I was talking with a couple of unschoolers about modeling independent thinking and behavior. The dad told me that he and his wife do not control their young children’s thinking or their learning, but they do find it necessary to occasionally control their behavior, because it is their duty to nourish and protect their children. I shared with these unschoolers that my husband and I found that precisely because we didn´t try to control our (now adult) daughters´ thinking, we seldom needed to control their behavior. They usually knew what was appropriate, safe, and healthy for themselves. Sure, when they were very young, they sometimes followed their curiosity into potentially dangerous situations, but we were there to abort or rescue if necessary. And sure, when they were little and I was doing the grocery shopping, their choice of food was limited by my selections – something that changed as they grew older, learned about healthy eating, and had input into our family food purchasing.
Mostly, we simply tried not to intentionally put our young daughters into situations they were not yet able to handle, because those were usually the ones that resulted in emotional or physical danger. (Admittedly, making those decisions wasn’t easy because we tried to err on the side of their autonomous decision-making, as well as exploration and learning, rather than being biased by our own overly-cautious comfort levels.) Meanwhile, we communicated with them about life and its many daily choices and possibilities. So, in a modified free-range manner (before that term was commonly used in relation to kids), we allowed them as many opportunities as possible to learn to balance danger and risk.
Just as importantly, we tried to model that balance for them. Learning to think for ourselves – and to act accordingly – is supposedly a big component of education. But much of what passes for an education works against that and actually trains children to pay attention to what others think and say. The education industry promotes the thinking of experts and doses out information from governments, corporations, and various adults who often put their own interests first. The internalizing of the notion that others know best what is good for us results in what the late sociologist David Riesman, in his book The Lonely Crowd, called “other-directed” people.
Looking to one’s peers for direction is an inauthentic way to live. And it is one that I think many who consider themselves to be unschoolers want their children to avoid. Instead, they hope to raise self-directed, free thinkers. But peer pressure is a huge part of modern living, and it is easy to get caught up in it. So, as parents, we should be vigilant about our own self-directedness. As I wrote in this article for Life Learning Magazine in 2004, “Ultimately, I think, the limits of our children’s freedom can only be decided by individual parents who have carefully considered each child’s developmental abilities, and who have examined their own biases.” Then, when we are confident in our own thinking and decisions, and can control our own behavior mindfully rather than relying on what others think, we will set a good example for our children.