There were a few local people I knew.
There was some information on how kids learn, which led me to consider what made sense to me.
There was NOT the internet.
At least not for most people.
After a few years, there was AOL, and it was great to connect with other unschoolers that way. I'm still friends with some of them!
But at the beginning, I didn't have a lot of sources outside my own thoughts. Growing Without Schooling. Mothering Magazine.
NOW is a completely different story.
There are more sources of information than anyone could possibly keep up with.
This is a good thing, right?
The problem is that with there being more online forums, more facebook groups and pages, more yahoo groups, etc, and more people, overall, who are interested in unschooling, it has become much more difficult to sift through and figure out what information and advice is appropriate, and what is not.
I've been pretty active online, writing things for new-and-seeking unschoolers, so I see, every day, what kinds of information is out there that is NOT helpful for unschooling, at all. I also see what happens when anyone tries to make that point in most forums: accusations of being the "unschooling police."
So the question is, how CAN you figure out what is helpful, and what is not, as far as guiding anyone towards happier unschooling?
The answer is somewhat more complicated than most people imagine.
We need to look at several different aspects of it.
First, it's the concept of asking for answers at all.
I think it's great when people ask questions, in order to gather information, and clarify what makes sense about all of this new and wildly-different concept of how kids learn.
I think it's not so great when people expect to be given "the answer," WITHOUT needing to think about it and try it out and figure out for themselves, so they OWN it. This isn't something that can be spoonfed. The "answers" really are from within a person, from their world view and thought process, from working through everything they think and believe and have internalized, and sorting it all out.
It isn't at all a matter of "in order to unschool correctly, do this and this and this."
It isn't a matter of doing what someone else says is unschooling.
It's a matter of finding your way back through all the cultural conditioning you have experienced, and actively choosing a different way because you want to do better for your kids.
So let's assume that a person understands that, and isn't looking for "the way" as decided by someone else. Instead, they are looking for information and suggestions and help in knowing where to start on their own process.
We're back to where we started: how do you know who to listen to? How do you evaluate information that you get?
I'll make some suggestions.
First, whatever page or group or list you find, read a while before you ask anything.
Don't join and announce your presence, that you are new, and ask a general question like "Where do I start?" or "What is unschooling all about?"
See what kinds of questions are asked and answered.
When you are brand new, you are in that position of not knowing enough to know what to ask. That's okay, but it means that you aren't ready to ask yet, and often, that if you DO ask, the answers won't be very meaningful yet. It's a lot like being somewhere new and not speaking the language.
While reading, and seeing what kinds of questions are asked and answered, pay attention to who answers, and what sort of answers they give.
How do their answers make you feel? Are they good at communicating in writing? Do they attempt to explain things clearly? Is it obvious that they spend time carefully considering how to answer?
Find the people who seem to know what they are talking about- even if you don't always agree with what they are saying, because it doesn't make sense to you yet.
Look for people who prioritize family relationships. Who encourage others to do the same.
Notice who the people are who are making suggestions that don't quite fit- and are told so.
There are many things about mainstream parenting that people find difficult to let go of. Some continue to suggest these things for a while, because they don't yet know what else to do. They might suggest a curriculum, maybe only for one or two subjects, or they might say that they find it necessary to limit any of a number of things (screentime, bedtime, food, etc). These people may have a lot of good things to offer, for the stuff they DO understand… but they don't have the whole picture yet, which makes it difficult to figure out when they do, and when they don't, if YOU are in the "don't understand it yet" category yourself.
Pay attention to the ages of people's kids.
This does not mean that people with young kids have nothing to offer. Many of them do. They might also have kids that are close in age to yours, or be going through some of the same developmental stages as your kids, which can be very helpful.
There will be some things they have not yet experienced, that they are taking on faith. As long as they are talking about things they can speak to from experience, then great. But beware of those with only young children who try to tell you about unschoolers getting into college or how things go in the teen years or as adults.
Beware of people who offer unschooling advice for money.
Yes, everyone needs to make a living, and just because someone charges for a service doesn't mean they are cheating anyone, or doing anything wrong.
Make sure that what they are saying is based on experience, and on really understanding unschooling, and that it is NOT being "popularized" or sensationalized in order to sell something. Make sure that their advice includes practical suggestions, and isn't just pop-psychology or vague generalizations, assuring everyone that unschooling is THE answer to everything, for everyone. Look for things beyond "just trust your kids, they always know…" Look for explanations, rather than soundbites.
Look for people who are more pro-unschooling than they are anti-school. More pro-learning than anti-teaching.
The next part is what to DO with all that information, and this is the most important part.
Who you really need to listen to is YOURSELF, and YOUR KIDS.
As you process the information you gather, and as you try new things, pay attention to what is going on.
How does it feel?
Are these changes you want to make, because they are beginning to make sense to you, or do you feel like you are "supposed to" do things this way?
Is it easy? Or really a struggle?
Does it make your family life happier, or more stressful?
This isn't to say that every new idea must go smoothly and easily, or it isn't any good. Expect to feel challenged, while you are working through your beliefs about learning and parenting. ALSO expect to have breakthroughs every now and then, when something that sounded crazy before, suddenly makes sense. Often, that uncomfortable, challenging feeling is strongest right before a breakthrough. There's a lot of stuff in your head that was put there by well meaning, mainstream sources. It will make you question stuff that sounds absolutely crazy to you, until you work through all of the "but what if it's NOT crazy, what if the way "everyone" does it really ISN'T the best way?" thoughts.
When you feel that breakthrough, that deepening of understanding, go back and read stuff from your now-favorite unschoolers. Especially anything that they said that didn't make sense to you- it might, now. Or you might be closer. THIS is when you start asking your own questions. This is the part of the process when you are able to take in new information, and connect it to your growing sense of understanding.
Expect this to take time. Not days, probably not a couple of weeks. Months, maybe. Years, for some things. For some things, it may be more helpful to ask questions of specific people, those whose "voice" you have come to trust, rather than asking in an open forum, where sometimes, threads don't go in a helpful direction. Most of the folks online who are best at answering unschooling questions have been doing it for years, and are open to being contacted directly.