The 'Unschooling' Movement: Good Parenting or UNparenting?

The subject of parenting could possibly be the most discussed, debated, written about, studied, analyzed and frustrating practice in all of human experience.
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active family mother and kids ...
active family mother and kids ...

The subject of parenting could possibly be the most discussed, debated, written about, studied, analyzed and frustrating practice in all of human experience. There's the obvious fact that without parenting we'd have no... well... people, so the focus on its important is a given. Even those who don't embrace the "joyful noise" and all-encompassing involvement of the job by having a few of their own understand the value of good parenting because they were once children of parents themselves.

So everybody's talkin' at everyone about parenting -- how to be one, what to or not to do -- and the amount of useful (or not so useful) information available is at an all-time high. According to Mashable Lifestyle's "The Rise of the Mommy Blogger":

14% of all American mothers with at least one child in their household blog about parenting or turn to blogs for advice, according to a recent study by Scarborough Research. About 3.9 million moms in the United States identify as bloggers, but just 500 of them are considered to be influential among other mothers.

That's a whole lot of Mommies sharing a whole lot of opinions. Add on top of that, there are the Daddy bloggers (not as populated a group, but still...), the psychiatrists, child development specialists, therapists, teachers, doctors, babysitters and other parents and, as you can see, there is no shortage of people helicoptering around to guide you along the way with their, sometimes, contradicting information.

What's a parent to do?

Well, if you're Dayna and Joe Martin, you throw out everything you've heard, reject all conventional wisdom and adopt a theory of parenting that's a combination of "hippie free-for-all," Home Alone (except the very permissive parents are actually in the house this time), and Children of the Corn. OK, maybe the Children of the Corn reference is a little over-the-top -- the Martin kids may be lovely -- but follow me here.

According to online magazine Friday, in an article bluntly titled, "I Let My Children Do Whatever They Want," Dayna and hubby, Joe, allow their four children -- Devin, 13; Tiffiny, 11; Ivy, 7; and Orion, 4 -- to make all their own decisions regarding what they do and when. School? Naw, no school. They subscribe to the "unschooling movement," a school of thought (pun intended) that rejects even the notion of "home schooling," but instead leaves it to the children to decide if and what to learn, and when and how to learn it. Or not. An article in CNN U.S. on the topic of "unschooling" put it this way:

The term "unschooling" was first coined in 1977 by John Holt, an education reformer, the founder of Holt Associates and author of the book, "Teach Your Own."

Holt felt traditional home-schooling didn't go far enough. He believed parents should not duplicate schools in their homes. He favored an education more freewheeling in nature, one that depends on the child for direction.

The expectation is that along the way they will get an education.

There are no mandatory books, no curriculum, no tests and no grades.

Which means, in the case of the Martins, that Devin, Tiffany, Ivy and Orion can -- with their parents' enthusiastic permission -- watch TV or play video games all day if they want. They can sleep until 2 p.m. and go to bed at 4 a.m., eat ice cream for every meal, or not eat at all. Chores? Don't be silly! And the presumption is that they'll learn something, somehow, along the way; don't ask how, just believe that if they're interested in something they'll pursue it. If not, no big whoop.

As Dayna told Friday:

"We live life like every day is a weekend. The kids have never been to school and we don't force them to study at home. We treat them with the same respect as adults -- there's no punishments or chores. They can have ice cream for breakfast and go to bed at 4 a.m. if they want. They're smarter and better behaved as a result."

The Martins' unusual approach to parenting is perfectly legal in New Hampshire, U.S., where they live. Dayna started following it when Devin was born in 1999.

And Dayna says she's not concerned about the children's futures. "I'm not worried in the slightest that if any of the kids want to go to college they will be behind, as they are as bright as any other child their age. If the kids want to go to college, then they will just have to sit the equivalent of a high school exam, but more and more colleges are actually embracing unschoolers, as they are recognising how self-motivated most of the children are.

"For now, we're not going to obsess about what profession the kids will have and what they are going to do when they're older -- we just enjoy every minute."

With a 13-year-old who is free to come and go as he pleases and a 4-year-old who isn't expected to brush his teeth if he doesn't want to because "teeth can be fixed," one is left wondering whether the complete lack of boundaries and responsibilities in this household will ultimately leave these children incapable of functioning in the "normal" world where doing "just what one wants" is not always possible, appropriate or appreciated, and is, in fact, often considered narcissistic and self-absorbed. While the Martins appear confident that their children will assimilate to life outside their free-for-all home and will, in fact, flourish and be successful because "they are as bright as any other child their age," a more objective observer might posit that being "bright" is not necessarily the only, or even most important, skill set necessary to a successful transition into adulthood.

Interestingly, if you go to Google to investigate the pros and cons of "unschooling," you will find some objective analysis, but mostly you'll be bombarded with a gauntlet of opposing opinions, from "unschoolers" who defend the practice with everything in them to those who believe children are getting the short end of the stick on many levels. Which either means that, at this relatively early stage of the game, there isn't enough verifiable information to make a clear, honest and objective assessment of the real-life results on participating children, or there simply aren't enough people doing it or states adjudicating it as legal to get a clear picture. Parenting... the continuing experimental frontier.

It's also a cyclical one, embracing various trends as the culture changes and reinvents itself. As recently as two years ago, media was abuzz with yet another controversial parenting method that was polar opposite to "unschooling," yet, in many ways (if conversely), just as extreme. You might remember the "Tiger mother technique" heralded by Chinese American mother, Amy Chua. Where the Martins abdicate any parental controls or discipline in lieu of fun and freedom, Chua was all about fierce demands and assaultive requirements, practically tying her child to a piano for hours of torture until she played "My Little White Donkey" well enough to please her mother. I cringed as I read about Chua's technique, just as I cringe about the Martin's.

Frankly, both schools of thought are the product of parents responding, in one way or the other, to their own childhood experiences. Their methods are an admitted reaction to either some perceived failing of their upbringing or a continuation of it. Dayna Martin justifies her choice in response to her childhood:

"At school, Joe and I hated being told what we had to study and resented not being able to concentrate on things we were interested in. I was depressed and rebelled.

"My grades suffered as I simply wasn't interested in what I was being forced to learn. My parents were frustrated, but when they understood why I was behaving the way I was, they were totally behind me. I graduated high school, unlike Joe who dropped out three months before he was due to graduate.

"I didn't want the same experience for my kids. We wanted them to be partners in our lives and treated as equals. We wouldn't tell them what to do, but left them to make their own decisions."

So, she responds to her negative educational experiences by choosing "unschooling" for her own children. Is that fair? I don't know. But I do think, based on my own experience, that children flourish, learn and grow when given responsibilities, guidance, boundaries and discipline. Do they not do as well without those things? Some, perhaps. The Martin's children? She says they're all doing fantastically. Let's see how it's going for them in 20 years. Maybe we'll be shaking our heads in amazement; maybe they'll be narcissistic, entitled head-cases. For now they're apparently having an unfettered blast.

But where is the line drawn? When does "unschooling" become "unparenting"? In my view, the Martin's broad-based strategy appears an abdication of their role as parents. When Dayna says, "The kids come and go as they please, because who am I to tell them when they have to go to bed?" my answer to her is: you're their parent, Dayna, that's who. Their mother. It categorically is a part of your job description to guide, mentor, teach, discipline and show love by your involvement and investment in their decisions and learned responsibilities. Yes, even to tell them when they have to go to bed. A four-year-old child is not mature enough to know that, any more than he knows that eating ice cream all day is not healthy; any more than a 13-year-old stepping into puberty has enough wisdom and experience to make all his own decisions without the guidance and wisdom of the adults in his life. It's swell to have loads of "weekend" fun with your unencumbered kids, but you're the adult; the parent. Be one.

Certainly, the parenting style of Amy Chua is equally as unworkable. Any parent who believes children need to be browbeaten and corralled like foot soldiers to march to the beat of their mother's drum has serious over-identification issues (among, likely, other things). Verbal abuse, deprivation of food and drink to make a point, and expectations so unremitting and inflexible as to drive children to the point of stress and anxiety is madness, and no prescription for a happy, healthy childhood, regardless of the ultimate, torture-induced, later success of those children.

I wish the children of both families well. Their success as adults, however -- assuming they achieve success as adults -- will be no proof that either the "unschooling" or "Tiger mother" methods work. More likely, it will be evidence that the children survived, overcame and transcended the deficits of their upbringing, as the children of many parenting-challenged homes do.

My suggestion: balance. Find balance in the pendulum of parenting. Respect them, of course, but offer them firm, sensible discipline, compassionate boundaries, development of learned life skills, mentoring and teaching. Communicate openly and consistently. Infuse them with a sense of personal responsibility and integrity, and pass on big dollops of empathy, consideration, and honor. Do that... then let them have ice cream.

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