Emotional Challenges of Unschooling

I had the privilege of presenting a workshop at this year’s AERO Conference in New York. The workshop was attended by a great group of unschoolers, educators and others interested in alternative education.  We had a fun, interesting, lively discussion – and hardly had a moment to get to the handout that I had prepared for the event. Oh well! That’s what the world wide web is for.

So, here it is as a downloadable pdf Emotional Challenges of Unschooling – or – read on.


Emotional Challenges of Unschooling

Amy Childs | AERO Conference 2014

Remember: If you are having uncomfortable feelings, the problem is your uncomfortable feelings, not your child’s actions (or inactions).

Uncomfortable  feelings Where might these feelings have come from?
Judgment and Self-righteousness Most children are judged constantly by teachers, parents, clergy and society in general. Whether positive (“good girl,” “smart boy”) or negative (“dumb,” “bad,” “lazy”), judgments reinforce an atmosphere that hinders growth and learning, because they prescribe values and ‘shoulds’ that limit a child’s innocent curiosity and exploration. Even when parents have grown past some of their own more obvious childhood wounds, they may not have uncovered all the judgments (and underlying value systems) that were absorbed as “true” throughout their childhood. If this is the case, they will likely think that their opinions about their child are “normal” and therefore valid. For those who aspire to raise their child in a non-coercive, unschooling environment, old judgments will continue to feel uncomfortable, even if it is unclear what the alternative should be.  This is because judging your child is incompatible with providing a respectful, nurturing and supportive environment that promotes natural learning.
Shame and Embarrassment Somewhere along the line people form ideas about what the perfect family and children would look like.  As a child they may have wanted to be part of a happier, “better” family, and thought that when they grew up they’d be able to make that dream come true.  They believe that – by the strength of their convictions –they can (or should) create this perfect family and children that conform to their fantasy.  So when a child acts in a way that is not aligned with the fantasy, parents feel that they’ve failed. When this is compounded with unquestioned assumptions and judgments it feels even worse, because the shame then seems valid and justified. Allowing our children to be whoever they truly are can be a humbling experience. To foster learning, we must let go of our preconceived notions so that we can discover who our child really is, rather than trying to mold or shape him into what we think he should be.
Fear and Anxiety The beliefs that “success” depends on getting a “good education,” and that a “good education” can only be acquired through school are pervasive ones.  When addressing suffering in the world (such as poverty or crime) the battle cry is frequently “education.” As parents, our greatest fear is that our child will suffer, and we think the best hedge against this is ensuring that our child gets a “good education.”  It is true that for many children school does offer a more supportive and empowering environment than their home, so school in those cases provides an opportunity to make a child’s life the best it can be. Yet unschooling families strive to provide an even more nurturing and rich environment for their child than school can.  They also have a broader, more holistic definition of “success” than conventional views.  But because they are taking a road less traveled, they may not always feel confident that they’ve chosen rightly. These fears can be deeply troubling, as they directly pertain to our child’s future success or future suffering.
Jealousy and Resentment  Those who were not given ample respect, freedom and love as a child may grow jealous or resentful of their own children who are treated better than they themselves were. Unfortunately it is all too common to be raised with judgment, shame, conditional love, coercion, and other forms of violation against a child’s body, mind and spirit. These are simply endemic to many cultures. It may be easy for those new to peaceful parenting practices to think that unschooled children are “spoiled” or that they should have to suffer in the same ways that so many others (including themselves) have suffered. Seeing joy, confidence and vivaciousness blossom in a child who is not being molded or coerced can remind parents of their own early mistreatment and hurt. If this early pain is not dealt with directly and intentionally, through therapy or some other means of ameliorating old patterns, parents can project unmet needs onto their child. It is so easy to misplace the (sometimes unconscious) anger they feel toward their parents, instead directing it toward their own innocent children.  This is confusing and painful for everyone, and undermines the environment needed for natural learning to occur.
Confusion and Frustration Under the best of circumstances, it can be confusing and frustrating to undertake something new, time-consuming and emotionally confrontive.  For many unschooling parents, this new challenge happens without very much support or encouragement.  The support network they had used in the past may not be adequate for understanding and tackling the emotional work of unschooling.  Those whom a family used to turn to may now instead be contributing to the confusion and angst, rather than helping everyone move through it.  These feelings are not signs that a family is inadequate to unschool, nor that unschooling is the wrong choice. But they are signs that a family needs to do all they can to find savvy new resources and increase their community support.
Overwhelm Radically altering the way one thinks about life, parenting, learning, children, and being human can be overwhelming, especially at first. It would be much easier to fall back on the same patterns and practices with which we ourselves were raised.  However, parents for whom unschooling resonates tend to be people who feel called to rise above the mistakes of their own upbringing and enter a new world that is empowering and honoring of their children.  Even so, this doesn’t always ease the emotionally overwhelming aspects of the task at hand.


What can be done about these uncomfortable feelings?

  1. Breathe
  2. Recognize that the problem is your feeling, the problem is not your child.
  3. Do not make things worse by taking out your feelings on your child, or trying to get your child to make you feel better.  Do all that you can to avoid blaming, manipulating, coercing or shaming your child.
  4. Focus on your relationship with your child.  If you make this your top priority, the rest will eventually follow.
  5. Ask your child: Is there anything I can do for you?  Are you happy? What can we do together to make things more fun?
  6. Watch your child with curiosity and humility.  If allowed, your child will show you the way.
  7. Do something you love to do.  Children who see their parents enjoying life will learn about enjoying life. And people who are enjoying life cannot help but learn.
  8. Learn about how people learn.  Read about unschooling in books, blogs, chat rooms and from others who are unschooling successfully.
  9. Get support. There are therapists, peer-counseling groups, 12-step groups, attachment parenting groups and many other resources to help you with your difficult, confusing, painful feelings.



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