This article was originally written by OC Co-Founder Susan Shilcock in 1997 and printed in Growing Without Schooling. Here we are reprinting it with updates from Amanda, Emily, Julia and Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock twenty years after the original print date!
[Header picture is from the wedding of Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock and Kimberly Lin, January 2017]
As I look back on the life-long homeschooling of my four children, now ages 13 to 21, it seems as if I should have some wise advice to pass along to the next generation. But as I test out each “pearl of wisdom,” I find that I must qualify each one, for indeed if I've learned anything from my experiences, it's that there is no magic, no one right answer, no model method, model family, or model child. What works well for a young boy with no siblings is unlikely to be a close fit for a family with six children. In the same way, what's a successful educational path for a firstborn may be totally inappropriate for the third or fourth child in the same family. In short, accurate generalizations are hard to come by.
What perhaps may be gained by passing along my perceptions, however, is an increased appreciation for the value of trust, patience, and a willingness to embrace the unexpected as parents approach the difficult but rewarding task of helping each of our children uncover their life passion. Learning what truly moves our children, and building on that, seems to me to be a sensible and rewarding foundation for any homeschooling journey.
It took us probably ten years to develop this Mission Statement for the education of our children. Although we never formally wrote it down, or even labeled it as such, Peter (Bergson) and I were ultimately guided by our belief that our role as parents was to help our children uncover their own life destiny. This goal eventually transcended all others, including attaining high test scores, comparing their achievements to that of peers, satisfying other people's agendas, seeking the prestige of honors or college admittance, etc. We've always believed that if we could help guide our young people to discover the work that suited their heart, mind, and soul, and helped them to be productive and happy members of society, then we would have reached our goal as parents. But it took many years before we were sufficiently resistant to conventional measurements and expectations of our peers to finally let our deepest convictions lead the way on a daily basis.
Peter Bergson and Susan Shilcock as they began Open Connections.
As our Mission became more evident to us, it became easier and easier to support our children and help develop appropriate educational opportunities for them. We were less bounded by traditional assumptions (“You should read by six,” “You should get practice writing book reports and term papers,” “You should have a well-rounded curriculum each year,” “You should study the classics,” “You must take the SATs to get into college,” and “You need grades and a transcript to prove your merit”). Our efforts became conscious and deliberate and were inspired and driven by our observation of living human beings in front of us, not by government regulations, school rules and societal norms.
An example of this transformation occurred around the issue of high school mathematics for our eldest, Amanda. At fifteen she had a math tutor with whom she was dutifully studying some trig and calculus, though clearly it was uninspiring to her. We were being driven by our intellectual agreement with the conventional wisdom that she needed higher math to counterbalance her seemingly lopsided indulgence in reading and writing—her real passions—as well as to ensure that she would be acceptable [accepted] to the college of her choice.
Despite Amanda's attempt to be a good (i.e., compliant) daughter and math student, it was glaringly apparent that the math tutorial was actually interfering with the attainment of our goals (both parents and young person). After several months we finally realized that Amanda was unlikely to need the content of this course in any adult work that she was inclined to pursue. Even if she were to need it in the future, we could see that she had clearly demonstrated an ability to master new concepts in short order (when there was a reason to do so!). So we lightened up on the math and did what was necessary to fulfill minimal math requirements for her to get her high school diploma.
Freed from the onerous burden of excessive math, Amanda could now concentrate on her true loves—reading, reflecting, and writing. It was during this period that she wrote the chapter that was to appear in Grace Llewellyn's Real Lives that led to numerous newspaper interviews and articles which, in turn, subsequently became part of her college entrance portfolio. It was also at a time when Amanda's own sense of her individualism was gaining momentum as evidenced by her decision not to take the SATs and challenge the system to look at her for who she was. If we as parents had been short-sighted or frightened into making Amanda do what her peers were doing, she would have become one of the countless high achievers with plenty of hollow “As” and high test scores with nothing to distinguish her from the crowd. Instead, she was in a group of one with a distinctive background and credentials that were the essence of Amanda. We see it as somewhat ironic that, by going her own route, Amanda was better positioned to get into the University of Pennsylvania (her chosen path) than she would otherwise have been.
Emily, our second daughter, also gave us some obvious clues as to what ignited genuine excitement in her. As a young child, Emily constantly invented games that involved the real world and financial transactions. She set up her own stores after we had visited the real thing. She created shoe stores, hardware stores, gift shops, homemade card shops, banks, supermarkets, toy stores, bookstores, post offices and libraries. She learned denominations quickly so she could play accurately with real money. She took orders, sold tickets, wrote up receipts, and delivered items in her little mail truck or red fire engine. Similarly, Emily always found time to create her own games in and around activities that we chose for her (with her enthusiastic approval). Ballet, violin, volunteering at a home for disabled children, and taking an astronomy class: all provided platforms for more “real world” activity on her part.
We as parents simply had to take Emily's play and work seriously, which we did. During these formative years, we provided her with real tickets and receipt books, an inexpensive coin changer, a homemade mini storefront, painted roadways on the driveway (to allow her to set up a community with refrigerator boxes as the shops) and plenty of open time to invent, design, and pursue her interests. We purchased a real electronic cash register for Emily's Christmas when she turned 11 (which became her single favorite gift for all childhood). The number of stores Emily created escalated at this point, and parents and siblings were soon (cheerfully) purchasing items from Emily that only seconds before had been in our own rooms.
Although her business interest may seem obvious now in retrospect, the important point to note is that during Emily's childhood, most adults outside of our family viewed these endeavors as only the clever play of childhood. The more important work of learning reading, math, spelling, and history was, for them, easily overshadowed by such innocent play. Most people reading this now know that Emily went on to volunteer and later become a paid worker at a local retail store before opening her own business, selling products for the elderly and disabled just two weeks after her seventeenth birthday. If she wrote a book, it could easily be titled What I Needed to Learn about Life, I Learned by Playing and Running a Store.
Although some consider us “expert” parents because we work professionally with young people, we have come to realize more deeply that with each new child, whether someone else’s or our own, the stage is bare and each life is a whole new story. What we have learned by working with any previous youth is as likely to cloud our judgment as it is to be helpful.
Thus, as we observe Julia (now 16) and attempt to help her find what makes her sing, we are like first-time parents again. We observe and listen carefully, we provide activities based on her requests and strengths, and we protect her free time so that she can experiment and seek. We hold problem-solving meetings with her to develop new options (e.g. volunteering at a local hospital, observing veterinary surgery) and often ask Julia what she wants to create in her life. But to date, although she has participated in countless classes and activities that she likes there is none that she loves. Recurring themes seem to be her compassion for animals, her keen observational abilities, and her highly developed intelligence for interpersonal relationships. Although we have learned much about Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple intelligences, we still feel at times overwhelmed by society’s tremendous bias toward the linguistic and mathematically inclined. It has been only in the past few years that we have come to fully embrace the value of Julia’s special intelligence and indeed the skills necessary to be an outstanding counselor, diplomat, manager, or teacher.
Presently, Julia’s skills translate into activities that include a Ragdoll cat breeding business, studying psychology, and working with children to develop their strengths. Any one of these could turn into a life passion, but at this point predictions for the future seem a bit premature. We, and Julia, are still peeling away layers of her complex being so that she can discover her own calling. There are no blueprints, there is no timetable, but there is great trust.
Nicholas (now 13) was a dutiful child, cheerfully participating in and learning from the activities and lessons offered to him. He showed preferences for small groups, one or two close friends, and easing slowly into new areas. His own voice for his learning became apparent to us on one day in particular. Nicholas was just twelve years old and had acquired four antiquated computers that he lined up on tables in his room. I walked in and one computer was taken apart, the internal workings spread about, and Nicholas was adjusting something with a screwdriver. I, the “expert” homeschooling parent of our four children who had helped two make the transition to college, had a twelve-year-old who had zoomed past my level of knowledge in a field in a matter of a few weeks. It was a wonderful feeling to see him working in this foreign world, knowing that I had had nothing to do with his mastering the content of these skills, and at least wanting to believe that I had helped facilitate the process of his experimentation. This one day assured me that Nicholas had taken charge of his own learning and that I truly would be only a resource person on his future educational journey.
Since then, Nicholas has taught himself some rudimentary programming techniques, designed some simple games, and generally used the computer as an integral tool in his everyday life. He uses his sister Amanda as a resource when he needs assistance, but generally he negotiates on his own and has gained tremendous confidence from his evolving expertise.
What did we do as parents to help Nicholas discover this love? We allowed him to purchase a computer for $25 at a garage sale knowing it would probably be broken (“He’ll waste his money”). We gave him access to tools and unscheduled time and had faith in how he spent his day (“He’ll waste his time”). Against our better judgment, we allowed him to read countless computer and game magazines when it seemed as if he should be spending more time reading classics (“He’s not doing enough academics”). We monitored his close-work time and made sure that he balanced it with plenty of large motor outside activity. We hired a drawing/ cartooning mentor to work with Nicholas in a secondary interest of his, drawing. Right now Nicholas is developing his drawings in tandem with his computer knowledge, and has even suggested that he may want to go into graphics and computer design one day.
Because we chose a distinctive education path, we were constantly asked questions about our children as they grew up. The focus was almost always on their scheduled activities; “How is Amanda’s literature class?”, “Is Emily enjoying her Japanese?”, “How does Julia enjoy lab science?”, “How is Nicholas doing with his spelling and writing?”. Almost never did anyone ask “Has Amanda had her sisters playing library lately?” or “What new stores has Emily set up in the front hall today?” or “What young children has Julia inspired recently?” or “Has Nicholas designed any new computer adventure games?” The first set of questions is comfortable and convenient for most people, perhaps helping them to track or categorize children. The second set of questions seems less substantive, more frivolous and certainly not the pivotal piece in the puzzle of an evolving child. However, it is precisely the collection of small moments of these random and casual activities over the course of years that, when captured, begin to define the inner bliss of our children. Our job as parents is to make sure that the daily requirements and regulations of homeschooling, the constant interferences and expectations of others, and our own needs for validation do not blur our long-term vision or disturb our children’s natural learning processes. We trust that by helping our children to own their own dreams, they will be led in the right direction. We, as parents, will continue to keep the vision that the little daily moments and the power of what drives an individual child is paramount. All the rest comes in a distant second.
It hardly seems possible that this year I finally turned 40, as I jokingly tell friends that I have been middle-aged since about the age of 7. I have been fortunate to spend the bulk of my adult life thus far in compelling and intellectually rewarding work. Following my official unschooling years, I attended college as a part-time student at the University of Pennsylvania, where I bonded with my fellow night students over our shared experience of balancing work, school, and other commitments. I learned a lot at Penn, not the least of which was my relaxed disinterest in being “pre” anything (as many of my classmates were pre-law, pre-med, pre-business, etc).
Armed with a wonderfully diverse design-my-own major (American civilization and history with an emphasis on so-called minority populations), I graduated in 1999 and immediately left my legal publications job for the nonprofit world. I spent six years doing grantmaking intermediary and program evaluation work, and then the next nine years at a community organization primarily serving immigrants, before moving to my current policy advocacy position in 2015.
My unschooling identity has served me well across my professional journey, as well as in my volunteer work, friendships, family, and romantic relationships. Perhaps one of the most fun applications in recent years was when I decided I needed to learn statistical analysis for a survey project. Turns out the ability to locate a resource person, identify the skills needed, read up on background issues, acquire new knowledge, and then apply those skills in the real world works just as well today as it did back in my childhood. And given my lifelong intolerance for pointless work, it was especially gratifying to see our survey research results being put to immediate use by practitioners.
My other enduring identity has been as a librarian. I am entering my 27th year of working weekend shifts as a reference assistant in my local public library, but the principles of librarianship are something I carry with me into every aspect of my life. In particular, the values of access, diversity, lifelong learning, social responsibility, and the public good inform my perspective as an aunt, sister, advocate, and friend.
I think that is the biggest gift unschooling gave to me: the opportunity to identify a life passion and pursue it, even through non-traditional paths. I don’t know if my mother knew where things would lead when she suggested to 13-year-old Amanda that volunteering at the library might be a good fit, but I like to think her spirit shines through in how have I approached my life’s work ever since.
It has been twenty years since my mom’s last writing. In that time, I completed my undergraduate degree in psychology during which I fell in love with, and later married, my college best friend and research partner. Following graduation I worked as a family-based therapist providing crisis management and direct care to adolescents and their families. This work led me to seek my Master’s degree in Educational Leadership, which in turn led to my new role in higher education admissions and financial aid. I remained in that job, which I thoroughly loved, until my husband and I decided to start a family. For us, that meant having me transition from a 60-hour work-week with travel to a part-time position in which I could be fully present for our future children.
Finding myself in the less-common position of wanting desperately to recreate my own idyllic childhood for my own children, I knew that providing a self-directed and resource-rich environment was important to me. Naturally this led me back “home” to OC after a decade of life in the Real World. I decided in the spring of 2005 to return to Open Connetions to work alongside my mom. Sadly, life had other plans for me and when she passed that summer I inherited both of “Susan’s Tutorials.” Despite this unfortunate transition, I remain fascinated by the intellectual and emotional transformation that youth make during the two years (ages 13-15) in which I am privileged to work with them, and the tools, phrases, and wisdom my mom shared with me are ever present.
I am eternally grateful for the trust my parents placed in me throughout my educational journey and for the endless opportunities my mom created for me to learn through real work and to create a life to meet the needs of myself and my family.
As I re-read this piece, I was struck by how much my siblings and I have, at our core, stayed the same since our youth. My mom wrote about who I was as a person, sort of a descriptive review. The line that brought tears streaming out of me was this one: “It has been only in the past few years that we have come to fully embrace the value of Julia’s special intelligence and indeed the skills necessary to be an outstanding counselor, diplomat, manager or teacher.” My mom died shortly after my 24th birthday, so she never got to know what my adult life looked like. She certainly had a strong sense of where it was headed (Mike and I started dating three weeks before she went into the hospital, and I was working at OC full time as a Facilitator), but I have often yearned for her to be here so that she could see the “adult me” in action. Her perception of my greatest strengths at age 16 were spot-on then, and they still hold true today, so in a sense I guess she did/does know the adult me.
Picking up where she left off…
After my high school years during which I took some college classes, I transitioned to full-time college. The time I had spent working with young people during my pre-teen and teen years (I was an Intern at OC, and also volunteered bi-weekly for 9 years at a very underserved public school in North Philadelphia) had led me to believe that I wanted to be an education major in college. I quickly learned, however, that both the content and structure of the way the education classes were delivered in college was not going to be a fit for me. I did, however, find value in many of the Child Development and Psychology classes I was taking. In my sophomore year, I took my first Sociology class and knew I had found my major.
During college I worked at OC two days a week in addition to my full course load and captaining the soccer team. When I graduated, I felt confident that working at OC was my life’s calling. However, upon my parents’ urging, I took a traditional 9-5 temp job in a totally different field of work in an effort to be certain that OC was the right fit for me long-term. My four months in a 9-5 desk job solidified my gut instinct, and I joined the OC staff full time in January 2004. My only hesitation about that decision was that I had yet to find my life partner, and I was pretty certain that working in the field of progressive education was not likely to yield me many options. However, life works in mysterious ways, and as fate would have it, exactly twelve months after I started working at OC full time, Mike [Hilbert] walked through the door. My life, both professionally and personally, was forever changed (for the better) at that moment.
Mike and I married in 2007, and Callie Susan was born in February 2009. It quickly became evident that I could not continue to work full time while simultaneously parenting Callie in our chosen attachment-parenting lifestyle. Fortunately, one of the skills I had learned (the same one that is at the core of OC’s philosophy) from my dad was creative problem-solving, so with help of my fellow Co- Directors and the OC Board of Directors we restructured my role at OC so that I could have the best of both worlds working at OC and being a present and nurturing mama.
Since 2009, our family has grown by two (Cade and Cassie), and I continue to work on mastering the work/ wife/homeschooling mom dance. People often remark how “lucky” I am to live the life I do. And while I certainly do feel blessed, I wouldn’t use the word “luck” to describe my life. Maybe the luck part came 35 years ago when I was born to two parents who were pioneers in the self-directed education movement. But since then, the crafting of my life has been deliberate. I felt empowered to create the life I want because I knew that my parents believed in me, and they trusted that I had the tools to create a life full of purpose and fulfillment (the tagline of OC’s Mission)!
I currently live in New York City, where I’ve been for more than ten years now. In that time I got a degree in computer engineering from Columbia University (like my three sisters, I was a conscientiousness objector to the SATs), worked as a software engineer, quit my job, started a company, got funded by the startup accelerator Y Combinator and spent five months in Mountain View, CA before returning to New York to grow my company. Along the way I fell in love with an amazing woman, whom I just married in January.
I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours over the past five years building the Recurse Center (RC), a full-time, self-directed educational retreat for computer programmers. RC combines the interest in programming my mom recognized in this article with unschooling philosophy. Our goal at RC is to build a productive environment where people are free to follow their interests and focus on becoming better programmers with the support of a diverse community. Nearly 1,000 people from more than 50 countries have traveled to New York to attend RC, and we’ve disbursed more than a million dollars in need-based grants to people from groups traditionally underrepresented in technology (RC is free for everyone, so participants use the grants for housing, food, childcare, and other living expenses).
I’m forever grateful that my parents chose to unschool me, which is to say, that they rejected the authoritarianism of school and gave me the freedom to pursue my own life 18 or so years before most of my peers. (My only critique is of the few times they failed to live up to their own values, like their misguided decision to make me play soccer:-)).
A big gift our parents gave us was the expectation (in the positive sense of the word) that we (Amanda, Emily, Julia, and Nicholas) would be the best of friends. Despite our differing careers, and even beliefs in some areas, the amount of time we were able to spend together during our childhood and young adulthood (largely in part to not being in school) helped us to form close and lasting bonds. To this day, we have a weekly family phone call on Sunday nights where the four of us, along with our dad, share highlights from our week, and generally just enjoy chatting as a group. It’s pretty perfect. The only thing missing from it is Mom. Another powerful gift our parents gave us was the belief that we not only have the right, but the responsibility, to create our own happiness. Life is a journey, and we continue to create and adjust, when necessary, to build lives that meet our goals and needs, as well as fuel our passions.