Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Expectations And Unschooling

I do apologize for my recent bout of blog neglect, but I've been feeling a bit like Mr. Don Music lately, having things to say but not knowing quite how to say it. Or worse, finally saying it and having it come out all wrong, as in and if the crumbs are all you want, then don't come to my restaurant? Damn, that's not what I wanted to say at all. So, you see, that's where my head has been at lately, banging against the keys.

Here's the thing, though. I've been noticing a trend within the unschooling community, here in blogland, via social networking sites and sometimes in real life, that has me perplexed. Embracing the concept of unschooling was never difficult for either Alex or me, but the embracing the word took a bit longer (how can one unschool if they've never been? It was all very confusing.) Usually we just stick with eclectic home/unschoolers, if we feel we need to add a label, mostly with the wish to not lump ourselves in with other types of school-in-the-home groups. For a long time I've known about the radical unschooling movement, too, and most times can classify myself as such, also. That said, I think the extreme permissive parenting (neglect) that I've been noticing a lot more than usual lately, and what Sandra Dodd addresses here, is what concerns me most. Here she is addressing the question of what unschooling means to many, and "how far" does one take the concept that children need freedom in order to learn.

Each family has a point which is too far for them. For me "too far" is when a parent comes here and says they don't think it's their job to suggest anything for their kids to do, ever. They don't think it's their job to comment on their children's interests. They don't think it's unschooling if a parent ever directs anything or imposes his or her own interests on the child in any way. See, I think that's justifying some kind of detached neglect, and I think it's stupid.

Sandra writes that she's seen very little of that type of parent, but this is what concerns me, as it seems I run into this, more and more, among non-homeschooling families, as well. And frankly, I don't care all that much how a family conducts their business, assuming every one's needs are being met. But that's just it, I don't think every one's needs are being met in these overly permissive-in-the-name-of-unschooling families. So why stick my nose out here at all? Well, because, at least in my real life community, I am an experienced unschooling parent with two kids who have never been to school, one nearly a teen and one approaching 11, and I look at our life and feel pretty damn good about the sorts of people our kids are, how well-adjusted they are, and how our life is and how connected we are to each other. I'm not arguing we're perfect, far from it. I do know, however, that over the years, hopefully by listening and being connected to my kids, I've learned to let go of a lot, embrace new ideas and yeah, I have something to say.

What I've been seeing a lot lately has been this idea that merely having expectations of your children equals authoritarian, harsh, unconnected, coercive parenting. And if by expectations one also means manners, etiquette, chores, rules, guidance, limits, bedtimes, boundaries...well, that's just the height of evil parenting. And this is exactly where I (and Alex) disagree with those parents. For some reason, there's a group of parents out there who seemingly are okay with a free-for-all household where every person is out for themselves. I hear from these parents and see how unhappy they are, I observe how they don't make the connection to their lack of sleep, lack of routine, disordered home, lack of nutritious foods, lack of limits and boundaries, lack of contribution by all in the home. I have nothing against the occasional junk food, video game playing, Doctor Who marathon, late bedtimes, etc. I do have concerns about kids being unconnected to others in the family and who are not having basic needs being met around good sleep and nutrition. I see a lot of angry, frustrated and self-centered parents out there, who complain constantly about their self-centered child, yet they fail to see how they are fostering this behavior in the home. This sort of parenting seems very permissive, neglectful and plain old lazy to me.

Let me be clear, we don't have a carved in stone bedtime, and we tend to be up a bit later than many, but we do have a routine, a general bedtime goal, and an expectation that we all get quality sleep. Also, when we are up, we are up together, not apart. No one is watching TV alone in another room, for instance. I think TV is a useful and entertaining tool that too often is reviled, but it's also an event in our house. No one is watching a Doctor Who marathon alone, we're watching it together. The same is true for movies. As far as food is concerned, Alex and I are responsible for providing healthy food and snacks. It's our job. We don't leave the kids on their own to fend for themselves. This doesn't mean that they can't cook or bake or make a sandwich, it means we are present, we eat together, we make sure that we don't head for the woods for the day without a packed lunch, and expect that the kids can wait until late afternoon to eat (or mooch off of another family), for instance. As far as chores are concerned, we expect, yes, expect, that we all pitch in as a family to keep the house tidy, well-ordered, organized and clean. Alex and I do the bulk of the work, because, again, it's our job to provide that for our children, so that they have safe landing spot. The kids do, however, know that they bring their laundry downstairs each day, that their beds get made along with a whole variety of household tasks that need done each day. This doesn't mean that we have a chore list, because we don't. It doesn't even mean that we all skip around, whistling while we work, with blue birds serenading us while we clean, either. But we all know that we are capable of maintaining the home and we all enjoy the results of the labor, so we participate willingly, so there's no conflict or arguing over tasks.

Manners and etiquette seem to be a big evil no among permissive parenting types, as well. I've never understood this. Why anyone would want to intentionally set their child up for social failure is beyond me. And I'm not talking about persnickety manners like no wearing white before Memorial Day or use only certain types of forks to eat your salad, here. I'm talking about how to conduct yourself as a guest in someone else's home, or how to eat without grossing out the entire dinner table, much more simply, how to treat others like you want to be treated. (Or as our friend John stated today, look at every single person you encounter and mentally repeat the phrase, "I am you." Observe how that changes how you feel.) Genius. So yes, we expect please and thank yous, the offer of help, graciousness, and you know, eye contact, verbal responses (sadly lacking all too often in the permissive parenting world.) Again let me be clear--this goes both ways--parents above all, need to express manners, as that is how we model how we want to be treated. Which brings us to those other evil concepts: boundaries, limits, and respect.

One of the best things I ever did in my quest to be a better parent, was take Pam Leo's parenting course. I already had a hunch that it wasn't respectful to order my kids around, let's say regarding household chores, but Leo gives us tools and language to put that concept to work. For instance, I participated in a eh hem, discussion recently that had one side arguing that it was always wrong to have expectations around chores, in this case, unloading a dishwasher, and one side saying it was reasonable, even respectful to have those expectations. The example scenario was if reading a book should be withheld from the child by the parent until the dishwasher was unloaded and whether this was cruel and unusual or not. However, using Leo's example of respectful dialog, here's how I said I would handle it.

child: Please read me this book.

me: Yes, I'd love to read you a book, just as soon as I unload this dishwasher. If you are willing to help, we can get to your book much faster.

child: Yes!

This results in respect, limits, boundaries and kindness for both parties. No one is coerced, no one is neglected, no one feels conflict. The notion that this sort of dialog is harmful to a child is absurd, to me. The argument I heard was that the clean house was about the adult's needs entirely, not the child's, so it was controlling to expect help from the child. What? Sure, I think if the parent is yelling and ordering the child, that's a whole other extreme, but if it's done with respect and expectations on both sides, I think that's a great meeting in the middle.

During this discussion, I was told that expectations are the mother of all disappointments. Really? How about the mother of all goals, successes, feelings of safety, feelings of being loved and cherished? A child growing up with a parent that expects nothing of them must be a very lonely, lost child, feeling all sorts of abandonment, rage and neglect. And expectations go both ways. My children expect that they will be able to turn on lights, have clean clothes, have healthy food. More than that, they expect to be loved, be honored, be cherished, be nurtured, be guided, be respected. We chose to have our children. We can't put on blinders and assume that they can fulfill all their needs. We can't ignore that they need to know where the boundaries lie so that their world isn't just one vast, endless, lonely expanse of whatever. It doesn't mean we are authoritarian, dictator parents. It means we are interconnected, respectful and above all, mindful. It's hard work that will never end, but it is our job as parents. Yes, our children are individuals with individual needs and lives. But they are lives interconnected to ours, or should be, and we have a responsibility to let them know they are neither inconvenient or on their own. We unschool. We learn and live, and we do it together, hopefully by meeting the needs of everyone involved.


  1. Ah, a breath of fresh air. I put off calling myself an unschooler for those very reasons - unparenting is more common around here for those who use the term. PL and I decided just yesterday though that, in truth, we ARE unschooling and should embrace the term for all its positive merits. So here we are, journeying along together in this unschooling adventure, chores, expectations, manners and all.

  2. Can I just say I love what you wrote, as you know I am neither a homeschooler or unschooler but what you said is one of the things I have observed among friends who unschool.

    One of the reasons that I started following your blog is that you showed a side of unschooling that frankly made it really attractive to me. I often want to tell people they should read your blog and get a sense of how things should be. Yet as I am not part of that community I suspect its best for me to keep quiet.

    Anyway great post!

  3. My son isn't yet 3 so school of any kind isn't exactly in the picture yet. Thank you for taking the immaturity out of "unschooling" for me.

  4. YES! (in my outside voice) I don't know what to call what we do here because there are pros/cons abound. What I do know is that we live peaceably in a setting where everyone's needs are met to the best of our capabilities.

  5. GREAT post. I tripped upon your blog today (by way of Topsie Techie) and I have to say you have summed up just about everything I feel about unschooling. We considered ourselves unschoolers for a long time, until we realized we were getting lumped in with a lot of other parents raising their kids in ways we weren't. So then we didn't know WHAT to call ourselves. You wrote a great post and spelled it all out. Thanks for your honesty :)

  6. Thanks for that link. There always seems to be such division between the definitions - I never know whether I could classify us an unschoolers or radical unschoolers or neither - every person seems to have their own ideas and is equally vehement that they are right. I'm starting to just be comfortable in my "relaxed eclectic with a natural learning / unschooling bent" label :)

    We do what feels right for us. My comfort level is different to my husbands, so as a family we kind of find a middle ground. We were both raised pretty traditionally which I think is reflected in our expectations. We don't have set chores for Billy but he is expected to help out around the house. I do require him to use manners (still working on the eye contact *sigh*). He's given pretty free range of what he eats that's in the kitchen - but then most of the food in our kitchen is pretty healthy. I do sometimes give him limits (eg 1 / day) if we buy treat 'junk food' as his behaviour alters badly if he has too many colours & flavours. We have a rough guideline for bedtime, but its pretty flexible.

    So I steer away now from anything or anyone that says "you must do x, y and z to be in our 'club'"!

  7. I do agree with you. If I had an adult house guest who wanted me to do something with them, I'd still say that I wanted to finish up emptying the dishwasher (or whatever) and we could get together more quickly if they helped me. For them, as for my children, they can choose to help and speed up the meeting of their need in the moment, or not. Respectful of them, boundaried (respectful of me) but not coercive or authoritarian. It's what I understand of unschooling at its best.

    I'm an reformed control freak learning to live with myself and my world in a more compassionate way and that's largely down to discovering unschooling and whole life unschooling just over a year ago. It's changed my perspective entirely, made me happier and I'm getting to be the kind of person, parent and partner I've always wished I could be.

    I balk at the unparenting aspect of unschooling too and have slowly come to respect and admire the true freedom that can be achieved through interpersonal relationships at their most whole and that I have seen in Sandra, Joyce and Pam's writings and from others with children more the age of my own, like Sarah Parent. Now that I've discovered your blog, I look forward to getting to know you a bit better too.

  8. Obi-Mom Kenobi--I hear you. I resisted the term "unschooling" for so long and for the same reasons, too. I finally embraced it when I realized we were cleary not the school-in-the-home types and I think it's important to promote unschooling ideas out in the world. Thanks for reading and your comment.

    Denise--so many thanks for your support and for your email.

    Shay, thanks so much, I do appreciate the supportive feedback, and I see no reason why you should not have an opinion about life-learning--share away! xo

    rlw--ooo, another Mainah, fabulous! Thanks so much for visiting, reading and commenting. Much appreciated.

    Tameka--as always, I value your insights and support, so many thanks.

    MamaTea--yes, we've felt that discomfort, cleary, as well. Thanks for visting and commenting, also!

    Kez--exactly, there are so many shades of un/homeschooling and no one has all the answers and the whole point is to do what works for your family--and not do what is clearly not working. Our kitchen is the same, too. I hear you. Thanks for reading and commenting, I do appreciate it!

    Natalie-- "unparenting"--great term, sad but true. I love what you say about freedom coming from interpersonal relationships. Exacly. When everyone is on the same page and respectful dialog is happening, no one is feeling resentment and competition or neglect. You're absolutely spot on with that. Many thanks for reading and commenting, too!

    I look forward to sticking my neck out some more and getting to know you all better! xoxoAmy

  9. Just wanted you to know that I linked to this post in my blog today. I really liked what you said here and it spurred me on to write something of my own. Thanks again for your honesty. :)

  10. Awesome post. I found you through MamaTea.

    I learned a lot from radical unschooling when my boys were really little, and I think it warded off some serious control issues -- but not without side effects. Reality set in when my third son came along and sent my needs over the edge, and I felt like a big Radical Failure. I had to let go of the label, and rethink things on a practical level. Everything you said applies there.

    Then my oldest started requesting more input on the homeschooling front. I like to call it *intentional* learning. Gotta have a label. :)

  11. So glad you wrote about this, and I see that others who would otherwise call themselves unschoolers (like me) hesitate in the face of acrimonious censure by what we in turn think of as unparenters, that we cannot call ourselves unschoolers unless there are no rules, structure, or boundaries in the home. Raising kids who are left to forage for themselves and either create their own boundaries or be left without them, isn't raising them, period, and I'm now willing to tick off unparenters by voicing that opinion. That said, I would rather parental prerogatives be respected by society, and would rather that I have the right to parent my way, and others have the right to parent their way, even if we don't agree, than to have our rights suspended by an all-intrusive State, in the name of the "rights of the child". That's my libertarian streak, that I cherish my right to do things my way, enough to step off of someone else's right to do things their way, and I take threats to those rights seriously, and would champion those rights for someone else even if I personally didn't agree with their parenting style, because I want my own freedoms too.

    But yes, it's nice to know that we are free to call ourselves unschoolers, and draw a distinction between unschooling, and total abnegation of parental responsibility to ensure that kids get what they need even when it's not what they want. Leaving a kid to live on candy and potato chips, turn into a couch zombie, etc in the name of enabling them, is enabling self-destructive behavior, and is an abnegation of parental and adult responsibility. Has anyone read and comprehended "Lord of the Flies"? Gruesome book, but a good point to be made about children, adult guidance, and why children need parents, and cannot raise themselves or each other.

  12. Amy, I cannot tell you how much I agree with everything you just wrote (!!!!!!)

    I actually know some families who operate under the premise that providing guidelines and boundaries of any kind is some sort of terrible thing to do to their children. It will come as no surprise to you, then, when I mention that their children are (as you described) self-centered, ill-mannered, and behind their same-age peers in educational skills (not due to any learning disability, but due to the fact the parents did not structure any of the learning and figured the children's entire lives should be child-led).

    I do appreciate not wanting to have stress in the home, and I also appreciate wanting to give kids more input in what they learn and how they learn it. I also am against the 'standardized', one-size-fits-all education that the public schools are forced to abide by. Any time something becomes 'forced' upon children, I do take a step back and wonder if there isn't a better approach...and on the flip side of the coin, allowing kids to decide whether they want to learn anything or just play all day every day for 18 years without any responsibilities or helping out around the house or any kinds of boundaries at all could (and should, in my opinion) be tempered with a bit more structure and guidance.

    I don't like labels at all, to be honest. I don't mind using the blanket term of homeschooling - because I feel that (in general) it assumes the child is probably not attending public school (at least for much of their time) and that learning is done outside of that big brick building for the most part.

    I happen to believe that as parents, it is our responsibility to be not only role models for our children, but to also help guide them and provide opportunities for learning that will help them to be well-rounded as well as prepared for many of life's challenges. I believe that it is reasonable to introduce and encourage our kids to consider subjects that would give a basic foundation in case they want to attend college one day. This is just my own opinion, and I realize that every family is different in how they approach things.

  13. I had a really great, long comment that got lost in cyber space! My basic opinion was that I couldn't agree more with this post! I believe that children suffer when there are no boundaries or guidelines whatsoever. Those boundaries and guidelines can certainly be applied with respect and care, and need not be a stressfull part of family life.

    Without some guidance, I have unfortunately seen families where the children are (as you mentioned) ill-mannered, self-centered and ill prepared for college (assuming they would like to go one day). I personally believe we do children a disservice when child-focused learning does not have any guidance.



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