angry, resistant child

My 5yo seems to be angry a lot of the time, these days, and has no discipline. She says please and thank you rarely, doesn't want to say hi to people we know, and always wants her own way. It almost seems like we've raised a spoiled brat.

Something to keep in mind... do you know the saying "when your kid is giving you a hard time they're really Having a hard time?" If your child seems angry much of the time, then she's not going to be able to see beyond her own needs very well - that means she Can't be friendly and accommodating very easily. She's little. The world is big and overwhelming, and she's trying to deal with the few skills she has. And right now courtesy is just a song and dance to make other people happy - not something she can access when she's not in a good place, herself. So a big part of making it possible for her to be her best self is going to involve helping her get to that good place.

It took me a long time to realize that a big part of unschooling was actually making kids' lives easier. It seems so counter-intuitive - mainstream culture tells us over and over, that "kids have to learn" and that most of that learning involves setting them up to be challenged. But that's not how learning works! People learn better when they're the ones choosing their own challenges - and kids certainly will do that. But just like anyone else, when they're not the ones picking the challenges they're up against, they tend to hunker down and get grumpy

So it can actually be really helpful to look at what's setting your kid up to be angry so much of the time and see what you can do to make her life a little sweeter and easier. For a 5yo, there may be a whooooole lot of things that seem really trivial from an adult perspective - like not wanting to say hi to someone - that are huge sources of frustration from their point of view. So a big part of helping your kid involves looking for their point of view.

One particular aspect of making life easier for kids that parents overlook is flat out doing things for them. Again, we've gotten all these teachy messages from the world around us saying "oh, they have to do things for themselves so they'll learn". But, once again, that's not how learning works. That's something I saw over and over with my first, when we were still fumbling our way toward unschooling. When I put him in situations where he was expected to do things he didn't want to do, he didn't actually learn anything beneficial in the process. Instead, over time, he learned he wasn't a nice person
But when I started stepping in and doing things for him when he wanted - even things I knew he could do - he was happier, and he learned more from the experience. His social skills were better when I said please and thank you for him then when I tried to coax him to do it for himself. So don't hesitate to help your child directly like that if it will make life easier for her - she'll learn better things from your assistance than from digging in her heels, not wanting to do whatever it is.

All that being said, I don't want to give you a false impression that making your child's life easier will turn her into something she's not. She may never be an agreeable little babydoll - she may be someone who's going to disagree with you and challenge your assumptions at every turn. And part of living happily with a strong personality is to get comfortable with disagreement and having your assumptions challenged. The great thing about strong minded kids is that they can take you places you never thought you'd go! The down side is that it's not the smoothest ride in the world


little kids and "boundaries"

It can help a lot to step back from the idea of "setting" boundaries and think about what boundaries really are and how we can communicate about them. While you're deschooling, in fact, it's useful to look out for the ways you may tend to override your kids' boundaries without thinking about it. There are plenty of natural boundaries in life - hunger, fatigue, personal space - that we don't so much "set" for other people as look for ways to communicate effectively... and by communicate I don't mean saying no, necessarily.

When you think about it, kids lives are packed full of boundaries. They're living in a world that's too big, too complicated, full of assumptions they don't understand and expectations they don't even know exist until someone tells them they've failed. A lot of unschooling is actually about helping kids find ways over and around and through boundaries so that their lives are easier. You almost certainly do some of that already - every time you pick up a kid so they can see something, you're helping them around a boundary.

One of the biggest boundaries for little kids is that they're little kids. They struggle to communicate because their brains aren't fully developed, they don't understand their own feelings, and the world keeps throwing them curve balls. A young child who is, for instance, hitting, often doesn't need a boundary set for them - they're desperately trying to communicate that the darn world is broken again. The toy got taken! The dog won't do the thing! The cup fell! I don't remember which way the shoe goes! They need help navigating the boundaries that are in their way - help understanding, help not getting into that situation in the first place, help change gears, help understanding what's going on. And a lot of that help happens before the child runs into that boundary in the first place. So as a parent, part of the process of helping kids deal with boundaries involves learning to be proactive - thinking and planning ahead so that our kids don't run into so many walls.

That may sound counter-intuitive - how will kids learn to deal with those walls if they don't run into them? But a lot of those walls are developmental - they go away. Most kids just plain grow out of the hitting stage as they get used to uncomfortable feelings and learn to predict human behavior a little better. Others are a lot easier to navigate when they're just little barriers - dealing with one or two new people is less overwhelming than ten. We can look for ways to keep barriers small and manageable so that kids have a chance to think and learn how to navigate without getting overwhelmed.

If this isn't sounding like the kinds of boundaries you have in mind, then you may be confusing boundaries with a sort of soft-edged version of rules. "The boundary is: no jumping on the couch." But seen another way, you've got a kid who needs a bunch of big muscle movement and the real boundary is that you don't feel comfortable with the couch being used to meet that need. That might be a boundary you can stretch or even get over - some boundaries really are just in your head. Or you could look for other ways to meet that need that don't involve the couch - a mini trampoline, some special cushions just for jumping. We had a designated "jumping chair" for a few years. The boundary of adults not being comfortable with ruined furniture didn't go away, but we found a way to deal with that boundary that wasn't all about finding the perfect way to say no.

A lot of deschooling for parents involves learning to do this kind of problem-solving so that "boundaries" aren't end points or road blocks, but opportunities to try something different. At first it can seem kind of overwhelming - a learning curve is a kind of real life boundary! But with time and practice it gets easier.



I see a lot of questions about transcripts, so I thought I'd put this out here. I decided to register with The Farm School as our umbrella program in TN for the "high school" years, in part so that I could do exactly this, and generate a transcript as we went. At the end, if we want, The Farm will create a diploma for us. The transcript is generated via a simple online program - I'm sure there are tons of the darned things, but the one they use is homeschoolreporting.com in case you're looking for one. One of the handy features is that when you go to type in a "class" it gives you a long list of suggested high school classes so you can use something that sounds nice and normal. You can also assign grades and credits if you want.

So this is what the transcript looks like for Morgan's "freshman year of high school":

English 1
Math- logic
Computing - graphic design
Physical education
Ancient history//World Geography

But we're unschoolers, right? So how the heck did she manage that? Do we do online classes or something? Nope. Not a bit of it. I keep an eye on the sorts of things she's doing - what she's reading, writing about, drawing, watching, playing - and I take notes on that when I think about it. Then around the turn of the "semester" I look through my notes and see what would be a good fit. I compare what high school say students learn to what colleges assume high school graduates retain, and I take that pretty heavily into account. I'm not interested in holding my kid to a superior standard, just providing a reasonable "translation" of natural learning into a simple, lowest-common-denominator sort of format.

Mostly, it's pretty easy. Natural learning really does lead kids in all sorts of wonderful directions! It even leads to a fair amount of intellectual rigor in terms of questioning sources, analyzing information, expressing ideas clearly, even examining the ethics of decision making. It does because natural learning isn't about doing just enough to pass a test, it's about following the rabbit trails of curiosity and discovering where they lead. So that even when the "subject matter" derives from fan fiction and video games rather than textbooks and approved reading lists, curiosity itself leads kids to develop the kinds of mental skills that schools work so hard (and often with such futility) to impart.

If you're looking for more information about creating transcripts, portfolios or other kinds of reporting for unschoolers, here's a really good collection of resources

December 2016 update!

Well, it's the end of another reporting period, time to cobble my notes into something that sounds reasonable. Last year, things changed a little between the "mid year report" and the final version, and I expect that will happen again this year. Remember, this is an interpretation of real life, natural learning, which twists and turns and doesn't follow a plan. And I'm trying to cram all of that into some fairly narrow categories provided by my reporting program. This is how it looks so far - with commentary, because I'm in that kind of mood.

English 2. By which I mean, she reads stuff, encounters literature and literary references, talks about stuff, compares and contrasts, and is generally articulate and aware. I'm debating changing this to "contemporary literature" but maybe next year.

English, writing - creative writing. I'm irritated to discover that the reporting program doesn't actually have a "creative writing" category, so I'll figure out how to tweak it later on. There's also a "composition" category, and I might use that. She writes A Lot, and not all of it fiction. And communicates about writing A Lot on various websites. So I'll see where I want to go with this.

Computer programming. This is something she's dabbled in, on and off, and needs to end up on the transcript somewhere. I've done some casual research into high school programming courses, and she's dabbled all over that stuff. Apparently school programming classes aren't all that impressive. See my complete lack of surprise.

Drawing - intro to animation. She does a lot of drawing and some animation, so once again this needs to end up on the transcript somehow, somewhere. And yet again I'm having a hard time fitting it into a category. Don't they have "basics of animation" classes in high schools? They should. It's the 21st century for crissakes.

 History - modern. Lots of stuff going on in her world connecting to the world wars these days. I'll keep this for this "semester" but it's possible I'll list something else next "semester." That's what I did above for world history/ geography - each was a half credit, "single semester class." As it were. In real life, of course, there's lots of swirling around, overlapping ideas.

Math - applied 1. What a delightfully uninformative category! Perfect for unschoolers. Realistically, her math is coming from computer stuff - programming, animation, and video games. So you can see, it's sometimes hard to know where to "record" things. At this point, I'm thinking of keeping programming separate from math because it can be used as a "foreign language" for some universities, and that might be handy.

Psychology - gender studies. Not that "gender studies" is a category, but I'm going to make it fit somewhere. This has been a Big Topic of Conversation in our house, and for a kid who doesn't really "make conversation" by nature, that's significant.

Physiology. Hmm. Might be a stretch, but maybe I'll dig out the old "physiology coloring book" to add to what's happening around this topic. Or maybe I'll find a better category by June. We'll see.

Physical education - because all those hours on the trampoline might as well count for something, right?

So as you can see, the "mid semester" point is more of a rough draft than a finished product. A lot of what she's doing is ongoing. A lot of it can be categorized in multiple ways. And she's going in a bunch of directions at once. Also, the program I'm set up with, via the Farm, isn't very oriented toward tech-savvy kids. I will contrive!


unschooling math

My 8yo has never had an interest in math. He's very bright, but won't apply himself to learn it. Any suggestions for something FUN - a family game, etc., that we could gift him for Christmas that might help him? I'd like to unschool math, but can't imagine how that works.

Step back from ideas like "he's not applying himself" - that's the kind of language schools use to make kids feel bad about the fact that they don't dovetail conveniently with a particular educational method. Kids don't fail at school from not applying themselves, schools fail to meet their needs. Tell him that - it will help his self-esteem.

That being said, math is everywhere, all the time. Schools mostly ruin it for people, so the best thing you can do is offer fun things that don't "look" like math.

Video games are a great example - they're pretty solidly math, certainly a much better way for kids to internalize the concepts.

Art is a math-rich endeavor, if he's artistic. Music, obviously, but all kinds of art depend on an intuitive grasp of mathematical principles.

Any kind of goopy, messy activity involves and exploration of chemical properties, and therefore math. Making "potions," making mud, cooking and baking.

Playing with flight involves a ton of intuitive math - airplanes, frisbees, balls, rockets, zip lines, parachutes, balloons. And things with wheels depend on a lot of the same concepts - bicycles, scooters, skates, skateboards, toy cars. Ramps and jumps and loops. Bunny hops and ollies.

All the juggling arts are enormously rich in physics, and therefore math: balls, clubs, poi, devil sticks, contact juggling, diablos. Yoyos. Hula hoops.

Magnets and electricity are good fun, full of math, and make easy gifts. Snap circuits. Things with motors. Magnetic toys and kits. Compass experiments.

Building toys of all kinds are great for playing with mathematical principles. Legos and lego-compatible K'nex are fantastic, but for added fun there are also marble runs, race-car tracks, kits with wheels, gears and pulleys, simple robot kits.

The main thing is to recognize that learning about patterns, connections, and interactions - real world math - isn't going to look anything like school math. And that's a good thing because schools ruin "math" for most people. Really playing with math often involves separating the idea of "math" from actual math so that you don't get bogged down in school damage and can actually learn something interesting.


things to do with younger kids

It seems as though every week more parents are asking about how to "unschool" the earlier years. This particular collection came out of a request for an "unschooling curriculum" for young kids. I can't help but wonder how much of that is a result of the preponderance of early education and daycare.

You might think in terms like this, to help organize yourself a bit, or think of things to strew:

five senses - it's usually easy to find things to look at, but how can you explore the world with your ears? your nose? your skin? your taste?

big movement - little kids need to do a lot with big muscle groups and it can help to visualize the body and think of fun ways to use different muscles. Arms and legs aren't too hard, but what about chest (breath) muscles? What about ways to twist and bend?

itty bitty - little kids are also fascinated with small movements and very small objects, not just touching and sorting, but picking things up with different kinds of tongs and tweezers. For some kids arts-n-craft stuff fills this niche, but for others puzzles and home-made games, or just collecting small items in nature and taking them apart.

taking things apart is another kind of "category" of things to think about - some kids learn by dis-assembling! And it's often fun. Think about ways to explore the insides of things safely.

states of matter - liquids and solids are fascinating! and for little kids that means direct interaction - often putting their hands right into things, pouring them over or through other things (funnels, whirligigs, strainers), mixing things. Go beyond sand and water and think about rice, beans, flour, dirt, oil, vinegar, mayonnaise... you get the idea! This is an "area of interest" that combines well with some of those other senses - get some cheap spices to add to other mixtures.

seasonal changes are great opportunities to explore new things or old things in new ways - both the natural world, and the human made world of seasonal traditions and holidays. And noticing seasons lets you notice other things - the length of the day, calendars, weather, the sky, animal behavior.

None of these things need to be "presented" in any kind of formal way, although depending on your family's needs you might want to do some pre-planning now and then, so you have what you need handy. A lot of the time it's just a matter of thinking ahead when you're doing your regular shopping - stopping by the cookware section and asking "how could my kid have fun with this?" or looking at a stack of post-it notes and realizing you could turn it into a game of tag, or a climbing challenge. Learn to see the world as a kid - as if everything had Fun Potential! and let your imagination out to play.


How would you approach a four year old dumping and throwing all over the house? I've tried to provide alternatives, but nothing works.

Both my kids were really high energy/ high needs when they were little. It helped a whole lot to make issues into non-issues as much as possible. It really, really doesn't do any good to have a power struggle with a little kid. It doesn't fix anything! So if there's a power struggle, it's important to look for the underlying needs your child is clamoring to express and look to meet them before they need to clamor.

It can seem excessive! What's "enough" for you may not be nearly enough for a high needs kid! That's important. If there's something about throwing stuff around and making a grand mess that's wonderful to your child then make more of that happen. But that may not be the whole of the issue. It may be that "making a mess" is a good way to get lots of attention - so a good place to start would be to start actively giving your kid a lot more attention. I know that can seem daunting - one of my kids needed an enormous amount of attention when he was little. It was wearing. But he didn't need less when I was done - he just clamored for more. And the best way to get more attention is to do something that pushes mom's buttons. Giving lots of attention proactively ends up taking less energy because you aren't pissed off as much and you feel more in control - you're choosing to give rather than putting out fires.

It's also possible your kid needs a lot of big arm movement in general and throwing things around is a good way to get that. So it's worth looking a more big arm things to do - more things to throw! And some targets to throw them at. Also things to swing with the arms - sticks and swords and bats and rackets. We found an old hand weed-wacker was handy to have around for active kids!

It could be, too, that your kid needs more rough-n-tumble play in general. Moms are sometimes bad at providing that, so you might need to engage some help in that regard. Older kids, teens or adult friends can step up and help. And there's a long list of physical stuff collected here:

Someone mentioned a need for control, and given that there's some stress in the family, that's a good place to look, too. Little kids can often feel really frustrated with how much of the world is out of reach, too hard, too complex, out of their control. So it's helpful to them to find ways to feel competent and capable - and how that works is going to be different for different kids. 3-5yos are also fascinated by cause and effect relationships, so those tend to be good ways for them to feel capable. Sometimes that means doing things and seeing/experiencing the effect, sometimes it means getting other people to do things for them. It's not a mean thing on their part - they don't have the development to mess with your head in that way! They're just trying to find ways to feel powerful.

Physical stuff can be good for that - throwing, wacking, even breaking things. But for a kid who likes the social side of cause and effect, games like Simon Says, statue maker, red light green light, can all be good. Also things like having your kid pick your clothes for you, or decide what you should eat for breakfast - things that let them make real decisions but also maybe be a little silly. Ketchup on your cheerios won't kill you

The main thing is to step back from this one issue and try to see what's feeding into it. Behavior is non-verbal communication. The catch is trying to suss out what's being communicated. Your kid isn't trying to drive you nuts - there's something under his skin. He needs help with that.


inviting a younger child in

My toddler always wants to be where I am, but I can't play all day. How do I get her to play by herself so I can get things done?

Rather than trying to get your child to leave you alone, do as much as you can in the same space with her - bring your tasks where she is and invite her where you are. Some things that are fun for three year olds in adult spaces include:

*giving her a wash-tub of water and unbreakable things while you're doing dishes

*make up a collection of "cleaning products" just for her - rags for wiping, a kid-size broom, some spray bottles with kid-safe contents like plain water, soapy water, white vinegar. Label the bottles so she can play with reading, too.

*get her some "ingredients" to play with while you're cooking - flour, rice, beans, water, oil, vinegar, as well as inexpensive spices and food coloring. She might want to help cook for real, but lots of kids love to just mix things up like mad scientists.

*have a sturdy stepstool so that she can get up and see what's going on over her head.

*explore textures together - if you're folding laundry, how do different fabrics feel? how do they hang when you hold them up or wave them like a flag? If you're outside, how does grass feel? Leaves? dusty dirt versus gravel?

*if you're settling the baby, think of "quiet" games to play together - whispering can be fun for little kids, and blowing bubbles, or a game where one person pats your hand in a gentle pattern and the other imitates it.