Seeing what stereotypes can’t hide

I’m sitting in the cafe at Barnes & Noble right now, preparing to start writing todays’ post.   Directly in front of me is a young man (I’m guessing he’s a Junior in High School) who is spending his lunch hour meeting with a private history tutor.   He is dressed in a school uniform that includes a tie, and the reason I’m guessing he’s a Junior in High School is that he and his tutor are discussing early American history and the debates that revolved around states rights.  (As anyone who attended high school knows, American History is taught in the 11th Grade.  Some things never change.)   I just watched this kid wolf down a sandwich while his tutor explains, questions and challenges him (albeit in a very friendly ‘hey we’re buddies’ kind of way).   I find it unsettling, because the boys’ body language is fidgety & yet somehow practiced.   He twists a strand of hair, rubs his eyes but then settles himself, attempting to focus on the page in front of him while the tutor talks and he periodically says, “Yeah,”  or “Mmmhmm,”  to convey that he’s getting it.   The pre-session banter included an ‘aren’t we glad’ reference to Harvard beating Yale in football over the weekend.  In case there was any doubt about where this is all supposed to be headed.

Do with that what you will.

Lisa Ling has a show called “Our America” that airs every Sunday night on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN.  (Oprah Winfrey Network)   The only reason I am aware of this is that I happened to be on Twitter last night at around 11pm, and saw Oprah herself Tweet the following:  “UNschooling? Not so sure about that.  I think kids need some structure.  Watching OWN’s Our America”

A brief visit to the OWN website and subsequent Tivo search told me that the episode, titled “Extreme Parenting”, would replay at 1am, so I recorded it and watched it this morning with the kids.     The opening segment juxtaposed a family who the show labels “Tiger Parents” – after the now infamous book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – with a family of unschoolers.    At first I hated it.  I hated it because the über-achieving tiger family is upper middle class; their house looks like nobody lives in it; the twin 6 year old boys who were the focus of the piece are blond & blue-eyed the parents are slim and attractive;  they require their boys to wear collared shirts; it’s all screamingly stereotypical.    Then Lisa moved on to the unschooling family and I heard myself groan.    The unschooling family was on the lower end of middle class; the mother’s name was Bunny; the camera made sure to show the toddler dancing on the dining room table and the general unkempt chaos of the house.

At first, as I watched the show, the stereotypes were all that I could see, and they made me uncomfortable.   I had to admit to myself that the unschooling family fit MY OWN idea of how other people see unschoolers and that there was a part of me that found that image to be sub-par.

Shame, shame on me.    How dare I write a blog in which I expound on unschooling as a choice anyone can make, no matter their socio-economic status, religion or race and then sit in snap judgment of a family who has made this courageous choice just because of the house they live in or the way they look – or their first name?    This is especially heinous because it is so easily communicated to others.  I must have said something that revealed my prejudice as the piece began, because Ben piped in “maybe they should have chosen a different unschooling family for this.”  (I’m dying inside just writing that.)   In response Maya, my bastion of wisdom and empathy, said, “I think they’re ok.   They seem nice.”

That short statement from her snapped me to attention.  She was right.  And with that I was able to see past the stereotypes, both as presented by the show and as present in my own mind (and reinforced by the show).  If the unschooling family featured in that piece ever read this, my deepest apologies to them for my own ignorance in evaluating their family.

Take away the trappings, get past the surrounding and take a close look at the kids featured in both families.  Not their clothes or their hair, but their personalities & their demeanor.   When I did that, I couldn’t believe I’d missed it the first time around.  (I’ve since watched the piece again.)

The boys in the Tiger family (just using that phrase for want of something better) are….subdued.   They are not interviewed directly (or if they were it didn’t make the cut) and in one shot mom is shown sitting at the breakfast table, sipping her coffee, talking to the boys.  She says, “Are you going to work hard today?” and then pastes on a smile that is very wide and reads as slightly forced.   Cut to the family van, presumably on the way to school, with Dad driving.  He asks the boys, who we see sitting in the back, what they’re going to do today and the response is a stone-faced and somewhat programmed sounding mumble, translated with a subtitle on the screen that reads, “Do our best”.  The father’s response?  “Nice!”

The only time the boys are shown smiling is in family photos.

In the last segment on this family, Mom is shown doing math drills with one son, who has clearly reached the end of his patience with such work.   When asked what 9 x 2 is, he says “8″.  Mom impatiently says “Not 8.  Come on, what’s 9 x 2?”  “58″ comes the response.   Mom gives the answer in a voice that drips annoyance and disapproval,  then asks if the boy wants to do some division.   “No.  I want to do nothing.”  says the boy, and in response the Mom marks something on his worksheet that illicits a half-hearted, “Hey!” from the child.

These were not happy kids.   Of course, much can be done in the editing room as I am perfectly aware, but if anything the show attempted to be even-handed with a slight bias against unschooling as the “fringe vanguard” and “risky”.   You had to pay attention to the kids, and not what the parents were saying.   The kids’ “performance” was unrehearsed and as genuine as anything can be.  Why would a show with a bias against unschooling edit out all the happy shots of the schooled kids?   That’s right.  They wouldn’t. Which leads me to believe that there weren’t any.  (Maybe that’s why they included the still photos – so they could show the boys smiling.)

The unschooled children, on the other hand, were comfortable and easy with themselves and the camera.  No still photos necessary.  The oldest child, (11) when asked if he thought he’d feel like he was in a competition with other schooled kids as he got older, said, “No.  If they think they’re better than me, that’s their problem.  And if they think I’m better than them, that’s also their problem.”   He said he wouldn’t be at a disadvantage for ‘not having an education’ (Ling’s choice of words, not his).  Even the second child, who is autistic, was relaxed and seemed to have no problem being filmed by strangers.   The 3rd boy in this family of 4 kids is obsessed with Mars and happily told his Mom and the interviewer that he knows he’s from Mars because he has curly hair.   The kids played games, swam in their pool and went on a trip to a local science museum.  Math was learned by helping to cook (gee, that sounds familiar).   The kids raced out to hug their Dad when he arrived home from work.

This was by all indications a happy family with happy, self-motivated kids.

Ling questions if being happy is enough.   I say it’s far superior to miserable, and certainly a good place to start.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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2 Responses to Seeing what stereotypes can’t hide

  1. Miriam AKA Grandma says:

    So by observing from my ‘advanced age’: I know wwwaaaaayyyy too many parents like the first ones; “tiger parents”. What remains a puzzle to me is: I went to school, loved it, assumed (wrongly) that that is where you “learn”. But the difference is, everyone I know/knew had a family like the example of the “unschooled” parents. The classmates from my grade school all say that it was a really fun time. There were 24 of us from a wide social/economic range. So what has happened to parents??

  2. anitaann says:

    I know, I keep getting flak about my name. Button is a nickname from my husband. I have to say this is the most honest thing I have read about the show. I had to re-watch it because I was kind of in a daze after I had initially watched it. Thank you for your honesty and kind words.