Why bullying and unschooling don’t mix

Yesterday I referenced a Washington Post article in which unschoolers are referred to as “dirty hippies”.   The title of the article is “Save a Life, drop out; ‘Bully’ and the case for homeschooling”, and the dirty hippie quote in its’ entirety goes like this:

You can laugh at nutty right-wingers who home-school their kids because they don’t want them to learn about evolution; you can sneer at dirty hippies who unschool their kids at home because they can’t be tied to the Man’s curriculum, man. Laugh and sneer all you want, but those home-schooled and unschooled kids are not being hounded to death — literally, in a case documented on-screen in “Bully” — by their peers.

Dirty hippie reference aside (Mr. Berlatsky said it was a light-hearted caricature of the way people refer to homeschoolers and so I’ll let it slide), the article makes the case that not being in school is far preferable to being bullied.   That if the choice is quitting life or quitting school, well then the choice should always be quitting school.

Of course he’s right, but there is more to it than that.   Why are homeschooled/unschooled children not being “hounded to death by their peers”?    Definitely not because kids who learn outside of school never see any other kids, which is contrary to what many might think and to what Mr. Berlatsky’s article implies when he says:

Perhaps we should at least consider the possibility that the best way to improve schools is to empty them. And if home-schooling and unschooling aren’t for you — well, Internet distance learning programs have made it easier than ever for kids to take courses at an accredited institution without leaving the house for the day. [emphasis added by me]

Without leaving the house for the day?  Listen, I don’t know any homeschooled or unschooled child who spends all their days learning at home.   An entire day at home is the exception, not the rule.  Groups of homeschooled kids play together all the time and instances of bullying are extremely rare, so stopping bullying is not just a matter of separating a child from other kids.

So what is it then?

Well, first we need to look at why bullying is so prevalent in schools.  Schools by their very nature are unhealthy places.   Argue with me all you want on this, but history and the facts agree.   Public schooling was designed to create an obedient and minimally educated workforce.   To this day, free, independent thought or action is actively discouraged.  (Oh I know many people will say that schools have improved in this area.  I disagree.)   Schools are all about who is in control; and who is NOT in control is the student body.   So what happens?  Kids take their moments of power where they can find them.  Bullying is often the result.

School is also an unnatural setting.   Kids are separated from their families and divided into groups by age, then subdivided by alleged ‘intelligence’ and overseen by one adult who has been given the authority to ‘teach’.   The natural rhythms of a family are completely undermined in such a setting.  Homework is a way the school can exert control over the child even after they leave the building, keeping them away from their families (not physically but mentally) well into the evening hours.   The family is subordinate to the school and its’ insistence on obedience and separation.

This is not normal.   The school setting is unhealthy and unnatural.  It’s not a safe place.

So yes, take away the school setting and you remove a lot of what causes bullying.  But there is another, much less discussed element.  Parents who trust their kids to learn on their own; who believe in the power of self-directed learning and are happy to incorporate their kids into their daily lives are much less likely to be bullies themselves.  Because make no mistake, the other factor in this equation is that adults bully kids all the time and get away with it; are even praised for it.  We have gotten to the point where if an adult is being mean, i.e. being a bully, to their kid, we most likely will not be appalled.  On the contrary, we’ll probably give that person a book deal and talk about how they are the new face of parenting.  I’m thinking Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”,  Pamela Druckerman’s “Bringing up Bebe”, the soon to hit bookstores “French Kids Eat Everything” by Karen Le Billon and the upcoming and as yet untitled book by Dara-Lynn Weiss that centers on the strict diet to which she subjects her 7 year old daughter because Weiss thought she was eating too much and getting chubby.

Bullying is not just a school problem.  It’s a societal problem.  A society that enjoys watching people be insulted on shows like “American Idol”.   A society that believes there is a ‘right way’ to look, based on what they see on TV and in magazines and then rips people apart when they vary from it even a little (see Ashley Judd’s scathing & powerful response to recent criticism in the media of her “puffy face”).

So the question remains:  Why is bullying not a problem among unschooled kids who see other kids every day and who are not isolated from society; who, like mine, watch TV and go on line and see all the same media influences as schooled children?

I believe the answer lies, not only in the absence of school, but in the power of trust and connection between family members in a life learning environment.   When parents trust that their kids can learn on their own and can be fully integrated into the family life; when kids know that they are supported and trusted, it creates a kind of confidence and belief in oneself that does not rely on the opinions of others.   Homeschoolers don’t need to make themselves feel powerful by bullying those who are different.  They are fully confident and secure in their place in the world.  They have parents who support them in that.   I’ve seen unschooled kids show up in the funkiest of outfits and rather than be ridiculed, everyone tells them they’re rad and cool.   And they are!   I had a fellow unschooling mom tell me once that her daughter –  who was 14  at the time and slightly chubby with pimples – had a schooled friend who looked like a fashion plate.   But between the two girls it was her daughter who felt beautiful and confident, and the schooled friend who was insecure,  hyper-aware of all her imagined flaws and jealous.

Look, unschooled kids are still kids.  They are people and they will have off days, just like the rest of us.   They’re not better or different than other kids.  They just live in a safe environment, a “whole-soul” environment, as Eli Gerzon said in his speech, “On the Importance of Whole Soul Safety or the Real Reason to Rise out of School” which he wrote ten years ago after leaving school in the 9th grade and having unschooled for three years.

My heart goes out to any child who feels unsafe and who is bullied, no matter where it might happen.    This is just one more reason for parents and children to be aware that life learning is available to them.  It is not solely for the wealthy, or the extreme.   No one I know who homeschools falls into either of those categories.

It’s for everyone.


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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