This week on the podcast, we’re sharing a new episode in the Unschooling “Rules” series.
We use the word “rules” in quotes to draw attention to the fact that there is no such thing as an unschooling rule! It can feel easier to reach for a set of rules to follow, especially when we’re learning something new, but we want to offer you space to look within, to find what makes sense to you and what makes sense to the individual members of your family. There are no unschooling police. Nobody is going to drop by your house and give you a failing grade—or an A+. Our goal with this series is to explore these apparent “rules” and cultivate an environment for self-discovery, for inquiry, for agency, and for growth.
In this episode, we’re diving into the “rule” that unschooling is “child-led.” We dig into some vocabulary to figure out why neither “child-led” nor “parent-led” are really what unschooling is about for us. We also talk about the idea of “unparenting” that can come up sometimes in unschooling conversations. And we explore what living and learning can look like outside of the control and power-over paradigm.
We had a lot of fun diving into this topic and we hope you find our conversation helpful on your unschooling journey!
THINGS WE MENTIONED ON THIS EPISODE
Watch the video of our conversation on YouTube.
Follow @exploringunschooling on Instagram.
Follow @helloerikaellis on Instagram.
Check out our website, livingjoyfully.ca for more information about navigating relationships and exploring unschooling.
Sign up to our mailing list to receive The Living Joyfully Dispatch, our biweekly email newsletter, and get a free copy of Pam’s intro to unschooling ebook, What is Unschooling?
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We invite you to join us in The Living Joyfully Network, a wonderful online community for parents to connect and engage in candid conversations about living and learning through the lens of unschooling. Our theme this month is Finding Our Groove, and we’re exploring it through the lenses of parenting and living.
So much of what we talk about on this podcast and in the Living Joyfully Network isn’t actually about unschooling. It’s about life. On The Living Joyfully Podcast, Anna Brown and Pam Laricchia talk about life, relationships, and parenting. You can check out the archive here, or find it in your your favorite podcast player.
ERIKA: Welcome! I’m Erika Ellis from Living Joyfully, and this is episode number 353 of the podcast.
I’m joined by my cohosts, Pam Laricchia and Anna Brown. Hi to you both!
PAM AND ANNA: Hello!
ERIKA: We’re back with another Unschooling “Rules” episode.
But before we dive into that, I just wanted to invite you to visit our website, livingjoyfully.ca. There you’ll find a wealth of information in our podcast archives for both this podcast as well as the Living Joyfully Podcast, blog posts and articles, links to Pam’s wonderful books about unschooling, as well as more details about coaching, courses, the Childhood Redefined Unschooling Online Summit, and our online community, the Living Joyfully Network.
You can also join our email newsletter list and contact us through our website form. There’s so much to explore. To check it out, visit livingjoyfully.ca.
And now I just want to remind everyone that with this Unschooling “Rules” series, we use the word rules in quotes to draw attention to the fact that there is no such thing as an unschooling rule.
It can feel easier to reach for a set of rules to follow, especially when we’re learning something new. But we want to offer you space to look within to find what makes sense to you and what makes sense to the individual members of your family. There are no unschooling police. Nobody’s going to drop by your house and give you a failing grade or an A+. Our goal with this series is to explore these apparent “rules” and cultivate an environment for self-discovery, inquiry, agency, and growth. So, Pam, would you like to get us started with our unschooling rule?
PAM: Absolutely. Thanks so much, Erika.
So, with this episode, we want to dive into a phrase that has been used pretty regularly over the years to describe unschooling, and that’s child-led learning. And while I get the idea behind it, if parents take it on as an unschooling rule and just run with it, it can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.
So, to dig into how that can happen, let’s start with the idea behind it. Why “child-led?” And I think it can be a quick and effective way to describe the important paradigm shift away from learning and life as being adult-led.
Conventionally, kids are expected to follow the adults’ lead, right? Parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches. Adults know best and kids are expected to do what they’re told. The adults lead and the kids follow. With unschooling, we are shifting that power dynamic from being adult-led to being shared amongst the people in our lives, particularly our family.
But for many of us, adult-led is all we’ve ever known. As kids, we grew up enmeshed in that lens and felt pretty powerless until we became adults finally getting the power to control our days.
As we begin our journey, using the phrase “child-led” to describe unschooling reminds us to use this very different lens as we go about our days. And I think the metaphor of a pendulum to describe the journey through big paradigm shifts in general is pretty spot on. In our society, life is almost exclusively adult-led. The adults have the power. So, to break away from that paradigm and explore other possibilities, swinging that pendulum all the way to the other side to child led can be super informative. It encourages us to look at our days through a completely new lens.
What does life look like through the child’s eyes? If I don’t step in immediately to direct them (adult-led), what do they choose to do? Who are they as a whole human being?
And it is in this season that we practically discover a whole new world. I get goosebumps now just remembering that transition going, wow, we see children learning so beautifully without a curriculum. We see them making choices that make a ton of sense when we see them through their eyes. We come to recognize how truly capable they are. Our trust in them as a human being, navigating their world, grows, as does our trust in the process of unschooling. I think it really is quite amazing.
Yet, if people stay at that far opposite swing of the pendulum, adopting the idea of child-led as a rule to be followed forever or they’re not unschooling well, things can definitely get challenging.
ERIKA: Right. I do think that this rule is kind of the result of making that big paradigm shift. We can have so many a-ha moments when we start to step away from the adult-led norm. So, it’s like, wait a minute, kids do know things. And then remembering our experience as children and how we really could have had and wanted to have agency over our own lives. And so, once we start questioning that, it could feel like, yes! I want to free my children from that control. So now, they’re in charge, but it’s that pendulum swing, like you were saying. The term child led is helpful because it makes people think and it feels closer to what we’re doing in unschooling.
In the majority of schools, learning is completely directed by adults, and in unschooling, children are following their own interests, and so maybe it feels like they’re leading the way, but I think it can get confusing if we use that term to mean that we don’t have an influence as parents or that we’re not in the picture at all. The reality of unschooling can be so much richer and it doesn’t need to have the parent or the child as the leader.
ANNA: Right. And I’m so glad we’re talking about this one, because child-led, well, it kind of sounds nice, especially if you’re an advocate for children. But in practice, I think a lot is lost in translation. And like you both were saying, I think it does help people who are just starting out to wrap their heads around children not being told how and what to learn, to think about what it can look like to follow interest and how learning can look so different from the school model.
But yes, with any pendulum swing, it’s helpful to watch for it and to find a more settled spot that allows for nuance and connection. And I’ve heard people say that unschooling is the lazy way out, and I feel like this is kind of somehow related, because the vision of children just doing anything unchecked, the parent need not be involved at all. But, for me, nothing could be further from the reality of unschooling. I think it’s actually the opposite, because I definitely had moments where I was like, gosh, if I could just like plop them down with a worksheet at the table, that would be a whole lot easier. But instead, I needed to be fully engaged, listening, anticipating, connecting.
That intentionality allowed me to understand them and jump off from their interests and introduce new things to their world. And it was that interplay between all of us in the family that created the rich environment. And I think where it gets sticky is when parents get confused about their role and what that looks like, how to facilitate and be engaged without control and instead, they move to a hands-off approach thinking that’s what child-led means.
PAM: Yes, yes.
In my mind, I see a well-meaning parent sitting on top of the bob, the weight at the end of the pendulum, one hand holding the end of the string and the other hand reaching out and holding onto a children’s metal dome climbing structure. You can see tension starting to unfold across their face as it gets harder and harder to hold onto that bright yellow metal bar as gravity begins to pull the weight back down.
And if they’ve adopted the idea of “child-led” as a forever unschooling rule rather than a useful tool for a season, they are going to be hanging on for dear life, because that’s what a good unschooling parent does in their mind. And we all want that “A” still. That’s part of this whole process, as well.
To explore this tension, as Anna mentioned, let’s dive into the role of an unschooling parent. As I mentioned earlier, using the lens of child-led as we begin our unschooling journey can be so enlightening! And if the only way we know at first to interact with our kids is through telling them what to do or leaping into that teachable moment, sitting on our hands for a bit can be helpful both to give them some space to follow their interests unencumbered by our judgment, and so that we get the chance to see them in action. There’s a good chance they haven’t had a lot of space to just follow what they’re interested in in the way that is interesting to them and to be able to just change it up along the way.
But again, as the action of a pendulum so beautifully describes, we don’t want to stay there too long, because unschooling isn’t hands-off when it comes to learning. Our children’s rich learning absolutely includes engaging with us, their parents. In fact, strong relationships with our children are essential for unschooling and learning to thrive.
I think John Holt describes this so eloquently. John Holt was a classroom teacher and school reformer for many years before he eventually concluded that school and learning were never going to be a good fit. At that point, he became a fierce advocate for homeschooling, actually coining the term, “unschooling.”
But in his book, Escape From Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children, he talks about what children need growing up. He explains that children “need love, stability, consistent and unequivocal care and lasting relationships with people who are profoundly enough interested in them to look after them with warmth, gaiety, and patience.”
That was beautiful. And he packs so many important points about how the lives of parents and children weave together into this one sentence!
If you’re curious to follow that thread a bit more, I wrote a whole talk about the value of relationships for learning, exploring why connected and trusting relationships with our children lie at the heart of their learning. And in it, I dive deeper into that quote. We’ll put a link in the show notes to the episode on the website where you can read the transcript, or in your podcast player, you can listen to it in episode 148.
So, that’s definitely one of the misunderstandings that can happen when parents take on the idea of “child-led” as an ongoing rule of unschooling. By inference, they see their role as being hands-off, expecting the child to discover things on their own and waiting for them to ask for supplies or support. You’re just sitting back waiting, excited. “Oh, I can’t wait to see what they’re just going to do,” when really, unschooling is incredibly hands-on.
ERIKA: Yeah, exactly. And I love that quote from John Holt, too. People learn in relationship to others, they learn with and from others. And so, focusing on the relationships we have with our children is just so valuable.
I think it can be tricky to go from one model that we’re so familiar with of the teacher and the students, controlling parents and adults over the children to this new model. And I feel like it’s like you’ve mentioned so many times over the years, Pam, that sort of vacuum that can be left of like, what are we replacing this model with? If I’m not in charge and directing and assigning and creating these teachable moments for my kids, then what is my role? And I think at first it can seem like maybe my role is just to get out of the way and be totally hands off and just not participate.
But life is so much richer when we can actively participate in life with our kids without control and directing. And as adults, we have access to knowledge and memories and resources that our kids don’t have. And so, we can use our money and our time and our knowledge and our insights to help bring more into their lives. And the difference to me is that I’m participating in their lives without putting expectations on them of what they should be learning or what they should be interested in. So, I can suggest ideas that they would have never known about and bring new activities into their lives. It’s actually one of the most exciting parts about our lives, that they can bring new ideas to me and I can do the same for them. We’re all learning more about ourselves and about each other in our relationships and more about the world, but all in our own unique ways and styles.
ANNA: And I think the richest environment has engaged adults, sharing and connecting. Our kids want to be connected to us. They want to feel heard and seen. And in that, we learn more about each other.
We see the myriad of different ways learning happens for each family member. We learn about different areas and opportunities for being in a family that’s connected and sharing passions from all the angles. One’s interest in photography could spark an interest in costume making for another. A favorite movie could lead to wanting to know more about that location for one, the act of movie making for another.
It’s in the connection and the conversations that we’d learn and start to create our own personal webs of learning.
Sitting back and waiting for a child to lead, I think can be confusing for everyone. There will be some kids who will have a really strong idea of what they want and how they want to get there, but it’s more common for kids to not be sure. To be curious, yeah. But not to maybe have a strictly defined interest. Sometimes we have young multipotentialites who like to dabble and have diverse interests, and how great to have a parent facilitating that, introducing and engaging without agenda. We don’t know what we don’t know. So, finding ways to expand that world is fun for all of us.
And that can be done in ways that suit the actual child or children that you have. That doesn’t need to mean mandatory museum visits and pushing our kids outside of their comfort zone because we think this is good for them. But it may mean noticing an interest in space and sharing what you know, and finding some resources or activities and seeing if they spark an interest. And they may not. And so then it’s on us to not take that personally.
We don’t want to jump on a passing comment and have them signed up for a series of classes, recognizing that so much can happen, learning can happen, just in a conversation, but I needed to be there and listen and be open to having the conversations in the first place.
What you’ll find is the more you know your child, the more trust you build, and the more interesting the conversations you can have are, and the better chance you’ll have of finding new things that you can bring into your lives.
I think another big part of this is being a person that’s curious about the world ourselves. What do I love? How can I bring those things into our space that excite me? How do I engage in the world around these interests that I have? Being an interested and curious person helps everyone in the family as they’re figuring out what lights them up and just shows a pathway to that different style of learning, because like you said, Erika, we can all be kind of stuck in the sitting in the desk with the authority figure upfront telling us what to do. So, it was a learning process for me as well.
PAM: And I think as you had mentioned, I think it was you, Erika, as well, that vacuum that we leave when it’s like, oh, I’m not directing. What do I do with myself? What do I do with my time? And absolutely, as you’re saying, Anna, finding my own interests, diving into them is definitely something that you can do in that space that’s now opened up.
If I’m not looking for teachable moments, if I am having these conversations with them, but not trying to direct them. Not trying to jump in the minute I hear dance or soccer, ah, let’s sign you up. Those conversations help us find the little bit that of soccer that’s interesting to them. Maybe it’s not literally wanting to play. Maybe it’s a location thing, a history thing. Maybe it’s something in a book that they’re reading or a game that they’re playing. And one of the characters was really into soccer and they found that interesting, so they’re just learning a little bit more about it. Doesn’t mean that they want to play yet.
But yeah, so one of the things we can do, and as you said Anna, it’s a great example for just how any human being can get interested in things and jump in and that’s part of that shift that brings both adults and children into the equal footing of unschooling. We’re all following our interests and learning new things and sharing things with each other.
I remember it was just so exciting when our kids come and share something that they’re interested in and it widened my world. So, it’s just widening our world. It doesn’t mean that we need to all of a sudden go do all the things. We don’t need to go hit all the museums and do all these field trips, because opening up the world doesn’t literally mean we need to make it wider. It doesn’t need to be more things. It’s whatever the thing is they’re interested in now. Because we are not following that curriculum that tells us, they’re this age, so we should be talking about this thing. We can talk about it when they’re interested in it.
And now we’re gonna take this a step wider, because unschooling isn’t hands off when it comes to parenting in general, either. So, we’ve been talking a lot about learning, but let’s widen that up. So, again, using the child-led lens as an ongoing rule, can lead us to presume that kids need to figure things out on their own in general, including how to care for themselves, how to be in relationships with others, with both family and friends, and how to navigate their world. There’s just so much stuff that we might be expecting them to figure out on their own if we stay with that child-led lens.
As parents, we want to be in relationship with our kids. We can validate their feelings and help them process their experiences so they can bring that understanding forward with them.
We can explore the context and circumstances of situations with them, so they start to see the bigger picture of things. We can brainstorm ideas with them as they contemplate how they want to move through a challenge, whether it’s learning-related, relationship-related, all the pieces of life. And we can do all that without judgment or expectations, without directing them. That’s the important piece. Without the expectation that, we mention there’s a soccer league, but we don’t expect that they’re going to go, “Yay! Thanks for signing me up!” They may, but like zero expectations.
So, instead, we’re supporting their learning about themselves and the world. Together, we’re navigating everyone’s needs, children and adults alike.
In unschooling circles, that hands-off approach to parenting, I think you’ll see that it’s often dubbed or, or spoken about as unparenting. Because it really does leave the child’s a flounder without help from their parents to recognize and incorporate the perspectives and needs of others, without someone to help them process their experiences and to chat about different approaches and tools they might want to try as they encounter challenges in their day. Not to mention fascinating conversations around the many ways in which people are fundamentally different from one another.
So, going back to our metaphor, I think what we’re aiming for is the pendulum to kind of settle into an equilibrium, without big swings either way, where neither adults nor children hold an ongoing power advantage. Now that said, keeping the pendulum still isn’t the goal either, because life happens and it may sway this way in that, but that’s based on the needs of the individual and the unique family members. So, if one member of the family, child or adult, is going through a challenging time, it’s natural that more of the family’s focus and energy leans in that direction to support them during that season.
The power of the family is gifted to each person as needed. We’re a team that helps each other out regardless of age. It’s not adult-led or child-led, and there is nothing hands-off about it. We are in strong and connected relationships with each other.
ERIKA: Yeah. I love that. And right, there’s so much to learn about the world and the cultural norms and relationships and all these things, and kids can pick up on and figure out so many things on their own, but if they also have an adult there who’s open to helping them learn without judgment, it’s just such an amazing asset.
And it’s so much fun to have those deep conversations with my kids or just to help them talk through misunderstandings with their friends or try to figure out what it is at the bottom, what’s bothering them, what is the need that’s not being met? And if I continue to be a trustworthy source of information and perspective and I validate their experience and their emotions, they keep coming back to share and to work through things with me. And I really value that so much.
I think with the unparenting, more hands-off approach, it’s kind of like the “always say yes” rule that we talked about months ago. Rather than sharing the context of a situation or helping my child think through this thing that they’re wanting to do, I could just offer a blanket yes and no support. And then I really do think it’s setting them up to having misunderstandings with others or some other type of upset later.
And so, if instead I’m supporting them and giving them information about what it is they want to do, then they get the benefit of my experience and perspective, and they know that I’m there for them and we can figure out a path forward that can work for everyone. And so, when I’m thinking about the learning versus the parenting, I guess when I think of learning in my family, I think of it rather than adult-led or child-led, I think of it as excitement-based or interest-based. And then with parenting, rather than thinking of it as, parents are in charge or children are in charge, I think of the four of us as a family team, where all of the people and all of the needs matter. It’s not adults in charge or kids in charge, and it’s just a different paradigm and a different way of looking at the roles and the relationships, and it just feels really good to me.
ANNA: Yes, and that was the thing for me too. Like it just felt better. I liked that feeling. There’s four of us and my family as well, and just how beautiful it was to just hear one another and to figure things out. And it just had such a better feel to me than whenever I got caught in that kind of control paradigm, which did not feel great.
And I am really glad we’re touching on unparenting, because it is something that you can see in unschooling circles at times, and I think it can come from a lot of different places. I think parents can find themselves doing a lot of deep work when they start unschooling. And sometimes that takes them out of the moment and they’re really in their head, thinking about their own childhood and the baggage and the triggers and the things, and it’s all of these pieces, but it’s disconnected from the kids who are then out there doing their thing.
I think others can have an independence agenda. “I want you to figure it out and do it yourself,” and either of those things and others can lead to this more hands-off approach that leaves kids not really knowing how to navigate some environments or how to find what they need.
And I’m just all about information. I think that kids want to understand the broader world and how to fit into it. But, for me, that’s not about conformity, but it’s just about information. Just understanding different pieces. How do our actions impact others? What certain environments, what expectations are there? What’s happening in these different cultures of different ideas about things? With information, they can make an informed decision about how they want to proceed. Is it the right environment for them at this moment? Maybe it isn’t. What can they expect if they do go down that path or attend that event or go to that certain place?
We don’t have all the answers, but our experience is valuable and as long as I’m sharing it with the caveat of, well, this is what I saw, this is what worked for me, and trusting that they will find their own path, then both of us can feel good and stay connected as we move through those pieces.
ERIKA: Going back to the idea of sharing our own interests and passions with them as part of what we can do, I feel like that’s related to what you were just talking about, where it’s like, in the control paradigm, I might hear them say, I’m interested in this. And then I say, oh, well you know what you should do is blah, blah, blah. But in this new paradigm, I can say, oh wow. Well, when I was a kid, I did this, or I saw this video, or I am interested in this. And so, just sharing from what I’m interested in about it and then listening to what they’re interested in about it, it’s just a completely different feeling than taking what their interests are and putting my own kind of expectations and judgements on them.
ANNA: Just one quick thing, because you spoke about this early on, that it’s not just about getting out of their way, but we all know that there is a piece of getting out of their way. And I know you’ve seen it, too. It’s kind of like what you’re just saying. It’s like, yes, sometimes we do need to get out of the way. We just don’t need to leave. We don’t need to leave the building. We want to stay connected, but we want to watch for those things that you’re talking about. Like, are we saying, well if you do it this way, then you’ll get to that place. That’s so different than just like, oh, that does sound interesting.
Here’s something I did similar and what I learned about it. Let’s figure out what it looks like for you.
Because I think that’s what’s hard for people. Like how do I replace it? What’s the next thing you know? What is that gonna look like? But I don’t know. I feel like it’s natural once you start to kind of just let go of those outside paradigms. I was thinking about some things you were saying.
PAM: And we do have a podcast episode. I don’t know the number off the top of my head, but From Control to Connection, because yes, that is talking about that transition, that paradigm shift, that vacuum, that when we stop controlling, well now what do we do now? Now, that’s that move to connection to being together, to being just engaged with one another. And I’m glad you mentioned that, Anna. Some kids have a very clear vision of what they want to do.
And so, it’s really about learning about each other as individuals and what kind of support and energy they’re needing or wanting or might be interested in, not feeling judged if we hand something up and they’re like, yeah, no. Not interested. Or, “What the heck? That doesn’t make any sense to me at all.” Or any of those kinds of reactions. We just learned something more about them. It’s not that they’re wrong. It’s not that we were wrong to share it, but it’s more learning for each of us in how we can connect and support each other.
So, I find that piece so very fascinating. And is really helpful at the beginning of the journey, because I think one of the biggest things in that shift from control to connection, especially if we have been more on the control side in our relationship with them before, is this transition isn’t, you wake up the next day and you say, you know what? I’m not going to control you any more!
There will need to be a shift. And it’s an internal shift for us, because I think it comes across in tone. I think it comes across in body energy. And it will take a while for them to trust when we say, “Oh, that’s really cool. Do you want to try this?” And we’re not saying, “I really think you should do this,” right, Erika? As you were saying. And they’re like, “What the heck? Usually you tell me what I should do and then I argue and then, you know, we move forward from there.”
But that the time that it takes for us to really understand it in our bones so that it’s not coming out as an underlying energy in the things that we say. Yeah, I’m saying this, that doesn’t sound controlling, but you can hear from my tone of voice that I really want you to choose this thing.
Also for them to develop a trust in us that, oh, I can say the thing, I can say, “Oh, it’s really curious about soccer. I just learned this thing,” and you’re not going to jump at me saying, “Let’s sign you up.” Or, “I signed you up. It starts in two weeks.” That trust is something, trust isn’t a one way thing. It’s something we develop together and it’s something that we learn together. And that’s where that connection piece really comes in. And that fully and energetically can replace control in our relationship.
ERIKA: Yes. I think life is just so much more interesting when we’re all bringing our full human selves to our families, like stepping away from the role of the parent, which I think is the block to this type of connection, thinking that we’re all knowing and we’re in charge, but we can still participate and explore and engage in the world together with our children.
So, anyway, it’s been so much fun to dive into this unschooling rule with you and for all of our listeners, we would love it if you would join us in the Living Joyfully Network, our online community where we talk about so many rich topics that impact our unschooling lives. It’s such a great place to connect with other families navigating the same challenges and experiencing that same joy of connection. You can learn more at livingjoyfully.ca/network. Thanks again for joining us and see you next time! Bye.