Not all the books I’ve been reading lately have been about unschooling, but all of them have resonated with the things I’ve read that have been. Principles of parenting, you might say, rather than rules. Yesterday I picked up ‘Sandra Dodd’s Big Book of Unschooling’ which I fortuitously received recently after trying to find a copy for less than a small fortune everywhere else. And, well, wow.
This is the kind of book that answers a great deal of questions I’ve been storing up during my late night brainstorming sessions. Or at least it reframes them. One of Sandra Dodd’s ideas of unschooling is that if attachment parenting is extended past weaning, it pretty much becomes unschooling. I’ve never thought of it so directly, but of course the two are so closely tied together in principle that it makes sense. That is, the same theories of attachment applied to infants and toddlers are applied to six and sixteen year olds.
Radical unschooling is separated from unschooling in that it sees learning as being involved in all aspects of life, and there is no division made between everyday life and academics. At the centre of radical unschooling is the belief that learning is so natural to human beings, everything else can radiate forth from that point in direction.
A lot of what Dodd discusses is about control, which is an issue that comes up again and again in the books that I read. It’s an issue close to my heart. No one likes feeling controlled, and one of the things I’ve been considering lately is how speech is often the first way we try to control our children. I see it all around me, and in the things I say without thinking too.
Naomi Aldort recommends taking a few seconds or s few minutes to let yourself inwardly act out and think the thoughts that come to us first when we react to our children’s behaviour. This allows us to gain a little objectivity, and it certainly allows us not to react in a way we later regret, or don’t even really believe. It is alarming, though, how programmed we are, how much our language is affected by the language of those we have learnt from. It takes a great deal of work and patience to change it and to be present enough to use different words, a different tone.
It is easier to do this though when we evaluate how much our language is used to control. Even the most basic and simple things I say, in the most gentle ways, have the thought behind them often, ‘I want her to respond in this way or do this’. Unlearning those ways of talking will be a long process, but a worthy one I think.
The most radical part of unschooling though is the idea that we treat our children at all times as if they have complete rights over their own life. And that is radical. Even amongst AP parents that is not often an idea that is greatly welcomed. Most people say things like, ‘Well, I have to make their lunches and do the laundry and hoover, so why shouldn’t I expect my children to do certain things too?’
I understand that way of thinking, but the problem is that it poses more elemental questions to do with the way we think of our children, and our role towards our children, at the same time. To live with the idea of ‘have to’s’ is a misconception. We all have choices. We do not have to do any of these things, even if we feel like we have to. When we start to feel like we have to, we cannot help but feel trapped and resentful, and this trickles down to the way we are with our children, irritable and tense. If we feel like we do not really have choices, then our children stand no chance of being given choices either.
Dodd suggests that we start to find reasons to want to do the things we previously felt we ‘had to’, something I know a lot of people roll their eyes at, but it’s much the same as trying to have a positive outlook. A spoonful of sugar and all that. Our attitude towards even the smallest things can have the biggest mental and emotional toll on our lives and in my own little experience of the parents I know, makes the difference between those who generally feel like having children is the best and most joyful thing in the world, and those who feel endlessly frustrated and angry.
Aside from language, the way we attend to our children is the other area where we can see how much control is important to us. Specifically, our responses to their emotional reactions and our acceptance or resistance to what it is they are feeling. It’s maybe my biggest parenty pet-peeve when I see people negate their children’s feelings. I am not, have never been, a fan of the whole, ‘Oh come on now, no need to cry, let’s stop that’ response.
Because, let’s face it, who the hell are we to tell anyone, let alone our children, what they should be feeling? And although it may be impossible sometimes to understand the depth of an emotional response, trying to make less of it only tells our children that their response is inappropriate. That we are not comfortable with it. That it’s ridiculous. I can’t imagine a quicker way to switching our children ‘off’, to creating a disconnection with them, than doing this.
I love that in ‘Raising Our Children..‘, Aldort recommends we are always fully present with our children when they are upset, and never try to question it or shoo it away. She gives numerous examples which I found really helpful, because although I never say anything to Ava to make her feel silly for being upset, I know I’m guilty of using distraction to ‘help’ cheer her up (and of course, as Aldort says, it never works, it just serves to make her more frustrated)
If I ever make the mistake of trying to dismiss her emotions in one way or another, it makes her so angry. Aldort says that children who are allowed to experience the whole range of emotions will often seem to be more upset at times, but then they easily move on and don’t hold onto resentments and anger from being encouraged to stop feeling a certain way. She purposes, as I believe myself, that it is often such frustrations that can lead to aggressive behaviors being displayed in other areas.
If a child continually is made to feel silly for having a strong emotional reaction, they will eventually switch off completely and that kind of emotional detachment can lead to so many issues later on – a lack of compassion, anger issues etc.
Some critics of this way of thinking would say that children will never develop unless they have limits, boundaries and narrowed down choices, since no one has unlimited choices. I suppose it depends on which way round you look at it. Just as an AP parent would say that only a secure base can lead to true independence, so would radical unschoolers posit that children are born with a desire to be a part of life, to find out about it, to ‘fit in’. A lack of rules doesn’t mean a lack of principles. It means acknowledging that obedience isn’t the goal. It doesn’t mean permissiveness, it means seeing your child as an equal, a partner. If you stop thinking about your child as a person who needs training, you can start to work with them, to live with them.
It seems to anger people or terrify them that if you give your child the freedom to make choices, they will, most of the time, make ‘good’ ones. Why think otherwise? The alternative is a pretty dim view of humanity. This way of thinking puts a lot more pressure on parents to live in responsible ways – to find the best way to live with integrity, and kindness, but if we can try then surely we need no other assurance that our children, with their ever watchful and curious eyes, will learn those qualities too?
I don’t see a more harmonious way of living than that.