On Autonomy and Being an Asshole

On Autonomy and Being an Asshole

It’s 7pm and my daughter is still swooping round the house on her classic roller skates. We live in a bungalow, so you can imagine the speed. Oh, and she’s got a copy of Zoey and Sassafras held about an inch from her face, eyes darting across the page as she follows the adventure and tries to avoid colliding with a door frame. This must be what freedom feels like. The boys have a different game going, involving a rather battered remote control helicopter and a large spongeball that spent about a week in the paddling pool last summer, and has never been quite the same since. The baby is getting a lot out of this game, though, and his older brother is teaching him how to throw with surprising patience.

So, I turn to the big one. ‘Any chance you could put those bowls in the dishwasher?’ I am, after all, scrabbling under the table for pasta twirls and bits of sweetcorn. Radio silence. On the next lap, I try again. ‘Excuse me, babe; did you hear what I said?’ ‘Yep.’ ‘And?’ ‘Nope.’ I exhale like a Hungarian Horntail and bang my head in the effort to wriggle out backwards. I am met by a pair of roller skates about an inch from my face and look up, frowning. My daughter smiles down at me. ‘I’m reading, mum; I’m learning. The dishes can wait.’

If your style of home education is anywhere along the autonomous, or semi-autonomous spectrum, you might identify with this scenario. More than that, you will appreciate that there are many more ‘ingredients’ in the mix here than roller skates and pasta twirls alone. Self-directed learners – my kids included – are often incredibly helpful and intuitive, happily peeling a whole bag of potatoes, or reading books to their siblings for half an hour, simply because they want to contribute. And even when children who are raised this way appear rude or dismissive, it is important to unpick our assumptions about childhood before we leap to judge the method. Autonomous learning is about forming strong minds and generating powerful intrinsic motivation in children; skills for life, not just surviving the next lesson.

When managed properly, this approach should produce young people who are reflective and competent in their areas of interest, requiring little or no direction to achieve their own goals and willingly taking on board external targets or deadlines, if they see the value (for example, answering a research question or being paid at the end of the month). Importantly, self-directed learning and living unchains childhood from the deferential mentality indoctrinated by school, producing adults who are at ease, confident in their own abilities, and view everyone as equals. It’s a recipe for well-balanced human beings and a more equal, respectful society. But getting there sure has it’s ups and downs.

Most homeschooling parents went to school themselves and, for many of us, our children spend some time in nurseries and even school, before we decided to take the leap into home education. When my middle one was 3, I collected him from pre-school one day to find that he had been placed on the ‘time out’ mat with a couple of other boys, because they had been over-excited and interrupting circle time with their exuberance. And this is just one example. Facing the front. Being told what to read, write and take an interest in. Sitting quietly during assembly while the Head warbles on.

Doing as you are told whenever an adult gives you an instruction (so fraught with danger, it now leaves me stunned that I ever put my children through this). Lining up, almost constantly. Answering question that are not your own. Learning to please and placate adults, some of whom are unkind and do not deserve it. Having ‘work’ to complete on a regular basis for the teacher, in much the same way that an office or factory worker might have targets and checklists set by their supervisor. This is not learning; it’s unpaid, forced labour and we give our children a clear message when we opt into it: do as you’re told and don’t ask questions.

Which is why the process of ‘deschooling’ is so important for us all. By clearly sharing with your children the life choice you are making as a family, you are involving them in the process and giving them ownership of the transition into home education. Moreover, when we explain to our children that they are free to manage their own learning, we are doing more than just liberating them from the drudge of school and providing transparency about a system that most children – and many adults – are deliberately blinded to. We are handing them enormous responsibility.

This is a superhero power that takes time to learn how to handle properly but which is, by far, preferable to learn in childhood than far more painfully and with bigger consequences, as a young adult thinking independently for the first time. Guiding your children to the point of being autonomous and responsible can be a proper pain in the ass, though. Here are some of the ways in which you might inwardly cringe as your self-directed learner finds their feet and forms an identity beyond the school uniform.

  • Appearing rude or unhelpful because they are ‘busy’ doing an activity that engages them.
  • Interpreting autonomous learning as being allowed to do ‘whatever they like’ and having to re-form boundaries, such as what is safe and what is kind.
  • Openly commenting on the negative impact of schooling when around or within earshot of children who go to school.
  • Constantly back-chatting and interrupting adults, as they figure out how to negotiate human etiquette without the presence of fixed ‘rules’ and the notion of children as ‘inferior’.
  • Becoming ‘fixed’ on a topic or interest and struggling to understand that not everybody shares this fascination; balancing impulses.

I must point out here that almost all home educated children I have met – my own included – are overwhelmingly polite, thoughtful and engaged. This is no small feat. Once you get past the confident eye contact and steady, unaffected interaction which happily homeschooled children almost universally exhibit (shyness, hostility, acting out, sucking up and all other behavioural manifestations of being raised within a repressive system are practically absent from homeschool groups), you begin to relax and enjoy the conversation. And the point is that this isn’t ‘taught behaviour’ or a case of children being brought up to ‘mind their manners’ and ‘respect their elders’, like some post-Dickensian role play.

These autonomous people have chosen to come to terms with the significance of their personal responsibility; they observe societal codes of conduct and choose how to interact with this, often willingly conforming to the mutually beneficial practices of turn-taking and sharing, for example, whilst perhaps discarding peer pressure, competition, and institutionalised behaviour such as putting your hand up to go to the toilet. They know intrinsically, and without being ‘taught’, that with great power comes great responsibility. Like loading the fucking dishwasher.