Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ramblings on Unschooling, Parenting and Asperger's

Yes -- I'm gonna ramble. Consider yourself duly warned.

Like many moms whose kids learn at home full time, I find myself pulled back and forth between an unschooling lifestyle and a more traditional schooling model. You'd think after being on this path eight years I'd have a handle on my philosophy and what works best for my family. On the contrary, it just keeps getting more confusing. :-)

The heart of unschooling is trusting our children. Some unschoolers -- in the Sandra Dodd-type circles -- aver that people like me who don't stick with it are unable to learn to trust. If you're able to trust, this is clearly the right philosophical path, and the more you trust the more radically you unschool. That dogmatic approach annoys me tremendously. Among other things, it seems to suggest that one way of learning and and living should fit all children and families. And anything smacking of dogmatism pisses me off royally. How can you be a dogmatic unschooler, anyway? It's kind of like being a dogmatic Unitarian Universalist -- the whole blasted point is supposed to be freedom and mutual respect. But I digress.

On the other hand, many of the people who inspire me are unschoolers. They're certainly not dogmatic. They only claim to know what works for their own beloved families. It's an organic, evolving thing, growing and changing with their children. Their lives -- and the spirit of trust and freedom that guides them -- resonate deeply with me.

So why am I so confused?

First of all, I have three children of very different ages with vastly different needs.

Exhibit A: My seven-year-old has always unschooled. We use curricula when she asks for them, or when she prods me for more structure. She owns math workbooks, and she treats them like coloring books, working in them when they amuse her. She taught herself to read, receiving help only when she asks. She is eagerly and tenaciously teaching herself to write. She learns math through cooking and games, and she attends a small private school part-time mostly as a social outlet.

She's never come to think of learning as a chore or as something clearly separate from life. Nothing is required of her except to follow basic family rules, do a few chores, and not torment her siblings too much. And I've never seen a kid more eager to learn. :-)

Exhibit B: My son, the middle child -- when left to his own devices, he video games obsessively, and I don't use that term lightly. He's likely not to stop to eat or sleep. :-P After many discussions of how to limit his gaming, he said what he really needed was for me to give him more to do.

We've tried different things, from structured curricula to radical unschooling, and have settled on a middle road. I try to help him keep his life full and strew things that might interest him, and I require him to study a few subjects of my choosing. He seems to do pretty well with this. He doesn't always like what I ask him to do, but he's the kind of kid who likes clear expectations. As a rule, he willingly does whatever is set before him then goes off and does his own thing, which usually includes gaming, hanging out with his buds, and running around manically with sticks.

If he really doesn't want to do something, we discuss it, and we change whatever isn't working for him. Few requirements are set in stone -- and we just keep rolling.

He is an avid reader - he is currently knee-deep in the Artemis Fowl series. He's a talented artist, and he creates well-written, imaginative fiction when prodded a bit. He knows a lot about science and nature, especially canines, reptiles, spiders, and weapons technology. He's learned a lot about planning, strategy, and collaborative problem-solving through video games, and he creates his own modules.

So far, so good ... I think.

On the other hand, I'm really struggling with guiding my teenage daughter right now. This kid has run the whole gamut, from public schooling to radical unschooling. We've tried it all. What works? We haven't found it yet.

She's very bright, creative, and strong-minded. No, I'm not going to sugar-coat it. The kid is freaking stubborn! I can't imagine where she got that trait. :-P

She has Asperger's Syndrome. In a nutshell, she tends to get along with ideas better than people, and her intellectual development is on a very different timetable from her social and emotional development. She has a great sense of humor and is passionate about fiction writing and movies. She wants to be a screenwriter someday. She's been held back by a serious illness and assorted health problems in recent years, but she's doing relatively well. I suspect she also has a lot of healing to do as a result of our bad parenting, in her early years, when we tried way too hard to be in control. It really sucks being born first and being the guinea pig for your all your parents' half-assed ideas about child rearing. :-/

Here's the thing -- she wants to unschool, but she needs structure, and she's not able to create her own -- not yet. One of the Aspergian things she's coping with is difficulty with executive functioning, which is essential for success as a writer, or anyone else. She eagerly pursues her passions, which is great to see, especially after several years of severe illness. But she isn't able to take self-responsibility in other areas. We are blessed to have an RDI consultant who's working with me on this -- left to my own devices, I flounder a lot.

Anything I ask this kid to do meets resistance -- bet you never heard THAT complaint from the parent of a teen before. :-P She wants to "drop out" of high school and just write fiction, watch movies, and read and write about movies.

Could that work with a teen? Undoubtedly. Would it be right for a teen with significant executive functioning issues? It seems a bit like leaving a child who's known to be dyslexic to learn to read in her own good time. Of course, you don't want to push or bully a child into something for which she's not developmentally ready. But if it's not something the child is naturally wired to learn, it's unfair to leave her to struggle with it alone or allow it to not to happen.

On the other hand I don't want a relationship with my daughter based on battles and bribery. I too much respect for her -- and for my tenuous grasp on sanity -- to go there.

And here's another thing. She needs structure and clear expectations (which is not my forte, by the way, since I suck at consistency). But with too much structure and too many expectations, she quickly becomes overwhelmed. it's a tightrope many parents of kids on the autism spectrum walk.

We had a conversation today about her wanting to "drop out" of high school and do her own thing. I pointed out that 1. A writer needs a great breadth of knowledge to nourish her work. It's impossible to know everything, of course, but some knowledge of history, philosophy and other topics can enrich your writing;  2. I feel it's important for her to master enough math to pass the community college entrance exam. She doesn't actually have to take community college classes, but if that door isn't open it might be a barrier later & 3. She has been known to come back and blame me for not forcing her (her words) to learn things she needed to know. She's also complained that her education has been too erratic. (And you thought the title of this blog was a joke. Hah!)

Also, some mom-directed homeschooling is a great platform for gradually building those executive functioning skills.

We have also talked a bit about how to make her work folder -- the receptacle for those nefarious requirements -- work a little better for her. She seems to want fewer expectations, more interesting assignments, more choices, and maybe some blank cards to set her own goals. She and her brother also both hate their history curriculum -- if I absolutely insist on teaching them history, it should be done some other way. O.K. -- all that sounds good to me. Consider it done. With all that, and the abolition of mathematics from the universe, she might be O.K. :-P

Check back with me later to see whether we're making any progress -- y'know, like her actually moving off the couch and getting stuff done. Like my actually having some clue what I'm doing before my kids are all grown up and having midlife crises of their own.

Meanwhile, I'd LOVE to talk to other parents learning at home with Aspergian teens, traditionally, through unschooling, or somewhere in between. Can you recommend bloggers I should visit?