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.

censorship, courtesy, gatekeeping

(A question came up about kids repeating things they've heard on youtube and whether to, therefore, limit youtube.)

Kids repeating things they hear is one of those things that freaks parents out because we get hung up on ideas about modeling and fear that our kids are learning all the wrong things from a bad example. But learning of any kind – even modeling – isn't a simple case of pouring something in and getting something out. Learning is an interactive process. That's important.

When kids are learning about language and social issues they're always starting with parts of a whole. A phrase in one context doesn't always work in another context. Same with facial expressions, tone of voice, social cues. But to figure that out, kids aren't going to go look up a file on grammar or etiquette, they're going to experiment – they're going to play with words and phrases and cues as a way of figuring out the bigger picture.

That's really important to keep in mind, especially when kids are playing with things like “tone” and “attitude” - they're often not meaning what you think they're meaning. They're playing with a set of neat tricks. And because they're kids they don't always realize that something they think is fun or funny is understood the same way by other people. So when they get a response they don't expect, they're set up to do more figuring-out. Which means repeating the whole thing over again in yet another context to see what happens.

Feedback is important – it's part of how kids learn. Actions have an effect on the world, and kids want to know what those effects are so they can make better choices. Sometimes you can explain things like that to kids – tell them how you feel, blah blah blah, but learning often doesn't work through explanations. Sometimes it helps a lot to ask questions and try to get a sense of what your kid is trying to figure out. Do they think they're being funny or playful? Are they playing with the feeling of being powerful? Maybe there's a way for you to play along that also gives them some more, useful information. Rather than just saying “don't” give your kid a “do” - offer them other ways to express themselves, ways to have fun that are fun for everyone.
Also, a lot of times when kids are exploring in ways that are uncomfortable to us, we forget the value of Positive feedback – letting kids know that we appreciate their kindness, their thoughtfulness, their gentleness. When we forget to notice that, our kids don't have as much reason to value those cues, that tone, that kind of language. For kids, a lack of attention means something's unimportant. Bring more attention to the good stuff.

Hearing no.

How do you react when your child ( adolescent ) says NO! My daughter doesn't do this very often, but once in a while she surprised me . What a unschooling's mom does in this situation?

One of the greatest things about unschooling is that in many ways it's about empowering our kids to say no – to know their own needs and boundaries and communicate them rather than putting them on hold until they're grown. So hurray! You have a teen who can say no! Well done mama!

Probably doesn't always feel like a big success, though, right?

I find it helps me to dig down into the reasons why I don't want my kids to tell me no... and a lot of those reasons are really about my own childhood. Most of us grew up in families where adults got to say no to kids, but not the other way around, so it feels “unnatural” to flip that on it's head. And in many ways it is unnatural – unschooling isn't necessarily a “back to nature” philosophy, it's one that's all about living in the modern world. And in the modern world, people's boundaries matter a lot. Consent matters a lot. Kids learn that by having their boundaries and consent respected. In a very real way, they learn that by “getting” to say no. But when we didn't grow up with that kind of respect, it can feel like we've “missed our turn”.

Another reason I find I'm uncomfortable hearing “no” is that I think rather highly of myself and I want my kids to have the benefit of my knowledge and experience. Being people, they don't necessarily want that, they want their own experience, their own process. They want to discover, not to have “wisdom” handed down to them from on high (or in my case, several inches shorter than my 14yo). Being faced with all that darned independence and determination hurts my feelings sometimes. Some of my ego, as a mom, is tied up in wanting my kids to listen and learn from me.

And then there are the times when my kids say “no” and I realize that I wasn't really asking. I have some kind of expectation, and rather than communicating that directly and honestly, I “ask” in that way that means “I have the power here, and I'm being nice by pretending to give you a choice.” That's probably the most humiliating reason, to me, because I don't like to think of myself as that kind of person. I want to believe I'm a nice guy, not someone who makes sneaky, manipulative power plays. And naturally when I don't live up to my own good image, I want to snap and snarl and not take no for an answer.

It helps me to acknowledge all those feelings so I can get over them. I want to get over them. I want to be proud of their independence and determination and stand beside them as a friend, not a manager. And part of that involves learning to respect their boundaries with grace and dignity.

If your kid is saying no to you, respect her boundaries. Think about what you're really asking and why. Maybe there's something you need to talk about. Maybe there's something you need to hear from her. That's hard. No-one really likes to be told no. But being able to say it is one of the most powerful gifts we can give our children. Darnit.

some days it's hard to be 2

Hi everyone. I have a 2.5 year old who is strong willed. I do not know how I can deal with the tantrums when it comes to her wanting to do her own thing. I will give you an example and I am hoping that some will have some guidance for me or any ideas. Yesterday, her dad took baby out (3 months) on a small car ride so she can calm down. 2yo also wanted to go out as daddy and baby were outside. So I said ok, lets go. She went playing with some little rocks and a water feature the neighbour has. When daddy and baby came, I told her, now we have to go inside as daddy and baby are home. Tantrum. Big one. So I stayed silent, explained in a calm voice, took her upstairs, brushed teeth and so on and she went to bed. This morning, in order to do the same, she made up a story that her minion had fallen down and she had to go get it .So i said ok lets go get your minion, but it was her idea to do this in order to go back to the stones and the water. Now this morning her dad is home, and I have to go soon to the hospital with my mum. I feel like 'I do not have time for tantrums this morning' and I am exhausted. As we speak, I have taken her to her calm corner, and let her there to calm down. Her tantrum has stopped so i will go get her. Someone please tell me am I doing the right thing? Is the unschooling way different? I am confused.

It's hard to be a little kid - hard to be a mom, too, right? But ironically one of the ways we can make our own lives easier is actually by looking for ways to make our kids' lives easier - making it easier for them to do the things they want to do.

It sounds a little crazy, doesn't it? But think of how much time and energy you're spending fighting against what your kid wants, trying to explain why not, trying to deal with the fallout when you say no - it's a lot! I have two strong-willed kids so I remember how much work that was. Figuring out how to go with their flow and say yes as much as possible made a lot of things easier.

It also sounds like you have a lot on your plate right now, and that's frustrating for you and your child. New babies make for big changes and that can be hard on older kids. And dealing with big medical issues complicates the heck out of everything. As stressed out as you feel, realize that your 2yo is every bit as stressed - and she doesn't have any grown-up coping strategies for dealing with that. It's only natural for her to fall apart now and then. So try not to take that personally! One trick for doing that is by changing the words you use - get "tantrum" out of your mental vocabulary. Your kid is having a hard time. She's falling apart. She's melting down. That's hard, but it doesn't have the kind of... moral disdain as the word tantrum. She's just a baby having a good cry. As a mom, that can hurt your heart, but it doesn't mean you failed, and it's not something you necessarily need to fix.

Instead of trying to get her to calm down, it helps to focus on two things; prevention, and being calm, yourself, in the moment. Be the calm you want to see. It may not get her to calm down faster, but it doesn't add to the drama and make things worse. Plus, working on being calm is good for you. You don't need to be any more stressed! I can't say what kind of strategy will work for you in that regard - breathing or visualization are common - but it's something to think about in calm moments: what helps you calm down?

In terms of prevention, your story with the water feature suggests to me that you've got a kid who has a really strong focus. That's great! She knows what she wants and knows how to dive in deep when exploring. Of course, that also means it's hard for her to stop before she's done - that's not necessarily a bad thing, although it can be frustrating until you learn to adapt to it. My daughter likes to do things for looooong periods of time, and one of the things it helped me to learn, early on, was how to set her up to have as much time as she needed, as often as possible. This is one of the advantages of home/unschooling! You can give kids time to dive in deep without breaking up their days into a million pieces. But there can be a bit of a learning curve on your part while you figure out how to do that. Go easy on yourself - you're learning too!

So, using the water feature example and 20/20 hindsight, here are some things to consider for the future.

  • Plan to spend as long as your kid needs. Obviously with two kids that's harder, and little things like the sun going down can be inconvenient. It gets easier with practice.
  • If you know you can't spend as long as your kid needs, plan to go back.
  • Bring stuff. Stuff for you so you don't get bored, stuff for the other kid so she doesn't get bored, stuff to eat and drink. Think about how you can transport more stuff. We used a stroller for years, even though Mo rarely rode in it, to transport stuff. I also looked for places where I could park a car nearby, so we had All The Stuff. Heck, for awhile I didn't go to the store without a book in my bag, just in case Mo got Really Interested in something and a half hour trip to buy milk and paper products took two hours. Maybe your kid won't be that focused, but you get the idea. Plan ahead.  
  • Remember that transitions are hard. Making them easier kind of depends on your child, and that will take some trial and error, but sometimes they're just hard! If you see your child's tears as her statement of how hard the moment is, rather than a "tantrum" it can be less stressful all around. She's just communicating! And yeah, as moms none of us like to hear that our kids are unhappy, but it's still important to hear it. She's having a hard time. Okay.

If you're thinking in terms of a little kid having a hard time, and how to help their life be easier, then it's worth asking why you'd separate her from you when she's upset. There are some good reasons to do that! If you can't find your own calm, then it can be better for everyone to create some separation. If your kid can't calm down with another person in her space - and my daughter was like that - it can be kind and helpful to give them enough space to find their own calm again. But putting a child off can also feel like a kind of punishment, which you don't want - it sure doesn't help anyone to learn to deal with big, uncomfortable feelings when they're being punished for having them! So it's a good idea to work on your own discomfort, so that you can be there when your child needs her mommy.


more food issues

Getting kids to eat is a hot button topic for a lot of moms because so many of us were raised to equate caretaking and loving with preparing food. It's The icon of mothering, right? So it's easy to get a lot of our own internal stuff tied up in whether or not our kids are eating what we offer them, when we offer it. It can feel like a personal affront when they don't choose what we provide. That's true in areas besides food - those of us who've tried to homeschool before unschooling have often had that feeling of "I worked so hard! How can you not care?" We tie our hearts and our mom-egos into our offerings.


Sometimes moms get "lucky" and kids go along with what we want without too much of a fuss. They eat what we give them or do things we enjoy and it's tempting to pat ourselves on the back and say "yeah, that's me being a good mom." It's important to give kids credit for being themselves. I didn't "get lucky" in the sense of having kids who would go along with my grand plans for their perfect childhood but in another sense, I did get lucky because my kids dug in their heels and got me to see how much of what I wanted "for them" was really about me. Dang. I have great kids for unschooling, in that sense.

My stepson was a "good eater" so I got a free ride in the food department until my daughter came along. But I also was a "picky eater" as a kid and I know that feeling of sickness and dread that can accompany a meal from both sides. I'm so sad that my mom didn't get a kid who loved her cooking, when cooking was such an act of love to her. I'm glad I didn't do that to myself, or my daughter. My heart can be joyful sitting with my kid, having a snack together because I've learned not to tie my pride or my heartstrings to what my kid eats. She can be herself. And I can feel good about that.