Over on facebook there was a discussion going on, started by a woman asking for help. She had gotten a kitten, but her very young child was mistreating it, and she wanted suggestions for gentle ways to help the child understand not to hurt the kitten.
Sounds reasonable, right?
Part of the whole unschooling thing has to do with respecting children, and helping them, rather than controlling them. So to ask for ideas for how to be kind and gentle, rather than punishing, can be part of the path people travel while becoming more accustomed to a different way of being and living. There is no shame in needing help, and in asking for it.
But this situation of a very young child and a kitten also demonstrates very clearly some of the things about unschooling that people often fail to grasp.
When my kids were born, I knew I did not want to send them to public school, so I started to explore other ideas before they were anywhere near school age. We did what we did, and were happy with it, the kids were learning and thriving, and it was as simple as that. We didn't have a name for what we were doing, really, and there weren't lots of other people who had been doing the same thing, to ask questions of. There was no internet, no google, no e-mail lists or yahoo groups. Unschoolers came to it pretty much on their own, or maybe, with a few friends, if they were lucky.
But now, most new unschoolers have seen or heard of unschooling. They might know someone. They may have read a book, or gone to a conference, or even seen a TV show. They join online groups and facebook pages. They have an ideal in mind, and are looking for people to help them reach it.
The odd thing is, I think it can actually be harder for some to grasp unschooling that way, than with no "help" at all. There is so MUCH "advice" out there, not all of it good. A sort of a "rule set" has developed in the minds of a lot of people. I've seen many, many people online who are struggling to "do it right," and for many of those people, who are trying to shift from one way of being to a very different one, all at once, rather than as their own growth process, it means that there can be a huge reliance on trying to copy what the "big names" are doing, or to follow, blindly, set concepts that they believe are mandatory, even while not fully understanding the intent.
Back to the situation with the kitten and the very young child.
The Mom, wanting to be a "good unschooler," no doubt, does not want to tell her child "no" or step in to protect the kitten by stopping the behavior when it happens.
Where on earth did people get the idea that unschooling means never saying no, or never stopping negative behavior, that children should always be allowed to do whatever they want?
From a lot of sources online, who say those very things.
What the new unschooler is missing is the CONTEXT.
They get stuck on never saying no, because it is a "rule" of unschooling.
They become more attached to "doing it right" and being approved of, to calling themselves unschoolers, than to what is actually happening, or needs to happen.
There is a time to stop a behavior, period. If something is dangerous, stop it.
If you don't want to have to do that, then you MUST set up the environment to avoid it, rather than try to fix it when it happens.
This is the part that people don't see, when they look at experienced unschoolers.
I've told people recently that my relationships with my kids, what they see and want to experience… took us 20-26 years of daily connection to develop.
We have done a lot of groundwork to get where we are.
Ever watch a magician? Ever watch a magician's act more than once, and notice that it is the same tricks, in the same order, and the same way, each time?
It is not only because it has been rehearsed that way (although it has).
It is because each trick is not a separate thing; they are built into each other. The execution of one includes the set up for another. That cantaloupe that appears under the hat was put there three tricks ago, while you were paying attention to the cards on the table.
Such is life.
Everything is connected.
Not just learning.
So if you want your kids to be strong, kind, independent, honest, trustworthy adults, you facilitate that their entire lives.
No one gets to start in the middle.
Whatever the ages of your kids when you begin unschooling, you start at the beginning. Building trust. Connection.
It takes time.
Another thing this brings to mind, that some people may recognize: the tag line from the movie "Love Story."
"Love means never having to say you're sorry."
Most people seemed to think it meant that if you claim to love someone, you can do whatever you want, and not have to apologize.
The truth is very different.
It is that when you love, truly love, you live your life in a way that honors that love.
It is not that you have some sort of "don't apologize" rule to follow, or permission to be an ass.
It is that you take care to be honest, loving, and kind.
You never need to say you're sorry because you don't do things you'd be sorry for.
"Never saying no" works much the same way.
It has never been intended to be some sort of approval of being permissive, and simply allowing whatever happens to happen, never stepping in, never guiding, and never stopping inappropriate behavior. It does not mean that you sit back and allow anything and everything, as if unschoolers somehow have a right to behave in inappropriate ways, in the name of "doing whatever they want" being a goal.
It is meant to remind you that you need to be proactive, and thoughtful, and interactive, so that the need for saying no DOESN'T COME UP.
You don't do everything the same way you always have, or that other people do, except that you don't say no.
The set up for being in a position of not NEEDING to say no must be part of, not separate from, your entire way of being and parenting.
This is what it means for something to be a principle, not a rule.
A way of being, not a rule to follow, regardless of the consequences.
If I had a very young child, and wanted a kitten, we'd do some groundwork first, so I would be able to be confident that neither kitten nor child would come to harm. We'd visit kittens at the shelter, or visit friends with a kitten. We'd spend a lot of time touching, being gentle, and talking about it in between times. If all went well, we'd probably start with an older kitten, not a tiny one. I'd be sure to create some "safe places" in our house for the kitten, so it could get away if it wanted to. I'd supervise all contact until I was certain there was no danger- similarly to how, when we got a pair of kittens recently, we did not allow the dog and kittens to be together without us right there, until the kittens were older, and the dog calmed down. We knew the dog would not intentionally hurt a kitten, but he is so much bigger that it would be easy to hurt one accidentally. The time period of supervision was months, not hours or days. And the process is the same every time, evaluating and preparing for a new addition to the family, even with it having gone well every time before, even with a house full of adults.
If, after all that, something happened that demonstrated that my child was not able to be safe with a kitten yet, I'd find a new home for the kitten. It is not fair to either kitten or child to put them in a situation they cannot be safe in. If I've done my work well, this is unlikely to happen. But with this, as with everything, I have the continued responsibility to be aware, and to invest time, effort, and physical presence, to be sure that things are safe and appropriate. Being proactive is KEY.
Unschooling does not mean "never saying no."
It means partnering with your children to find ways to say yes- including whatever it takes to set that up.
It isn't only about the "yes," it's about everything that leads there.