Helping other people understand unschooling isn't easy. It can take months or years for people to get it. For natural learning to flourish with them, they need to change the way they act and even the way they see learning and education. In discussions and on message boards and at conferences, people's thinking can seem to have been criticized, and some object. They want the speakers or writers to soften up, ease up, "support them." There's a difference between supporting changing in order to better understand unschooling, and the vanilla "support" that women can become accustomed to. Nice noise and soothing words of praise are what many people think of as "support."

The problem with "Support"...

in March 2015, on Radical Unschooling Info (on facebook), I wrote this response to someone complaining:

(the complaint:) I'm so bored by the picking apart of other people's comments. Just say what you have to say and stop your bitching, folks. Geez. How much time do you have on your hands?
Pick, pick, pick.
When people post here, if they're unlucky, their words will just sit, unexamined, uncommented on. If they're VERY unlucky, a couple of people will write "great!" or "awesome!"

If they're lucky, their comments will be picked apart by experienced unschoolers with no more time than anyone else has, but who have chosen to give some of that time to others.

Sandra Dodd

and from older writings:
I've changed the name of all "supportive" people to "Ruthie" to protect those who will change their attitudes for the better later. It's not all the same Ruthie.

What Ruthie wrote is exactly the sort of thing that drives me crazy—the idea (if I'm understanding her correctly) that we should all walk around telling each other things like "good job" and "you're doing the best you can"—when in fact some people aren't doing a good job, some people aren't doing the best they can, and sometimes even the best someone thinks they can do isn't good enough and they should try harder and be kinder and stop trying to control their kids and their spouse and... well, you know what I mean?

A bunch of moms Affirming each other while they yell at and punish their kids is still a bunch of moms who are yelling and punishing—and that's no good, no matter how well-intentioned those moms are!!

Someone determined NOT to get unschooling wrote:
well thank goodness for people like Ruthie, who get where i'm at
Joyce Fetteroll replied:
Ruthie may have made you feel better about yourself, but did her words help you relate better to your daughter? Do you understand your daughter better? Are you closer to unschooling?

Change is hard! It's uncomfortable. Discomfort is a sign it's working.

Words of comfort are good for making us feel comfortable where we are.

Your anger at us for pointing out what will help improve your relationship with your daughter doesn't improve your relationship. Your anger with us for not being gentle and soothing like Ruthie doesn't help your daughter.

If you want to help your daughter, then stop making it about you. Make it about her.

Someone lambasted me [Sandra] and one of the very experienced and generously helpful list regulars for making suggestions that she might not be doing the best thing. It was by e-mail. Here's some of our follow-up:

Sandra: ***No, I liked what you wrote. I think what she wanted us to say was that she's awesome too, maybe. "Good idea!" "You're such a good mom, to consider letting him stay home next year."***

The other contributor: Sometimes, just for a reality check, I'll read something on a mainstream site like Circle of Moms or something... Oh geez that stuff is so much like your soothing cooing support pages intermixed with the usual parenting fare, with stuff like "I know what you're doing is wonderful, keep at it," to complete strangers that may be molesting their children on the other side of that screen.

I think some people interpret anything short of "OOOOH! What a good iDEEah" to be bashing.
I posted this to Always Learning in June, 2009, so boldface is Joyce, and plain text is Sandra:

Ruthie may help you feel better about forcing your daughter to brush her teeth, but her words won't help you find something that improves your relationship with your daughter and helps keep her teeth clean. But first you need to knock down the defensive walls. Ruthie's words are helping you maintain them.

At the Radical Unschoolers Network site there's a discussion that's very confusing to follow, but Joyce made something clear that we've danced around for years: why "support" can be so harmful.

A dad is flailing, his daughter is four, he hates Barbies dolls, he forces her to brush her teeth, and he's proud of that. Another mom came and totally defended him, directly and personally, and accused us all (mostly me 🙂) of terrible things... But after all the discussion about time wasting and arrogance (ours, theirs), Joyce nailed it:

[A "supportive" person] may help you feel better about forcing your daughter to brush her teeth, but her words won't help you find something that improves your relationship with your daughter and helps keep her teeth clean. But first you need to knock down the defensive walls. ["Supportive"] words are helping you maintain them.

She's supporting him staying where he is. She's supporting him being openly and publicly disdainful of unschooling and unschoolers.

Sandra quoting a "Ruthie" in October 2017, from Radical Unschooling Info:

-=-Some of the best support women can offer each other sometimes is a simple "Great job. You're doing amazing work!"-=-

Why just women? Why not men?

But it's something women do. And if that's the best support a woman can offer, I hope she's not saying it to a child molester, or abuser, or drug addict, or alcoholic, or meth dealer, or someone committing fraud with insurance or food stamps, or taking foster children for the subsidies, or spanking, or shaming, but then showing up in women's discussions just for the jack-off feeling of strangers writing (or just cutting and pasting) "Great job. You're doing amazing work!"

"Great job. You're doing amazing work!"

Women who do that should seriously reconsider the mindless illogic of praise that means nothing. It "supports" abusers. It rejects pleas for help.

I don't see men doing it.
I don't see all women do it.
It's not a good thing to do.
Defending having done it in this group is irritating.

It's an interesting phenomenon, but embarrassing to see.

One of my favorite bad examples is on the random quotes generator (Support):
We all do our best. You're obviously doing a great job with your children.
We do NOT "all do our best." How much can be "obvious" from what a stranger writes online? And people often don't seek out online help until they're really feeling stressed and afraid. "Good job" spoken in every single case negates the possibility of an actual good job.

Here are some responses from Joyce Fetteroll, to quotes from more than one person:

*** I get it...but can one person at least confirm the fact that when it comes right down to it...when your teen daughter is playing with fire, or you are having a bad day with all your children being sassy and some of your children are having tantrums all in one day... that it can leave one feeling out of control? ***
Yes, exactly! And that's where most parents get stuck!

Step back just for a minute from your own situation and your own kids and how justified feeling out of control feels in that situation.

Picture a friend saying that. Offering sympathy and support would feel good to both of you. It would give her strength to keep on keeping on.

But picture that same friend saying a version of that once a month. And it's easier to see that support is giving her the strength to keep on keeping on bearing how hard it is to raise kids.

Rather than feeling like Sandra's words—and Meredith's and mine and who ever else—are directed at you, step back and examine a situation that many parents find themselves in. Examine the situation this way and that way objectively and examine what helps people improve the situation, what helps them put up with it and what worsens it.

If support feels good, does that make it good? What parts is it helping? What parts is it getting in the way of? Overall, big picture, is it moving someone toward or away.

In the moment support does feel good. There's camaraderie in sharing suffering through an experience. The support of each other helps people bear difficulties.

Support is helpful when people don't have the power to change a situation. That's why people can form such strong bonds during war or a disaster.

Support is helpful when people are working to change because shedding old comfortable ideas for new not-yet-broken-in ideas is hard. There's no short cut for that discomfort so support for pressing forward feels good.

But, without examining it, in general people lump all support together because support makes people feel better and it's seen as a good thing. But is it? Is it good because it feels good? Can there be downsides, negative consequences to something that feels like it's working?

That's the idea posters are tackling. What people (general people) don't realize is that support may help them feel better but isn't always helping them *be* better. In many cases, especially with conventional parenting, it helps them *not* be better. It helps them put up with the difficulties of parenting, helps them feel like that's just how life is and it must be endured. (Forbearance is also seen as a good quality.)

When everyone's suffering together, the support of each other can even prevent people from changing. If everyone's suffering, there must be no solution it seems. So, when everyone's in this situation together, someone trying to do better can feel like a betrayal or a criticism of the rest of the group.

When support is unexamined, when support is not directed towards the struggles that are part of change—eg, when it's directed at bearing what you're trying to change—it can help people not change. Support is good for maintaining the status quo. (It's soooo much easier to put up with a problem everyone's having than to struggle to change, especially when you're not as certain that change will make things better as you are certain that the problem is one everyone has!)

Support for how hard life is with kids is everywhere. Any parent will sympathize. Support for the hard parts of change to grow better relationships is *really* hard to find.

*** Doing everything consciously is the only way to live instead of parenting on autopilot. ***
And that's what the regular posters here love doing :-) They love looking ideas that are often seen as good and examining them up close with magnifying glasses and stepping way back to study how the idea fits into the big picture: whether it helps someone move closer to unschooling or further away or helps them feel more comfortable spinning their wheels.

In fact the above quote can be examined.

But wait! Disconnect yourself from it. Forget you wrote it. Picture receiving it as a tag line in someone's email. It's a quote from some author you never heard of.

At first it rings of truth. And then when you start digging into it, examining it, looking under its hood, it doesn't seem so clear. It's obviously not the only way to live. Lots of people live without examining their lives. So what did the author really mean by "only way to live", "doing everything"? What could clarify the statement to make it more universally true?

How about: "If someone has a specific destination they want to reach, making examined choices is a better way to move in the direction they want than trusting autopilot."

Now if I said the first statement to Sandra she'd probably realize I meant the second because she's familiar with how my thoughts run on the subject of helping people move towards unschooling. (Then she's say, "It be better worded ..." ;-)

BUT, but! Since these ideas of changing parenting in very specific ways, growing in a particular way, are brand new to most people, phrasing ideas in the vague way most people do when they're conversing with someone of fairly like mind, won't help. When discussing brand new ideas we can't rely on "Well, you know what I mean," to help people understand. They don't know! But if the words sound like something they do know, the idea the other person picks up may be very different than what was intended.

*** I already know what the perfect response to all that would be. ***
Oh, but loads of others reading along don't! Other people reading—or who will read 5 years from now—are looking for ways to be better. And reading about how hard life with kids can be is a relief. Reading support for how hard it is, is comforting. It means it's a problem others have so it's okay to have it too.

Years ago there was a long thread on AOL homeschooling forums where we traded how messy our houses were. It was comforting to know people weren't unschooling in Better Homes and Garden homes! But not a single person came away with any ideas on how to tackle the chaos because it was all about grasping that support for letting go of guilt and being able to say "Yay! I'm just as bad as everyone else! I can get that worry off my back and focus on other things!"

(Side note: No one should feel they need to shoot for House Beautiful. To unschool, kids need to be at the top of the priority list, not the house. But that doesn't mean the house needs to drop to the bottom (or off entirely). ;-) There are practical tips, tried and true ideas, that maintain respect for kids *and* manage the chaos. ;-)

*** But I'm sorry, by default I want to try and control the situation. ***
Loads of people do, also by default. Unless people have been crushed into feeling they have no control over their lives, they do want to control. The *feeling* is natural. What people do in response to that feeling can move them towards better relationships or away.

That's where unschoolers can help. Yes, a desire to control is natural. Support helps people accept that it's natural, *feel comfortable with it*. Helps people bear it.

Where unschoolers can help the most is in supporting the hard parts of change. We know the feeling of emotions pulling one way but wanting to go the other way. We do know it's hard! Otherwise no one would bother going through all the hard parts of changing! ;-)

Joyce Fetteroll's writing from
familyrun.ning..., September 29, 2010 (forum closed in 2014)

Sometimes people start up a new discussion designed to provide gentle unschooling support, and not direct analysis. I've saved some notes and descriptions of these groups, which invariably have failed.

What support is and isn't

Support (random generator; tea-party style
or listed in one place, with a more serious conclusion: Support

Living with joy

Seeing each moment as a new beginning

Seeing moments instead of days

Articles especially good for those new to unschooling