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Unschooling and parenting

Unschooling Parenting Compass by Anne Wood

Unschooling Parenting Compass by Anne Wood

I've known of a couple of very relaxed and free families who had horrible children, though. Kids who hit, don't respond to adults at all even when simply greeted, dirty all the time, throw rocks at other kids. The parents seem reasonably rational, if not a little on the fruity side -- and overly tolerant of the abuse of other people by their children.


What you describe sounds like "hands off" parenting rather than relaxed and free. Sort of like watching over the welfare of wild horses than raising children.


Perhaps parenting is more like 4 points of a compass than a spectrum. West and East are control and non-control. And North and South are involved and uninvolved. Attachment parenting is in the far NE corner of the NE quadrant. Most people imagine it in the SE quadrant where kids raise themselves.



My son is a great kid and rarely gets himself into trouble BUT he's beginning to test our boundaries and I want to make sure we handle this normal behavior in a positive way.


It would help not to think of what he's doing as testing boundaries. If you picture the situation with you drawing a line that you won't let him cross, then it sets up a power struggle. If he crosses the line and you don't do anything then the line becomes meaningless. So the only option you leave yourself when he crosses the line is to punish him.


Try picturing your role as helping him explore the world safely rather than as making him keep himself safe. For example if he runs for the busy street every time you go out, your job isn't to make him stop running, but to keep him safe until he is old enough to understand that he shouldn't run towards the street. That might mean not going out to places where he wants to run towards the street for now. It might mean using one of those toddler leashes (if he doesn't mind it). It might mean talking to him so he can understand that he knows he needs to hold your hand. It's all going to depend on what he's capable of right now.


If we don't set up artificial boundaries, then they can't test them. The real world has its own boundaries, of course, and sometimes we need to protect them from themselves until they can understand those boundaries (like getting hit by a car could hurt or kill you).



Testing boundaries

Well, your response was to pass very personal judgment on me and my relationship with my most dearest child whom I would NOT rather see cry than smile.


If you look at the situation (taking the videos away for 2 days) through your daughter's needs and her understanding of the world, it looks exactly to her like you preferred to make her cry than to make her smile. From her point of view, what you wanted was more important than what she wanted and even her profound sadness didn't turn your heart.


Seeing ourselves through our children's eyes is often uncomfortable and we'll deny what our kids see. But our kids are being truthful and we should listen.


My daughter has said some heart wrenching things to me over the years but conventional parenting gave me permission to deny the truth of what she was saying. Like after a spill "It seems like you love the rug more than you love me."Obviously that wasn't true and I said so. But I did eventually come to see that if I'm protecting the carpet in a way that makes her cry, then I'm absolutely valuing the carpet more than her feelings.


(Having old beat up furniture is so helpful to peaceful parenting!)


Conventional parenting models are rife with advice that justifies making kids cry rather than smile. Decent parents would never admit that some thing was more important than their child. And yet parents act as though that were true and justify that the child doesn't need what the child says she wants. Or the parent knows better. So it's the parents job to change the child so she won't need to cry over something silly or won't do something that makes the parent mad and the child will want what the parent wants and the child will be happy.


"You're the child's parent, not her friend."


"This hurts me more than it hurts you."


"I'm doing this for your own good."


(Anyone else have some conventional parenting "wisdom" or (un)favorite phrases your mom used that you swore you'd never say?) [The question got me curious! I compiled lists I found on the internet on I do respect my kids!]


Conventional parenting is very anti child.


and of hardening my heart towards my children certainly does not encourage me to remain curious or open to learning.


What did you feel when your daughter cried after you took away her videos? If you understood the level of anguish she felt, then how were you able to inflict that pain on her?


Moms absolutely do harden their hearts when they drop their kids off at preschool and the child is crying and begging to go home or for the mom to stay. Not listening to or taking seriously the outpourings of our children's feelings is so common and accepted as the thing we must do in order to be good parents that we don't even recognize it for what it is. We have to tune out our child's pain in order to (supposedly) give them something they won't get of their own choosing. We'd never be able to drop them off if we allowed ourselves to feel what they feel and felt what the world feels like from their needs and their understanding. So we convince ourselves, and look to others to help us convince ourselves, that it's okay to ignore the crying in order to give them something (supposedly) better than what they want.



Hardened heart

Sandra: My mom used to say "Shut up or I'll give you something to cry about." She said it because she had heard other people say it, and it was easier to parrot than to think.


And helped her reach her goal of wanting to control what the world did to her.


If we can help our kids feel powerful and in control of their lives, they'll not only see a model of helping others feel powerful but they'll not feel they've been powerless and lacking control all their lives and won't need to assert their power as adults.


Sandra: It was about a mother not caring about what the child wanted.


In some cases the mother cares more about what she wants than what her child wants. Often it's a matter of priorities than not caring.


"It's not that I don't care, BUT ..." That's another conventional parenting line.


BUT from the child's point of view the mom's actions are indistinguishable from not caring. And the child will internalize that treatment as though the mom really didn't care about the child's feelings. Even if the mom says she cares and explains, the actions will speak a whole lot louder.


I can't remember what the exchange was about but I remember saying to my husband that I was concerned about something. And he replied something like "Yes, I understand, but this is more convenient."


Basically what his words were saying is "I hear your concerns but this solves my problem and my concerns are more important. First give me a solution to my concerns then maybe I'll deal with yours." The feelings stuck with me because he's usually very good about listening to my concerns rather than overriding with his concerns.


And that's a very typical exchange between child and parent (of which I'm guilty too.) And between adult and adult for that matter. Most people are very good at listening from a "how does this affect me" point of view rather than setting themselves aside and really listening to the other person.


In the case of limiting TV, the "how does this affect me" part is fear based rather than fact based so it compounds not listening to a child with burdening them with false concerns. There are lots of real dangers in this world that limit us all. It's certainly okay to say "It's not that I don't care that you want to run ahead, but cars can hurt you"! (Though there are better ways to phrase it.) But we don't need to limit our children's lives further with irrational fears because we find accepting the fears more comforting than dealing with them.



I care BUT

This is one thing I have a bit of a problem with. Maybe I can get over it here. :o) If we're grocery shopping ... it has to be done now. There is no way around it.


How about tackling that problem? Arrange shopping trips so that you can leave. Maybe it won't be possible always, but it can be possible most times.


If there's something essential, grab that and leave.


Plan shopping trips so that kids are well fed and rested. Go some place that's just for them afterwards. Recognize that you are imposing on their time and that you need to repay them, as you would a friend that you just imposed upon.


(If you take a cooler with you, you can keep stuff cold.)


Go shopping at a time when the kids can stay home.


Lots of time when we think we need to do something right now, it's because it's convenient for us to do it then. And it's often helpful to ask ourselves if our convenience is worth making our children miserable over. Would we feel the same way if our husband were making us as miserable over something that seemed unimportant to us that he was doing just because it was convenient for him at that time? What if he made you drive him to the auto parts store with a migraine because he didn't want to go later because of the football game he wanted to watch in the afternoon?


That's how our treatment looks from inside our kids.


Isn't leaving the store because the child doesn't want to be there reinforcing that negative behavior? Please help me see if it isn't.


How is it negative behavior to let someone know you've reached your limit?


If your husband dragged you around all day (and an hour can seem like all day to a child) at sporting goods stores and didn't let you wander around, didn't let you touch things and every time you asked when you were going home he said "Soon," which really means "When I'm done," wouldn't you be frustrated? Would his listening to your desire to go home be reinforcing that it's okay to tell him you're bored or would it be compassion?


Upsetness is a sign that a child's needs aren't being met. That they're trying to tell us something is important but we're brushing them off to the point where they break down in frustration. We tend to treat children's needs as unimportant. Playing, running around, being picked up for the umpteenth time just isn't as important in adult eyes as the things adults need to do. So we put a low priority on them.


But kids would put a low priority on the things we say we have to do. Do we have to clean the bathroom, cook dinner, make the bed, do laundry?


What if a friend judged our needs by their standards? What if we said we needed a ride to the drug store because of an upset stomach and the friend said, oh, upset stomachs are nothing. Go throw up and you'll feel better. I have this book I need to finish.


That's what it looks like to our kids when we judge what they're trying to say is important by what we think is important.


We can't understand why they can't see how important what we need to do is (like needing to shop). Well they can't. They judge things by the priorities of whatever age they are. And shopping just isn't high on their list. It will eventually be high as they grow older, but now it isn't.


And yet we turn around and do the same to them. They can't understand why we can't see how important what they need to do is (playing, being free of a grocery cart to be the age they are).


If we want them to give us the benefit of the doubt that something is important to us, then we need to give them the benefit of the doubt too. We want them to let us be the judge of what's important to us. So we should model that by letting them be the judge of what's important to them.


A parent's life cannot realistically always be planned to create the ideal situation for only one child ... there are other people in the family with needs to be met also.


Nor should that be the goal. The goal is taking everyone's needs into account as you cobble solutions together. Kids need to see how that's done.


Just because it can't always be done doesn't mean we can't do the best we can. We shouldn't give up on a goal just because perfection is unattainable. If they know we're trying then they'll forgive us when we can't do it and do need to impose on them. They'll resent it if we're imposing on them all the time and shrugging it off as nothing to be done about.


Would we want to be treated that way?


It really helps to switch your viewpoint around so that someone is imposing on you for what you feel is insignificant reasons and treating you as though "Tough, you've just got to put up with it because what I need to do is way more important than anything you need to do." Once we can switch viewpoints then we can see why we'd want to take the time to avoid treating our kids like that on a regular basis.



I always ignored tantrums too, and I would hope that most mothers do.


WHAT???? A tantrum is a cry for help. Joyce says it so well ... Joyce?


Maybe you mean when I point out that a tantrum is the last resort of a child who isn't being heard. They've gone through the skills they know trying to tell us they want something and we're ignoring them or not taking them seriously or not understanding. They don't have anything left but to melt down in supreme frustration.


If we tried to tell our husbands we were hungry or tired and they ignored us, dismissed us, and told us to stop complaining for what felt like hours we'd likely melt down too!


If a parent waits until the tantrum happens to try to understand what the child wants, the child can learn that a tantrum is an effective means of communication. They can learn to skip over the other ways of communication and go straight to tantrum.


In standard parenting practices that translates into ignore the tantrum so they don't learn to use tantrums to "manipulate" the parent.


Better -- much much better -- is to listen to the child. Learn the cues he uses to communicate with before he gets frustrated to the tantrum point. Then offer help. Or at least understanding. It may not avoid the additional frustration of not getting their needs met, but at least they'll feel heard and their needs understood and taken seriously.


And additionally thinking ahead to the types of things that cause melt downs and preventing the situation in the first place, like making sure they're well fed and rested before going shopping, maybe having a little bit of money to spend or whatever.


(Which doesn't address the highly sensitive child who may have frequent meltdowns from frustrations with life in general. In which case I'd suggest The Explosive Child by Ross Greene.)



But saying kids should never be forced to do ANYTHING they don't want to do is simply unrealistic.


If we're certain there are times when children must be forced then we stop looking for better solutions when it feels like force is the only solution.


But if we're certain it's never necessary to force children to do something then we'll always be looking for better ways. We may fail in specific instances but we'll always be thinking and asking and trying to find better ways.


The goal in life should not be to be perfect. It's impossible and we'd spend our lives miserable. A much better and more realistic goal is to always strive to be better.


If a solution yields a miserable child, it's a good indication there was a better solution.


One of Sandra Dodd's favorite tips is give yourself two choices and then choose the better one. :-)



My four year old has been calling everyone "stupid idiot" lately. It sounds so ugly! I know he picked it up from a movie but somehow it stuck and frankly I do not know what to do when he insults me/others.


How do people react to it? It could be a form of control. It's like a button he can push to make people behave irrationally. When you're 4 and want to be powerful and in control, there aren't a lot of avenues available. :-/


For some reason it's satisfying when we feel like the world is pushing us around to make people angry but not satisfying to make people sad. Can you say simply "That hurts my feelings."


Or, better, humor. "Well, I think I'm beautiful!" "Ugly like a tiger ready to eat you up!"


If it's about power, find things he can feel powerful and in control of. What does he need to always ask help with that could be made doable by himself?



My son is a 13yo who, when he is occupied with the immediate task at hand, throws caution and safety to the wind. When he is finished using something, he leaves it behind, regardless of its potential danger to the next person who comes along. We have discussed this issue at length but don't know how to secure the safety of the little ones without restricting him in his access to tools.


His actions show what he's capable of right now. Rather than trying to get him to be other than who he is, i.e., trying to get him to be conscious of his surroundings, how about helping him find a place or way of using the tools that's safer?


Work with him as his partner, rather than against him as his controller. I assume he doesn't want to hurt the little kids in the house! Rather than helping him figure out how to implement your solution to the problem, help him figure out how not to hurt the kids.


[Someone replying to the original poster]: I think if you helped him pick up his tools every time, he'd appreciate that and eventually move past needing your help to remember to put things away


The attitude picking up is approached with will make a huge difference. If you clean up resentfully behind him, he'll sense that. If you clean up because you appreciate being able to make it possible for him to do something that he finds valuable, then he'll sense that.


(And it will help if you take a moment when he's using his tools to share your pleasure that he has the opportunity to create that many kids don't have. Ask him about what he's doing. Maybe think of approaching him with a quiet "Isn't life grand and I'm so happy you were born and I get to provide the things you love" attitude and just go from there. :-)


Lots of parents would drive an hour and pay good money for a child prodigy to take violin lessons. Think of the cost to you for that, that you'd willingly pay.


This is like that cost. Except cheaper :-)


The choice seems to be between him using his tools without cleaning up after himself and using his tools with cleaning up after himself. But think about the 3rd more likely choice: that he chooses not to use his tools because the hassle over the cleanup is greater than the joy he gets from using them. Is what's gained in that instance worth what's lost?



We all may wish we could parent and relate to others without coercion, but almost every interaction with others involves some level of coercion. If I ask my child to scrape his plate into the trash is that coercive ?


It's coercion only if he can't say no. If he can't say no, even if you phrase it in the form of a question, then you aren't asking him. You're telling him to do it.


If we expect someone to help us with our needs and we have some power to make them -- even if that power is no more than recognizing someone's inability to say no -- it's coercion. If we ask someone to help us then they are fully free to help or not help.


and if he refuses and then I scrape it so that there will be a clean plate later, am I being manipulated?


That's a loaded question.


If I've made a request, my daughter can't "refuse". But she can say no. Or yes. Refusing assumes I'm not giving her the choice of saying no. It means she must comply. And she refuses to comply.


When ordering, it's assumed the child will comply because the parent has the threat of power over the child. (It's irrelevant whether the parent actually uses it or not because it's understood that the parent could.) If the child ignores the threat and the order, then the parent is faced with either going through with the threat of enforcing their power or backing down.


If the parent backs down often enough, the child recognizes that the order and threat and the control are empty and he is free to refuse.


As for manipulating, if he is feeling caged by control then it's possible he might gain some satisfaction in doing things that he's found makes a parent angry. So it could be he's manipulating a parent into an unpleasant emotional state as punishment in retaliation for often making his life unpleasant.


Why would we want to put a child into a position where he feels retaliation is necessary?


It's unlikely that he's manipulating the parent into scraping the plate for him because it's more likely that he doesn't care whether the plates are scraped or not. It's really not high on any child's List of Important Things.


If your husband asked/ordered you to scrub the bird poop off the roof and you refused, would you be manipulating him into doing it himself or exercising your right to spend time doing things you found meaningful for you?


Is coercion in our daily living OK but not OK regarding academics?


If your goal is to get your child into Harvard, then coercion in academics could be a useful tool and therefore okay.


That's not the goal of unschooling though. The goal is to help our children be who they are and live joyful lives. If they see Harvard as an attractive goal then they'll work towards that themselves with us providing as much help as they need.


If your goal is to treat your children with respect as fellow human beings to make their lives as joyful as possible, then coercion is not okay in daily living. If your goal is for them to learn right from wrong, then coercion in daily life is one tool that could be used to achieve that goal.


Ultimately this is about living by a personal philosophy. If you believe coercion is a value you want to live by and pass onto your son, then do that. If it's not then you're taking short cuts for conveneince.


If I say to my child, I want to teach you how to tie your shoes because I'm sick of tying them, and you are old enough to learn, is that wrong?


If your goal is to treat children respectfully and kindly, then that would be wrong.


If your goal is to have them tie their shoes by a particular age or so you don't have to do it anymore, then that would be one way to reach that goal. (The additonal message the child would pick up is, "Your needs are annoying to me." It's worth asking is getting the child to tie his shoes worth that price?) Another way would be buying them shoes.


Then if I say I want to teach you how to read because I'm sick of reading everything for you, you are old enough to learn, and besides I've got my own book to read, is that wrong?


If your goal is to hurt your child, that would be okay. If your goal is to model for him disrespecting others needs as a means of meeting our own needs, that would be okay.


Who do you want to be? A person who lives by what she values? Or someone who drops her values when they're inconvenient?



How do you handle things like name-calling, for example? It seems that even if I say, "We don't call people names," or "Name-calling can hurt feelings," or "I don't like what I hear. Would you use a different way of speaking?" he will just do it again later, whenever he feels like it.


Because one aspect of it is that he recognizes you're trying to control him and he's recognizing that this is one way to fight the control. He's recognizing that you can't stop him from saying what he wants to say. Another aspect is that he has feelings that he doesn't know what to do with. He's found calling someone a name helps somewhat. Stopping the name calling just stops the outlet for the feelings he has. What does he do then with the feelings?


Approach it as supplying information for him. Say "It hurts my feelings when I get called names." And help him identify his own feelings, "You must be really frustrated with me now." But see your words as information to help him, not as a thinly veiled way of saying "Stop it or else." He's calling people names for a reason, for something that he's feeling and doesn't know what to do with, or something that's happening and he has no control over.


When we stop controlling, there's no control for them to fight against.


Sandra explains this better. She does say things like stop it when they're hurting other kids. But her kids know it's a precursor to helping them deal with the feelings they're having. They don't want to hurt other people. And they want to figure out ways to deal with what they're feeling.


It's not that Sandra has superior kids but that because of the way she's treated them, they trust that she's trying to help rather than control. That's the goal to shoot for :-)


But kids who have been hurt -- unconsciously by us but consciously to them! -- may want to hurt back as a way of dealing with the hurt that's been done to them. They don't really want to hurt others, but they do want to stop hurting. So that's something we need to be aware of.


An equal would respect my feelings on the matter (I hope), or maybe I would stop having a relationship with such an equal. Should I just ignore it? Right now everybody is a "stucklehead." What about when he learns choicer names?


Sounds like a funny word to me! ;-) Is he doing it as a game? Call him a stucklehead back. Find some other goofy names and play along.


There really isn't a reason for kids to deliberately want to hurt someone unless they're being hurt themselves. Unfortunately we can hurt kids in all kinds of ways that we don't realize. Lots has to do with control. And, yes, it's hard work gaining perspective on control. It seems reasonable to ask a child to stop calling you names. But what in essence we're saying is you have no right to feel as you do so stop it. They'd really like it if we'd acknowledge that their feelings are legitimate! And then help them find better ways of dealing with those feelings.


When you get those feelings of "Aren't you listening to me?" when he does something that you've asked him not to, it might help to step back and look at it as two people with different needs clashing.


We help them learn how to value others needs by valuing their needs. Especially the needs that they are saying are important to them but that we don't see as very important. Because we have to remember that they don't see the things we need to do as important. So if we would like them to trust us when we say something is important to us (even if it doesn't seem important to them) we have to treat them that way.



or tantrums at the store, etc.


Why are they having tantrums at the store? Think about if your husband took you into a sporting goods store and made you stand by him and not touch anything and not wander off while he stood staring at the fishing reels for what seems like hours (or whatever you'd find particularly boring and pointless since from kids' points of views the shopping we "have" to do is equally boring and pointless ;-) And what if he answered your "When will we go home?" with "When I'm finished with what I need to do," or "Soon," (which means the same)?


What if he took you into a store filled with everything you've ever wanted or hadn't realized you wanted until you saw it and everything was perfect! And he kept saying, "Come on, let's get what I need and get out of here." And what if there were just one thing you really really wanted and he said "No."? What if you just didn't have the words that would express how important it was and he just kept saying "No." What if he would occasionally buy you something you wanted, occasionally grumble about it as though you were a pain, but usually bought things that he thought it was worthwhile for you to have? Think about all the things you do buy using your own judgment on whether they're worth it or not and think about having him along with you second guessing, forbidding you or grumbling about everything you thought was worth while?


What if you said you were hungry or bored a number of times and he answered with "We'll leave soon," or "We can get something to eat when we get home"?


What if you had to go through that every week? Sometimes more than once a week?


What about when I want to leave the park, and they don't want to? Or I want to get going, and they are on toddler time (that is, they have all the time in the world)?


And what if they just as much needed to stay at the park as you need to leave the park? (From their point of view it's true!)


What if you were having the great conversation with friends and your husband said he needed you to leave now so he could get home to do stuff (important to him but pointless and boring to you)? How would you want him to handle it?


That probably won't lead you to the good suggestions of having even better things for them to do ;-) But it helps us see what their needs look like from their point of view.


What about when they torment each other?


Why are they tormenting each other? Again, Sandra does this better. And with examples too! ;-) But I'll give a summary in case she's busy and can't get to it right away.


It's your job to keep them safe in their own house. And you need to stop behavior where kids are getting hurt. When you stop a child from hurting another it's because children have a right to feel safe not because one has escaped the confines of your control over them.


It's not said in a way that says "I never want to see you do something like that again." It's said in a way that says "I have to stop you from hurting your sibling. Let's find a better way to handle this." It's an answer for this time that they'll see makes sense for other times. That won't stop them. They will need more help in finding better ways to deal with things and help understanding the feelings they're feeling and then what to do with those feelings.


It's not your job to stop their reactions. We can't control other people. Just stop the result of their reactions. The feelings will continue whether we can see them reacting or not. It's your job to help them learn better ways to react.



But as she says everything inside is mixed up sometimes.


I think this is the idea Sandra's trying to get across. There's a profound difference in seeing a barrier between them and where they "need to be" and helping them acquire the skills they need to get to where they want to go.


Does that make any sense?


If a child has a temper that seems to go from 0-100 instantaneously, if we see the temper as something that must be eliminated for them to function we will see and make decisions about them differently than if we see that temper as part of who the child is and our job is to help them do what they want to do.


We can train them to act as though they don't have a temper. They can stuff it down inside and look like non-tempestuous people from the outside. Or we can help them learn how to recognize the signs of impending blowup and help them with ideas on what to do with the situation and what to do with the emotions.


What can she do when she's feeling all mixed up inside? What about some of the other things she feels?


Some kids cannot be still for half a second and can get very violent as well. It's not just bad temper. Perhaps you are not aware of what Elizabeth may be dealing with here.


I didn't mean for the example to relate to ADHD. I was speaking generally of any behavior and how a mental shift from viewing behavior as something to be controlled to viewing behavior as part of who the child is can have a profound effect on not only how we relate to the child but to the answers that will make sense to us. If we're looking for ways to control, the ways to help won't make much sense.


That applies regardless of a diagnosis. Figuring out a label can help someone narrow down the information and focus in on strategies that work for others facing the same behaviors. (Though it also leads to a ton of information on more refined control since that's the orientation of our society :-/)


I think what's unique about the Shine With Unschooling list is there are people there who are raising their kids without control. Knowing they exist and that they're determined to find new ways of approaching problems that don't involve control I think is incredibly valuable.


We can always choose control as a means to solve a problem. I don't think people should feel guilty for it, but I think it's a lot more useful to see control as not even a temporary solution but perhaps something that's better than nothing until you can find something that works better.


There's probably a better way to word that since it's a lousy piece of general advice ;-) It would suggest someone choose workbooks until they can figure out how to unschool math when choosing no control would be better in the interim. But what I mean is people choose from the best options they know. If the only options they know of are self-destructive behavior and medication, then medication is the better option. But since control works better than no control, people can feel less compelled to find something even better. So if someone wants to figure out how not to medicate for ADHD I think it's a lot more useful to listen to people who have successfully figured out how to help their children with the challenges of ADHD without medication than it is to listen to people who have accepted that temporary medication is best.


If the people on the Shine With Unschooling list were dealing only with kids with slight challenges, the information wouldn't mean as much. But from what I've read, some of the challenges are pretty great and they've found new ways of thinking that allowed them to help their children help themselves.



Joyfully Rejoycing
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