Unschooling Portrait: Mari

Please introduce yourself.

Hi, I’m Mari! Or Mariellen like on “The Waltons” but spelled differently. I’m a farm wife and mother of two teen daughters. I’m also an aspiring author and dedicated life learner.

What does your typical day look like?

There is no “typical day” in our house. Really, there’s no “typical” in our house. We’re strange, strange people. The girls go to bed when they feel like it. I try to make it to bed by like one-ish, my husband usually hits the sack more like midnight. He gets up fairly early compared to the rest of us but not like what most people think of as “farmer early.” He goes off to play in the dirt most days and we three girls are everywhere, doing everything. You might find one daughter drawing straight into the computer on her tablet or working on her web comic or playing online with friends. You may find the other curled up with a good book, bouncing on the trampoline, or dressing Barbies in her own line of haute couture. You’ll usually find me either at my desk writing, watching movies, and playing video games or I’ll be in the kitchen pursuing my other passion: kitchening. No, seriously, I look to cook and I love finding new things to cook and new ways to prepare foods.

What does the term “unschool” mean to you?

Unschooling, for me, was letting go of “standards” and “expectations” and letting God dictate our learning. It was about allowing my girls to recapture the joy of discovery so that they would be life learners, too.

Have you always unschooled or did you, like many, gradually move from traditional homeschooling (or public school) towards unschooling? If so, where are you in the process and how did you get there?

We actually started out in public school and we stayed there for far, far too long. I would use summer break to try these grand “homeschooling experiments” because I just really desired getting my kids out of that toxic, broken environment. But most of the homeschooling experiments failed because I am just not a schedule-and-routine kind of person. I really like getting swept up in an interest or passion and pursuing it until I’m done. It never occurred to me, though, that we could actually homeschool that way. I was describing my frustration to an online friend and she put the pieces together for me and told me about unschooling. That was about a year ago and we’ve been unschooling since. My older girl did return to public school for exactly six weeks in the school year that followed our “unschooling summer” experiment because my husband wasn’t convinced yet that it could work. Six weeks was how long it took him to admit that even if unschooling didn’t work it was still better than the public school. We haven’t looked back. Well, that’s not entirely true. The girls and I did look back just this week. We paused for a few minutes to reflect on the past year and talk about how things have been going with unschooling, how the reality is comparing to our expectations, and if there are any things we want to change. The only thing either wanted to change was for Dad to have fewer freak-outs so they can stop doing a day or two of “panic school” every month or two.

As you can tell from our “typical day” we went pretty radical pretty quickly. I credit that to the fact that radical unschooling is really the lifestyle I’ve always gravitated toward anyway, even before I knew there was a name for it. I’ve also had a ton of great encouragement from other unschoolers and some pretty awesome mentors along the way.

What interests do your kids have that you never would have guessed they would develop?

You know, we’re still pretty fresh to unschooling and a lot of that time has been spent deschooling so there haven’t been too many huge developments yet. I guess the only real surprise I’ve seen is the first buds of an interest in history from my younger girl. She’s always been interested in cultures and literature but it never really developed into an interest in history before. I think it’s great, though. My husband and I are both huge history geeks so we’re enjoying being able to converse with her about these things.

What are some of the benefits of unschooling that you have seen?

Oh my gosh, you just can’t know the changes we’ve seen in our girls. They are so much more confident and open now. They’ve become very comfortable with who they are and what their passions are. They’ve also gained back an amazing level of energy and creativity. I’m just at a loss for words on how much more emotionally and mentally and even physically healthy they are since we started unschooling and my friends and family call me “The Thesaurus.” Seriously, this is just such a huge wonderful thing in our life.

Several friends and relatives had expressed concern for the deep depression my younger girl was manifesting. She had very low self-esteem, barely talked to anyone, her hygiene was pitiful; it was really scary. She is now a lovely young lady who takes care of herself, has made friends and works to stay in touch with them, smiles, and chats confidently with people. And the only change we’ve made was just to start unschooling. No therapy, no drugs, no “self-esteem curriculum” or forcing her to take care of herself. We just gave her freedom and love.

My older girl wasn’t in nearly such bad shape. In fact, I really didn’t believe she had been “damaged” by school until she’d been out for a while. When I started seeing the healing I was finally able to see the wounds. The changes aren’t nearly so profound but she’s much more expressive now, much more energetic and creative, and much less angry. I never really realized that a lot of her occasional temper problems were about her desire for control until we gave her the control and saw far fewer outbursts of temper.

What are some of the negatives?

Our life is very unpredictable now. We used to have a routine. We hated the routine, but we had it. I’m still trying to “find my stride” in this new life that isn’t dictated by school calendars and bells. It’s also been a harder transition for my older daughter because she’s extroverted and school was filling that need for her. We’ve had to work harder for her to find ways to be social so that she can be happy and healthy.

We also had a little bit of a problem at first with them packing on some weight. They suddenly had free access to food all day long and no coach with a whistle forcing them to get sweaty for an hour a day. It took them a little while to learn for themselves how to control their food and activity levels but once they “got it” they’ve both worked, of their own volition, to take that weight back off and some they already had from before we started unschooling. I list this in “negatives” but it could just as easily be listed as a positive. My children learned all by themselves how to manage their food intake and activity levels to lead a healthy lifestyle. Which, honestly, is part of what we hoped they would gain by unschooling: the ability to self-regulate and gain the life skills that many kids don’t get until college.

Tell us about your best day (or your worst).

My best day? Maybe the day one of my homeschooling friends told me, “Shannen seems so much happier now; she just glows!” Or maybe the whole 15 days that we drove cross-country as a family for the holidays. That’s something we couldn’t have done on that scale when the girls were in public school because the school calendar doesn’t work well with the farm calendar. We had a blast the whole time. We listened to documentaries while we drove, explored new places, met new people, talked constantly, and generally enjoyed each other’s company.

Favorite definition of unschooling: “Allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear.” (John Holt)

Thank you Mari for this Unschooling Portrait!

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