The Joys of Walking Out

by Natasha Badhwar

‘To trust children, we must first learn to trust ourselves’

One of the best times for a young family is when the children are in some sort of trouble. This isn’t something to brag about of course, but I will tell you what it does in my experience.

Suddenly, everyone’s priorities shift. Things that had seemed to be of staggering importance seem superfluous and the only thing that matters is to somehow restore the well-being of the child. To understand how can we facilitate healing.

This requires rigorous self-reflection. It demands that we summon our own wisdom and strength so that we can seek help and make informed decisions. It forces us to come together as a team because our collective stakes are too high. No other success means anything unless the children are well and flourishing. This is what it means to be a family, I guess.

Earlier this year, our two older daughters, Sahar, 15, and Aliza, 13, chose to take a break from formal schooling. They became self-learners. As parents, we had been drawn to the concepts of alternative education, homeschooling and unschooling from the very beginning. I had had a sense of dread around sending my children to school but I didn’t entirely trust my personal response.

I had first read John Holt’s How Children Fail when I had been a 15-year-old student myself. “To a very great degree, school is a place where children learn to be stupid,” he has written and it resonated deeply.

I bought his books and carried them everywhere with me. I would compulsively read about gifted children healing from unacknowledged traumas. I was trying to unravel the mysterious nexus between child-rearing norms, modern-day education systems, the influence of the media and the onslaught of consumerist culture that eventually leaves the sensitive individual stranded and isolated.

When our children were still toddlers, we moved home from a flat in south Delhi to a greener suburb to escape the shallow peer pressures of the city. We chose their schools carefully. We changed the way we worked and travelled. We trained ourselves to communicate actively with the school authorities every time our dissonance with their ways of functioning became urgent.

One year, our children’s school decided to stay open on the festival of Eid, ostensibly because there had been too many holidays. When I called the school principal, she said if we are a Muslim family, I am free to not send my children to school. On another day, when I went to speak about gendered verbal violence that had become a norm in the sports field and among the boys, I was told that I must prepare my daughters for the real world because, after all, they would have to get used to this anyway. When I called out the way in which the language of threats and coercion was being used by teachers to dominate children, I was told that my children need not worry because they were already timid enough to not need the same tactics of control over them.

We changed schools and chose an institution that spoke a language similar to ours about bringing up children with responsibility and idealism. And that’s when we realized that we had reached the end of the road when it came to formal schooling.

Large mainstream schools can pretend to want the right thing, but they have neither the intent nor the wherewithal to place the individual child at the centre of educational practice. They can talk about fostering empathy, social egalitarianism and environmental responsibility, but the corporate nature of their structure forces them to maintain status quo and only truly concentrate on upward social mobility as the goal of education.

Children deserve reverence, but instead they are routinely infantilized. Traditional schooling inculcates fear and damages the self-esteem of students. It is designed to teach children how to fit in with and succeed within authoritarian systems.

After all, schools don’t exist in isolation. Their clients are predominantly parents whose main aspirations are to raise children who will come out of institutions well-networked and well-branded. This demands conformity and obedience. Imagination or experimentation is belittled and discouraged.

“To trust children, we must first learn to trust ourselves,” Holt has written. “And most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

Our search for an alternative solution inspired us to attend the Learning Societies unConference (LSuC) in Bengaluru last year and the Families Learning Together get-together at Swaraj University in Udaipur this year. This changed everything for all of us. Our older daughters chose to quit school and our youngest continues to go to a small Waldorf school where she feels nurtured and free to learn.

The thing with unschooling is that once you see the light, you cannot unsee it. The LSuC brought together over 800 people in various stages of practising alternative ways to work, grow food, eat, learn and live creative lives. Here we saw what a collective commitment to loving relationships, peaceful self-growth and to the environment and social justice really looks like. We felt inspired and nourished.

I found a guru in the environmental activist and editor from Goa, Claude Alvares. We met Vidhi and Manish Jain and their joyful daughter Kanku from Shikshantar in Udaipur. I listened to Dola Dasgupta and Sumi Chandresh and watched Qudrat and other self-contained unschoolers in awe. We heard Juli and Vivek Cariappa narrate their life story of leaving Delhi and raising their children on a farm. We watched Manish Freeman, the expert in non-competitive games, make everyone hold hands and dance together.

Here were the possibilities I had dared to dream of too. At these gatherings we learnt of self-sustainable farms and learning centres where children and adults are free to be self-guided learners. “This is the best form of living,” I thought to myself. “To become free of one’s dependance on oppressive, exploitative systems that compromise our allegiance to our own authenticity in return for the ability to earn big money and acquire social status.”

“Do we have the guts to recalibrate our needs and press reset on our own lives?” I asked myself.

I remember that I had this confidence as a child for a very long time. I can summon it again. Our intuition is a powerful tool. Our innate sense of morality and empathy are guiding lights. The individual is more powerful than every institution that will attempt to contain him or her.

The children are all right. They are like saplings in a storm. Our only job is to not contaminate their okay-ness.

Natasha Badhwar is the author of the book My Daughters’ Mum, and co-editor of Reconciliation — Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey Of Solidarity Through A Wounded India.

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