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. 🙂