When people are first introduced to the idea of unschooling, they often express a belief that children raised in such a way must end up incorrigible, disrespectful, sloppy, lazy and completely self-centered. They have images of kids running wild, with long, matted hair and blackened teeth. Kids who rule the roost, while their parents either play slave to their every whim, or simply ignore them altogether. Kids who enter their teens not reading, barely able to add, incapable of engaging in an intelligent conversation, and on the fast track for a life of mooching off the rest of us responsible citizens.
I totally get it. It’s natural to question ideas that are new to us, and to feel some anxiety about anything that’s very different from our own frame of reference.
But there is a critically important distinction we must make between unschooling, and neglectful parenting, which is sometimes termed “unparenting”. Unparenting very well may result in kids who embody the images above. But true unschooling does not. The difference is intentionality and mindfulness.
Unschooling involves a high degree of intentionality and involvement. Parents who unschool are continually observing and interacting with their children. They are reflective and mindful. This is not the life for a lazy or uninterested parent! It takes commitment and energy to practice unschooling.
On the surface, unschooling and unparenting can look alarmingly similar. For example, there are often no set bedtimes for kids who are radically unschooled. But, unlike their unparented counterparts, unschooled kids have a rhythm to their day. They have parents who have thought carefully about why they take such an approach to bedtimes, who have reflected on it, kept a close eye on how it’s working for everyone, and course-corrected when necessary.
Or take diet. Unparented kids are given free reign with regard to food. So are some radically unschooled kids. But again, beneath the surface, their are major differences. Parents who radically unschool offer their kids a multitude of choices – fruit, vegetables, cheese, etc. along with the food typically labeled junk. They deliberately choose not to limit any food, and partner with their children as they learn to read their own physical cues. They pay careful attention to which foods their children love, and make available an abundance of nourishing food to enjoy.
Families who unparent often look like those horror stories shown on the nanny shows. Parents are either completely dominated by their children (“child centered” or permissive), or have swung too far the other way and become almost abusive in their rigidity (“adult centered” or authoritative). And then there are parents who are just so overwhelmed that they have completely disengaged.
Unschoolers are not totally child-centered, nor are they exclusively parent-centered. Perhaps the best description would be “family centered”, focused on how to best meet the needs of everyone. They are a closely connected unit, who honor and respect one another’s needs.
Like every other group of people, it’s dangerous to paint all unschoolers with the same brush. The practice of unschooling exists on a spectrum, with each unique family landing somewhere along that continuum. Of course, there is a point at which a family’s practices fall outside of the unschooling spectrum altogether. In those cases, unschooling is not the correct term, regardless of whether the family happens to be using it.
If you’re wondering about the differences between unschooling and unparenting, you’ve already taken a positive step. Keep going! Question. Discuss. Reflect. Connect to the available resources. Whatever your conclusions, you’ll benefit by engaging in the process!