In It for the Long Haul

A couple of weeks ago, there was a maddening thread on one of the Yahoo! unschooling groups that began, innocuously enough, as a discussion about TV. As people chimed in attempting to be helpful, and some people dug their heals in attempting to fight back, a couple of distinct camps came into being. The first camp, the one which I definitely consider myself a part of, seemed to believe that unschooling is journey of letting go, in which we gradually come to trust that our children will turn out the way that they are supposed to turn out - not the way we would choose for them to turn out, necessarily, but the way that they choose to turn out based on their own spirits, interests, abilities, and world views.

The other camp, which was fairly small but surprisingly vocal given the fact that it was on an unschooling list, came from a very different tack. These few folks were of the opinion that children should be able to learn and experience what they want so long as they did it within the parents' value and belief system. Now, I get that, I really do. I remember when I believed that, when I felt that I truly had so much amazing perfection and control over my children that I could actually assure an outcome just by willing it to be so. Over the years, I came to see the truth - not yours necessarily, but ours - that not only is it dangerous to impart our own preferences onto our children, but it is also nearly impossible to do joy with permanence and joy.

Why is it dangerous?

Because telling anyone - especially your own children - how to live their lives, what to be interested in, what to believe, and what to value ultimately robs them of the self-discovery and self-determination critical to their self-confidence. That sounds like a lot of "self", and it is . . . but if we want our kids to be able to think for themselves and fend for themselves, we need to be able to step back and give them the tools they need to be able to do just that. There is no better way to do that than to stand right next to them while they explore in freedom, ready to coach and guide and support if need be. Now, of course you can and should express opinions and offer ideas and ways to expand critical thinking. But raising you kids in your own image? Maybe not.

Some people think that is really, really stupid - that providing that degree of freedom and choice is simply abandoning our fundamental responsibilities as a parent. They view this attitude as lazy and short-sighted. But let's
throw out the "unschooling" label for a sec and look at this pragmatically - we're trying to raise our children to think for themselves, to make their own assessments of good and bad, to see the world in terms of what makes sense to them. Only through truly free choice will our children learn a lesson in all it's nuances and subtleties, and therefore learn it deeply and permanently - and be able to decide, therefore, where their boundaries are and what can still be a moving target.

To do this as a parent requires a great amount of faith, with little real hope that our children will turn out to share our values. But I don't want my kids to share my values neccessarily - I want them to define their own values, and learn to question, and be anything but the sheep that so many of us become because we've not been entrusted with the responsibility to think for ourselves. The passion that we all model for our children needs to be unconditional - a true reflection of ourselves and our values, our likes, and our beliefs. THAT's what we're modeling - not the values themselves, but the joy of having and expressing them.

Doing this is hard, no doubt. Many observers see us allowing our children to eat what they want, watch what they want, say what they want, etc, and make the natural assumption that we are indulging our children. They believe that these indulgences are short-sighted; that we are choosing the easy path of least resistance by being overly permissive now, but setting our children up for long-term difficulties as they try to adapt to the "real world." I understand that.

But I think it's bullshit.

I think that when you truly adopt unschooling, you're taking a long-term view of your child's life and setting them up for success beyond your wildest dreams. How? By setting up an environment in which we model the pursuit of our own passions without expectations or conditions; by allowing and encouraging our children's passions and exploration without judgment; by trusting that our children will do what's right for them even if it's not what we would choose for them or for ourselves. Doing this authentically and wholeheartedly helps our children understand that their views have value, that their passions have value, that their thoughts have value - that they have value. And that builds a confidence that enables them to try new things and explore their passions as well as their fears. But most critically, it enables them to see the world through their own eyes and to define success on their own terms.

I'm no unschooling expert, but that, my friends, is a long-term view.


  1. I suspect/imagine that much of where the "other camp" comes from is similar to where I come from: a belief that there are certain values and principles that come from a higher authority than the parent, as opposed to a secular humanist/moral relativist point of view.

    It sounds like you would like some respect for approaching it from your standpoint (which sounds like more of a sec.hum/mor.rel position) as not being lesser than how the "other camp" approaches things.

    Yes/no/maybe? :)

    *Waves from a friendly neighborhood Mormon :D*

  2. You see, I get this. I really do. I believe it is called Radical Unschooling.
    For me, I need a bedtime. For ex. If my 3yo decided when to go to bed she is cranky the next day and I pay. She does go to bed later on occasion and OH BOY! Even on a good day she is very determined and firey. Which I love about her but mix in not enough sleep...Oy!
    I also feel the need for some alone time. We have a small house so we are together all the time. This is the way I like it. It is wonderful that btwn 8-9pm I will get some down time to think. No questions, no climbing on me and no talking. Just me (and my husband)
    I do have them do a lot of the decision making and people frown because they have so many choices. I am ok with that. I just have my limits as a mom and I feel comfortable following those. I do not however disagree with your post. I think it is wonderful that parents can follow this method and be ok with it. Everyone has their limits I guess. :)

    1. I just wanted to say that in my experience this gets easier as they get older. I have a range of ages from 5 to 13 and I find that sometimes I miss my 13 year old because he is so busy doing and exploring his own world (in fact sometimes I just sit and watch him play video games because it's a way he we like to connect.) I still find that I need a break from my 5 year old jumping on me somedays. The coolest thing, in my opinnion, about families is that they are all different; every mom, dad and kids. And we are all doing exactly what we think is best for all of us!
      Thanks Jeff, for such a beautifully written piece! It really reminds me to let go of some of those things that I'm still holding on to for no good reason! :)

  3. Exmish, thanks for the comment! I have to confess that I'm having a bit of trouble understanding your exact point, but I an assuming that you're talking about how religion plays into the equation?

    If so, great question. To be clear, I consider myself a spiritual man, but I do not subscribe to any specific religion per se (although if I did, it would probably fall somewhere between Quaker and Deist.) I do acknowledge that there is a higher power that guides things, above and beyond human reason. No argument there.

    But I think that a relationship with any God or higher power is best left to personal choice, and personal interaction. Some people will choose to believe and worship, some will not. I just don't know how a parent who chooses to believe and worship can guide their children to the same level of engagement with their spirituality. I would like to think that a relationship with a higher power - no matter what exact form it takes - is more critical than any specific dogma. But what happens if the child elects to disregard a higher power entirely? I guess that, to me, that is simply a choice that they have over which the parent has little control. We can expose them to things, to ideals and ideas and values, but we cannot force them to share ours. Make sense?

    Interesting topic, though. Feel free to email me offline to continue if you'd like - I'm always up for a little growth!

  4. Neely, that makes sense. I have long believed that unschoolers - or any parents really - fall somewhere along a vast spectrum, with choices and controls that make the most sense for them given their individual and family circumstances. There is no one size fits all. Who cares about the labels . . .if you're trying to be the best parent you can be and are willing to examine the motivations behind your choices and adapt accordingly, that sounds like a pretty good thing to me regardless of whether you're an unschooler or where you fall on the spectrum.

  5. Hi Jeff - Your last paragraph so struck a chord with me as Katie has recently decided to try out school. She finished her official first week today. It IS challenging at times to support her in choosing school as that is a different decision than I would make, esp since I am not a big fan of schools in general and value so much the time we all had together. This has been so far a big change in sleeping and waking and in letting go. As I would with anything she wants to do though, I try to help her explore and enjoy what she is interested in.

    The thing I find hardest is that I really miss her...more than I ever thought. She is at a school dance right now. I haven't seen her all day. I hope she had fun though. I hope I find a way to keep our connection that we had.

    I wrote a bit more about my feelings and hope to write a little about her experiences as I have time.

    Thanks again for believing in your kids and writing about it! I love reading your words - they remind me of important things!