Thursday, March 27, 2014

When Unschooling Isn't Perfect: a Call for More Compassion and Less Striving for Philosophical Purity

When I was somewhere in my teens, my mother said to me that my father was worried about what I was learning, and she wondered if I'd mind reading a history book to make him feel better. I agreed, and she handed me an overview of Canadian history that she thought I'd find interesting. I did, though I stopped somewhere near the end when it ceased to be as interesting.

This is one of the very few times past early childhood (when we were still closer to the homeschooling end of things) I can remember my parents exerting any type of pressure on me to learn a specific thing. Yet it occurred to me that that history book thing would horrify some. "That isn't unschooling," I can hear people thinking. "Was she even unschooled at all??"

I say this because I've seen this attitude directed at plenty of other people. "You did what?? Your unschooling card should be revoked!" My mother was once even told that, since she used the term child-led learning when my sister and I were young, that we weren't real unschoolers, and furthermore, that since my sister and I were both well into our teens by then, that it was "too late" to start unschooling.

Any worry I had about whether people think I'm a good unschooler or not faded years ago, and beyond that, with the reputation as an unschooling writer I've built, I doubt anyone would level those types of accusations at me now anyway.

But it's troubling to me that those types of attitudes exist, because it seems to be an attitude more concerned with some type of philosophical purity (and the prestige of being able to claim such purity) than with the actual success and happiness of families and children.

It's not that I'm against clarifying what unschooling is, and that it doesn't involve forced curriculum or forced teaching. Just that within the amorphous philosophy that's most frequently called unschooling (but that also goes by life learning, natural learning, autonomous education, and a whole range of other terms), if people are making a continuous effort in their lives to live in a way that allows their children a whole lot more freedom, and doing their best to act as supportive mentors in their children's learning journey, there's no need to pounce on any perceived mistake or "wrong" decision they make and declare them bad unschoolers. People are mostly just trying to cope with the situations they find themselves in, striving to do better each time. And whether a decision was made deliberately that some purists would disapprove of, or someone just reacted badly and decides themselves it was a poor decision after the fact, it's not your life, those aren't your choices, and if you really want to help you'd do it with kindness. If someone seems unhappy with a choice they've made, maybe ask if they'd like to hear some alternative ways of doing things. But if someone is happy with their choices, whether you agree with them or not, telling them they're being bad unschoolers isn't exactly likely to make things better for them or their children. Sometimes, even if a decision doesn't seem in line with the unschooling philosophy to you, for that person, in that family, in that situation, it's the right decision.

Two happy and imperfect grown up unschoolers.

Another important point, to me, is that unschooling just isn't that fragile. An entire lifestyle doesn't collapse because a parent says they'd prefer their children wait until they turn 18 to get any tattoos, or because they get some SAT prep books and say "hey, have you thought about taking the SATs next year?," or enforce a bedtime, or because they ask if you'll read a history book to appease a worried father. If pressure to learn specific things is a regular thing, or there are a whole lot of I-don't-want-you-to-be-doing-that's, then maybe things aren't working out so well. But if it's an occasional thing? Well, people aren't perfect. Unschooling isn't going to be perfect. And striving for perfection is likely to lead to either frustration or, perhaps, a false sense of superiority, when the reality is that no one is going to get it right all the time.

So I guess what I'm hoping for is just a little more understanding and compassion. Talk about your own successes, but also your failures, and when things don't go right. It always helps others to know they're not alone. Write about how unschooling is different than homeschooling, but don't walk up to someone and say "you know what you're doing isn't unschooling." Examine your intentions and make sure they're coming from a good place, a place that's attempting to make things better in a general way, or help someone out, not just make yourself seem more right.

This isn't in any way an attempt to say I'm the one who gets to decide what is and isn't kind, or that I'm always as kind as I could be myself. I've made countless mistakes over the years in my advocating of unschooling, things I've changed my stance on or just wished in retrospect that I'd handled differently, more compassionately. Yet in the years I've been writing, I've noticed a troubling amount of people, who are really trying their best, being made to feel that they're just never going to be good enough. It's one thing to help each other do better and be better, but it's an entirely different thing to hold up an image of unschooling as a pure practice that must be enacted without any mistakes or deviations from the correct philosophical ideals. No one is perfect, and I think it would be really great to remember the importance of empathy and understanding when it comes to our unschooling advocacy!


  1. In our geographical locale we are the only unschoolers I know of; so the pressure we experience is way more of the familiar pro-compulsory schooling pressures many home educators/life learners are familiar with. The "pure-er than thou" attitudes of unschoolers is one thing that has made me gradually less interested in online unschooling communities. I really appreciate your voice as a reminder of sanity where this discussion is concerned. Thank you!

  2. Awesome. Whenever I tell people I was unschooled they usually just keep asking questions until finally they hear something that sounds like my parents imposed guidelines on me and they can say "Ha! So your parents did teach you!". Then I have to patiently explain everything all over again. Unschooling can be applied in so many different ways, and it's important that the focus is simply that the learner is generally in charge of things - because every learner is different, everyone's experience will be different!

  3. Thanks for your energy in articulating all this! It's clear you care deeply about the subject and you've done a superb job making an important point. It's a worthwhile topic. I'm a parent who is no longer able to homeschool at all due to a divorce. I feel regret about it, but also, my young daughter is blossoming, regardless in her scholastic environment. It's not my preference, but it is out of my hands. I instead put my energy into providing her with all the nurturing, presence, and varied perspectives that I can. Regardless of no longer being able to homeschool, I feel our lives are so shaped and made richer by the years of homeschooling that I've done previously. I am so grateful to still have my connections to a homeschool community that saw my son grow up. In fact, I find this community so exceptional, and to have nurtured such treasure in the lives of so many, that I try to share elements of the homeschool world with other wonderful communities because they would lend to the lives of all children and families, whatever their educational path. Park days, for example; unrushed, unstructured time to play, explore, converse, and connect. I'm so grateful for having been shaped by those experiences. It would be sad to miss that magic that is the homeschool community, simply over debate of philosophical purity. I love your point that unschooling just isn't that fragile. It's not. In fact, few things are. We should always breath life, flexibility, and space to be fabulously imperfect into all that we do. A good thing, will remain a good thing, even if imperfect, if the path is taken with kindness and connection.

  4. My friend who unschools her four children sent me a link to your blog. I really relate to this post. I don't unschool or homeschool my daughter but I've run into the same kind of "fundamentalism" with attachment parenting (apparently, I did not do it "right" and although my daughter is now 10 years old and very happy and independent I didn't follow all the hard set rules like I should've - instead I chose to be the parent she as an individual wanted and needed). The older I get the more I'm seeing that any philosophy will have fundamentalists who eschew the true concept of a philosophy and try to do the easy (and far less effective and sometimes even destructive) route of following a set of "rules" to such a degree that they end up going against the philosophical concept. I see it in religious groups, parenting philosophies, animal training, even corporate management. I guess it's just human nature. So your call for understanding and compassion goes far beyond unschooling and into life. Holding onto the benefits of the philosophical concept while understanding that nothing in life has hard fast rules would benefit all of us in all realms of life.

  5. Totally agree. I ran across a few online groups where it seemed to just be a pissing contest over who was the "better" unschooling family. Thankful there's far more support than negativity.