Earlier this fall I attended the Wide Sky Days unschooling conference in San Diego, California. While I was there, I facilitated a talk entitled “Things That Hold Unschooling Back.” I was hoping to talk about ways that unschoolers keep unschooling from becoming a more mainstream movement; I also wanted to touch on criticisms of certain aspects of unschooling itself. The idea of running this talk made me nervous- there were things I was planning to say that I feared some attendees might find unpalatable- so I was surprised by what transpired.
The talk was well attended by a vocal group of long time unschoolers and some newbies. Rather than arguing with me or getting upset about the things I was saying, it seemed like most people came to air their unschooling grievances publicly. Sometimes it feels like it’s not acceptable to criticize unschooling at the conferences, so I think people were grateful for the opportunity to talk about the problems they saw with unschooling without judgement.
I had a list of topics that I wanted to discuss, and I felt like my list was fairly exhaustive. However, once we began talking I was so grateful to have long-time unschooling parents like Ronnie Maier and Pam Sorooshian in the audience, because they broached topics that I had not even considered. I don’t have a complete list of everything that we discussed during that hour, but I’d like to talk about some of the major points that came up.
1. The Venn Diagram Effect: Lately there’s been a lot of talk about other fringe/woo woo movements being compatible with or inextricably connected to unschooling. It seems like everyone’s talking about the law of attraction and homeopathy and anti-vaccination movements- and a whole bunch of other things- as if they are part of unschooling. They aren’t. It’s fine if you believe in the law of attraction and you unschool, or you’re a libertarian and you unschool, or you’re into reiki and you unschool- it only becomes a problem when you start telling people that they’re the same thing.
Why is this a big deal? Because only a small margin of people who might be interested in unschooling are also interested in the law of attraction. Insisting that they must go together alienates those people who might love unschooling but believe the law of attraction is bunk.
2. The Feral Children Phenomena, aka Unparenting: Things can get out of control at conferences, y’all. If you’ve just started unschooling and you’ve been to a few conferences you might think it’s cute and nice that parents are letting their six year olds run freely down the halls of the Marriot or the Hilton, causing property damage and irritation in the process. However, it’s led to us getting kicked out of multiple hotels and retreat sites, and it often makes the hotel staff and passersby who we come in contact with think that we’re crazy people.
Here’s a question that I think it would behoove parents to ask themselves, both while at conferences and in their day to day lives: “Is my child’s behavior creating negative externalities for other people?” When the answer to that question turns into a “yes,” then it is time for you to intervene.
Eli Gerzon wrote a great blogpost about excessive parental permissiveness in the unschooling community coming as a backlash against unschooling parents’ experience with excessively authoritarian parenting. I think unschooling parents should give their children as much freedom as possible. However, it often seems like the line in the sand for intervention is “when my child is endangering herself or others.” I think the line in the sand should be “when my child is endangering herself or others, or when she is being obnoxious and creating problems for other people.”
Below I’ve listed some behavioral situations in which you, as a parent, should definitely intervene. If you aren’t sure if your kid is capable of not doing the following things (or other things that create negative externalities) while you are not present, then you need to be present with him or her all the time. All of these things, at one point or another, have actually happened.
1. When your child is POOPING ON THE FLOOR of a conference center.
2. When your child is telling a businessman at the Del Mar Hilton to “Go fuck himself.”
3. When your child is getting off the elevator on the third floor and pushing buttons 4 through 25 on his way out.
4. When your child is destroying someone else’s property.
5. When your child is yelling or running into people or just generally being really high energy in a destructive or annoying way.
There’s another side to this coin. A few parents don’t keep an eye on their kids and it creates big problems for everyone. In addition, other people in the community feel like it’s unacceptable to tell a kid to knock it off when he’s behaving inappropriately. I hereby empower you to kindly, courteously, and gently speak up when someone else’s child is doing something obnoxious and say something like “Hey, would you mind being a little quieter? We’re trying to have a conversation.” Don’t scream, don’t threaten, don’t touch, don’t pull rank. Just politely ask them to knock it off- the same way you would do if a stranger in the booth next to you at a restaurant was screaming and carrying on.
3. The Unsocialized Unschooler: This isn’t so much something unschoolers are doing wrong as it is a trend that I’ve noticed. The awkward, unsocialized homeschooler does exist, you guys. I know we get together at conferences and the teens get on panels and talk about how they’re really quite socially competent, thank you very much, but of course the awkward kids aren’t going to volunteer to be on panels, are they? (Well, sometimes they are.)
I think about this in a “chicken or the egg” sort of way: do unschooling and homeschooling inherently make people awkward, or do people with socially awkward kids gravitate toward the unschooling movement because their kids were having a difficult time in school? Most of the time I think it’s the latter and it’s a correlation issue and not a causation issue. However, most people seem to believe the opposite, and believing that your kids are going to turn out to be completely socially incompetent if you homeschool them is a pretty powerful motivator to keep them in school.
4. The Problem With the Media: They’re looking for stories that increase their viewership. Viewers want to watch stuff that is exciting or sensationalist. As a result, media outlets want to do stories about unschooling, but they almost inevitably spin them in a negative or sensationalist way and end up making us look, again, like crazy people.
Frankly, I think most people should not try talking to the media about unschooling, because one has no control over the aired content and you typically end up being a pawn or a footnote in whatever point your interviewer is trying to make. I would make an exception if it’s a live interview and you can get a list of the questions beforehand- that way you know what you’ll be talking about and there’s no way to spin the story through editing.
To close, I want to make it clear that I’m writing this post not because I don’t like unschooling, but because I love it so much. I believe that it is only through honest, critical dialogue that we can make our movement better. Also I needed to get the stuff about bad conference behavior off my chest.
Unschooling affiliated people: How do you feel about this list? What else should be on it? Is there anything on the list that shouldn’t be there?