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Why Whole Life Unschooling?

Why Whole Life Unschooling?

Note: I’m so happy to have Sylvia Toyama as a featured writer here at An Unschooling Life. In this, her first article, she talks about her family and why they chose whole life unschooling, and what that means.

Anyone who has spent any time at all exploring unschooling, likely knows there’s a variety of ways people define unschooling. The labels vary, depending on how far from mainstream methods a family has moved. Unschooling runs the gamut, from those who simply choose to let go of curriculum but keep more mainstream parenting methods, like bedtimes, chores, screen-time or content controls, all the way to people who have let go of all the traditional controls we’ve been told we must enforce to be responsible parents.

I’ve seen labels ranging from ‘academic unschooler’ to ‘radical unschoolers’ and, recently, even ‘rabid unschoolers‘ pop up in conversations about unschooling choices. My husband, Gary, has never liked the label radical unschooling, because for him the word radical connotes extremism, and he doesn’t feel we’re really extreme. When I use the word radical, I find myself feeling defensive about trying to explain why I’d want to be thought of as radical. So, over the years we’ve been unschooling I’ve looked for a phrase that better describes the way we live.

Although I’d prefer not to need a label for our methods, it seems we need some kind of phrase to explain it to those who ask. In recent months, I’ve begun to think of us as whole life unschoolers. I find it much more descriptive of who we are. What do I mean when I say we are whole life unschoolers? We don’t use a curriculum, have set bedtimes for our sons or assign chores. Our kids watch whatever they choose on tv, play video games of their choosing as often as they want, play whatever in-person games they wish, don’t have a curfew, eat what they want when they’re hungry.

What is it we DO? We trust, because we believe that it’s simply not possible to live even one day without learning something, that we will all learn all we need to live the life we want. Just as we trusted, and have seen happen, that our children would learn to read simply by living in a home where reading was natural and joyful, we know that they can also learn to sleep when their bodies need rest, to eat the foods their bodies need. Our boys learn how to be in relationship with others by sharing their lives with others, both in our home and in the larger world outside of it; we are their facilitators in finding their way, wherever we go. We answer questions on topics ranging from history, religion, health, science, nature, math and more. Sometimes the answer is “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” which leads to searching for answers, meandering conversations and sometimes unexpected discoveries. We also share our outlook on the world, and strive to provide good examples in the way we treat other people, including children.

It hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when we had limits and controls. We enforced bedtimes to fit our oldest son’s school schedule. When he was young I tried to force the ‘right’ diet, I limited tv shows (no Simpsons!); I even assigned chores. At the time I felt I had no choice but to listen to those around me, telling me what I ‘must’ do, even though in my heart I could see that it wasn’t working for us. It wasn’t just that those methods didn’t work for our children, they didn’t work for us as parents either. Imposed limits and demands make people unhappy, so of course, the same limits and demands make children unhappy. Being controlled certainly didn’t add to their happiness, and I wanted happy children. I was heartbroken at what that did to our relationship with our kids. Not only that, it made me ask why I was treating them this way, especially since I wasn’t convinced it was necessary to limit and control them.

When I found unschooling, I also found parents who had managed to create the family life I wanted; parents who weren’t frustrated by trying to control their children. They had happy children, who were kind and capable, and they had this without fighting or punishment. As I started to let go of my fears about how our boys would turn out if I ‘broke the rules’ I found we were all happier. And happier is good.

In our culture, there’s a pervasive belief that happiness will be ours someday. We grow up being told that someday we’ll be happy, when we’re adults it will be ‘our turn’ to have things our way. Why wait for that elusive someday? Why not be happy today? How can we help our children be happy today? Is it fair or loving to tell children they must wait for their turn to be happy? Why wouldn’t a parent want their child to be happy; to feel, to know deep in his soul, that he’s loved and celebrated and supported and completely free to revel in what brings him joy?

When I’m asked “Why whole-life unschooling?” my answer is because, ultimately, we can’t imagine any other way of living. It’s only natural when something brings as much joy, freedom and wonder as unschooling does, that we would want to extend that to all areas of our life.

Written by Sylvia Toyama

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5 Responses to “Why Whole Life Unschooling?”

  1. Wendy says:

    I have struggled with the question of children and boundaries for a long time. My two eldest children, now adults were raised with very few boundaries and mostly unschooled. (Though back in the ’90s we had never heard the term or come across the concept). As children they were creative, out spoken, determind and very strong-willed. We unschooled them by default. Their wills were stronger than ours and we had little desire or ability to rise up, push them down and gain control.They ate when hungry, slept when tired,learnt when, what and where they wanted (except when I tried, unsuccessfully, to do school with them) and organised play activities and friendships themselves. They also ruled our lives. As adults they are very sure of themselves and have a strong sense of their path and purpose. We get many comments on how well they have turned out. This is in contrast to the many negative coments we got raising them. To be honest they were unruly little things at times and quite hard for a lot of adults to take Us included. The interesting thing for us, as their parents, is how rule bound they are as adults. The eldest works with children and is very strict in the behaviour she will accept from them. The youngest is almost Asperges in her approach to life. She has strict rules about life. She can be so closed minded at times it makes us laugh.Once she makes up her mind about someone or something there is no changing it.

    My youngest two children came to us through the foster system and both have Reactive Attachment Disorder. Not only do they seek to control their own lives but also everyone else around them. Left to themselves they are chaotic and rageful. Without strict, unchanging boundaries they fall to pieces. I have had to up my game as far as discipline, conseqences, stucture and boundaries go. I have just put the youngest in school due to shere exhaustion on my part. His struggle for dominion was getting too much and I was getting so negative towards him. The interesting thing is that even though he says he hates school(when asked yesterday if he liked it he said to the person, “Why would I. Instead of running free, jumping for joy, I’m sitting behind a desk!’)he is much happier. He plays better with other children, takes turns in conversation, has less meltdowns and just seems more full of life. If he stays home for a few days he’s back to his old ways. although I do want to homeschool him again, and he wants to be back home, I’m not sure its the best thing for him. Has anyone has had this happen? Why do you think it is.

  2. Natalie says:

    In response to the conversation about boundaries and rules. Many people have this misconception of this life as if we are ‘letting’ our kids run a muck. On the contrary, there is so much navigating around how to share space, how to listen (with our bodies) and communicate our feelings and needs, emotions and processing through them are happening all of the time. My children do not like being touched by people they do not know, even by people they do sometimes. For some reason adults think they have the right to touch a child b/c they are a child or b/c they are so cute and they have beautiful hair, or steel a kiss even though they say no.Sounds like the adult needs a lesson on boundaries and listening..Those are their boundaries. When I authentically feel like I am not ok with something if it doesn’t feel safe or if it makes me uncomfortable, I express it respectfully and lovingly and explain why…They listen, they really hear me, they feel and trust that I will not lie to them. I am not trying to teach them a lesson. WE are not talking about talking about it. Everything happens in real time. They are learning every moment. There is so much more dialogue happening which would takes more patience for more comformative authoritarian parenting. They just say “because we say so” That is the easy way out..They are breaking the connection with their child.Patience is a practice..It isn’t impossible. Just a matter of shifting, taking off the rose colored glasses. Shifting the expectations from what a parent thinks who the child should be,look like, act like, and who the parents should be to just them being who they are. And asking how do we make this work for everyone…ANy ideas? The resistance is heavy,unsatisfying, too much energy is being used. And no one is happy. Once you let go, break all the rules we put on ourselves, it is liberating. I want my children to feel connected to themselves, make themselves happy, with out judgement they can tell us anything. We will love them unconditionally. I am here to guide them in what ever way they need me to. Boundaries and all.

  3. Sylvia says:

    Melanie, I’m wondering where you got the idea that we have no boundaries in our house. I never said *no rules* or *no boundaries*.

    I’ve never met anyone, adult or child, who craves externally set boundaries. Every person I’ve ever known has boundaries; some people don’t like to be touched, few of use would hand our car keys over to a stranger, most of us don’t want someone else telling us what time we must go to bed, what we must eat when, or what clothes we must wear.

    What kids DO crave is information and help navigating this world. I’ve found that when my kids understand why it’s unkind, unwise or illegal to do something, they don’t do it. When a child makes a misstep, what they need from us is information, experiences shared about what we’ve done in a similar experience, not limits that say (maybe not in so many words) “I don’t trust you to be able to figure this out, so I will simply ban it.”

    Happy people don’t want to hurt other people; they want to enjoy their company. Just like adults, happy children make good friends.

    The concept of “answering to” connotes subservience, and our children aren’t servants. They are new beings who deserve our presence, generosity, loads of information about whatever they encounter, and a recognition that their needs and desires are at least as important as their parents’ needs and desires.

    Perhaps when you said *answer to* you meant *interact with*. In which case, our kids learn to interact with each other and everyone we meet simply by doing. We meet with friends, go to parks or museums, go to the grocery store, play team sports, and the like. My kids offer to push the cart, load up groceries, carry bags, unload groceries when we get home, take out trash, say please and thank you, because that’s what they see us do, not because we insist. They think of each other and friends, choosing gifts or treats, sharing toys they know a friend might like, play games following rules mutually agreed to. They follow rules as posted in public places and will even point out to me (quietly and politely) when they see someone breaking the rules, with a full understanding of why the grocery store doesn’t allow heely shoes, or the park doesn’t want loose dogs, why school zones have lower speed limits, why it’s a bad idea to drive drunk.

    My husband and I invited these beings to join us in this adventure, any inconvenience is rightly ours, not theirs.

    Before replying, Joanne mentioned to me she’d like to reply but wanted to give me a chance. I’m happy to have any other unschoolers — and non-unschoolers — who happen by join in the conversation and reply to any points, or ask any questions they have.


  4. Melanie says:

    I have to tell you that this is the first time I have ever heard of something like this. Having said that, my ignorance on the subject may be obvious but I would like to share what I have learned raising 6 respectful and HAPPY kids, who have healthy self images and care for other people. Perfect, no, but trying to be.

    Kids crave boundaries. They respect and love those who set those boundaries and show them what are acceptable actions and what are not. Those rules need to be taught and enforced in a kind, loving way; who better to do that for these kids than their parents, the people who love them the most.

    In order for them to be happy, they need parents that lovingly guide them to what is right and wrong until they are old enough to choose for themselves and be accountable for their decisions.

    I can’t help but think that if kids never have to follow rules or answer to anybody, they will get a warped sense of how the world is and how they fit into society.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Hello! I love this article! I have been home with my son since birth (he is almost four) and we have no intention of sending him to school, or even imposing some type of “home” school upon him. We do, however, struggle with the question we are constantly asked, “well, what do you do then?” This article is perfect…. given that you have been doing it successfully, do you mind a question? If so, please disregard, but if you don’t mind answering, I am curious to hear your opinion on the following: do you think there is a personality or character type that lends itself better (or worse?) to your perception of unschooling? How about parents? Do you think certain types of parents exist that just have too hard a time with this level of flexibility and “risk?” Thanks for all your thoughts.. and others should feel welcome to chime in, too!

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