Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A few thoughts about unschooling

I was thinking about how to describe unschooling... Now there are plenty of descriptions you can use, all pretty accurate, but mainly I was thinking about how you differentiate unschooling from, say, eclectic or relaxed homeschooling. Many eclectic homeschoolers call themselves unschoolers, and I was trying to figure out why that bothers me, and why I think a distinction between eclectic homeschooling and unschooling should be made. Basically, it comes down to this: unschooling is letting go of control over your child's education. Eclectic homeschooling, however, is letting go of some control. Certain bits of control. It's saying I trust you to learn R and X subjects, but I DON'T trust you to learn Y and Z subjects. That seems to me to be sending mixed messages. Either you trust your children to know what's best for themselves, or you don't. This in between ground, though certainly better than school-at-home, still seems to me to be lacking that important trust and respect.

Taking it further, radical unschooling is letting go of control over your child's life. I want to make it very clear that when I say "letting go of control", either referring to a child's education or their entire life, I do not mean letting go of your child, in the sense of becoming an absent parent. Unschooling is becoming more involved in your childs life, not less! Many people seem to equate control with love, for some bizarre reason, and then think that if parents are not controling their children, they're just being "lazy" and not showing love for their children. However, without control, you can still help your children. Support them. Love them. Control, in my mind, makes it harder to help, support, and love your children, not easier. In adult romantic relationships, control is not a good sign. Control, of what you eat and wear and do, of who you see, is considered, rightly so, abuse in such situations. So why is it considered acceptable treatment for children?

Some people also think that unschooling can be dangerous. If you're letting your child "do whatever they want", they could cause harm to themselves or those around them. And this brings me to the point that unschooling, and radical unschooling specifically, is treating children with the same respect as you would a person of any other age. If my best friend tried to walk in front of a car, I would physically stop him. The same applies to a child. If a toddler is crawling along on the ground eating cigarette buts, it's not okay to let them! Unschooling means not making arbitrary rules. It doesn't mean letting someone do something that will likely cause harm to themselves or others.

I think some of these thoughts could certainly be worked out more, elaborated on, etc., and I'm certainly not the first to address these issues, but since I've found myself in the place of explaining unschooling to people lately, I've been thinking a lot about how to address various points... How to put things in a convincing way that makes sense to people. So I'm just working things out here... :-)



  1. This make sense. I like the distinction between unschooling and radical unschooling.

  2. @James Thanks! :-) I'm glad it ended up making sense. :-P

  3. What I philosophically find issue with on Relaxed HSing & academic Unschooling is the illusion of Freedom & Trust. While I agree that both are huge steps away from traditional education and school-at-home, they both have an air of confusion/manipulation.

    I retract that...By allowing some freedoms to a child & some limited choices (you *have to* learn math, but you get to choose how), it's almost worse than traditional schooling. With TSing you know there are tons of rules, regulations & policies AND you know you have no choice. With Radical Unschooling you know there are no rules & that everything is your choice (that is very simplistic, but bear with me). With Relaxed HSing/Unschooling you are stuck in the middle and often not sure which way you *can* go vs. which way you can't go. Or as you said, "sending mixed messages". You trust me to learn to read (even if I don't until I'm 14), but you don't trust me to know when I'm hungry or tired, etc....really? What kind of philosophy is that?

    The more I research educational theory, spend each day with my own child & hear countless personal accounts of how great Radical Unschooling is, I can't help but be convinced that it *IS* the best thing and only thing that really makes since. I fully believe that *any* child can grow up Radically Unschooled, but NOT every parent can manage to make it a reality.

  4. @Michele I don't feel it's worse than traditional school-at-home type learning... For a long time we were relaxed homeschoolers (we became complete unschoolers when I was about 11, I think), and I still feel that that was better than the alternative! However, I definitely see your point, and I agree that it doesn't make sense to trust kids with some things, and not others. That sends a very mixed message, and isn't a good thing... With me, too, the more I learn and see of radical unschooling, the more I feel it's the best possible philosophy!

  5. "It doesn't mean letting someone do something that will likely cause harm to themselves or others."

    I know you and I are on the same page here, but maybe for the benefit of people who come along who aren't unschoolers, that should be clarified a little. Some people use that exact reasoning to control their kids, because they're convinced letting a kid drink one soda or eat one french fry will cause them harm. Or they're convinced TV "does harm" and so they ban it. Some people control everything their kids say and do in the name of preventing them from going to Hell or some other vague horrible fate. Maybe for clarity it should be "serious harm" or "immediate harm", or "will definitely cause harm".

    I like your metaphor about romantic relationships. A lot of what people do and say to kids would be grounds for calling the police if someone said or did the same thing to their spouse.

    For me, I think the reason it bothers me for eclectic homeschoolers to call themselves unschoolers is that if their parenting screws their kids up, then those kids can grow up and say unschooling screwed them up, even though it wasn't ever unschooling at all. I don't mind taking the reputation hit in the unlikely event that real unschooling does screw somebody up, but I resent getting bad press because somebody chose to call something by the wrong name.

  6. It is almost impossible for one to be radically unschooled because the parents are apart of a society that just simply instills control into your head. When you grow up that way it is hard to all of a sudden switch to radical unschooling--especially if you are a product of public education. So you end up with a lot of eclectic homeschoolers calling themselves unschoolers. They feel as though they have let go of control, but only because they have come so far from where they have been they can't imagine there is still another level. So if it is hard to be an unschooling parent, it is even harder for a public schooler to try to understand what unschooling it.
    Most of the unschoolers I have met/know have been damaged by the public school system and their families and seem to unschool their kids in some act of rebellion against the system they have learned to detest...they did not do well in it because they did not have parents who controlled them(absent parenting?), and therefore they couldn't deal with the control in schools. So now you have a parent who had no support as a kid trying to support their unschooler using a model that they learned from their parents. So they "let go of control" but let their kids eat the "cigarette butts" in life. Explaining it to other people seems an impossible task, like explaining that you are an alien--it is just so far from most people's realm of possible way to raise a kid...or would that be letting a kid raise themselves. I would suggest keeping it simple. I trust my kid. We let them make mistakes and learn from them. It is more valuable to learn from experiences than being taught something, etc...
    So hard to explain it without making the other person not feel as though you are freaky isn't it!
    Whoops...I just read your bio...I wrote this as if you were a parent...think it still makes sense.

  7. I understand where you are coming from and I am sure that moving from being relaxed to being unschooled felt quite liberating and I don't mean to try and diminish that Joy and those feelings that you had/have. But, for me, it's more of a matter that what you (the parent) don't say & don't do that speak louder than what you do say & do.

    Like, if I say that I trust my son to dress himself, yet I only give him the choice of the red shirt or the blue shirt. I'm giving him these limited choices, because I don't really trust him...after awhile, kids catch on to this and when they do, well, even if they really want to wear the blue shirt, they'll start to insist on the purple one that wasn't an option, because they want their autonomy back.

    This is when older kids start to make "poor decisions" that they wouldn't make in the first place if their parents were open, honest and above all, trusted their children. Teenage rebellion is nothing more than a human trying his damnedest to regain his autonomy -- even at a detriment to his-self. Don't I know the things that I did, which I knew while doing them were terrible ideas, but I felt empowered while doing them.

  8. @Bonnie Hmm, perhaps that would have been a better way to put it... As I said, a lot of the points I made could use more clarification, so thanks for doing so! :-)

    @Paul I agree with your first paragraph, that so many people believe that, simply by letting go of some control, they've come as far as they can go! I realize it's hard for parents to let go of control, which is why I really respect a lot of unschooling parents for doing so.

    However, I agree less with the next bit... I'm not sure what unschoolers you've come into contact with, but the majority that I've come across have most certainly not been as you describe... I wonder what you mean by "eating the cigarette buts in life"? As Bonnie pointed out, I could have elaborated more on just what I meant by that (read her comment above!), but she did a good job on that... Perhaps we've simply come across very different people, but I feel that perhaps you're judging the way some of the families you've met live too harshly...?

    Haha, no matter how I put things to people, they still look at me as if I'm an alien (whether I'm talking about my educational values, political opinions, what have you). ;-) My opinions are pretty far out there, and usually, no matter how well I explain things, I still get a similar reaction! :-P

    Yup, even though I'm not a parent, it certainly still makes sense!

    Anyway, thanks a bunch for the comment! :-)

    @Michele Oh it's okay, you didn't insult me at all. As I said, I do agree that eclectic homeschooling is not a good thing... I just feel that, from the kids I've seen and from my own experiences, it's better, if marginally, than school-at-home. Also a plus, many eclectic homeschoolers, with the right information and good support, often move to the freer life of unschooling. :-)

    I grinned at the clothing example, because it made me think of my own childhood... We always had a lot more freedom than most other kids, even before we were full fledged unschoolers! I used to dress in whatever mismatched, brightly colored clothing I wanted to (and I still do so nowadays, come to think of it ;-)) but moving on, because that was really irrelevant, I do get what you're saying...

    I always shake my head when people talk about teenage rebellion as being unavoidable. Where's the teenage rebellion in my house?? It simply doesn't exist here! And that's what I see in other families as well. The freer and more respectful the family is, the less likely teens are to "rebel"....

    One of the reasons I feel the unschooling group (which is having it's first meeting soon, by the way) is so important is because, as I expected, there are a lot of people interested in the group who are currently very eclectic homeschoolers who really want to become unschoolers, but haven't quite been able to get over their fear of letting go... I'm hoping that this group can be the support people need to do so! :-)

  9. Great post Idzie! I am really looking forward to meeting other unschoolers with the group :)

  10. @Paxye Thanks!! I too, am greatly looking forward to meeting other local unschoolers. :-) I hope to meet you at our first meeting, which I'll be writing about on the Yahoo group (hopefully) tomorrow... :-D

  11. Great post - I'm only recently considering homeschooling, and even more recently came across the concept of unschooling. My LO is 14 mo, so I still have time to make sense of it all ;-) It's great about your personal experience with unschooling.

    @Pittsburg Midwife - agreed with your example of teenage rebellion. I, too, remember the things I did just to "be me own self". Sure, nothing of it was *bad* (I think the worst I did was smoke some pot here and there over a 1-2 months period, never actually owning my own stash), and lots of my friends did such things, but still. I see where you're coming from, and I agree with the prerogative. It's just like the Terrible Twos - when the child is respected, they really aren't as terrible!

  12. Thanks, Idzie. We are pretty radical unschoolers, but I have had a hard time sometimes believing that even maths would be ok if left to my daughter. Sometimes I wonder if we're neglecting her. But my core belief has always been that people's curiosity will educate them, that coercion has no place in education or even in parenting, that the competitive social situations created by schools are something most people would find extremely difficult as adults, let alone as young people still working out their own identity, and that the most important thing I can do for my children in terms of their education is to respect their intelligence.

    So thank you, and your commenters, for pointing out that fundamentally different attitudes being implied by a radical and an eclectic approach. I can feel more relaxed about the maths now!

    Reading the comments above about where to draw the line and how to define 'just enough control to prevent harm' (sorry - my screen is too small to scroll up and see who commented on that!), I think parents will always differ on that. I don't think it is possible to draw an objective line beyond which the risks are unacceptable. We just all do our best to get the balance right between allowing our children to take their own risks, and keeping them safe.

    Thanks so much for your eloquently expressed thoughts!