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Liberate Your Education
Unschooling Is Not One-Size-Fits-All
By Susan Wight

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Photo © Julia Metkalova/Shutterstock

Sarah has heard that if her children want chocolate biscuits for breakfast, they will eat a balanced diet over time without well-meaning interference from her. Meanwhile, she’s struggling to buy enough chocolate biscuits to keep up with them and is torn between her concerns about nutrition and a reluctance to impose restrictions on her children.

Beth is tired, super tired. She’s just worn out from standing in the kitchen cooking an endless supply of snacks and meals for children who are hungry at different times, but she doesn’t want to impose her idea of mealtimes on them.

Mandy has heard that unschooling means her children must direct their own learning so she avoids answering their questions.

Frances is frustrated that her children just drop their rubbish on the floor and leave her to pick it up. She doesn’t want to tell them off, but feels resentful after cleaning up after them all day.

Something odd is happening in the world of unschooling. We are currently seeing home educators who previously described themselves as “unschoolers” beginning to distance themselves from the term because the more “radical” elements of it are no longer something they identify with. This article is my attempt to examine and explain this phenomenon. Firstly, we need to look at how unschooling has evolved.

The term “unschooling” was coined by John Holt in the second edition of his magazine Growing Without Schooling in 1977. He used the word there to mean “taking kids out of school.”

 

During the 1980s, the term “homeschooling” was the generic term and “unschooling” or “life learning” came to mean home education without a curriculum. The distinction seems to have come about because home education practice was so diverse as to defy one term.

“If you reject the authority of schools, why look for another authority to replace it with? All of us look to home educators who are further along the road than us for hints and ideas but let’s not make gurus of anyone.”

By the 1990s, “unschooling” had a definite child-led-education connotation. In The Unschooling Handbook (1998) Mary Griffith defined it as: “... learning what one wants, when one wants, in the way one wants, for one’s own reasons… choice and control reside with the learner…She may find outside help in the form of parents, mentors, books, or formal lessons, but she is the one making the decisions about how best to proceed. Unschooling is trusting that your children are at least as clever and capable as yourself.”

Some unschoolers argued that families weren’t “real unschoolers” if they had textbooks in the house, and others said that textbooks were okay if they were treated as resources, available but not pushed. Some parents said they unschooled everything except math and others accused them of not being unschoolers at all.

From about 2000, the term “radical unschoolers” began to be used for those who allowed children unrestricted access to video games or TV, while “unschoolers” restricted access to these things. Some families began to extend the principles of radical unschooling into their attitudes towards bedtimes, food, chores, and rules.

In 2005 Rue Kream’s book Parenting a Free Child: An Unschooled Life used the term “unschooling” for the type of boundary-free lifestyle many were associating with radical unschooling. Importantly, while Kream advocated unregulated food and TV, she stipulated that she and her husband, Jon, were active facilitators, fellow explorers and, at times, guides for their children. She wrote, “My children do not watch TV in a vacuum, and they do not watch it mindlessly. Jon and I are there with them, answering their questions, talking about things we think are interesting or important or irritating, and listening to their opinions on what we are seeing.” They took a similar line with food – sure, they removed the boundaries but, at the same time, they did a lot of talking about healthy choices.

Since then, what was once thought of as “radical unschooling” has come to be associated with “unschooling” itself. Today, unschooling can mean anything from home education without a curriculum, to the removal of all limits and rules in education, sleep, diet, and media use. The disagreement in definitions makes it difficult for parents to know exactly what others mean when they say they are unschoolers. It seems that many new unschoolers are picking up on the “no limits” philosophy but missing the message about parental involvement that Rue Kream saw as an essential part of the it. The whole image of unschooling is feeling the impact of this misinterpretation.

Different approaches work for different families. The thing is, life learning is highly individual – it is about your family and your life. You take the principles of free education, apply them to your life, and come up with something tailored to fit your own family. The same should be true whether you call your style “unschooling,” or “radical unschooling,” or whatever. Each family’s home education should be theirs, not a poor copy of someone else’s.

I am alarmed by the number of new home educators who don’t find it liberating to be able to choose their own way; they want someone to tell them what to do. Even those choosing an informal style want to adopt it like a recipe: add these ingredients, mix in this manner, bake at this temperature, and you’ll end up with this result. Life doesn’t work like that and nor does home education. I can’t replicate someone else’s version of life learning because I don’t live their life, in their house, on their land, with their children.

Perhaps this less independent phase of home education is symptomatic of the growth of mainstream home education – many have not come to home education as a philosophical decision, but as refugees from a system that didn’t work for them. They are seeking a replacement system. There is nothing wrong with undertaking home education as a last resort – I certainly did. What concerns me is the level of anxiety I am seeing amongst so many new home educators. Something is wrong.

"We need to help and learn from each other rather than choosing one person to hold up as an example to all."

Ultimately, if you reject the authority of schools, why look for another authority to replace it with? All of us look to home educators further along the road for hints and ideas but let’s not make gurus of anyone. We need to help and learn from each other rather than choosing one person to hold up as an example to all. I think the emergence of unschooling gurus is a problem. New home educators seem to follow them and try to implement what they say, even when it is seriously at odds with their own value system. This just doesn’t work.

Another issue is that there seems to be an attitude in certain unschooling circles that if families don’t let go of all restrictions, they just aren’t enlightened enough. The truth is that most families loosen up about home education as time goes on. Making new home educators feel uncomfortable does not help them in this process. Between the gurus and the “enlightened” crowd, new home educators can receive a large dose of anxiety, ridicule, and confusion. This results in the kinds of situations described at the beginning of this article.

I think an “unschooling guru” is an oxymoron anyway. Life learning isn’t a recipe. It is a way of life, an attitude, a way of trusting families to find their own educational path independently of institutions and without experts telling them what to do. It is inherently independent. Having a guru telling you how to be independent has a Monty Python flavor to it! I think home educators need to critically examine all aspects of home education philosophy before applying them to their own lives and not feel compelled to accept the whole package without question.

Parenting is a major part of home education. Most of the problems currently being raised in unschooling are parenting issues. Having rejected the authoritarian models of schooling and parenting, parents are unsure what to replace them with. “No limits” can lead to permissiveness unless you find an effective way to balance children’s needs within the larger family context. The model I’ve found very beneficial and a good fit with life learning and respect for children is the one advocated by Dr. Thomas Gordon in Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) which I will briefly outline here.

Firstly, PET points out that different behaviors are acceptable in different situations, to different people, and at different times. Say, for example, a boy throws a ball in the house. This might be perfectly acceptable to his dad who is pleased to see his son’s developing skills, but totally unacceptable to his mom who is worried that her vase might get broken. The behavior itself is not inherently good or bad but where and when it takes place, and who is affected by it, determines parental reactions. The PET method encourages families to identify whether there is a problem and, if so, who owns the problem. Next, parents learn the valuable skill of active listening to better understand their children’s feelings and problems and to then effectively and honestly communicate their own problems. In our example, the problem belongs to the mother who needs to say, “I’m really worried my vase will be knocked over and broken.” The final stage is for parents and children to work together to come up with a solution acceptable to all parties. For example, the father and son might move outside or to a playroom to continue the ball game. This method is a positive approach to parenting, based on mutual respect.

In my experience, when children and teenagers have been listened to, they are more likely to listen to parents. I can’t claim to be an expert at PET but it has provided our family with a useful framework to work within. Home educators who have rejected the authoritarian parenting model may also find it useful.

Let’s go back to those unschooling problems and look at them one by one in the light of these PET principles. I would really encourage families to talk honestly with their children about problems as they arise and come up with a solution together that meets the needs of both parents and children; however, I’ll offer some ideas here that may clarify the process.

"What we call our home education style doesn’t matter as much as what we actually do and how comfortable we feel with it. If you aren’t comfortable with the way your family is living, something needs to be changed. Don’t be afraid to make changes. Home education isn’t static. Not only does it vary from family to family, it grows with the family over time, changing as the children’s needs and abilities change."

Sarah has the chocolate biscuit problem. Obviously, some unschoolers are comfortable with the “no limits” attitude to food but Sarah isn’t. Essentially, she’s trying to implement something she doesn’t believe in. She has some very reasonable concerns about diet and dental care that her silence is not going to solve.

One aspect of the “no limits” philosophy Sarah seems to have missed is the talking that Rue Kream advocated. Rather than falsely accepting a situation she isn’t comfortable with, she needs to talk to her children about healthy eating and her concern over their topsy-turvy diet and negotiate a solution together. She also doesn’t have to keep stocking the pantry with food she’d rather the family didn’t eat. She could take the “no-limits” attitude to food but ensure the pantry and refrigerator are stocked in accordance with what she knows about healthy diet practices. If there is a packet of chocolate biscuits available for the week, and a whole lot of healthy things to choose from, the children might eat the chocolate biscuits first but won’t be living on them. On the weekly shopping trip Sarah could allocate a budget for chocolate biscuits and continue the diet discussion into budgeting as well.

Beth found herself in the kitchen all day because she had latched onto the unschooling idea of no set mealtimes. The fact is that a more relaxed lifestyle does remove the need for set bedtimes and mealtimes, but only to the point where it works for everyone in the family. When flexibility starts to create problems rather than solve them, it has gone too far. Clearly, that’s what has happened here. I’m concerned that Beth is encouraging her children to think she just exists to serve them – not a healthy attitude to foster. Empowering children should not mean enslaving parents. Firstly, Beth could explain to the children that this meal arrangement just isn’t working for her and ask for their suggestions. Solutions might include some flexibility with mealtimes but one sitting for each, or regular mealtimes with leftovers in the fridge for those who weren’t ready. Another option is to have a selection of foodstuffs available for the children to prepare their own meals and snacks as they get hungry.

Mandy avoids answering her children’s questions because she has misunderstood the concept of self-directed learning. It doesn’t mean children should never learn from their parents. I think refusing to answer children’s questions is both unnatural and unkind. Life learning does not mean children can’t learn from their parents. Parents are natural teachers who should be actively involved in their children’s education as guides and mentors. Certainly, encourage children to become independent in finding answers but don’t teach them that parents are unhelpful or that questions are a nuisance.

Frances has the problem of not liking picking up after untidy children. This is similar to Beth’s problem – in an effort to respect her children’s freedom, she’s enslaving herself. A simple statement of, “It would really help me out if you guys could put your rubbish in the bin” might solve the problem. If the children didn’t modify their behavior, Beth would need to talk to them further and move onto problem solving.

I think that the type of situations described above – and others, such as some children’s behavior at conferences – are giving unschooling a bad name; it is starting to look like unparenting, which it isn’t. Home educators need to work together to correct this idea. Regardless of the style chosen, parenting is a major part of home education. There is no one right answer; different solutions would work for different families. Sometimes kids come up with solutions we’d never think of. The secret is to find a solution that works for the people involved.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like these:

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So I say to new home educators: Begin with your own family and your own values, read widely on education, and by all means talk to other, more experienced home educators. Then think about everything you’ve read and heard and resist the temptation to follow a guru down a path you don’t feel comfortable on.

What we call our home education style doesn’t matter as much as what we actually do and how comfortable we feel with it. If you aren’t comfortable with the way your family is living, something needs to be changed. Don’t be afraid to make changes. Home education isn’t static. Not only does it vary from family to family, it grows with the family over time, changing as the children’s needs and abilities change.

Perhaps we don’t need labels at all. Home education offers a unique opportunity to do what works for each individual family. There are no hard and fast rules for how we manage our time, our resources, and our interactions. It is all about finding what works for us.

Home education gives us the freedom to be individuals. Let’s do just that.

Susan Wight is the coordinator of the Home Education Network in Australia, editor of Otherways Magazine and co-author of Tales Out of School. She’s big on informing and empowering new home educators but critical of anyone who sets themselves up as a home education guru. Her article “The Joy of a Reading Childhood” appeared in our Sept/Oct 2012 issue.

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