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Why “Real” Unschoolers Do Not Exist

A necessary preface

Some who call themselves “radical unschoolers” will tell me that, in this article, I am differentiating between radical unschoolers and non-radical unschoolers. First of all, as far as I’ve been able to discover, all unschoolers consider themselves “radical.” We all give our children much more freedom in all areas of life than mainstream parents, because when you unschool, you approach life as a whole, not divided up into parts.

Second of all, an unschooler is an unschooler. There aren’t two or three different levels. The label “radical” creates an us-versus-them dichotomy, implying that parents who believe their particular version of raising their children is superior to someone else’s. So I refuse to recognize “radical unschooling” as a viable entity. That’s why I am using the phrase “real unschoolers” rather than “radical unschoolers.”

And now, the rest of the story…

Real unschoolers do not restrict their children. Their children can play videos games and watch T. V. as much as they like – as well as whatever kind they like. They can eat whatever strikes their fancy and go to bed whenever they want. They are basically allowed to follow whatever whim urges them forward.

This is what I have been learning through listening to different unschooling podcasts, and while some of the stories and information has helped me let go of some of my control-freakness, it has also proven to me that there is nobody out there is a “real” unschooler.

All of these people (mostly moms) that I’ve listened to restrict their children in some way.  (GASP!)

The Golden Rule

One new unschooling mom wrote into a podcast wanting to know how to get one of her older children to stop swinging the toddler around, against the toddler’s will. The women answering the question gave some great answers. But they all came down to this: teach your child to do unto others as they would have done unto them.

None of them would admit that, since none of them are Bible followers. Still, that was the core of their message.

They told this newbie to restrict her child’s impulse to play with her younger sibling however in the way that she wanted.

Parents restrict their children when they train them to be kind and considerate.

“Your way, right away!”

Unschooling parents are supposed to let their children eat whatever they want, whenever they want. The theory is that children instinctively know what is good for them, and will not overindulge in junk and will include healthy foods if they are simply allowed to eat when and what they want.

That’s a nice theory that holds well for toddlers. B was great at eating all kinds of things as a toddler, from broccoli to raw salmon (yes, you read that correctly). Toddlers are adventurous.

Older kids? Not so much. Look, when I was growing up, cold cereal was the usual breakfast fare, and there was always a box of Grape-Nuts and often a box of Wheaties. But there were also at least two kinds of sweetened cereals, as well. I had a choice. And even though I was slowly eating my way into hypoglycemia and a mouthful of cavities, even though my body knew that all that sugar was suppressing my immune function and depleting my body of minerals I was already not getting enough of, I usually went for the sweetened stuff. And if I decided on a bowl of Grape-Nuts, I topped it with a nice heap of sugar before eating it.

And I was considered a responsible and trustworthy child growing up!

Getting back to current events: just try to catch B these days putting anything green into his mouth, let alone anything that used to walk, swim, or fly.

But let’s say I’m wrong. Let’s say that most kids who are allowed to eat whatever they want, whenever they want will make balanced choices. Fine. Their parents are still restricting them.

Yes, I’m talking to you, radical unschooling mom who is vehemently shaking her head at me in disagreement. Tell me this: in your pantry and refrigerator, do you have at least one box of all the different kinds of snack cakes, at least one loaf of white bread, at least one loaf of multi-grain bread, at least one can of all the different canned items in your local store, at least one package of each kind of cheese, at least one of each kind of fresh fruit and vegetable, at least one package of every single kind of pre-packaged meal, at least one piece of every single kind of meat available? Do you have one box of every single kind of cereal, crackers, and cookies?

You bad unschooling parent, you. You’re not a real unschooler, because you are restricting your child’s diet. You do not have every edible thing available in the store, in your house.

Parents naturally and necessarily restrict their children because it would be extremely inconvenient, if not impossible, to provide every single opportunity out there for them to try. And food is only one example.

Naughty websites

In a different podcast episode, the hostess asked Sandra Dodd, THE online unschooling guru, about online safety. She went on to tell a story about how once when one of her boys was in his teens, she discovered that he’d been on at least one naughty website. She told him that she needed to talk to him about it later on in the day.

It turned out to be an innocent incident that didn’t happen again, because her son was not addicted and didn’t have a reason to go back to such a site again.

However, when Sandra first saw that website in the browsing history, she did not just let it go. She did not say to herself, “Well, I’m an unschooling mom, so I’m just supposed to trust that my son knows what he’s doing, and keep out of his business.”

By no means! Parents restrict their children because, whether they want to admit it or not, they hold certain values as important and will – even if subconsciously – steer their children in the direction of those values.

“Whose T.V. is it, anyway?”

What really spurred me on to write this post was a podcast episode in which a new unschooling mother wrote in her concern about a television program her daughter had begun to watch. You would probably know the title if I told it to you, but I can’t because I don’t remember it because we don’t have T.V. (or Kindle Prime, or any such-like creature). Apparently, it’s some teeny-bopper girly show, because the daughter started coming to her mother worried about her looks. (An anorexic in the making?)

The experienced unschooling mothers’ responses (there were three in that particular episode) were unanimous: you have the problem, not your daughter. You just need to trust her judgment.

Now, before I go on, I want to say that of all the other questions that the podcasters tackled in that episode, this was the only one where I completely disagreed with their answer. In fact, to all their other answers to all the other questions, I could have added a hearty “amen!”.

But their answer to this mother? It was so, so wrong. On two counts. First of all, the women were restricting the mother who was asking for help from being a responsible parent. Second of all – are you sitting down? You’re going to want to be sitting down for this – the woman’s daughter was not thirteen, not nine, not even seven years old.

She was four years old.

No matter! We are unschoolers, and as unschoolers, we assume that even the youngest of children are capable of making the decisions that will be healthiest for them. Don’t worry about the fact that brain researchers now know that the decision-making part of the brain is not fully developed until a person is in their early twenties. Don’t worry that some children have trouble connecting their actions to consequences. Forget about all that – that kind of information is only meant to provoke parents into trying to manipulate their children!

A four-year-old is perfectly capable of consistently making the right decisions for herself.

Listen, if J and I had believed that, our house in the suburbs would have been ransacked and my garden would have been completely destroyed. You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not.

Parents restrict their children because sometimes, the children either cannot or will not make the right decisions by themselves.

Yes, BUT…

Yes, most parents do far too much manipulating of their children with threats, rewards, and punishments (note that Father does not treat His children this way). Yes, most children could do with a lot more freedom in their lives. Yes, a child who is not constantly being micro-managed will tend to act, all on their own, as a pretty decent little person because they will be content because they will be feeling like they get to make a lot (if not most) of their own choices and therefore have no reason to act out or become rebellious.

BUT…restriction happens. It happens because parents love their children and want to pass on good values to them. It happens by necessity, because no parent can offer their child everything. It happens because the world can be a dangerous place, and sometimes barriers need to be put up for younger children so that they will not fall off the edge of a cliff.

Or, more likely, break an arm falling down the stairs.

Unschooling is the process of living a life that is not like school. Children are not forced to learn certain things at certain times, receiving punishments or rewards depending on how well they learned. Children do not have to ask permission to meet their basic physiological needs.

Unschooling is much less restrictive than a school environment, sure. But to say that a “real” unschooler never puts any kind of restrictions on their children? If that’s what you still believe, even after reading this article, then I must revert to the premise I stated at the beginning: “real” unschoolers do not exist.


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