Wednesday, April 8, 2015

"On" All The Time

Unschoolers are, let's face it, out of the ordinary.

In a quick glance online, in an effort to find some sort of statistic for numbers of homeschoolers, I found an estimate of 2.8% of school-aged children in the US being counted as homeschoolers. This number is almost certainly not very accurate, because not every family who homeschools reports to their state as doing so (some states do not require this, at all) and is only for the US, but I wanted SOME sort of starting point.

If we consider the percentage of that total of homeschoolers who are unschooling, there's no way to even estimate it, but I'm going to guess that it's fairly low. Even lower, if you count only those who actually ARE unschooling, as compared to the people who don't understand it, and, as one example, believe anything without a curriculum is unschooling. And even less, if you count only those who have been, and continue, unschooling for at least several years, less, even still,  kids who are unschoolers the entire time they would have otherwise been in school.

Tiny numbers.
We're talking about not very many people at all.

As is the case with any minority group, there is sometimes a perception that any one of those people must represent ALL of them.

With unschooling, because it is so little understood, this "representation" goes a step further. People who attempt to help others understand unschooling sometimes are put in the position of feeling a need to be "ON" all the time. Their kids are perceived as THE examples, the PROOF that "unschooling works."

It can be a lot of pressure on those parents and kids.

It isn't only the most visible, or most experienced, unschoolers this happens to, either. Out in the world, ANYONE who is an unschooler becomes a de facto "unschooling ambassador" to everyone else. Only they are not always seen as "proof that unschooling works," but, often, as proof that it doesn't.

This is very frustrating.

It has so little to do with who these people actually ARE, their strengths, their weaknesses, their interests, their joys, their accomplishments, and much to do with the preconceived assumptions and expectations and biases of whoever is putting them in that role of "example." People largely see what they want to see.

I have seen, more than once, a family make a choice other than unschooling, and be perceived both by others, and by themselves, as "unschooling failures." As if "being an unschooler" were the goal, rather than "making good choices for our family." I have seen, more than once, a family new to unschooling "give up" because they don't quite get it yet, and not being able to be "perfectly unschooling" all the time, they don't know how to move in that direction, so they go back to what is familiar, at least.

This perception of "perfect unschooling" is an issue, in more ways than one.

It sets people up for disappointment. It creates an impossible image for anyone to live up to. And it fails to recognize that people are, after all, human, and all humans make mistakes, poor choices, and bad decisions, at times. That life doesn't go smoothly all the time, for anyone (nor should it, really).

It comes from both ends, at once.

It comes from people sharing stories, giving advice, and putting forth "solutions" for people new to unschooling. To read all that, you could easily believe that there are some folks out there who ARE "perfect unschoolers," all the time. But those stories told publicly are not the whole story. For one, they are specifically chosen to inspire, to guide, to encourage, to give hope- and that's a good thing. For another, most unschoolers are fairly careful not to share stories about their kids without permission, and there will always be things that happen in families that are PERSONAL, and not for sharing publicly, and, sometimes, those are the difficult parts. So you won't see them shared.

And it comes from people with both unrealistic expectations, and incomplete understanding of unschooling, who are not yet at a place where they can see WHY some things that unschoolers describe really work out that way. Often, they internalize that as their own lack of ability to be an unschooler, while others are "perfect," rather than see it as what it is: they are at the beginning of a long journey, not the end.

Way back a long time ago, when my children were very young, I was a La Leche League Leader for several years. I am reminded of something we discussed back then. The problem with describing human milk as "the perfect food" and "best for your baby" is that many people don't believe they can BE "perfect" or "best." It is too demanding. Too much to deal with. Describing something as perfect can scare away those people, often the very ones who would benefit most.

I think this happens in the unschooling world, too. People see what they interpret as "perfect unschooling," with parents who are ON all the time, always aware, always flexible and adaptable, always guiding their children, and always with the perfect advice for others, and whether they are consciously aware of it or not, put themselves in the "I can't possibly do that" category.

Ain't none of us perfect.
I'm not even looking for "perfect."
I am, however, constantly striving for "better."

I think that is something everyone should be able to manage: trying to be better.

There are a couple of things that I think would contribute to this.

One is for people to share, not necessarily "bad experiences," and certainly not personal things about their kids without permission, but at least to acknowledge that unschooling is a lifelong relationship- and anyone who has been in a long term relationship should understand that things don't always go smoothly, or as planned, and that it requires all involved parties to make an effort to communicate and otherwise work on maintaining the relationship. Some relationships are better than others, and unschooling relationships tend to be in that category, but even GREAT relationships require some ongoing sensitivity.

The other is for people to simply stop putting themselves on the spot, playing the role of "unschooling ambassador," and not to feel a responsibility to attempt to explain and defend it to all questioners. Sometimes, it simply isn't anyone's business. You DON'T have to be "on" all the time. If someone sees something that you or your kids do, and it isn't perfect, or it doesn't represent all of unschooling in a positive light… so be it. Any effort you make to improve your unschooling relationship with your kids should be exactly that, not some public display.


  1. Thanks for this post. We're only a year in to our unschooling journey and I found this really encouraging. Especially this line -
    I am, however, constantly striving for "better."

    1. Thanks for reading, Ann. I'm glad you found it encouraging.