One of the most common things I hear when talking to people who are interested in unschooling is that they are concerned that their family, usually their partner or parents, are too scared to try it. This can be painful for everyone involved.
If you want to try unschooling, you believe that a life of self-directed learning may be the best path for your child. You love the idea of giving them a freer life, one where they can explore their passions as deeply as they wish in an environment that respects them as whole people.
But this new way of thinking about education may terrify the other people who love your child. They (and likely everyone they know) have gone through a particular educational system. Some may have gone to private school, and some may have gone to public school, and maybe a few were homeschooled. As for kids doing what they wish to do all day? Your family members likely know no one who has followed this path to its completion. So it makes sense that they are scared, right?
There’s one thing that’s important to understand here. Everyone involved loves and wants what's best for this child. You all have good intentions, and even if you all believe that one choice or the other could be damaging to the child, no one is trying to be reckless with this child’s future.
So what do we do? Should we be good libertarians, and do our best to use statistics, reason, and logic to win this debate with our loved ones? That can be tricky territory to navigate. It usually requires that we focus on the negative aspects of the conventional educational paradigm, and while those concerns are valid, they can leave the tone of the discussion feeling adversarial. If we all have the same goals (the long- and short-term well-being of our children), then creating an adversarial environment for the child is rarely going to help.
It’s why I started taking a slightly different approach. Instead of pointing out where they are wrong and I am right, I simply try and tell my story.
After all, I used to think just like all of the people who disagree with unschooling. I was certified to be a public school teacher, ran a summer camp that pre-scheduled the campers’ days almost completely, and scoured the information of various school districts in advance of my first child being born.
But then I changed my mind. And that’s the story I tell. I start with sharing the goals I had when Ollie was born: to find the best educational model possible. I then share how I arrived where I am today: the YouTube videos I saw, the articles I read, the evidence I encountered, the families I met who had tried the same things. I now share what I’ve seen in summer camping environments where kids are free to spend their time, and the huge successes we’ve seen in our family.
I share the story of how and why I changed my mind, rather than trying to change theirs.
While we’d all like to be hyper-rational, logical beings, the fact is that changing our minds about things like this is really challenging for most people. By sharing your story of why you’ve changed your mind about how to best interact with children, you are presenting a tale no one can disagree with (because it's your story). There’s no argument, no shame, and no bad feelings. They may be curious about the evidence you shared, or still feel fearful when they picture this precious young person pursuing the world on their own terms, but sharing your story should soften the tone of the conversation to a collaborative one rather than a combative one.
By sharing your story, you may even give them an opportunity to relate to you. After all, you are openly sharing that you used to think similarly to them – so the "you" from some time in the past actually has a lot in common with them. It also makes space for them to share their own experiences of school and move toward a new way of thinking without being judged.
When we get into debates with people (especially online), there’s often this tone that whoever is wrong is basically a bad person. I see libertarians fall into this trap all the time. “Well if you disagree with me about taxation, you’re a violent monster who advocates that men with guns come and…” You get the idea. In the case of the state, people often DO have different intentions, and that makes it hard to assume good faith. In the case of raising children? None of your loved ones who is worried about unschooling wants to harm your child. When we acknowledge that, it creates more space for everyone to grow and learn together.
James is an unschooling father of three, an entrepreneur, and a Free State Project mover living on the Seacoast of New Hampshire. When he’s not spending time with his own children, he tries to get adults throughout the country to re-think the adult-child relationship through speaking engagements, staff trainings, and his podcast, One Free Family. He continues to experiment with the ideas of child autonomy and self-direction at Camp Stomping Ground, a summer camp he co-founded in 2014.