Who can Unschool?

Unschooling Life Podcast #3
July 16th, 2014
“Who can unschool?"

Amy Childs' <14-minute podcast on Who Can Unschool? from July 2014, with improved transcript, from 2022.

Who Can Unschool?

Amy :
Is unschooling for everyone? I think any child would flourish in a loving, supportive, interesting, fun, resource-rich, nurturing, stimulating environment.

In other words, any child, I think, would be a great unschooler if the parents were doing their job right.

So, today’s question is: What does an unschooling parent need to do, to do their job right?

This is Amy Childs and welcome to The Unschooling Life.

So who should or shouldn’t unschool?
First let’s turn to Sandra Dodd.

Sandra Dodd :
Sometimes people say, "Anyone can unschool." And I always cringe when they do that, because the same kind of people who write, or say things like that in public, tend not to be the people who are going to stick around and walk people through it, and help other people do it. It just sounds good, it’s cheery, it’s inclusive, and it's wrong.
Amy :
Where do you see it not working?
Sandra Dodd :
If the parents are unwilling to change it won’t work. If the parents want to "try it," instead of do it, it won’t work. I mean people need to try it, but they need to try it with the hope and intention of causing it to work, not try it in such a way that they really intended to prove it was stupid and wasn’t going to work.
Amy :
Or try it and see if the kid proves to them that it works.
Sandra Dodd :
Right, right. "Well, I left him alone for a year and he didn’t do anything."

He probably did a lot of stuff, including wonder why his mother was leaving him alone.

Sometimes people say, when they think it is really easy, they say, “Well, I’ll just do this!” And I’ve come to be really sensitive to the word "just." I’ve had someone criticize me for using it in Just Add Light and Stir. Well that’s another "just." That's simply all you do.

But when you say “Oh, they are just playing," or “I was just joking,” that’s the sort of word that takes something all back. It makes it small, it makes it trivial.

When someone says, “I'll just do this," and they mean "I'll just let the kids play," "I'll just stay home with them," "I'll just…"—no you can’t just do it. You need to wholly, and fully, and intensely do it. Big-time do it.

If you are only partially, kind of, just doing it, it won’t work.

And the "it" is building a relationship with your child that involves all the kinds of connections, and answers to questions, and exploration that they will need [in order to] to come to all of the aspects of—not just the things they teach at school, but other things. So that in the course of this enriched life with your child, the parents are confident in learning, and their resources. And the children are confident in their parents' interests, and their parents' knowledge, and their parents' presence. And when those things are solid, then learning doesn’t stop.

The parents, too, start to see and prize the learning they are doing. That if their child asks a question they don’t know, it's not a problem. Instead of being embarrassed, they’ll go, "That’s a good one!"

It’s more interesting when someone ask me a question I don’t know the answer to. If I already do know the answer and it’s an easy answer, that’s not a fun use of my time. If every single morning someone called me on the phone and said "what’s 4x2?" And I just say "8" and they say, "Ok, thanks so much. I am so glad you knew!" I would be tempted to say, "Count on your fingers or get a calculator."

But kids figure those things out. When they figure out on their own that they can count on their fingers or get a calculator, and that it’s not a test, that if they need to know they can find out, or if they want to know their mom will tell them then when all of that becomes pressurized—pressurized is not the right word. You know like a hand pump? When there is a hand pump and the first few pumps don’t get any water? All you're doing is what they call priming the pump. You are getting the pressure in there. When the water starts to flow it flows hard, and flows full. And it's like that, when you get over all of the deschooling and all of the little gradual relationship-building things that need to be done to get to that point, then it starts to just really flow.

And so I think when someone says, "I'll just do this," they just push the pump handle down once, and they go, "Well, it doesn’t have any water." And they do it again, and three times maybe, and they go "I really tried to unschool, but it didn’t work."

But if they will be around other unschoolers and say, "OK, what do I need to do?” and they actually want to do it, and they actually try to do it, and they actually change their thoughts, reactions—then it just start to flow. And once it starts to flow you can’t turn it off. You wouldn’t want to. Why would you want to? You can’t.

Once the parents know that their learning gets tied up with their children's learning, that they can all learn together, and that once they start making those connections, the connections that they're making today will be to things that were brought up a year ago, five years ago. Toys that they have from when they were little, “Oh, that’s like that crib toy, when you pull the string and the other thing bopped up. You know, that's levers and pulleys.”

So when those connections start to be horizontal across their whole life and across the universe, not vertically like school, like, "This is what seventh graders in the second semester are studying, so it's like a column of knowledge from which you will move on to first semester 8th grade." When they undo that model and go with the landscape of the universe as their curriculum, there's no going back.

Sandra Dodd :
I have been criticized sometimes by other unschoolers for being so anti-divorce.

Sometimes people are reckless when they come to unschooling. They seem to think it's something that you can sign up for, like a religion, or you can buy like an encyclopedia. And that when you have it you have it. But it's something that has to be built gradually within the family.

And so when people fight with their spouses about it, it can cause a divorce, which can cause no chance of unschooling, which stresses out the kids forever. So I am not in favor of unschooling over marriage.

Sandra Dodd :
When people are wanting to control their children it's often because they have the almost magical belief that by controlling or sacrificing something they can guarantee a child’s safety, curiosity, innocence. And if the thing that they sacrifice is a chicken that’s voodoo. If the thing that they sacrifice is television time, that’s the modern voodoo—that by limiting a child's access to the modern world, to normal everyday things, they can somehow guarantee creativity. It doesn’t work.

And there will be parents who are thrilled because their kids went out in the yard and dug in the dirt with sticks. And they say, "See? See how creative?”

I’ve dug in the dirt with sticks as a kid, as an adult, but I never learned as much, no matter what the dirt and what the sticks, as I have watching a television show, or even looking at a picture book, or talking to people, or looking in magazines.

But if you're sitting outside digging in the dirt with a stick and your mother is right there with you, and you're talking about other things, that can be really valuable.

If the kid is digging in the dirt with a stick because that is the very best thing in his life that he can do, there is nothing more interesting in his house, in his yard, that child should go to school.

Any parent who isn’t interesting in, or is not willing to, or is not able to make their unschooling environment better than school shouldn’t be unschooling. They should want the best for their child. And children need people, ideas, information, nice adults in their lives. And if they can have that more easily and more readily at school, then school's good.

Only people who can do better than school should be unschooling, I think.

Amy Childs:
This is Alyssa who was always unschooled.
Well, my mother really let us explore. We would be able to go to her and say: “What is this?” And she'd be like: “I don’t know, let’s go to the library”.

Most people think, they are like, "Oh my God, how did your parents learn this? and then teach it to you?” It’s like: No—no, no, no, no. My mom and dad were resources. And that’s what’s so wonderful about them. There were no limits on what I could learn or what I wanted to learn. I didn’t know you that there was "You have to learn this, and you have to learn that," and they really let us explore, and let us sit outside, and enjoy natural things, and let us wander with our questions. It was a real "Let’s find out!” you know? That was great.

Amy Childs:
Here are James and Julie.
James :
I think flexibility is probably one thing. I've found in my own experience, I probably came at it from a less flexible point of view than Julie did. Probably less flexible intellectually than her maybe, but certainly less flexible emotionally than her.

I always have been heavily invested in knowing it all, and knowing the right answers. I think moving away from that, from being a provider of right answers to somebody who just talks about stuff and helps him find out what the right answers are. The finding out is the more important aspect, than the already knowing.

Julie :
If a parent cares too much about right answers it's very easy to slip into teacher mode, and to start instructing rather than just letting the conversation flow naturally. And I think that’s quite key if you're going to unschool successfully you have to stop, if you ever started, you have to stop seeing yourself as the teacher, because you're not. You're a facilitator, you are co-explorer, a co-learner.

And I think a lot of what makes somebody a good unschooling parent is being curious about the world, about what’s going on around them. And willing to look at interesting things, and see interesting things everywhere, and help the child to see interesting things everywhere.

Amy :
So, who shouldn’t unschool?

So basically, unschooling works for families when the parents are committed to doing absolutely everything that they can to provide a healthy, interesting, nourishing environment for their child. And in that environment a child will not be able to help but learn.

The Unschooling Life Podcast is brought to you by Amy Childs and unschoolingsupport.com

[That website is sadly gone, but podcasts are still available, and there are links at SandraDodd.com/listen, in the box.]

More on "Who can Unschool?"

Other Recordings

How Unschooling Changes People

Unschooling: Getting It