Why my daughters don’t go to school anymore: Natasha Badhwar talks about the power of unschooling
An independent filmmaker, photographer and writer -- Natasha Badhwar’s interests are eclectic. Her collection of essays, My Daughters’ Mum, is a heart-warming book on essential subjects, from selfhood and faith to parenting and marriage.
Born in Ranchi and grew up in Kolkata, Badhwar had a long career in broadcast journalism. She started with New Delhi Television as the first female videographer in news television in the country. She left the organisation 13 years later as vice president for training and development.
Badhwar, a mother of three, is keen on treading the unwalked path. A year and a half back, her two older daughters, Sahar and Aliza, stopped going to school and opted for 'unschooling'. The writer calls it ‘unschooling’, which means exploring ways of learning without looking at school curriculum as a guide.
In a candid chat with CNBC-TV18, the acclaimed author talks about her decision to 'unschool' her older daughters and the power of stories.
Excerpts from the interview:
Three daughters, two of them are teens right now, and you have taken that big decision of – I will not say brave because it is just a big decision, brave or not we will ask you 20 years later -- of home schooling two of your daughters, the older ones, Sahar and Aliza. Tell me now, initially it was a brave decision but now as they are teens, how are you dealing with it or how is it all coming together?
First the terminology. There is home schooling, there is unschooling, there is free schooling, there is world schooling, there is travel schooling. What we have chosen as a lifestyle choice for our family is unschooling, which means that we look at ways of learning without looking at school curriculum as a guide.
Home schooling is often not choosing the school as a space, but learning the same kind of curriculum at the same pace in your own home, using your own tools as a family. In unschooling, you do not choose the curriculum either. You really embrace what is called self-learning. You give yourself as a parent and the growing child the time and the space and the attitudes to be able to discover your own rhythm, to be able to discover your own loves, your own passions, your own interests to see what connects to another, to choose your subjects as and when they are of great interest to you and to develop your own set of learning tools.
This unschooling is so unstructured that it is probably frightening for people like me who are very boxed in. What is the involvement of a parent like me?
I think the perspective on structure is that everybody has a natural way of structuring their lives. The seasons are structured, days and nights are structured, our body’s rhythms are structured -- a healthy person wakes up fresh, a healthy person needs a nap or rest at some time, you get tired, you reboot, you work in spurts and then you need a break. So there are natural structures that we can embrace.
In a way schooling and work structures have tried to mimic that. So we have weekdays and weekends, we have half day in school, we have a little bit of sports, little bit of crafts, those things have happened but as these institutions have become bigger and bigger, the structure seems imposed. It has almost become a structure that is planned to fit a large number of people which actually does not serve the individual interest of anyone. So the topper is feeling boxed in, the artist is feeling boxed in, the one who is interested in physics and music does not know how to make time for it. The one who wants to swim and do football has to choose between one and the other. So structure is made for a large number of people which is what our schools and corporations have become, and they do not work for individuals.
At some point you come to a point where you have to take a decision. Do I have the right to choose my path as an individual and can the family function as an individual unit, can it create its own community instead of having to belong to a structured community.
How do you decide on the girls’ curriculum? Have they broken away from all the boards, the CBSE and the ICSE and the IB? We are still having a conversation around which board is better for our children. How do you really look at or benchmark their learning? That is something that you will have to build as an individual family, right?
Yes. So you examine the idea of benchmarking learning because again what we have done as a society, as a world culture, is to try to homogenise those benchmarks. By 16, you should be able to do this, by 10 you should be able to do this, by a certain age you should have outgrown that interest and be ready for a new interest. From our experience as middle-aged adults, we know that there are interests that come up as and when we are ready for them.
I may not have been ready to learn how to strum a guitar when I was 16, when it was a cool thing for me to do, but I may be ready to learn how to strum a guitar at 47. We have made career switches, we have had to learn new skills as and when technology has changed, ways of working has changed. You learn as an adult that you are really always adapting and to be adaptable, to be empathetic to how the world is changing around you, how people’s needs are changing around you to be a successful adult. Somehow these first 20 years of very structured education seems to retard your ability to be an adaptable, empathetic person.
You have to go through this, it is in our language also. It is time to study, you can enjoy later; it is your early career, you can enjoy later; you have just started an entrepreneurial project, you can enjoy later. So somewhere the balance of our life is completely out and we know from our own individual experiences how much anxiety, how much stress, how much psychosomatic symptoms that leads to.
I often wonder what kind of decisions my husband and I would have been taking if we did not have children, because in a sense, our decisions are being led by the children’s needs. When you are parents, you find that when you work hard to attune yourself to what they need, you really have to learn to look in a very fresh and original way at the world around you. You are being told by schools that this is okay, this is not okay, but your heart tells you as a parent, your intuition tells you, your experience tells you that this is actually fine that if she does not want to do this right now, but actually wants to spend many hours doing something else at this age, isn’t that what following your passion is. So all the life advice, life skills that will come later in our self-help books, why not allow ourselves to practice them from early childhood?
Explain to me, your elder daughters did go to school for a while and then they decided and opted out. Does it mean more involvement of the parents? How do you allow them to find their passion? Maybe the word ‘allow’ is wrong. I am getting so careful about the terminology I am using, but how do you ensure that they find their passion because sometimes you feel that children are so young, whether they will be able to discover it, is there a worry and are you have to be more involved? Run us through that.
I would say that in a way parental involvement is the same. I think what is also important to say is that we did choose mainstream schooling for our children. We made small tweaks when we moved out of South Delhi to the suburb of Greater Noida, which is quieter and slower. We chose a very local school, we chose a very new school for a while. It worked for them for many years and then we felt that they had outgrown their school so we chose the finest mainstream school that we found within 20 km radius of our home and they went to that school for two years as well.
It is when the older girls became 13 and 15, we felt that we were in a sense always firefighting that we were constantly trying to solve problems that were being created by a structure that we had accepted and when you are very young parents you expect that because you think you lack the skills, you think you have to learn how to make sure that they reach in time or finish their homework.
And you are very hard on yourself if you are unable to do it well and your child is not performing well.
Yes, and so as a young parent you are kind of thinking it is because I do not have enough skills and then somewhere in the middle years you find that I have done everything; I have learned to be brave, I have learned to speak to the principal, I have negotiated with the teachers constantly, I am actively participating in every community that we belong to whether it’s their sports, their music, their literary interest or their school and yet something about it is not fitting the needs of the children.
You are trying to adapt, you are teaching your children to be realistic, to have practical expectations. You are negotiating with the institutions you have chosen because we did start with the confidence that the schools we choose, the communities we choose would have become far more progressive than they were when we were children. But a lot of parents today are facing up to the reality that many things have not progressed in the way that we expected them to. They have in many ways regressed or been very static; for example, the understanding of schooling systems of multiple talents, their understandings of special needs, the different ways in which children learn, not only the children we label as special-needs children but every single child; you have a different voice, you have different coloured eyes, you have a different way of walking, you have a different way of learning and we really are somehow putting far more pressure on children as well as on ourselves to be a much more homogenised society and even culturally while we have a lot more choices. Everybody is supposed to choose the same, everybody is supposed to be watching the same show, wearing the same clothes, talking the same way and that felt like a raw deal for children who are growing up.
You as a parent, an idealistic parent and a loving parent, want to give them a space in which they can enjoy their creativity. How much we are discovering in our middle years that there are so many talents we have that we never knew of or we were sometimes ashamed for and there is no list of good abilities to have. There are so many things that we have --- as the world has discovered again and again that it is good for you. We know that doing things with our hands is good for us and yet schools make very little time. It becomes like some unique selling point that you do it for 2 hours a week.
Run us through a day. Now both the girls who are unschooled, what is their day like? I am not asking because I feel that there should be a structure, but you said there is a natural structure that you will find and I am sure they would have found their rhythms as well. So it will be interesting for parents to figure out how that has worked.
It is fairly new for us. We took the plunge after we met a community of unschooling parents in the Learning Societies UnConference in Bangalore. Once we met people who seemed to be doing really well, who seemed to have chosen a different way of being and were thriving in it, we knew that we were not the only ones and that we were not going to be isolated in our search.
It has been about a year and a half since Sahar and Aliza, who are our older daughters, have stopped going to school. The first thing I did and that is how I learn is that I will just go and read. I will research, I will read first person accounts, I will read experts, I read a lot of blogs, I read a lot of parents, I saw a lot of videos of unschooling children and I figured that the number one thing I have to do is literally do nothing. I have to learn to not do the things that I have learnt are the ways of being a good parent. So I have to stop intervening, I have to stop hinting, I have to stop judging, suggesting. All of that has to go out of our body language. So in a sense, we are learning as much as they are, both their father and I.
I wrote about this also, the first couple of months they just slept. We were like it has been one month, two months, three months, how much are they going to sleep and then you realise that if this is what their body needed, if this is what their soul needs and that structure that they are having to function in, which is stressing them out, which is making them anxious, which is making them crabby and angry and lash out at their own parents and at each other and making them so discontent with where they are, even though all the privileges of the world are with them. So they really slept it out for a long time and now I look back a year and a half later and Sahar has certainly found her own rhythm.
Now, I just have to ask her what she is doing every few days. She creates her own projects, she started making pins. It seems like such a useless thing to do – what are you doing? I am making pins that you can wear on your jackets or put on your bags, but it is a meticulous process where she learns first to draw, then she cuts it out, then she makes it robust. So, there is a lot of handwork involved, there is art involved, there is physics and chemistry and how much glue and what is the product I need, how much do I need to melt this, fix this, how to make it something that does not break immediately. So because she had the time and the permission to do it, she was doing it and through that she is learning to discipline herself. She is waking up in time, she will come down at 7 o’ clock and she will say I am going to bake now. Then at 9, she will be sitting with brownies and each one of us can have one.
So, to simply be able to breakout of that very boxed notion that you must have one or two hobbies and must really concentrate on them -- we have so many interests. We discover that actually knitting calms us down, sometimes solving a Sudoku is what we need. That is our way of engaging with something mathematical. Sometimes you just have to go for a walk or swim or run. So there will be cycling, there will be making things with their hands, they read a lot. So they actually spend more time with books than the school would have prescribed them to do.
In fact reading is becoming a challenge for children who are going to regular schools because the curriculum is so structured, it is killing creativity and it is such an effort to read and most parents say we have to ensure our children read every day and it is becoming a battle. We just don’t give them time.
That is one of the reactions that children have. Every now then we will meet a friend who will say teach my child to read and they will be like - can you just not talk like that. Maybe they don’t want to read, maybe they want to play a game instead because there are so many ways of expressing yourself. To lose the idea that it has to be one thing, the world has moved on so much but our ways of coping have not adapted as much as they should have.
I think we are taking the path of least resistance. We parents, more by fear rather than freedom, isn’t it? We are fearful that the child does not go through a learning process, doesn’t do well in academics, is going to have a very difficult future, so are we parenting with fear?
The question that comes to mind is - are parents parented with fear? My parents did, my parents were first-generation big city folks. Both of them had come either from a village or a small town. They were first generation English speakers, they were first generation graduates. They were so desperate to raise us as people who would adapt in the urban context. So, we had to speak in English. We had to go to public schools they could barely afford. So we have grown up with that. And then we grew up and there were so many new industries that we choose like the media for example, like management, like IT. They didn’t know anything about it. Their peers would advise them and say “this is something good, let her do it”, when we choose a lot of these things.
For the longest time in our generations, parents did not understand what media people did. Similarly, we are the generation who has at least seized the privileges and I wonder where the fear comes from? Because we are already parents who have the power to negotiate with the world who can go and talk to a teacher and a policeman or a doctor and be one-on-one. We also have access to the internet, we have access to so much information, what did our mothers have. So if they had fear in their hearts when they stood in the visa queue, we know that they did not grow up in the world in which this was normal but we did and we still are afraid of being seeing differently, seen as different and I think that we really need to resist that as individuals. Because the children will teach us, they will not buy our fears.
They are revolting, they lash out and you talked about lashing out. Moving the conversation to teen years, you took that decision to unschool them in their teen years, these are also some of the most difficult years and I see children lashing out. Most of the lashing out comes from us and the system forcing them to follow a beaten path.
They know what is right and what is wrong. They have a sense of morality and ethics, they know more than us about climate change, about how our lifestyles, the lifestyles that are acceptable to the corporate from where our incomes come as well as to the schools where they go to learn. So this one week of giving or this one week of collecting trash in your neighbourhood, they are not buying into that. They know that we are teaching them in a hypocritical way to be hypocritical and a lot of children, all most all children, can see through that.
Culture demands that we teach them to dumb down, we teach them to not challenge these ideas. If you look at some of the most inspired leaders in the world today, you have got Greta Thunberg, she is a teenager, or Malala Yousafzai, who was a teenager when she found her voice before she was shot as well as after she was shot. You have school children in the United States who are challenging gun laws because they are in the firing line literally and because of the internet it is a connected world. You don’t have to be isolated in your community. I think that we are not celebrating as much as we should the privileges that technology is bringing to us.
Moving to certain things that teenagers in regular school systems go through. One of them is a lot of mental anguish, mental anxiety – a part of it could be because of the structure, but there is also peer pressure. You have a situation at home where both your daughters are perhaps company to each other and they do not have that peer pressure but not everyone can take that bold decision to unschool their children. How do you deal with that, are there any insights?
They do have peer pressure like everyone does and I realised that every problem I want to solve in their life, I have to solve in my life first. When you begin to wonder why is this child so scared of what the teacher might say, you have to look at yourself and say why am I still so scared of what my boss might say, why have I not found my voice even though I have got a big fat salary. I have come this far in my career. Why am I letting peer pressure box me into and we see that so much, now that we have WhatsApp to create these groups constantly, we see that despite the fact that there are so many media in which you can express your opinion, all of social media, it’s democratic, right.
It pressurises you to conform.
And yet we have allowed all of these new media to become platforms of conformity and if we do not challenge peer pressure and if we do not look at our own fear of being left out, isolated, being wrong, being seen as wrong, there is no way we are going to be able to give that to the children, that confidence to the children. We want them to be brave and we have to learn to be brave.
When we were growing up there was no concept of teen privacy. You grew up in small homes and even if you have large homes they were filled with family members, you were expected to eat with your family, there was never a time when you could just slam the door on your parents and go inside the room. Actually privacy is a privilege. Do we give it to them, do we say all right. How do we draw boundaries around privacy and say, you can get your own time but it is also non-negotiable. Do you think it is non-negotiable for them to come and perhaps have a meal with everybody every day or just let them be and decide I do not want to have a meal with my parent or my family for 2-3 months, is it alright? I am curious to hear your opinion on that.
I have to admit that questions of privacy were one of the most anxiety inducing for me. So while we didn’t have a lot of privacy when we were young, if we had a two-bedroom flat, we also had our grandparents staying with us, a lot of us grew up sleeping in the drawing room or the living room or sharing rooms. So while we didn’t have privacy, we did grow up with a very strong notion that we must have privacy. In fact, even when we were designing this house with double floors and separate rooms for the children, they were very little when this house was being designed and I was already worrying about where they will sit when they want to hide from me. I was already worried about not being able to reach out to them when I want to if they close the door. They won’t be able to hear me. So there was an acquired and inherited anxiety that I already had when they were very little about how we will negotiate this when they are older and are not coming to me anymore to say read me this book or I want to watch this when all those tools are actually going to be theirs. So I did start with anxiety and this is again something that I have taught myself by writing about again and again that trust is something you have to learn and trust is not something our culture has taught us. It does not. To this day our parents, our aunts and our neighbours are allowed to ask us questions even if we might be touching late 40s-50s, to which we feel that we owe them answers.
We owe them an explanation.
Yes, so relatives will get offended and then you have to kind of reveal this and that. So we live in a culture both traditionally as well as modern where trust is not something that we practice enough and I learned that the only way to negotiate this is to keep the conversation open, to talk every day and as parents to learn a new language, to learn a new demeanour.
There are times when I have noticed with my youngest with whom I have been the most casual, calm, mellow mother. I have often said that with her, I am almost her grandmother, all loving and no discipline, and yet there have been times when I have said to her what is the homework for today and seen her stiffened and I think to myself what is it, why do they still have this fear, why is she pushing me back, and it makes me think that perhaps there is still something in my body language, perhaps there is still something in the way other people ask her questions. That makes her think that she is being pushed to the corner to answer in a certain way, that if she says I have a lot of homework then I am going to say why have you still not done it, and if she says there is no homework, then I am going to say show me.
She is already in a flight mode, her body responses are I am getting attacked and I am now going into my defence mode, right?
Yes. We may think and I have actually thought very much that because I am doing very mindful parenting, because I have taken so many life decisions to be much more present in their lives, that we will not have these issues and yet we see that they fear, the knot in their stomach is pretty much the same. So clearly we need to do a lot more, that communication has to change from the parent.
Just to touch upon that thing about eating a meal together, nobody minds eating a meal with the family if it is a happy time, if it is a relax time, if that is not the time when you start asking all the questions or start making all the judgments on each other. If that is the time your husband and you are deciding that you must talk politics, war, finances or demonetisation, they are done with it. Also, we are having repetitive conversations as adults and there is so much in their lives, there are so many things that they are distracted by and interested in.
Teens do not share or you are saying they will share if you unlearn and learn to trust them.
Absolutely. So what unschooling has brought into our family – and it will take many years for us to really get there, is remove this hierarchy between the adult and the child that we accept as natural. If we want that we should be and they should live these very mindful lives where the hierarchy between classes, between genders, between races are being questioned and are being rearranged to create a more equal world, then the same thing needs to happen between the grandparents and the parents, between the parents and the children. So, it really becomes a new way of looking at things every day.