Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Thinking More about Unschooling

I vacillate a lot as a parent- from angry to super kind and loving, and everything in between. Parenting brings out all my own issues. Particularly with a new baby, I tend to have age inappropriate expectations of Noah, which is compounded by the fact that he's a toddler and is thus annoying to his parents. All this must be very confusing for Noah.

Thinking about this and, tangentially, the death of Maurice Sendak, I've recently found this website on unschooling really helpful. A lot of what I'm reading about unschooling encourages parents to see a situation from a child's perspective, which has been powerful for me.

I'm still use bribery, but I'm starting to try to understand why bribery works (perhaps as an acknowledgement  that I've just made him do something that he doesn't want to do), and how to make it less about bribery and getting Noah to do what I want-- which has the underlying attempt at control-- and more about figuring out how to live together as a family- with all the transitions that we're in the midst of.

He's not yet two, and so I'm not talking family meetings or deep discussions of feelings. I guess I'm just starting to figure out how to process Noah's behavior less personally and more in the context of his development and needs. Really, I just wanted to recommend that unschooling website.

In other news, Eug installed a motion-sensitive light in our front area, partially in the hopes that it would scare the cat who keeps pooping in the granadilla, and partially in the hopes that people will stop jumping over our wall and taking stuff from our tiny front space. While Eug connected the wires, Noah had free reign of the drill, which is surprisingly not very dangerous. If I had more energy I'd put Eli down, get up and download the video so you can see it. It may be that you don't need to see videos of our toddler, though. Here's to Noah turning two on Saturday- maybe that'll give me an excuse to post more photos and videos of him.


leah said...

Wow. I used to think I was in favor of unschooling until I read that website.

Q: "So if I pull together a unit study when he shows an interest and lead the learning is this still unschooling?"

A: "The short answer would be if the child can say "No thanks, I'd rather go watch TV" and you be perfectly okay with that then it's unschooling."

Good to know.

Concrete Gardener said...

Yeah- I'd say there's a continuum with some helpful ideas and some ideas are less helpful- especially now in the context of a two year old.

I like what I read that I can try out now in less abstract terms: recognizing that going to the shop near the end of the day isn't the highlight of Noah's day, and that he's not totally aware that eggs are breakable, I took the risk, explained that the eggs would break if he dropped them, and let him hold the eggs in the shopping trolley (it didn't help that I was shopping with Eli and Noah alone for the first time), and it was the difference between Noah having a meltdown/me having a meltdown, and us all enjoying the trip. The eggs didn't break, but if they had, I figured R10 ($1,20) was probably an ok potential cost. Whereas I usually want to get Noah to 'buckle down' and obey without complaint.

Tiff said...

Though J and I don't have children yet, we have started talking about strategies for raising and teaching them. And we were talking about how to get them to thirst after learning, to want to learn for themselves, and to maintain the power of unconventional thought.

Unschooling seems, in theory, quite a good idea. However, I think it would depend heavily on the child's temperament, which will probably be subject to variation. Not every child will be as inclined to having the love of learning instilled in them as, say, Virginia Woolf or the Bronte children. (Sorry...I think in terms of literature these days.)

This was an interesting quote from the site:

"Standard American dream is success leads to happiness. Success is usually defined as a high paying job that allows someone to purchase the "good life" for their families. And to get that high paying job you need to go to a really good college. And to get into that really good college you need to get good grades in high school. Unschooling is about replacing that path with something better."

True, perhaps. But then you're making a decision about the better path for your child to take that potentially cuts off certain possibilities in the future. A friend of mine was telling me about a male friend of hers whose parents were very much into unschooling. And he turned out really amazingly, except one day, he wanted to become a medical doctor. But he couldn't because there was just so much that he hadn't started, and hadn't thought to start by the time he was college-age, that it was too late. He didn't know how to write the 'lingo' for a medical school app, he'd never taken a standardised test, he'd never wanted to learn any biology, chemistry, etc.

I really do love the idea of living life apart from the Standard American Dream, but perhaps the most ethical thing then would be to move to a place where that it possible, and where there are more possibilities open to someone who hasn't gone through the 'system'.

emily said...

Leah, my unschooling page would include "ditch the TV to minimize such unattractive incidents"... Hee hee hee. What do they say about imposing our nasty adult control on the environment? I'm afraid this might be making decisions on their behalf. The unschool we visited in NZ was filthy because "the kids have not expressed an interest in having it clean...." I am discovering a few of my limits.

leah said...

I've read more of the website and I think complete unschooling is a really large burden to put on parents. We are to say yes to everything, provide for every whim our child may have, and to expect absolutely nothing. I understand that it's not Noah's favorite to got to the store, but the website's author would also have a parent feel responsible for the child's happiness if lunch isn't McDonalds, or if it's raining.

Concrete Gardener said...

@ Tiff, I watched this documentary ( ) on a famous surfing family where they kept their 9 kids in an RV and went around surfing (everything you need to know is learned on the waves), and a similar thing happened- one son wanted to be a doctor and he just couldn't (even though that was actually his dad's original profession). The dad was portrayed as insane.

So on the personal side, when it comes to educating Noah and Eli, I'm not sure what we'll do-probably some mix of things? As you say, it may depend a lot of their temperaments.

Also on the personal side, I think I could have maybe maybe done medicine if life had been different (it was my dream for so long), but there were a ton of different barriers. I certainly wasn't a victim, but the ideal preparation for getting into medicine seems to be the absolute polar opposite of the ideal preparation for being a good doctor.

Concrete Gardener said...

@ Leah. I had a hard time from the website figuring out if, in unschooling you actually pander to the child's whim, or if you recognize what they're wanting, that it's valid from their point of view, and explain that it's not possible. I guess it depends on age.

When it comes to cleaning up, for example, I'd tend towards getting Noah to help out because even if he's not "developmentally ready", I'd go crazy if I didn't start teaching him. So yes to there being a very large potential burden on parents, particularly if you have any kind of life. I don't know.

emily said...

I can't not say that I really like many aspects of unschooling. Mainly things that I think would contribute to free-thinking. Also, my biggest gripe about "conventional school" is that i feel like it churns out parts of a machine - little workers that can take orders (the average ones) or materialistic overlords (the ones that excel)- that manufactures "products" (a self-absorbed, materialistic culture) that I don't think are beneficial. On the other hand, I value a certain type of discipline and ability to stick with things and sometimes do things we don't want to do that seems to be explicitly contra-indicated in unschooling.
At the risk of running over the word limit.. I'm reading a book called the "Narcissism Epidemic" that presents some compelling arguments about how permissive parenting in modern society (in the US esp, but also globally) has created a generation of very un-resilient and difficult to work with people. Among other things... I don't agree with everything they say (they're a little snarky about attachment parenting which I don't think is justified). But it confirms many of the niggling shudders I get about, well, permissive parenting.

But then, I don't think any of us disagree, it is a balance...

Concrete Gardener said...


The relationship between attachment parenting and unschooling might be something to explore: my understanding of attachment parenting is that you give babies what they need the first two years of life, as best you can, with the thought that giving them what they need in the moment (without worrying too much that picking up your child will create a spoiled brat) will help them feel secure.

At least some bits of unschooling seems to try to do the same thing later on. It's just much harder to figure out what children need (and as Leah said the balance between kids needs and wants and parents needs may be tough to balance). The future looming that much larger and being that much more relevant?

I'm not sure how to understand the entitlement of our generation in the context of permissive parenting. I haven't encountered any adults who were unschooled; a couple of awesome home schooled folks, but the most entitlement I saw was amongst those at elite schools and universities who were told we could be anything, making it hard for them (us?) to start out that "anything" with waitering and filing and cleaning up.

emily said...

Jo (sorry, I feel kind of bad commenting more but...) the elite school environment you refer to is not at all unlike some of the examples this book talks about and not at all unlike what many people I know - especially university professor friends but also just people who hire people - confirm REALLY happens. For example, young adults bringing their fathers to their performance reviews at work, kids refusing to assume responsibility for their grades and instead blaming teachers. On younger levels, the book refers to and I have observed the trend toward never telling children they're wrong or not excelling at something but just sort of telling them they're varying levels of GREAT! or special - even if that's the very bottom level! In my humble one, most of us aren't PARTICULARLY special, but that's totally fine. The empericle - please spell this word for me! - research this book presents indicates that kids/young people/people who actually get realistic feedback tend to perform better and be happier. When we were in NZ and in this sort of alternative/expeditionary learning school (it was really good but...) the environment and attitudes of the parents and teachers was sooo pro-kid (that is, they totally coddled the children) that it was nearly impossible to get a child to do anything they didn't want to do - even simple things like help a classmate with something. The level of emotional maturity I saw was so disturbing, and totally different from what I have felt I have managed with Liam by providing a supportive environment with appropriate challenges and boundaries. The biggest thing I can think of was their inability to take responsibility for their actions without having a melt down. We often got compliments on how Liam responded to adult interaction, especially when he was told to do something differently or was reprimanded. It was never a big emotional deal to him to adjust and accept that he needed to change his behavior. We like to emphasize being able to answer for your actions and a lot of what I call "permissive parenting" emphasizes the delicate emotional dispositions of the child and not "pushing" them to do anything. We've had a similar experience with some Waldorf/expeditionary kids down the street. Interestingly, these two bunches ONLY play together, not with anyone else on the block.. and then they grow up... a bit of a hodge podge of thoughts but they are all part of my internal workings around how to parent and school the monkeys :).

Tiff said...

Hi Jo,

Yes, I think you're right. Easy-goingness, willingness to be flexible, 'mix' practices, etc. makes so much more sense!

Alison said...

I have been exploring the subject of unschooling for some months for my older kids - 9 and 12 - presently in school. We have homeschooled in the past, but if we go the *at home* route again I would want a more child-directed approach.

The best 'sense' approach I have found is . It really excites me in terms of learning about the world, and oneself and one's place in it...

But I find that here in South Africa, it can feel odd to be rejecting a school system that so many would give their right hand to have access to... and IMO it will be a couple of generations before our tertiary education system is open minded enough not to go on straight examination results to gain entrance.

Concrete Gardener said...

Thanks Alison! It's a good point about the tertiary education system here in SA.

I did the IB, which is accepted here in SA and only lasts 2 years (equivalent of A levels), and it might be another option if our kids would like to go on to tertiary education.

I know what you mean about it being odd to reject a system when one is privileged in the first place. From my perspective, I did very well in the SA public system but still feel that it didn't necessarily help me love learning or develop a good sense of myself. At the same time, my nephew with special needs is in a renowned Cape Town government school and I feel as though the system tells him every single day that he is inadequate and so on. Faced with this message for ten years already, I don't think he's in a space where he could tackle tertiary education.

All to say, I don't have answers but I'd love to keep exploring and figuring out what suits our kids best.