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Are we unschoolers?

I’ve been asked this question a lot lately. Are we unschoolers? What is an unschooler anyway? Do the labels really matter?


What is Unschooling?

Unschooling is a style of homeschooling based on the principles of non-coercion, respect and learning according to one’s own interests and motivation. These principles definitely align with my values, and we strive to base our lives on mutual respect and maximizing opportunities to do what we are excited and interested in, as individuals and as a family. However, things get more complicated when you start looking at the nitty gritty details of unschooling.

Unschooling, like homeschooling and education in general, is a spectrum. No two families will unschool in the same way. There are more and less structured unschoolers. There are radical unschoolers who extend the principles of interest led learning to the rest of their child’s life, allowing their children to self regulate their own bedtimes, sugar consumption and screen time. There are unschoolers who attend classroom programs part time. There are unschoolers who don’t use textbooks or workbooks at all, preferring to learn as they go along living their life out there in the world. Most unschoolers believe that learning is essentially initiated and controlled by the child; the parent’s role is to support, guide, mentor and provide assistance finding suitable resources.

Non-coercion, Respect and Attachment

The keystone that makes unschooling really work is attachment. A healthy attachment orients kids towards their parents, and makes them want to do what their parents are doing. So if a parent is actively excited about learning new things and ensures that a child has ample opportunities to be exposed to interesting stuff, learning will happen naturally. No coercion required!

Maintaining a healthy attachment takes a lot of time, a willingness to examine yourself and your behaviours to find out if you’re really giving what a child needs and the ability to dig deep into your own emotional stuff on a fairly regular basis. Living together with your kids 24/7 means that your buttons will get pushed, and often. Learning how to unhook the wires behind those buttons and trust that your children will tell you what they need in one way or another is necessary when you want to follow their lead.

Do we Unschool?

I incorporate some principles of unschooling, but not in an all-or-nothing kind of way. At a fundamental level, I work hard to make sure we’ve all getting our needs met and attachment relationships are healthy and strong before tackling any academics. In this way we are unschoolers; the relationships come first. I also prioritize interest-led learning, although it’s not always child-initiated. I create routines and plan activities in advance because these help our days go more smoothly. I do ask Bea to read, write and do math problems, even when she resists at times. I won’t truly force her though, and as much as possible these academic activities are embedded in a real life activity that has meaning for her. So she practices her printing by making cards and letters, and practices math problems in a workbook. I try to notice what each girl is interested in and seek out activities and resources to go along with that.

Looking at the way we spend our days, we usually spend 20-40 minutes a day on parent-initiated academics (math and reading, mostly) and the rest of the 12 waking hours in the children’s day are spent playing, exploring in the woods, painting, drawing, listening to audiobooks, visiting friends, creating imaginary worlds and doing household things like brushing teeth and cleaning up.

Coercion and Housework

While I rarely feel the need to coerce my kids into doing learning-related activities, I often feel the need to coerce them into doing ordinary household tasks like brushing teeth, picking up after themselves and getting ready to leave the house. I would love to be able to say that we are so strongly attached that they willingly drop whatever they’re doing to tidy up or get ready for bed when I ask, but they just don’t. Likewise, if I allowed them to self-regulate their sugar consumption I would have to shop in such a way that I’d be depriving our whole household of sweet treats so we had only healthy food in the house. I exercise my parental authority by setting boundaries and expectations around learning to live with others and care for their bodies.

I can see that as my kids get older they will be more able to understand the give-and-take of sharing household work as well as the cause-and-effect of taking care of their teeth, hair and bodies in general, and less coercion will be required. But at 6 and 4 they would truly just rather play, and I see it as my parental responsibility to make sure they do pitch in around the house and take care of their own personal hygiene. In this way we’re not unschoolers: household functioning and bodily health trumps non-coercion.

While our homeschool activities are currently a mix of 90% unschooling and 10% homeschooling, I still don’t usually describe myself as an unschooler. Mostly I just don’t like the label because the word itself isn’t appealing to me and has the potential to make others freak out.  I’m an attachment-based, interest-led homeschooler. You could even call us just homeschoolers, or interest-led learners, I don’t mind. I do like the always-suitable term home learners. Maybe we’re really just the family with those silly girls who go grass sledding in princess dresses.


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{ 4 comments… add one }

  • oona June 29, 2013, 3:37 am

    LOVE this, Sounds like an amazing and wonder-filled life! :)

  • Emily van Lidth de Jeude June 29, 2013, 9:15 am

    Nice, Michelle! Something to think about.
    I do, obviously, accept (and proudly wear) the term unschooler, even though I don’t like it. I far prefer life-learner, as that is much less adversary-sounding than unschooler. But I’ve accepted that unschooling is the commonly-used term, now, for the broad spectrum of what we do, and it does make it easier for people to understand what we do. I guess I feel like I want to differentiate us from people who homeschool by coercion, because I love what we do, and I wish more people could see the benefits. But you really give me something to think about with this. Maybe I’m being arrogant in my thinking. Thank you.
    Emily van Lidth de Jeude´s last blog post ..Unschooling Support from Within

    • michelle June 29, 2013, 9:44 am

      I don’t think it’s arrogant to use and identify with the term unschooling – many wonderful and lovely families I know (yours included!) do use it and I have no problem with that. I guess I’m just a bit reluctant to identify ourselves with it 100% because we’re not 100% child-led and non-coercive.

      What if someone sees me putting out the math workbook on a day Bea doesn’t want to do it and says, “hey, you’re not really an unschooler after all!”? Maybe it doesn’t matter, or I’m misunderstanding what unschooling really is. Maybe it’s ok to call yourself an unschooler when you do sometimes ask your children to persist with an activity they no longer want to do.

      For us, I think there will always be a balance of child-led and parent-led activities within a framework of attachment and life learning. Maybe it’s time to coin a new term!

  • Emily van Lidth de Jeude June 29, 2013, 2:59 pm

    Yeah I tried using the term ‘life-learning’ for a while, but nobody knew what I was talking about, and I got tired of having to use the term ‘unschooling’ to define it.

    I so know what you mean, wondering if people will see my kids math books and accuse us of not unschooling. ;-) But I just accept that it’s me who’s on the biggest/slowest journey out of schooling. Every time I try to coerce them I end up regretting it, and learning – once again – that it wasn’t worth it. But eventually my ingrained schooling gets the better of me and I end up trying again, anyway. Heh. I’ll get there. One day. :-) Thank goodness I have such patient children!!
    Emily van Lidth de Jeude´s last blog post ..Unschooling Support from Within

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