Sunday, August 19, 2012

Confessions of an Unschooling Mama

Before I start my confessions, let's put this in context. We consider ourselves Unschoolers... or Natural Learners. (My hubby prefers that term.) We have been Natural Learners for our children's whole lives; even though for a while we didn't know it had a name.
For a quick idea of what unschooling is check out Wiki:

Basically though, Natural Learning trusts that all people learn; that it is our nature to learn our whole lives.
Unschooling lets go of "teaching", curriculum and outcomes.
It trusts that Life is the best teacher.
Unschooling believes that a child (or person) will learn everything they need to learn in life, in the best time and way for themselves, as individuals.

"Radical Unschoolers" take it a step further;
aiming to live a mutually respectful life with their family.

Sometimes this concept is confusing when it comes to "how to". It can sound or look like "no limits" or "no guidance", which is not really the true idea either. At the same time though, Radical Unschooling generally doesn't value limits on activities related to daily living; like bedtime, or screentime, or diet. Living mutually respectful lives is definitely something I value, and in many ways aim for. It also very challenging at times, as you might imagine.

Now for my confessions.
Sometimes I really, really want a clean, and organized house. Sometimes I think this is the impossible dream of the home learning parent! I mean, I want the whole thing clean, all at the same time. I may have even began uttering the word "chore", in the direction of my children, in an involuntary way, on a semi-daily basis. I may have made a list of tasks that need to be done on a daily basis. Yes. Actually I did this. This is a confession, so I will admit it. To clarify though, these are not tasks that HAVE to be done by the kids everyday, rather its a list of stuff that inevitably gets done daily. It is in list-form so they could stop asking for a chore, and I could stop having to search for something helpful they could do.

"What's that?" you say... "they ask for a chore everyday?"

Yes, they do. And the reason for this is my next confession. They need to choose to do a "chore" before watching tv, or playing video games. The horror!! No seriously. This is terrible. This is does not sound like mutually respectful living at all. Or does it? Sometimes it's hard for me to tell.

Wow, what the heck happened to all my ideals?! I'll tell you what.

I had a son who was using screens for 6-8+ hours a day, sometimes video games, sometimes movies. How's that for a confession? Recognize the picture to the right? Mike TV, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.... was looking a little too familiar....

To put this into perspective, a lot of Radical Unschooling parents may not have considered this amount of screen time a problem. Most Radical Unschooling parents would consider the content and learning value of the screen activities. And to be honest, I did give a fair bit of consideration to that; a lot of learning happens using screens. But I also gave careful thought to the tummy aches, trouble sleeping, vocal ticks, and generally miserable spirit after a full-on, intense, screen-filled day. Combine that with a prevailing spirit of un-co-operation from both our little learners when it came to helping out. To satisfy our value of mutually respectful living our family had many a conversation about our concerns. Finally though, we felt we had to do the "parent" thing. UGH.

Together, us with our young ones, we drafted up some new agreements about screen time. Our motto has been to Put the Relationship First. The level of imbalance and the generally unco-operative spirit, when it came to helping out was not contributing to healthy family relationships. It was contributing to frustration, and constant, exhausting negotiations. 

So as a family, sitting very traditionally around the table, we drafted up an agreement that required a "chore" (I hate calling them that, but anyway) before screen activities. This felt terrible to me. It really did. I realize it would probably be all kinds of normal in a lot of families. But not in ours. Actually the new agreement felt pretty yucky to all of us. It was breaking old patterns, it was pushing us beyond Our Normal.

There was a Unified dragging of feet; AND we stuck with it.

We also agreed on a limit of 1.5 hours of screen time daily; then if another "chore" was done, a bonus half hour. Part of the process of drafting this agreement was brainstorming many agreements.

It was remembering the "house rules" of our childhood families.
It was remembering all the excessive responsibilities and requirements set by attending public school.
It was remembering the strained relationship I still have with my folks;
it was remembering that
Mutuality is still the goal.

A couple weeks in, an addendum happened. We realized content was a super important part of the recipe. Calm learning shows like Sesame Street wouldn't count as screen time. This was progress. Some days, learning shows, and calm shows satisfied the needs to chill. Kids were still happy and co-operative after those kinds of shows. Then a neat thing happened. After a couple of weeks of painfully sticking to the new agreement, a balancing occurred! 

It just happened.
Some days we are using screens a lot; other days not so much. 
We aren't watching the clock or setting timers as much.
The kids are asking to help out, and are having willing spirits.
We are still negotiating a lot; AND I think that's a great thing.
I think that means the relationship is alive and well, as is the respect.
Life is flowing.

Next confession. I have slowly, but surely, put us all on a Gluten-free diet. Why?
Because it's not normal to have tummy aches every time you eat. It's not normal to have diarrhea everyday. We're Gluten-free because I have Celiac disease, and it's genetic, and very real. Celiac disease destroys your bowels; and damaged bowels aren't going to absorb the nutrients needed to grow healthy bodies and brains.

Why is this even a confession? ***I ask with a sense of frustration... I think because of the reactions of people; it ranges from support, to shock, to pity, to the belief that my suffering is "all in my head." I've heard "I could never do that".... Not true. You can do it, if you want to; and especially if you need to.
I've heard "awe, your poor kids, don't they miss cake and goodies?" I've even heard "Your going to give your daughter an eating disorder." !! Can you even believe that?!

The truth is we plenty of really yummy food! We have cake, and goodies, pizza and ice cream, burgers and fries.... all the junk Nostalgia dictates is so vital to Childhood. So don't pity us, or worse yet judge us. Our diet is yummy and healthy. Our children aren't missing out on anything. I promise. AND they aren't going to get an eating disorder from our family eating Gluten-free! Remembering we highly value Respectful Living, our diet isn't something being Forced. They have the power to make choices; which is why on occasion they come home with enormous tummy aches.... listening to our bodies is just one more lesson to learn.

Last confessions.... (this list is getting rather long....)
I do worry about outcomes.
I occasionally look at workbooks, and curriculum.
Sometimes I compare our family to other families.
I EVEN mutter "grade-level" in a very quiet voice
when shopping in the "teachers resource" store. 
I feel an almost uncontrollable urge to try to "teach" my children to read as soon as they turn 6, rather than wait for them to be ready. 
I also feel compelled to give some form of instruction every time they pick up the guitar.
There. I think that's all of my secrets.
My husband wants to add Bragging to the list. (Isn't he cute?)
He means the bragging he does when we get a final summary of all the learning from the year.
He brags to the people who care about "report cards".


  1. What a lovely post you have written is SO hard to make these confessions! It's funny that the unschooling community, which is supposed to be based on the idea of respect for your children as individuals, seems so unwilling to discuss certain things. To be judged "not unschooly enough" for doing what needs to be done to create a peaceful family where mutual respect can grow...well, it's not helpful, is it?

    Good for you for not only doing what you saw and felt as a loving and respectful parent needed to be done, but also for talking about it...:)

    1. Just as a by the way, I had a really hard time reading the captcha - I had to reload about 6 times to finally get one I could figure out...maybe I need new glasses!