Ha!…said no unschooler ever. But if that title grabbed your interest, I suspect you might be new to unschooling and perhaps you will find my list to be helpful. Or perhaps you have been unschooling for a while, scoffed at this title, and clicked on it for that reason? If you are not new to unschooling…maybe you can reflect on your own journey? It was reflecting on my own unschooling journey that helped me to create this list. Let’s jump right in, shall we?
1. There is no singular way to unschool. Unschooling is essentially letting the learner drive their own education…and be responsible for the outcomes. The way this is done depends on many factors including balancing family needs and the resources you have available which sometimes boils down to geography or community. So for example, a family that lives in the city might be in a better position to unschool by being immersed in the local community. A family that lives in a rural setting might be better off unschooling by strewing materials around to be discovered. A family that has a new baby may decide that they are going to scratch everything for a while and let the baby be the learning! Unschooling is really just living your life and learning as you go.
2. Unschooling requires significant amounts of time to play, explore, create, think, daydream, and “veg”. Much like a sleep cycle, the brain goes through learning cycles that bring about different emotions and require different energy levels. Allowing for large blocks of time to pursue passions and interests and just “be” is a large part of the “how to” in unschooling. Don’t focus on the “outputs” as you may not see the “outputs” for years. Trust the path, trust the journey, trust the learner.
3. Unschooling doesn’t mean no routine. Some unschoolers think that to unschool, you need to shed all forms of conformity or organization, but this is actually just one style of unschooling (radical unschooling). I think unschooling is more about allowing each person to pursue their life on their terms and within the context of the surroundings they find themselves in. So if a family member thrives on routine, they should be encouraged to embrace routines. Find the routines that work and toss the ones that don’t! Maybe your kid needs a lot of social outlets to stay energized and excited about life. A routine that involves regular social outlets will need to be part of the unschooling mix for that learner.
I need a certain amount of organization and routine in my family to ensure that everyone’s needs met. Mornings are spent out of the house connecting with peers and getting exercise in unstructured settings. Afternoons are for little ones who nap and for those of us who don’t nap, that’s the time we spend building things, doing experiments, completing housework, watching Youtube, and getting some work done for We Learn Naturally. Deciding whether there should be routines, what they should be, and how they should look is ideally a joint conversation, where everyone’s needs are freely expressed and, if possible, the routines created are mutually agreed upon. You may decide no routines feels best for everyone, and that’s cool, but it’s just as cool to be an organized, routine-loving unschooling family. Type A’s can unschool too. 😉
4. Unschooling does not mean that you are now a “permissive” parent. A.S. Neill once said “Freedom does not equal license.” Wise words. Even if your family decides you like the no routine lifestyle, it doesn’t mean that you live without personal boundaries. Freedom to make individual choices happens within the context of a family, a community, and a larger society. As a parent, allowing your child to make their own choices doesn’t mean you will get walked all over. If relinquishing control of learning to the kids leads your family to swing wildly into a zone that has you feeling ragged, it’s time to think critically about your needs in this dynamic.
Changing the power balance to allow for unschooling could mean that your family may need to find a new way of negotiating different requests but the point is that all members of the family are respected. Some people may mistake unschooling parents as permissive because you need to give your child large chunks of time to play and do their own thing, which can look permissive to others who are not familiar with this style of learning. In fact, unschooling families are anything but permissive.
This style of learning requires a really engaged, respectful style of parenting, which, quite truthfully, I find to be both challenging and immensely rewarding. I need to be aware of my own needs, values, and insecurities so that I can stay in tune with where I end as a person and the child begins. I regularly challenge myself to keep my own needs in check so that I do not impose my own set of values without giving the learner the freedom to explore the other options. I want them to come to their own conclusions about life, and that involves conversation, research, and reflection. This style of education requires tremendous trust on the part of the parents and the work involved in reaching that place of trust requires soul-searching reflection and critical thinking. Honestly, this style of learning looks permissive only because we are so used to controlling children and their learning.
5. Your kid will need to deschool. As a rule of thumb, for every year that your child has been in school, they will need one month of uninhibited, no pressure what-so-ever deschooling. No worksheets, no telling the child what to do or how to do it…just truly letting them be. I would also go a step further and say that children will need more time to deschool if they have spent time in a structured childcare environment or spent their summers and off-school hours in adult-directed camps. Living with significant structure from a young age takes much longer to deschool.
I would also add that if you have engaged in traditional homeschooling for a while, where you as the adult in charge decided what is learned or assessed the learning in any way, you may find that your child might also need to deschool from you! You are changing the power dynamic between the two of you and that takes time to discover how that will look and feel. You may find that your child “tests boundaries”, “over consumes” things that you used as rewards (screen time?), or avoids things that may have felt like a punishment (reading or writing?). These are common reactions in democratic free schools as well. In fact, some free schools or schools that offer unschooling or Self-Directed Education, will not take children above the age of 8 because they struggle to adapt to an SDE environment. The kids just can’t get past the testing stage.
6. You will need to deschool. I’ve kind of touched on this one already. Unschooling is essentially letting the learner drive their own education…and be responsible for the outcomes. Making the decision to unschool is often a bigger deal for the parent. You will be challenged to let go in ways you didn’t anticipate. Sometimes the biggest challenge in unschooling resides within you. You may find yourself thinking differently about things other than learning…the shift can be quite powerful!
7. Grandparents and close friends may need to deschool too for that matter. And if they don’t, that’s fine too. Lots of people will not care that you are unschooling; some will be curious and some will be knowledgeable, but chances are that you will come across a person or two who are uncomfortable with the idea…and if those people love you, they may express their concerns frequently or at high volumes. From their perspective, we live in a very competitive environment and your loved ones want what is best for you and the kids. My advice is to approach this conversation as you would any other difficult conversation; listen to their concerns as a way to show your love, share your philosophy in an effort to connect, offer resources if they are interested in learning more, and most importantly, let go of the struggles that reside in *them*. Remember, ultimately, the choice to unschool came from your child and your wish to support that. Family and friends are more like background noise and their expression of concerns are really the expression of *their* needs and values. The Polish phrase “Not your circus, not your monkey” comes to mind.
8. Unschooling needs to be a choice for each member of the family who is involved in living it. Unschooling is a mindset. Kids don’t usually ask directly to do unschooling, but if they have never gone to school, they’ll just naturally fall into it. As a parent, you may decide that unschooling fits your personal philosophy on learning, but if your child is requesting to attend school, explore that option with them. In fact, exploring that option and allowing your child to make the choice to attend, or not attend, or attend for a day and then quit, is part of the unschooling learning process.
In fact, it is possible to be an unschooler and attend a public school! As long as it is a freely made choice and the decision to leave and pursue something else is a viable option, I would still consider you to be an “unschooling” family. If it is not a freely made choice (such as a family divorce where one partner insists on a child attending public school and the courts agree), the child may still approach life with an unschooler’s attitude. That may mean pursuing a passion outside of school and looking for ways to incorporate it in school or rejecting the aspects of school that do not work (such as treating a mandatory project as just a chore that needs to be done, putting little effort in, and accepting the poor mark.)
9. You may drift in your intensity of unschooling. We live in a culture that places parents (and other adults) firmly in charge of children so it is not surprising that parents find themselves feeling doubtful or fearful about their child’s chosen learning path. Radical unschoolers challenge themselves to find ways to say “yes” to a child’s requests, but maybe for whatever reason, that degree of unschooling doesn’t sit well with you (yet).
Some parents feel more comfortable with project style unschooling or mixing in a bit of curriculum when they start to feel panicky. If you find yourself trying to control what or how your child learns, it may indicate that you have more deschooling to do but I wouldn’t advise a parent to let go of their “parental authority” if they are not ready. If you are not feeling the unschooling vibe, take a break and force your child to do a curriculum book. See where it takes you.
Your kids may buck and refuse to do it…where do those reactions lead you? It’s your learning path as a parent and a person, so embrace it all! Ultimately, if you feel uncomfortable, take a step back and find your footing again. If you are trying to force yourself into the unschooling mindset, just know that it cannot be forced, it can only emerge through self-awareness and freedom of choice. Forcing it in any direction will lead to blaming yourself “I must be doing it wrong” or blaming others “unschooling doesn’t work” which can be a vicious cycle and really isn’t in the spirit of unschooling.
10. An unschooler may start to reject other structured activities, even if it isn’t school. When my son first started to reject structured activities, I started to wonder what was going on. “But you love soccer?!” Then I realized, he does want to play soccer, but once he learned some basic skills, he just wanted to do it on his terms for a while. Structured environments can be great for learning skills from others, so long as that is your motivation for being there. When signing up for activities with a young unschooler, you may want to ask if you can try out a class first before paying for a whole session, just so your child can get a sense of whether they are truly interested in spending their time (and your money) in that environment.
11. An unschooler may prefer to spend time with others who have an unschooler mindset. As you continue down the unschooling path, you may discover that your child gravitates to other people with an unschooling mindset. Family members who want to be in charge of children and tell them what to do and when to do it may have a hard time establishing a warm relationship with your child. Your child may start to drift apart from friends who have a need to rebel or a need to please. It kind of makes sense really; your child will look for friends who value the same freedom of choice and have similar levels of self-awareness. Making the choice to let go of friends who don’t really “get it” to make room for friends who do is actually a good sign of becoming settled in the unschooling journey. As children age, society will welcome them as free-thinking adults more readily than as free-thinking children. Either way, they will find their fit and they will benefit from the journey being their own.
So now that you have read my list, what do you think? For those of you who are veteran unschoolers, have I forgotten anything? For those of you who are new, my main point is that we’re all on our own learning journeys. The messy, uncomfortable moments are just as valuable as the moments when everyone around you nods in approval. This is the path of depth and therein lies the beauty. I wish you the best on your journey and if you are still in the approval-seeking stage in your deschooling process, I applaud you for attempting to walk along this messy beautiful path. 😉