Does Unschooling Mean “Anything Goes”?


The other night after dinner, Mike and I were playing a board game with the two younger kids. Tegan was excited (she’d just won the lottery), and was dancing around in her chair.  She stood on her chair at one point, and leaned over to hug her dad.  She started to lose her balance, and after she’d righted herself, I said, “Could you sit down please babe?  I don’t want you to fall.” Our table is counter top height, and our chairs are tall like bar stools.  I know the terrible sound of a little head clunking against the unforgiving tile floor, and if at all possible, I’d like to prevent a repeat performance.  She listened to my request, sat back down without an issue, and happily went on with her celebrating.

We don’t have any rules about standing on chairs.  We don’t need to.  Besides, standing on chairs is useful sometimes.  I stand on a chair when I need to reach something high in the cabinet and one of the big boys isn’t around to help.  Tegan stands on a chair when she helps me bake cookies in the afternoon.  Mike stands on a chair when he needs to mess with the ceiling fan.  I don’t doubt that Tegan will learn how to safely use a chair, just like her brothers before her because 1)  I trust her, and I trust that as she grows and matures she’ll make good decisions, 2) I’m right there with her as she navigates the world… not to bark orders, but to guide, and to help when she needs it, and 3) Our relationship is such that if I do ask her to do or not do something with safety in mind (such as to sit down before she dances herself right off the chair), she trusts that I have a reason for asking, and she listens.

And that’s how radical unschooling works.

I’ve been thinking about this lot lately, because the misconceptions seem to be flying around with even more fervor than usual.  “I would NEVER radically unschool!  Kids need boundaries! They need limits!  They can’t live a life where anything goes!”  Just yesterday, someone said she was “repulsed” by the idea.  And last week, when I shared this (excellent) article by Shamus Young, it was suggested that my advocating violent games was no different than encouraging my young sons to watch porn.

I’m not picking on the person who said that either, as it’s actually a fairly common leap to make. Not too long ago, the subject of porn was rapidly broached on a thread about… Dora the Explorer.  The logic went like this:  Dora uses witchcraft.  Witchcraft is evil.  Porn is also evil. Therefore, radically unschooling parents who embrace evil things like Dora for their young daughter might as well be embracing porn for their young sons.

(I’m going to give you a minute to let the absurdity sink in.)

Let me be really clear when I say this:  Radical unschooling does not mean that there are no limits.  It does not mean that there are no boundaries.  It does not mean that anything goes.  Life has all kinds of natural limits; every person has his or her own personal boundaries; and a home that truly was “anything goes” would be chaotic and stressful.. quite the opposite of the goal of unschooling.

What it does mean is making a conscious decision to step away from arbitrary, parent-imposed limits.

It means to stop placing limits and imposing boundaries based on your own fears.

It means to trust your children, and trust your communication, and trust your relationship.

It means to stop making unnecessary (and unhealthy) leaps in your mind, and to free yourself from that kind of thinking … from thinking that allowing your daughter to watch Dora and its “witchcraft” is going to lead to blood-letting rituals in the backyard … from thinking that accepting your son playing first-person shooter games is going to lead to his shooting up a school-full of kids … from thinking that not placing hard and fast rules about R rated movies will lead to your 5 year old watching The Hangover and your 7 year old watching 9 1/2 Weeks.

There is a big wide world of choices in between ALL and NOTHING.

One thing I hear fairly often is that people will “experiment” with radical unschooling, the kids will go wild (for lack of another term) and the parents will pronounce it a failure.  But the problem isn’t unschooling.  The problem is that if you take kids who are used to lots of control and lots of rules, and all of a sudden say, “Okay there are no limits now.  Do what you want, when you want.  I’m not going to tell you what to do”… of course they’re going to go crazy.  Why wouldn’t they?  Like horses who’d always been confined to a pasture, and are suddenly given access to acres and acres of rolling fields, of course they’re going to run.  They’ll buck.  They’ll kick.  They’ll squeeze out every ounce of rebellion and adventure that they can, in fear of their new-found freedom being taken away.

Unschooling doesn’t work that way.  Unschoolers aren’t afraid of their freedom being taken away.  They also know that they’re not going it alone.  They know that there’s nothing to rebel against, because their parents are beside them in partnership… helping them navigate, exploring with them, supporting them, listening to their desires, and helping to make them happen.   They know that they’re safe, and they know that their parents will help them learn where their OWN boundaries are… and that those boundaries are a constantly changing and fluid thing, and not something that can be arbitrarily defined by anyone other than the individual to whom they apply.

At its heart, unschooling successfully is about the relationship.  It’s about the open communication between myself and my kids.  Knowing them.  Knowing where they’re at, what they’re feeling, and what they’re thinking.  Respecting them as individuals (and they’re all SO individual!), and honoring their differences.  Spencer, who is 16 at the time of this writing, has long been interested in those true life medical shows and crime shows.  Paxton, now 12, always found them scary… so out of respect to him, I’d make sure they were never watched in his presence.   Mike and I will sometimes watch campy old horror movies, or shows with more adult themes (things like Breaking Bad and Weeds come to mind).  But do we watch them in front of the five year old?  Of course not.  Little kids wouldn’t even be interested in things like sex or violence, nor would they understand it if they were – which is what makes the Dora/porn thing such an odd leap to make.  Any parent that’s paying attention, whether they’re an unschooler or not, is going to know that 1) not everything that’s available is going to be appropriate for each and every person out there, and 2) that there is a big difference between something actually being inappropriate and/or harmful for a certain individual, and your making a knee-jerk reaction about it based on your own issues, hang-ups, or fears.  If it’s the former, that’s where knowing your kids comes in.  That’s where discussions come in.  If it’s the latter?  Then you’re living in fear…. which is not a healthy place for you, your kids, or your relationship.

No good parent – no matter what educational or lifestyle philosophy they believe in – is going to just sit back and watch (or more accurately, not watch) while their child does something that is truly harmful or damaging.  To do so would be neglectful and permissive parenting (which, it stands to be said again:  is the OPPOSITE of unschooling)  My goal with my kids is to always be able to offer unconditional love and acceptance, to have a relationship built on trust, and to keep fostering our connection as a top priority… so that when an issue does come up – and it will, because no life and no relationship is all smooth sailing, all the time – we can recognize it.

We can recognize it, we can deal with it, and we can figure it out.  Together.

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Filed under misconceptions, trust, unschooling

20 Responses to Does Unschooling Mean “Anything Goes”?

  1. amy

    This is really good for me to read, giving me fresh outlook and motivation. Thank you! Oh and I so remember the Dora/porn thing… I still laugh thinking about it.

  2. Joan Otto

    YOU ARE AWESOME. Seriously. I can’t even tell you how happy it made me to read this post (except as I cringed about the Dora thing all over again), and I can’t tell you how great it is to see you sum up so clearly what it is we keep aspiring to: Trust, respect and common sense, all surrounded by love for each other.


  3. Alexandra Souza Lima Polikowsk

    Great Jen! Thanks!!

  4. Jackie

    I need advice… Our parents keep tell us we are “Letting our 16 month old win” when we give her things she is demanding. We have been in schooling for about a year with our 3 older kids, so we haven’t dealt with a I unschooling & peaceful parenting in this stage of life yet. What kind of response would you give to such a ridiculous comment. My husband responded with “What is she winning” but I would like something that more clear explains how we are parenting. (Note: that our lifestyle changes have not been clearly laid out to our family’s, they would probably wholly reject the idea, so we are just doing it in and answer questions as they come) Thanks

    • Guest

      I’m not saying this is what you should say or that it is the best response but I would say:

      I’m not going to make parenting a fight against my daughter and have a “winner” and “loser”.

      It takes babies years to learn how to talk, it takes years to learn many things, reading, walking a little sooner.

      Right now our daughter doesn’t know how or isn’t able to get things for herself, slowly she will learn and eventually she will be able to.

      Right now she doesn’t know how to be polite or what manners and customs there are, slowly she will learn them.

      But just because she doesn’t know these things yet is no reason for me to make them into a fight with her. I wouldn’t not read to her because she doesn’t know how to read yet. I didn’t not carry her before she could walk.

      I know she will slowly learn how to get a juice or a toy for herself. I know she will slowly learn to ask politely or that there are things she can’t have or that there are times she will have to wait. But none of that requires me to turn it into spitefully “showing her”. She’ll slowly learn it like many other things without me playing power games.

      (It’s actually not exactly what I would say because I have far less patience for that kind of “tough love”/”don’t let the kid win” type advice. I would probably say something sarcastic like, “Quiet, I’m not going to let YOU win, with your whiny pestering about my daughter, if you’re upset about that, go cry it out.” Hoping they would recognize it is a shitty way to be treated so to stop giving me the advice to treat my daughter that way and to show a cavalier disregard for how that would make her feel.)

  5. BlackLion

    If you *also* feel good about giving your 16 month old whatever she is asking for, then you are being of service to her. When you have reservations or perceive your child having reservations, this would be a time to have a conversation and find the real reason she would want what she is asking for. Trust your intuition and your children. Peaceful parenting is about sharing your experience with your children as partners. If you have reservations, check within to see if you are having a challenge or your child is. Enjoy your journey! Blessings!

  6. Kim

    What a fantastic post!! You have hit the nail perfectly on the head!! I’m always trying to speak about unschooling in this way. I have never said it as clearly and beautifully as this. Thank you!!!! x

  7. Ronda

    I’m 14 weeks pregnant with my first child, I look forward to this way of life with my children. You are awesome. Thank you.

  8. Susan May

    I have a similar post ringing in my mind revolving around that phrase, “anything goes”. Love this – shared on both my personal page and blog’s page,

  9. Karen

    Nicely written – I enjoyed reading this. Have to admit, although it has its appeals, I am not an ‘unschooling’ fan – perhaps it is the word I have to get past, as I loved ‘school’! The fresh supplies, a whole new year of new teachers, friends, experiences, learning different things … loved it! But I do get exactly where you are coming from that the rules I have for my children are a fluid thing dependent on their four different personalities, ages, etc … and that you have to establish that connection first. Karen

  10. Gretchen Doornek Mueller

    Nice piece Jen!

  11. Missy Bell

    I loved this! Thank you. Spot on.

  12. I love what you’ve said here. I wrote a post similar to yours once because, unfortunately, I know too many have chosen the unschooling route with the full belief ithat it does mean “no rules” and “anything” goes. And they’ve raised their kids that way. They actually do want it that way. “Life is easier if I never tell him what to do.” They simply choose it as the path of least resistance.

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  14. Jane

    I love what you wrote about us all having our own personal boundaries. That’s actually what boundaries are, and they are fluid, and each person has different ones. Therefore how can you impose arbitrary boundaries onto a child just because “you should”. I find the whole notion ridiculous. I’m getting really good at expressing my own personal boundaries with my daughter and she is very respectful of them. My husband, on the other hand, really struggles with knowing his own boundaries and you can see my daughter struggling with this around him because he’s not clear. Together they will figure it out. But if we are clear with our own boundaries and also respectful of our children’s own boundaries, the relationship can be loving, happy and respectful. My daughter is very “well behaved” with me because of this. And I’ve never required “good behaviour”.

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  16. Justine S.

    I’m getting really tired of the porn argument ALWAYS being brought up…I had it done to me recently in a discussion about not arbitrarily limiting “screen time” (for lack of a better catch all phrase).

  17. Robin

    I just love everything you write! You explain it the way I would if I could find the words.
    My youngest dd who is in college commented on how many of her friends do not want to go home during breaks because they “hate” their parents, and how she always misses us and *wants* to come home whenever she can. Although I did various versions of “homeschool” and never radical unschooling, although I wished I could have, they went to public school from about 5th to 12th. I was still there for them – especially at that time – and I guess you could say that my dh and I never really over-reacted to anything they did. I think we built a trust with them and it is really good now that they are grown up. They are my most favorite people!

  18. Betzy

    Couldn’t have read this at a better time. What comes to mind is that unschooling is basically what we as parents do from day one…follow our instincts about what our individual child/ren need and want. we as their parents know what is best so why not follow our instincts and our children’s cues (well-intentioned grandma’s advice come to mind?) Loved this post! Thanks for helping me to realize that we are all in this thing called life’s not just adults vs children.