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Unschooling, v3.0

Kristin Marshall, Nanoose Bay

May 25, 2005

Unschooling (transitive verb) 1. obtaining education through experience or exposure, 2. challenging accepted limitations or conventions in any aspect of life.

If you had asked me to define unschooling ten years ago, I would have said unschooling was using a child's interests as a springboard for all kinds of learning and conventional education. If you had asked me to define it five years ago, I would have talked less about "using" a child's interests, and more about respecting them. But I'm glad you asked me today, because I've learned so much... Ask me again in another ten years, okay?




Clockwise from left, Grace, Kristin, Jesse and John

Thankfully, language, definitions, and human understanding are always evolving. By now, definition #1 has fostered definition #2 in my life. I can say we're unschooling everything, and I'm not really talking about how I educate my children. I'm talking about how we live. It's a philosophy of respecting each individual, regardless of age, and trusting that each person will know what s/he needs in order to grow. I've defined unschooling as a transitive verb, which means it needs a direct object. So what do we unschool now, that we didn't do five or ten years ago?

I think it started with swords. We began by unschooling weapons. Our kids were young -- two through five or six years old, at the time -- and deeply into imaginative play. They acted out stories of medieval knights and pirates all the time. Unfortunately, because of my well-intentioned "no weapons in our house" rule (in the hopes of eradicating the aggressive tendencies in human nature), my kids were unhappy with their costumes. What kind of pirate doesn't have a sword? What kind of knight jousts with a wooden spoon? Then, when we visited in other homes where weapons were available, my kids were obviously obsessed with the weapons. They couldn't play anything *but* weapons, so long as weapons were available. I heeded the advice of another mother and my own grandmother, and let them buy weapons at the dollar store, using their own earned money (to soothe my pacifist conscience). What happened? They gloried in their new accessories for pirate and knight games; they played with their weapons a lot for a few months; they stopped obsessing over weapons at other kids' houses; and they moved on to other interests. They did *not* become aggressive, violent war machines. "Remember this," I told myself.

Next, we unschooled computer and tv use. I decided to trust my children to watch or do as much as they need to with these tools. It started with a nasty broken arm (my seven-year-old son's) and my capitulation to rent him a Nintendo game unit for a week, when he was basically immobile. I was genuinely surprised that he didn't play video games all day -- he liked them, but continued to pursue other interests, too. "Hm," I thought, "This is kind of like what happened with the swords." Then my husband's brother moved in with us and hooked up cable. "They'll watch tv all day for a month!" I predicted. I was wrong. They watched it all day for exactly one day. Then they went back to normal life.

Now, I trust that they are using these tools towards their own growth. I am confident that they will not watch "too much" tv or spend "too much" time on the computer. I realize that there are times when it will look like "too much" to me, and that there is likely a reason for this. Often, the reason is that someone is feeling unwell, and needs quiet time to rest and recover (from the flu, for instance). More often, my children watch very little tv, and use the computer productively. I am frequently stunned by what they have learned from their use of these tools. Other people are frequently stunned that my children are not screen zombies, because they don't believe children will limit themselves and not hunker down obsessively in front of the screen. Actually, given genuinely free choice, most kids don't; because they are free to choose, they are also free to turn away. Since tv isn't "bad" in their world, they are also free to learn from it. Which they do -- amazing amounts and interesting things!



John and Kristin


It has been easier for me to unschool housework. I don't make my kids do chores. I have five kids, so we have a lot of chores that need doing. They pitch in cheerfully, for the most part, as work presents itself. I have unschooled myself in this area, as well, choosing to view housework as a productive use of my time, rather than pointless drudgery. Both my husband and his brother (who lives with us) model a willing attitude towards housework. Maybe it's our attitude shift, or the fact that they are free to say "no" on days when housework just seems overwhelming, but my kids will wash dishes, dry them and put them away, unload the dishwasher, vacuum, clean bathrooms, change pet cages, manage the recycling, mow the lawn, chop wood, put loads of laundry on, wash windows, clean the garage, tidy bookshelves, pick toys up off the floor, and cook. Some are more cheerful and jump in more readily than others. This usually reflects overall mood and energy level, and fluctuates over time with each individual.

I have heard people say that they tried to unschool housework and it didn't "work". However, if you have a hidden agenda (for this to "work" means, I suppose, that everyone starts doing the housework for you), you are not unschooling. For a person to have a choice (in this case, to do housework or not), both answers must be equally acceptable. Your child has to be free to say "no," and you have to accept that answer. Only after "no" is acceptable will "yes" start to appear, and if you are deschooling in this regard, it can take awhile. For me, it was a matter of being willing to do the chore myself. 90% of the time, the child would join me, until s/he gained more confidence and felt equal to the task.




Clockwise from left, Andrew, John, John Sr., Beverly, Jesse, Grace


We unschool food choices. This was really hard for me. We always let our kids choose from the food available in the house, but we had some "rules" in the early years: you have to try what's on your plate before rejecting it, you have to eat some of your supper to get dessert, and no junk food was available in our house. Over time, we began to find this a little disturbing. For one thing, no junk food in our house made junk food out of the house seem really appealing. When my kids were visiting other people's homes, they would fixate on any available "treats" (just like the swords).

When we tried to enforce the "eat some of your supper before having dessert" rule, it degenerated into my husband and I choosing how much food was "acceptable" (two bites of broccoli? Three? How many cubic centimetres of mashed potato?), and this went against our parenting instincts of letting our kids choose how much food to eat, and when. After all, I didn't want anyone taking in food with a huge side helping of negativity -- I wanted them taking in food flavoured with love and open-handed generosity.

We read up on the creation of eating disorders, and realized we were well on our way to establishing unhealthy eating habits in our kids -- the very thing we were trying to avoid. We also saw one child developing an unpleasant and particularly unhealthy attitude towards food (sneaking snacks out of the kitchen behind her back, for instance). This really set the alarms off for us. We decided to unschool food, too. "Remember the swords," my husband reminded me, as he brought pop and chips and chocolate bars from Costco into the house. I gulped, and counselled myself, *Patience*. I am happy to say that the same pattern held. After a flurry of adjustment to junk food in the house, lasting about six months, everyone got used to it. No-one ate it exclusively. A few dinners went untasted, in anticipation of dessert. There were a few breakfasts of ice cream. I began respecting the reality of the child who always declared that the food "smelled funny". No-one developed malnutrition. Everyone developed a healthier attitude towards food -- choosing what to eat, how much of it to eat, and when to eat it. The supper negotiations disappeared. Food stopped being a source of conflict, and grew into what I wanted it to be: a source of energy, nutrition, and pleasure, shared socially around a happy table.

I include myself in this success story. I was brought up viewing food as something to be rationed out; plates had to be cleaned, whether your stomach wanted that much or not; and certain foods were "rewards". This is a great recipe for adult weight gain. By questioning my food choices (why finish everything on my plate if I'm full?) and taking the "reward" element out of junk food, I realized how compromised my eating choices had always been. I'd been locked into an attitude towards food as "good" or "bad", and the result was an extra 20 pounds hanging around my hips. It's hard to unschool my own food choices, but I'm doing it, and losing weight, too. One of my cardinal diet rules is to eat chips, if I want to -- not as a reward (which happens too often) or because if I don't eat them, they might not be available tomorrow -- but anytime I *want* to, which is surprisingly less often than I was eating them before.

We unschool human relationships, too. I try not to project my own expectations onto my kids. I try not to interfere in their relationships unless I am called upon for help. I don't step in to solve fights or make young children "play nice" or share. I do try to honour each person's experience and *listen* to their own story, rather than projecting my story onto them. I try to act as a resource for them, helping them think through a situation and develop creative solutions. The cumulative result is a very self-possessed child, who is not rattled by much. The hardest part of this is dealing with the expectations of other mothers, in public. I try to remind myself, who am I parenting? My child, the flower of my heart -- or the 40-something stranger standing next to me at the playground? There is an emerging theme here. Unschooling, for me, is about respecting individuals, and operating from the premise that *who they are* is sufficient. It's about letting go of agendas, letting go of the myth of creating uber-children, not trying to mold them into something I've chosen, and giving up political didacticism in the realm of our children -- who are autonomous individuals, not extensions of their parents. It is about humility and gratitude, and taking "Me" out of the equation. It's about stepping aside and letting my children be the individuals they are, and cherishing them as they are. The lovely consequence is that they are growing and developing in surprising and wonderful ways.

Oh yeah, they're learning stuff, too.

Kristin Marshall
May 25, 2005
Nanoose Bay, British Columbia



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