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Building Happiness

Updated: May 16, 2019

I have the privilege of spending 75 minutes a week hanging out with a 12 year old who has recently stepped aside from the world of school. The specific goals and content of our sessions together are not defined. The reason for our time together is that the 12 year old, Oscar, is happier for it. It’s that simple.

But simple isn’t always easy. It takes a huge leap of faith on the part of Oscar’s parents (who are footing the bill!) for Oscar and me to have the freedom to just see what evolves from our conversations. And what has evolved so far is both varied and exciting: collaboration, weekly schedules that are feeling better, confidence, engagement, willingness to address challenges head-on, and, even school-like learning.

From Deep Anxiety to Deschooling

Oscar and his family have had a rough time over the last few years. For a multitude of reasons, school had become synonymous with a deep anxiety for Oscar and life was very challenging. When I met them, Oscar had stopped going to his local school. And, he had just been refused entry to one of the few school programs in the city designed to serve kids “like” him. The staff felt that his situation was too severe for the program’s mandate and a new application was being filed for a therapeutic school program.

From my initial conversations with Oscar’s mum and dad, I had the sense that Oscar really didn’t feel much ownership over the student life that he was supposed to be living and that, this was likely a huge factor in what was going on. I could see a way forward for them all and explained what unschooling is - a lifestyle in which a child’s days are not automatically filled with school or other curriculum-driven activities. Unschooling allows the child’s intrinsic motivation to propel their learning, and indeed their life.

Another new term, “deschooling”, describes the period of time that it takes to transition from a life in which others determine what, when and how you learn into a life in which you are the leader. Deschooling can at first look like a lot of nothing - sleeping, reading, playing, hanging out.

“Don’t Should on Me!”

Oscar’s parents are working to shift some of their mindsets around childhood, learning, and school. They understand the notion of deschooling and are consciously letting go of the voice in their heads that says, “but SHOULDN’T he…?” This, is an incredibly difficult mind shift for a parent to undertake: we seem to be hardwired to try to make sure that our kids are doing what we think they should be doing. And, for most of us, what we think they should be doing is going to school like all the other kids!

But when many of these “shoulds” are set aside, space is cleared for great richness.

From Connection Comes Growth

Oscar and I got along well together from the first time we met, and our conversation about how he saw his life looking when he was grownup moved easily into an exploration of how his weeks might look for the next little while as he deschooled. He was clear that anything that resembled school work - especially worksheets! - was not of interest to him at this time. He was interested in some regular friend time, a few online classes geared to coding, Minecraft, etc., some grandparent time and a drama class that he was already doing and loved.

And after his parents remarked upon how he had engaged with me, and seemed happier after our time together, we agreed that he and I would meet every week.

So what do we do in our ‘non-defined’ time together?!

A lot of talking! Talking because it brings connection and from connection comes movement and growth. There is the connection between me and Oscar which is a mash-up of mentoring, and collaborating, and exploring ideas. But, as - or more - importantly, is the connection that Oscar is strengthening with himself.

Over the last 6 weeks, our conversations have included practical topics like which online classes he might like to take, to what kind of shower schedule would work for both him and his family, to how to find a rhythm in his weeks that supports his health and happiness. We have talked about the video games he loves - the worlds that he creates and is a part of through them. Two sessions ago I told him about an idea for a professional project that I have and we spent some time discussing aspects of it while Oscar sketched a wonderfully perceptive draft logo for the project. Amazing to see both the collaboration and illustration that he sees for his adult self jumping out already. This is what can emerge from a young person when they are choosing to engage.

Intrinsically-motivated Learning

And then there are the conversations that take on a life of their own. In fact, in one perhaps 20-minute period that I’m thinking of, we began with Oscar mentioning the bunkhouse at his family cottage. Here’s what happened next:

bunkhouse ⟹ sheds ⟹ tiny houses ⟹ composting toilets ⟹ outhouses ⟹ my father-in-law’s story about losing treasured pencil crayons down an outhouse during his WW2-time as a Polish refugee in Africa ⟹ how a childhood lived in terrible times can in fact be a happy one ⟹ Poland during WW2, including deportations of the intelligentsia and their families ⟹ stories of resilience and survival ⟹ where is Kazahkstan ⟹ locating Kazahkstan, Italy, Tehran, Africa, England and Poland on the globe ⟹ that part of Poland is now Ukraine ⟹ understanding lines of latitude and longitude

What a beautiful illustration of intrinsically-motivated learning! It is interesting to take this kind of natural, real-life experience that resulted in a lot of learning and map it onto a school-like, curriculum-driven learning situation.

Consider this. In that block of time, Oscar discussed (and learned about):

Science: environmentally-friendly technologies for human waste; living with a smaller footprint

Geography: globe literacy; location of countries; changing boundaries

History: Poland in WW2; refugee stories of Polish deportees

Ethics: the value of ‘things’ when things are few; lived experiences can vary based on perspective - children’s vs parents’ experience of refugee camps

...all while he continued to sketch the logo for our now-shared community connections project.

And this is the kid who, “had stopped going to his local school. And, he had just been refused entry to one of the few school programs in the city designed to serve kids “like” him. The staff felt that his situation was too severe for the program’s mandate and a new application was being filed for a therapeutic school program."

Cultivating Happiness

This text began with a wish to share evidence that ‘real academic learning’ can happen outside of curriculum-driven situations. But it seems to need to end with the statement that cultivating happiness is a simple (but not necessarily easy) and practical first step out of the depths in which we can find ourselves or our children.


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