Trusting children

Even if they are happy and joyful how can you know whether they are learning without measuring it?

How do parents know their baby is learning language?

It's from experiencing "Oh, there's something new" over the course of days and weeks and months. It's a slow build up of confidence that progress is happening.

By and large that's what unschoolers have to rely on with their own kids. Feedback comes from learning to observe what's happening rather than looking to see if the child knows something specific.

Mostly the learning happens sight unseen. What we see is kids playing, doing things they find interesting. Occasionally kids will do something and we'll get the "Oh, there's something new" feeling and even more rarely an "Oh, my goodness, where did you learn that!"

Quite frankly the squishy assessments and chaotic learning pathways of unschooling rankle my engineering nature. ;-)

It took a long time for me to accept that unschooling isn't a process you can apply and have a specific outcome happen. The engineer in me wants to be able to do A and have X happen. It wants to be able to tell other people that if they do A then X will happen.

The ABCs of unschooling that we can hand to people are things like respect, freedom, trust, curiosity, partnership and so on. The XYZs (outcomes) of unschooling are respect, joy, curiosity, self respect, love of learning and so on.

But you can't just apply the ABCs the way you can a curriculum. You can't do freedom for 1 hour a day and have as an outcome kids who will respect their own interests as important. And there isn't a way to "do" freedom and respect and so on without a deep understanding of what they are. No one can hand that understanding to someone else.

To do the ABCs of unschooling someone needs to understand what they look like in the context of their own family. What we can offer is what those principles look like in our homes, what we think will work in a particular situation and why, some help in seeing the principles in a new way so someone can build up a new understanding of what they are and things like that.

Basically unschooling isn't a thing you can hand to someone for them to do. Unschooling is something that works because the parent wants what unschooling offers (joyful childhoods spent freely exploring the world in the context of a supportive loving respectful family) and is determined to figure out how to make it work.

Will unschooling lead to happy people who aren't a burden on society? There's no guarantee (no educational method can offer one) but from what limited, self-selecting "data" exists (from unschoolers who stick around and tell of their grown children), from the short term results (respected children naturally becoming respectful, people saying "Hey, I've been working on this principle and it's working.") it looks like unschooling does better than schools. Will unschooling create kids who will go on to cure cancer? Go to Harvard? Pursue the American Dream of a nice house in a nice neighborhood with a well paying secure job? Those aren't the goals of unschooling BUT they are within unschooling's set of "help them explore what they love." So if a child does want to cure cancer, unschooling provides a supportive pathway to help them pursue that dream.

Think about the most difficult parenting problem you've solved and think about how you went about deciding what were good and bad solutions.

Sibling rivalry comes up a lot. One filter that many people have is that sibling rivalry is normal. Another filter is that it's mom's job to fix things. Another filter is that it's a parent's job to control children's behavior until they can control it themselves.

That first filter, that it's normal, filters out any aggressive techniques to force children to change. That particular filter tends to relieve us of guilt we might feel that it's our fault and that we should be doing something about it. It doesn't stop us from interfering but it filters out ideas that are based on "These incidents are wrong and need to stop."

The second filter tends to filter out solutions that tell us to do nothing. It increases the guilt we feel when we see them fighting. It's our job to make them stop. It's a reflection on our abilities as parents that they're even fighting to begin with.

The third filter lets through solutions that have control at their foundation.

When looked at through those filters, all the solutions make some sense. It does make sense to punish kids for fighting because it's our job to shape them into decent humans. It does make sense to only step in when there's blood because sibling rivalry is normal. If someone has all those filters they have a head full of incompatible solutions and they don't know what's right or best and they understandably feel confused.

But none of those filters helps us make the decisions that help our children live more joyful and peaceful lives.

Our beliefs are what we use to decide what are good and bad choices. Part of the purpose of the list is to help people figure out how to make the choices that will get them to unschooling and more joyful lives with their families. And part of that process is examining the beliefs people are using to filter their choices.

The cornerstone of unschooling is trust that our children will make good choices for themselves in learning. Once I decided to trust my children to learn what they needed, it wasn't hard for me to see that I could also trust them to eat what they needed and to do what they needed, even if it was what some would label "junk".

And it's important to keep in mind that this is in the long run. If we let go of controls, or if they find something new, they're going to be unbalanced for a while as they find the negative consequences are worth putting up with for a while to get a taste of something new.

But if a child isn't happy doing what he's doing, I'd tackle that and talk to him about it. Rather than identifying the TV as the problem for him and imposing a limit, I'd talk about what he wants and how he can get there.

Learning how to recognize problems and find solutions is a whole lot more powerful and useful life skill than having someone else diagnose your problems and impose a solution.

And maybe he really does want to watch TV in peace!

If he's happy then I'd agree. But if a child -- or adult! -- is freely choosing and is unhappy, then there's something wrong.

If we make a blanket statement that kids will self-regulate if TV is unlimited, and parents take that to mean they shouldn't listen to what their kids are saying in their behavior, then the advice becomes rule based and not awareness based.

I think it's a mistake to zero in on what the child is doing as the problem. The problem lies in why the child is not happy. If a child is freely choosing (of whatever) and isn't happy, then the problem is helping them help themselves be happy.

If he wanted to go skiing and felt he couldn't leave the TV, then perhaps the problem is he didn't feel he had control of what he could watch when. (As in he was at the mercy of the times the TV stations chose to show things, which perhaps seemed random to him. And often does seem that way with cable. They shift programs around way more often than broadcast channels do.) The answer could be recording his favorite shows so he could watch them when he wanted to.

 
 
 
Last updated: April 2009