Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Yes, we are radical unschoolers. No, we are not permissive.

Also titled: Kids need boundaries and adults need boundaries too.

People who have only heard of radical unschooling or who know "that one family with the bratty kids," often think that radical unschooling is permissive. They say "but kid's need boundaries!"

I agree! But I don't think most people understand what "boundaries" are.

They hear boundaries and think rules or limits. Like a fence that corrals the kids in, and if they hop the fence then they get punished or manipulated into coming back. Or maybe it's an electric fence and they get shocked for even touching it. They see kids as always "testing the boundaries" and they believe it's their job to keep the fence strong. They put some thorny bushes or a swamp outside the fence and if they believe in using rewards, they might stick a candy dish or their love in the middle of the corral to entice the kids to stay inside.

Rules are not the same as boundaries though. Boundaries are about a person putting up protection around themselves, that allows healthy things in and keeps the unhealthy things out. That's why I agree that yes, kids need boundaries. They need our help learning what those boundaries are and how to kindly, but firmly enforce them. Kids also need our help learning what other people's boundaries are and how to respect when people are enforcing their boundaries. None of it is about putting rules, restrictions and restraints on either kids or adults, and it's not about anyone doing "whatever they want" if it means trampling someone else's boundaries.

Permissiveness is having a boundary and not enforcing it or allowing those in your care (namely your children) to break through someone else's boundary.

For example, I have a boundary about my personal body space that I will not allow someone to jump on me. This is for my personal protection so I don't get hurt. On the other hand, my husband is ok with the kids jumping on him (literally from the couch to his back) when they play. So, we don't have a "rule" that says "no jumping on people." Yet, my kids understand that most people don't like being jumped on and they don't do it to anyone but my husband. It would be permissive if I said that I don't want to be jumped on and then if my kids did it anyway, I let them, all the while getting angrier and angrier until I finally exploded and yelled "Get off me!" or worse, punished them for it. It is much more respectful to all of us for me to state that I do not like being jumped on and then help my children *understand* and respect that boundary. It would also be permissive if my children tried jumping on a guest in my home and I stood there and and let them violate that person's boundary. On the other hand, it is not permissive for them to jump on my husband when he allows it. Though it may seem like chaos, wild children and "doing whatever they want" (especially since they are often naked and loud, lol), they are not violating his boundaries, because he is ok with it.

The other piece to this is the radical unschooling. Part of radical unschooling (and really this should just be part of all parenting) is helping our children find acceptable alternatives. "Acceptable" is a word that needs to be challenged as well. It doesn't just mean whatever the parent is comfortable with, because that can be pretty limiting! There are a lot of variables to take into account when figuring out what's acceptable- first and foremost is boundaries, but also money, time, space, etc. As a parent, I feel that it's my job to stretch my ideas of what is acceptable and comfortable for me, and be willing to look at the bigger picture. This world is so amazing, and learning happens in so many unexpected ways both large and small. If I can be willing to say YES, even if something is odd or unconventional or uncomfortable for me, it will open up a larger world with more opportunities for learning for my children. In addition, finding alternatives is a chance to be with my child in a meaningful way that builds our relationship and that is the most important part.

So, when I have told my children that they can't jump on me because it violates my personal boundaries (not in so many big words!), I don't just leave it at that. I find somewhere they CAN jump and a way that we CAN play together. They can jump on the couch, the bed, the mattress on the floor, at the indoor playground, off the picnic table at the park, off the retaining wall, on our friend's trampoline. Maybe we can buy a trampoline- not right now, because of real world financial restraints- but how can we make that happen? Save up some money each week? See if we can find one used? Craigslist, freecycle, ask around..... the possibilities go on and on.

It seems like when people say that some kids get to "do whatever they want," they are implying that whatever they want is destructive, mean, and self-centered and we have to train that out of them. I think we need to look at the underlying needs. Sure, I could jump to the conclusion that my child is jumping on me because they have a desire to be cruel and hurt me. Or I could see what is obvious to an in tuned parent- she wants to get out her energy and play with me. So how can we make that happen in a way that is safe and respectful? This means that I spend a lot more time with them than I would if I just made a "rule" and then set up "consequences." This requires that I connect with my kids hundreds of times a day over all kinds of situations. It's hard work! But the relationship we have and the way they treat other people, lets me know that it's all worth it.

The other side of this is that kids need boundaries for themselves and need help learning how to enforce them. This is a really big deal right now in my house with a 4 year old and a 20 month old! Radical unschooling doesn't mean that I let my children beat up on each other because "that's what they want to do." It means I spend a LOT of time helping them navigate situations. Today, E was drawing at the table and L kept trying to push E off the chair and get her stuff. I moved L and tried to get her engaged with her own drawing at her chair, but she didn't want to. So, I talked to E about the options. I suggested taking her stuff in her room so L wouldn't bother her and she agreed that would work. I helped her enforce her boundary around her personal space and her stuff.

So, yes kids need boundaries and so do adults! And yes we are radical unschoolers. No we are not permissive!


  1. I've thought of this a lot lately, especially in my desire to have a consensual living home. I know lots of people associate consensual living with permissiveness and so they dismiss it immediately. But I feel there is a lot of power in treating your children's needs and wants as seriously as your own. Because conversely, your desire are just as important also. There is some balance that needs to happen, but it definitely doesn't mean the childrens' desires have more precedence than the parents'. It means they get equal precedence and are considered equally. Your desire to not be jumped on is just as valid as theirs is to jump- and finding "acceptable alternatives" and negotiating them are just the skills your family should be building together. And those are the important life skills your children will come away with that they wouldn't have developed with a simple rule of "no jumping."

  2. Great post! I let my kids do "whatever they want" but a lot of times they need help remembering what they want. (instant gratification vs. a goal they already decided they wanted)

  3. TopHat, I love that you used the word "balance" because that keeps coming up again and again the last few weeks for me. In fact, I might just do a new post on Balance! :)

    Annalise, I'm curious what types of goals your kids set, since they are similar in age to mine.

  4. Incredible post! Thanks!

  5. This is a great post. I'm all for busting misconceptions of a method or philosophy. It is hard to give a good summary in a way that other people can understand what it's all about. I think you've done that with this post. I think I'll revisit some of the resources I have for RU and consensual living. Thanks.

  6. Thanks Maggi and Cori. I'm glad you enjoyed it! :)