Unschooling Till It Hurts

There are lots and lots of right ways to unschool … as many as there are unschooling families! And there aren’t many wrong ways to do it, except one I can think of: unschooling until it hurts.

To understand what I mean by that, you need to understand what unschooling is. At its core, unschooling means living life and learning what comes to you or what you decide to seek out along the way. It doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding formal education; if you want to learn something that way it’s fine! It does mean avoiding forced methods of education: a fine but important distinction.

Finding the Right Way

A dear friend has graciously allowed me to share her story. She homeschools her only son, who is now thirteen. I’ve known her since before he was school age, and in those early days she was very worried about the right way to homeschool, the right methods and curricula and schedules.

We’ve talked a lot over the years and she has relaxed considerably (I often have that effect on fellow homeschoolers ;) ) and has learned to trust her brilliant son to seek out what he wants and needs to learn.

She knows I unschool my kids and has often asked me about that, reading books I recommend and picking my brain and trying to stop worrying about him getting just the right input from her.

Over this past summer we were together at a local pool and she confided worriedly that unschooling just wasn’t working for them. I invited her to tell me about it.

She said that the year before, she and her son had reached a point of comfort in their homeschooling. Without her worrying and forcing him to do scads of “standard curriculum” work, her son had a few academic requirements they had agreed on for him to take care of each day, and the remainder of his day was largely free.

He happily pursued his robotics interests (he’s competed nationally) and worked on the radio show called TechTeam he hosts with a friend on VoiceAmerica Kids.

Going the Wrong Way

Then she decided to try full-on unschooling and removed all requirements, guidelines, and direction. Of course, at its base, that is the simplest definition of what unschooling is. But the result for her and her son was immediate and unhappy. She would tell him he was free to do or study what he wanted, and he felt that was too open-ended and he was dissatisfied with it. He is an extremely literal-minded young man and felt frustrated with no guidelines.

When he didn’t work on any projects because he had no direction, they would both become unhappy.

If he didn’t have a direction for his day, he personally felt aimless and that he wasn’t achieving anything. They were both unhappy, with the situation and with each other.

So I asked her: Were you happy and productive and content with what you were doing before? She said yes.

I asked: And was he? She said yes.

I said: So go back and do that again!

Unschooling Is Harmonious Living

Public schooling and many types of homeschooling are teacher-led (or curriculum-led, or institution-led, however you want to think of it), but that does not mean that unschooling is 100% child-led and parents are 100% hands-off. Sandra Dodd put it eloquently:

Some parents label unschooling as “child-led learning,” and so they think they’re going from “parent-led” life to “child-led” life, but the balance point is that the family learns to live together harmoniously. Harmony makes many things easier. When there is disharmony, everyone is affected. When there is harmony, everyone is affected too. So if it is six of one or half a dozen of the other (right between none and a full dozen), go with harmony instead!

Just like anything in family life, unschooling is a two-way street. It is a family learning to live together in ways that promote harmony and fulfillment for everyone.

For example, my two teens are in their second year of a class with friends in which we have hired a teacher to come and teach formal logic. Neither of my teens walked up to me spontaneously and said, “Gee, Mom, I’m dying for a class in formal logic!” But when I learned of the opportunity, we sat down talked about it, discussing the pros and cons and the reasons I thought it would be a good thing. I let them know that it was their decision but I strongly recommended it.

They chose to take the class. It’s not their ultimate favorite thing to do, and it takes some work, but overall they both enjoy it and understand the benefits they are getting from it outweigh the hassle of the class itself (study and tests and a big chunk of time each week).

But this is harmonious living for us, as Sandra Dodd put it. We all have input. We all give our opinions. Because I haven’t forced my kids to sit through years of pointless drudgery, they trust me when I recommend something to them, and they are generally willing to give it a try. When they aren’t, I understand and honor that they have compelling reasons, even if sometimes they aren’t able to explicate them in a way I perfectly understand.

Harmony Trumps “Pure” Unschooling

And this is what I pointed out to my friend. She and her son had reached a point of harmony. They had worked together to come up with a reasonable course of study that satisfied them both – he felt he was achieving a good deal of learning, with his mother’s help, and she was satisfied with his achievements and content to let him have the rest of the day to himself.

But even though he preferred a definite structure and his list was things he had decided in harmony with his mom that he wanted to do, it didn’t fit the definition of “pure” unschooling. So she went beyond, to a point of discomfort for them both, trying to find the “right” way to unschool when she had actually already reached that point for her individual situation.

So that’s my advice to unschoolers: don’t unschool until it hurts. Find a balance that works for everyone! Give freedom of choice to the children, balanced with input and wisdom from the parent. It’s going to look different for your family than it looks for my family, or for my friend’s family.

You’ll know you’ve got it right when it doesn’t hurt.

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