Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How To Unschool

Over on facebook, someone posted a link to this article, with a comment about how it makes things easy to understand.

I think the article is not helpful at all, really.
It contains too many assumptions that are inappropriate.
As Frank said, it's crap.

So I thought that for fun, I'd make my own list.
For people who really need some sort of instructions, some guidelines, some rules.
I have no idea where this is going to go.

How to Unschool

1. Stop trying to understand what unschooling is. Trying to define it and trying to narrow that definition to something you can easily quote and use to defend your choices is counter-productive to actually doing it. It's like trying to put a label on a relationship.

2. If this is new to you, accept that you are a beginner, and know very little.  Embrace your beginner-ness. It means that you are not expected to know what you are doing, or to do everything well. It gives you the freedom to make mistakes and to continue learning more and more.

3. Stop measuring everything on some sort of "Am I doing it right?" scale, and start using the "Is my family happy?" scale.

4. Spend time thinking. Think about your childhood. Think about how you were parented. Think about your school experiences, if you had any. Think about all the terrible things that have happened in your life, how they made you feel, what you learned from them, and how you feel about them now. Likewise, think about all the wonderful things that have happened in your life. Think about what things you enjoy, what makes you excited, what makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. Think about what relaxes you. Talk to other people about their thoughts about these things in their own lives. Compare and contrast. Use all this thinking to help guide you in your choices. Make choices based on what you really, truly believe in your heart, not what other people have told you. It takes time and a lot of thinking and examination to move past cultural conditioning, and that will be at the heart of many people's choice to unschool.

5. Instead of constantly feeling pressured or defensive about criticism you hear, look for the truth in it, and use that to help you. It is true that your children will not have the same experiences as their schooled peers. They will not learn or do the same things. They will not socialize in the same ways. They will not have the same opportunities. If they WOULD be "the same," why would you be doing this? Start answering people with "you're right" rather than jumping to defend something that you don't yet fully understand.

6. Avoid the temptation, in your excitement over unschooling, to over-do everything. You do not need to come up with a dozen "exciting" activities to do that are related to something your child just said. If your child mentions, for example, that they like fish, you do not need to go get an aquarium and get a bunch of fish, get books about fish, learn how to fish, paint some fish, find new fish recipes, make a fish costume, go visit a fish farm, etc. Honest. Let your child's interests come and go, wax and wane, and develop as they will. Kids will be interested in more things than you could possibly fully explore. It's a big world. They will have many passing interests, and some intense ones. It will be easy to tell the difference. Don't worry that you might miss one. Do, however, pay attention.  While you don't need to go out and find a bunch of related things, if you happen to come across something your child might be interested in (and you will know what things they are currently interested in if you are interacting with them frequently), by all means, bring it to their attention. Seeing a shower curtain that has a beautiful fish design on it, and showing it to your fish-interested child, is a different thing than going out and trying to find every fish thing you can. Supporting their interests should not be or feel forced.

7. Stop sorting things into subjects, even in your head. For one thing, life is not organized that way, really, and separating things is largely unhelpful in the real world. Everything is interconnected.  For another thing, thinking of things as subjects encourages the idea that the really valuable things to learn and know are those subjects... school subjects. While things that are considered school subjects are mostly good things to know about, what is good and interesting and valuable is not limited to those things, at all.

8. Avoid confusing the concept of "unschool" with "anti-school." It is true that many people come to unschooling after bad school experiences. But not everyone has those experiences, nor are they relevant. If every argument you use to explain or defend your choice to unschool has, at its heart "anti-school" you're going to needlessly offend a lot of people, and it isn't going to help your unschooling at all. Not all schools are bad places. Not all schools are robbing children of their souls or self-esteem. As in many other situations, you need to be "running to" unschooling, not "running from" school. Choose this lifestyle for its benefits, its joys, not to escape from something else. Personally, we found that there wasn't anything we needed to be doing that the schools could do better than we already were. It wasn't that we "hated" them, it was that we didn't need them. We were having a great time... so we kept doing that.

9. If you understand only one thing about unschooling, let it be this: it does not guarantee perfect, happy, well adjusted, successful, peaceful children or adults. It does not guarantee a family without sibling rivalry, without disagreements, without conflict. It does not guarantee that your child will be brilliant, or that they'll find that all-consuming passion. Does it encourage good family relationships? Sure. But I've seen great family relationships in families where the kids are in school, too. 

10. Be honest with yourself about why you want to do this. I have seen too many people decide they should unschool based on some group they want to be part of. They somehow think that in order to be one of the "cool kids" they have to unschool. Maybe they want to be counter-cultural. Maybe they want to be like their LLL Leader, who has been such an inspiration. Maybe they've read an article, or a website, or been to a conference that made it seem like this was the only legitimate choice, or that unschooling is the only way to respect their child. If the decision to unschool is made for these types of reasons- extrinsic reasons- it will not likely be successful. You have to want to DO the thing, not just BE the thing. Unschooling ITSELF needs to be the reason, not all the supposed (or even the real) advantages or benefits. If you aren't really into the doing part, everything is going to devolve into excuses sooner or later. The vast majority of people who start unschooling end up sending their kids to school, often because they didn't really want to be that involved with their kids. They may quote other "reasons" or excuses about why it "didn't work out" or they "couldn't," but it all comes down to this: if living this way is a priority for you, you'll do it, and not even consider anything else. If it isn't in your heart and soul, you'll find all sorts of excuses not to continue. And, if it isn't in your heart and soul- it's better that you not pretend to do it anyway.

11. Ask questions, but don't expect answers. Or at least, don't expect to fully understand them. See #2, above. File them away, and revisit them every now and then. Your understanding may change. Sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in "Holy crap! How did I miss that?!?" sorts of ways. If someone who has decades of experience unschooling tells you that you are misunderstanding something, consider that they may be right. Even if you think you understand perfectly, there may be a paradigm shift between you. Expect paradigm shifts. If you go for very long and your understanding of things doesn't change, be suspicious. This isn't only an unschooling thing, it's a parenting thing. As your child or children mature, things should change. Your understanding should develop as your experience increases.

12. Be honest with your children as your understanding of things changes. Especially at first, you may be changing a lot of things about how you think and how you act. It might be confusing to a child whose entire life has been a certain way... and suddenly, it isn't. Be kind. Don't worry nearly so much about being "consistent" as you do about being open and honest and clear.

13. Do stuff. Lots of stuff. Don't worry about whether it is educational. Do things that are fun, interesting, challenging, exciting. Do things that are relaxing and comforting. Do things that are social, and things that are introspective. Do things with your body as much as with your mind. Play a lot. You will go through phases of relative activity and relative inactivity. Go with that.

14. Have a life where it is not possible to distinguish between "work" and "play." Do what you love and love what you do. If there are things that "must" be done (and consider carefully whether anything is truly required) reduce whatever is unpleasant as much as you can. If possible change either the activity, or your attitude. Or get someone else to do it.

15. Seek balance. Sometimes, you find balance by experiencing extremes.

16. Collect interesting things, be they physical things, or thoughts and concepts.

17. Be generous with your time and energy. 

18. Understand that raising children is a balancing act between meeting physical needs and meeting emotional needs. In general, for a healthy person, from the time a child is born until they are adults, those needs develop in opposite trends. An infant has primarily physical needs. Meeting those needs can be all-encompassing and exhausting. Meeting their emotional needs is simple: love them. As they mature, their physical needs slowly decrease, as their emotional needs increase. As adults, your children will have complex emotional needs- but physically, won't need you very much. In other words, as things get easier physically, they get more complicated emotionally. Your sleepless nights will change gradually from being up with a nursing baby, to staying up with an upset child, to waiting up for a teenager.

19. Share your children's lives. Hang out together. Talk. Argue. Play. Work. Be. Unschooling, while not requiring constant, 24/7 interaction, tends to lend itself well to being together a lot. Certainly more than the typical schooled family spends together. Make it good.

20. Seek out interests that you share. I wouldn't expect that any two people would have exactly the same interests, but I'd be surprised if there are many pairs where there is NO overlap. With very young children, it might be playing with blocks, telling stories, painting, walking in the woods.  With older children, it might be music, or games, or intense discussion. It could be anything.

21. One of the best things about unschooling is the opportunity to re-experience so much with your children, from a child's perspective. Consider it a time when you can live out the best aspect of "If I only knew then what I know now..." Look at the world through a child's eyes- but with an adult's resources. Instead of rushing your child to become an adult, spend time in their world. It's kind of like this: when I went to college, I was stressed out about grades, about graduating. I spent most of my time studying and worrying. Now, years later, I work some of the time at a University. It is ASTOUNDING how much opportunity there is there, the things there are to do. Movies, plays, lectures, discussions, performances, clubs, etc. At any given time there is a huge number of "extracurricular" activities. Huge. Something for everyone, without a doubt. Just about anything you could be interested in doing, there is someone else interested in doing. The trouble was that when I was in college, I didn't have time for ANY of that, so I let all that opportunity go by without taking advantage of any of it. I was too busy trying to get to the next stage. SLOW DOWN. Don't be in a hurry to get to the next thing. Just as I only had a limited number of years to experience college, and mostly wasted that time, you have only a limited number of years to experience having young children. Do it with gusto! Play in the mud, be a space alien, whatever it is your kids are into. Some of those interests, they may have lifelong, but some of them are typically done only by young children. Enjoy it, every second of it. If there ever was a definition of unschooling, that would be it. Explore life with your kids. Sometimes, lead, and other times, follow. Following can be especially rewarding when your child leads you somewhere you might be embarrassed to go on your own.

22. Stay up late with your kids. At some point, those late night discussions will be some of the most memorable in both of your lives. Find some private time with each kid so you can build these relationships.

That's my list, for now.
If there is something about unschooling that you are concerned about that I didn't include, consider that it might be because I don't consider it important.
Or maybe I forgot.
That, and it's about time for me to get to bed, so I had to stop somewhere.


  1. Lovely, thank you for taking the time to write this!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Wow, great read - thanks for a great article.

  4. When you stop wondering if you've "got it right" because you are too busy Living, you are unschooling.

  5. That's a beautiful picture of unschooling. Thank you! We consider ourselves unschoolers from birth for our 3 year old and all future children. It's such a great way to look at life. We are also semi-unschooling my 13 year old brother--we are forced into more structure because we have to answer to my mom but there are many days we don't bother with anything official and tell him "What you learned today is far more important than your textbook." There is so much to get excited about in this world and we're loving the opportunity to let the kids follow that excitement!

  6. Thank you for this wonderful post -- your peacefulness shines through! I found your blog through Unschooling Blog Carnival. I wish I had come across something like this when we began deschooling several years ago. It would have assuaged the uncertainty and fear. Easter Blessings!

  7. yes i am a new reader to your blog today.. thus all the comments LOL! NICE!! really like this. i am not a total unschooler (if there is a definition.. so maybe i am more of one than not or maybe not at all if you can't be a partial unschooler.. but i digress...) in any event.. nice article. lots to think about.

  8. I just happened upon your blog as I try to wrap my brain around unschooling my teenage daughter. Thank you so much for putting this post together! It resonates so much in my life at a moment when I very much find myself struggling with what I "should" be doing versus allowing myself to let go and not to freak and just be and learn and function right along with my children.