Thursday, December 27, 2012

How to Unschool

This is inspired by Kathy Woodford's video, which I'll post at the end of this post. It's a gentle, supportive video intended specifically for Newtown parents who might consider homeschooling in the wake of the recent shooting, however, I think it's of benefit to the wider population. Like Kathy, I also have various relatives working in or retired from the school system, and despite my choice to radically unschool my own kids, have a great deal of respect for those who study, parent, and work within the system. This post is not intended to malign the people who have given their hearts and souls to the children who depend upon the system, but just to offer support to those who are considering or (as we are) constantly assessing their choice of unschooling.

Unschooling means no heirarchy: endlessly figuring things out with others.
The main premise: Let go of control.
If you are serious about unschooling, you've read about it, you know some other unschooling families, or you've just hit the end of your curriculum-knotted rope and you have to make the leap, then you know this already, but it's good to remind ourselves regularly - especially those of us who (like me!) were brought up in a coercive system or environment, and probably pass a good deal of that coercion on to our kids.

That's it. Let go. In every aspect of your parenting and relationships, just let go of control. We can advise our children, but we can't make them heed our advice. We can tell them what we hope for, but we can't dictate their hopes and intentions. I struggle with this every hour of every day. I want my kids to be polite; I want them to get inspired. I want them to feed the animals and be kind to me, and excel in the things they love to do. But it's not up to me. And every single time I get involved, they are not less but more likely, to make the same mistakes again.

Case in point: This evening I came home to red-faced angry children. It was clear they'd been in tears, and as it turned out, there had been an angry, heated argument over Minecraft (who gets a turn when), and they'd both come out of it feeling threatened and hurt. My initial desire was to shout at them for playing Minecraft when I'd expressly forbade it until January (my misguided punishment for the last few times this same argument happened), and to tell them how much they've hurt themselves and each other with this stupid argument. But for once I think I got it right. Well, maybe not right; I'm not sure there's ever an absolute right in these cases, but I did a whole lot better than previously. I stood up and silently went away to my room to think about what to do. Eventually my daughter came in and lay down on me, telling me the whole story, as accurately as she could. After a while my husband and son joined me, and somehow the situation was resolved without any threats, retribution, anger, or even feelings of unfairness. We just took ownership of our behaviour and we made things as right as they could be. And I apologized for having banned Minecraft. We can all learn from our mistakes, and I believe our children learn more from our mistakes than from their own.

Now what?

So... you get the letting go of control thing. You've left your kids alone for so long that they've become bored with video games, junkfood, and every other binge they tried when they realized they were truly free. Or maybe they didn't become bored, and you're now worried you've created monsters.

Let go some more.

Go get a book and read it. Do the baking you've been thinking about. Research something that's been on your mind lately. Do the mending. Your kids might come to see what you're doing, or they might continue with their own pursuits, but you are leading by example, and they are making subconscious notes that this is what a healthy productive parent does with a day. The unschooling parent doesn't hover over the kids; doesn't watch them with eyes-on-back-of-head; doesn't surreptitiously slip them grade-appropriate texts and expect them to get interested, and certainly doesn't research and study the things the kids are supposed to get interested in. The parent feeds the parent's own soul. And the children see this, and learn that this is what healthy productive adults do.

I'm not advocating neglect, here. Obviously, the younger the children are, the more attention they'll receive, but we can aim to make it supportive and positive instead of coercive and laden with expectation. We can invite them into our wonderful explorations and ask to be invited on their journeys, as well. We can watch and learn from their play as they do from ours. And when they're older they'll hopefully appreciate that our presence in their lives can be non-judgmental and supportive, and maybe we can have a closer relationship in the teen years. This is something I am not succeeding with, personally. I've been far too judgmental of my children over the years, and now my 10-year-old is beginning to show signs of pre-teen independence-seeking, closing himself into rooms, etc. But we're open with him about our desire for a close, loving family, and about the changes we're trying to make, within ourselves. I've asked both of my children to help me make my changes; to remind me that my coercion is getting me nowhere, etc. And they do. And it does help. We're all learning, together. I know it's a very good thing for them to see me climb my own mountain.

Because they're going to have their own mountains to climb, and it will be helpful for them to have seen somebody else make a similar effort. But still, when they try, they're going to fall down. Because we all do. And guess what you have to do then?

Let go some more!

It's time to step back and not fix our children's mistakes. We're going to want to pick up the pieces and cuddle them and make it right for them: phone the friend's parents and arrange to mend the friendship; help them find another job; rescue the plants they loved but forgot to water; tidy their rooms; drive them to events they're late for; etc. It's so easy to step in and take charge, but in doing so we strip them of both their independence, and their chance to learn.

Of course, when I say let go, I'm still talking about control. Let go of the control, but keep your arms outstretched because when your children need you, they need to know that you are there to offer love and support. That, after all, is our privilege to give.

I've written this before, and I'll share it many more times, I'm sure. When I became a mother, my own mother (a very experienced, educated, and well-respected professional in the field of child and infant development) gave me the greatest parenting advice I've ever received: "No matter what anybody tells you - including me - always trust your heart. You are a mother, and there is nobody who knows what is right for your baby better than you do." Well, my mother had grave concerns about our choice to radically unschool, but I took her advice and ignored her concerns... this blog in fact began as a way to communicate to our families what we and the children were doing - in part to dispel some of the concerns they had. Those concerns are no secret to unschoolers and homeschoolers; we hear them all the time, and they're definitely a part of the reason that so many of us waffle about on the fence between unschooling and homeschooling or homeschooling and schooling. We spend a lot of time researching, to find the answers we already know in our hearts, reassuring, to find the solace for concerned relatives and friends, and reassessing, to find the answers our hearts haven't quite settled on. But in the end it turns out that, as long as we truly support our children in their own desires and endeavours, and follow our hearts, most of the biggest concerns are unfounded. So let me dispel them for us, shall I?

Socialization: Children are not objects to be 'socialized'. They are humans born with a social nature, and it is important that, as they develop their social skills, they have wonderful role models to observe. So are you kind and generous? Do you love your friends and family? Then yes. They'll be fine. As long as we support them in this, and ensure that they have access to groups of like-minded people that they are interested in being with, our children will be just fine.

Broad vision: Access to a variety of socioeconomic groups, activities, belief-systems, etc. is in fact more available to those who have time and encouragement to study whatever their hearts desire.

Learning enough: Yes. They will. They may not learn the same things as their peers, but they will learn what they love, and eventually they will find people who know and care about those things, too. *Edit 10/22/15: In the two years since I wrote this article, both of my children have entered school. One entered a grade 7 program after doing grades 1-6 completely freely, at home, and had to complete an educational assessment when he began. The other entered a part-time homeschool support program this year in grade 6, but hopes to attend grade 7 full-time, next year, and has also done the assessment. Surprisingly (or not), both of my mostly free-range life-learning children were ranked average to far above average on the assessments, and have adjusted very well to the school systems they're trying out. I don't believe that my children are geniuses, and I can tell you with certainty that I have not trained them! I believe that the reason they developed the skills required by the school system to the extent that they did was purely because they were allowed to explore.
For what it's worth, this "school" chapter of their lives is also an exploration. They're still unschooling, as far as we're concerned, and are welcome to pull out of school whenever they'd like to.

Parents don't have the skills to teach: So what? Unschooling does not require parents to teach. It requires us to learn.

College/University entrance: Maybe, if they want to. There will be schools who welcome independent learners with open arms, but there is also a movement afoot of unschooling through higher learning. They may do more for themselves than a degree could offer them. And by the time they get there, who knows how wide their universe may be?

Financial concerns: Financially, anything requiring a parent to stay home and not work can be difficult; even impossible for some. But I do believe that when we work in community, and broaden our perspectives about how much money we need, and what kinds of work we can do, there is usually a way. Unschooling is a lifestyle for the whole family. I think it's best to go head-first, vowing to oneself that there will be no regrets.

Is it legal? Well... that's the sticky point. It's not legal everywhere. But in most areas of North America it seems to me that people make it work by shaping the rules to their advantage. This takes a bit of research, and often some guidance from experienced local home/unschoolers, but it is usually doable, given enough willpower. In our area we have a homeschooling support program that provides a weekly art group, as well as various other resources, and acts as a liaison between us and the school district. This means that we only are required to make a learning plan at the beginning of the year, and to report 3 times throughout the year, and have access to some funding for children's activities and supplies, etc. There's a bit of jumping through hoops for the reporting, but generally it serves our purposes well, and we meet with other homelearners outside of this time, too.

So that's how it works for us. It's not like this for everybody; that's the nature of unschooling. But hopefully this has been encouraging to some who've been embattled by the concerns and criticisms of others, or who just are wondering how to begin. Obviously, we think this is a wonderful path to be on, for all of us involved, and I hope that if you've made it this far in the post, you'll share your thoughts, experiences, and inspirations here, too.


  1. Ah, Minecraft. Many a tear has been shed over Minecraft. Thank you for writing this post. We are new to unschooling. I know in my heart it is the right thing to do, but sometimes I do feel rather alone in this decision. We don't admit to our friends that we are not really "doing" anything. When they ask, we make vague noises and add in words like "Mona Lisa", "fractions", really any conversation we may have had in the last week or so. My son is 10 (I think you said yours is, too) and I know, like you, that this is something we must do if we are going to survive the teen years and teach him the truly important things he needs to know--love, respect, forgiveness . . .Thanks again for posting. I'm gaining strength from you.

  2. Thank you, Anonymous! I wish you well on your unschooling journey! I'd love to hear how it goes, if you can drop in and share again, sometime!


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