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What Unschooling Isn't

Tonight, a few brief notes on what unschooling isn’t.  I don’t mean to be bit unctuous, but here goes anyway.  I see—a lot—that unschooling kids never learn anything what with all the sitting around doing nothing, and eating candy all the time.  I believe these statements are mostly in reaction to ‘radical’ unschoolers who say things like, “The kids eat whatever they want, and pursue their own interests.”
These sorts of statements are true, but not necessarily in the way they’re taken.  Yup, some unschoolers eat  whatever they want.  Why, oh why, would that be candy though?  First, you have to ask yourself, where’d they get this candy?  If there’s no candy in the house, they’d have to go outside to get it, and that contradicts the other ‘unschooling premise’, ‘they do nothing all the time.’

Let me break it down simply.  Unschoolers don’t sit around and eat candy all day for two reasons.  The first reason is that an emotionally healthy person allowed to make their own decisions won’t eat candy all the time because it doesn’t feel good, whether your a kid or an adult.  Go ahead, eat candy all day for a day, see how you feel the next day.  It won’t be great.  The second reason they don’t eat candy all the time when told they ‘can eat whatever they’d like,’ is because there’s very probably no candy in the house.

Unless an unschooling kid happens to be cooking for themselves, they live with the same limitations of family dining as everyone else, food is prepared, food is presented.  ‘They can eat whatever they want,’ means—more precisely—‘You can eat the food or not.  There it is.’

OK, so I’ve addressed candy eating—at least to my satisfaction.   Let’s hit the ‘doing nothing’ assertion.  Again, it’s easy to see how this statement comes from the things us unschooling parents say, things like, “The kids learn what they want when they’re interested.”  This should not, however, translate in any way to “They sit around and do nothing.”

Again, I’ll point out some context.  It seems very unlikely to me that any well-regulated human, allowed to be in control of their lives would sit around doing nothing for long.  They’ll do things that interest them.  So, assuming ‘unschooling kids control their learning environment’ means ‘unschooling kids do nothing’ perhaps says more about the people who make the assumption than it does about the typical unschooling kid.

Even leaving self-directed learning out of the mix, do most unschooling kids really have the opportunity to do nothing?  The simple answer is no.  Unschooling parents constantly find new opportunities to expose the kids in their charge to things that they might develop an interest in.  Is it teaching in the public school sense of the word?  No.  Is it doing nothing?  Not by a long stretch.

So, if you happen to see ribald assertions about unschooling that don’t seem to make sense, ask yourself a few questions.  First: Is the lifestyle described something that could be reasonably attributed to a healthy person in charge of their own life?  Second: “Is the person making the assertion assuming they’re talking about a catered to, spoiled kid, or are they assuming they’re talking about a person living a rational life with all of a rational life’s usual limitations?

Unschooling kids live in the same world as every adult in their community.  If you’re looking for the kids that are catered to, perhaps the public school system would be a better place to start.


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