One of the groups I belong to on Facebook created by master networker & Innovative Educator Lisa Nielsen is the “Homeschooling, Unschooling, Uncollege, Opt-Out, DIY Learning” page. Not infrequently there is a question posted from someone wanting to know more about unschooling, or unschooling vs. homeschooling, etc. Always in these cases the unschoolers come out in numbers to give helpful advice or information. At least, I know the intent is for the information to be helpful, but in the case of a post written by Sue Wolfe Patterson titled “Should YOU Unschool”, which you can read here, I felt she missed the mark.
Let me just say that I don’t know Sue at all and I’m sure her intentions were good. Unschooling is not for everyone. In the past I’ve written about how unschooling is natural for kids, but more difficult for parents. It’s a leap of faith to go against what we’ve all been taught, almost from birth.
Sue’s post begins by saying that although anyone could, in theory, be an unschooling parent, they would have to, “really live outside their comfort zones, learn and adopt completely new communication styles, change their world view, spend some time in therapy getting to the root of why they keep making the same mistakes. Just to name a few.” She says the odds of this happening are “slim to none”. Then follows a chart with a list of traits that purport to help you determine whether or not you, as a parent, are a good fit for unschooling.
According to the list that Sue provided, I am probably unfit to be an unschooling parent and in fact am in need of therapy to figure out why I make so many mistakes. For example, the first item on the side of “a good fit” reads: “Parents who enjoy being around their children”, while the “NOT a good fit” item reads, “Parents who really prefer adult contact and look forward to their kids being happily playing…elsewhere.” Or, along those same lines, under “a good fit”: “Parents who see themselves as mentors and role models, allowing their child to “sit with the grown ups”, as opposed to “Not a good fit”: “Parents who prefer that the kids hang out somewhere else while the adults talk, or they REALLY like the idea of The Kids Table at Thanksgiving.”
I am both of those parents.
I like spending time with my kids, but wow do I love alone time with other adults. One of the happiest days of my life was when I realized that my kids were now old enough to SPEND TIME ON THEIR OWN!!! Example? Today a friend of mine who no longer lives in NY but who is visiting the city for a few days called and wanted to know if I could meet her for an early dinner. Did I invite my kids? No, I did not. Why? Because I didn’t want to bring them, that’s why. I wanted to enjoy my 90 minutes with my adult friend and talk about adult subjects. I did not want to have to explain the ins and outs of a tax sale, or alcoholism, or any other subject to my kids who I love and with whom I enjoy doing a myriad of things.
We had a kids’ table at our last Passover meal. (Don’t get too excited – we don’t read the Haggadah – we do a finger puppet version of the Exodus where the kids begin to laugh at the idea of a God who would punish anyone by killing babies…but that’s another story.) We love the kids table. And you know what? So do the kids. Not every day at every meal, but once a year? It’s special to get to sit on their own with the other kids. Just as the adults enjoy being able to talk about some things that are perhaps not appropriate to discuss when the kids are around.
The point is, Sue presents this picture as black and white, when in reality it is a massive field of gray.
Here’s another example: Under the good fit column, Sue writes, “Parents who are ok with letting their kids play video games all day, because they know it will lead to something,” as opposed to the not a good fit column, where she writes, “Parents who cannot stand it when their child TRIES to play videogames all day — what about the learning???”
This one really, really bothers me. In my house, I don’t monitor screen time. I’ve seen Maya develop great friendships online as well as teaching herself a myriad of skills through online tutorials. Ditto for Ben. In general, I think putting restrictions on something like TV and computer simply creates a never-fulfilled desire for it. However, I also have dear friends whose son, when playing video games or going online, begins to exhibit distinct addictive behavior (which I’ve seen in person and which happens despite having the most giving, non-judgmental, supportive and loving parents you can imagine) which results in loss of attention or ability to relate to anyone in his family.
They restrict his computer time.
As do a number of my other friends who are unschooling parents. They each have their own reasons and they each do it out of a belief that it works best for their family dynamic. One of them has a son who taught himself to read at the age of 8, and who is still a beginning writer. This is not someone who calls herself an unschooler but is secretly forcing her kid to “learn” academic subjects.
Even when I don’t always agree with their reasons for restricting certain things, I would never presume to tell them they are unfit to unschool because of it.
Here’s another one: A good fit is “Parents who are cheerful overall” as opposed to a bad fit being “Parents who struggle with depression.”
There goes 1/2 the population.
Maybe someone who is depressed and isn’t getting help and has a spouse who is likewise depressed and not getting help would be a bad fit, but I know many people who struggle with depression who are AMAZING unschooling and homeschooling parents. They work on their illness and they do their damnedest to beat it. If you are struggling with depression but have a real desire to unschool your kids, you can do it.
The first time I read Sue’s post I thought that some of her points were valid, like saying that a good fit is “Parents who enjoy and see value in hearing children’s ideas and ways of approaching situations” as opposed to “Parents who believe children should be seen and not heard, speak only when spoken to.” But although I am not in the camp of thinking children should only speak when spoken to, I also think that there are times when a child needs to respect that another person is speaking and not interrupt to give their own idea about the matter. Which again falls in the gray area, and about which I could write another entire post.
If you read to the end of Sue’s post, you’ll find that she contradicts her opening statement by saying that in fact parents CAN be unschoolers even if they see a lot of the “not a good fit” traits in themselves. That it is a growth process and that even with years of school training clogging your thinking you can change and open up. Which is true, but which might have been better said at the beginning, because for a newbie the list is pretty overwhelming. If I had read this 6 years ago I probably would have thrown up my hands & turned off the computer well before getting to the end.
You do not need to be an always patient, always understanding and supportive, perfect parent in order to unschool. None of us would pass that test. Here then, in case you still have doubts and are questioning whether you are fit to be an unschooling parent, is a list of my own. It’s a short and very incomplete list of my own faux pas, transgressions and mistakes made over the years.
1. When my kids were little, I spanked them on occasion. One spank, hard on the butt, to get their attention. (Ben would laugh when I did this. Oh man did I think I was in trouble!)
2. For over a year, I forced Maya to do Math worksheets every day. We fought, I yelled, she cried (sometimes I cried too).
3. I have in the past ordered my kids to clean their rooms, pick up their toys and BE QUIET!!
4. I have ‘laid down the law’ and taken away their choice in many matters.
5. I have chastised them for interrupting, only to realize that I also interrupt. Constantly.
6. I used to enforce a bedtime. No questions asked.
7. We “Ferberized” Maya. I still think this was the right call for us at the time. She was 17 months old.
8. I have restricted Ben’s intake of sugar.
9. I’ve completely lost my temper and screamed at my kids.
10. I’ve sent them to their rooms and told them they can’t come out until I say so.
Most, but not all, of these things happened when Maya and Ben were younger. I am still far from the perfect unschooling parent. I suspect I will never attain nirvana in that regard. However, as my kids and I have grown, we have all improved, which is the only thing you can ask.
Unschooling is not black and white. It is mostly gray. Which is why anyone who has the desire can do it and make it a successful reality for their kids and their family.