Years ago, I wrote a blog post called Intro to Radical Unschooling. In it, I described some of the things I like about radical unschooling. I said I’d write another blog post addressing negative things I don’t like about it. Finally, this is that post.
I heard of radical unschooling in 2007 at a large unschooling conference and was honestly somewhat skeptical. But the idea of total freedom for children was interesting, and I was excited by what a large and vocal following it had across the country. So, I kept an open mind.
Over time, I noticed more and more things that bothered me about the philosophy, or at least how I saw it being implemented. My inspiration for writing about it now came from an unexpected source.
Recently, I was walking along and noticed a girl from my sixth grade class standing on the front steps of a house just a block down from me. I’ve lived in my apartment for exactly a year and never realized she lived so close. We’d only been in the same class for a year, but we still had plenty to reminisce about and catch up on. For example, I told her our classmate Josh just had a baby. Her jaw dropped and she said, “Wow! Must be a good looking baby!” (Oh, sixth grade and the crushes we had.)
Then she told me why she had gone to a different high school. Her parents had seen the track she was headed down and knew a change needed to take place. Apparently, she had been hanging out with “the wrong crowd.” She was even taken home in a cop car a couple times when they all went out looking for trouble and found it. She said it was hard to fit in and that was one way she tried.
When she got to this art centered high school everyone seemed to be really focused on working toward their own goals. She said it had a good effect on her. In fact, she looked off down the street, took a breath and said, “It’s actually one of the best things to happen to me.” It made me think about the way some things can truly alter our lives and who we become.
Exceptions to Radical Unschooling
Then it made me think about radical unschooling. This was a case where parents made their child do something, something major, without their child’s consent, and the child grew up to be very thankful for it. Definitely not an approach the radical unschooling community would endorse — but in this case, it worked.
This is also a good example of how we can be affected by our environment. When unschoolers, radical or otherwise, talk about people’s natural motivation to learn and do what’s ultimately best for themselves, they often don’t acknowledge the power of our environment. What I’m motivated to do is affected by what’s available, what’s needed, what others are doing, what’s considered “cool”, etc.
My awareness of the significance of environment on a person’s life is part of what motivated me to come up with the term “worldschooling.” When we put ourselves in certain environments it can motivate or even force us to learn things, for better or for worse.
Maybe some radical unschoolers would acknowledge this case of parents sending their child to a school of their choosing as an exception where the radical unschooling approach was not the best thing. Of course, they might insist the parents should have taken her out of school altogether (and I might disagree because maybe she’d still run with the same crowd in town).
I did speak at an unschooling conference (with mostly radical unschoolers) and tried to make the point that sometimes it is best for parents to push their child to do things. One mother insisted she’d never force her son to do anything. I said, “What if you knew he was doing something that might get him killed?”
She replied serenely, “Well, maybe that’s his destiny.”
Now, I think she underestimates the power of her instinct to preserve her own child’s survival: she would try to stop him if she thought his life was in danger (regardless of her philosophy). There are no radical unschoolers in a foxhole.
But her words do show how far some radical unschooling parents go in insisting that not forcing their children to do anything is the ideal. Personally, I think the ideal is truly happy, healthy people who know themselves, and do their best to share their gifts with the world.
And I think there are times when that requires a parent or caretaker to override what the child says he/she wants. Usually, things are not as major as the story above. And definitely, it’s not always clear how best to act or whether to just let a child learn from her/his own mistakes.
Among radical unschoolers you do often hear the example, “If my child ran into the street when a car was coming, of course I would grab him/her.” But most situations are not as clear, and each parent does ultimately have to decide if and how to intervene in a child’s life. Again, I think most radical unschoolers would acknowledge that as well.
Then what is distinctive about radical unschooling?
If all parents have to decide for themselves when and how to intervene in their children’s lives, then what makes radical unschoolers different?
The Distinction of Radical Unschooling
I think that’s why radical unschoolers talk about video games, TV, food, and bedtimes so much: it’s something on which they all agree. Radical unschoolers think the best thing for children is if they are given unrestricted access to all these things and allowed to sleep whenever they want. They may have a lot of junk food, play lots of video games, watch lots of TV, and stay up really late during certain periods. But, according to the philosophy of radical unschooling, they will eventually develop their own healthy, balanced way of living if given enough time and trust.
Almost all parents who are not radical unschoolers think this approach to TV, bedtimes, junk food, and video games is ridiculous. By concentrating on these things radical unschoolers can differentiate themselves from other parents. Every group needs their own way of identifying themselves.
Personally, I think this approach doesn’t take into account the power of addiction and seduction. Sometimes we get hooked on something and then come back to a healthy equilibrium or stop completely. Sometimes we don’t. For example, I’ve heard young children have the ability to regulate their intake of proper nutrition given access to healthy foods. They might have “too much” salt or fat in a particular meal but measured over the course of a week it actually evens out perfectly. Then there’s sugar. Sugar is addictive, and given open access to sugar many children will continue eating an unhealthy amount.
Truthfully, I think what’s distinctive about radical unschoolers is their concentration on not forcing their children to do anything or impose any rules. They point out, I think rightly so, that when you trust your child you tend to need less rules anyway. But what about when rules are necessary? They avoid concentrating on or dealing with those instances by saying that following the radical unschooling philosophy guarantees the issue won’t arise.
Which brings me to one of my main issues with radical unschooling. The radical unschoolers I’ve met seem to think conflict between a parent and child is the most important thing to avoid, and that it causes irreparable damage to the relationship. As many stories show, including the one above, that’s just not always the case. Sometimes a parent will have to make a decision the child really doesn’t like and the child may be angry at her/him for a long time. That doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do or that the child won’t eventually be thankful.
The root issue here may be where radical unschooling parents are coming from. Many radical unschooling parents come from an experience of very strict, controlling, untrusting, or harsh parenting (or “traditional parenting” as many of them call it). Either their parents were like that to them or they themselves were very strict with their children before they discovered radical unschooling. Upon discovering this other way of parenting it may have been very challenging to let go and trust in a consistent way. But once they were able to really trust their child to find their own way, they found it much better than the stricter way of parenting they knew.
They seem to think these two extremes are the only ways of parenting. Maybe there’s a fear that if they don’t do radical unschooling parenting they will automatically go to the other extreme of harsh, untrusting parenting. Maybe they’re right. But that doesn’t mean their extreme is the only option or the ideal for all parents.
Unfortunately, I’ve met radical unschooling parents that seem to think they’re better than other parents. In fact, some seem to think that if you’re not parenting their way then you’re abusing your child. To be fair, many do not promote this way of thinking. In fact, Dayna Martin, author of Radical Unschooling: A Revolution Has Begun, gave a speech all about trying to reach out to other people even if they don’t have the same views on parenting. I don’t necessarily agree with Dayna on everything, including the title of her book, but I really appreciated that message.
Still, there are enough radical unschoolers conveying a message of intolerance that it becomes offputting, especially to people who are interested in unschooling/homeschooling. What’s sad to me is that many people could really benefit from leaving school and homeschooling with a curriculum or not (a.k.a. unschooling). But I’ve heard stories of people almost scared away from the whole idea of homeschooling because they had negative experiences with radical unschoolers. And I’ve also met radical unschoolers who insist that the only real unschooler is a radical unschooler, and that you shouldn’t bother to homeschool unless you’re going to unschool.
(Sectarian Tangent – Taking a step back, it seems so historical: like Protestants and Catholics, Sunnis and Shiites, or Orthodox Jews and Reform. “You’re not really Christian/Muslim/Jewish unless you’re our kind of Christian/Muslim/Jew.” Same in Buddhism only even more complex perhaps. Radical unschoolers will even insist they are the ones who properly interpret the words of the founder of unschooling: John Holt.)
In the past, I’ve definitely looked down on people who don’t choose unschooling. I feel sorry about that now. More and more I see that homeschooling while using some curriculum works well for some people. It doesn’t seem to cause severe damage for sure. And some people even seem to do really well in certain schools.
I still think homeschooling is something from which a lot more people could benefit. I think many people have no idea what young people (or they themselves) are capable of learning if given the freedom to (re)develop motivation. And I think radical unschoolers are right: many adults don’t give children enough freedom, trust, or respect. Sometimes people do unhealthy things simply as a rebellion against rules imposed upon them. But there are billions of other reasons why people do things that might be unhealthy.
That’s ultimately my disappointment with radical unschooling: it doesn’t give you any other tools or even acknowledge that you may need other tools, to deal with the complex challenge of being responsible for a child. Their only tool seems to be trusting and being supportive. They have some great, creative ways to use that tool. They insist if you use that tool properly you won’t have any other problems. That does not seem to be the case to me. When that tool doesn’t solve every problem radical unschooling doesn’t have anything else to offer.
I’m sure every individual parent or caretaker does in fact develop their own skills for how to deal with different problems where just trusting and supporting aren’t the answer. But again, radical unschoolers seem to avoid getting in those situations, facing them, or even talking about them in my experience.
Radical unschoolers talk about going off and having a revolution, but ultimately, many seem to really want to create their own world and find the outside, mainstream society to be inhospitable to their way of life. They say that’s why they go to conferences: to be surrounded by people who are like minded. I can understand that. They talk about the “unschooling bubble” often in very positive terms.
I guess that’s where they lose me. I’m not big on bubbles.
I’ve noticed there can be tolerance within the “unschooling bubble” for behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated outside of the community. In the name of freedom, respect, and trust the behavior isn’t addressed. But you’re doing a great disservice to someone if you allow them to develop behavior and habits that are going to close doors to them, regardless of your stated motives.
I left school and started unschooling when I was 15 years old with high hopes for what unschooling could do for the world. I wrote, organized information nights, and gave speeches (once in front of an audience even). Then I traveled the world and didn’t concentrate on unschooling for years. In 2007, I was introduced to the national unschooling scene and radical unschooling. It was very exciting even though the direction they seemed to be going was somewhat in contrast to some of the valuable lessons I learned while traveling. I had high hopes again for unschooling.
I still do. But I realize things are a lot more complex than I thought as a teenager. (What a surprise, right? God bless teens: keep doing what you’re doing. But yes, things are often more complex than you think. It’s great.) And I don’t think radical unschooling as it’s conceived is the answer.
Actually, I think we need to look deeper to discover who we really are and what the real challenges are around us. I think it’s hard to overstate how difficult it can be to truly do that:
People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul. –Carl Jung
Or even more apt for unschooling:
Men are not free when they are doing just what they like…. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes, and there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving. –D.H. Lawrence
We need to go to the root of ourselves and the problems around us if we want to create real change. That’s actually what “radical” means: “to the root”. But I think radical unschooling is in some ways superficial: “Look! My child is truly free because I let him/her play video games!” So radical unschooling needs to figure out what it really is about if it wants to live up to some of its grand hopes.
At the very least, radical unschoolers could work on being more welcoming to everyone, regardless of their views, if they want to encourage people to try the wonderful world of learning and living without school. That’d be totally radical.