The Journey to Choosing Self-Directed Education
Cecilie and Jesper Felumb Conrad have totally different education backgrounds and life experiences but over time they agreed that unschooling was the best choice for their family. Their journey from schooling to unschooling, though it occurs in Denmark, is similar to families everywhere who decide to take responsibility for living and learning with their children during their compulsory school years. It is a story of personal change and growth rather than one of adhering to and promoting a political or educational theory.
Cecilie was a single mom who earned her psychology degree over the course of ten years; Jesper never attended college. He enjoyed his young adult years making a movie and slacking through life.
It is ironic that Cecilie embraced homeschooling and unschooling quickly and that Jesper did so slowly, though this is also a common pattern among homeschoolers: mothers often need to first convince a reluctant father about homeschooling. Here’s how it happened for Cecilie and Jesper.
For seven years their first child, a girl, Liv, attended a private school that used self-directed learning. When their next child, a boy, Storm, was ready to attend school they worried. Cecilie says, “Storm is a sensitive, introspective child and he often told us that he didn’t think school was right for him: ‘I think my future is not there.’”
But Jesper felt that since Liv liked her school and could look out for Storm while he was there (The private school Liv attended is based on the teachings of Celestin Freinet and uses multiage classrooms: grouping ages 6 to 14, then 14 to 16) there was no need to try something new. But Storm was not happy in school, and Cecilie began learning about homeschooling and unschooling from her friends. By then she had two more young children, had battled leukemia, and gave up her career as a psychologist. She was ready to homeschool, but Jesper was not. He felt homeschooling was just too weird and that it was best for Storm to go to school.
In the three weeks Storm went to school, Cecilie would go to school with Storm and stay with him for an hour or two in the morning, Tuesday through Thursday (three of five days). She agreed to take him to school and to never leave him unless he said it was okay. So, after a few hours of school in the morning, she would go home with Storm.
She says, “The teachers eventually gave up on us. “This is never going to work, you are too attached to your child, the teacher said. I wanted to punch them in their face and tell them who of us was the psychologist and what attachment actually means. You cannot have too strong an attachment to your parents; your parents are supposed to be your primary persons! If the attachment is healthy, it cannot be too strong!”
“But I just smiled and nodded. I knew that we could never homeschool the children unless Jesper was convinced. So I had to walk this path of trying until the situation was clear for Jesper as well. The teachers asked Jesper to come to school instead of me, and Jesper had a talk with the teachers who suggested when he brought Storm to school, he should make his exit quick: “Leave Storm at school, maybe he would be sad for a while, that was normal. It will be okay.” But we, the parents, actually promised Storm this would never happen, that we would not leave him unless he liked being there, and it bothered us.
The weekend before Jesper was to take Storm to school a close friend of Cecilie’s died from leukemia. When they came home from the funeral Jesper said, “Okay. What are we doing here? Why are we pushing our son to do something he clearly doesn’t want to do? This is crazy. We only live once and we shouldn’t spend another second doing this. Let’s homeschool.”
Later on, Jesper made minor demands: “But you have to teach him to read and write. Let’s do it for six months and see how it goes.” Cecilie continues the story: “After two or three months he said, “Okay, let’s do it for a year. But after a year he’ll go back to school if it isn’t working out.” So I did a lot of classic homeschooling in the beginning … using textbooks at the kitchen table, doing the ABCs, and so on.
“It was awful and Storm hated it. The more I pushed the more he resisted, and I felt bad. So I began cheating—we stopped making him do school work. Meanwhile, our three-year-old was learning to read on her own! She was not supposed to learn all this, but by the time she was five she could read and write, so that was quite interesting. Now and then Storm and I would try to use the schoolwork approach again, but after a week or so we’d say, “Let’s cheat again!”
“This made me doubt what we were doing and I needed some advice. I had a great conversation with a friend who was very experienced with unschooling, one of the very few in Denmark. She read about it before she even had children and has reflected on it a lot. She made me realize that I did this kitchen-table schooling because I was afraid of the state; I was not afraid of Jesper anymore. He’d let go. He’s a very bright and easygoing guy and saw the light, even before me, and encouraged me to go easy and enjoy my time with the children.
“When my friend talked to me about my fear of the control system and my need to document everything we did with our children, I also realized it was a complete clash with our family value system. We vowed never to do anything out of fear in our marriage. Fear had no part in our life. Yet I was spending two or three hours a day doing something out of fear. That was when I stopped worrying. I have had one relapse since then, and it had to do with math and science, but it was fear again. I did schooling for two weeks and I stopped again and went back to unschooling.”
Jesper remembered how he harbored guilt about being away from his children. “One day the leader of the Waldorf Kindergarten Storm attended when he was little said to me, out of the blue, “If the kids are here more than five hours a day then I am the primary person for the kids and not the parents.” And that hurt my feelings so much because I was spending a lot of time away from my kids then.
“But if you do the math, she was getting five active, awake hours together with other peoples’ kids. And the morning hours are shitty, you don’t do any real good parenting in those hours. Then you come home at five and you’re tired from work. And today, I agree with her. “I think choosing to homeschool is taking back the responsibility for your child’s welfare and ability to gain knowledge.”
The Conrad’s recently purchased a bus to travel as a family across Europe this summer. They will actively look for other unschoolers throughout Europe, since they know for sure—after 6 years of unschooling— these people feel like a tribe: Both adults and children get instant friends in groups of unschoolers.
Cecilie Conrad’s Blog Next: How a Dad Got Comfortable with Unschooling