Saturday, November 28, 2009

Unschooling: a "hands off" approach?

I've seen, too often for my tastes, unschooling be described (by non-unschoolers or those very new to unschooling, mostly) as a "wait 'til they ask", or "hands off" approach, and that always makes me sigh.  I wonder if perhaps this arises from the fact that many parents dealings with their children are often confrontational, authoritarian, and generally of a more coercive nature?  Perhaps when they think of "not forcing" kids to do things, they feel they couldn't suggest activities or anything at all, because the way they're used to interatcing with their kids is that of authoritarian Parent and Teacher of child!  Perhaps not.  I'm just throwing that out there, because I'm really not sure *where* that misconception came from!  If you have any ideas on that, I'd quite like to hear them. :-) But moving on.

Wherever the misconception came from, the fact remains that it is quite common.  And it is just so far from the truth!  I think that people get so caught up in the perceived technicalities, the what an unschooler *does* and *doesn't*, *can* and *can't*, do, that the core of the philosophy and lifestyle, that of parents and children living and learning in freedom together, seems to be forgotten. 

Because that is really what unschooling is all about, and what unschooling looks like: a family that actually likes each other exploring the world together.  Emphasis on *together*.  When I think of unschooling in my own family, I think of my mom finding an awesome book at a local used book sale, and saying "Idzie, I saw this book and thought you might be interested.  It looks fascinating!".  I think of an impromptu trip to the library because I asked my mom if we had any books on Medieval weapons, and it turns out (for some reason) that we didn't.  I think of my mom calling me from the other end of the house, voice filled with both fascination and horror, because she wanted to read an article about GMOs to me.  I also think of countless times when I searched her out to tell her about the intriguing characters and plot of whatever novel I was reading, or to bounce an idea off of her for an article I wanted to write, or to share a song I thought she'd like, or to read her an excerpt from a book on green anarchy or unschooling.  Point being, learning in my family is a very involved thing (I used as examples things just between my mother and I, but I enthusiastically tell my dad interesting stuff as well, and my mum, sister, and I have the most fascinating conversations all the time!). 

I'm not saying that *everything* is shared, because it isn't.  For instance, Emi writes a ton of fiction, but she usually only lets her online role playing (not the RPG type role playing, but the writing back and forth, collaborative story writing type role-playing) buddies read it, and both my mom and I respect that as her choice, and don't try to bug her to let us read it.  Even that though, is involved in that my mother cares about her writing, and happily listens to Emi telling her about the finer points of writing, her own writing journey, what she's discovering about English grammar as she learns a second language, etc.  She just doesn't try and push my sister to do something she doesn't want to. 

"Hands off" to me means ignoring kids.  Saying "oh, they'll learn for themselves", then just going about your *adult lives* without making your kids a part of it at all, or very little.  I see true unschooling, on the other hand, as a collaborative living process, where each family member shares interests, suggests activities (which the other family members can choose to participate in or not), shares cool articles and facts and internet links, and lets the appropriate person know when they come across something they might like (my mom has brought Emi home numerous books on Japanese history, language, poetry, etc., for her perusing pleasure). 

Unschooling is nothing more complicated than living, and thus learning, with respect and freedom, together as a family.  And although this often isn't *easy* (I know that my family has more than it's fair share of squabbling and grumpiness), it seems to me to be fairly *simple*!

These are just a few rambling thoughts, so please excuse the general, well, rambly-ness of it all! ;-)



  1. yes yes yes. And it's "simple" but it's not always easy, perhaps because of mindset of duality that is so ingrained in our culture, the one in which parents and kids (teachers/students, adults/children, employer/employee) are assumed to be adversaries, one dominant and one submissive. I love your examples of how it doesn't have to be that way.

  2. that should be "the" mindset of duality...

  3. Haha, this sounds completely and utterly like my family. We didn't have a "boss", we had an adviser -- or as you said, someone to "bounce ideas off of."
    I think something a lot of people may get confused about is "suggestions". Parents are told you are not supposed to force your opinion on, or have an agenda for, your child.

    But do interact and make suggestions.

    I think that's a tricky thing for some people to balance. Really letting go and seeing your child as a separate, unique person is crucial. Honestly though, *everyone* could benefit from seeing other people as completely separate individuals that have their own set of needs.

  4. Some of the confusion might come from when an unschooling parent is asked, "when will s/he learn to read" or, "how will s/he learn 'higher maths'"? The general response is something like, "when s/he is ready/wants to/asks for help" & people misconstrue this as "wait 'til they ask".

    Because, "wait 'til they ask" *is* often accurate, but grossly simplified, because a person rarely walks up to another person & states, "I'm ready to tackle Algebra now". It happens organically out of living a full life & acquiring the skills you need, as the need for them arises: fractions from baking; algebra b/c you're 16 & *you* don't want to take remedial math @ the community college you're interested in; percentages & interest when you open your first savings account after you get your first babysitting...

    People like & search for easy, short by-lines/tag-lines & unfortunately, Unschooling has a few that leave people with the wrong impression.

  5. I've noticed, too, that people tend to interpret noncoercion with nonparticipation. Perhaps because they have experienced mostly unwanted instructions or information, they don't know a child might gratefully receive an offer of help or new info.

  6. Love this post Idzie! I've seen this attitude crop up over and over, and I think it has to do with people just not being able to wrap their heads around the idea of treating kids like you would treat a friend.

    If I see a news article or hear about a movie or game one of my friends might like, I'm not going to think "oh, I'll wait till he asks about it". That's nonsensical and no one would do that to a friend - nor would they say "I am taking you to this movie right now and there's nothing you can do about it" (unless they meant it in a joking, "I'm kidnapping you to go have fun" way!). Instead I'm going to rush up to them excitedly and be like "IDZIE! I just saw this totally awesome thing! Look!" and you'll be like "OMG that rocks!" or whatever.

    Which is all you need to do with kids! But people who still have their heads stuck in conventional parenting are used to the idea that kids won't become interested in things unless they're forced. And, for people who've been dragging their kids through learning against their will for years, at first the kid's reaction is going to be "Oh no, this is going to be boring". But once they start to trust that their parents will show them cool stuff, the whole relationship changes, and Mom saying "Come look at this!" will be a sign that something exciting is going to happen.

  7. @Bonnie
    "And, for people who've been dragging their kids through learning against their will for years, at first the kid's reaction is going to be "Oh no, this is going to be boring"."

    You hit the nail on the head concerning those families transitioning to unschooling from school. Many miss that 'deschooling' period or figure they won't *need* it & don't know what to do when their child(ren) reject all their efforts at strewing, suggesting & sharing.

  8. Cosign Idzie!

    And Bonnie!
    "I think it has to do with people just not being able to wrap their heads around the idea of treating kids like you would treat a friend."

    This is exactly why!

  9. I think some of these parents don't get involved because they are SO afraid of being coercive, that they feel they are going to influence their child's path too much by even suggesting new and interesting things. I find that really sad. Kids need guidance along their path. They don't need for their path to be dictated exactly, and they don't need to feel abandoned along the way. My point is that hand's off parenting is FEAR based and a good learning environment is based in LOVE not fear.

  10. Idzie, this is brilliant! I am SO stumbling this post. It is because of the misconceptions around the word "unschooling" that I usually just tell people we are loosely homeschooling. Somehow the word "homeschooling" implies we do the same things school kids do, but at home... and that makes traditionalists feel better.

    The truth is, we just LIVE. We have adventures, we explore, we enjoy library visits and new experiences. When we are interested in something, we explore it further and, as a family, get very excited about the finer aspects of any random thing... like the Cat Warrior books my son is reading now.

    We are all open to learning from each other all the time, which to me is much simpler than learning a pre-established set of random facts between certain times of the day just because someone else says so. Non traditional learning just feels more... Natural. :)

  11. Your written examples seem so natural. Many people don't realize how easy it is to join learning with life. Even schooled people do it without knowing.

    The mainstream has a name for a "hamds off" approach--"permissive parenting". People confuse radical unschooling with that, because they think it unacceptable to not coerce children. Children are deemed very incompetent and needing constant order and direction. That's why some new unschoolers, being used to that mentality, go too far and let kids do "whatever they want".

  12. I think that it is possible to believe in non-coercion and successfully unschool at the same time, though it might look like permissive parenting, possibly even to other unschoolers.

    For example, just the other day a lady yelled at me in a parking lot because Moira (almost 4) was barefoot and it was "only 40 degrees (F) out." However, the circumstances that led to her being barefoot outside make perfect sense. Her feet got hot in the store and she took her galoshes off. Then the kids were being wild at the checkout so I left abruptly, also leaving her sweater in the store with her dad.

    So this woman said I was ignorant. She probably thought I was a lazy, permissive parent. She said I should make Mo wear her shoes. It doesn't matter that the circumstances were perfectly logical, that I don't "make" my children do much of anything (though I might try hard to convince them!), that her feet were NOT cold, and that it was warmer than 40. No matter that yelling at someone in front of their kids is horribly rude and confusing for them.

    But anyway, this easily could look like permissive parenting, even to fellow unschoolers. To me, a permissive parent wouldn't have cared if the child took off her shoes in the store, wouldn't have cared if the child's feet were hot or cold, wouldn't have cared if the children were being wild at the checkout, etc. To me, permissive really means the parents just don't care - about others or their kids, really. Perhaps permissive means different things to different, but that's another issue entirely!

    I agree that unschooling is not hands-off at all. I think that permissive parenting is, though. And I think that sometimes the two can look the same, but they aren't. The only way to know which it is if you know the parents and the situation and the kids. I can see how people get confused because I think they might look the same, but if you actually talk to the parents, the unschoolers will have reasons and thought behind their actions, whereas a permissive parent will not.

  13. Enlightening post!
    I wish more people understood this part: ""Hands off" to me means ignoring kids. Saying "oh, they'll learn for themselves", then just going about your *adult lives* without making your kids a part of it at all, or very little."
    It actually sounds like some families pursuing "traditional" education and "traditional" homelife: "They'll learn at school, while I go do my adult thing."
    Thanks for posting this.

  14. Really interesting post and comments. I've shared most of these beliefs all my life - non-coercion, sustainability... Well, too many to list really. It always so lovely to find people expressing clearly what I have been thinking muddily.

    But there's a tone to most of this that I don't agree with. I don't think there is one right and one wrong in any situation. That's what informs all my other principles. What is a passionately held truth for one person is not necessarily the next person's truth.

    My opinions on the failings of the school system are very strong. But that doesn't mean that someone who disagrees with me is wrong. It's the freedom to choose that's paramount. Respect for the other side of the argument.

    I'm also uncomfortable with the posture of perfect confidence in what we're doing. Maybe other people here do have perfect confidence in their choices and how they parent. I don't. I believe passionately in unschooling, but I still question whether I'm getting the balance right in so many ways. Unschooling isn't always easy and there's no such thing as a perfect lifestyle. I think enough serious intelligent thought has gone into this approach for us to stand over our choice while still admitting some insecurity!