Misconceptions about Unschooling

This is a poetic rant posted in April 2012 by Alex Polikowsky on the Unschooling Basics discussion list. I've made a few grammatical and clarifying corrections, because when Alex gets excited, her non-native-English-speaker roots can sproing out a bit, but I love what she wrote, and here it is almost exactly as originally posted (thanks to both Schuyler and Joyce for sending it to me):
Alex Polikowsky wrote:

Unschooling is not about letting children take care of themselves or work things out alone or without help and guidance,
it is not letting them do whatever they want,
it is not about freedom,
it is not about only saying yes,
it is not about letting them figure out things by themselves,
it is not child-led learning.

Unschooling takes more,
more presence,
more guidance,
more attention,
more mindfulness,
more connection,
more thinking and questioning,
more choices and better choices.

There are some people that come to unschooling because they read blogs or ideas of families having fun and going about doing fun things and not being bogged down by a curriculum or rules and control.
They may read a little and think all they have to do is not have rules,
not have curriculum,
not have bedtimes,
not have limits on TV, computers and food.

What they are not reading is all the things an unschooling parent IS doing.
They are sitting and playing computer games with their children, they are present, attentive, connected, facilitating, guiding, preventing, strewing, sharing, discovering together, learning right along, creating a learning environment, interested and interesting.

So if you are new to unschooling, Sandra has a good suggestion:
         Read a little, try a little, wait a while, watch.

It takes time to get it. I have been reading and applying unschooling in my home for almost 8 years and I am still getting it.

It takes time to deschool. Most of us have a minimum of 13 years of schooling and some way more. Ask questions and just sit on the answers, re-read them, think about them, read them again, try them, wait a while and watch!

So all this to say that if someone comes to usnchooling thinking that it will be just sitting there
while the kids fend for themselves
and that it is a piece of cake think again!

That is not to say it is not wonderful and, yes, easier and more peaceful, but not in the way many think it is.

Alex Polikowsky

the photo, by Dylan Lewis, is a link

en français, Idées fausses sur le unschooling, Traduction: Édith Chabot-L. - JOSE la vie !

en español, Ideas equivocadas sobre el Unschooling, traducido por Alicia González

Joyce Fetteroll, October 2014:

The false message new radical unschoolers can pick up is that children will be happy and kind if we're happy and kind. Obviously not true. By being happy and kind we don't add to or cause their unhappiness and unkindness. We don't damage their relationship with us. It's much easier to deal with whatever life has dumped on them if we're not also dealing with any additional crap we've dumped on them. (original, if it's still there)
[I changed "RU" to "radical unschooling" a couple of times. —Sandra the editor]

Emily S (saturnfire16) wrote:

I am on a mothering board on which there is a discussion going on about radical unschooling. Several of the women there have read about radical unschooling and been in some groups and email lists (not sure which ones, though possibly this one.) I posted a snapshot of a part of our day and was told that I could not possibly be a radical unschooler because I don't let my children throw rocks at people among other things. Unfortunately they seem to have gotten the impression, from whatever unschoolers they read about, that to do anything other than let your children do whatever they want is not radical unschooling. I know that Sandra and the moderators of this list do not feel that way, but I am curious what you all *would* say about what I posted there. With your permission, I would like to share it on the other board as well, or if you could send me to one of your links that would be fitting, that would be great. This is what I posted:

You have made it clear that you are trying to break away from radical unschooling, so I won't try to make any suggestions since you have probably heard them all from the unschooling groups. I will just share what we do and how it works here, to be a voice of the other side both for you and anyone else who might be reading.

We are radical unschoolers, which means that like other unschoolers we recognize that children are hard wired to learn, but unlike other unschoolers, we extend that belief to include not only academic subjects, but the rest of life. We do not have arbitrary rules, bed times, food restrictions, tv restrictions etc.

We do NOT do TCS or any other form of non-coersive parenting. TCS is about never saying no. Radical unschooling is about learning and relationships. [editorial note: TCS stands for "Taking Children Seriously," a smaller, separate philosophy NOT related to unschooling.]

I will tell you a little about our day today, so you can see how it works here. We went for a hike and dd2 wanted to wear her red sparkly shoes, which are not very good for climbing in. So, we brought her tennis shoes with us. When we got there, I noticed that it was not muddy (so the sparkly shoes would not get ruined) and that the trail was flat walking not hard climbing, so her shoes would probably be fine. Dh went ahead and suggested to her that she change into her tennis shoes, which she did.

We came to a part with a creek and a bridge and a big hill behind it. Dh took dd1 up the hill while I took dd2 on the bridge. She wanted to go down to the water. A TCS parent might be afraid to say no to this request either because of the potential meltdown or because of a belief that saying no might hinder their child's development. I do not fear saying no, but I said yes, out of a desire to facilitate learning and because I was enjoying exploring with her.

Of course, like any 2.5 year old, she wanted to get IN the water. I do not have a "rule" about getting wet on hikes. I do have the common sense to recognize that we did not bring any extra clothes and it is cold out. So, I explained that to her and said that she could not get in, but she could touch it with her hands. We climbed around the bank, on the rocks and under the bridge. I helped her lean in to put her hands in and lay on the rocks on her tummy so she could reach further out. I realized right before we were done, that she was doing a little experiment: Is the water cold where it's moving fast? Is it still cold where it's still? Is it cold by this rock? Is it still cold on the other side of the creek?

Meanwhile, dh was letting dd1 throw rocks off the top of the hill. Some parents have a standing rule about never throwing rocks. TCS would say that she "needs" to throw rocks and to stop her would be wrong. I don't agree with either one. Throwing the rocks was fine, until dd2 and I started walking toward them and could have gotten hit. Then dh had her stop for our safety. Radical unschooling is about learning and relationships. Part of having a good relationship is keeping everyone safe. If we need to say no to do that, we don't hesitate to do so. But we do explain because explanations lead to learning. And if a mutually agreeable solution can be found, for example, if she had asked to throw them the other direction, we would go allow that. However, she stopped without a problem.

That's just a brief snapshot of a part of a day, but that is how it works here. I do not fear saying no, but I do believe that children learn best with a lot of yes's. I give them the freedom to explore, make mistakes and learn about their own bodies, but we don't live in a vacuum, so I also take into account other people (including myself) and their feelings, property rights, and personal space.

I don't follow "RU principles," I follow Biblical principles. I try to make decisions mindfully and thoughtfully, putting our relationship, learning, safety and respect first. I have not given up my parental authority, I just use it to partner with my child and give her as much freedom as I can.

We do not have bed times, but we do help the kids get to sleep at an hour that is reasonable for everyone.

We do not restrict any food or have rules about food, but I do buy healthy foods and talk about why we eat the way we do.

We do not restrict tv, but I do provide lots of other interesting options AND watch shows with them and help them find things they are interested in.

I don't do any of those things to "be a radical unschooler." I do them because I have researched, prayed and deeply thought about each thing and slowly implemented it in our own lives. These were thoughtful, mindful decisions, not a full out abandonment of all rules so I could jump on the Radical Unschooling bandwagon.

Emily S (saturnfire16)

Joyce wrote:

What you wrote paints a lovely picture. It's bound to intrigue someone 🙂

It's likely the people who are mischaracterizing radical unschooling won't care what you wrote or what we might add. They're angry for whatever reason. But what they said gave you the opportunity to put a different picture out there and undoubtedly it's being read by people who will silently take something from it.

Don't let the vocal people get you upset. They want you to think they represent everyone but they don't. The people silently reading are far more numerous.


After some discussion (mostly about "RU" as a designation) these came through:

"lspswr": Is Taking Children Seriously much a part of the unschooling community?


Emily S (saturnfire16): You have one page where you have a paragraph saying that you don't want to be associated with TCS, but if you could start a whole page about your thoughts (and others of course) on TCS that would be very handy to link to. I have read your thoughts on it here on the list, but people who are not on the list often confuse radical unschooling and TCS.

My response (and the reason I made the page you're on now):

Some people do both, and that's fine. I know a couple of people who picked it up and used it (or ideas from it) 10 years ago when someone was active on unschooling.com, and some of the TCS ("Taking Children Seriously") people said they unschooled, but I don't think there was really a lot of overlap, and it's been a long time.

I object to anyone suggesting that any other philosophy or religion or cargo-cult thinking is necessary, or that it makes unschooling better. Unschooling can co-exist with most other ideas, but the ideas of John Holt, and the reported experiences of the dozens of regulars and hundreds of short-term reporters shared on my pages and Joyce's, and the discussions on this list and a few others have sufficient information that no one needs an overlay of any other ABC, XYZ this-or-that. And some things are harmful to unschooling when they go beyond what is good for families or what makes sense. If children need to be told "don't ask" or if they're told they can have anything on earth they want, those aspects can hamper learning, and damage the relationship between the parents and children. If the parents are open to sharing what they know and why ("because" and "I'm your mom and I said so" are not good learning tools), and they help their children learn to live in the world (not in an imaginary magical world), then that's fine with me.

Some religions are conducive to unschooling and others, not so much. There's no reason to sort through them, because each parent who looks at unschooling is looking through her own eyes, with her own knowledge and base beliefs. It doesn't work for everyone.

Some people figure out how to unschool in less than ideal circumstances, or they adapt it to fit an unusual situation.
Some people can't figure it out even in an idyllic setting.

Sometimes it's not so much that people actually confuse radical unschooling with something else as that they want to disparage it and so throw all the insults they can muster. It's an ancient tool of prejudice and shunning, and because we're doing something so different, people are going to lash out in defense and sometimes in attack. "I can explain it if you want to understand it" might be the best thing you can do sometimes.

That original story of the rock throwing was a good one. I liked it. Sometimes it's okay to throw rocks and sometimes it isn't. Living by principles rather than rules, neither "never" nor "always" is true. Living by rules of "never," less thinking is required. When there's less thinking, there's less learning. Living by principles requires more thinking, and greater parental involvement. That leads to more learning AND to better relationships.


The entire discussion is in the archives of Always Learning, here:
"I'm not a radical unschooler unless I let my children throw rocks at people",
and began February 12, 2011.

"It depends"—thoughts on choice making

Principles vs. Rules

Origin of the term "Unschooling" (which contains the note referred to above about TSC)