Unschooling: Words and Thoughts

"Freedom," and unschooling

In 2011, someone asked what it might look like if a family's primary goal was not learning itself. Meredith wrote of—

"...parents who idealize "freedom" as the primary goal. A focus on "freedom" can lead parents to neglect to give kids enough information and feedback."

In December, 2011, a mother whose daughter had been court-ordered to go to school created a facebook page called "The death of an unschooler." I went expecting to hear about someone dying, as Hannah Jenner did of leukemia, or as Sam Wilkinson did of falling through ice into a lake.

No. It was the story of a divorce, and of a judge ordering that the child should go to school, because the father wasn't in favor of unschooling. I objected to the name of the page, there, and the mother responded with these statements, and others.

"Unschooling is freedom."
"I have always told her she does not have to do anything she does not want to do."
The definition of unschooling is not "freedom." No parent has so much power and freedom that she can assure her own child she doesn't have to do anything she doesn't want to do. No parent has the power to choose to do nothing she doesn't want to do and guarantee her own freedom from incarceration.

I think good unschooling needs parents who aren't in jail, and children who aren't removed by the government or ordered into school. And while none of those things are guaranteed, there are many easy steps to take to avoid jail and court orders.

So for purposes of this page and radical unschooling as our family lived it, and as I am familiar with it in very many other families, unschooling involves learning and choices, LOTS of choices, but is not absolute freedom.

I think since the beginning of human existence there has never been anyone with total freedom. Living in a group comes with restraints and restrictions. It's just the way it is. Cave men, Bible days, feudal society, pioneers settling the Wild West... all end up answering to other people about what they're doing, how, where and why. And when. "We're trying to sleep; get QUIET!"

While there is a great deal of rhetoric, slogan, poetry and art about freedom, the author of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" owned slaves.

SO. Unschooling. There are many arbitrary rules, expectations, school-related goals and milestones and competitions and rankings that unschoolers can ignore. A family can choose to be free of those.

There are many cultural expectations and traditions—what foods are for breakfast, but never for lunch; what time is too late for a ten year old to be awake; what music is for children and what is for adults—that parents can opt to disregard within their own home and immediate family. They cannot, though, by making those choices, cause anyone OUTside their home to think it's a great idea, nor to impose their new freedoms on friends or more distant relatives. If I let my children stay up late in my home, that doesn't even begin to give them the right to stay up as late as they want in any home on earth.

I think that's where unschoolers get confused. They think they're replacing a set of rules with another set of rules. And partly it might be English. The idea that you can "give someone freedom" can seem whole and absolute to someone else. If my child looks in a happily full fridge and asks "What can I eat?" and I say "You can have anything you want," the context suggests that I mean he can have anything he can find in the house, and perhaps something I could prepare upon request. It doesn't mean I will take him to any restaurant on earth right then and buy him anything. It doesn't mean he can go to the grocery store that's a few hundred yards out the back gate and eat off their shelves.

The foregoing explanation sounds goofy. It seems I'm explaining something that was so absurd that no one could possibly misunderstand it.

—Sandra Dodd

Early 2013, Karen James wrote, on Facebook:
Living in the world peacefully and respectfully are good places to begin to focus when new to unschooing. The best advice I was given was to look at my son. Not at ideals. Not at freedom. Not at school or no school. Not at labels. Not at big ideas. Look at my son. Be with him. Get to know him deeply. And, then to read a bit about unschooling. Give something new a try. See how it goes in the context of our real day to day life.

I still do that. I'm still learning.
Karen James

About the freedom parents can (but are free not to) choose to share, Jenny Cyphers wrote:
My kids grew up being able to do a lot more things than other kids they knew because their parents allowed for it to be so. We didn't have to, we chose to do that because we saw the benefit in doing that. If we had decided to change our minds, our kids would have had very little choice in that. If we had decided at any point to put them in school, they wouldn't have had a choice. That's a big responsibility and undertaking, to extend those big choices to our kids. There was a certain amount of freedom in making those choices. It allowed for things to happen that otherwise wouldn't have happened, but no where along the way did any of us have freedom to do whatever we wanted to do, not me, not my husband, and not my kids.
Jenny Cyphers

Claire Horsley wrote:

All too often, proponents of free-range parenting seem to focus on some idealised notion of 'freedom' - to roam about, to undertake adventures, to explore and learn new things. It all sounds wonderful, but their focus is not on their child.
Claire Horsley
(there's more there)

Options and choices

In 2003, I wrote something that was clearly, in context, about allowing children lots of options:
It seems to me that given HAPPY freedom (not begrudging, conditional, judgement-laden freedom), kids make very cool choices.

original, second post and a continuation of that topic,
"What's fair and responsible?" here

In later years, I used "options" or "choices," when I saw how the term "freedom" was sending people off track so often.

Problem with "giving freedom"

Sandra, response to this:
-=-Another question is about giving freedom in things that may cause permanent damage - like eating only sweets for a month and damage teeth without possibility to restore. Or play computer games for several months non-stop and damage eye sight without possibility to recover.-=-
"Giving freedom" is your problem. The idea that you will move from control to freedom is a fallacy. "Choices" is the magic word here.

The other should be easy for you to see logically. Some of us have been helping others for five, ten, over 20 years even. After the third or fourth toothless, blind unschooled teen, we ALL would have stopped and put up warning signs EVERYwhere. But your fears and assumptions are based on your fears and assumptions. You're in endless loops, in your mind.

Why would a person eat only sweets for a month? It makes no sense.

Why would a person play computer games non-stop for several months? You mean Non-STOP? No eating, sleeping? But if one did, why do you think it would damage his eyesight?

Here's what actually happens when kids have options and choices about food. Candy gets dusty.

Sandra Dodd; original is hiding or lost.
Betteanne Camagna shared it on facebook in 2013
saying " ❤ I love Sandra!!! ❤ "

I'm grateful to Marta Venturini for finding the next few quotes. She was working on editing one of the Wednesday unschooling chats and wrote, "I chose some quotes—all of them belong to you! 😊 Maybe the 'Freedom' page would be a cool place for them."
You can read the "freedom" chat by clicking here.

This was quoted in the chat on "freedom," too. It's from a longer essay; click it to go there.
"If you are choosing to be a mother, move beyond playing at it, and *be* it." —Pam Laricchia

Freedom from... Freedom to...

Other terms that can confuse unschooling

Some natural limitations to "freedom"