Balancing in the Middle Ground

Sandra Dodd, 2003

Should people live in the water in the middle of the ocean, or should they live on land as far as possible away from an ocean?

Quickly! What's your answer?

This was a trick question just designed to make you think. But people really do ask the same kinds of questions of themselves sometimes. In some people's heads, "Don't believe everything you read" turns into "Don't believe anything you read."

In the middle are things like "Believe things that make sense and seem to work after you've thought about them and tried them out," and "Don't believe something just because you read it, but wait for it to be confirmed by other more trusted sources, or by your own research or observance."

By thinking in extremes, "There is more than one truth" becomes "All things are equally truthful." Just because there are many truths doesn't mean there's no such thing as nonsense.

And so with children, neither leave them in the middle of the ocean, nor prevent all contact with water. Find the balance point that allows the two of you (and the rest of the family) to feel safe, connected, and healthy. Letting children do nothing is as extreme as letting them do everything. Doing everything for them is as wrong as doing nothing for them. Somewhere in the infinite range between everything and nothing will be a comfortable, productive range, and you will more easily find that familiar place as each new decision comes along.

New unschoolers can feel that they're moving between extremes, and it can take a while to settle where the whole family is content. Sometimes it takes years, but there are ways to feel better in the meantime.

If the old rules were that school is vital and "an education" (defined as the curriculum of an ideal school) is necessary, will the new rules be that school is not important and an education is not necessary? We don't make school disappear by turning the other way. It's still there. Our kids might want to go to school someday, in some form. We don't deny that knowledge is important by becoming unschoolers, but many come to prefer the idea of "learning" with its vast possibilities over the narrower "education."

My favorite "new rule" has always been that learning comes first. Given choices between doing one thing or another, I try to go toward the thing that's newest for my kids, and most intriguing. "New and different" outranks "We do it all the time, same place same way." But there are comfort-activities, and to be rid of all of them would be as limiting as to only do routine, same, safe things. So we find a balance. Or we tweak the same and the safe, changing it enough to make it especially memorable from time to time.

Lately a couple of people came to the forum, and said unschooling wasn't working for them. As has been reported by others before, they said they had stopped doing school, and then stopped making their kids do anything, and now their kids were doing NOTHING.

Aside from the idea of the rich potential of their "nothing", the parents had gone from making their kids do everything, to "making them do nothing." And interestingly, it did make them "do nothing," at first. Or at least the parents couldn't see the new things they were doing.

Rather than moving from one edge of a dichotomy to the other, the goal is to move to a whole new previously unknown middle place. My model won't work in everyone's head (as we're not as plug-and-play as some would like to think), but here is one way to look at this problem: See if you have a dial in your mind that says "everything" at one extreme and "nothing" at the other. It's impossible for anyone to do everything or nothing. Maybe label it "too much" and "not enough" instead, and try for the midpoint. Replace any on/off switches in your mind with slide bars or dimmers!

Reconsider your energy source. If the parents aren't powering all decisions anymore, should the children take up the task of generating enough power to fuel their own learning? I wouldn't expect my kids to do that any more than I would stop feeding them and expect them to become hunter-gatherers in the back yard if they wanted to survive.

Energy is shared, and that's how unschooling works. Whether I'm excited about something new, or my children are excited about something new, there's still newness and excitement enough to share.

Some parents label unschooling as "child-led learning," and so they think they're going from "parent led" life to "child led" life, but the balance point is that the family learns to live together harmoniously.

Harmony makes many things easier. When there is disharmony, everyone is affected. When there is harmony, everyone is affected too. So if it is six of one or half a dozen of the other (right between none and a full dozen), go with harmony instead!

And harmony expresses the same idea that balance does in these social instances. How you live in the moment affects how you live in the hour, and the day, and the lifetime.

Some have written that unschooling made their family life better. In every case I've seen, making a family's life better is exactly what makes unschooling work well. So which comes first? Neither grew wholly in the absence of the other.

There's a regular contributor to the message board named Lyle. He wrote, "Unschooling has had an incredibly positive impact on our lives, and not only in an educational aspect, but in everything we do. It's changed the way we live, the way we think, and the way we look at the world in general." Another day he wrote: "When I was about ten or eleven, I wanted to be a writer. (Still do, in fact.)"

Lyle writes well and frequently about his unschooling. He could choose to write nothing, or he could separate himself from his family to become a professional writer and write every day for many hours. Lyle writes, as do many other unschoolers, for real purposes. He shares what he has discovered and experienced for the benefit of others who want their families' lives to move toward unschooling. His writing is real, because it affects the thoughts and actions of others.

Lyle is a writer. Somewhere between writing nothing and being a wealthy professional author, many people write in the middle ground, and others' lives are changed.

We can come to see our children and ourselves as writers, poets, actors, musicians, engineers, philosophers, sculptors or scientists right where we are now, instead of as potential future poets or scientists.

Halfway between the past we can't change and the future we can only imagine, we find ourselves in the present. Not just the present year, but the present day; not just the present day, but the present moment.

Thank you for spending some of your moments reading this, and I hope you enjoy many present moments with your children!

Bio at the time of first publication:
Sandra Dodd has three children who haven't been to school. Kirby is 17, Marty is 14 and Holly turns twelve November 2. Keith Dodd, the dad, is an engineer for money. He's a woodworker, a musician and a medieval Viking for fun.

Article originally appeared in Home Education Magazine, November/December 2003.

In French: Le juste équilibre (Traduit par Jeanine Barbé)

Joyce Fetteroll wrote something wonderful on balance:

"Unschooling is the opposite of both authoritarian and hands off parenting. It's neither about creating rules to remote parent nor about letting kids jump off cliffs. It's about being more involved in kids lives. It's about accompanying them as they explore, helping them find safe, respectful and empowering ways to tackle what intrigues them." (on Family RUNning, March 5, 2009)


This is truly an amazing article, very encouraging and informative and I shall re-read many times. It does explain more clearly to me the journey one takes from the school-led approach towards the unschooling way of life, a thought-provoking balancing act. I am awoken today to the 'new rule' approach too which has opened my eyes to 'learning comes first'....such a simple method, but lost somewhere on me~~~~until today. Thanks Sandra. This thought will remain with me and kick-start us into action when I feel like I am in a 'what am I doing here' mindset.

I have left 'school' behind, and one day of 'homeschooling' complete with sums, stars and stickers left my ds saying, 'well I might as well go back to school'!!!. My journey towards unschooling came from that one comment (embarrasing grin) because I 'knew' there must be another way. I came across unschooling, read avidly the posts every day, but have only posted occasionally, as I feel I have a long way to go, but these articles are excellent sources to gain insights into examples of unschooling. I realise it isnt easy to quantify, but what has brought me to my senses reading the Unschooling posts is living in the present, with one's child...I don't think I have EVER done that in the true sense....as if I somehow always needed permission....and Sandra, you, unwittingly have given me that.

A mom in the U.K., who wrote to HEM

Subj: Nov/Dec column
Date: Monday, September 15, 2003 1:36:20 PM
From: [email protected]
To: SandraDodd@...
Just thought you might be interested in this note I just sent to Mark with your column:

Attached. It's really good - not one to skim, but one to let oneself get into, to slow down, read, and think about what she's saying.

I think many readers are going to like this one.

Nice job!


julies NET: Sandra Dodd has been sharing her wisdom for years and I've been taking it. Today I read her article on balance. [smack myself on the forehead] DUH! I literally could NOT have said it better, so I won't even try. Read it for yourself. [and there's used to be a bit more commentary there]

Karen James wrote in response to someone having described something as "never ever":
***never ever***
When people think "always" and "never", they get stuck in "always" and "never", and can't see the in-between where, most often, the details and valuable bits of wisdom are.

I've found that a lot of new unschoolers seem to get stuck in extreme thinking--the always and never lands. 😉 I probably did too. Maybe it's part of adjusting to a new paradigm of thinking.

It kind of reminds me of when we manually adjust the focus on a camera. (I'm talking about before auto-focus.) We adjust the lens back and forth to first find the extreme edges of clarity. When we know where those slightly blurry edges are, we can then move closer to where the true, crisp capture of whatever it is we hope to see lies.

The thing is, if we don't move away from the extremes--those slightly blurry edges--we won't get to appreciate the crisp details of whatever it is we do hope to see and understand better.

That's true for most things, I believe.

Learn to recognize your own extreme thinking. See the nevers and the alwayses. 😊 Then, move around a bit, in search of greater clarity. That shift in thinking will help most relationships, I'm confident.

The original was written April 23, 2021, and can be read there on facebook, if it's still there

From Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership

#102 Balance

Gaoan said:

What students should keep in mind are balance and truthfulness; then even though thwarted in a hundred ways they will remain serene and untroubled.

But if they have any inclination or bias, and spend the days and nights in petty striving with gain as their aim, I fear their enormous bodies will not fit between heaven and earth.

Collection of the True Herdsman

Presentation on Balance from Sunday, May 27, 2012; Vancouver, Washington; Life is Good Conference

Click here to download a copy in one of several formats.