Centering Anti-Oppression in Unschooling Practice
I wanted to write something about my experience with unschooling, about where I started, how I learned, and where I am now. This journey is partly about honouring my children’s needs to be who they are, but it is also a journey of discovery and learning about what has been around forever; systems of oppression, those who are oppressed, and those who uphold these unjust systems. Until recently, I would place myself squarely in the last category and am doing what I can to remove myself from it. But I exist within these systems of oppression as a straight-passing, white person with reasonable financial security and a supportive network of family and friends. This means that I live with privilege that many are denied. I live comfortably on the land that was stolen from the Anishinabewaki, Odawa, and Mississauga people when many of them have lived with persecution for centuries and continue to live in hardship in so-called Canada.
In my writing, I’m talking about oppression, especially ageism, which is oppression that most people have experienced through their childhood. But I need to acknowledge openly that there are so many forms of oppression that I have not experienced because of my privilege. I am not formally trained in anti-oppression, I do not have education in dealing with oppressive systems or dismantling those systems. My education has been fueled by a passion to better understand these injustices with an aim to disconnect, dismantle, and abolish them in hopes of building new systems in their place that treat all people with the care, dignity, and sovereignty that they deserve.
I hope that sharing my journey will help and not harm. I have tried to use my words carefully as to not perpetuate the continued injustice faced by so many. I welcome feedback and criticism in this endeavor.
What is unschooling? It’s many things to many people but I believe that the most important qualities of unschooling are it’s position as a tool in decolonization and anti-oppression. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been searching for ways to change your life to remove colonial influence and buy out of oppressive systems. Unschooling can be a solution. It can model what non-oppressive relationships look like and it can show us how to live without the colonial schooling institution. And I truly believe that’s where the power of unschooling lies. Not only does it build better relationships between parents and children, it demonstrates to the next generation that non-oppressive, consent based relationships should be the norm. If our kids can grow up in homes that don’t fall back on power-over dynamics and colonial structures enforcing how they live, they grow up knowing that those systems aren’t necessary and aren’t healthy.
In this essay, I’ll be outlining why intersectional unschooling is a force to be reckoned with in dismantling oppressive colonial capitalist systems and also how it can lead to a more rich and fulfilling life. There are many people out there talking about the “how-to” of unschooling but I don’t think that giving a set of instructions on how to live a successful unschooling life is actually possible. Because unschooling is about honouring our uniqueness, about celebrating and encouraging our differences as individual humans, as families, and also in communities. As such, every unschooling journey will look different. I could no more tell you how to unschool as I could tell you how to explore your own culture, what flavour ice cream you should love the best, or who your favourite musician should be. Instead, we’ll explore some general principles that may help you on your unschooling journey, although those principles might again look different for your family depending on where you want to place emphasis in your lives.
I also want to honour the revolutionary work of those in the unschooling community. There are many who are doing this work of dismantling schoolish thought and culture and who have mentored me through my journey. Some are mentioned in the text that follows, but there are many members of the self-directed learning community that I have connect with through Instagram and on Discord servers, who I’ve listened to on podcasts, and who have shared their own journeys that have helped shape my understanding of unschooling as a tool for non-oppressive living.
A little backstory…
When my oldest son was in grade 4, we pulled him out of school. He had spent most of his early and primary years attending a local Montessori school. Despite the free-formed structure of his days, he still hated it. Eventually, things came to a head when each morning became a yelling match and we were forced to go our separate ways each day in anger. My younger son was in preschool at the time, which also meant daily tears saying goodbye and endless mom-guilt that I was separating myself from my young child when he needed me the most. We were also paying through the teeth for private education and childcare and it didn’t seem to be benefiting the kids at all. So in December 2018, we called it quits.
With homeschooling thrust upon us, there were a lot of changes we had to make as a family. I quit my job to be at home with the boys which meant we had to live on a lower income. The kids and I had to learn how to spend all of our days together. We had to figure out what to do with our days, what homeschooling looked like for us, still coming down off the years of conflict and mistrust.
During all these changes, I came across this thing called unschooling. I was drawn to its simplicity, its natural extension from gentle and attachment parenting, and above all, it’s freedom. My oldest in particular was so averse to “being taught” and it seemed that unschooling might be the best choice for us as a family; it may also be true that it was the only choice for us if we wanted to live without continued emotional turmoil.
So, I jumped in with both feet to learn everything I could about the world of unschooling. I read books, watched documentaries on repeat, joined Facebook groups, followed tags all over social media, and started what would be a very long and deep deschooling period for the first two years. Yes, two years. It was a roller coaster. School-ish thinking was so deeply embedded into our cultural knowledge. It was how I had grown up. It was all I knew. And it took years and a lot of work to unlearn that school is the only way to learn.
What was even harder for me as a parent was that I didn’t understand how to accept “no” as a valid answer when my kids didn’t want to live out the life I expected them to, when my vision for their future didn’t align with what they wanted and needed in the moment. I had deep seated preconceived notions of what their childhood should look like, and by extension what my life should look like. All of that was torn apart in an internal struggle for which there was almost no support. It was hard work and there were many tears. But this was the beginning of my understanding of the oppression that exists between parents and children, and once I started accepting their “no”, I could start to see them as unique individuals with their own path to travel.
I can happily tell you that I’ve come out the other side a better person by far. Because once you start to unravel the threads that make up socially constructed institutions like the education system, more threads will inevitably unravel. And when you start to learn how to treat your children with trust and respect, you will naturally revisit how to live this way with yourself as well. Lucy Aitkenread refers to some of this damage as “school wounds”1 but you’d be mistaken to think that these wounds are just a result of attending school. They’re rooted in all school-ish culture, and once you see through the lies that school-ish2 culture presents, you can start to do some serious healing work for your kids, your family, and yourself.
Even as I was coming out the other side of this intense time of deschooling, I surprised myself when my fundamental understanding of what unschooling was changed two years into our journey. Where I was once learning about alternative forms of education and self-directed learning, I’ve now come to understand more about intersectionality, about ancestral learning, about decolonization. I’ve come to learn that all these topics are actually relevant and important to our unschooling lives. While unschooling can bring peace to my family, it can be an invaluable tool to a more just and equitable world.
So here we are: just about to round the corner of year three since my oldest son “took an early retirement” from school and, for us, there’s no looking back. Even on the hard days when we come into conflict, unschooling has presented a framework for how to live together peacefully without the common power-over dynamic that exists in most families. Once you remove that dynamic, there really is no looking back. You can’t re-institute an oppressive system when those being oppressed understand their position. After that, it’s just conflict. You cannot hold power over those who know that they are free. So it is in our home as it should be in the world around us.
1. What is unschooling?
Unschooling is a term that was first coined by author and educator John Holt. As a teacher, Holt spent time documenting his experience with students in the US school system. He used the term unschooling to refer to a self-directed approach to education without curriculum or forced learning.3 I’ve heard the term was actually a play on words following an ad campaign for 7-Up as being the “un-cola”. Holt began to advocate for unschooling after becoming disillusioned as a teacher, believing that kids learn best when the environment is stimulating for them and they’re ready to learn. He claimed that allowing kids to follow their own interests was the best way to facilitate learning. Force feeding children information in a school setting doesn’t result in quality education. Instead, we should see kids as whole people that learn through experience when their brains are ready to form connections and build knowledge naturally.
Holt’s definition of unschooling was adopted throughout the 1970s when there was a surge of homeschooling families as well as the “free school” movement. During that time, free Schools were found all over North America and in Europe; schools that didn’t follow curriculum and allowed kids to learn based on their own interests – very much what Holt was advocating for in educational reform. Free schools often didn’t have teachers and students in the traditional sense of the terms. Teachers were seen as staff, helping to mentor and facilitate learning but not teach classes, unless the students requested classes to be taught. Few of these schools still exist, including Sudbury schools found across the world.
Looking back at this period, many have come to regard it as the beginning of unschooling as a pedagogy, but the core concepts of unschooling are much older than this, reaching back to time immemorial. We forget, sometimes, that school itself is a relatively new concept and that humans have been learning and growing from children to adults for hundreds of thousands of years. Before there were schools, there were families; there were tribes; there were communities. Children learned through play, through mirroring their elders and members of their community. Education was very informal and kids participated in the day to day lives of the community rather than being sectioned off from it. This traditional approach to learning is often referred to as ancestral learning.
“Every society, naturally, works to reproduce itself, and how children are raised shows how a society views the people who make it up. In Indigenous societies children are trusted to reproduce society. They are given time to work out how things are done.” – Peter Harrison4
I love this idea of natural learning for many reasons. It’s subjective: as a child you learn the things that are important to you based on your culture, location, time period, etc. It’s not a globalized, one-size fits all curriculum. Kids learn based on what they actually need to know, not what’s prescribed by educational professionals that have no context of the child’s life. Also, kids are learning from the people that are close to them who know them the best: parents, siblings, neighbours, grandparents, friends, etc. Each person who is connected to a child can pass down knowledge that is interesting and relevant, areas in which they have expertise and feel passion. What’s more, it is inherently based on trust. The quote above is from an article by writer and bus driver Peter Harrison who explores why our current system of education removes that trust and how our school-ish approach differs from that of ancestral learning.
If we take Holt’s concepts around child-led education and blend them with the community and family-centered practice of ancestral learning, we can start to see an alternative approach that doesn’t just allow kids to learn core curriculum but instead gives them room to thrive in a safe and loving environment, following passions and interests while being treated with respect and given trust. Unschooling is not just an educational pedagogy, but a lifestyle that pulls away from compulsory schooling systems putting trust, passion, equality, and consent at the core of existence.
a. Unschooling as anti-oppressive
It’s been over 50 years since John Holt coined the term unschooling and much has changed in the unschooling community as well as the world at large. Once you dive into unschooling as an alternative approach to education, you realize quickly that it is actually much more. By encouraging kids to follow their passions as a way to gain knowledge, it follows that, as adults, we need to let our kids choose what they’re going to learn about. We need to let go of what we think they should be learning and doing and let them take the reins. We need to give them the freedom and autonomy to make decisions about what they’re going to do with their time and energy. This requires a lot of trust between child and parent: trust that kids will make the best decisions for themselves and that parents will not attempt to control their children. This trust-based approach is very different from what mainstream parenting suggests about raising children. For most new unschooling parents, these changes throw us into uncharted territory and, as such, many of us are having to relearn what it means to be a parent and how to live in a relationship with our children without trying to control them.
If we give our children trust and autonomy when it comes to learning, this means that they need to have greater respect from us as well as freedom and control over their own lives. For some unschoolers, this means that it’s all up for grabs: bedtimes, food choices, screen usage. For other unschooling parents, baby steps are a better approach. Different families, different approaches, right? The key part that I’ve come to learn is this: when you put the goal of anti-oppression at the center of your unschooling practice, each choice that affects your kids requires their input in the decision making process. For us, that doesn’t mean that my kids decide everything on their own, but instead that their opinions are part of the conversation, often more important than my own opinions. I can no longer play the “because I said so” card. Each decision must have a reason behind it, and with each reason must come an explanation that my kids can understand. It is consensus decision making, not majority rules, and definitely not authority rules.
It is important to note this distinction that often gets misrepresented here and worth repeating: unschooling is not letting your kids do whatever they want. It is about modeling consent and representing what it means to live in community. By learning these concepts and skills early in life, our kids can understand them and can use them throughout their lives. As unschooling advocate, author, and parent Akilah Richards says “We can’t keep using tools of oppression and expect to raise free people.”5 In using and modeling consent-based living in the family, kids grow and thrive in an environment where they are valued, trusted, and know how to communicate and can then take these skills into adulthood and use them as second nature.
It is also key to understand that there is no set of guidelines or schedule that one can follow to have a successful unschooling life. (Unlimited screen time, check… Chocolate for breakfast, check…) Each child is unique. Each parent is different. As such, a typical unschooling day will look completely different based on the interests and personality of each child as well as the needs of each family and wider community. What remains consistent between all unschooling families is the belief that children are whole people deserving of respect and freedom, that they should not be coerced into a life they don’t enjoy, and that living a life based on passion is more valuable than a life based on conformity. Using these principles as the foundation, how each family will deal with issues as they come up will be unique but rooted in the goal of anti-oppression.
b. Unschooling as intersectional
When we talk about unschooling, it’s also important to talk about intersectionality. What is intersectionality exactly? Here’s the Wikipedia definition:
“Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege.”6
The term was defined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a civil rights lawyer and leading philosopher on critical race theory. Williams Crenshaw coined the term when she was exploring the intersection of race and sex and how it affected the feminist movement. In her research, she saw that one cannot understand the experience of being a black woman without understanding how these two criteria interact with each other: being black and being a woman.
The term “intersectional” has become commonplace but critical when exploring issues around social justice and the environment. It also has a home in the unschooling conversation. I first heard the term intersectional unschooling in an eye opening article written by Zakiyya Ismail on her blog, Growing Minds.7 In the article, she compares early feminism with the wave of unschooling that often just shifts power from parent to child. Without seeing childism as intersectional, we end up actually repeating the same oppressive power dynamics, but with someone new at the top and bottom of the relationship. This kind of feminism, also referred to as white feminism, is when practitioners (mostly white women) refuse to acknowledge racism in their feminism, simply replacing all women as the oppressed with BIPOC women as oppressed. This style of white or bourgeoisie feminism usually seeks an equal place at men’s table rather than dismantling the systems that created inequality in the first place. In the same way, bourgeoisie unschooling seeks to give kids the same power as adults without addressing the issues within this power-over dynamic and often refusing to acknowledge oppression as a systemic issue in other areas like race, gender, sexual or gender orientation, or socioeconomic status.
I’ve lived and seen this type of bourgeois unschooling and it almost always leads to burned out parents who think that they’re supposed to give their kids free reign. When hitting the burnout and seeking support, parents are often told by unschooling “authorities” that they just aren’t unschooling properly and need to spend more time deschooling. I think what’s actually happening in a lot of these situations is that the power dynamic has shifted from parent to child, and what’s actually needed is a dismantling of power so that family members can communicate their own needs and learn how to live together in community, centering the practice of mutual consent.
Passing power from one family member to another isn’t unschooling. If my kids are making changes in their lives that make my life unbearable, the change isn’t going to be sustainable. Our family needs to work together and problem solve creatively with some give and take from everyone involved in hopes that everyone’s needs can be met while everyone’s boundaries are still being respected. If only one person is continually bending, eventually they are going to break! Unschooling needs to work for everyone involved, in a peaceful way that doesn’t gaslight parents into thinking their needs are unimportant. No amount of deschooling will fix this problem.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge that this is tough work. Even harder, this power-over dynamic exists everywhere for kids – between siblings and grandparents, in classes and school, with friends and colleagues, work and play. Even when we are able to address this directly in our own relationships, there are still remnants of power-over learned from other settings. It’s baked in everything we do. When our kids go out into the world, they will have their consent broken. Adults will try and control them. Helping our kids notice this and know how to hold their own will help them immensely.
When we shifted our practice of unschooling to focus on addressing this power-over dynamic, everything fell into place for me. Before the shift, I was concerned with things like screen use, bed times, food choices. We were still fighting and I felt I was never being heard. After the shift, the individual concerns were easily solvable because I had a framework from which to tackle challenges. We were addressing the causes and not just the symptoms. I could ask myself questions: Am I sharing my experience with my children or am I trying to control them? Am I being part of the conversation or pushing the conversation on them? If I’m trying to control them or push my opinions on them, then I’m teaching them that power-over is acceptable. If I’m working with them to share my experience and let them make their own choices, I’m showing them what non-coercive mentorship looks like. Rather than passing on a legacy of oppressive parenting, I’m helping demonstrate what it means to live without oppression. Because how can we possibly expect the next generation to dismantle oppressive systems if we are teaching them that oppression is acceptable when they are kids?!
As Ismail says in her article, “It’s not enough to be raising free people, we need to raise free, aware people towards a transformed world.” This is intersectional unschooling.
c. Unschooling as decolonial
There’s a lot of talk about colonialism in recent years. The practice of European colonialism has been taking over native and indigenous cultures and people for the last half century but we, as white colonizers and the descendants of white colonizers, are just starting to understand the implications involved with being complicit or even perpetuating colonialism; an unjust and racist exploitation of resources and people. While so much of the damage from colonialism cannot be undone, it’s important to recognize that colonial culture still exists today and is ongoing. If we want to end this exploitation and eradication of indigenous culture, we need to learn more about how to decolonize or unsettle. I believe that unschooling can be a valuable tool in this goal.
The current compulsory public schooling system used around the world is a colonial one. It was developed as a way to create a baseline of core knowledge including literacy, history, and basic skills that would train people to be employable in a labour based workforce. It’s no accident that this system was instituted at the same time as the rise of capitalism: factories needed workers, bosses needed labourers. Compulsory schooling is designed to teach people the skills they’ll need to become part of a capitalist colonial workforce. A great book that goes into depth about the history of compulsory schooling is Field Day by Matt Hern.8 Aside from his first hand account of alternative education, Field Day opens with a deep dive into the schooling system with a very critical lens. I read it early on in my deschooling process and I truly believe it’s one of the reasons I have remained committed to unschooling despite the challenges. Once you see, you really can’t unsee.
When we think of the education system as a colonial tool, we can obviously examine the material being taught to kids as one that will advance the systems of colonization. But along with the content of the curriculum, we also need to consider the method in which it is taught: one that forces compliance, obedience, and a culture which declares that your time and mind belong to someone else other than yourself. It teaches oppression, power structures, and unhealthy competition. It teaches that adults know better than children, that “good” kids follow rules and can be graded on a rubric, that you need to ask a superior to use the bathroom, and that you can only eat at specific times during the day regardless of what your body might tell you about being hungry. These lessons become core to our culture and we can see them reflected in the capitalist workplace. We assume these concepts to be truths of human behaviour, but they are not and it takes years of deprogramming to undo the damage they cause.
Beyond the inherently colonial nature of curriculum and the methods in which it is taught, the public education system has also become a tool of cultural genocide. It is used to eradicate indigenous cultures through shame and punishment. For generations, native children were stolen from their families across North America in the name of “education” and sent to residential schools where they were mistreated and murdered.
Traditional schooling also punishes neurodiversity and squashes cultural diversity, stamping out creativity and uniqueness by implementing a single stream curriculum and evaluation method regardless of the diversity of it’s students. It teaches one curriculum, one version of history, in one manner without leaving room for the natural inquisitiveness of children and their passions or the breadth of cultures that exist in the classroom. Kids are removed from their traditions, their language, and their culture in the name of national cohesion and attempted unification.
And there are, of course, amazing teachers out there trying to undo these problems, but they are fighting an impossible battle as the problems ingrained into compulsory education are systemic. The good apples will not be able to reform a system that is designed at its core to be oppressive; designed to produce a base level of competency so that it’s graduates can enter other oppressive, capitalist colonial systems.
According to Michael Tsang from Newcastle University’s Postcolonial Research Group, decolonization or decoloniality (a term he prefers) “seeks to understand the close-knit relationship between the colonial condition and the imposition of a Western logic of ‘modernity’ as a consequence of colonialism. Hence, ‘decoloniality’ is not so much a political project than it is an epistemological one: to ‘delink’ ourselves from the structure of knowledge imposed by the West, and then to ‘reconstitute’ our ways of thinking, speaking, and living.”9 When we use unschooling as a tool for decolonization, we refuse to embed our children into inherently colonial structures from the age of three (or earlier). We give them the chance to develop an entirely different relationship to the world that does not enforce compliance. Unschooling instead promotes skills needed to live in community: communication, self-motivation, autonomy, consent, self worth over profit, rest as resistance, self care and discovery.
2. Unschooling Principles
As mentioned earlier, unschooling in practice will genuinely look different for each family, each child, and even each parent. We each have our own interests, styles of communication, preferences for learning, and personalities. We have our own personal histories, our legacies, and our own cultures. While I could describe what a “day in the life” looks like for my family, it should by no means suggest that your day might look anything like mine. Unschooling is about honouring and exploring each child’s individual passions, each family’s shared interests, and each community’s historical culture.
Instead, we can explore certain principles that I believe can guide a meaningful intersectional unschooling lifestyle. These principles help explore what it means to live in a non-oppressive setting within your family and community.
a. Autonomy and Independence
Autonomy and independence are key factors in living without oppression. When autonomy and independence are missing from a relationship, especially one traditionally using a power-over dynamic like parent and child, there is likely to be some kind of oppression happening towards the person without the power even if we don’t normally call it oppression.
Independence is something that most parents don’t think about until their kids approach the teenage years, usually a very stressful time as child and parent learn to navigate a new interpersonal dynamic. Many (I daresay most) kids rebel against their parents during this time as they try to assert their independence, to explore themselves as unique and separate individuals. This rebellious period can be hard for everyone involved. Parents aren’t comfortable giving up the control they have over their kids, which causes the kids to push back more and more. It becomes a power struggle.
Back when we started unschooling, I remember reading the fantastic book, Parent/Teen Breakthrough: The Relationship Approach by Mira Kirshenbaum and Charles Foster.10 It is often recommended in unschooling groups for struggling parents. When I was reading it, my oldest son was 8 and youngest was 1 and I remember thinking that it was strange that the book was targeted at teens because I could see so much of the same desire for independence in both my kids already!
We don’t need to wait until our kids are grown to let go of power over them and let them be autonomous. We can start building this trust with our children from an early age. Akilah Richards often talks about trust as a skill: one that needs to be learned. With that in mind, it doesn’t make sense to spend the first 14 years of our kids’ lives living without trust. We can start building that trust from the moment they’re born.
Trusting our kids to make their own choices does NOT mean that we are abandoning them; all kids are naturally dependent on their parents. Trusting them means that we aren’t demanding their dependence. Trust means that we can work together, helping to guide their decisions by giving them the information they need. We can still object and even criticize if we think they are making a bad choice but we don’t make the choice for them. For my family, building up trusting relationships means that I won’t try to control them and they know that they can come to me for advice or information without judgment.
When unschoolers talk about letting their kids be autonomous, we often get hammered with criticism, what-ifs, and unlikely hypothetical situations. People genuinely think that we are harming our children by not taking control. It’s unbelievable that when you stop trying to control your children, they are really capable of making good choices. Yes, occasionally they eat a bit too much ice cream and end up with a tummy ache. Sometimes they fall from high places and get bumps and bruises. Every now and then they stay up too late and have a hard time getting out of bed the next day. But with each experience, they learn how to listen to their own bodies and learn first hand what works and what doesn’t work for themselves. Our kids naturally discover their own limitations, which would not be possible if we were making decisions for them.
When we build trusting relationships with our kids early in life, they don’t usually go through the teen-aged rebellion in the same way as others. Unschooled kids are often better equipped to enter adulthood as independent individuals because they have lived experience on how to make good choices that work for themselves.
b. Living with consent
Consent is tied closely to autonomy and independence: an important concept that often gets ignored in traditional Western methods of raising children. Kids have their consent broken all the time. Everyday. Don’t want to go to school? Too bad. Don’t want to eat your vegetables? Too bad. Don’t want to hug Grandma? Too bad. Don’t want to go to bed? Too bad. It’s no wonder that kids get confused about the concept of consent as they enter their teen years. They’ve never experienced it first hand.
When we talk about consent with teens, it’s often in relation to physical touch and sex – which is super important – but consent isn’t just about sex. It’s not just about physical touch. Consent is “when one person voluntarily agrees to the proposal or desires of another.” (OED) Consent is a crucial concept to living a life free of oppression. We parents are notoriously bad at breaking our kids’ consent. When we bother to ask them their permission, we don’t follow through on their reply. And most of the time we don’t even bother to ask.
And I get it! Consent with young kids is tricky! They don’t always understand the outcomes of their choices and often don’t realize that their choices have an impact on other people. But how in the world can we expect kids to understand how to give and honour consent if we never model it to them as their parents?
Sometimes giving room for your kids to provide you with consent is easy when the decision only affects them. Other times when the decision affects other people, it can be a bit more tricky. Not only do you have to consider other people’s feelings and expectations, but often those folks may be completely comfortable breaking through your child’s consent and expect you to do the same. I’m here to say that it’s totally okay to stand up for your child in these cases, even though it can be really hard. Especially with grandparents. Doubly so for in-laws.
When the decision being made only affects one person, your child, it’s easier to let them have control over the decision. Easier but not always easy because sometimes we get our own hopes up about a certain activity. Sometimes we have preconceived ideas about what the right decision should be. This is where deschooling comes in, helping us let go of what we think should be right and truly listen to our children when they make their own choices.
Other times, decisions can be complex when there’s many people involved. Practicing consensus decision making can be really helpful in these situations, remembering that kids are still whole people that have unique needs. In these cases, I have to take the time to explain the outcomes of potential decisions to my kids and really listen to their thoughts and input. Taking the time to identify why my kids aren’t okay with a specific decision will often lead to an alternative option that makes everyone comfortable and happy. Outside-the-box thinking is critical to unschooling life. We can’t just exercise our power over our kids and supersede their own decision, breaking through their consent, we need to work together to find solutions that work for everyone involved.
When my kids and I do take the time to explore through more options in an attempt to satisfy everyone, the benefits are twofold: we find more solutions but my kids also recognize that I’m actually working with them rather than trying to exercise control over them. When they see that I’m listening and valuing their input, they’re more likely to be flexible in finding a solution that works for everyone.
c. Power-over dynamics and kids as whole people
We’ve talked a bit about the power-over dynamic that exists between most adults and most children, especially in nuclear families. The standard cultural narrative about kids goes like this: Adults are believed to be smarter and more capable than children. As a result, adults have authority over children in making decisions for them because adults are better equipped to do so. Extrapolating from this narrative, adults within the community are required to choose what children should be doing with their time and energy because kids cannot be trusted to make good choices.
Undoing this narrative is at the very core of unschooling. Instead, kids are seen as whole and capable people able to make choices for their own well-being. In the case that a child lacks the experience to make an informed decision, adults act as guides rather than authorities, sharing their own experience and history to help kids understand all the factors and considerations. Unschoolers believe that kids are just as capable and competent as adults, sometimes even presenting different points of view that adults might not consider because of preconceived biases. Kids often just lack the information or experience needed to make informed decisions and it’s so important for unschooling caregivers to take the time to share all the information with our children. This is critical to breaking down the power-over dynamic and building a consensual relationship where each individual is valued as a whole person.
This has been a huge part of our deschooling process. It’s so easy to fall back into the “because I say so” which actually means “because I know best”. My kids are whole people and they are different from me. They know what is best for themselves and are able to make decisions about what’s best for their bodies and their minds. This understanding has helped me relinquish control to let go of that power-over.
And it’s all based on trust right? We actually need to learn to trust our kids and let them make those decisions for themselves so that they can gain the experiences and knowledge that they need to learn and grow as people. When that trust exists between kids and parents, beautiful things happen! The need to control diminishes. Self-confidence blooms. Relationships strengthen. We learn to live together in community without oppression.
It bears repeating here – we need to keep intersectionality at the core of our unschooling practice so we can better understand where systems of oppression cross over. Because it’s not just ageism! Wherever we see the power-over dynamic, we will find oppressive behaviour. If you’re working to dismantle the power-over dynamic with your children but still upholding systems of racism and sexism, the practice is meaningless. If you believe that your children deserve inherent rights and autonomy, it should follow that all people deserve inherent rights and autonomy. Dismantling the power-over dynamic in one sphere but upholding it in another is both self-contradicting and immoral.
3. Unschooling in Practice
After exploring history and principles, it’s worth diving into some key principles that might help guide your unschooling practice. As mentioned previously, everyone’s unschooling lives will look fundamentally different, but there are a few tools or concepts that will help facilitate this alternative lifestyle and methodology for learning and living.
a. Flow over schedules
Many homeschoolers will talk about schedules a lot. They claim that kids thrive on schedules but I’m going to squash that idea right here. Schedules are an adult concept used to compartmentalize chunks of the day into strict boxes where activity is decided prior to the event that leaves no room for deep dives or interest based learning. Some people might use the word routine instead of schedule but you’ll still run into the same issues and I’ll tell you why.
The truth is that people don’t operate naturally on a schedule. We don’t start and stop being interested in specific activities or topics based on the clock. What actually happens is that we find something of interest and from there, we flow through a series of topics, ideas, and mediums, taking breaks when our brains ask for it, eating food when our bodies need it, and going to the bathroom when nature calls! In order to facilitate natural learning, we need to drop schedules or routines and relax into the natural flow of learning that happens to all of us during the day.
There are reasons that following flow might make you feel uncomfortable as a parent. There are days when your kids might not naturally go outside. There are other days where they want to spend the whole day outside. It’s rare that kids naturally want to eat at regularly timed intervals, aka meals. Sometimes kids have a flow that keeps them up late, other kids have flow that wakes them up early. As parents, we like schedules because they are predictable and can be applied to groups. Schedules are also helpful to us parents when there are activities outside of the house like soccer practice or piano lessons.
Flows, however, are actually beautiful and natural ways to organize the day. They allow for kids to dive deep into a topic, uninterrupted. They let kids define what they do with their time based on their interests and needs. They also help kids listen to their own bodies – when they need food, when they need sleep, when they need to go to the bathroom. Some kids will need help or reminders with these things and some families will have collective needs that limit or restrict flow for the betterment of everyone involved. This is what it means to exist in community and working together to blend each other’s flows is great real world learning about how to live in community together. But the more that we can allow kids to live through their natural flow without restricting them with schedule, the more freedom they will have to pursue their own passions.
b. Cycles over balance
People talk about the concept of balance a lot. I’ve tried to find balance for years: balance between where I put my energy at any given time. I seek balance between work and play, family and self-care, passion projects and paid projects, time inside and outside, time on my own and time with others. The eternal quest for balance has been a constant theme in my life, trying to find that happy place where I would feel like everything was in equilibrium. But I’m pretty sure that balance is impossible to achieve and here’s why:
Equilibrium is not a natural state for humans. Balance is not achievable because humans just don’t operate in a balanced way. Our feelings and needs change dramatically from day to day. Natural learning asks us to deep dive into specific areas when we have energy for them and ignore other projects when we’re just not feeling it. As humans, when we try to work on a specific task that isn’t aligning with how we’re feeling, it’s like pulling teeth. It takes forever. The task feels way harder than it actually is. So the best thing we can do is wait until we’re in a better mental space to do that task, and take on something else in the meantime.
The same goes for our kids. Sometimes they’ll be in the mood for a task or activity and sometimes they just aren’t. If we can listen to them and pay attention to their moods, we can avoid inflicting that “teeth pulling” on them as well.
The truth is, I think, that we are better off to consider these ebbs and flows as cycles rather than trying to seek out balance. Here’s what Lucy Aitkenread has to say about balance and cycles:
“Here’s a concept I am not a fan of: balance. To me, it’s another patriarchal legacy. I am a cyclical being not a balanced one. I don’t keep an equanimity between my joy and grief at all times. No. I sink in to them, dig a tunnel right in and stay there until I’m done. I don’t do a little bit of this and a little bit of that each day. No. I spend a week reading and researching and reflecting and then another week activating and embodying. I’m a living creature, not a weighing scale. I’m the moon, not a set of accounts.”11
As an alternative to balance, cycles are a natural state that humans move through all the time. Sometimes we’re really into a new topic or hobby. As Lucy says, we all move through the stages: learning and researching, participating and engaging, reflecting and realigning. And then we find something new. Likewise, our emotions move through cycles. Some days are low and some days are high and honouring these emotions; letting ourselves move through them naturally is so much healthier than trying to force them away.
c. Making your own rules
As we have moved through the deschooling process, relearning what natural education looks like and working with our kids to find solutions to our problems, we also started to recognize that a lot of society’s rules weren’t working well for us. Meal times. Bed times. Clothing choices. Society’s rules don’t often work well for kids (or adults really) when we are listening more to our own patterns and rhythms; our own wants and needs.
In our family, we started slowly dismantling a lot of the rules we had been implementing prior to deschooling. One rule we got rid of was eating meals together when the kids were really into an activity. I understand the importance of having a meal together to connect as a family, but we are already together all day! After a while, we actually stopped eating meals and started eating “snack plates” during the day. This allowed my kids to choose what they wanted to eat and when they wanted to eat it without me having to cook 10 individual meals a day. I still cook dinner for those who want it, but there’s no requirement to sit at the table together. This process works much better for us. We make our own rules.
Once you start dismantling these societal rules, we can start to build up based on what works best for you and your family. Everything is fair game. If there’s areas of conflict or sadness, this is a great place to start exploring how you can do things differently to meet the needs of your kids. More outside-the-box thinking! But most importantly, stop listening to what other people tell you HAS to be done. It’s not true. Nothing has to be done. There are always alternatives and exploring those alternatives as a family can be a really rewarding way to connect with your kids and let them know that you hear them and that you’re listening.
d. Value rest
Our culture does a serious number on us when it comes to the topic of rest. Capitalism glorifies grind culture and urges us to be ever more productive. The truth is that rest is a necessary part of what it means to be a person and we are all entitled to rest our bodies. We don’t need rest to be more productive; we don’t need rest to be more efficient; we don’t need to work hard in order to be deserving of rest. Unschoolers or otherwise, we all need to learn that colonial capitalism is deceiving us when it comes to rest.
There are some amazing resources that I’ve come across online that I recommend to everyone I know when it comes to exploring rest. The first is Tricia Hersey from The Nap Ministry11 who explores rest as a form of resistance and reparations. The second is Devon Price and their book Laziness Does Not Exist12 which examines the “laziness lie”, a false claim which tries to convince us that we aren’t working or learning hard enough. These two resources have been invaluable to my deschooling process and our unschooling lives.
When my oldest son was in school, I’m fairly certain he was falling asleep in class every day. At the age of 8. He’s always been a night owl but also desperately wanted time in the morning before school to squeeze in some gaming or independent learning, so he started intentionally sacrificing his sleep to make time for those moments of free learning before he was shipped off to school. The first thing we did when we pulled him out of school was let him sleep in and wake up naturally. There’s something so beautiful about knowing that your child is getting exactly the amount of sleep they need without forced wake ups or rushed mornings out the door.
Allowing yourself and your children to have the rest you need, both waking and sleeping, enforces the importance of caring and listening to one’s own body. I wish that I had been able to learn to listen to my body growing up. As an adult, I’ve been able to recognize my off days, when I’m feeling sick, when I need specific types of food, and, of course, when I need more rest. My children already can recognize these things in themselves (and often in others as well) because they’ve been given the space to honour their bodies needs. When we put kids on a schedule, we teach them to ignore their body’s signals – a skill that is not only required for them in their school years but also into their work lives under a capitalist system.
4. Unschooling Outcomes
Living an unschooling life cannot guarantee success, regardless of what measures of success you might use. There’s no promise of high paying careers or financial success. There’s no guarantee of happiness as your kids move into adulthood. There are, however, some life skills that you and your children will “graduate” with compared to those families who do not live an intersectional unschooling life.
a. Living in Community
Unschooling inherently promotes consensual living, dialog between family members. These skills are not taught in schools and are not modeled in traditional parenting. This is largely because children have their consent broken and are not included in equal dialog with adults. As a result, when most of us enter adulthood, we have no idea how to ask for what we need, to give others consideration, and live selflessly. While we have existed within communities, we haven’t had the opportunity to navigate the complexities of how to keep a community healthy and thriving.
For grown unschoolers who have had this style of community living modeled for them throughout their childhood, the act of nurturing community comes naturally. They know how to listen, how to negotiate, how to live without breaking others’ consent because it’s the way that they’ve always lived.
I cannot emphasize this enough: even as children, my kids know how to have respectful dialog with those with whom they disagree. They know how to express their needs in an honest and real way while understanding that my needs may be different; that we may have to negotiate to ensure that both of our needs are met. I had no idea how to do this as I entered adulthood. I always considered these negotiations to be battles, especially with roommates and partners, where one party was expected to lose and the other to win. It was only when I started this process of peaceful parenting that I came to understand that there does not need to be a winner and loser – that everyone can win by working together.
For my children to have this knowledge innately is a great gift which I hope to give them. I see them model it with family members and friends in their lives now and it makes my heart sing to know they will grow with these skills and this knowledge.
b. Value of the Self
You can ask any unschooling parent and they will tell you that a huge part of the deschooling process is dealing with the unprocessed emotions of being raised in a childhood without the freedom that we afford our own children. It is a process of peeling away layers and rediscovering our inner child, honouring them and holding space to heal from school wounds. So many of us grow up without understanding who we truly are as individuals because there are key ways that school inhibits our understanding of self. School culture chooses which traits are desirable. As students, we learn to value these own traits in ourselves, rewarding ourselves if we have them and punishing ourselves if we don’t. School culture restricts our creativity, our culture, our natural interests and passions. As children in this culture, we quickly lose sight of what we love and who we are.
Unschooled kids, on the other hand, are not forced into this school culture that places value on specific interests and abilities while devaluing others. They are able to explore their interests freely without criticism which helps them develop a better sense of self. Likewise, personalities, behaviour, quirks, and unconventional interests aren’t judged or quieted by the adult gaze which allows kids to flourish into their true selves.
There is also something to be said about being self-driven in an unschooling environment. In school, students are pushed by reward or punishment systems and rarely value learning for the sake of learning itself. Unschooling promotes learning out of pure interest, not to do well on a test or please adults. This self-motivation carries unschooled kids well into their future, allowing them to find motivation from internal drive rather than external.
Kids don’t need school to learn. That’s a pretty easy statement to swallow. Most people might even understand conceptually that standardized curriculum is more a function of convenience than a practical application of knowledge. But when we talk about unschooling, the majority of people still believe that we are abusing our children and denying them the skills they will need to grow into adults.
When we take the time to unpack what the current compulsory school system actually represents, we can see that schooling might actually be doing more damage than unschooling. Carrying themes of oppression, colonization, and lack of consent while perpetuating the capitalist and colonial culture which values profit over people, the standardized education system hardly provides a nourishing environment where children can engage in meaningful exploration of their interests and passions. In fact, it squashes these by design. And while there are amazing teachers trying to work within these systems, most adults leave school still having childhood wounds they carry unaddressed.
Unschooling provides an alternative approach for those no longer willing to participate in the compulsory education system. What’s more – intersectional unschooling gives us a framework where we can begin to name these injustices and begin to dismantle them in our families and in our communities. From there, we can nourish our children into systems that honour them as whole individuals and demonstrate what it looks like to live in community, without breaking through their consent, building trust and allowing them to make decisions for themselves.
Some would argue that homeschooled kids are sheltered, but I believe this approach to education allows kids to express themselves in ways that other kids are taught is inappropriate or unwanted. Unschooling provides the tools for kids to learn about themselves – all of themselves – in a safe environment where caregivers can work alongside them and mentor them in times of self-discovery. Unschooled kids grow into caring adults who understand that they can ask for help when needed, provide support for others, and genuinely live in community with the people around them.
While each unschooling family will look different, participate in different activities, and spend their days engaging totally different practices, placing the foundational principles of intersectional unschooling in the center of the practice can help unschooled kids thrive in a way of life that is non-oppressive, consent based, and people focused.
- Credit to Akilah S. Richards for the concept of “school-ish” culture and thought which I learned through her writing and podcast.
- http://www.triciahersey.com/ and https://thenapministry.wordpress.com/