When Unschooling Isn't Perfect: a Call for More Compassion and Less Striving for Philosophical Purity

When I was somewhere in my teens, my mother said to me that my father was worried about what I was learning, and she wondered if I'd mind reading a history book to make him feel better. I agreed, and she handed me an overview of Canadian history that she thought I'd find interesting. I did, though I stopped somewhere near the end when it ceased to be as interesting.

This is one of the very few times past early childhood (when we were still closer to the homeschooling end of things) I can remember my parents exerting any type of pressure on me to learn a specific thing. Yet it occurred to me that that history book thing would horrify some. "That isn't unschooling," I can hear people thinking. "Was she even unschooled at all??"

I say this because I've seen this attitude directed at plenty of other people. "You did what?? Your unschooling card should be revoked!" My mother was once even told that, since she used the term child-led learning when my sister and I were young, that we weren't real unschoolers, and furthermore, that since my sister and I were both well into our teens by then, that it was "too late" to start unschooling.

Any worry I had about whether people think I'm a good unschooler or not faded years ago, and beyond that, with the reputation as an unschooling writer I've built, I doubt anyone would level those types of accusations at me now anyway.

But it's troubling to me that those types of attitudes exist, because it seems to be an attitude more concerned with some type of philosophical purity (and the prestige of being able to claim such purity) than with the actual success and happiness of families and children.

It's not that I'm against clarifying what unschooling is, and that it doesn't involve forced curriculum or forced teaching. Just that within the amorphous philosophy that's most frequently called unschooling (but that also goes by life learning, natural learning, autonomous education, and a whole range of other terms), if people are making a continuous effort in their lives to live in a way that allows their children a whole lot more freedom, and doing their best to act as supportive mentors in their children's learning journey, there's no need to pounce on any perceived mistake or "wrong" decision they make and declare them bad unschoolers. People are mostly just trying to cope with the situations they find themselves in, striving to do better each time. And whether a decision was made deliberately that some purists would disapprove of, or someone just reacted badly and decides themselves it was a poor decision after the fact, it's not your life, those aren't your choices, and if you really want to help you'd do it with kindness. If someone seems unhappy with a choice they've made, maybe ask if they'd like to hear some alternative ways of doing things. But if someone is happy with their choices, whether you agree with them or not, telling them they're being bad unschoolers isn't exactly likely to make things better for them or their children. Sometimes, even if a decision doesn't seem in line with the unschooling philosophy to you, for that person, in that family, in that situation, it's the right decision.

Two happy and imperfect grown up unschoolers.

Another important point, to me, is that unschooling just isn't that fragile. An entire lifestyle doesn't collapse because a parent says they'd prefer their children wait until they turn 18 to get any tattoos, or because they get some SAT prep books and say "hey, have you thought about taking the SATs next year?," or enforce a bedtime, or because they ask if you'll read a history book to appease a worried father. If pressure to learn specific things is a regular thing, or there are a whole lot of I-don't-want-you-to-be-doing-that's, then maybe things aren't working out so well. But if it's an occasional thing? Well, people aren't perfect. Unschooling isn't going to be perfect. And striving for perfection is likely to lead to either frustration or, perhaps, a false sense of superiority, when the reality is that no one is going to get it right all the time.

So I guess what I'm hoping for is just a little more understanding and compassion. Talk about your own successes, but also your failures, and when things don't go right. It always helps others to know they're not alone. Write about how unschooling is different than homeschooling, but don't walk up to someone and say "you know what you're doing isn't unschooling." Examine your intentions and make sure they're coming from a good place, a place that's attempting to make things better in a general way, or help someone out, not just make yourself seem more right.

This isn't in any way an attempt to say I'm the one who gets to decide what is and isn't kind, or that I'm always as kind as I could be myself. I've made countless mistakes over the years in my advocating of unschooling, things I've changed my stance on or just wished in retrospect that I'd handled differently, more compassionately. Yet in the years I've been writing, I've noticed a troubling amount of people, who are really trying their best, being made to feel that they're just never going to be good enough. It's one thing to help each other do better and be better, but it's an entirely different thing to hold up an image of unschooling as a pure practice that must be enacted without any mistakes or deviations from the correct philosophical ideals. No one is perfect, and I think it would be really great to remember the importance of empathy and understanding when it comes to our unschooling advocacy!

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