you write the script of your own life with the help of people who love or
care about you.” ~John Taylor Gatto
One of the things that confounds people making the
shift from schooling to school-free living is how much guidance and freedom
to give children. Guidance, not control is the subject of many of the online
conversations (and disagreements) among unschoolers, especially when the
discussion moves beyond academics into the realm of general parenting philosophy.
I think that clarifying what we mean by control and
guidance can help us decide how to live and learn with our children. The
essence of life learning is to move away from controlling kids’ learning
(and lives, for that matter, but the dilemma is to figure out how much guidance
our children need at various stages in their development, and what our role
is in relation to that. Each child and each parent will differ in their
The idea of controlling kids is well-established
in our society. Adults routinely (and sometimes unthinkingly) make decisions
for children and young people, create rules that govern their lives, and
generally tell them what to study and do...and when, where, and how. At
school, learning is regimented in a controlled manner, using a carefully
sequenced third-party curriculum that sets out various subjects to be studied
in a particular order, accompanied by lots of memorization, practice exercises,
Even those adults who believe they are treating children
with respect, tact, and courtesy act in such a way. They think that children
need enforced structure in order to learn, as well as limits in order to
behave appropriately (the latter often relating to ways in which the former
can be enforced).
As life learners, on the other hand, we try
hard not to inflict our agendas onto our children, and to trust them to
learn what they need to know. We understand that people learn best on an
as-needed basis, and that when kids don’t have their powerful curiosity
stolen or arbitrary limits imposed they will be interested in much more
than we might prescribe and will behave responsibly.
Nevertheless, and especially in the early days
of life learning or under pressure from others, trusting the process can
be difficult. And then there are all those scary words like “authority”
and “coercion” that we definitely want to avoid. So the question becomes
how and when to guide children without controlling them.
One of the things to remember as you learn the difference
between control and guidance/assistance is that even the most neurotic parents
won’t be able to keep their kids one hundred percent safe and healthy, let
alone ensure that they will learn what somebody thinks they’re “supposed”
to learn. Chances are that if we give kids trust and respect, along with
time and support, those things will happen, but there are no guarantees,
either at home or at school.
The good news is that even the most skeptical adults
can increase their trust in children’s abilities. Look for ways in which
your kids have learned without your control, and examine your role (or lack
of it!) in that learning. Walking and talking are the ones that are commonly
cited, but there are so many more things that children learn informally.
Our children learn some of those things completely
on their own. But we often are helping out, whether we realize it or not.
learning to walk. Most people don’t force the process, or even direct
it (and most wannabe toddlers wouldn’t tolerate that anyway!). What we do
is model the behavior, anticipate and trust that it will happen, create
an encouraging and safe environment for it to develop, provide encouragement
after the child has initiated the behavior, and celebrate success. In short,
we provide guidance and help but take our cues from the child, who has already
demonstrated an interest in learning the skill.
You might say we mentor our children to walk
and to talk; they see us doing both, and those abilities must seem more
efficient and effective than crawling and babbling. We provide guidance
in the form of demonstration and inspiration. We also have a role of responsibility
to keep them safe from dangers for which they don’t yet have the experience
to avoid – padding sharp corners, perhaps, when they’re learning to walk,
and locking up the household cleaning supplies closet, or holding their
hands (or carrying them) when we’re crossing the street until they’re steady
enough on their feet not to fall and are aware of traffic dangers and signals.
Guidance can also be manipulative if we’re not careful.
Dictionaries define guidance as the act of leadership and giving direction,
advice, or counseling. That covers a broad spectrum of behaviors and at
one end it can look like control rather than judiciously offered support.
A child’s resistance or disinterest might be your first clue that you’ve
been confusing trustful and empathic support for a child’s interest-led
learning with well-meaning control about what you think they “should” be
But what about a child who doesn’t know (or seem
to know at a particular moment) what she wants to learn, who doesn’t communicate
an interest to us, or seems to just be “doing nothing”? Surely providing
guidance then isn’t manipulative! Maybe or maybe not. When we trust our
life learners and the learning process, we can more easily be patient with
the inevitable downtimes (where information could be being processed, or
the child just needs to rest and regroup). It also helps to know our children’s
style of learning and the direction of their interests. That can help us
provide guidance by making suggestions and pointing out things they might
not otherwise have known about.
are confused, just take it one step at a time; with love, trust,
respect, creativity, and empathy, you’ll find your family’s own
The trick is not to invest ourselves in those
suggested topics or activities. One of the signs that we are trying to control
someone else is that we become upset when they aren’t interested in our
suggestions, or refuse to do or be what we want. In his book
Alfie Kohn notes that “controlling parents” are actually conveying to their
kids that they love them conditionally – that is, only when they “achieve”
or behave in a certain approved way. Kids who live with trust and respect
feel loved unconditionally and are comfortable in their own skins. Their
intact self-esteem and confidence will allow them to ask us for guidance,
help, or inspiration when they need it.
All parents influence their children by the mere
fact of living with them, and that’s a good thing. We want our children
to be exposed to the richness of the world – music, literature, science,
history, art, numbers, etc., and we use our influence to connect them to
those possibilities. But we don’t use that influence as a means of control
to pressure them into studying something; instead, we trust the process
of self-education, and respect their right to pick, choose, explore, and
In our life learning family,
was one of the many ways that influence was delivered. We didn’t set up
unnecessary conflicts by demanding things of our daughters that they chose
not to accept; rather, through conversation, we learned about their interests,
and what activities and choices would work for us all. Conversation was
also the main means by which we learned when situations had become more
than they could handle – and when we needed to offer help or to simply observe
a less-than-ideal outcome becoming a learning experience.
Writing in a 1990 book called Understanding
Children, psychologist Jerome Bruner described pedagogy as an “extension
of conversation.” In homeschooling families, conversation is one of the
opportunities for learning, not an extension of it. It doesn’t have to be
deep conversation. In fact, in the normal flow of talk that moves naturally
from one topic to another, we pick up bits and pieces of information that
we fit together as needed – either then or at another time – into the jigsaw
puzzle of knowledge.
Schools create an atmosphere of coercion, mistrust,
and manipulation, which undermines learning (among other things). Real,
meaningful, lasting learning can only take place when the learner wants
it to. No matter where we are on the unschooling spectrum (and the conventional
notions of “permissiveness” and “authoritarianism” have no place there),
we are designing new ways for our children to live and learn with our guidance
and help. If you are confused, just take it one step at a time; with love,
trust, respect, creativity, and empathy, you’ll find your family’s own unique
Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's
founding editor. A writer and journalist for forty years, she is the author
of thirteen books, a former broadcaster, and a lifelong changemaker. She
and her husband helped their two now-adult daughters learn without school
in the 1970s and '80s. You can learn more about her and read more of her
writing on her website.