Unschooling Rules: It is Not One-Size-Fits-All

Unschooling Rules: it's not one-size-fits-allThere are no unschooling rules; as I’ve written on the Life Learning Magazine website, unschooling / life learning is about trusting and respecting children to learn and develop without teaching and other schoolish or coercive techniques. But each family moves toward that at its own speed and in its own way.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, after a massive (almost four hundred posts) discussion on my Facebook page last week. It began when I casually mentioned that I’d left some Facebook unschooling groups because I was weary of reading nastiness, politics, and spam. Clearly, people wanted to chat about their experiences with unschooling groups – both in-person and online – which seem to run the gamut from helpful to downright brutal. Some people said they enjoy a good knock‘em-sock‘em tangle with people and their ideas. But many people shared how they had sometimes felt diminished and even bullied by others in the face-to-face and virtual unschooling communities. Wonderfully, that discussion on my Facebook wall remained polite and calm.

However, I have now heard enough horror stories – on that discussion and from people contacting me privately over the past few years – to wonder about the ironic lack of respect among folks dedicated to respecting children. (I am also aware that similar behavior is also a problem in the natural parenting and vegan/vegetarian online communities, and I have left a number of environmental organizations for similar reasons over the years.) Just today, I read this pre-emptive request on a Facebook page: “Please don’t bash or chastise as I am only seeking guidance….” Something is very wrong when people have to cower while asking for information!

In the unschooling/parenting context, much of the disagreement has to do with freedom. As a general principle, the more freedom and trust children have, the more they’ll surprise us with their ability to make great choices at a much younger age than is the norm in our culture. However, most of us have a lot to learn about the possibilities, and trust isn’t a simple thing.

For instance, I have been told that parents should allow a child to eat anything he wants – even to expose him to a wide variety of “junk” food so that he can learn to self-manage. My own personal response is that, while learning to self-manage is what it’s all about (and kids are perfectly capable of doing that) there are many forces out there conspiring to help our kids make choices that aren’t in their own best interests. And it’s our role as parents to help them learn how to make those choices so they can ultimately self-manage.

As an example, some corporations make huge profits manufacturing tasty, extremely unhealthy, and even addictive food, and advertising it in dishonest ways. So, although, theoretically, being allowed to overeat candy and suffer the resulting stomach ache should help a child learn to moderate her candy intake, she was not born with the knowledge required to understand the manipulative corporate agenda and avoid potentially very bad choices (I hesitate to even use the word “choice” in this context). As someone with that information, I could not sit back and watch my young child damage her health – perhaps permanently – in the name of preserving our relationship or some notion of freedom.

I think it’s about developmental appropriateness and preventing harm…while helping the child self-manage. And that takes thought, effort, and self-control on a parent’s part. I have actually begun to think that it’s disrespectful of a child to put her in a situation she can’t handle. For many years, I have used this example: Not many parents would allow a toddler to run in front of a truck in order to let her learn the consequences – and we might say the one who did so was “unparenting.”

Many parenting decisions are difficult because we live in a complicated world. People who have chosen to live without school are already walking a radically different path from the majority of parents in our culture. But we can stretch ourselves still further…and that’s often what is happening during conversations in many of the groups that get rowdy. However, bullying is not an exploration of ideas, and a small group of people usurping and defining a term, then dictating “right” and “wrong” ways for other people to live with their families – creating unschooling rules – does not help further the understanding or experience of how to live respectfully with children. Just because someone has a strong opinion or a forceful way of communicating it doesn’t mean they’re any more “right” that you are. And there is nothing wrong with being turned off by that.

So then, it becomes time to name the problem and seek solutions. Coincidental to my recent Facebook marathon, Life Learning Magazine featured an article from Australian writer Susan Wight on this very topic. And she proposes some solutions. One of them involves what I’ve recommended for decades: Gather information and ideas from others who have gone before (and from the people you respect as experts), but then make decisions based on your own lives, ideas, and children, rather than follow a prescription if it doesn’t fit. As Susan writes, “Home education gives us the freedom to be individuals. Let’s do just that.”

Your path might be different, but I have enough trust in both children and most adults to think that we can get to a place where we trust and respect children…without implementing unschooling rules.