There is a misconception that unschooling equates to a ‘passive parenting’ style. This could not be further from the truth since it actually demands a higher level of interaction and connection with children, but in a supportive rather than controlling role.
Unschooling is not freedom to do whatever you want. Instead it asks you to respect the personal boundaries of those around you, guides you to listen to your gut instinct and find inner order rather than being outwardly controlled by any random authority. Family principles and values take the place of arbitrary rules, and love and caring are central aims. It’s about spending time with people you love most in the world and supporting them to be the best humans they can be by facing the challenges of modern society, together.
As a family, we have our own philosophy around boundaries and limits in place of ‘rules’. The central theme is one of ‘Do No Harm: to ourselves or each other’. Limits are mostly around personal safety – physical, mental and emotional. Children like to have some boundaries and limits to push up against, they might push right to the edges of your family limits at times to check the limits are in place. This actually makes them feel safe and cared for, BUT this is not the same as setting lots of random rules.
Apart from concerns of personal safety, everything else is up for discussion. This might sound very time consuming, but once you start living like this, moving ‘power over’ to a place of ‘power with’ you find you just get into a very natural and relaxed way of being together. When challenges do arise, where possible we look for solutions that are ‘win, win’, where we all feel happy with the outcome. Occasionally we can’t find a solution that is satisfactory to all, but this is rare and we all take the view that we do our best in our particular circumstances and we continue to work on finding a way forward.
How does risk taking fit into a ‘Do No Harm’ philosophy?
Part of living a healthy life will include some calculated risks! Risks are how children discover their own limits. When we see or knowingly encounter a risky situation with our child, it is sensible to do a quick internal ‘risk assessment’. I think we do this very naturally as parents, but we also tend to have a habit of verbalising – ‘that looks tricky’, ‘be careful’, ‘don’t fall’. Our parent brain goes straight to worse case scenario.
What can we do to mitigate risk?
It will depend on the kinds of risk involved, but we might model ‘safe behaviours’. If we are climbing trees with our child, we might point out how we risk assess (discussions of dead wood or whether a branch will take your weight or how high to climb in the safe knowledge that you can also get down). In circumstances where we aren’t going to be able to physically model safe skills ourselves, we can be the ‘guide on the side’.
When my son was learning to ride BMX, we went to a track that included some big drops. As his ‘guide on the side’, my job was to encourage him to improve his skills gradually so that he could achieve the big drops and tricks he wanted to try. My job wasn’t to stop him doing the big drops, even though my ‘parent brain’ would prefer he partake in zero risky behaviour, but instead to keep going back with him each day that week so he could practise the small dips and eventually have both the confidence and skills to do the entire track.
I call this the ‘scaffolded approach’ to risk taking. It doesn’t always go 100% right; sometimes children (and adults) take impulsive risks and accidents do happen, but risk taking is healthy behaviour and we can lessen the possibility of things going wrong by:
- Doing internal ‘risk assessments’
- Modelling safe behaviours
- Being a ‘guide on the side’
If I have done an internal risk assessment (which might include bouncing thoughts off other trusted parents, friends, my husband) and I feel I am setting a limit for all the right reasons, then I go ahead and set the limit and hold it. This is the time to be kind but firm. This is also the time I would be looking for ‘win, win’ solutions and alternatives everyone felt happy with.
We can’t always get things right as a parent, we can only try to be as authentic as possible in the moment.
Here is another example which has come up for us recently:
River swimming – risks are catching weils disease, being hit by a boat, drowning. Pluses are – joy, the confidence gained from doing something adventurous, improved swimming ability, exercise. To mitigate risk we did the following: taught our children that it is important to cover cuts before entering the river; that you should *always* swim with at least one other person, in the case of my children that other person would be an adult; how to swim safely around boats (which part of the river to swim); where the safest river swimming spots are e.g. not to swim in fields where cows are especially following heavy rain or in urban areas or in quarries or reservoirs. To swim using a tow float & preferably a bright swimming hat.
Instead of giving a big lecture on all this, we covered it all quite naturally whilst swimming with them in the river over the course of time, modelling safe behaviours and making it explicit and being their ‘guide on the side’.
Allowing for personal boundaries & why it’s a GOOD thing for your child to say ‘no’:
So as discussed above, we have agreed limits based around family values. We also have ‘personal boundaries’ which ensure that we live together peacefully and respectfully of each other. These ‘personal boundaries’ inform our limits and might include our personal physical boundaries (e.g. one of my children does not like close physical contact) or emotional boundaries (e.g. not insisting on talking about something that one of us doesn’t want to discuss at that time).
Personal boundaries are so important in our wider life – healthy relationships based on consent MUST have boundaries. In unschooling there is no consent if there are no boundaries. Just to be clear, when I talk about consent, I mean related to mind, body and soul.
If we as parents believe that our personal boundaries should be respected, then it follows that we should also allow our children to feel their personal boundaries are respected. This means that we have to accept that sometimes our children will say ‘no’ and that is okay.They might not even give an explanation for their ‘no’ and that is also fine. Personally, I have found that when either of my children have given me a firm ‘no’ and don’t want to or can’t explain, it will crop up in a quiet time later on where you can unpack what might be going on for them.
If we notice that our child finds advocating for themselves outside of the home challenging, we can support them by advocating for them. This is so important, but can feel really awkward, especially if you have a tendency to be a little passive yourself. We can also model how to set boundaries, so that they can learn from us.
I have been working on setting personal boundaries outside the home for myself for a few years, and I know this is something I need to keep working on. I have learnt that feeling resentful is a good indication that someone has crossed my personal boundaries. Brene Brown has some helpful thoughts on boundaries on you tube.
Instead of rewards and punishment:
Obviously there are times of conflict in families or times when a child may disrespect family limits. The mainstream parenting model generally uses a system of rewards and punishments to encourage children to ‘tow the line’. Mainstream schooling also uses a system of rewards and punishments, and this has become so normalised in society that often we don’t know or haven’t learnt any tools to do things in a kinder, more fair way.
We began our parenting journey attempting to be free of rewards and punishments, and opting more for encouraging a sense of personal responsibility in our children for their actions and allowing for what we know as ‘natural consequences’.
I really believed this was the right way to raise our children and still do, but the problem was I didn’t have all the skills in place to implement it. There were no rewards, but not much in it’s place. There are lots of ideas in Alfie Kohn’s book ‘Punished By Rewards’ to help with this, but generally the solution is to give specific feedback rather than judgement (praise is judgement) and focus on effort rather than an end result. I must admit, I still find this tricky ground as possibly all my years of teaching has ingrained a praise habit in me that will take continuous effort to shift.
In not having particularly advanced skills in peaceful conflict resolution in our earliest parenting days, we sometimes did resort to mainstream practices. We used ‘time out’ for example for a short period, but my gut instinct told me this wasn’t kind or helpful. We began to adapt to a ‘time in’ approach, because sometimes children do need space away from the source of conflict, not least to ensure that other children are also kept safe. ‘Nonviolent Communication’ By Marshall B. Rosenburg is a fantastic resource for how to hold space for big feelings and how to solve conflict without judgement or resorting to punishment. ‘Hand in Hand‘ parenting tools are also excellent for this.
Over the years, I have watched, listened, learnt and tried to adapt to new and different ways. I am still learning all the time! Communication is at the very heart of unschooling and also communication is at the heart of behaviour. One really important thing I have learnt recently via a wonderful course I took on communication was how to be an ‘active listener’. It is such an amazing thing to be heard without judgement and without the listener feeling a responsibility to solve all your problems. So this is something new I am trying to bring to my parenting practice (and my wider life) to encourage deeper connection. Active listening skills are also extremely important in conflict resolution.
As a family we have most of our supper times at the table as it is a great way for all four of us to connect at the end of the day. This is also a good time for anyone to raise an issue they want to discuss, to make plans, to challenge our family limits etc Some families hold official ‘family meetings’ for all of this, but we don’t seem to be that organised and instead we decide things together in a more organic way. In fact one of my children raised an issue at dinner just yesterday and declared we needed a family meeting because they weren’t happy with the timing of dinner. We all discussed it there and then, heard everyone’s feelings and thoughts and adjusted dinner time to suit all of us.
When you hear your child advocating for themselves confidently it is so rewarding! I always feel so proud when they do it, especially out of the home with people they don’t know (I also still feel a bit awkward, but that is my problem to get over, not theirs). That’s when I know for sure that this way of agreeing limits and holding boundaries is really worth the extra effort.
Last thought! Behind all ‘behaviour’ is a ‘need’. When we think of it like that, we are more able to be patient and compassionate. I really love Carl Rogers ‘unconditional positive regard’ approach which I only researched in the last few years, but had been practising for a long time without realising it was a theory. This is about accepting someone despite their faults and failings, and genuinely helps to build self-esteem and open communication pathways with children.
Respect works both ways.
Here are some great resources for dealing with behaviour without resorting to punishments and rewards:
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn
Nonviolent Communication By Marshall B. Rosenburg (this book is great for dealing with conflict resolution)
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
Playful Parenting, Lawrence J. Cohen
Elevating Child Care, Janet Lansbury (for babies and toddlers, meant to be good but can’t personally vouch for it)
On Become a Person, Carl Rogers
Raising Resilient Children, Robert B. Brooks
Also I can’t recommend Sophie Christophy’s ‘Consent Based Education’ course more highly. Whether you are new to unschooling or been doing it for years, her impeccable research will certainly add value to your own skill-set and knowledge.
If you have any great resource suggestions, please share in a comment.