Following my post on unschooling for decolonisation, I’m going to unpack what shifting from semi-structured home education to unschooling has meant for our family.
On the surface, some people might have considered what we’ve done from the start unschool-y or at least child-respecting in the sense that our life has generally been free flowing rather than scheduled and we’ve actively tried to make collaborative decisions with our children. While I never claimed the “unschooling” label, I’ve always framed how I described our home education as offering them activities and taking a family-led approach rather than parent-led or child-led.
Making a big space for their “no”
To some, “family-led” might sound radical athough – on reflection – it’s been fear-based. In fact, I did a radio interview last year where the person I was speaking to commented that many listeners might feel uncomfortable with the notion of allowing children to not only have a say in what they do and don’t do in terms of education but to have the freedom to say “no”.
And my kids sometimes would say “no”, either in words or by being too busy to engage with our “collaborative” plans. I worked hard to respect that with varying degrees of success because sometimes I would get frustrated about it and express that. Sometimes I would effectively lecture and tell myself that I was reasoning with them. Just because there’s no overt coercion doesn’t mean there’s no coercion.
What was missing from this daily interaction was a full recognition of the adult-child power dynamics between us. Yes, they were technically free to say “no” but how much space did they really have to say it if I was still going to hold on to my power by claiming that I ultimately knew best. My lecturing, however gentle, was light shaming. I often wasn’t seeking to understand where they were coming from and when I did, I was doing so with the ulterior motive of trying to work out how to get them to do what I thought they should be doing.
Adult-child relationships based on toxic authority clothe “might is right” in the language of parental responsibility. Under this thinking, children are “people in the making” rather than equal members of their community, learning and contributing through living unsegregated with others. In many ways, this mirrors colonial ideology and committing to decolonising involves taking a good look at the way we’re interacting with the young people in our lives. Against that backdrop, it’s not enough to say that they are free and that we trust them. We need to give them so much more space to confidently exercise their autonomy than we might think we do.
Conditioning around this goes deep. So we need to step back and look at our attitudes and actions reflectively if we want to change entrenched patterns. That means recognising that even though we’re outside the school system, we’re inevitably bringing it with us. We do it when we reference, if not the national curriculum, an adult vision of what education should be.
I bristled when unschoolers levied this sort of criticism at the eclectic home education I was giving my children. We weren’t following a set curriculum but I joked that we were “classical unschoolers” knowing that the two philosophies were diametrically opposite. Classical education is guided by a specific knowledge base (Western in tradition). Unschooling, on the other hand, recognises the child’s own vision and respects their ideas, interests and processes.
For us, semi-structured home education looked like writing down my children’s ideas for what they wanted to do but also including subjects that I felt they needed to cover. I called this “family-led” and “democratic” but the reality is that they don’t get a say in what I do with my time so even this “gentle” approach wasn’t taking the power dynamic into account.
Unschooling means actively working against systemic attitudes which underestimate their curiosity, creativity and ability to make good decisions, consequently teaching them to underestimate themselves. Rather than recognising the “many ways” in learning and living, I was still referencing the “one way” but justifying that I was giving them options, even if they were limited options. To put it another way, I fully appreciated that children had different learning styles but I still inadvertently clung to the idea that they all needed to learn the same things.
I talk as if this is in the past but deschooling so that we can unschool is going to be ongoing work. It means constantly asking what my true objections are to what they’re doing or why I feel that there’s something that they should be doing. It means actively decolonising so that I’m not parenting out of fear of someone else’s opinions and perpetuating a concept of success that sorts people and pits them against each other.
Relaxing into it
In so many ways we’ve been slipping into unschooling from the start. When my eldest was four, I was pregnant with my third and too exhausted to home educate the way I thought I “should”. Then I had a newborn, then we moved counties, then, then, then, there were so many reasons why we were never getting all the things I thought we should done. I could see that they were doing so much, learning so much and they were happy and confident. Meanwhile I had all these unchecked lists which were more a testament to my trying to self-actualise through parenting and home education than anything. I feel naked admitting that.
I’ve considered whether the unschooling label is helpful or not. Naming is powerful. To give something a name is to clarify your commitment and to bring things out into the open where you can take a good look. It doesn’t mean your decision is static or that you’ve arrived at your destination but that you are naming where you want to go and how you want to travel.
Back when we started our farm, we wrote a holistic context including statements like “We believe in bringing equity to the food system” and “Friendship and family come before business”. As time has gone on, we’re taking another look and considering what needs updating. We’re adding “Grow with gratitude” and “We commit to examining our privilege”. Those were things we were already thinking about but they needed to named to be prioritised and so we could talk about them in the context of the farm. Something similar is happening here.
By saying we are committed to unschooling, learning through living or self-directed education, it becomes easier to reflect on our practices and notice our responses so we can ask whether what we’re doing fits with what we’ve said we want. We want our children to grow up trusting themselves and treating others with empathy. By unschooling we’re saying that we will hold the space for this work through continually trusting them and treating them with empathy.