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.
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. 🙂
Thank-you. Your blog posts have been tremendously helpful to me.
Pam Laricchia says
Thanks, Dawn. I’m glad they’re helpful. 🙂
Reinventing the Wheels says
Awesome blog post. Alfie Kohn says parents and teachers often justify more control by saying “I’m in control OR we have chaos.” As a parent and a college teacher, I’ve learned that stepping back and observing is the best thing I can do.
Pam Laricchia says
Thanks! The control or chaos dichotomy runs really deep, doesn’t it?
Beth P says
Hi – I love your newsletters, and the spirit of your articles, thank you so much for sharing them. I struggle with putting them into practice a little, though I would like to. I have a 14 month old daughter and a nearly 3 year old son. My son is fantastic – curious, engaged, independent and eager to learn. However, I find I say “no”, “don’t”, “stop”, and “if you don’t stop, I’ll have to take it away…” etc, far too much. As an example, he wants to play in the front of the car, and I want to let him (within the bounds of safety), but he tends to be very rough with the controls and ignores instructions not to take the car out of gear, and (as I’m usually also engaged with my daughter too) I often end up stressed and snappy with him. There are a few situations like this where I don’t like where we end up, and would love some guidance on how to encourage him to accept the limited boundaries I set, and play gently without me getting stressed that he’s damaging something I don’t want to have to replace! Thank you in advance for any guidance you have to offer on this 🙂
Pam Laricchia says
Your son sounds like a wonderfully curious 3 year old. 🙂
For me, when I found a pattern of a particular situation devolving into frustration or stress, that was usually a clue that it wasn’t working well right now and I usually tried to move away for a while.
If you’re genuinely worried things might break and he’s not able to take in your reminders to be gentle as he plays, it seems reasonable to not put yourselves in that situation for now. Think of some fun things he enjoys that you guys can do instead and have them at the ready so that next time he asks, you can say “I’m worried about things breaking, let’s do X.” And then happily do that with him. Don’t focus on the “no” because it’s easy to get stuck there. Focus on the next thing. That can help everyone move past it.
And he’s only going to be this age for a little while. If he’s still interested in a few weeks or months, you can try again. 🙂
bill harwell says
some really good ideas here-what I find fault with (mainly) is the “no reule” notion. The WORLD has RULES,like it or not and we’re raising our kids so that they may function well in the world theyWILL live in when they become independent humans.the idea that rules are only “’cause I love you” is ridiculous. Some rules MUST exist BEFORE the child can decide for himself or understand or think about it,–rules like Cross the street with Dad or Mom, you can’t play in the bathtub by yourself and hundreds of others.Without rules and consequences ,I believe LEARNING is almost impossible. Trial -and-error is a great teacher but not about Playing in the Street.
Pam Laricchia says
I get what you’re saying and I think mostly we’re talking about rules a bit differently. In my vernacular, the world has laws and society has conventions. Breaking laws has legal consequences. Breaking societal conventions has consequences that we may choose to accept. I think actions have consequences. And we definitely learn through those. 🙂
Your examples lean more to the question of safety. Of course a parent shouldn’t leave a young child unattended in a bathtub, nor leave them to cross a busy street alone. But I don’t think we need rules for common sense. Instead of putting the responsibility for avoiding those risks on my child by invoking a rule, as the parent I would take on that responsibility myself until they could safely take it on themselves.
For example, when my children were young and wanting to play in the front yard and there was a risk they might inadvertently run onto the road, I stayed with them. I explained that cars go by on the road so let’s play on the grass, that’s common sense. If a ball went on the road, I was there to walk them through retrieving it safely. When we crossed the road we talked about how to do it safely. We had many conversations based on the principle of staying safe. But I showed them how to stay safe, I didn’t need to couch it in terms of a rule.
And eventually I saw through their actions that they were capable of keeping themselves safe near a road, in a bathtub, climbing a tree, swimming etc.
You’re right, trial and error is a great way to learn many things. But where safety is concerned, I think being there with them and talking about the situation at hand helps them understand the ins and outs of safely navigating the world better than a rule does.
Scott Noelle says
Thank you for this beautiful explanation of living beyond the rule mentality! It warmed my heart to feel, through your carefully chosen words, your kindness extended to those who are unfamiliar with this way of living.
And I love that you contrast rules with conversations. Rules are static and thus cannot evolve and learn. But a conversation is alive and dynamic — an inherently intelligent, learning phenomenon.
Your writing style in this post actually demonstrates the very principle you wrote about: It feels like a conversation, not a dictate. That’s so valuable to me, because it means I can share this post with newbies, confident that it will appeal to their intelligence rather than their fears.
Pam Laricchia says
Thanks, Scott, I love your description of a conversation.
And thanks for your writing as well–I really appreciated reading your daily groove emails back when we were newer to unschooling. 🙂
Lainie Liberti says
This is such a beautiful post. Thank you for articulating this so simply for those on a similar path and for those who are not clear about what our lifestyle looks like. And yes, it does take time. Again, thank you.
Pam Laricchia says
Thank you, Lainie.
Lovely post. 🙂 Exploring boundaries, making conversation, discussing – talking, talking, talking – and lots of close listening and observation. <3
Pam Laricchia says
Thanks, Missy. 🙂
Thank you so much Pam. You have expressed some great insights here. Replacing rules with discussion does take more time but it is worth every minute. As parents who manage just fine without rules, boundaries, limits or other discipline systems we need to keep articulating and explaining what we do instead that works so well in our families. It is not a case of rules or anarchy and I am so glad that you are helping to make this clear. This way we can show the way towards a more peaceful future.
Pam Laricchia says
Thank you, Freya.
What if freedom = love! Yes yes yes!!!
Pam Laricchia says
sophia huntinton says
I know an unschooler and I do not unschool ( both are children are too young for school). I explain everything to my son, but do give him rules. He has a bedtime, but it is flexible depending on late events, late naps, or any discomfort he has. it is between 8-10 pm. My friends kid does not, she goes to bed between 1-4am. Causing them lots of stress. My son knows he is allowed to play with lots of things but must ask and be monitored by me for things like knifes, matches, etc. I am amazed that he always asks and never goes behind my back with anything. He even cleans his messes if he makes one without me asking. Her child wrecks the house, colors and paints all over walls, floors, and furniture. Leaves the craziest messes and literally destroys the house. My child is pleasant and I make a rule that he can have feelings but cannot infringe on others. Her child doesnot listen at all, does not follow any rules, and does not play nice. This is not always but is often. I give my child firm rules, but listen and talk with him about every one of them, even if it needs to be the same conversation everyday and it drains me completely. I am not saying unschooling is bad or good. I am sure it can be done to great success. But it is not the same for each child. Many children I know do amazing with rules and firm boundaries, especially with caring parents that do take time to have conversations with their children. To make the assumption that many parents give rules without explanation(even constant explanation) is a bit far fetched. I am a very lenient mom, my child makes most decisions for himself, in the regards of if it is age-appropriate. He can use most kitchen tools, but no my son cannot use a knife without me helping him. And if I am in the kitchen cooking dinner, then he has to wait till after I am done, because his needs do not come before the needs of our family. As soon as I or any other adult is free then he is allowed to use the knife. Doctors, friends, and strangers have always made comments about how well behaved he is , trusting, nice, and how much initiative he has to try new things.
Pam Laricchia says
Thanks for taking the time to comment—your observations wonderfully align with the theme on the blog this month, what unschooling looks like from the outside.
I wanted to address a couple things first.
With three kids ages 16-22 I have heard many parents interact with their children over years, so the idea of rules without discussions, especially when there are disagreements, doesn’t seem far-fetched to me, though it may be in your circles. That’s cool. I tried not to imply that this was the case of all parents who aren’t unschooling. (While most parents who choose unschooling would be considered unconventional, certainly not all unconventional parents choose unschooling.)
In pointing out this practice, I’m sharing patterns I’ve observed over the years with an eye to inspiring parents to take a moment to question themselves: Is this something I do? Once in a while? Regularly? If so, is it getting in the way of my relationship with my child? Of their learning about the world? If it’s not an issue they are seeing in their family, that’s great. And even if the answers are yes, if they’re comfortable with that, that’s fine too. Through the exercise they are reminded that this is a choice they’re making; it needn’t be an automatic reaction based in “this is what parents do.” It becomes a bit more info in their parenting toolbox.
I also wanted to mention that your observations aren’t about unschooling per se because, as you mentioned, neither of the children are yet school-aged. These are parenting choices. Granted, I imagine your friend has plans to not send her child to school and they are looking to align their parenting choices with unschooling. (I think this post might be helpful: Attachment Parenting Flows Into Unschooling.)
Your observations about your friend’s family aren’t surprising: it’s true, exploration and learning can be messy, especially with young children. As to the question of whether it’s working well for the family, it’s really hard for anyone to tell from the outside.
Maybe your friend is in the midst of learning about unschooling. Sometimes as we let go of our conventional ideas we aren’t yet quite sure what to replace them with—this is part of our journey. Maybe they are struggling and are working to find a flow to their days that better meets everyone’s needs. Maybe the child’s behaviour looks extreme to those who don’t live with them, but the parents are seeing incremental learning, they understand that other options don’t work well for their child, and they are comfortable with where they are right now. So many possibilities.
I know when my children were young, extended family were quite confused by our parenting style. I imagine it looked messy and a bit chaotic to them. What was important was how it was working for us. The kids were learning, both about the world and about themselves. They were happy. And I was learning about being a parent. I was definitely tired, but I genuinely enjoyed being with my children.
Now let’s dig into the rules piece a bit.
As I mentioned, unschooling isn’t about a no rules free-for-all and the resulting havoc. Especially with young children, parents have more experience in seeing the clues in their child’s behaviour—from being tired, to overstimulated, to sad, to excited. They can use these clues to help their child move through those moments more smoothly, like relaxing routines to help them get to sleep, moving to a quieter environment when they are overstimulated, supporting them when they are sad, and celebrating with them when they are excited.
Young children often don’t yet have enough experience under their belt to meaningfully answer direct questions like “are you tired?” or “are you hungry?” or “why are you sad?”. By noticing those clues and reacting accordingly (moving to quiet activities to encourage sleep, offering up food, consoling rather than try to solve) parents are showing their children ways to move through those moments. Eventually the children will begin to make those connections for themselves. Gaining the self-awareness to take cues from themselves can be more helpful in the long term than, say, looking at a clock to guide eating and sleeping times.
As for the rules about knife and match use, it’s not that any unschooling families I know leave knives and matches laying out for inexperienced children to freely play with unsupervised. Keeping their children’s environment safe is common sense. But if a child asks, instead of answering with “you’re too young,” they would likely help them accomplish whatever was on their mind (as soon as feasible, as you mention, though learning is given a high priority in the grand scheme of things). The child still asks—a rule isn’t needed for that to happen. Or maybe the parents offer, if the situation arises: “Would you like to try cutting your sandwich?” Gaining experience. Learning.
I think our actions as parents may be quite similar, but a rule generally puts the onus on the child to remember and follow it, rather than keeping the responsibility with the parent to be actively involved until the child can safely take on the activity themselves. It’s a tweak in perspective, but one that I’ve found helps keeps the focus on the child’s learning and a “working together” approach.
As you mentioned, there are definitely children who don’t take much issue with rules and boundaries, especially when they are younger. The bigger question comes if/when they no longer agree to the rule, which is more prevalent as they get older and their world expands beyond their family. At this point it’s helpful to already be comfortable observing actions, sharing thoughts, and finding a path forward that works for everyone. If instead the choice is made to enforce the rules more strictly, that’s when a disconnect between a parent and child can start to grow, possibly damaging the relationship over time, and in some cases, being the root of rebellion in later years.
In the end, it’s about exploring and choosing a parenting and lifestyle that fits well with our family, both with our principles and goals, and with our personalities. Parents are learning too. 🙂
Kath Rushworth says
I know that having a quick go to catch phrase is the birth of many an “Aha! moment”, but over simplification always itches with me.
What if care, respect, and mindful response = love
…even if that mindful response looks like “not interfering” 🙂
Pam Laricchia says
I understand, Kath. Though without some generalization/simplification, I’d end up trying to write a book length post every week. 😉
I like discussing unschooling ideas from various perspectives over time. I’ve certainly talked about rules before on the blog, but not in this particular context. Different contexts connect with different people. Sometimes a particular context connects for someone where other discussions haven’t made much sense. For me too: sometimes when I look at an idea from a different perspective I gain more insight. 🙂
Hi. I love you. Thank you. <3
Pam Laricchia says
Hi, beautiful. Love you too. <3
Nodding my head the whole way through. And to all your responses to comments. Just beautiful. I love this way of living. My nearly 4 year old does, too. Thanks for caring so much about unschooling!
Pam Laricchia says
I love the image of you nodding away, Blanche. I do that too!
And thank you. I love unschooling. 🙂