kept it secret until now.

I thought and thought and have even made a graph of a quantifiable recommendation for which people can set their clocks and calendars. A mom can calculate today, right now, how much time she will need to spend with her child ten years from now.

It's not entirely an unschooling answer, but it's a parenting answer, and here it is:

When a baby is born, before he's a year old, spend 23 hours a day with him, or thinking about him, or sleeping with him, or carrying, or feeding him.

When he turns one, spend 22 hours a day with him (and gradually less). For two hours you might be in the shower or sleeping without knowing you're asleep. Let that time slide at a steady pace until he's ten or eleven, and you're spending half of it, twelve hours, with him, on him, in his presence, doing things for or with him. Steadily slide that back until he's twenty, as my oldest, Kirby is, and then one hour a day is plenty.

No cheating. If you aren't diligent in the early years, the 20 year old will be gone in a huff or might have slunk away sadly. If you want to complete your goal, spend lots of time with the young ones. When Kirby turns 21, my obligation will have been fulfilled.

Pretty simple, huh?

I did it with a ruler and a felt tip pen. Now I'll have it, when people ask in the future.

You didn't count the squares on that, did you, or spend much time wondering whether a ten year old should get ten or twelve hours, or maybe 14? Because that's not a real graph, it's just a sketch of a graph. Mine's just an illustration of a graph, to help you think. (Y'think?)

I suppose some of you will have questions, such as what if you have twins, or what if you have three children. The answer is simple. You find things that three people can do together, or you talk to one person while you make lunch or do laundry or repair the favorite jeans of another. You play at the park with one while another is in a dance class. You take everyone to the movies and sleep like a baby at night (if your youngest is at least six or seven, that is). Whatever you do, make it fun, interesting, comforting, memorable, unusual, familiar, nourishing, productive, or restful. If it can be three or four of those things at the same time, good job!

I myself, for instance, spent an hour with Kirby yesterday, in little bits over three hours. I met two of his friends I hadn't met, gave him a Weird Al CD, and watched him listen to a couple of tracks I knew he would like. I ate a brownie that he made! We joked. For every bit of that time, Holly was also in the room, so I scored a two-for-one deal on the time.

Because Holly is 14, I still need to be in mom-mode at least six hours a day, but that's pretty easy with three kids home. Wednesday I worked overtime, because Holly and I spent the day together, mostly on the road, driving nearly to Taos to visit relatives. After eight solid hours together, she declared it magical. That was cool.

If you want to measure, measure generously. If you want to give, give generously. If you want to unschool, or be a mindful parent, give, give, give. You'll find after a few years that you still have everything you thought you had given away, and more.

Sandra Dodd lives in Albuquerque with her woodworking, recorder-playing, singing husband (who is also an engineer) and her three happy big-kids who play games, tell tales, mess around, ask questions, watch movies, visit friends, and generally frolic and explore life. Kirby is 20 and has a job. Marty is 17 and has a job. Holly is 14 and sleeps a lot, draws, explores the internet, dresses up and colors her hair.

"Precisely How to Unschool" first appeared in Issue 1 of Connections: ezine of unschooling & mindful parenting (no longer maintained)

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