Breaking the Cycle – The American Dream, Unschooling and Other Choices
Miro and I receive personal emails from our readers weekly, many with questions about our lives, sometimes with questions that I am not qualified to answer. Some seek advice, others just want to connect and many want to share how we’ve touched their lives. For us, this is the greatest honor and we are so moved by the incredible honesty people share with us. It’s about community, something I’ve started to experience on a much deeper level in our lives since we’ve decided to embark on this journey.
I always answer the letters we receive (but sometimes it takes me a while) as best I can, and always urge people to find what resonates with best them. I am the first to say, I am not an expert on anything other than my own life path, and even then, I’m still learning, learning, learning. But what I do have to share are our successes and failures, inspirations and ideas.
When I received an email from the Omran family who had a few questions about living in Peru, an idea they were exploring, I suggested we chat via skype so I could answer their questions. We had a lovely conversation, and I felt blessed to connect with this family. A few weeks later, Dartiniano asked if he could share his story with us and our audience. I am honored.
As my readers know, I come from the world of materialism and consumerism, meaning I worked in advertising, branding and marketing for most of my adult life. I have thought long and hard about what the American Dream means to us, and even wrote an article called The Erosion of the American Dream. I’ve explored ideas surrounding how we define success and how it’s shaped our outlook on life. The base-line beliefs for us have changed and the way we live our lives now is quite different than the years before our adventure started. Miro and I have made a conscious choice to step out of the deep cycle of consumerism, although we contribute still through work/ pay, buy/consume models, but now we more conscious of our choices in terms of time, energy and consumption. But this transition for us didn’t happen overnight. The interesting thing for me, was I have never considered how closely tied the American Dream is to the model of “educating our children” in the United States.
When I read Dartiniano’s story below, for the first time, I started to see the connection between the two. I’m honored he submitted his story to share with us. Like the Omran family, Miro and I too, are just normal people who had the courage to challenge the cultural beliefs we’ve all been spoon fed since birth and define our own paths. It’s an honor to read the thought process of another family who is finding their own courage to challenge the American Dream and redefining what success means to them.
Thank you Dartiniano for sharing your story with us.
~Lainie + Miro
What Does Success Mean to Me?
written by Dartiniano Omran
I Recently discovered Lainie Liberti’s blog about raising and educating her son Miro while traveling. Lainie provides a wealth of information about unschooling, a term I had not previously heard. The more I read, the more fascinated I grew. I read nearly all the articles in the blog, which prompted more research outside of it until I inevitably wondered where I’d be in life had I the good fortune to be unschooled. That led to a lot of reflection on my current life and others like me who live a typical life in America, and asking questions that led up to ‘what does success really mean?’
For some, it’s an easy question to answer, especially if you were raised in America. For citizens of the United States, success is most often defined in terms of wealth, materials and goods, and to some degree fame. If you’ve obtained even one of those things, you could be regarded as successful in most American circles. Possess two or more, and your success is assured.
But is it really that simple? Should it be? Those answers are certainly left to us as individuals however, as one who was born and raised in America, and is considered successful by American standards I do have an opinion I think is worth voicing.
First, let me clarify and define what I’ve found to be the scope of success in America. I’m not rich by any means, but that’s not a requirement. Wealth is subjective, and doesn’t necessarily equate to vast riches, and it often goes hand in hand with materials and goods; Americans love things. If you have things you are successful. A nice car (or two or three for a family), fine home in a good neighborhood, and toys — motorcycles, RVs, all the latest electronics, name brand clothes…you get the idea; things. Materials and goods are just as subjective as wealth, and you don’t have to own a yacht or an airplane to be considered successful. As for fame, you don’t have to be a Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Simply being popular among friends, family, and peers can qualify as famous.
“Like the majority of people in the United States, I had a path laid out for me. Most citizens don’t think about it, because to be quite frank it just is. It’s part of our culture. “
Why do I think I’m considered a success? I won’t bore you with the details so I’ll just say I probably qualify for the first two of the above (I would vehemently argue against my being popular on any level). But that’s not what’s important. What’s significant is how I got where I am, and how I now feel about it.
Like the majority of people in the United States, I had a path laid out for me. Most citizens don’t think about it, because to be quite frank it just is. It’s part of our culture. It’s what we’ve come to believe is a prerequisite to being a productive and respected member of society.
This passage of ours isn’t completely structured, but it doesn’t need to be because it’s imbedded as a part of life at a very early age. In its most basic form it entails some, but often all of the following:
• A small amount of full-time care with parents
• Some form of daycare before formal education
• Transition to adulthood through:
• Trade School
• Full time 9 – 5 with regular promotions or some sort of opportunity for advancement
• Retirement plan
• Success! (in theory)
Doesn’t sound so bad does it? Actually it isn’t if the individual’s interests are considered from the very start, but that’s not the standard in our society. I believe, through years of observation and my own experiences, that there is a vital piece missing in the above path.
To start off with, there are inherent problems with this outline, and it begins right with bullet number one. Gone are the days where at least one parent stayed home with their children long enough to really get to know them. It is far more typical now for both parents to work while their children go to some form of daycare. It’s sad, but the fact is the majority of children are left to daycare by six months of age, and at that point they’re spending more time with a provider then their own loved ones. I’m not criticizing parents either; it’s practically customary these days.
But this situation creates an environment where the child’s interests are less likely to be nurtured as well they could. Why? In the fast paced life of most Americans, there just isn’t time for it. As soon as the alarm clock goes off on a typical work day, the race begins. The priority in the morning is getting cleaned up, eating breakfast, and getting out the door on time to get the child to daycare and then to work. After work, a different sort of chaos ensues, but the gist is nearly the same; a little time to chat, prepare and eat dinner, maybe an hour or two of family time, get cleaned up, and off to bed. There is usually very little time during the workweek to care about anything but maintaining the
The weekends are a time to decompress. There is certainly more interaction between parents and children, and often it’s during this time children have the opportunity to express themselves more fully. But similar to the weekdays, a certain agenda is expected. It’s not nearly as structured, but it’s there nonetheless. The weekends can span from lazy days at home to a mini-vacation trip overnight somewhere. Maybe a barbecue with friends or family, or simply movie night. Either way, while the child has more freedom to display their individuality, and the parents are of course receptive to them, the normal routine simply doesn’t always allow for maximum support of interests outside of that routine.
As for daycare, remember, the child has attended everyday for the better part of their parent’s workday. While there, they’ll pick up some common things along with their peers — social and interaction skills, classroom etiquette, and of course a little education; colors, numbers, and the alphabet. This is obviously a grossly abbreviated description, and I’m not belittling daycare facilities any more than parents however, I want to emphasize that daycares have their routines and rituals just like the aforementioned parents, and it is not to hone in on a child’s specific talent or interest and foster it. It’s just as the name implies; care for your child during the day. During this period, most parent’s focus when it comes to their child is mostly on normal observable progress — babbling, crawling, walking, etc. One might ask, ‘what else is there at that age?’ For some, not much, for others it could be a lot. But the issue here is that it sets a precedent for the coming years of the child’s life.
Over time, children obviously grow in intelligence and individuality however, the fast pace of life never changes, and neither does the routine or available time. Parents want to be attentive to their child’s needs and wants as they grow, but that’s difficult to do while driving in the fast lane at the same time. What does that mean for the child? In addition to meeting basic needs, it often means a mediocre attempt to keep the child’s curiosity satisfied so life proceeds right on schedule. Again, I’m not knocking parents, it’s life in America.
Once the child has reached Pre-Kindergarten, they’re already accustomed to a certain set of common stimulants that they’ve grown used to — a set of blocks, dolls, and other toys they’ve accumulated over time. Their parents have probably done a good job of building upon what they’ve learned concurrently in daycare such as basic educational criteria their children will experience in school — flash cards with colors, numbers, the alphabet, and other basic learning tools. But ultimately, Pre-K is hardly any different then daycare with the following exceptions: more basic education, arts and crafts, and overall structure i.e. rules and scheduled activities. Are the student’s talents and particular interests cultivated here?
“By the time a child has entered the world of formal education, they are well conditioned to the fast pace of life their parents and the rest of most America leads.”
Unfortunately not. Why? For the same reason mentioned above; routine. Pre-K has theirs too, and like daycare it doesn’t include recognizing children as individuals when it comes to their talents. Don’t get me wrong they do care and treat children with respect as human beings, but I’m focusing more on their interests.
By the time a child has entered the world of formal education, they are well conditioned to the fast pace of life their parents and the rest of most America leads. Sticking to the routine is key. Everything else in life takes a back seat to the all encompassing schedule.
But the worse part I think is the lack of choice for what a child learns. The implication is that the education system determines what students should be concerned about, and there is no place for their own opinions. The curriculum is spelled out quite clearly, and there is very little flexibility except for electives in the later years. This deceptively gives the appearance of freedom. A choice of courses dictated by another without the input of the student is no choice at all.
After K-12 the transition to adulthood begins. As listed above, the individual does have options, but any choice has been shaped by the limited experiences available up to that point. If the child has a latent talent, it could have easily been overlooked.
During these years children are carefree and curious. It is THE best time to let them explore everything that interests them. Living a fast paced life coupled with the strict education system hinders this exploration. Between the lack of special attention at home, and the cookie-cutter style of supervision and education at school, what are the odds of individuality being explored to its fullest?
This is exactly the road I took. Both my parents worked so I went to daycare followed by Pre-K and public K-12. Unlike a lot of people, I was afforded the opportunity to attend a vocational high school. It was still a public school that’s bound to the dictates of American educational guidelines, but for those that can find a passion within the limited options available it does provide a descent kickstart for a teenager. In addition to the required courses, some of the vocations taught there were cosmetology, auto mechanics and body shop, data processing, and electronics. I took electronics for my last two years of high school, not because I enjoyed it or even had an interest in it, but because attending a trade school was better than a traditional high school, and by the process of elimination it was the only area left I’d even consider. While all this seemed like a benefit at the time, in reality it was just an avenue towards a path I never really wanted to take.
I did very well in school, but wanted a break and decided not to go to college right away. Like many lost teens there never really came a time when college was a priority or a desire. Instead, I worked various odd jobs wondering what on earth I wanted to do with my life. Not ever having truly explored anything inspiring, I really had no direction whatsoever. The only thing I did know was that not having a career (as defined by American standards mind you) meant I wasn’t successful; period.
After a few years of wandering, I found I was still not motivated to go to college. Finally, I decided on the military, specifically the Air Force. There’s an impressive amount of career fields in the Air Force, but unfortunately not all of them may be available when a recruit signs up. I did have an edge however; the knowledge in electronics I gained from the vocational school enabled me to easily land a career in that field. But it’s important to note, I landed that job because I was good at electronics not because I was driven to do it.
I worked that job for thirteen years. I wasn’t miserable, but it was just something I did for eight to ten hours a day to earn a paycheck. After that job I was thrust into yet another undesirable one. This one a desk job that basically amounted to a form of resource management. I held that job for another nine years and finally retired from the Air Force.
Initially, I viewed my retirement as a chance to start over. After so many years of doing what was expected, I could finally do something to earn a living and be happy at the same time. There were two problems however; I was still caught up in that societal trap that worshipped a good income so I could have things, and I still didn’t truly know what I wanted to do. I was interested in computers, but I had no idea whether this was a passing fancy or a true passion.
I had two viable options at the time: live off my retirement and benefits to pursue happiness, or take a job offer doing the exact same thing I did for the last nine years in the Air Force only as a civilian employee. The former option meant less income (quite a bit less income in fact), and a lot of fear; fear that my new career choice wasn’t really what I wanted, and fear of living with less. The latter option came with a substantially bigger salary and a new location which my family desired greatly. I won’t get into my decision making process, or all the details of my situation at the time, but there are some facts worth mentioning because they definitely contributed to the choice I made.
At the time of my retirement I’d been married less than three years, and had a daughter not even one year old yet. Retirement and a brand new family meant a true life changing event, and this fact was ever present throughout my dilemma. Perhaps I used these circumstances as an excuse, or maybe I let the fear get the best of me, but it didn’t take long for the idea of living off my retirement and starting a brand new career to turn into nothing more than a fanciful thought reserved for the idealist. My perspective for the job offer leaned towards my being ungrateful for the opportunity to obtain “The American Dream”. After all, who was I to turn down such a generous offer over a little thing like lack of job satisfaction? Upon reflection, I realized nearly everyone I knew worked jobs they didn’t care for because what was really important was income and the standard of living it afforded.
So I scrapped the idea of a new career and took the offer to be monetarily well off but not exactly a happy camper forty hours a week. I’m currently still employed there, but around two years ago I discovered what I really wished I had been doing all these years; writing. To date, I’ve begun a freelance writing career, written short stories, and have two full novels in progress. What does any of this have to do with success and unschooling?
I previously mentioned that according to standards of most U.S. citizens I would be considered successful or close to it; I disagree. With travel time, I spend forty-five hours a week NOT writing. Does my income and standard of living make up for that?
Absolutely not. Right now, I live the same fast paced life as my friends, associates, and family. I adhere to a strict schedule and relish what little free time my career doesn’t consume. My parents also worked unsatisfying jobs as well. Neither of their careers is what they envisioned spending thirty plus years doing. They retired with the same wish I now have; living to work rather than working to live.
As far as unschooling goes, to put it plainly, I would be much better off had I discovered my inclination for writing from the moment I knew how rather than this late in life. After studying the approach of unschooling I have no doubt that would’ve been the case for me had I been given the opportunity. I grew up as an avid reader. I have many memories of turning down invitations to play or hang out with friends because I just wanted to sit in my room and read. A very active imagination accompanied my reading as well. I had toys like other kids but I hardly needed them. This was a crucial point in my life and I believe unschooling would’ve nurtured me into a writer. Instead, I attended formal education and learned exactly what every other student learned with the same lack of interest as most of my classmates.
“I’m now in a position to truly see the limitations of the strict and overly structured education system.”
I’m now in a position to truly see the limitations of the strict and overly structured education system. There is a lot more to life than what is taught in the average school,and scores of missing opportunities to truly learn, which can enhance our lives on many levels. It’s unfortunate that some of these opportunities don’t seem to be taken seriously in mainstream schools.
Take playing for example. In school, playing is reserved for recess, and regarded as a respite from learning rather than included as part of the curriculum. Would you be more receptive to learning while actively having fun or idly sitting at a desk while seemingly useless information is fed to you without interaction? Ever notice how much of a struggle it is for children to simply sit still?
Conversely, it’s an even bigger struggle to get them to stop playing! Can there be a better forum for learning then at play?
Another largely ignored opportunity is proven though Lainie’s blog; travel. Touring is probably the ultimate interaction tool when it comes to education.
Even if the topic isn’t something a person is normally interested in, actually being somewhere can make all the difference. A person who could care less about marine life would find it difficult to be uninterested at a large aquarium facility containing live sharks, octopus, and many other unique animals. I am by far the most apathetic person
I know of when it comes to sports of any kind, but I’ll be the first to admit that attending a live sporting event is very captivating. Now think of a child visiting someplace with no preconceived notions at all. Think of the curiosity and wonderment they’d feel, the desire to explore, the endless questions, and sheer drive to just know more; that’s learning.
And of course there’s no avenue for the child to express their own desires about what they want to learn, which is a tremendous disservice since those desires could very well lead to a lifelong passion that benefits the individual and society as a whole. Of all the disadvantages to the standard education system, this lack of attention to a child’s most basic need to express their particular interests is by far the most detrimental. As a result, there are many people making their way through life knowing something is missing.
This key point is what unschooling is all about, and what makes all the difference in the world. The best way to ensure an individual would be most receptive to a topic is to let them choose it. With formal education you have students making grades from “A – F”, but children guiding their own learning are all likely to be “A” students.
What does success mean to me? In a word, happiness. Happiness achieved through personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Happiness regardless of fame, wealth and possession of things, but instead because every day is lived attaining or working towards self-proclaimed goals. And while it’s true we all have to make sacrifices in life sometimes, I firmly believe following your own path shouldn’t be one of them. Success also means surrounding yourself by loved ones who support you and your ideas. If I’m successful on any level at all, it would be here. My family has expressed many times what is important to them, and wealth, things, and fame are not it. We’ve learned the value of happiness, and its enabled us to chase after it with vigor.
While it’s still disheartening to know my life could’ve turned out far different had I been unschooled as a child, I’m not one to dwell on things I can’t change. Besides, there are a couple of other factors that are exciting to me right now. One, I do believe that all things happen for a reason, and the path I followed in the past led me to the family I have now. Two, I have two little girls that aren’t school age yet, and that means they will reap the benefits of my discovery of unschooling.