Unschooling, life learning, relaxed homeschooling, child-led learning. There are nearly as many names as there are schools of thinking on this philosophy. Honestly, there isn’t even a consensus about whether or not it’s a whole-life philosophy, an educational philosophy, or not a philosophy at all but rather just an educational style. We call it unschooling (and lean far toward the radical end of the spectrum) and fall firmly into the camp that it’s a whole-life philosophy. I simply haven’t found a way to make it honestly work without going all in.
Many people are confused about what this means for us. They think we aren’t doing anything, that our kids are spoiled and run the house, that we are completely hands off, that we don’t care about what our kids learn, what their future will look like (or if we do care it won’t matter because they’ll be completely unprepared for that future we envision). I really can’t speak for what unschooling looks like or means for other people, how they implement the philosophy into their lives (or even if they consciously try to do so). What I can try to share is what unschooling is in our family by addressing some of the most common misconceptions one by one.
Misconception #1: We aren’t doing anything.
I have to admit that sometimes I feel this way myself and I can completely understand why it looks this way from the outside looking in. I am at once amazed and thankful in feeling as if we are getting away with something by living this way. Learning is so seamlessly intertwined in our daily lives that some of what we’re doing is difficult to capture in terms of the mainstream educational model. However, learning is happening ALL the time- even when we least suspect it. My kids have astounded me with knowledge of history, science, culture, geography and more. Things pop up into conversation all the time that I didn’t realize they knew and am unsure where they picked it up. They don’t usually know where/when they learned it either but because they haven’t been conditioned to think of learning as separate from living they don’t even question it. When I ask them where they learned this information they usually look at me quizzically and reply, “Mom, EVERYONE knows that!”
So, what are they/we doing that is making this seamless living/learning possible? Playing, reading, exploring, traveling, discussing, watching, indulging curiosity, inquiring and just generally being engrossed in the world. Living.
Misconception #2: The kids are spoiled and run the house.
Oh, man this one is a doozy! It is so far from the reality of our life that it’s almost comical. It is true that unschooling literally transformed our family dynamic in nearly every conceivable way. In our house everyone’s needs, wants and opinions are equal. However, this doesn’t mean that we cater to our kids or that they always get their way. On the contrary because they know that we are always willing to listen to their thoughts on a given topic they are more willing to listen to ours. They respect us because we have earned their respect, not demanded it.
Our family is a team where everyone, parents AND kids, works together toward the common goal of a happy, peaceful family life. When I ask my kids for help they are free to say no but rarely do. And when they do it is followed with an explanation of why they can’t. When I need to tell them no I also offer an explanation of my reasoning. If I can’t offer a good reason for saying no then I don’t say it. As a result I do say yes a lot more than some people would feel comfortable and that’s okay- everyone has to parent within their own comfort zone. If you try to parent against your own gut it will never work because it’s impossible to be consistent and the kids never know what to expect. But this idea of equality, teamwork and saying yes more oftern works for us. My kids have learned that yes is also their default answer and they are helpful/respectful because they choose to be, not because of parental expectations.
Misconception #3: The parents are completely hands-off.
The reason we lean toward the radical end of the unschooling spectrum, the reason we see it as a whole-life philosophy and not just an educational choice is precisely because of how involved we have to be in so many aspects of our kids lives in order to make this work for our family and our goals (more on that later). I know a lot more about Legos, video games, American Girl, pop culture and tween TV than I care to. But this is my IN.
By taking a genuine interest in the things that my kids love I am better able to understand what exactly they find appealing about it and I can build on that. When my son, who loves gaming, took an interest in creating flash games I helped him pursue that by purchasing books and software about creating more complex games- and now he is able to create elaborate 3-D games and write code. When my rock obsessed daughter (and I do mean obsessed- we have shelves and boxes full of hundreds she’s collected) was talking about the colors of the striations we were able to discuss and research together what causes this and now she isn’t simply rock obsessed, she’s a budding geologist.
I could have tried to limit my son’s gaming or dismissed my daughter’s interest but it would have been a missed opportunity. I see my role as facilitator in helping them find, explore and develop their passions. This doesn’t end, I don’t offer a couple of ideas and then consider myself “done”. I continue to look for ways to develop and encourage all of their interests paying close attention to how they respond to my offerings. If they are uninterested I drop it but I don’t simply walk away. I keep looking for other things in which they will be interested. So, just because I trust and respect my kids to learn the things that are important to them it doesn’t mean I’m hands-off.
Misconception #4: We don’t care what our kids learn.
With all of the talk about kids following their passion and choosing for themselves what to pursue I can, once again, understand where this misconception comes from. But, once again, it’s just way off the mark.
There are a few things that I believe are absolutely critical in life; money management, kindness and empathy, logical/critical thinking, reasoning skills and the ability to plan for goals. Because these are, in my opinion, so vital they are woven into our lives on a regular basis. I care a great deal what they learn. In fact I’m more conscious and aware now than I was when we were pursuing a more mainstream education. At that time I had a very vague idea about preparing them for the future (school, school and more school) but now I’ve actually taken the time to consider what things have helped me most in life, what things I wish I’d known sooner and what qualities I respect most in others. So, I have given a lot of thought and care a great deal about what my children learn. It probably just looks very different than what most are used to. (I have another blog post in the works- or perhaps a series of posts- which discusses this topic in detail but it’s too long to include here.)
Misconception #5: We don’t care what their future looks like (or they’ll be unprepared for it).
When I think about my kids future what I want most for them is to be happy with their choices. I know all parents want their kids to be happy but in our family it is something we are actively working toward. We want them to think not only about jobs but about the overall type of life they want to lead. Do they want to travel a lot or is one vacation a year plenty? What types of material things are important and what can they live without? Do they like living around people and activity or do they prefer solitude? Do they want roots in one place or is moving from place to place preferable? Do they want a job that they can be passionate about or do they prefer to keep work and passion separate?
Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t sitting around having these deep philosophical discussions with our 11 year old. But we weave it into the conversation. When we’re reading, watching TV or out exploring I comment and raise questions that will, hopefully, help them learn that this kind of thinking is a natural part of life. For example, if we’re watching a TV show about people who live in a city I might strike up a conversation about the pros and cons of city life. Or if we are on an outing we might discuss the people who put together an exhibit we enjoy- were they professionals or simply people with a passionate hobby? As my kids get older I don’t need to initiate these types of conversations as much because they are initiating them now. I’m hopeful that this will translate to asking themselves these questions as they get older and begin to make decisions that will impact their future.
As for them being unprepared for the future I don’t worry a lot about this either. I’ll explore it more in the post(s) I mentioned about the things I want them to learn but I’ll touch briefly on it here. There is a difference between a goal and a wish. Both may be something you want badly but a goal has a plan. My kids know that getting from point A to point B requires thought and effort. Helping them understand this (more on that in that future post) is the reason I don’t worry about them being prepared for the future.
One final thought
There may be people who read these things or have face to face discussions with me and think, “But this is what all parents do, whether their kids go to school or not.”
First of all, no they don’t. There are plenty of parents who believe it is not their “job” to educate their kids. That’s what schools are for. Second of all, you are missing a crucial element in unschooling philosophy. It isn’t that we think only unschoolers are doing these things (or even that all unschoolers are doing things they way our family does). It is also that, at least for my children, the traditional model of schooling hinders their learning.
We are not unschoolers because it’s easier or because we are coddling our children. We are unschoolers because I firmly believe these choices are best for us now and in the future. I obviously don’t have a crystal ball and can’t know that for sure, none of us does. All any of us can do is parent the child in front of us with the information we have right now. Hopefully we’re really looking at that specific child and arming ourselves with lots of information instead of simply accepting “common knowledge” about “all kids”.