Since my 5000 km move across the country from Ontario to British Columbia, I have experienced a significant amount of turbulence as we attempt to lay down fresh roots so far away from all that we know and love. There have been times where I have literally cried out as I questioned what my husband and I have done, as the immense fear of “messing up our kids” overcame me. How could we believe that uprooting all of the loving and secure connections we have made back home to make this great quest to the West was actually the right thing to do? Thankfully, I have been here before and was able to tenderly remind myself of exactly why we did this. I walked right into these challenges wholeheartedly. A clearer minded me, embraces the challenges that arise from different, unknown and difficult. Because something I believe to be true with all of my heart is that, compassion, acceptance and love for all people is fostered out of diverse interactions and tough situations.
You see, one of the primary struggles I have with our family being alternatively educated is the potential risk it has for lacking diversity in the experiences we encounter with other people in the community. Now, hold on. I know some of you will instantly think “Here we go again. Don’t you bother starting with the socialization debate!” However, I have to stop you mid thought because I am not talking about socialization at all. In fact, I am very well aware of the ample opportunities available for socialization for home learners/alternative students through independent schools, co-ops, extracurricular activities and more.

No, I am not talking about that at all. I am speaking more specifically about the diversity within these activities instead. When I made the decision for our family to become unschoolers, I went through so many layers of consideration on the matter. As we begin our sixth year with the decision, I am quite aware of the factors that have given me comfort and those I have struggled with. One really big struggle I have had often is with regards to diversity and I’ll tell you why. When I first began to consider home learning I think I was mostly operating from a place a fear, which I am certain others can relate to. Fear that my children would encounter any of the experiences that caused me pain or discomfort during my childhood and like most people, many of those took place at school.
But as I settled in to our decision, the fears I carried took a shift. As I began relationships with other home learning families, and visited the alternative education options in my community I noticed some things to be true. What I noticed is that the broad scope of the alternative education community appeared to be predominantly made up of families with high socioeconomic status (SES). So, while back when I was a new momma this was precisely what I was seeking, it is an area of discomfort for me now and I’ll tell you why.

As I have grown as a parent and began to heal parts of myself that were wounded from my childhood, I have developed a great deal of tenderness and self-love for not only myself but my mom as well. Even as I began my journey as a mother I was more certain than ever that my duty was to give my children everything I never had. They wouldn’t be poor, they wouldn’t go to school and if they did it had to be private, and they must never struggle. However, through the healing I’ve received from watching my children grow and being a part of their experiences of life, I have come to realize how much I actually like myself and who I’ve become. So as this became increasingly apparent to me, I started to question what things I might duplicate from my childhood rather than avoid.

The thing that stands out the most to me is the richness of diversity in my life, most of which came from the decisions and risks that my own mother made as she parented myself and my three sisters. We were poor, my sisters and I were mixed race, my mom was a single parent and we were a household of five women. We certainly did not fit the mould of a traditional family by any means.  Perhaps this was because mom has always been the kind of person who rooted for the underdog and taught us to do the same. Even when it was to her own demise at times, she gave everything she had to anyone who needed it. My mother modelled empathy and compassion in everything that she did and even though at times I didn’t understand it in my youth, I am so grateful that she was my teacher.
When I consider the reasons that my mom is the way that she is, as with myself I do not believe it is because of the lack of struggle and diverse experiences in her life. No, in fact, it is very much the opposite. Raised in an upper middle-class family in Ancaster ON, probably not one of the most SES diverse places in the world, my mom was also adopted. Being adopted has caused her a great deal of pain and discomfort however it is probably one of the single and most important pieces to consider in how my mother was gifted with the incredible ability to empathize and have compassion the way she does. The unique experience of adoption and feeling different opened her empathic ability to a much larger group outside of her tribe of origin.

I want to clarify that I am in no way suggesting that anyone who does not experience great hardship or pain will be lacking in empathy, but I think I am making some valuable connections here. I recently enjoyed an article titled “The Limits of Empathy” published by Uplift Connect on Facebook, that really hammered home some solid findings on empathy and the biological science behind it. Without getting too technical, and I do highly recommend reading it yourself, the author basically explains that ancestrally, we as a species are more capable of providing empathy to people who are similar to ourselves. You can probably relate this to your own experiences and feelings on any of the leading issues of controversy in the world today. It has been discovered that oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone” also acts as a driving force behind empathic ability. While it strengthens feelings of love amongst people within your circle, it can reinforce a tribal mentality and evoke fear and mistrust towards those who come from outside of our social circles.

It is for these reasons that I am contending for diversity as a catalyst for empathy in our lives. If we actually have a biological predisposition to dislike, avoid and disagree with those who are different from ourselves yet empathy and compassion are essential to the vitality of our society, the only apparent solution is to encounter as many diverse experiences with as many different types of people, as often as we can. This way, we will have more similarities woven into our connections and our tribal instincts will adapt to them instead. Mix things up. Befriend opposites and work through the challenges that arise from it. Talk to your kids about how different can be uncomfortable and why it is important to embrace differences anyways. Model this in every way that you can.  Fear is what prevents people from connection but if we can consciously walk through the unknown in order to reap the reward of acceptance and love on the other side, the risk is SO worth it.

In the traditional school system children from all walks of life are grouped together in classrooms upwards of 30 or more children. And while at times, the differences may lead to bullying, exclusion and intolerance, diversities in class, race, gender, learning abilities, sexuality and religious beliefs are certainly encountered daily by children attending school, which does offer increased opportunities for learning empathy. As alternative families on the other hand, the goal of diversity as a bridge to empathy is one that needs to be much more intentional. What we do have working to our advantage though, is that choosing the path less travelled with alternative educations means that we are already intentional by nature. So it’s simple. All we need to do is add diversity to the top of our priority lists, and the rest will fall into place on its own. Goodbye fear, exclusion, and intolerance. Hello empathy, compassion and love!

Smiles and Love.
 Here is the link to the article on empathy I mentioned:

Chelsea Bohnert is a We Learn Naturally Blog contributor and advisor for We Learn Naturally.  She unschools her children, thinks critically, learns constantly, and creates strong communities everywhere she goes (including coastal B.C. where she currently resides.)  Thanks for the blog Chelsea!

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