Is parent-led unschooling an oxymoron?

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I’ve heard a lot of people talk as though unschooling was something that just magically works as long as the parent doesn’t somehow contaminate things by trying to push their children into learning. According to some descriptions requiring my child to practice his handwriting will instantly discourage any interest in learning whatsoever and prevent him from discovering who he was truly meant to be. According to some if I leave my children to do whatever they want during the day they will somehow be inspired to learn everything they need to know, and whatever they don’t learn they don’t need, because if they did need it they would find a way to learn it.

I can’t do that. At various points I’ve thought about it. I’ve sat on the edge of the unschooling dock and tried to convince myself to dangle my toes in the water of child-freedom. It doesn’t work for me. It isn’t even a worry that my kids wouldn’t learn what they need. They are young enough and bright enough they probably already know most of what they need to learn at this point. The problem would be that they would say they are bored and they want me to interact with them. I could get away with not interacting with them for a while, but that wouldn’t work forever and at some point, it is better if I plan some of our joint activities than if I try to leave them to direct all the action in the name of child liberation. I need to be boss at least some of the time and if I’m going to be the boss some of the time, the kids are going to learn things from our activities. After all, I want to be learning something from our activities and I don’t know how I can keep learning from them without dragging the kids along into the world of learning too.

Yet I like doing a lot of non-schoolish type activities. I love the days where my oldest comes to me and says, “but mom, we haven’t done any schoolwork yet, shouldn’t we?” and I realize he didn’t count any of the morning’s many activities as work. So today I decided I could call what we’re doing parent-led unschooling.

What is the “schooling” that “unschooling” is supposed to avoid? Is it “being forced to learn”? Or is it “having learning divided into subjects and presented in 45 minute chunks of time?” Is it doing worksheets? Is it doing “busy work”? (By “busy work” I mean work that doesn’t quite fit with what the child is ready to learn, perhaps because it is too easy or perhaps too hard, but that the child is required to do anyway because it fits into the school curriculum.) Or something different?

The ‘school’ part that I am trying most to avoid in how I teach my children is the idea that learning is something separate from the rest of life. I want to try to break down those borders between learning, play, and living. If I can teach them to use their play to understand the world and to make understanding the world into play, then I will be delighted.

I haven’t been perfectly successful at this. While the children do love learning, they still do think of certain types of activities as “schoolwork.” To some extent I am okay with that. “Schoolwork” can be something we do to try to gain certain types of skills. But it should be a minimal part of the day. The rest of the day should be unschooling. It should be living. Different parts could be child-initiated or parent-initiated but it should be seen as a part of life and not as “school.” Learning is just what we do. Not something separate.

But even as I write this I think about how disciplined learning is a good thing. It takes practice to learn to write fluently. It takes practice to learn to play the piano, or to do multiplication and it is okay for the practice to be work. I think it feeling like work or not isn’t going to depend on whether the child wants to do it or not but on how close to the edge of the child’s learning ability the skill is. Some things take work. I don’t want to say that the work it takes to learn new things is “school” and “school” is bad. Yet my kids already think that certain practices are “schoolwork” so what’s left is probably to not suggest to them that school is bad. And besides, what would be the point of encouraging them to look down on something that most of their peers have to do?

Unschooling is a name, a label that some people use. For some people it is wonderfully liberating. For others it is not. In writing this, I’m not trying to judge other people’s schooling or lack of doing so. Writing this is more just my trying the label on for a few minutes, like some would try a hat on, to see if it fits. The unschooling label doesn’t fit for me, partly because I associate it too closely with the extreme unschooling ideas and partly because I don’t want to encourage my children to reject any part of learning by turning the word “school” into a negative thing.

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One Comment

  • Liz

    We are similar. We have a short period of time each day where we work on an online curriculum and use related library books, but the rest of the time is significantly less structured. I am not sure if we are really unschooling during that rest of the time or not.

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