Rebellion and Unschooling

"If we're creating an atmosphere of power struggle, the kids will fight back to win. If we're creating an atmosphere of problem solving, the kids will feel part of the solution rather than part of the problem."
—Joyce Fetteroll

Someone wrote, of a six-year-old once:
She's currently refusing to go outside.
I responded:
She can't refuse if no one is pressuring or demanding.
(Original, on facebook at Radical Unschooling Info, November 2016)

What conditions create rebellion?

I wanted something to read while I was having lunch, so I clicked on a homeschooling blog ring and read something a little sad. In the description of the blog the mom had specified right early and clearly that her method was eclectic. After reading about another slightly younger child for whom she finds reading and math instruction online, I read this:

My daughter, age 16, is going her own way, refusing to believe that she doesn't have to attend public highschool to succeed in college. She's been a rebellion factory for years now - this is nothing new. I know if I wanted her to attend a public school she would be begging for homeschool.
"Refusing to believe"?
That phrase doesn't come up at our house.

I think mostly it's because I don't just TELL my kids that something is or isn't true, I try to find evidence so they can see for themselves and believe it because of proof. There's no refusal to believe what is clearly shown.

Kirby brakes quickly and later than I would, when he drives. I've told him a couple of stories and reminded him that brakes CAN fail, and I told him that I wished he'd be careful BEFORE he experiences brake failure. He didn't "refuse to believe" it, he tries to do it my way, but his belief so far is based on his own experience.

The other day he bumped the back of a pickup (or SUV or something high). He was in a big van. They were big. He didn't hit hard. The other car turned right from the middle lane, so Kirby followed figuring they wanted to pull over and discuss insurance, maybe call the police, all that. (For those locals wanting to picture this, he was coming south/downhill on Juan Tabo and it happened just before the light at Comanche; they turned right onto Comanche.) So... He's following politely as as he should, and they speed up and take off. He pulls into a parking lot to look at the van. Some part of the plastic edges of the bumper cover (aren't cars irritating sometimes!?) is gone, so he went back to the scene and retrieved it.

NOW Kirby knows what can happen if you count too much on the magic of brakes. Now he KNOWS. He was lucky not to get a ticket and a moving violation. He felt it was the other driver's fault, for doing some weird stop-and-start-and-hesitate thing about maybe changing lanes. I reminded him it's his job to give all the cars in front of him room to do that very thing.

So back to the reported 16-year-old rebellion factory...

The conditions required to create rebellion don't exist at my house. I don't think unschooling provides a good environment for a rebellion factory to emerge.

Holly (14 now) very seriously considered going to 8th grade. She talked about it for over a year, and a dozen times, we lurked around the middle school when kids were arriving or leaving. (Cameron Lovejoy went with us one day, so we have a witness to Holly's fascination.) Holly wasn't doing that out of rebellion or a refusal to believe. She wanted to learn about school and schoolkids. She wanted to see what she was missing.

A couple of all-day visits to another school (Sandia Prep) satisfied a lot of her curiosity. Discussion with friends who had done school and homeschool both convinced her that home was good for her.

Kirby, at 19, isn't a rebellion factory.
Marty, 16, isn't a rebellion factory.
Holly, 14, isn't a rebellion factory.

Just thought I'd mention that. 🙂


"Power struggles can disappear when the person with the power stops struggling."
Deb Lewis, 1/3/11

Karen James to AlwaysLearning, November 5, 2020

Around the age of 15, Ethan started strongly opposing a lot of my ways and opinions. He even refused my hugs! We were so in sync when he was young. He was always so cuddly--always so close. This change surprised me--hurt me a little, if I'm honest. It worried me too. I began to doubt myself--to wonder if we were ever as close as I had thought we were.

I noticed something one day when he was adamantly arguing about something that seemed kind of trivial to me. I was starting to feel a bit weary, wondering why this was suddenly happening so much. Instead of judging what he was doing, however, I looked more closely at *him* and considered what he might be needing. I noticed in that moment, that he was still looking to me for love and acceptance, even as he pushed himself in this other direction.

A lightbulb went off, brightening things up for me a bit, thankfully. I could see that this was really just another opportunity for him to learn something more about himself. So, I engaged. For the next year or so, we argued a lot (in my mind, I called it debating 🙂 ), but I made sure not to make it about me as much as possible. I saw it more as an opportunity for him to learn to make sound (and increasingly calmer, I noticed) arguments as he defined his own ideas and beliefs and place in the world. I was a bit sad because I knew this meant that he was really growing up, but I allowed myself to become the board he leapt from. I wanted to be as solid as I could for him, so that he could leap with momentum and grace into this next big phase of his life.

I love unschooling for this. I love that it has challenged me over and over again, as he grows and changes, to look at *him* to find what he is needing from me and from the world around him. Ethan will be 18 this month. We argue a lot less these days over little things, but we still have some in-depth discussions. I love talking with him. He's such an interesting person. Lately, he's become affectionate again too. He gives me a side hug now, wrapping his arm around my neck and pulling me in. He's 6' 3" so he rests his chin on my head. Interestingly, I have a photo of my dad giving his mom a similar hug when he was around Ethan's age. I've never thought about that before. Ethan's personality is a lot like my dad's was, so that's kind of a cool and beautiful connection for me to realize just now.

Paula Sjogerman responding to someone who wanted us to assure her that we are negative with our kids sometimes. Plain text is Paula's response:
Do your kids ever do anything that irritates you,


troubles you,


makes you mad?


Do you ever argue?


And I do things that irritate and make them mad too. I think it would be almost impossible to have our big loud personalities and live together and not have the above things happen. But do I think of our lives as irritating, angry and argument-filled? Not at all. I think our lives are joyful and sometimes those things happen.

Hope that helps,

Red text is a poster on a list a couple of years ago. Black words are Janet/jrenk who was awesome in this exchange:

One of my friends who runs a homeschooling list has suffered greatly from the rebellion in her children. I am not sure why because she's a lovely person who didn't have the good relationship you shared, yet I know she is commited to unschooling.
Over the 11 years I've been homeschooling I've seen a lot of rebellion, teen angst, very adversarial parent/child relationships, bad feelings, the whole nine yards in homeschooling families in my local community and on internet groups. But I've seen enough healthy relationships between parents and teens in radically unschooling families that I believe it does make (imo a huge) a difference. Mine included. There aren't any guarantees, but true mindful parenting will change the outcome. Was your friend radically unschooling? Mindfully parenting? Many people call themselves unschoolers but have arbitrary rules, boundaries, guidelines that create a lot of tension with teens. When people speak of rebellion, it suggests there must have been something to rebel against. I don't believe most kids just rebel for the fun of it. There's usually a reason - for them a valid reason. My children don't rebel. They have no reason to. The relationship I have with my children has taken a lot of work and effort. I think I could easily have had these problems with my teens if I hadn't found radical unschooling/mindful parenting.
Boundaries aren't bad. I remember a study at a public school. They removed all the fencing around the school yard. When the kids came out they huddled together because the fence had been removed and they were fearful. Eventually, they do wander out, but the outcome of the study was that there is safety in boundaries.
I fail to see what this has to do with unschooling in my home. What I get out of it is that boundaries make children afraid of life, not safe.


Beth: My DS rebelled at 5! (maybe earlier). He rebelled against authoritative parenting, and teachers who did not respect their students.

Good for him!

It took years for me to get it. I am sad and I have apologized about this. He is now 17 ( out of the system for 5 years ) with freedom to choose his own path, and to hang with kids and adults who respect each other.

My very complacent, easy going 13 yos began calling me on few things recently. It took me by surprise. It was usually something simple. Can't remember exactly what now. Maybe just a tone of mine. It ruffled my feathers. Then I realized. Good for him! And I apologized. I had worried that he was too much a pleaser. He will be fine!

My then 5yod changed personalities when she went to kindergarten. She became subdued. She is 10 and free now (K was her first and last year). She rebels against anyone who tries to "do it for her", or "teach her" or make her "perform". Good for her!

Our journey stared with eclectic homeschooling and evolved quickly. I found respectful parenting and unschooling just naturally flowed together. Good for me! Good for our family!

Beth unschooling fan in MD

Unschooling parents are rebelling against the cultural ideal of completing a course of study and being done with learning.

Meredith (boldface added by Sandra for this page):

The human brain is designed to notice patterns and there are patterns everywhere - in speech, in social interactions, in shapes of things, in the relationships between physical characteristics. Some sets of related patterns we call "language" some we call "mathematics" some we call "ethics" and "courtesy". Kids can't help but notice those patterns and think about them because that's what our big convoluted brains do best.

The trouble with trying to "steer kids in the right direction" is it ignores the human capacity to see patterns - it's the "do as I say, not as I do" fallacy. Adults try to write knowledge onto kids to protect them from having to learn "the hard way" - noble sentiments! but the human brain isn't a tabula rasa. It doesn't work that way, and so kids become aware of the fundamental gaps between what's being taught and the real patterns of real life. That's why teenagers fight with their parents! They have enough perspective by then to see all the ways that adults are impulsive, foolish, self-deluded, contradictory, and rude, and contrast that with how they're told they should behave "if you want to be an adult".

If you step back from the idea that kids need to be steered and see what they do, they explore and respond to the patterns of their environment. Adults can help them - and should! Unschooling is absolutely Not "hands off parenting" it's very engaged, thoughtful parenting. Kids, like adults, don't want to be set up to make disastrous mistakes, but they do want to make their own decisions. Unschooling parents help by offering up other portions of the patterns around them.

Do the best you can

When rules are shaken off and principles are in play, it wouldn't make sense for a teen to think and then choose something really horrible. If the parents were saying "Consider all the factors you know and do the best you can," why would someone "rebel" against that?

(linked to this page)
photo by Sandra Dodd

About limiting children, a mom in The Netherlands wrote:
It creates an artificial state of mind, where there is no freedom to make a real, personal choice. I will illustrate this statement with my own youth, because it is very fitting I think.

I grew up without television for the first 11 years, and ended up sneaking to the neighbors to watch very nice, positive children's tv shows. When we did get a tv, we were limited to 1 hour per day. It created a huge amount of stress, sneakiness and arguments between me and my parents. My sisters didn't fight their decisions as much, they just sneakily watched tv when they could. The same goes for sugar.

Because of the lack of trust I experienced at my parents home, I left it early, and at 17 I moved to Amsterdam and got lost on every single subject my parents hadn't trusted me with to make my own decisions. Alcohol, cigarettes, school, sex, clubbing, piercing, television: I had no control over these things, no personal view of what was right for me or what was wrong for me. I knew their thoughts, and I knew I didn't agree with the limits they set, so I just lost it.

(longer version here)

Mindful Parenting

Parenting Peacefully