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.