The Fear of Leaving Curriculum Behind

At its most basic, unschooling is about learning without a curriculum. Moving to unschooling can be scary because there is comfort in curriculum—comfort that soothes our fears. And near the top of that list is a fear that our children may not learn something they need to know.

Even as people learn more about unschooling and begin to see all the learning their children are doing in all sorts of situations, there are sometimes skills that parents think are so important that they are too scared to “leave to unschooling.” Usually they are basic skills, like reading or math, and they may say things like, “we unschool except for math.” Or, “once she can read then we’ll unschool.”

There a few of ways that this mindset can make unschooling more challenging for the family—parents and children. Let’s use math as an example. With this perspective, the parent looks at the topic and says, “I think math is so important that my child needs to learn it formally, with curriculum.”

How can that declaration undermine their unschooling?

First and foremost, it puts math on a pedestal, above everything else. It implies, “You can learn everything else as you encounter it, but math is a special case.” Special cases are intimidating. That’s the path to cultivating math phobia. It puts math out of the realm of the every day, whereas in reality, math is all around us. This “unschool except for math” stance may even be the result of the parents’ math fears: they feel intimidated and as such want to turn the topic over to an “expert” i.e. a curriculum. Yet if we aren’t careful, our fear can breed fear in our children. Pam Sorooshian wrote a great article about getting past your own math anxiety.

Second, it devalues unschooling. The child absorbs the message that, if they really want to learn something, if it’s important to them, they should use a curriculum. That can make unschooling learning a lot harder to recognize and respect. And it can lead children, especially as they get older, to fear that with unschooling they are being lazy, because “important, real learning needs to be done with a curriculum.”

And third, it can make learning math even more challenging for the child. By insisting on a curriculum for math only, the child internalizes the message that they aren’t capable of figuring out math on their own, that their parents don’t trust them. Yet curriculum isn’t often the most helpful way to learn something. They may memorize the symbols and procedures and what to do when they see them, but for solid learning and understanding, seeing it “in the wild,” the way the skills are used in the world, is very helpful. Out in the world, math doesn’t look like worksheets.

Like the opening of the TV show Numb3rs says, “We all use math everyday.” Unschooling will steep your child in the real world scope of math, which is much bigger than an arithmetic-centric curriculum. As unschooling parents, it helps if we can see the big picture of math in the world, not just the small slice in a curriculum. It’s precisely because math (and reading) are basic skills that our children will encounter them all the time. We just need to be able to recognize it when it happens.

So if fears are leading you to “unschool except for X,” it is definitely worth the time to dig into those fears, or else they may undermine your unschooling as a whole.

What other ways can fear of what our children are or are not learning manifest itself?

It’s not unusual to find pockets of fear even after unschooling for years. Maybe in conversation you realize your child isn’t very familiar with the provinces or states of your country, or doesn’t know that matter is made up of atoms, or whatever piece of knowledge you find useful or interesting in your life. All of a sudden you fear your unschooling child is missing chunks of vital information or skills.

How do I work my way through those moments?

By asking myself questions—after the rush of fear and adrenaline have passed. Deep breaths. Maybe it goes something like this:

Huh, they don’t seem to know X. Apparently they haven’t yet encountered X in their lives.

Why does that make me uncomfortable? Well, I had learned it in school by their age.

Was it something I really needed to know by that age? Well, I found it interesting enough to remember, but I guess the age at which they taught it was pretty arbitrary. Apparently not knowing it isn’t doing them any harm because here they stand.

Can I think of a situation they may encounter soon where that knowledge would be useful to them? Well, it came up in passing here, but probably not in conversations they’d have with others.

Would it be okay if they learn it whenever X comes up? Hmm. That seems to be working well so far.

What if X never comes up? Well then, I guess in their life, it wasn’t a useful piece of knowledge. I guess that’s possible.

Do I think they might find it an interesting bit of knowledge about the world? Yes/not right now.

If I think so, I typically watch for moments when I might bring it up in a related conversation. If related conversations don’t happen in the near future, no wonder they haven’t encountered it yet, their mind is busily focused elsewhere!

I could certainly blurt it out at any old time, but then it’s more of a random fact than a connected piece of information, so it’s less likely to spark conversation and understanding i.e. learning. That’s more like teaching to an uninterested audience—it doesn’t do much. And if I do that too often, my child might start tuning me out.

Yes, unschooling learning isn’t predictable. Our children follow their curiosity instead of a curriculum. That means that at any given time they may know lots about one thing and little about another. But that learning is rich and lasting. It’s also one of the reasons why, with unschooling, we look at learning from a lifelong perspective. We aren’t tasked with a finished output, a “graduating student.” We realize the container of all that may be learned is large and ever-changing, and that the order in which we learn things matters little when we look at learning separately, yet is key when we look at the grand scheme of life. Learn what you are engaged and interested in now.

Learning is always happening, throughout our children’s lives. And our own. With unschooling, learning and living are beautifully woven together. Our fears are woven in there as well, and we can choose the threads of response that we want to bring to the tapestry of our lives.


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Ways to Build Trust in Each Other

In my experience, a trusting relationship with my children is the backbone of our unschooling lives. And that trust goes both ways: my trust in them, and their trust in me.

It is so important because with trust, real communication can flow.

Our children can ask us questions, can share their thoughts and ideas, trusting they won’t feel belittled. We can share our thoughts and experiences, trusting our children will consider them thoughtfully, knowing we aren’t trying to manipulate them somehow. We trust that when they need help, they will ask for it.

Developing this deep level of trust doesn’t happen overnight—it is built over time and through experience. Let’s talk about some of the ways we can work to build relationships steeped in trust.

Our children’s trust in us

Your children don’t trust you just because you are their parent; they trust you because you have shown them that you are worthy of their trust.

How do we cultivate our children’s trust in us?

  • By being responsive: consistently available when they need your help and support.
  • By being loving: showing your love consistently in words and actions.
  • By being trustworthy: helping them get their needs met; instead of trying to cajole or control them into meeting your goals.

And it takes as long as it takes. Someone else’s trust in us is not something we have any control over. We can control our actions and reactions. The more consistent they are, the more our children will trust that that consistency will continue into the future.

Trust in our children

Again, this develops over time and with experience.

How can we develop trust in our children?

  • By getting to know them: understanding their personality, motivations, and goals.
  • By being open and approachable: inviting our children to come to us when they want our help.
  • By giving them space: seeing their choices and how things play out as they explore and learn.

All these experiences help us better understand our children and their lives. We discover the threads that run though their actions, the things that make them uniquely themselves. We see the consistency in their actions that allows us to be more trusting and comfortable with the future.

The beauty of unschooling is that its not just a style of learning, it’s a style of living. All these experiences interweave such that our trust in each other builds along side our trust in the process of unschooling. We gain experience in living together.

I also want to point out one thing: don’t equate trusting your children with leaving them on their own. Those are different things. You can trust your children, yet they can still need you around to help out: you have more experience to add to the moment. You can help make experiences richer. If you take that trust to mean you are no longer needed, you will be less involved in their lives, your connection with them will probably begin to fade, and with it, the strong and trusting relationship you’ve built.

So treat it with care. :-)


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Ways to Build Trust in Unschooling

Unschooling as a way of learning and living is unconventional. In general, conventional society trusts the school system as an effective process for learning, where trust is a reasonably confident expectation of outcome. Yet we have chosen a less populated path. We don’t typically have an abundance of unschooling families around us from which to gain an understanding of, and build trust in, this lifestyle. So how do we build trust in unschooling?

First, let’s step back a moment and ask ourselves why—why is it important to trust the process of unschooling? Because without trust, without understanding how unschooling works, when we’re confronted with situations steeped in uncertainty, we may be tempted to reach for control to wrestle our fears into submission. Yet top-down control can interfere with unschooling, chipping away at our trust and relationships, and our children’s learning may start to suffer. It can become a vicious circle. This less effective unschooling environment can precipitate situations with our children that trigger more fear, which can lead us to reach for more control, damaging our relationships, trust, and their learning even further.

So, developing trust is important. How can we go about it? For me, I built a strong understanding of and trust in the process of unschooling during the first couple of years through observation, through seeing it in action with my children and comparing that with my growing understanding of natural learning. That’s the difference between trust and blind trust to me. Blind trust is when you haven’t seen it action before, when you have little to base your trust on. Deep trust builds on experience, on seeing.

Certainly when you first start unschooling you may choose to place some trust in the experience and observations shared by other unschooling parents—yay for the Internet! But soon you will begin to see those ideas play out with your own children. And your trust grows.

Here’s an example. I’ve always enjoyed and processed things through writing. I recently came across a note I typed up during our first year of unschooling after a particularly fun a-ha moment for me when the learning connections were particularly obvious.

Friday October 25, 2002

Just thought I had to write down something that happened last night. Yesterday we spent a great day at the Science Centre and then went straight to P’s house for a “Pizza Party” dinner she organized for the kids. Just before we left P gave Michael a recorder she had laying around. He was very excited since, although we already have two at home, this one was “his”. As soon as we got home, he had to “learn” to play it. As luck would have it, someone on the unschooling list had mentioned that a great first book for learning the recorder was the Usborne book and I had borrowed it from the library 2-3 weeks ago. Since then it had been sitting on my music stand in the library, trying to catch someone’s attention.

Well Michael must have noticed it because he made a beeline for it as soon as we got in and insisted I go through it with him. We quickly covered the basics of the instrument and how to clean it, then how to hold it and his first note (A). Next we discussed counting and how long to hold a quarter note. It was amazing and so much fun! The challenge for me was to quickly scan each double page and give him a quick summary – and I could barely get that out before he was saying “I get it, I get it, be quiet now”, and playing the tune for the page.

We made it through the second note (B) along with half notes and whole notes, then a third note (G) along with rests (quarter, half and whole). I was surprised to see him understand the tempo and rhythm so easily … I could hear the difference between the quarter and half notes, even though I was not allowed to clap a beat past the first couple of pages!

The funniest thing was that every time he squeaked, he would clean it! We got a piece of old cloth and he diligently cleaned it with his cleaning rod. I did convince him that sometimes the squeak was because his mouth was tight … it wasn’t really a squeak, just a higher note. This was especially noticeable with the G note. I told him to try relaxing and play the note with his eyes closed and that worked great. Then he slowly opened his eyes and found he could still play it! It was very exciting to be a part of.

Then after about 45 minutes he said that was enough and he got on his pyjamas and we went upstairs to read his Scooby-Doo books. In one of the books he noticed that the author had used a dash in one of the sentences and he pointed it out and said “it looks like a rest from the music”. I laughed and said yes, it means to pause when you are reading! So I read the sentence over and over while he had me pause for counts of 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 and chose 2 as the one that sounded best to him. Too funny!!

This moment was lit in neon lights for me because it was a glowing example of unschooling in action: my understanding of how unschooling worked meshed tightly with the experience unfolding in front of me.

It’s interesting to see where I was in my journey of learning about unschooling, about seven months in. The way I chose to describe the situation, like the phrase “trying to catch someone’s attention,” clearly shows that my trust in unschooling was still developing—I was still needing and watching for things to unfold, still attaching some level of expectations, or at least hope, to things. And that’s okay. It’s a journey.

Another reason developing trust in the process of unschooling is important is because oftentimes these beautiful moments of learning in action aren’t so glaringly obvious. Sometimes these connections happen inside the child, with no outer clues in the moment—so much of learning is internal. Maybe you catch glimpses of it months down the road when they make a comment or observation and you realize the previously unseen connections they’ve made to get them to that point. I can see that idea became clear to me because a few months later I started writing journals on a monthly basis, looking beyond the day-to-day activities to see the connections that flow through that longer time-frame.

Writing has always been my tool for processing the world—as I write down my thoughts and emotions, I discover and learn. Maybe writing isn’t your tool, your joy. Explore and find the ways you will enjoy documenting these wonderful moments when you see unschooling in action and know in your heart it’s working well.

Pictures? Video? With cameras in many cell phones now it’s pretty easy to capture random and fleeting moments of unschooling in action that can later quickly bring you back to that moment. Mementos? Grab something that has some significance for you to in relation to the moment. Keep them in a memory box or a shoe box or any kind of box. Whatever you choose, have it accessible so you can remind yourself about these moments when you feel your trust waning. At the very least, they will remind you of the kinds of connections to look for so you can again see unschooling in action in your family.

This isn’t about clinging to the “good” moments and ignoring “reality.” It’s about reminding yourself that learning is always happening, that it just may not be so easy to spot. These memories will remind you to trust in the process until you catch the next glimpse of learning in action and say to yourself, “Unschooling is awesome!”


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Am I Considerate of Others?

A few years ago Lissy and I put up a quote on the wall in the basement: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Often mis-attributed to Plato, it can be traced back to Ian MacLaren, as outlined in this post on Quote Investigator.)

Maybe surprisingly, it’s something I’m reminded of when I talk about joy. “And somewhere along the line it dawned on me that it’s not about figuring it all out so I can finally, from that moment on, live a happy life. This process IS a well-lived life.” (from Unschooling Grows Far Beyond “Not School”) Bad things happen. In my life, and in everyone else’s lives too. That is life; it’s not stuff that gets in the way of life.

The idea that everyone has a story is something my children and I have discovered over the years as we’ve talked about other people’s thoughts and perspectives, and how they came to think that way. People are pretty fascinating.

Like a couple weeks ago, I was chatting with a mom at the dojo when she commented that I’m there a lot, with a tone that implied she felt sorry for my circumstances (which nowadays is often followed by “I bet you can’t wait until he drives himself.” I’m fine, thanks.) In this instance, I replied that I didn’t mind, that I enjoyed my time hanging out there. And her reply was, “Oh yeah, you homeschool, it’s a good thing that he comes here then or else he’d end up weird.”

Hmm. There is a lot wrapped up in there.

I could have reacted defensively, or felt judged. I think I let out a short giggle. For me it was a “wow, that came out of left field,” kind of reaction. Yet in those couple of seconds I realized that from her perspective, she probably felt like she was paying me a compliment: Your son’s not weird!

Think of her journey for a moment. Her conclusions are drawn from her experiences. And those aren’t “wrong”—she lived them, they are hers. Happily, we are another experience she can now add to her pool of memories tagged “homeschoolers.” And though her experiences with Michael have meant she doesn’t tag him as “weird,” that’s not to say she wouldn’t tag my other children that way. On the other hand, even if she would, they might be fine with it because maybe some of what she’d tag as “weird” they might tag as something else, like “creative” or “self-care.”

The experience was another reminder that other people’s opinions often say more about their experiences and understanding of the world—their perspective—than they say about me. And that’s such a helpful way to look at it: it’s not about me.

We can both happily exist in the same universe. We are each on our own journey, continuing to amass experiences and learn from them. Our differences are most often a matter of perspective. I can choose to be considerate rather than judgmental.

So when I’m checking in, I ask myself, have I been feeling judgmental of those around me? If so, I remind myself that I don’t intimately know the life experiences, and maybe the battles, that have led them to hold the perspective they do today. So instead I can be considerate. I can be kind.

And even more fun, if they’re open to conversation, I might be able to add some new perspective to their understanding of the world. And they to mine. :-)


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Am I Exploring and Learning Too?

It’s important to check in with myself to see whether I’m also an engaged part of the picture.

Last week I mentioned, “I began to realize that where there was joy, there was learning. So now I focus on the joy.” By that I mean my joy too. I want to be a shining example of the joy of learning for them.

When my children were young, I would see their activities through their eyes to find the joy in block towers and impromptu puppet shows and board games. I would mirror their joy. Yes, it’s real and meaningful. I’d also share the things I enjoyed with them. Not with any expectation that they would join me, or even understand why I enjoyed it—for us it was (and is) a natural state of being.

Here’s an example. When they were younger sometimes they’d watch Food TV with me, often enjoying Emeril’s antics. Bam! I still clearly remember one night when we were laying in my bed and watching a special on reverse engineering popular foods and they showed how to make Reese’s peanut butter cups at home. Joseph was the only child still awake by the end (I just looked at my printout of the recipe and it was the year 2000, so he was 8!) and I said, “What do you think, should we try that tomorrow?” His answer was a happy “Yes!” They were awesome, and to this day I still make them—they are now a family classic.

(I still hadn’t discovered homeschooling at that point, though that story probably gives you a good idea of why I jumped at the idea so quickly a year and change later. I was so close!)

Lissy and I playing happy monsters.

Lissy and I playing happy monsters.

That is what’s so exciting about being curious and following your interests—you never know what you might discover. With an open and aware mindset you will see so many more opportunities for fun and connection bubbling up around you than you will by walking around judging and worrying, mostly closed off from exploring life.

And as my kids have gotten older, it’s been so interesting to see how our interests and joy intertwine, sometimes even in the most unlikely ways.

Like rediscovering my interest in alternative music through Lissy’s music interest, or more deeply understanding Michael’s passionate interest in karate through my own passionate experience with ballet growing up. Or re-igniting my love of stories through Joseph’s passionate pursuit of them through all facets of storytelling.

If you’d like your kids to live an engaged and curious life, then live an engaged and curious life yourself.

It’s a gift for you too.

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Am I Supporting My Family’s Interests?

Performing with TMA's demo team at the local Maple Syrup Festival.

Michael performing with TMA’s demo team at the local Maple Syrup Festival, March 2014.

This week I’m asking myself if I’m feeling good about the support I’m giving my children’s interests. And my husband’s.

For me, that means taking a few minutes to think about my recent reactions to their ideas and questions and suggestions. Am I sharing my enthusiasm? If I’m hesitant, am I asking myself “Why not yes?” Or am I more often reacting automatically, without much consideration of the bigger picture?

Often I’m quite happy with how life is flowing: I’m able to actively support their interests, with time for conversations or helping them out, with driving to and from their activities, with purchasing supplies. Certainly things come up here and there, but the flow continues.

But sometimes I notice that I’ve been saying no more often than I’m usually comfortable with. In thinking about why, maybe I realize there’s a reasonable (at least to me) explanation. Then I ask myself, “Have I shared it?” If things are different than usual for a time, it helps that those around me know why. Not only can it help them better understand my perspective at the time, but it also gives them more reference points in understanding people in general. Or maybe my explanations now seem more like excuses and rationalizations. If that’s the case,  over the next while I pay closer attention to my reactions, double-checking them for credibility.

Our relationships are at the heart of unschooling, and if I’m not acting dependably, I could be weakening those relationship connections, and undermining their trust in me.

I also take a couple minutes to think proactively about their current interests. What are they up to? Not only their passions, but their fun passing interests too. Is there something I can think of to bring more joy into their lives right now? That doesn’t necessarily mean spending money, it could be setting aside time to play that game you’ve been promising. Or to cheer them on in the video game they’re playing. Or to watch that movie together. Or to make that intricate recipe you guys connected over recently. Time is a core element of unschooling.

When we began unschooling, I saw how much learning stemmed from my active support of their interests and passions. As I gained experience with unschooling, I no longer felt the need to measure their learning. I began to realize that where there was joy, there was learning.

So now I focus on the joy.

On living joyfully.


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Am I Feeling Open and Connected?

I like to check in with myself once in a while to ask if I’m living the principles that have meaning for me. For our unschooling lifestyle.

Let’s do that together this month. :-)

Am I feeling open and connected?

For me, feeling open is about being open to what’s happening around me. That means being aware of things, letting them penetrate my consciousness, not “in one ear and out the other.” And not rejecting things without some consideration and thought.

Open to people. To ideas. To conversations. To activities.

I know that sometimes I can get so focused on what I’m doing (or, when the kids were younger, trying to find the time to do) that I lose awareness of what’s going on around me. That’s great for productivity, helping me sink into the flow of whatever I’m doing, but things go more smoothly when I remember to bring myself fully back into the moment when I’m done.

Oftentimes when things were feeling strained, I eventually realized it was because I had gotten stuck in a narrow frame of mind. So I try to proactively watch out for that now.

Being open to conversations with the kids, and paying attention to what we’re both saying, helps me see the intertwining threads of the things we talk about, what they’re up to, and their current perspective.

All these threads together build a strong connection; build and maintain trust.

And this awareness helps me bring new and meaningful things into their lives—and as they get older, vice versa. Living and learning aren’t separate activities.

Being open to new ideas and activities, including those that at first make me hesitate, also reminds me that there is so much good stuff to be found off the beaten path. That following my children’s interests has brought so many interesting and wonderful things into our lives. It may seem like more work at first, but that’s probably just because it’s unfamiliar.

Being open, aware, and connected to my family has brought me so much joy over the years that I want to live in that place as often as possible.

Am I there now? If not, what can I tweak to get there?

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The Meaning of Trust

The conversation that sparked these thoughts happened over Christmas at a gathering of local friends. I had a great time that evening, and it was a very enjoyable conversation. When I noticed our paths diverging, I naturally let the conversation flow in a new direction and we continued merrily along. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it over the next few days. The moment was a bit of a revelation for me. It brought a more solid shape to a nebulous curiosity surrounding the word trust that I’ve had since my kids first started hitting the teen years.

Over those years, I’ve noticed that when my conversations with more conventional parents roll around to teen behaviour, it’s so easy to be misunderstood. The odd time I mention that I trust my teen it’s usually interpreted as I think they’ll do nothing wrong, that they’re perfect. Their response—sometimes in words, sometimes in attitude—is usually along the lines of “that’s putting your head in the sand.” This was the case that night.

My thoughts typically become a confused jumble at that point. It’s true, I don’t think they’ll do something wrong, but mostly that’s because, from my perspective, we learn from all our actions without having to judge them right or wrong. That said, of course things can go wrong. And I don’t think they’re perfect, but, well, I don’t think they’re inferior either. Yet those kinds of thoughts feel quite foreign to me in general because they imply a judgment that isn’t part of my everyday repertoire. That’s usually where I got stuck.

What became clear to me as I sorted through the conversation in the days that followed was that, while we were both talking about trust (relying on the integrity, strength, surety of a person—in this case, our teens), we were using very different measures to assess it.

For many conventional parents, “trusting their children” means believing that their children will follow their rules when the parents aren’t around to oversee their actions: if they don’t consistently follow the rules of their own volition, they can’t be trusted. Using that yardstick to measure trust, along with the conventional wisdom that teens will rebel against parental rules, I can see why they’d think me naive to say I trust my teens.

The challenge is that instead of rules, unschooling families use principles and analysis to help our children choose their actions. Without rules to measure against, what does trust mean to unschoolers?

    • It means that although our children may make different choices than we would in a given situation, we’re comfortable that they will make reasonable choices that make sense for them. With years of experience living and learning with them, we understand them well. Their actions aren’t an enigma to us, they make sense.
    • It means that although we know things may go awry—that happens to us too—we’re comfortable that they won’t knowingly endanger themselves or anyone else.
    • It means that we’re comfortable they will use their good judgment. Unschooling children have been by our side for years, interacting with the world, so we know they have a pretty good understanding of how those pieces of the world work. We are also comfortable that they won’t step too far beyond their comfort zone of that understanding without support.
    • It means that we are comfortable that if our children find they want or need our help, they will ask for it. Our children have years of experience being supported through situations without being criticized and judged. They value our input because, in their experience, it has always been shared with their goals in mind, not as subtle (or not so subtle) manipulation to get them to act in accordance with our expectations. They trust us too.

And there’s something else. We don’t use trust as a tool. I’ve overheard many conversations where a child asks to do something and a parent replies along the lines of, “no, I don’t trust you to do that.” Unschooling parents are more apt to say, “yes, let me help you with that.” Just because there are situations in which we don’t yet trust our children to be solely responsible for their actions, we don’t judge them as “bad” or hold it against them. We continue to support them as they pursue their goals, happily by their side, or nearby to offer help, as they gain experience in those areas until we are comfortable that they can take on the responsibility themselves.

And though I trust my children, that doesn’t mean I don’t worry occasionally as they venture out into the world on their own—trust doesn’t mean no risk. It’s life. Things can go wrong. We don’t have control over everything. That’s scary and freeing, at the same time. My trust in them is wrapped up in the knowledge that they trust me. I trust that if they want or need me, they will ask.

With unschooling, whether it’s learning or living, it all comes back to the strong, connected, trusting relationships we have built over the years.


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What Love Looks Like in Unschooling Families

Unschoolers can really be a confusing bunch to those looking in! On one hand, we appear to be sheltering our children from the real world by keeping them home—we’re overprotective. On the other hand, we appear to not really care about our children because we don’t enforce firm rules. Conventionally, it’s almost a given that at some point parents will explain to their kids, “I say no because I love you.”

Conventionally, boundaries equal love.

That’s not hard to understand. Parents love their children and want them to be safe. Rules are for their children’s protection. Rules = Love.

Yet all parents want to keep their children safe and enforcing rules isn’t the only way to accomplish that. Beyond reinforcing the adult-child power dynamic, I think one of the main reasons parents choose to use rules is to save time in their busy lives. Just imagine:

  • Parents don’t have to have a conversation each time their child asks to do X, just point to the rule. “No snacks before dinner.”
  • Parents don’t have to take the time to deeply understand their child’s individual capabilities, just point to the rule. “You’re too young to use a knife.”
  • Parents don’t have to discuss each situation individually, just point to the general rule that covers them all. “No you can’t get your nose pierced. Remember the rule: no body modification, that means tattoos or piercings, while you’re living in my house.”

The time-saving bit is absolutely true. Reminding children about a rule just takes a few seconds and helps parents feel more comfortable that they’re actively protecting their children (as long as their children follow the rules). Yet the cost of saving this time can be found in the children’s real learning.

Rules or no, as parents, it’s our children’s learning that we’re trying to support. Learning how to live and get along safely in the world. Yet as humans we’re hard-wired to learn, to ask why, and rules short-circuit that discussion. Memorizing a rule doesn’t mean they understand the reason behind it; rules can seem arbitrary when there’s little discussion. And if the rules don’t make much sense to them, their focus can become about finding ways to break the rules without being caught, not the issue that the rule was meant to address.

If the goal is learning, rules are generally less effective than discussion and experience.

What if freedom equals love?

To those unfamiliar with unschooling who may catch us in action, it can look like we aren’t very concerned about protecting our children. Our children are playing in the creek at the park. Hanging upside down on the monkey bars. Staying up until they are tired. Traveling on their own to visit friends or cities.

But what looks like wild freedom to others looking in, doesn’t seem like risky freedom to those of us directly involved. That’s because we have a deep understanding of both our children and the parameters of the situation. Those outside our family don’t see the many conversations we’ve had with our children about these situations, about the things to consider, about things to do if X happens, or Y. They don’t see that we intimately understand the limits of our children’s capabilities, and that we trust—we know—that our children aren’t looking to jump too far beyond their comfort zone.

It’s not that we’ve tossed the rules and life’s a crazy free-for-all, it’s that the rules have been replaced by another process. What those outside the family don’t see (what they can’t see because they don’t live with us) is that for unschooling families, conversations have replaced rules and the child’s comfort zone has replaced boundaries.

Our conversations revolve around principles. And around the needs of any other people involved. That means that the path forward may look different for similar situations at different times, or if they involve different people. That’s very different than a rule that says when X happens, do Y.

Those unfamiliar with unschooling often assume that, if given the choice, children will choose danger and misbehaviour. That parental boundaries are the only things keeping the children safe and sane. Yet time and again unschoolers find that without imposed boundaries, children discover their own personal comfort zones. They don’t want to feel out-of-control.

Granted, their comfort zone and our anticipated boundaries can sometimes be very different—sometimes their comfort zone stretches farther than ours, while other times it’s closer. But neither the frustration generated from the constraints of artificial limits nor the fear generated from pushing too far outside their comfort zone are conducive to learning. In their comfort zone is where the most effective exploration and learning happens.

With this freedom from rules, unschooling children have the space and support to understand themselves, to explore the world-at-large, and to learn ways they can reach out and connect with others.

Freedom can mean love too.

Step lightly.

As newer unschoolers move from rules and boundaries to freedom, it can be disconcerting for everyone. If they have equated boundaries with love, then a sudden removal of those boundaries can be confusing for the children. It can sound like “do whatever you want,” and after the initial excitement wears off, lead them to ask themselves, “don’t they love me any more?”

That’s not a fun place to be. So step lightly as you transition. Instead of looking at the boundaries, look at your children. Instead of pulling out a rule, chat with your children. Work with each situation that arises individually. But probably not all at once. Pick one or two things for now where you think moving away from the rule will bring more peace. As they settle, pick another. Then another.

The wonderful thing about this process is that as we get to know our children better, that “boundary,” which used to be a rule and is now the child’s comfort zone, shifts before our eyes. We’ll begin to see our children’s capabilities more clearly—they are often more capable than we first imagined. And as they come to trust that we are with them, not against them, they too discover and play with their comfort zone. They become comfortable admitting to you that they are tired, or scared, because they trust you will help them as they explore these zones, not belittle them with some version of “I told you so.” Their self-awareness grows by leaps and bounds.

There is no way around it, unschooling takes time. That said, it needn’t look like 9-5. Your family’s comings and goings and lifestyle may look unique, but in there is time. Time to be with your children. Time to talk with your children. Sometimes they may choose to flirt with the edges of their comfort zone, they may push their boundaries, but that’s where some very exciting learning can happen. Sometimes the things our children do may seem risky to others looking in, but it will probably seem much less risky to us because we understand our children, their needs, their wants, and their capabilities. We talk with them. Their lives make sense to us.

Beautiful, wonderful sense.  :-)


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Are Unschooling Children Being Sheltered?

Over the years I’ve seen and heard many comments from people unfamiliar with unschooling that are along the lines of unschooling children “will never learn how to get along in the real world.” Their impression is that unschooling children are being sheltered; not being pushed out of the nest of home early enough. But I’m starting to wonder if, in the long run, it’s not the other way around: school children are being sheltered.

On one level, yes, to outside observers briefly looking in, they can appear sheltered: unschooling children spend their days based out of their homes and surrounded by family. But what they aren’t seeing are the families regularly interacting with their community, with the real world. When they are out and about, unschooling children are interacting with the world-at-large, gaining experience with everyday activities and situations. And at home, unschooling parents are drawing from worldwide resources as they help their children pursue their interests and goals.

(Of course, there are some homeschooling parents who choose to shelter their children from interacting with the world-at-large, whose goal is to narrow rather than broaden their children’s perspective, but that’s not the kind of home/unschooling we’re discussing here.)

Meanwhile, children in the compulsory educational system spend a good part of their days set apart from society, sheltered in schools, information typically provided by one textbook per course of study, in a singular environment that doesn’t represent the real world. So when we speak of physical spaces, schooled children seem more sheltered than their unschooling counterparts.

And the consequences of being sheltered reach beyond physical location. In some cases, maybe many cases, the conventional school lifestyle shelters students from exploring and learning how to get along in the world-at-large.

It’s a pretty common perception that many young people have a sense of entitlement that can make their transition to adult lives quite challenging. For some, the idea of entitlement encompasses only material things: conventional parenting advice claims that the solution is that parents shouldn’t give their children everything they ask for because that will create a sense of entitlement. I’m sure you’ve heard that one.

But to me, that seems to be a subset of the larger picture. The entitled behaviour I’ve come across over the years seems to be rooted in an expectation, an assumption, that things will go their way—whether their expectations are for material things, or a job, or for the people in their lives to meet their needs without question. A sense that they are entitled to what they see as the basics of living, regardless of the impact on those around them.

It seems the conventional school lifestyle may be cultivating this sense of entitlement, both at school and at home.

At school, with so much curricula to cover there is no time to meander. Teachers and administrators work hard to make the process as smooth as possible: teacher’s teach, student’s memorize, test, repeat. With the education system’s laser focus on testing and the far reaching consequences of the results, anything that may throw a wrench in that cycle is dealt with quickly by the adults. There is very little involvement of the students in the process. As such, students gain little hands-on experience at school with ways to approach problem-solving. What they learn over the years is that “the adults in their lives will solve the problems.” That they aren’t smart/trustworthy enough to find solutions. That they should look to the older, more experienced people in their lives to tell them what to do. They intuitively learn to expect to be taken care of in this way.

At home, the family’s very busy schedule of school and extra-curricular activities (funny how the label for the activities of life implies “outside of school”—school is always front and centre) also means that children don’t have much time to work through challenges as they arise here either. To make life easier in the moment parents often end up making decisions unilaterally because involving their children in the process is time-consuming. Who has the time and energy? So again children don’t gain experience with ways to move through uncertainty, they don’t learn to understand or value the needs of others (empathy) nor learn ways to incorporate those needs into the solution moving forward. And again they learn that others will figure things out and take care of their needs.

Teachers and parents tell children what to do because it’s easier than the alternative. They don’t expect kids to be able to add value to problem-solving. (They’re wrong about that.) And the underlying lesson is learned: as young adults and beyond, whenever they are  challenged in the world-at-large, they expect that their parents, or the more experienced adults around them, will solve it; will do whatever needs doing to meet their needs. They haven’t developed any trust in themselves that they can rise to the challenge. Trust, in others and in one’s self, is earned through experience. And they have little experience in solving real life challenges.

If you stay on the path, do your college applications through the guidance office and your job hunting at the placement office, the future is not your fault. That’s the refrain we hear often from frustrated job seekers, frustrated workers with stuck careers, and frustrated students in too much debt. “I did what they told me to do and now I’m stuck and it’s not my fault.”

~ Seth Godin, Stop Stealing Dreams: What is School For?

Now let’s look at unschoolers.

With the unschooling young adults I’ve met, and the extended circle of those I’ve heard about, this sense of entitlement doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. It seems confusing at first—unschooling parents definitely help and support their children as much as possible as they grow up. From the typical outside observer’s point of view, we are sheltering and spoiling them. So why don’t most unschooling children grow up to feel a sense of entitlement as well? Why don’t they expect others to do things for them?

Because growing up they have gained lots of experience with evaluating challenging situations and coming up with a path forward. Their parents have taken the time to involve them in problem-solving, incorporating the bigger picture of the needs of others involved in the situation. They have given them the opportunity to make their own choices and see what happens. In other words, to live real life, with their parents there to help and support them as they explore and learn.

Through their many experiences over the years—some working out as they’d hoped, others not—they have learned to trust themselves. They know they can figure things out. And they understand that others have wants and needs and constraints. Their path forward may include asking others for help and support, but they recognize that they are asking. They don’t demand. They don’t expect or assume that others are obligated to help them.

Before I began digging into unschooling, I didn’t understand the long-term benefits of taking the time to support my children in making their own choices. In taking the time to talk through situations with them—options, needs, wants, constraints, other options—and finding a path forward that hit the highlights so that those involved were satisfied. At first I was doing it because I thought it was helpful in support of their learning. And it was—it is. Yet over the years I’ve come to see that it’s even more than that. It’s about learning how to live in our world. For every choice, there are often so many possibilities to consider, other people to consider, parameters to consider. That is real life.

The experience and understanding that unschooling children gain through being in the world-at-large and playing with choices as they grow up is priceless.


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