Unschooling and the role of limits

>>the question, and your answers made me think about unschooling, as sort of a polar opposites, and how both hope to produce the same sort of person at the end. I’m curious how you view the ‘no rules, just principles’ aspect of radical unschooling… allowing children to pursue what they find they want to, without limits (I am not including hurting themselves, or running in traffic, or other dangerous things like that) and not requiring behaviors/chores of them. I’m sure I don’t completely understand the theory, so I’m having trouble encapsulating it here. When reading on it, I get the impression that rules/limits are damaging a child, emotionally.<<

The term ‘unschooling’ was coined by John Holt, who wrote several books on education.  His definition can be summed up here. I’ve read all of John Holt’s books and he doesn’t advocate educating children without guidance, limits, or saying ‘no’.  In fact, one of the first things I ever read about homeschooling was in Mothering magazine – it was an article by a homeschooling mother whose family was close to John and tried her best to integrate using his principles.  In that article, she described how he helped her daughter understand the mathematical concepts she was then struggling with.  He didn’t tell her that her daughter shouldn’t be learning math because she was frustrated and didn’t want to!  What he did was try to connect with her desire to learn and provided guidance according to her learning style.

The unwillingness to provide any structure/guidance/limits is where my main disagreement with radical unschooling lies.  While I know of several families who unschool and are bringing up lovely families, every one of them has clear guidelines and expectations, sometimes in the academic arena but definitely in other areas.  They don’t have a laissez faire, let the kids do whatever they want, when they want mentality that is part and parcel of radical unschooling.  Unfortunately the definition of unschooling has been co-opted by radical elements of the homeschooling world and it’s become very confusing to sift through the variances in different approaches.

To quote something I once heard on a parenting cassette: “Discipline without love is harsh.  Love without discipline is child abuse.”  I think that parents who won’t say ‘no’ to their children are misguided and harming their children in the short and long term, but one person’s opinion really is of minimal value.  What matters is what are the results these parents are getting?  Are parents who raise their children without boundaries raising giving, kind, and concerned individuals who are making the world a better place?  (When I read this  article six months ago, I saved it to share here –  it’s relevant to this discussion now so don’t skip reading it!)  Start paying attention to the families you see – look for parents with older kids because that’s when you see the long term results of a particular parenting approach.

Life inherently has limitations. Being a religious Jew means limitations – we live a life structured by G-d’s rules, and true freedom paradoxically comes with structure.  Otherwise you become a slave to your own desires, and that’s the farthest thing from freedom!  While unschooling can be compatible with Torah, radical unschooling can not.  I’ve said again and again that you must lovingly set and clarify boundaries – because there have to be limits.

A person must have some guidelines in life except doing whatever they feel like, when they feel like it, how they feel like it.  It’s wonderful to follow your passion, but kids who haven’t learned some inner discipline won’t be able to sustain the necessary effort to follow through – and success in any field requires effort.  Even when you don’t feel like it.


5 thoughts on “Unschooling and the role of limits

  1. I’m surprised I’m the first to comment here. I feel like there are several essay topics in this post, and the quoted article. :) So much food for thought.

    One issue I’m struggling with is how to raise caring, giving children. I’ve always believed that kindness is taught by example. I grew up in a very giving family, and my sister and I have internalized these values, even though it was never explicitly discussed that helping people is a good thing or anything along those lines. That’s just what was done.

    Attachment parenting is a very giving lifestyle, which is probably why it always appealed to me. I thought that the more I give to more children, the more kind and giving people they will become.

    What I find so far is that one of my daughters is very kind and giving — always running to help if a toddler who she doesn’t even know falls and hurts herself in the park; another one of my daughters would not run to help a stranger, but she does enjoy helping other family members; but another daughter just doesn’t seem to care about other people at all. She’s the one I’m worried about. They were all parented the same way. But they were born very different.

    Which makes me rethink my ideas about raising caring children. Maybe my sister and I picked it up, without being consciously taught it, because we were born that way. Maybe some children do need to be taught to be kind. And maybe attachment parenting can be overdone.

    So we’ve been having lots of conversations with my daughter about seeing a situation from another point of view, trying to imagine how another person feels, etc. We talk about how Hashem is kind and we want to emulate Him. I’m hoping that she’ll work on herself and learn to help people wholeheartedly. But ultimately, it’s her task that Hashem gave her. I feel that my role here is to provide information and motivation, but I can’t change her nature.

    Which is another big topic — what is and what isn’t a parenting issue?

    And another big topic that comes to mind is — when do we push children to take on something that is hard for them, and when do we let them make their own decision on whether or not they want to pursue a certain area? Examples in my family: one daughter decided to drop out of a class she was taking. Another daughter would rather not study a certain subject that I feel is important. Etc.

  2. Yehudis, I don’t even try to guess anymore why the topics I think are most fundamental get the fewest comments!

    You raised some good concerns.
    1) Giving makes a person giving, not getting. So you as a parent are benefiting from all the giving you’re doing, but at a certain point children become takers when they aren’t given direction as to how to give.

    2) Every child is born with their nature, with the potential that can go in either direction. In large part what direction their potential is channeled is a parenting concern. But you can’t expect every child in the same family to have the same balance of personality just because they’re raised the same ways. I’ll be writing more about personality types soon; already have a draft started on the topic (along with about 80 others, lol!).

    3) Your last question is something I actually initially addressed in this post with a specific example in our home and then deleted it before posting because I felt the post was too long. I’ll try to respond to that as well; don’t think I forgot about it if it’s taking longer than you expect. :)

  3. Looking forward to reading it!

    As far as giving children direction on how to give, I try to involve them in what I’m doing in the community. Yesterday, they baked cookies for a shiur we had in our house. Sometimes they help prepare a room for guests, or make a meal for somebody who just had a baby. But still, all that is very abstract to them at this point. I’d like them to learn to see other people’s needs without being asked, and offer to help by themselves.

    1. Yehudis, you’re doing all the right things. Your kids are still very young, and it’s not reasonable to expect them to intuit what others need at this point. Keep doing what you’re doing and in several years, you’ll start to regularly see the kind of response that you’re hoping for!

  4. (The first part of this comment is a general observation and not directed at Yehudis’ comments)

    My experience is that so many people get bogged down by thinking of attachment parenting as an exclusively physical process. Nursing on demand, baby wearing, co-sleeping, etc. These are fantastic things and I have employed them all with my four kids. However, these modes are meant primarily for infants and babies. That is because the need for physical proximity and input is so high at those ages and stages. But toddlers, pre-schoolers and beyond are a whole different species. While physical love and contact are still very important, the need for emotional attachment (and leadership) becomes much higher. But many parents don’t know how to do that. Therefore, they continue to employ the methods that worked well at the beginning, with sometimes funny and sometimes sad results.

    In response to Yehudis, one thing that has been very meaningful in our family is to give our kids “child-level” opportunities that are family-based in order to develop the kind of caring and action that you are mentioning. We are very careful to write thank-you notes, show kavod to elders, put seforim away with care, etc. Also in our family, older children are given the privilege and obligation of being responsible for those younger than them. And the young ones are trained to be thankful and helpful to the older ones. These seem like small things, but taken in total, they cultivate an overall sensitivity that translates well to more complex situations.

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