Almost beyond words…

I’ve been staring at the screen now for a while, trying to find a good way in to this topic, and have come to the conclusion that there probably isn’t one.   So here goes.

A friend of a friend calls school and all the trappings surrounding it and supported by it a form of ‘normative abuse’.   Abuse so commonplace that it is accepted, and not even seen as abuse.   Until recently I might have thought this a bit harsh.   There are kids who have temperaments that do ok in schools.   They do the work, get the grades, and graduate with honors, or at least without incident.  (Whether or not they have a real education is another discussion).    But I’m beginning to think that for many, many children, this ‘friend of a friend’ is right.

True example:  A five year old is sent to all day kindergarten, with virtually no recess.   His older brother, now in 5th grade, is a model student.    But the five year old hates school, throws tantrums in the morning before going and is disruptive and misbehaved in class.   His parents say, ‘but he chose to go to all day kindergarten because he knew his friends would be there.’ (but did he know that kindergarten was not tantamount to an all day playdate?  Probably not)   And now he is in therapy.   Therapy.   As though there is something psychologically wrong with him.   His parents are distressed, because they now believe they have an emotionally disturbed child on their hands.   They can’t understand the friction that now seems a permanent resident between them and their child.   It doesn’t seem to dawn on them that the child resents being treated by his family as though he is ‘bad’ and something is wrong with him, and that is the reason for his coldness toward them.

Sadly this scenario is not unique.  It is a tragedy played out all too often as we move away from common sense and into a mindset that says children must spend more and more hours in school, without breaks.    Schools are not producing the kinds of results people want.  So children must spend even more time there?     At the age of 5, a child thinks that spending all day with his friends would be great fun.   But in reality, he is made to sit quietly at a desk or a table doing things in which he has no interest.   He friends may not be at the same table, but even if they are, independent play is discouraged.   If he says he does not want to be there doing those things he is punished or ignored.   If he screams and shouts and tries to get someone to listen, he is sent to therapy.    Forgive me, but that sounds like a form of abuse.

We have such great freedom as homeschoolers and unschoolers.  Even families who follow a strict homeschooling curriculum spend less than half the time school children spend working at a desk.   And then the kids are free to go out and play.  As unschoolers there is even more freedom to learn when you are ready and truly at your own pace.   Maya, Ben and I were talking today about the fact that almost overnight Ben went from picture books with only a few words, to chapter books.    They are both very clear about the fact that everyone does things at their own speed, which does not make them better or worse than anyone else.   Ben could ride a bike at 5.  Maya was almost 9 when she learned.   Ben swam at 6.   Maya was 10.   Maya read at 3.   Ben was 5.     And on, and on.   Because they are not boxed in to a preconceived notion of when something must be done, they learn it when they are ready.   And because of it, they are happy kids.    There may be other factors involved as well – we try to provide a safe and happy home – but I believe the lack of coercive learning is playing a bigger role than we could imagine in their overall sense of well-being.

What if that were taken away?   Well, it was, for one of our friends.   Her name is Lexi Garvey and she is 11 years old.   Recently, for reasons I’ll let her tell you herself, she was ordered into middle school, after spending her entire life as a homeschooler.  Lexi is a wonderful, funny and very smart girl.    She has started a blog which I highly recommend about her experiences in middle school so far.    The url is

Normative abuse.   Sounds ugly.  The reality is even worse.

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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