Unschooling is not Unparenting

By Sue Wight

Something odd is happening in the world of unschooling.

  • 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.

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 to mean ‘taking kids out of school’.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s the terms ‘homeschooling’ and ‘unschooling’ were used synonymously for any education at home but, during the 1980s, the term ‘homeschooling’ took over as the generic term and ‘unschooling’ 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.

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 maths and others accused them of not being unschoolers at all.

From 2000 onwards, 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 during school hours. Some families began to extend the principles of radical unschooling into their attitudes towards bedtimes, food, chores and rules.

Rue Kream’s book Parenting a Free Child: An Unschooled Life (2005) 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.

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 – they talked about healthy choices as well as removing the boundaries.

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 not on the type of parental involvement Rue Kream saw as an essential part of the method. The whole image of unschooling is feeling the impact of this misinterpretation.

Australians have traditionally used the term ‘natural learning’ coined by Dr John Barratt Peacock. However, over the past ten years, I’ve noticed more and more Australian home educators using the term ‘unschooling’ instead. I guess this came about because they found a lot of support online where the American home education community is so much larger than in Australia, and the term ‘unschooler’ is common.

During the same period there has been a noticeable shift in the type of support new home educators are looking for. The Home Education Network (HEN) has always offered information and support to open people’s minds to the options and resources available. Our goal is to empower people to educate their children in their own way. In America in 1994, Earl Stevens noticed the powerful effect this approach can have:

For three hours, parents and some of the children took turns talking about their homeschooling experiences and about unschooling. Many people said afterwards that they left the meeting feeling reinforced and exhilarated – not because anybody told them what to do or gave them a magic formula – but because they grew more secure in making these decisions for themselves. Sharing ideas about this topic left them feeling empowered.

For many years, new home educators in Australia have drawn this kind of inspiration from Otherways and from HEN camps and events. They have gone on to confidently adapt natural learning to their own lives.

While the core of HEN has always leaned towards natural learning, we’ve recognised that there is no one true way to home educate. Different approaches work for different families. Natural learning itself doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. My family’s version of natural learning has included a lot of reading, watching movies and documentaries. Some families would find the level at which we undertake these activities quite unnatural. Another family might include a lot of animal husbandry and land management which would certainly not be natural in my family!

The thing is, natural learning is an individual thing. 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.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed an alarming trend in home education: a growing number of new home educators don’t find it liberating to be able to choose their own way. They want someone to tell them what to do. Of these, the ones who choose a formal style would really like someone to tell them categorically which curriculum to use; those who choose 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 natural 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.

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. One problem I see is the emergence of unschooling gurus in America. 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 problem 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. Natural 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 certain Monty Python flavour 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.
Regardless of style you choose, 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 natural learning 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 behaviours are acceptable in different situations, to different people and at different times. Say, for example, a boy throws a ball in the lounge-room. This might be perfectly acceptable to his dad who is pleased to see his son’s developing skills, but totally unacceptable to his mum who is worried that her vase might get broken. The behaviour 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 which is 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 from page three and look at them one by one in the light of these PET principles. I would really encourage these families to talk honestly with their children about their problem and come up with a solution together which meets the needs of both parents and children; however, I’ll offer some ideas here which may help.

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 teeth which 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 along with it. If Sarah chooses to place no limits on food, she could talk to her children about a healthy diet, and express concern when they eat a topsy-turvy diet rather than falsely accepting a situation she isn’t comfortable with. Alternatively, she could snip that bit of the unschooling philosophy out of her personal version of it – just because she likes the unschooling philosophy doesn’t mean she has to buy into parts of it that don’t work for her. Another option is to take the ‘no limits’ attitude to food but ensure the pantry and fridge are stocked in accordance with the healthy diet pyramid. If there is a packet of chocolate biscuits available for the week, and a whole lot of healthy things to choose from, the children may 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 much of the need for set bedtimes and mealtimes, but only to the point where it works for 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. She could look at being somewhat flexible with meals but stick to one sitting for each. This would involve saying, ‘Are you guys ready for lunch?’ and then moving lunch forward or back accordingly. Alternatively, she could say ‘I’ll prepare lunch for whoever wants it at midday. If you aren’t hungry, I’ll just put the leftovers in the fridge and you can help yourself when you are 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. Neither natural learning nor unschooling 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 questions are a nuisance.

Frances has the problem of 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 behaviour, Beth would need to talk to them further and move onto problem solving. Sometimes kids come up with solutions we’d never think of.

The type of situations described above are giving unschooling a bad name; it is starting to look like unparenting. Home educators need to work together to correct this idea. Regardless of the style chosen, parenting is a major part of home education.

New home educators: begin with your own family and your own values, read widely on education and by all means talk to home educators. 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.

Whether we call our home education style unschooling or natural learning doesn’t matter. What does matter is what we actually do and how comfortable we feel with it. If you aren’t comfortable with your home education method, something needs to change. 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 in the pursuit of knowledge. 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.

Otherways Magazine issue 134


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