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.


help with defiant child

One place to start could be looking at some of the specific ways you feel your kid is being "defiant" and look for a positive way to reframe what you're seeing. Maybe he's someone who, for instance, always thinks for himself... even when you rather he just do what he's told Maybe he's someone who has definite opinions and learns by bouncing those opinions off the world and seeing what happens. Maybe he's really very sensitive and tries to stand against anything he sees as injustice. I don't know your kid, so I'm just tossing out examples.

My kids are very strong minded and tend to learn experientially - which for them can mean forming theories and testing them. Seen from one perspective, that makes them "defiant" - they're not the sort of people who do what they're told, unless it's convenient for them. That's not a result of unschooling, although the fact that my stepson is that way led us to unschooling. Life got so much easier and sweeter the more we became open to the idea of helping him explore the world in ways that worked for him rather than "helpfully" telling him the "best" way - he didn't want our answers, he wanted his process.

And my daughter is similar - as a toddler she never asked what or how or why, she said "because..." and explained the world to us. She wasn't always right, but you couldn't convince her of that. It was so much better to let her have her certainty - amazingly, she didn't mind having the world prove her wrong. She just didn't want to be told. Like she didn't want the spoilers.

She also has some sensory issues - which I've discovered a lot of parents read as defiance, so it's worth mentioning in case it's an issue for your kid. A lot of the time when kids are "refusing to act right" or "making a scene" or "trying to get attention" they're really reacting to overwhelming sensory stimuli - whether that's a misplace seam in a garment, or the texture of a food, or the acoustics of a room, or any of a thousand other things. And no-one responds well when they're overwhelmed Happily, it's possible to help kids to deal with the world without being overwhelmed by it, but it's a process that actually starts by helping them find ways to minimize or even avoid the too-intense stimuli in the first place, so they can learn to deal with the world at their own, unique pace.


How do you teach respect?

In more general terms, the question of "how do you teach?" comes down to thinking about what's important and interesting to the person doing the learning. When kids' interests happen to line up with parents', then any kind of parenting looks good. When they don't, whether it's considered good or bad parenting comes down to how much what you do looks like what everyone else does. If you look just like you're neighbors, then you have a rotten kid. If you don't, you're a rotten mom. That's the way public opinion works.

The reason you get such a mix of parenting stories, with some looking like success and some "failure" is because what's important and interesting to individual people (children) will be different at different times and in different ways. When teaching (including modeling) lines up with learning, it looks like teaching works. When it doesn't... well, that's practically the definition of "bad kid".

Courtesy, or the outward show of "respect" is a complicated song and dance. That's important. Some people do it easily - we all have natural aptitudes! Some don't. It helps to think about all the various components of courtesy: word choice, body language, eye contact, tone of voice, inflection, pacing of words, sense of timing. To a lot of people (children) it Feels like an act - to some it feels fundamentally dishonest, which is why you get words like "authenticity" and movements like "radical honesty". Courtesy and respect can feel like a great big lie that other people require of you. And for a child, who's probably also being told that lying is wrong, that's a gigantic mixed message. Tell the truth, but never about what you really want and think and feel, especially when it's something adults don't want to hear.

Think about "back talk" in terms of honesty for a bit - your kid is being authentic with you, telling you what she really thinks and feels. She disagrees with you and isn't candy coating that with sweet words and tone. Maybe she isn't doing that because the song and dance seems like a big fake in the moment. Maybe it's just a whole lot of work, work that she can't quite manage when she's distracted or stressed in some way (hungry, tired, frustrated, excited, etc). In a very real way, she's being incredibly respectful of you as a human being, because she's letting you know what's important and interesting to her in the moment. She's just doing the performance wrong.

As a parent, that means that it's up to you to decide when that performance is more valuable than your kids' honesty. That's a big ethical dilemma! Over time, kids do learn social skills from people they care about because human beings are social in nature. We like to be nice, we like to have friends, we like to smooth our own ways. When kids aren't bombarded with nos and don'ts about things that don't make sense to them, they tend to develop a better understanding of the rationale behind courtesy rather than just a bunch of rules about the performance. But depending on the social environment you live in, it may not be feasible or safe for your child to be honest. It may be necessary to require them to perform some of the time.

So, you look for ways to make it easier on them. You apologize for not being able to accept their honesty in every given moment and offer alternatives: "yes, I want to hear your story, but later, sweetie." You look for ways to keep your kid out of situations they can't handle - where they won't able to perform because it's too hard for them. You look for lower key situations where your kid can practice some parts of that performance. You Create those situations by being patient with your child's honesty and continue modeling courtesy. You offer up hints and coaching when it seems appropriate. You perform for your child and gently deflect criticism so their learning process isn't derailed.

It's frustrating, as a parent, to have the socially gauche kid, the one who can't just fake compliance and cheer like Little Miss Sunshine next door. I've never had "good" children in that sense... but I also didn't start out unschooling so I know that I wouldn't have gotten "good" children the old fashioned way, either. They don't all come that way. What I have seen, though, is how, over time, kids have reasons to want to connect with people and will learn the skills that make that easier when they can. I've seen my wild, impossible child grow into someone who moves easily between a variety of cultural groups because he's had the chance to learn to understand courtesy and respect on a gut level that shows even when he doesn't have the exact right words or mannerisms. I've seen my super-introverted don't-look-at-me child give thoughtful information to emergency professionals in such a way that they saw her as solemn and sympathetic, rather than sullen and disrespectful.

None of that would have come from "teaching respect" because my kids don't appreciate being taught, and have let me know that pretty clearly. It has come from time and maturity, and chances to learn in ways that are meaningful to them.

Something else that's worth keeping in mind on the topic of respect/courtesy is that homeschooled kids often learn more adult social skills from an early age. That can make them seem weird - it's part of the stereotype of the oddball homeschooler. It can also make them seem disrespectful because they're approaching adults with the same level of respect and courtesy that adults give to each other.

There's a big power dynamic between adults and children - children are, in a sense, a "lower class" and it comes out really, really starkly on the subject of courtesy and respect. It gets rationalized in terms of "they have to perform in order to learn" but that doesn't account for the degree to which adults feel resentment when kids don't do the things we expect from our lessers. We expect our lessers to comply, to smile at us, to conceal their true feelings in preference for ours, to stroke our egos. That's a big part of what it means to show "respect". It's not about actually respecting another human being in the sense of giving a hoot, it's about demonstrating that you know your place.

And depending on the circumstances of your life, showing that you "know your place" might be pretty important... although there are different trains of thought on that subject even among adults. It can help to remember that there really isn't single rule for when it's better to keep your head down and when to stand up and say, "no way, fuck this noise, I am as human as you are." Insisting that our kids always "show respect" doesn't offer them the true complexity of adult life where sometimes doing the "right thing" is the wrongest choice of all.


life skills

"At some point they'll have to enter the mainstream.... That's where they will struggle."

This actually isn't true, about kids struggling. Unschooling kids adapt as well as their natural aptitudes allow - as well as or better than school kids with similar aptitudes. It seems counter-intuitive, but it's a good example of how teaching doesn't guarantee learning. Being "in the system" doesn't necessarily make it easier to handle the system. Sometimes it makes it harder, because kids burn out academically, or get overwhelmed socially, or get so stressed they struggle to function.

Unschooling kids are used to making choices about things that matter to them. It doesn't mean all their choices are good ones, but by the time they're young adults they've had a chance to learn that, to learn that sometimes you fail and move on. Sometimes you get stuck and need help. Sometimes things don't work out the way you want and you regroup. And because they haven't been pressured to succeed, they're better equipped to deal with those possibilities. That's an asset in higher education.

They're also used to persevering when things matter to them. That's something else that can seem really counter-intuitive to people who aren't used to natural learning (which includes almost all unschooling parents, at first!). Schooling presumes that kids need to be taught to persevere - but kids are actually really good at it when something is important to them. Ironically, the kinds of things that motivate kids to persevere are also the things parents tend to wish kids wouldn't do. Kids will struggle with a project until they're crying and swearing and throwing materials and Not Want to Give Up. And parents respond with "stop that nonsense and go play." And then wring our hands at how poorly motivate our students are.

Given the chance, kids are actually great at learning the skills they'll need in life. Even the weirdly artificial kinds of contemporary life we've built for ourselves. Sure, they need help and support, but they don't need lessons on how to be better humans. They're darned good humans from the start



One of the stereotypes about unschooling is that it's just for kids who are spectacular in some way. Well, I'm going to break a mommy rule and say: my kids aren't particularly special. I mean, I adore them and all, but they're not geniuses. They're quirky and strong willed, and in some ways that makes unschooling easier - it keeps me honest - but nothing earth shattering here. What unschooling lets them do is be who they are and focus on what's meaningful to them. It lets me, as a parent, focus on who they are and what's meaningful to them, rather than what they "should" be doing to stay on some educational timeline.

Unschooling kids don't learn because they're geniuses, they learn because people are naturally curious. The trouble is that there are things adults would really rather kids learn for reasons that, frankly, aren't about kids as they are. They're reasons about an imaginary future that may not be related to our kids' strengths and interests and personalities. And they're reasons about our own desire to seem to be "good parents". So it's easy to read articles about miraculous unschooling poster children and think "well that's not my kid." It's sure not either of mine! Most unschooling kids are just kids. Wonderfully unique and beloved, but just regular kids doing regular kid stuff. The kind that mostly doesn't make for good blog posts.
And yet they still manage to pick up basic skills and a fairly standard body of culturally relevant knowledge - because people are curious and want to know how to navigate the world they live in.

In some ways, one of the most striking things about being an unschooling parent is getting to see the extent to which school obfuscates learning. All that hard work school kids do turns out to be a lot of sound and fury.

Lazy teens and self-motivation

There are several different issues with the idea that your teens are "lazy". The first is that it takes a good bit of time for kids to re-learn how to self motivate! School - and often homeschool, too - strips that away from kids. "Deschooling" as it's called takes months - for teens, expect nine months to a year, and know that, depending on how big of an impact school had on them, it could even be longer. It helps to imagine that your kid has had a serious long term illness and needs time to recover. Let them chill and recuperate. Hang out with them. Watch some shows and play some games together. Gently offer to do fun things together, but don't push. Take time to get to know each other in a different way than before.

Another big thing to know about young teens, though, is that the big developmental processes going on in their brains takes a lot of energy! They may need a lot of down time, time to ponder, time to daydream, they may even sleep more. Around the online home/unschooling community at large, this has been dubbed a "cocoon stage". Not all teens "cocoon" but many do.

But the other thing to keep in mind is that natural learning won't look like school learning. It will look like kids pursuing their own interests - even their non-academic interests. Things like doing hair and playing video games. So it will help you and your kid for you to treat those as "legitimate" interests from which they will, inevitably learn. There's plenty to learn! And it doesn't need to be directed toward any particular goal. School sets you up to think there's this big race toward a finish line, but it's not true. It's really okay to give your kids a chance to breathe and discover who they are and how they learn, naturally.

Something that comes up a lot in the autonomous education /unschooling movement is the way kids learn these kinds of skills without necessarily being taught. And often the ways they learn them are by doing exactly the sorts of things that parents and teachers commonly try to limit. There's a disconnect in adult expectations between the skills that we want kids to learn and the way we want them to learn those skills.

So parents will panic when a kid shows good attention span or focus when those aren't directed at chores or school work (Kohn mentions worthy subjects). Or worry when a kid keeps trying and failing at a game over and over, maybe crying and swearing, but persisting. Or when a child insists on using Just these materials in Just this way to do a project. Or creates a detailed plan and wants to stick to it, despite obstacles. When kids do those things independently - self confidently pursuing their natural curiosity - it's often seen as problematic.


communication and toddlers

What does it mean or look like, to trust a toddler or young child to make decisions?

Another way to frame this whole question is to step back from ideas about choices a little and think about how communication works. I'm thinking in particular about a "we need to leave" scenario. There are plenty of reasons to need to leave very soon - wanting to avoid getting stuck in rush hour traffic, needing to pick up something before a store closes, having another kid starting to freak out (btdt)!

In conventional parenting, communication is mostly one way: parents tell, kids listen. So even if you're trying to get away from that, it's easy to fall back into that pattern. "Giving simple choices" is a kinder-and-gentler tactic for telling, but it's not necessarily the best way to communicate with someone you care about.

Communication starts with listening and observation - isn't that why we want our kids to listen? We know that. But that knowledge gets tangled up in our own baggage that's saying that we're the adults, it's our turn to do the telling. We forget to listen and observe. Or maybe we didn't learn it very well from our own "do as I say, not as I do" childhood experiences

It's also important to recognize that tears and protests are valid forms of communication, expressing valid feelings. It's okay for kids to be unhappy when things don't work out the way they want. The goal isn't to get compliance with a smile, it's for kids to feel like parents are on their side in the larger context of their lives. Sometimes that means carrying a crying child to the car with sympathy, "hearing" their pain, even when there's no good solution to it in the moment.

So in the case of needing to leave, it helps to start by thinking about what you know about your kid. Maybe you're getting the idea that transitions are tough right now - that's normal with toddlers - in which case offering a choice could only prolong the agony. Maybe you know that your kid likes a lot of warning, warning that doesn't need to be framed as a choice, just: "five more minutes, dude!" Maybe you know that your kid is really good at communicating verbally and will be able to negotiate. Maybe it's just a matter of saying "wanna get ice cream?" Or asking "how can I help?" All of those things depend on individual personality and development and can take some trial and error to figure out. And sometimes there's nothing to figure out beyond how to carry a crying, writhing toddler to the car with as much sympathy as you can muster, because transitions are hard right now.


basic principles

A question that comes up fairly often is whether it is possible to "apply unschooling principles" but still put children in public school or are the two mutually exclusive?

A useful way to re-frame this question might be to ask yourself "which principles?" What do you think unschooling is or does that can intersect harmoniously with the life of a schooling family? There certainly are aspects of unschooling as a philosophy that can have a place in virtually any life, because they're principles of human nature and relationships that people have explored for centuries. The only thing really special about unschooling is extending those principles of human nature to children.

One of the fundamental principles of unschooling is that people (including children) are naturally curious. Teaching can dull that, true, but even school kids are curious - in school that's just called things like "being distracted" or "inappropriate socializing"
You can support your child's natural curiosity at home by stepping back from schoolish assumptions about how learning "should" look and instead see how it really happens. Which may include socializing with friends, playing video games, and watching tv rather than glamorous poster-child activities.

Valuing socializing and goofing off are also important because people are naturally social - we frequently like to learn from other people - and natural learning itself is mostly enjoyable. Applying those principles at home, with a school kid, means looking for more ways to connect with your child, and to have fun with your child. It means looking for ways to both invite your kid into your adult life and find welcome in your kid's life - which can be difficult if you've gotten used to connecting over school and homework and otherwise expecting your kid to "go play". It can take some stretching and softening to learn to enjoy some of the things that light your child up.

One principle that adults tend to like in theory but struggle with in practice is that it helps to be open to a spirit of enquiry. We struggle with that because we want to direct it with leading questions, Socratic, and outright criticism of kids' natural interests - all of which tend to shut down enquiry if they're the main mode of interaction. The occasional Socratic question isn't a bad thing, but there was a reason people didn't like Socrates
Creating lots of projects that lead kids in the direction you want to go is more of the same. It's all back-door teaching rather than supporting natural curiosity.

But the other most fundamental principle of unschooling that anyone can use any time is that thoughts and feelings matter. Specifically the thoughts and feelings Of Children matter. They matter to learning - they have a direct effect on what is learned in the moment. They matter to relationships. Taking your child's thoughts and feelings into account, taking them seriously, and being mindful of children as people is the heart and soul of the unschooling philosophy.


what do they want to learn

What if your children say they like the idea of interest led learning but don't know what they want to learn?

That's a pretty common question for folks who've learned to see learning in schoolish terms – something that happens deliberately and is often divided up into subjects. But learning - natural learning - doesn't really work that way. Most of the time people don't so much choose to learn as choose to do, and learning happens as a side effect. So a good way to start to shift your thinking is to step back from the question “what do you want to learn” and instead ask “what do you want to do?”

Another way that school – the whole educational mindset, really – warps your perspective on learning is that it sets you up to see learning as something that takes an effort, that's often tedious and difficult. Natural learning is often effortless. Play involves a lot of learning – and not just obvious things like dramatic play. Playing games, goofing around, relaxing, even things like watching tv are full of learning. It just tends to get ignored or trivialized because that's not what “learning” is supposed to look like. It's not supposed to be... fun. And yet natural learning very often is fun.

Even when natural learning is tedious and difficult it looks very different than school. It looks like someone who's really focused or driven. Like a kid totally enraptured with a show and wanting to binge watch the whole series. Or play all the way through a video game, even though they're getting frustrated and crying when the boss battles are too hard. Or reading a series of books that's a bit over their head, struggling with it, but persevering. Or staying up late to finish drawing allllll the characters in a favorite series. That's kind of drive and focus that parents tend to try and push kids away from, but ironically it's kids demonstrating exactly the kinds of qualities we say we want to nourish. Whoops.

So, what do your kids want to do? Start there, wherever it is. Even if it doesn't seem to have anything to do with learning. Hang out together. Have fun. Enjoy each other's company. Learning, it turns out, is the easy part. ;)


Exploring Unschooling Podcast

One of the really great new (in my terms) resources for unschoolers is Pam Laricchia's Living Joyfully website, which includes, among other things, a wonderful podcast series. I totally recommend it, and not just because I'm on it. There are some wonderful interviews with wonderful unschooling parents.

Here's the link to the interview she did with me, if you want to know what I sound like:

And since I'm no good at speaking off-the-cuff, here's a transcript of my notes, which run pretty close to what I actually said on the podcast:
  • 1. Can you share with us a bit about you and your family, and how you came to unschooling?
    MY SET-UP: The vast majority of unschooling parents come from a school background, me included, so that’s what learning looks like to us when we first start learning about unschooling. So I thought it would be helpful to compare and contrast what learning looks like in the school system and with unschooling. I came up with five aspects to compare that I think will be helpful.
So, I've always been interested in the mind and the workings of the mind – everything: psychology, neuroscience, chemistry, education, but also things like: meditation, spirituality, linguistics, radical feminism, philosophy... you name it. If it has to do with why and how people think and learn, I'm into it.

And for awhile I lived sort of communally with a bunch of folks in the hills of Tennessee, where I kind of came into unschooling unintentionally, at least at first. My stepson, Ray's bio parents wanted to homeschool him, so I ended up involved with that and over time we kind of blundered our way toward unschooling – especially in terms of parenting. Conventional parenting really didn't work well for Ray and it turned out that the kinder, more thoughtful and proactive we were able to be, the better his life got. Then right around the time I was having my daughter, Morgan, and starting to learn about unschooling online, we ended up needing to put Ray in school for a few years. So Mo got to unschool from the start and eventually Ray got to come home and unschool too, when he was 13. So I've kind of had a range of home and unschooling experiences and unschooling wins hands down in my book.

  • 2. comparison #1: school’s focus on teaching vs unschooling’s focus on learning
    One of the first things people new to unschooling are encouraged to do is to shift their perspective from teaching to learning. Why is this such an important shift when we want to learn about unschooling?

So much of the way parent-child relationships are framed ends up being about teaching: about what we want our kids to know and how we want our kids to be. That was something that really surprised me about myself when I started thinking about it. I had all these ideas about parenting that were really more about me than about my kids. And since I'd always thought of myself as someone who respected kids as people, it was kind of disturbing. I had all this emotional energy invested in this fantasy of what kind of mom I wanted to be and that was getting in the way of actually understanding who my kids were and what they were telling me about themselves.

That was especially true with Ray – I had all these rules and expectations that of course were for his own good, right? To make him into the best version of him that I could imagine. And the further I got away from that, and the more I worked on seeing him, for himself, the better things became. He was a pretty intense kid, and all those rules and expectations – all the things you're supposed to teach children and the ways you're supposed to teach them, made him even more intense and frustrated. The closer we got to unschooling, the better things became.

  • 3. comparison #2: school’s focus on curriculum vs unschooling’s focus on curiosity
    With unschooling, children are encouraged to, and actively supported as, they follow their interests, rather than a set curriculum. What advantages have you seen to learning this way?
Well it's really amazing how much richer their learning experience actually is. I mean, even the best, most well thought out, integrated curriculum is still limited by the fact that it's something that's imposed on another person from the outside. In schools you see that all the time as the “is this going to be on the test?” phenomenon. Homeschool parents know this from those times you come up with a really, really great idea and your kids still say “are we done? Can I go play now?” But even more than that, there's an extent to which just creating a learning plan limits where learning is likely to go.

Natural curiosity doesn't have those same limits. And some people are naturally curious enough, or... I don't know maybe intellectually subversive enough to overcome educational limits. But when curiosity itself is the starting point, learning expands in all sorts of unanticipated directions.

  • 4. One of the concerns people often mention is that there is a general set of knowledge and skills needed to get along in their community and world, and how will they learn them if they’re just doing what they want? How do you answer that one?

That's actually an idea that comes right out of the system of education itself – and I mean system in the grand, western-cultural sense not just your local school system. I've just been reading Montaigne's essay On The Education of Children, which was written in 1580, okay? And some of his complaints about education are the same basic complaints we have about schools today – that kids are memorizing this “basic set” of information and then not really using it for anything. And he's quoting people like Plutarch and Aristotle, right? So this idea that there's a basic set of stuff to learn goes way back, along with the idea that maybe there's nothing so special about it, and that it's really better to learn from life. Montaigne talks about that – heck Socrates talks about that. It's not a new idea. It's not even a new idea when applied to children.

The more interesting question – to me, anyway – is why do we cling to this idea of a generalized body of knowledge? And I think the main reason, as parents, is that we think it's safe. As long as we're staying within bounds, we can't be accused of doing our kids a disservice.

Stepping out of bounds feels risky. It is risky. And I think that's why unschooling can be so attractive to parents with kids who've had a rough time in school or homeschooling – we've seen first hand that there are risks to sticking with the system, too.

All that being said -

One of the really fascinating things about kids following the various rabbit trails of natural curiosity, is that they actually do pick up a lot of “basic skills and information” along the way. And they do that because some of those basic skills really are useful and empowering, and that's a big motivator for learning.

  • 5. comparison #3: school’s focus on the compulsory school years vs unschooling’s focus on lifelong learning
    Unschooling and the concept of lifelong learning weave together so tightly, and leaving behind the idea that childhood is for learning and adulthood is for living can have a profound impact on everyone in an unschooling family, parents included. Have you found that to be true?
Well, I've always been interested in adult learning – lifelong learning – so the part that's been more profound for me has been the idea that the very messy, convoluted, interactive ways that adults explore their interests actually does work for kids. Even though their brains aren't adult brains.

That's something that was a sticking point for me, and I think it is for a lot of parents because we get told over and over that kids aren't like adults, their brains aren't like adult brains, so we can't treat them like... normal people. You see that a lot lately with teens – how your teenager's brain makes them demented, so you shouldn't be too nice to them.

One of the really fascinating things about radical unschooling, in particular, is how it manages to integrate the very real effects of human development with the equally real social and motivational factors that make up a big part of how learning works.

And for me, learning about that has affected the way I see my own learning process and made me a better learner. Thinking about the ways that human beings of all ages are social, for instance, and how we learn from and about social situations, has made it easier for me to learn from other people. That was something I definitely didn't learn in school, but I learned about through unschooling.       
  • 6. comparison #4: school’s focus on the child to adapting to the classroom environment vs unschooling’s focus on the child’s learning style. What are some of the advantages you see for children who are learning outside the classroom?
Well obviously, it's a much richer experience. I mean, that's why Socrates wandered around town making a pest of himself asking people questions. That's not new.

And really, even though putting kids in classrooms can feel safe on a parental level, we know that trying to adapt kids to that kind of dull, sterile environment doesn't work very well. That's the whole driving force behind alternative education and even conventional educational reform. We know the classroom isn't a great environment.

One of the real tragedies of the push to get kids in school sooner and standardize education more, is that, culturally, we've lost or love of... the idea of kids like Tom Sawyer. The kid who really, obviously, learns more outside of the classroom than in it is no longer a valued cultural trope. Today kids like that get diagnoses so that they can be better molded to fit in.

My daughter's kind of atypical, so I'm really glad she has never had to adapt to the classroom environment, because I think it would have been a nightmare for her. She didn't even think much of the few classes we did try and she's really sensitive to... so many of the things she'd run into in school. Unless she managed to get a run of really, really sympathetic teachers she'd probably have shut down pretty hard, and might not be considered all that high functioning. Instead...eh... she's very introverted, not much of a talker, she has some quirks and sensitivities, but none of those are defects. They're just the way she is, you know. Kind of like... to use another kid-trope, Wednesday Adams. She's kind of a weird kid, from a weird family, but that's not a bad thing. She's happy being who she is. I don't think she'd have that if she'd gone to school. In school, she'd be maladapted. Out in the world, she has friends who are like her and friends who aren't like her, older, younger, all over the country. She likes her comfort zone, but she can step out of it when she chooses to – and she does.       
  • 7. comparison #5: school’s focus on testing vs unschooling’s focus on being with the childA common question from people trying to wrap their mind around unschooling is: If we aren’t testing them, how do we know they’re learning?
Testing is one of the worst ways to evaluate what someone actually knows. Even educators know that – it's one of the things they complain about. I see testing as one of those things people do to feel safe. You can point to a test score and say: see? We're not just screwing around, here. Education is happening.

And that's what makes experiential learning harder to evaluate – there aren't necessarily a lot of easy markers you can use as proof. It's arguably one of the down sides of unschooling, at least in the short term.

In the longer term, you find out what your kids know by living with them – having conversations, doing things together, sharing opinions, telling jokes. Sandra Dodd has a comment on her website about the value of learning in terms of being able to get more jokes – and humor is really a fantastic way to know what someone else knows and how they understand the world. You know that feeling when your kid is finally old enough to get a certain kind of joke – whether it's a pun, or ironic humor, or... sexual humor. Unschooling is pretty rich in those kinds of moments, or moments when our kids introduce us to something new, or come up with some insight that just blows us away.       
  • 8. While conventional wisdom tells us that children resist learning and need to motivated to do it, unschooling parents see something very different. Why don’t unschooled kids hate learning?

I actually think curiosity is one of the driving forces of human nature. And I think people miss that because there's a certain amount of intellectual snobbery around pop culture, for instance, but even there you can see an endless font of human curiosity. People want to learn things, even if it's just who's sleeping with who. We wanna know.

And one of the great strengths of unschooling is that we don't prioritize some kinds of learning over others. It's okay if what your kid wants to know is all the evolutions of all the Pokemon. Or all the lines to Barbie Fairytopia. Or how to draw Shadow the Hedgehog just like in the picture.

There's a lot of pressure on parents to steer kids away from certain interests, but that kind of steering is exactly what leads kids to find learning frustrating. They get told that the things they find wonderful aren't worth learning. So why learn anything at all?

But it turns out that when we let personality drive natural curiosity, even when it's driving in the direction of trivia, learning itself gets a lot bigger than we expect.

One of the big reliefs of finally getting to pull Ray out of school was getting to see his love of learning come back. When he could learn about spray-painting skulls on skateboards, that one little thing spread out in so many different directions it was just amazing. Just buying some spray paint ended up involving learning about the legal system as applied to teenagers... because he wasn't allowed to buy it on his own, an adult had to buy it for him. One little dollar fifty can of paint and the kid learned more about systems of justice and the social contract than all his previous education combined. And it was fun. And interesting. And he got what he wanted.

A lot of times parents want to know how to make learning fun and interesting. But it turns out that learning is already fun and interesting. It's wired into our heads that way. When we don't prioritize giving quizzes on Article 3 of the Constitution over buying spray paint, learning stays fun and interesting.

And that's one of the ways that “general set of knowledge” we talked about earlier gets picked up along the way, while unschooling. Basic civics comes up through interacting with the real world.

  • 9. One of the challenges newer unschooling parents sometimes encounter is interpreting the actions of experienced unschoolers as a set “rules for unschooling.” But unschooling doesn’t have a recipe, does it?

I think parents come in looking for rules and recipes because parenting tends to be framed that way in general. If you follow the recipe, you'll be safe... even if it doesn't taste very good.

Unschooling could be said to use a recipe as a jumping off point, but the funny thing is, the recipe itself isn't about unschooling, it's about people and relationships. Part of the recipe is knowing that people like to learn. Part of the recipe is knowing that people are social – we care about other people and like to learn from other people. Part of the recipe is knowing that there's a difference between the external world and the individual experience, a difference between the self and the other. It's a complicated recipe – the recipe of human nature!

That's why it's so hard to give a quick-and-dirty definition of unschooling because at it's core, unschooling is about what it means to be people, living and learning together. It's something that a lot of people have talked and written about that over the centuries with regards to adults. But what's new and different about unschooling is that we bring kids into the conversation as people, too.

When sometimes people say that unschooling is about treating kids like adults they don't mean making them pay rent and letting them drive the car, they mean bringing that kind of understanding that we extend to other adults into our relationships with kids.

They're not the same as we are, but the fact that there's a difference between the world as it is and the world as it's perceived still matters. They're not the same as we are, but they're still social beings. They're not the same as we are, but then again, neither is anyone else.

  • 10. I’d love to talk about choice for a moment. I think one of the key aspects at the root of learning through unschooling is giving our children the space and support to make the choices that they think will work for them. What’s your perspective on the importance of choice in our unschooling lives?

I talked about this a little in regards to the question about why don't unschooling kids hate learning. Choice is a big deal, there.

But, to kind of take the question in a slightly different direction, because one of the really interesting things about people getting to make choices is that there's more of a chance to make mistakes – and that's really important. It's one of the things that scares the pants off parents – we really, really don't want our kids to make mistakes, especially not some of the mistakes we made. We'd really rather just give our kids the answers to those life questions so they don't have to go through that same awkward process we did. We're very altruistic in that way. Unfortunately, our kids don't want our pre-lived experiences, they want their own process. They want to follow the rabbit trails of curiosity, even though some of those trails drop you into pool of tears or the Court of the Red Queen. That's actually one of the surprising things about curiosity and learning – that making mistakes, even sometimes painful mistakes, is an important part of the process. Sometimes it's even a desirable part of the process.

Which isn't to say we should set our kids up to fail – this is another aspect of choice as it pertains to learning. There's a difference between choosing to take a risk and having it dumped on you. There's an actual difference in what you learn from the experience.

That's something parents get stuck on all the time. We want to be able push our kids to do certain things so they learn how great they are – and sometimes it seems to work. What ends up working, though, has to do with that difference between world and the self – when kids feel like they're getting to choose and we're helping them, they can feel empowered. When they feel like they're being thrown into the shark tank... not so much! That's something that comes up with atypical kids a lot – how much to “let” them choose to move out of their comfort zone. As if their own feelings about choice are something we can “let” them have. It's still, ultimately their choice, one that they're going to make based on their own internal accounting. We don't get to pick that. We don’t get to say “now you can decide to be brave, my child.” They're their own people, no matter what.

What we can do, as parents, is to listen to our kids about what choices are important to them right now and how they want us to help them. They don't always know, but that's okay, too. It's okay to be learning with your kids, and figuring things out together. That's something that actually makes sense to kids on a deep level – because people are social. Learning together makes sense.

  • 11. One theme that has come up pretty regularly on the podcast is that, in the end, unschooling thrives when we have strong, connected, and trusting relationships with our children. You recently wrote something I loved: “It may help to step back from the idea that parenting is a job. It's a relationship, first and foremost.” Can you expand on that?
The idea that parenting is a job goes hand in hand with the idea that parenting is about teaching. And those are ideas that distract us from our kids' “personhood” I guess you could say. On an intellectual level, I think any modern, western parent would say they think children are people and should be respected and treated as such, but because of the ways conventional parenting is framed, we're bad at that. We don't listen to our kids very well. We don't take their thoughts and feelings seriously. We trivialize their interests. If you look at random parenting articles and advice, a lot of it is around getting kids to do and be what we want them to do and be. That's the job of parenting.

Unschooling re-conceptualizes the whole parent-child relationship as a relationship first and foremost, and that changes... so many things. I mean, what if you were to describe having a baby as getting a new best friend rather than starting a new job? How does that change your whole attitude about this other person? And naturally, you want to do right by your new best friend. You want to be a good friend. You want this friendship to be strong and healthy and one you can value life long, even knowing that people grow and change and that different people bring different things to relationships. That feels really different than trying to figure out how many diaper changes until your new employee will be ready to take out the trash without supervision. It's a really different set of priorities.

And the great thing is, it works. It doesn't somehow ruin your kids to be a really good friend to them. It doesn't unfit them for life, or any of the other things they warn you about in the parent job training handbooks. It's okay to be friends with your kid. And it feels sooooooo much better than parenting as a job. I have a job. I get to go home to my kid and be a friend. That's awesome.

3yo limits and learning

I'm having trouble finding balance. My oldest is 3 and we lifted limitations about 3 or so weeks ago. Complete anarchy took over and it was more stressful than my husband and I can handle.
We allowed food in the living room; food was constantly thrown over the floor, smeared on couches and walls. We stopped making her clean up so she stopped helping. She has full blown screaming tantrums anytime we need to leave the house. Once she realized she could eat anything, she ate onl...y candy for a week straight. We couldn't continue this way and put limits back. We rent so can't have a free for all on our floors and walls. We just eradicated ants by my cleaning alone and there's no way I can enjoy my children and clean every crevice my toddler finds to put food in unless I stop sleeping

Unschooling isn't so much about “setting/maintaining” boundaries with kids as it is about communicating and helping them explore. Boundaries exist already! There are the laws of physics, the very real limits on your time and energy, finances... so very many limits in life! One of the things that we can do, as parents, is help our kids move through a world of limits without feeling... strangulated by them, as it were. Limits don't have to be end points, they can be chances to make decisions and solve problems. That's a big part of the freedom unschooling offers. It's the freedom to be thoughtful as a parent, rather than obstreperous.

So it can help to think in terms of articulating limits and helping kids negotiate them. For example, of course you don't want food rubbed into your carpets and upholstery! But young children are very tactile, they learn a whooooooooole lot through touching, feeling, and even doing things like squishing and grinding. They're wired to process exactly that kind of information. So it's a good idea to offer your 3yo lots of ways to play like that, now that you know it's an interest. Finger painting, for instance, maybe with other things mixed into the paints for fun. And yes, by all means do it someplace like the kitchen that can be cleaned up easily – that's a good example of articulating a limit: let's keep the mess in the kitchen. Unschooling doesn't mean you never say no ;) It means thinking through your reasoning and finding options.

A three year old isn't equipped to negotiate the whole world on their own – and they don't really want to. They want to feel like they're capable and have a sense of personal power, though. They want to be able to make choices about things that are interesting or important to them. And as you've seen, they don't really have much in the way of complex reasoning ability yet! Their understanding of the world is still very surface level and direct. That's why they have parents ;)

Keep in mind that any kind of limit on a wanted thing – whether it's a real limit or something you “set” - is going to make that thing even more valuable. That's natural and even good to an extent. Think about eating the first strawberries of spring, for instance, or some holiday food that you can't really get any other time of year – there's a kind of specialness. And when that special thing is also framed in terms of good-vs-bad it can be a guilty pleasure. Again, that's not to say limits are bad, just that they're real things with real consequences. One of the reasons unschoolers try to avoid setting extra limits is exactly because of those consequences.

In the short run, settle back into life with the limits that previously made sense to you. Think about what seems to work and what it means to “work” - what's working? Is it really working or are you arguing a lot with a 3yo? Is your kid trying to explore something and your “boundaries” are standing in the way? Can you modify those boundaries? Maybe they're not really boundaries, just expectations you have that may or may not be realistic. Expectations are something you can change. Maybe there's a boundary that's not what you think it is – like food in the living room. If you add a table, and keep the food on the table, you might be able to achieve your goals in a different way. Limits, boundaries, aren't end points, remember, they're chances to problem solve.

thinking about mandatory chores

A good place to start picking apart the idea of mandatory chores is to ask yourself what good you think “chores” would actually do, and then whether or not that's what actually happens. The usual logic for chores runs something like this: kids should learn to do these things as young as possible so that they:
  1. learn responsibility / good habits
  2. learn the actual skills
  3. make your job easier (many hands)
  4. develop a sense of teamwork / community
I want to dig into those assumptions a bit, as a way of getting into some of the principles of unschooling and the reasons why unschooling families don't require children to do chores.

1. I don't want my kids to be jerks. I want them to be responsible.

And that's laudable! The trouble is, when you actually try to correlate adult behavior with how they were raised, the results are... non existent. There's no correlation whatsoever. Irresponsible and/or slovenly adults are just as likely as their pristine peers to have been raised with chores. Same with “entitlement” - if you look at adults who treat people like grunge, they're just as likely to have been made to do chores as anyone else.

Just like with any other "subject", teaching isn't learning. In fact, if there were one academic subject you could compare to chores it would be math – most people have to do a lot of it, and end up hating it. Same thing for chores. So there is a correlation, but it's not one that favors chores by a long shot. Mandating chores sets people up to dislike them and be jerks about them.

One of the bits of unschooling advice that goes around is for parents to clean up their own attitudes about doing chores, to do them happily and lovingly, and model that for our kids. It's probably good advice, but it's not something I've been very successful at, personally. Instead, I've found it more helpful to let go of the other thing that people - especially women - learn from mandatory chores, which is the guilt around not doing them. I've learned to be okay with mess and irregularity and to separate my sense of self esteem from whether the stove has been cleaned recently, or the laundry ever gets folded, or if my kids know how to get hard water scale off a shower curtain. In either case, when parents aren't jerks about housekeeping - to our kids, to ourselves - life is better and more joyful, and our kids have less reason to be jerks to us.

2. But they have to learn somehow right? Right?

Um... can we be honest, here? It doesn't take a whole childhood to learn this stuff. It takes having someone show you one time - if you're an adult and can't figure it out. Worst case scenario and your kids get to adulthood with no housekeeping skills: they can ask a roommate or look it up on youtube.

That's not even fatalistic. Years ago, I decided to live in a tent, with no water or electricity. I had to learn a lot of primitive skills - literally carrying water and chopping wood, as well as other things. It wasn't hard to learn, although some of it was time consuming, and dull. Like other kinds of learning, wanting to learn and being developmentally ready to learn were enough to make it easy. It wasn't always fun, but it was satisfying. Learning housekeeping can be like that. I'm not guessing - that's how it works with kids growing up with a sense that they can learn what they like, when they're ready. When they have reasons to learn hard, dull, tedious things, they just do it. Maybe they ask for help, maybe make some mistakes, but it's not some kind of grand drama. It's something they choose to learn for their own reasons.

3. I can't do all this on my own - I need help!

Parenting is plenty of work even before the housekeeping. It's natural to want some help and feel like you can't do it all. And if your kids are into it, there's absolutely no reason not to invite them to participate. But if your kids are grudging or resistant, exactly how easy is that on you? In terms of improving your own life, it's often easier to do the work yourself rather than putting all the effort into reminding, coaxing, complaining, criticizing, nagging, scolding, arguing, and flat out yelling. When we were still expecting my stepson to wash dishes, we had to re-wash a good third of them. Well, we didn't “have to” we could stand over him being assholes until he performed up to standard. We opted to tell him he didn't have to do dishes any more and Lo! The dishes got washed faster and with less stress all around.

And the fact is, most of us can tell cute stories of kids “helping out” that are heartwarming, but are definitely not stories of life being easier. My daughter loved to wash windows for awhile... we had towels everywhere to keep from slipping on the wet floors. And then she got into watering the plants for a while – I had a lot of houseplants then. On every horizontal surface. Along with books and toys, bills and projects. And being sooooooo adorably enthusiastic she managed to flood every plant in the house and get mud everywhere. It was darling, but it would have been easier for me to do it, myself.

This particular phenomenon - kids wanting to help - provides an interesting twist to the whole scenario because when parents focus on chores, rather than actual attempts to be helpful, we end up scolding and punishing them for their attempts at helpfulness and generosity. So, much like with school, kids end up being motivated to do as little as possible and only when told to do so. There's no benefit to any other behavior. In most families with chores, that's a common enough scenario that parents don't think twice about it. That's why they're called "chores." On the other hand, when we notice our kids being helpful on their own terms and celebrate that, they get to be our helpers and we get to live with people who want to be on our team, doing what they can for the household.

Which brings us to...

4. We're a family, so everyone has to help out.

There's something really disturbing about that idea, as though the value of a family member comes right down to... economics, you could say. If you're not "pitching in" in some measure of labor, then you lack value to the family. It's creepy when you think about it. And it's a common enough assumption that to a lot of people it seems perfectly reasonable. In a world of scarcity, it even makes sense. Kids do have to earn their keep or they're drains on the family resources. Sick kids, disabled kids, atypical kids, are useless mouths to feed.

And sure, in an atmosphere of scarcity, kids absolutely do learn that their value is in terms of how well they provide for the rest of the family. Kids leave school to live hard working lives because taking care of the family is more important than their own interests, joys, dreams, values, and dignity. In a world of only moderate scarcity, it's an ongoing source of quiet desperation: I'm working because my family needs me. End of story.

But kids don't need to be convinced that their value is measured in the products of their labor in order to be kind and generous and helpful. They're already those things - not because they're angels but because humans are social animals. They want to connect with the people around them - even extreme introverts. They're wired to want to learn grown-up skills and share them with the people around them. And they can be gently and lovingly supported in that desire, offered chances to be helpful, offered help in being helpful, given the chance to give. That's one of the amazing things about unschooling - it turns out that when you work with human nature, rather than against it, you get to see a lot more of the good side of humanity.