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10 urgent lessons adults need to learn from unschooling

I recently did a podcast interview that took me back to my days as an unschooling mother of four. Now that my ‘children’ are 23–31, that seems a long time ago. But talking over how I’d arrived at that model of education made me realise that it’s still one I’m using and benefiting from.

1. Life isn’t a classroom

When we first began to educate at home we only had school as a model. We overbought textbooks and thought we had to try to timetable our lives. But it was soon apparent that home life didn’t and shouldn’t look anything like classroom life. We needed to relax and make it up as we went along.

2. Life is in the present moment

By the time our youngest was born we’d moved to a new city and there was a lot more Internet support for educational alternatives. We met more people who were ‘unschooling’ even if they might not have called it that. At this stage, we made the shift from seeing childhood as a preparation for adult life to focusing on living well in the present moment. We became more intent on solving today’s problems. It turned out that living well now is the best preparation for the future and that continues to be the case long after needing a pedagogy.

What I reaslied was that the whole notion of seeing childhood as a training ground is completely flawed. It assumes that children are not autonomous human beings, but only some kind of raw material to shape. Granted, children have less experience in the world, but that does not make them less human or creative. At any stage of life, we are fully human and the present is vital. As Thoreau puts in Walden:

In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.

3. Life and learning are seamless

In an article you wrote for Life Learning Magazine, about creating an autonomous learning environment, I wrote about how an autonomous, or unschooling, learning environment transcends boundaries.

What I realised in relation to educating children, and what is true for my own lifelong learning now, is that trust is key. Once we stop viewing our children or ourselves at any age as buckets into which we can pour knowledge, then we become free to learn what we need at that time. This is true whether we are pursuing questions of information, how to spend our time or what kind of person we want to be. But whilst all this is learning, it may not look like what we’ve come to think of as ‘education’. Nonetheless, if learning is about everything we do, then it’s impossible to conceive of any of us, at any age, children or adults, as not learning.

The boundary between what is or is not ‘education’ melts away. The most intense learning moments might come during a conversation or a walk, whilst sitting in a tree gazing at the stars or paddling in a stream. Everything we do becomes educational, and all the more so as we get on with life and solve that days problems on their own terms.

4. Fear is the enemy

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In the early days of unschooling children, it was all too easy to be afraid. I feared that I would let my children down with such an approach, that I’d miss some essential skill or fact. But all education, of whatever model, has to make choices about what to include or miss out. The vital thing isn’t covering every topic in the history of humanity, but helping children to develop the skills to find out what they need for themselves. Providing a rich environment of conversation and film; nature and books; art supplies … is preferable to ticking a box marked ‘educational achievement’.

In a world full of noise it’s too easy to buy into masses of information rather than favour the deeper work of wisdom. It’s worth pausing to hear the challenge of T S Eliot’s ‘Choruses from the Rock’:

Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

It’s so easy to become overwhelmed and think we have to do everything by yesterday. But as Greg McKeown points out in Essentialism:

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.

5. Self-sacrifice is never the answer

Sacrifice is often held up as a virtue in society. But whether we’re trying to form creative, autonomy-respecting relationships with children or adults, ‘giving in’ is not a solution.

Sometimes we fail to find a solution with another person of any age. But when we end up self-sacrificing on a regular basis it’s a negative signal for many reasons.

For one thing, it cuts creativity dead. If you’ve spent hours trying to find a solution to no avail and you’re too exhausted to go on, giving in might seem like the only way to cut your losses. But if you give up early in a negotiation process to speed things up, then you abort all the problem solving skills you and others might have employed.

Moreover, regular self-sacrificing builds resentment. A person who always gives in might seem ‘fine’ about it, but over time this kind of self-negation eats away at us. It poisons the atmosphere of being solution-oriented. Chronic self-sacrificers often become passive aggressive manipulators who say they ‘don’t mind’ what a group decides and claim to be happy to go along with anything, But they often simultaneously put others in the position of having to guess at their needs rather than being open and honest about them.

Unschooling my children taught me that at all stages of life self-sacrificing or not stating needs is a route to bad feeling. It sabotages creativity. We have to take ourselves seriously if we are going to do the same for others.

6. It’s good to change your mind

When I was at university a theology professor, Henry Chadwick, had a great saying:

Heretics are always changing their minds. The orthodox have no minds to change.

Living by consent-based parenting and unschooling taught me that when adults and children see themselves as free, respected people, this releases an innovative thinking. This, in turn, means we can change our minds without loosing face.

Changing your mind because you’re open and flexible is completely different to self-sacrificing. At any age, we’re all learners with various experience, creativity and perspectives, able to learn from others, whether a 2 year-old or an 85 year-old.

7. Love isn’t living someone’s life for them

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One of the most valuable lessons of unschooling was the realisation that no matter how much we want the best for our children, we don’t have the right to preconceived ideas about what they should be or do. The same is true for any close relationship. My needs are mine, but I don’t have the right to impose my wishes onto those I love. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t meet one another’s needs, only that this can’t be an assumption. It has to negotiated. It has to be an invitation to others to help and support and an offer to reciprocate.

‘My need is for you to clean your room’ misses the point. But ‘my need is to have some clean calm space’ is fine. It invites others to help, rather than implicating in them in what ‘has to’ happen.

‘I’m so proud of your achievement’ misses the point. It co-opts what someone else has done. But ‘I’m delighted for you that you’ve done what you set out to do’ validates without dismissing the autonomy of the other person.

The temptation to over-identify can be stultifying in any relationship. I am not my child and my children have the right to shape their own lives. The same is true of a lover, friend or partner. It’s a privilege to support the journey of someone we love, but you don’t author any life but your own.

8. Trust is vital to healthy relationships

Treating my children as rational, autonomous people was often met with amazement from others. People would assume that children make bad choices if given any control. But, as I moved to unschooling, I discovered that what children lacked was experience. It’s not difficult to share this with them without coercion. Once they trusted that I was sharing my perspective and experiences, rather than laying down the law, then they wanted to consult and discuss. The same is true in all autonomy-respecting relationships. Of course children will make mistakes. Don’t we all? But trust sees us through. In the words of Ernest Hemingway:

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.

9. Relationships are worth the long-haul

The biggest long-term joy from relating to children as autonomous creators of their own stories is that these relationships remain vital and fresh. Establishing trust and support takes years and it’s worth every moment.

10. Life is always about learning

My adventures in unschooling have taught me that the whole of life is about learning. In a world where flexibility is essential, this has been crucial. It’s meant not getting stuck in any role that is no longer working for me because I know change is always possible; we can always reinvent ourselves.

Unschooling has taught me I can make changes throughout life, at any age.

You can hear an interview about my unschooling experience here

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Written by

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/

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