You might have heard that unschooling requires a completely unscheduled, unrestrained, rule-less approach to parenting and family living. Children, when given the choice, run amok and without constraint, pushing beyond reasonable limits of sleep, food, screens, hygiene and acceptable behavior generally. Parents, to be good unschoolers, need to accept this departure from life as we know it, and succumb to the outlandish whims of their untamed children. This extreme perception of unschooling is not an accurate representation, and is driven by fear rather than understanding.
As an ‘early career’ unschooler, recently clocking over into our fourth year, I’d like to unpack some of these assumptions and share with you how these common concerns among parents actually plays out in an unschooling family.
The first rule – there are no rules
One thing that is kind of true is that unschoolers don’t usually operate from ‘rules’. Rules come from a place of ‘power over’ rather than mutual respect and are often arbitrary, meaning they have no rationale but come from the position of ‘this is just the way things are’. But if you think about adult friendships, putting in place rules between you and your friend isn’t usually seen as particularly conducive to a good and respectful relationship. Similarly, imposing rules on children establishes a hierarchy that devalues their position and elevates the parent. Rules separate rather than bring together. They enforce rather than encourage good decision-making. And they establish a rule-maker and a rule-breaker dichotomy.
Instead of rules, in our family, we think about habits, concepts and good decision-making. For instance, instead of a rule that says ‘no hitting’, we talk about building habits such as ‘kindness’ and ‘caring’ and reducing habits such as using aggression to solve a problem; we use concepts such as ‘non-violent communication’ and ‘peace’ to help our children resolve issues without aggression; and we discuss good decision making, such as ‘walking away’ and ‘counting to ten’, to highlight how we all have choices, in any given situation, and that some choices are better than others.
The habits and concepts we are currently focusing on are unique to our family, due to our specific set of relationships, the personalities of each family member, as well as our own values and worldviews. At times, the volume gets turned up on a particular habit to help our family find more peace, or we might find we are focusing more intently on the concept of mutual fulfilment to ensure each family member is getting satisfaction or joy. Some of the habits and concepts are universally useful to any family, unschooling or not, such as the concept of ‘peace’. While some of the habits and concepts that are of importance to us might have much less value to another family. Some of the habits and concepts are more for me and my approach to parenting, a lot of them are for the whole family. Here are our current favorites:
Habits: kindness, caring, love, generosity, abundant benevolence;
Concepts: peace, respect, compromise, bucket-filling, mutual fulfilment;
The shift from imposing rules to focusing on habits, concepts and good decision-making is the basis for how we approach other aspects of family life. Let’s now turn to the other common assumptions about unschooling, and I’ll show you how we work without rules.
From the beginning of parenthood, our approach to sleep has always been ‘whatever arrangement allows for the most sleep in quality and quantity, for all family members, but not at the cost of love and safety’. So for us, we found co-sleeping and bedsharing essential to meet these goals. Bedsharing allowed me to breastfeed comfortably and horizontally(!), and as I became really proficient, I could even doze through feeds, increasing my sleep and rest. Bedsharing met and continues to meet, our babies’ and children’s needs for feeling secure and safe, and having their needs met lovingly. We recognize that nighttime parenting is just as important as parenting at any other time of the day.
As our family grew, our sleeping arrangements shifted and changed but our goal of ‘whatever arrangement allows for the most sleep in quality and quantity, for all family members, but not at the cost of love and safety’ has remained constant. So at eight, four and two years old, our children continue to cosleep and/or bedshare with one of us parents.
A specific consideration for our family is our natural tendencies in sleep patterns and preferences. I am a night owl through and through and always have been. My most productive hours are often between 11pm and 2am. Our three children seem to have this tendency also, although we wonder whether this might change over time. But at the moment, all three have the ability to stay up late (which of course is a relative concept anyway). And because the children and I don’t often need to get up at any particular time in the morning, bedtime doesn’t need to be based around rising early for school. Nevertheless, sleep is an important need of all family members, and one of our family members rises early for work. Therefore we factor in the children’s (and my) natural tendencies and preferences to stay up until 11pm, alongside my partner’s need to be in bed before 11pm because he rises at 6am, alongside our children’s choice to continue sleeping with a parent and therefore requiring that parent to sleep and wake roughly with the children’s cycle.
So what do we do?
We discuss needs, we empathise, we find a way to compromise, we try and ensure all our family members are getting a good quantity of quality sleep while feeling safe and loved.
In actuality, we do say ‘oh its close to bedtime, let’s go and clean our teeth…’ because the children go to bed when we are tired. We have given our eight-year-old the choice of sleeping in her own room if she would prefer to stay up later than us, but for now she chooses cosleeping. But we have never had an arbitrary bedtime for the children, just because ‘children should be asleep by now’. Going to bed and encouraging sleep has always been driven by the needs of family members within reasonable practicalities.
My approach to food in our home rests on three key assumptions:
- ‘Health’ and ‘healthy’ are subjective terms – there are so many diverse viewpoints on what foods or diet regimes are considered healthy, and likewise, diverse viewpoints on what foods are considered unhealthy.
- Food restriction and control can lead to fairly dysfunctional relationships with food and your body including eating disorders.
- Just like any other aspect of life, I try and approach food/meals/eating with the view that it’s an opportunity for children to learn about themselves, their bodies, their emotions, how they feel etc, and to learn all this, they need to learn by doing. This means supporting children to access and experience foods without shame, guilt or coercion.
Using these three assumptions as a basis, in practice this often looks like:
- Buying and preparing foods that my children desire, where practically/financially possible.
- Buying and preparing a range of foods to bring new tastes and smells into our home.
- Talking about how different foods make us feel, physically and emotionally.
- Enjoying food without guilt or shame (we’ve become a lot better at this but it’s still a work in progress as my partner and I continue to unpack our own baggage around food restrictions).
- Making a range of meals to suit a everyone’s needs, where possible.
We have two laptops, a TV, two iPads and two iPhones. Our children use and access these devices every day, without restriction. Using these devices, our children: watch movies and tv shows, play online games individually and with friends, use a range of other game-based and educational apps, google information, email, FaceTime friends, watch online tutorials, watch online videos, take and edit photographs, phone and message people.
Given the large variety of functions, purposes and pleasures that ‘screens’ afford, I find it unhelpful to talk about ‘screentime’ as all the same thing. My children learn continuously while using screen-based technologies, I wouldn’t want to restrict their learning by imposing arbitrary limits on their use.
What I do suggest however, is for them to listen to their bodies and listen to cues that they need to take a break, stretch, move their bodies, go to the toilet etc. In the early days we talked about this fairly often. These days, the girls are quite proficient at making good choices for themselves.
I try as much as possible to be engaged with what they are doing when using screen-based technologies. For instance, I have my own Roblox account and often play online with them. I watch their shows and movies, I look up information with them. I don’t view screen-based technologies as an invitation to me to disengage from parenting (although practically I can’t always sit beside each of them).
Some days they will access screen-based technologies for a large proportion of the day while other days they are busy doing other things. As the years have passed, I’ve become less and less concerned about screen-based technologies, especially when I am truly in alignment with my family and children. It’s easy to get freaked out when you read the doomsday articles about the perils of screens. Instead, read articles that keep the peace and the calm like this one. My advice is, listen to your children and engage with them. See what they are doing and appreciate all the learning and enjoyment taking place.