In April 2017, in a discussion at Always Learning, about food, someone wrote:

I want them to know that the answers inside themselves are valid.
Joyce Fetteroll responded:
I’ve seen dialogs on unschooling sites that go like:
New unschoolers: “Kids don’t know enough to make the right choice. I can’t just let them choose."

Slightly less new unschooler: “You just need to trust children. They know what’s right for them.”

But children don’t just magically know the “right” choice. How could they know things that they’ve never tried?

They don’t come preloaded with all the right answers. But they do come preloaded with the ability to think about their experiences and come up with a good guess for what might work. Unschooling parents make it safe for them to try out their idea.

If the guess turns out as expected, they didn’t learn much. They’ve confirmed that their understanding of the world is right.

If the guess doesn’t turn out as expected, that’s good! They’ve learned something! They learn more about the thing. They learn more about themselves. They have more information to base future decisions on.

Don’t trust children to be right. Trust children to be able to make a guess and then learn from what happens.


(original, on Always Learning)

Sandra Dodd:
The “answers” won’t be inside them And it might be best not even to think of them as answers.

I’m being picky—please don’t be offended. I do want to look at what “answers” might be and where they come from. 🙂

. . . .

If the mom can practice and appreciate making many small choices, she can more calmly accept changes and experimentation and what might seem inconstant or random in the child’s choices. He might want to try things. He might not be in an adventurous season and might want the same thing every day for a year. But he will be learning, if he’s allowed to feel his own body’s responses without someone telling him what he is feeling or should be feeling.

original (on Always Learning)

Karen Lundy, on falling back into old habits:
What's going on is that you are learning to integrate unschooling principles into your life, particularly the principles of trust and respect. Learning HOW to integrate these ideas takes time—years! They can't be rushed because there's a whole bunch of learned behaviors (from our own childhoods) that we need to examine and reevaluate.

Self-doubt is real. It can feel overwhelming at times! I would venture to compare it to the Buddhist concept of "groundlessness." We are moving to a place where we've never been. A place of trusting ourselves and trusting our children.

But nothing in our culture prepares us for this type of relationship with children. So, without guidelines, we question ourselves at every turn. It's easy to fall back onto "firm ground" of rules or old parenting habits until we have a better grasp on how unschooling works, or until we've developed trust in ourselves and our children and in this process. It's completely normal, so try to be gentle with yourself as you find yourselves doing things that feel "two steps forward, one step back."

In time, a kind of natural confidence begins to grow. Only then can we begin to relax and not worry so much, because we now see how it's working—how our children are growing and learning, and how the deep trust we have cultivated with our children in those early years plays out as they get older.

Kindness, mutual respect, and deeply trusting relationships are the hallmark of years of questioning and practicing how we live with and support our children day after day.

Think of this as a season of your life. Right now it feels busy and chaotic and cluttered (also rich, and fun and exciting!) And as children get older the house may get tidier and quieter (and you become more confident and relaxed) as the season shifts to the teen years. 🙂

(a link to Pema Chodron discussing groundlessness; brief and clear)
—Karen Lundy

graphic and photo by Susan May

Learning to trust

Ren Allen wrote, on Always Learning:
That's one of my favorite John Holt quotes: "To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves...and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted."

The main lesson that schools and adults left us with is that we can NOT be trusted. We must be taught. We must trust the experts. We are left devoid of a true connection with our powerful inner voice. In regaining that connection, we can truly honor and trust our children.

Joanna Murphy responded:
Just yesterday a friend and I were discussing what we thought of as a distilling "factor" that must be present for unschooling/mindful parenting to be successful. The factor that came up was TRUST. With trust, the world opens up, horizons expand and life can seem exciting and limitless. Without trust, the world shuts down, gets narrow and petty. Each moment matters in the wrong way. I want more expansiveness in my life, not less.

And the expansive quality of trust grows out from the center to touch every part of our lives. Trust that we ARE capable and that we will, through our honest endeavor, figure out a way. Trust that our children will find, ask or be provided with what they need, trust that they are in connection with us by their own choosing and free will—not through "enforcing." And trust that they will grow up loving and caring and interesting people without being "taught."


One way parents can lose their children's trust

Deb Lewis was corresponding with someone who had left a discussion in a huff, and ended up writing something wonderful. Unfortunately, it didn't go to the whole list. Fortunately, she sent it to me and I had a good place to save it. First a quote, then Deb's response:
***I'm talking about doing things that could hurt him. Like climbing a
dresser that could tip. We do NOT lie to our children...***

My mom was really protective. She would tell us if we climbed a tree we'd fall. Not, "you could fall" or, "you might get hurt" but, "don't do that because you will get hurt."

After we'd climbed a few trees we knew she was wrong. A dresser that *could* tip is a potential injury. But K might not be heavy enough to tip the dresser. He might make it all the way to the top and then, if you've said, *No because you'll get hurt*, you were wrong. It's not a deliberate lie, but it's not the truth, either. Do you see?

My brother has anchored his bookshelves to the wall so they don't tip. He has three children and one is a serious climber. Rather than risk injury and instead of always trying to defeat her need to climb he has adjusted the environment to make it safe for her. She won't always climb bookshelves. She will grow and change, but in the meantime, she is safe.

From my own experience I came not to trust my mom's judgment at all. She so overestimated the danger of any situation that I stopped listening to her altogether. I came to doubt everything she said to me because I had proven her false so many times.

"If you eat too many green apples you'll get sick."

"If you do that you'll choke"

"If you climb you'll fall"

"if, if, if."

There are a couple of ways that could go. A child might acquiesce and stop doing the things his mom says are too dangerous and then maybe be afraid much of his life. A child might do them anyway and lose faith in a parent, like I did.

A child who can't trust his parents, not because of any malicious intent on the part of his parents, but because of repeated false information, is at risk of not seeking help from his parents when he really needs it. Who will he turn to? It might be someone who does not have his best interests at heart.

So, I didn't mean that you might deliberately lie. Only that truth is a sensitive thing and a parent's fear might prevent her from thinking and being clearly and plainly honest.

It's true that the dresser might tip and K might get hurt. It might be worth the risk to K to achieve the climb. Mountain climbers know there is risk. Sky divers know there is risk. Heck, getting in the car to go to the mall is risky, but we evaluate the risk and consider whether the potential benefit to us, personally, is worth it. K is not old enough to evaluate risk so he does need your help! But instead of just saying, *no, too dangerous* you could help him achieve what he wants, The Climb, *in some way that would be safe*.

Deb Lewis
January 2011

In a discussion on facebook, on how the idea of trust can confuse new unschoolers, and here's part of what I wrote:
There's a John Holt quote... "All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words—Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult."
That's from 1967's "How Children Learn," before he was advocating unschooling. He was writing to teachers. In that context, it makes sense. Kids pressed to go to school, teachers wanting to find better ways to reach children. See them as thoughtful humans, rather than as troublesome grubs.

It's not as helpful with unschooling.

The next part of the quote:

"Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves—and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted."
Part of becoming a good unschooling parent does involve self-reflection, a review of one's own childhood (gradually, in the background of one's new thoughts and plans) and some recovery from that, which is wonderfully aided by treating our children as we wish we might have been treated.

Parents, in order to have their children trust them, should become trustworthy. If they can develop a partnership with the child (an idea I got from La Leche League, being a child's partner in the breastfeeding relationship, and not from John Holt's writings), it's possible that the child will always have been trustworthy.

Trust and respect go together. Someone who is trustworthy will be respected. So although there's only that one page about trust (and it doesn't recommend blindly trusting children, not at all), there is more about respect on my site, and that is about trusting processes, trusting the way learning works:
How to Raise a Respected Child

Kelly Lovejoy wrote (in response to the indented quote):
I never thought *trust* was about trusting them to DO anything—other than learn and grow. I never trusted my sons to do something in particular, but I *did* trust them. I trusted the process. That they want to be *good* humans.

I think trusting someone is about feeling safe with him. That he won't betray my trust IN him.

I think children come IN trusting their caregivers—how else would this work? They *have* to be able to depend on us just to survive those first few years! But we need to keep showing them we're trustworthy. And I think *most* parents do serious damage over time to that trust-bond. (Lord—we see it every day on the news and fb!!) I never wanted to give them a reason to think they cannot feel safe with me.

But trusting CHILDREN is harder for most parents: children make sooo many mistakes. They *SEEM* less trustworthy—they keep screwing up! I mean over an over and over again! But being wrong doesn't show a lack of trustworthiness: it shows a lack of knowledge and/or experience. That's when they need to be trusted MORE. Trust that they *meant* well—even with the screw-up. When they get THAT kind of trust from a parent, they become empowered.

A less thoughtful (and maybe that's not the right word) parent won't care. She won't see how important the *mutual* trusting is. And she certainly won't see how much damage she's doing---until it's too late. Then she'll blame it on the child.

I DO trust my boys. I trust that they are always trying to do the right thing, to be better, to be a *good* member of their family, their community, and their world. They may not make the better choice, but it's not for a lack of trying or desire. I trust that they're learning with each interaction.

And I think it's vital that they KNOW I trust them. And I think it's vital that they not lose thier trust in ME. If *I* can be trustworthy and if *I* can trust them, they *will* be trustworthy too.

But it all starts with me.

Kelly Lovejoy

Tam Palmer wrote:
This is one of the reasons I value this discussion and, more, the one at Always Learning so much. If/when these (and in fact, many other often-quoted) words come up—trust, freedom—they're examined in the context of radical unschooling. Elsewhere on so many home education/unschooling groups these words are paraded as being *what* unschooling is about. So some in those forums say, "I give my children freedom, therefore we're unschoolers." Some say, "I trust them to go and do what they need to do to learn, therefore we're unschoolers."

Then further down the line, you see, "Well I gave them freedom but they never learned to self-regulate their junk intake or screen time." And, "Well I trusted them but they never motivated themselves to get a well rounded education."

When such widely-encompassing terms are used as descriptors for unschooling, I think it actually puts a barrier between the parent and an understanding of the principles of radical unschooling, and it's derailed before it's even begun.

I *do* still love the John Holt quote above (Trust children), in the context of my children knowing what interests them, what food their bodies need, and when they're tired, in a home where we partner them in all of that and provide an interesting world in which to do it all; outside of that, or before that context is there, the quote is too vague to lead to radical unschooling all by itself.

Top quote, in a cut-and-pasteable form:
Trust and faith are the most powerful tools parents of teens have. Too many parents squander those trying to control toddlers and young children.
—Sandra Dodd
From a discussion on facebook, July 2013.
A mom wrote in 2016, about children trusting parents, and parents trusting the process:
We just went to the dentist this afternoon. I have a lot of fear and anxiety associated with that- so last week I went and took care of six teeth. This particular dentist really worked to gain my trust and was great- so I felt like I could honestly promise the girls that he was very kind, good, caring, thorough etc. The two oldest still have no caries or any need for more than a cleaning (18,15). This is after about five years or so of radically unschooling, really open ended food choices and all that. My youngest was really scared (I think she knew she had one cavity).

We worked with her, at her own pace and comfort level, and she agreed to just go for a check up. In the end, she cried but wanted to let him do her filling (first shot, ever, plus first filling) and take care of it- he had warned it might even need a root canal ( o be fair, honest). In the end, both mom and dad sat with her, (dad took the day off work to be here for us), and she did it! This is the girl who eats several chocolate bars and bags of chips daily, nutella etc, we just re-supply the shelves with what they enjoy as supplies dwindle. She was not so into brushing for a while, either. My point is that she has been choosing lots of "real" food, "healthy" food, but she loves those other things, too. She was excited to learn we are having mlokhia (mallow- greens sautéed and then boiled with lots of fresh garlic and cilantro, lemon juice and over rice). She wanted the anaesthetic to wear off to eat greens!

She only had one cavity! She trusted us (major credit to unschooling, being trustworthy, supportive, honest reliable parents) when she was really scared. She told me on the way home she was thinking to put more effort into brushing or rinsing especially after sweets etc., but no one had mentioned or nagged or lectured. I know genetics and all sorts of other things can play a role in dental issue— I am just saying that all those fears about kids and diet and brushing and cavities- today, I saw how unfounded and senseless they were. We had a good talk about options (at her request) and I reassured her we'd always be as supportive of whatever work needs doingbut if she wanted to try to hedge her bets, thats ok too. It was a really good experience, filling aside.

Thanks again for all the filling up of her cup you have enabled. Things I have read or thought about after reading have improved our everyday lives in so many ways; I am thinking of all they other ways (control, shame, fear, harassment) this could have played out except for that groundwork of building trust and love which made things so smooth for us.

That was a bit long winded—but it feels so great to know there is a better way and the happy daily surprises in all sorts of ways keep me feeling fulfilled and grateful for this life.