Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Unschooling Inspired Approach To Life and Parenting

I recently was talking with a friend of mine about a variety of different subjects, and as I was talking, I noticed a common theme running through the conversation, which, I guess, could be summed up as the "unschooling inspired approach" to life.
Unschooling was a theory of education invented by John Holt, which I realized goes hand in hand with the approach I use to raise my children in general.

There are some people called radical unschoolers, and in general their approach, from what I understand it, is that a family is a democracy, and that children get equal say and that no parent should ever force a kid to do anything in life, from schoolwork to chores to a variety of other stuff.
I am not a radical unschooler- it doesn't sit well with my philosophy on life.
I'm not even an unschooler, who believes that you should never make a kid learn anything he doesn't want to, that you should completely do child led learning.

No, my approach to life and learning in general would be unschooling inspired.

Now, I've touched on the topic before on my blog, but again, I wanted to explain what the unschooling philosophy is.

The theory behind unschooling is that children have a natural inclination to learn, and when you force them to learn something, learning becomes a power struggle, and kids end up hating school and learning, and usually don't remember most of what they were forced to learn. Unschooling is child led learning- where the child decides what and when and how they want to learn, and the parents provide the resources or teach the material, depending on what is preferred.

Now, we're not fully unschoolers, because I have certain things I want to make sure my kids learn, and if they don't want to learn those things, I will make sure they learn it by a certain age, but than those core basics, I don't plan on dictating what my kids learn.

The way learning usually ends up happening in my house is that either my sons ask me a question and we end up having a whole elaborate lesson on that first question, or I ask my kids "What do you want to learn today?" and they pick a topic, usually reading, history, or science, and that's what we focus on for the day. But if they say "I don't feel like learning now", we skip it. Or they bring me a book and say "Mommy, can we learn from this book today?"

Learning is an active process, not a passive process. You can "teach at" a child, but unless the child is receptive to learning, they won't learn- it'll just go in one ear and out the other. You can't force a child to learn- at most you can force a child to endure lectures on topics, but will they internalize it? Not unless they want to, usually. And forcing them to sit through lectures that hold no interest for them just creates a bad taste for learning.

There are topics that my kids wouldn't necessarily learn about if I didn't bring them up, so I pique their curiosity and tell them a bit about the topic, and try to inspire them to want to learn a certain subject. Because kids learn by example.

Another aspect in life in which we're "unschooling inspired" is the fact that I don't give my kids baby food, at all.

I do what is called "baby led weaning", whereby I give my children real food from when they're able to sit up and grab it themselves and feed it to themselves. My children don't get pureed foods until they're much older.

There is a bit of a learning curve when it comes to baby led weaning- you learn the difference between gagging (totally fine, and common when a kid first starts eating solids) and choking (dangerous, much less frequent). You have to figure out which foods kids are able to hold in their hands nicely and feed themselves and which foods aren't worthwhile until the kid is older and can hold a spoon and feed himself. You learn which foods are soft enough for a baby to eat without teeth, and which foods have to wait until the kids are older.

Baby led weaning is incredible. Babies are able to eat foods you would never have imagined possible. And it really is so much easier than having to buy or make your own baby food.
And its harder because there is more of a mess to clean. But they learn quickly how to eat without making a mess, so that stage fortunately isn't too long.

The theory behind baby led weaning is practically the same as unschooling- don't make food into a battle- let a kid eat when he wants to and what he wants to, and he'll have a much better attitude towards food in general.
When feeding babies with baby food, kids open their mouth for a second, and the parent plops in a spoon of it. The next time the kid opens his mouth, often after a whole "airplane" charade, another spoon gets plopped in his mouth. The kid isn't asked "Do you want more?" typically- the kid is given more until he puts up a fight, refusing to eat anymore. With baby led weaning- if the kid wants to eat, its completely up to the kid- no one is making the kid eat anything he doesn't want to, and when he wants to he can eat, and when he no longer does, he stops.
The theory is that when you practice baby led weaning, your child doesn't have "food control issues" and therefore ends up being a much more adventurous and less picky eater.
I've never seen a study on this done, but from anecdotal evidence- I've done baby led weaning with all 3 kids of mine so far, and all are adventurous eaters who'll eat nearly everything. I also don't know anyone that did baby led weaning whose kids are picky eaters. But of course, its not a guarantee.

The other issue with baby led weaning is that by a kid deciding when and how much he wants to eat, he learned to listen to his body's cues of hunger and satiation. Part of the biggest reason why people have weight issues today is because they learned to ignore their body's messages when it comes to eating, and eat for emotional reasons, not because of hunger. Learning how to eat when hungry and stop when full is difficult once we've started ignoring our body's cues, but if you don't ignore them in the first place, you don't have to relearn how to do that.
Does it work?
Who knows.
We'll see how my kids are when older.
But at the moment, my kids all seem to be healthy- not too heavy and not too skinny- just perfect. So I would guess they're listening to their body's cues.

You might be wondering- what is the connection between baby led weaning and unschooling?

Well, there's the fact that in both of them, there is the philosophy that kids in certain areas naturally will do what is best for them, naturally their inclinations are good, and when you force them to do those same things they would have done naturally, it ends up being a power struggle and then they start disliking it and putting up resistance that wouldn't have happened if they weren't pushed into doing it.

This, by the way, is where we're unschooling inspired, and not completely unschoolers.

Because I don't know if either of those are 100% correct 100% of the time. Just 90% of the time.

I think sometimes kids do need a little motivation to do what they should be doing. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But the best motivation is by showing by example- learning about a topic out loud to pique my children's curiosity, or demonstrating how yummy a certain food is by eating it myself, dramatically, in front of the child.

Or at the very least, trying to find a way to make the kid want to do something.

Like when I know my kid likes ketchup, I'll put some ketchup (homemade and healthy, of course) on some foods they might be reluctant to try otherwise.
Or talk to them about the benefit of learning such a subject- like when I tell my son that he's welcome to watch a certain movie if he spells the title himself into youtube.

This philosophy is also how we raise our kids religiously.

By setting examples so our kids want to copy us, and to inspire our kids to want to do certain things.

I speak to many parents who say "I'm the boss, I'm in charge, my kid has to learn that he has to listen to me- its not a choice."

A parent has every right to say that.
But what happens when the kid is no longer under the parents' supervision? When the kid isn't being forced to listen to their parents? Will they keep on following the parents' rules?
Most likely not.
(My parents forbade me from getting my ears pierced until I was older. The first summer I went away and they were no longer on top of me, I got my ears pierced myself. Telling me "You can't get them pierced" didn't stop me from doing it. Had they inspired me to want to not get them pierced, maybe things would have been differently.)

Parents only have control of their kids while their kids are in the house, and even then, not always. And when they're out with friends, or when they're older and no longer living at home, and mom and dad aren't telling them what to do... if you haven't inspired them to want to do the things you would like them to do, they likely won't.

And that's why, whenever possible, I try to inspire my kids to want do to things instead of forcing it upon them. Because my interest is raising them with my values for the long haul, and not for just while they're under my watchful eye.

One last thing-  some people say that you have to teach your kids that sometimes you have to do things that you don't like, and you just have to deal with it.

I teach my kids that when it comes to religion, when there are things that are hard for them, I try to make my kids still want to do those things because it helps their relationship with the higher power.

When it comes to jobs that you don't like, I try to show my kids the reasons that they should be inspired to do those jobs anyhow (money to have for things we need and like, for example.)  While my kids are still too young for this to be 100% about them, I teach them this concept because they have a hard time when my husband goes to work or when I need to do work, but once they understand that by working you get money that you can use for so many things, they have an easier time "letting go".

In other words, my approach to parenting (and life in general) is- whenever possible, try to inspire people to want to do something instead of forcing them to do it- inspiring is much more effective.

Are you an unschooler or not? Are you a baby led weaner or not? Do you agree with the basic premise that when you inspire people to do things its more effective than when you just make them to stuff, or no? What is your parenting style?


  1. I am an unshooler and lean very much into radical unschoolers :) I blog About it over at http://www.simplyhomeschooled.com/
    Introducing them to new things to inspire learning is very much part of the equation.

    1. Did I define radical unschooling properly? That there is a democracy and parents don't get more say in what happens than children?

    2. There certainly is a democracy where kids needs and desires are no less important than an adults. This is within reason and will look different for every family. One looks for the win win solutions. For example in my house the kids do not have bedtime, bedtime, bedtime however they know they must be quiet or their freedom to go to bed naturally is revoked. Why? Because my husband gets up at 4am for work, it is his right to sleep, I am on chemo so sleep is also needed by me. If they get too loud, this steps on our freedoms and right to sleep.

      As far as introducing them to many new things, they do have the right to say no, sometimes they do, it is up to them, they are not forced.

      I really enjoyed this article, your perspective and how it works for your family!

  2. can you be more specific on what you give to the baby and when? What age do you start with? and how you know s/he is hungry or full at the time?

    Interesting concept and I wouldnt mind my kids being more adventrous eaters. maybe i should try it with my infant when shes ready!

    1. Anneliese was grabbing food off my plate from when she was 4 months old. I think that's a bit too young, so I held her off until 5.5 months. For baby led weaning, you have to wait until your kid is able to sit up unassisted, and ideally until they have pincer grasp, which I didn't wait for. My kids were all sitting up unassisted at 6 months old.
      When I start, I just sit the kid down in a high chair while we're having a meal and try to give the kid food from that meal that isn't too hard for them to eat. Like if we're having chicken soup, I would take carrots from the soup, and either cut them into circles or spears and put them on my tray, and if my baby wanted to, she'd put it in her mouth to eat. I actually started Anneliese with more nutrient dense foods like chicken gizzards, and because they're a little hard, i broke them into little pieces and then mashed them with my fingers to soften them up a bit so she could eat them, but at this point she knows how to chew so i just give her chicken chunks. (She still doesn't have any molars at 16 months.) I try to give more than one type of food at a time on the high chair so she can pick what she wants to eat, and sometimes she'll eat it all, sometimes she'll eat none, and sometimes she'll eat just one type of food that I put out. I know if she is hungry or full by if she is feeding herself or not. At first, kids dont really get much food by baby led weaning- its more about food exploration and playing with the food and learning about it- so I nurse full time, and offer her foods at meals. Then with practice, they eat more and more and want to nurse less and may eat a solid meal in place of a nursing session.
      I nurse on demand and serve real food during meals.

    2. I forgot to mention- I held off on grains including rice until she was 9 months or older, held off on eggs and fish until she was a year old (and still dont do eggs because of sensitivity), don't give her dairy at all, and dont give her gluten either. I was reading that ideally kids shouldnt eat any grains until they have molars, because the body doesnt produce the enzyme necessary to digest grains until the kid has molars... but thats really hard for me to avoid, and my kids get their molars in late (none in sight now at 17 months old now), so I just hold off with grains as long as i can. I also hold off with citrus and tomatoes and peanut butter until the kids are closer to a year.

  3. A good book to read about this is the Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education [Grace Llewellyn]. Although written for teenagers, the book is really a great guide for parents who are/are thinking about unschooling their children. She shows how this works and how well it works. I can tell you that my kids were totally turned off by things taught in school. My son wound up being interested in the periodic table of elements after he left - wasn't interested while he was there in the least (mentioned this to me) and I saw how turned off my daughter was to reading anything the least bit "school bookish" after she left. I look back now and see how learning NA"Ch as subjects turned me off to learning/enjoying them after I left school.

    1. I'll have to check out that book! Thanks!

  4. it's not scientific, but BLW does not guarantee no picky eaters, unfortunately! My eldest never touched a puree but he can be a right fussy eater! Ho hum, nothing's perfect :). But I'm sure it helps and I am NOT trying to put people off in the least (as evidenced that my younger is currently munching a pancake and plum segments at 8 months old...).

    1. Yes, there are other factors involved. When there are sensory issues at play, even with BLW kids are likely going to end up picky eaters.

  5. I am not a big unschooler, but I could define myself as "unschooling inspired" as you do.
    But I am a great defender of baby led weaning.
    With our first, we did "the old way", it was a lot of stress for her as well as for us parents.
    With the second, we tried baby led weaning and everything is fine. We started to give him parts of our food since 5 month so he learned how to chew as soon as possible. When he had teeth, at 8 month, we started to give him slices of meat and he could chew it without problem. Since then, he just eats like us (now he is 16 month). He almost never ate purees or soups (only when we do as well!) and we never mixed anything for him. It not only more convenient for us parents, we also see that he is more dexterous and curious than his sister at the same age.

    1. The only purees my daughter ever eats are mashed potatoes or hummus. And she eats them with her fingers. ;) Though lately she's been interested in discovering utensils, so I let her use them. My oldest was able to eat a bowl of soup with a spoon, himself, at 16 months, if i'm not mistaken!
      My kids don't get molars for a while, so I just mush up small chunks of chicken or meat with my fingers before putting them on the high chair.

  6. I am sort of "unschooling inspired" but more just of the opinion that we're all people together and children's natural inclination is to want to do what other people are doing and to learn from the more experienced people. (Have you read The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff? Fabulous book!) My child does attend school (and, in fact, attended full-time preschool when he was 2-5 years old because both parents worked outside the home) but we feel that it doesn't conflict with learning outside of school. He's 8 now, interested in all kinds of things, and very competent at some household chores just because he's always been into learning how to do stuff.

    Regarding baby food, we just sort of casually offered him suitable parts of what we were eating--seasonings and all. During our working hours he was going to a sitter who wanted to spoon-feed him once he started eating solids, so we used a hand-powered food mill to make baby food out of leftovers. This got him used to eating the kinds of things we like, instead of bland foods. He didn't have any teeth until 11 months or molars until much later, so mushy foods were necessary...but at home, we let him eat his mush with his hands or a spoon; he learned to use a spoon quite easily, at 8 or 9 months, just by watching us. Sometimes when I was eating a soft food like oatmeal, he'd sit on my lap and I'd take a bite, then give him a bite; it was an opportunity to learn about sharing and taking turns. :-) It was pretty convenient.

  7. "I also don't know anyone that did baby led weaning whose kids are picky eaters. But of course, its not a guarantee."

    It also seems like those that practice baby led weaning are much more open and receptive to the fact that pickiness is not always pickiness and may be sensory issues or the like. I see so much more awareness even in the last few years that kids aren't being stubborn/willful/etc. - although some may be - but that they may be legitimately reacting to stimulus.

    Which is pretty huge looking back. My sister is a rock star and will eat anything. But for years as a kid she was an "ultra picky eater." Turns out her back teeth didn't meet (and our bad dentist didn't catch it) so she wasn't able to chew very well. But she didn't have the vocabulary to tell anyone that (it had, after all, always been that way - as far as she knew it was the same for everyone).

  8. I don't know about baby-led weaning, but when my kidlet started smacking his lips and getting antsy when he watched me eat, I started blitzing our food for him. I use a staff mixer, and puree a small quantity of our food. He gets as much as he wants, until he either loses interest (breakfast, usually) or until he sticks his hand in his mouth, which I take to mean that he's either full (I don't actually know, but since he doesn't object when the food is put away I assume that that's his cue) or he's not interested in it any more. I do add a small quantity of water to the food before it gets pureed, mostly because otherwise it won't puree well, but also, some of the foods are a bit on the salty side (I don't have an issue with strong seasoning, but too much salt is bad for babies). But it's seriously good eating! (I always taste the food before I give it to him, under the supposition that if I don't like it, why should he?)

    I'm not a fan of homeschooling, as I've mentioned before a few times, but on the other hand I will endeavor to make learning as much fun as possible for him. Philosophically, I'm more of the "the parent is the parent" type of person, but I don't believe that necessarily means negating his opinions or preferences entirely. It's possible to set boundaries while still letting him be his own person.

  9. I puree our food--what I make for my boyfriend and myself--for the kidlet. I do add a bit of water to it to make it easier to puree, but for the most part, he gets what we do. I've never heard of baby-led weaning, but I don't force him to eat. These days, he gets breakfast (oatmeal, or yogurt, or occasionally scrambled eggs) and a dinner, and he gets as much as he likes, until he either stops showing interest in the food or sticks his hand in his mouth (which I'm treating as his cue for "mommy, I'm full").

    I've got more of the "I'm the parent, you do what I say" philosophy when it comes to raising him. But I don't think that means you always have to negate their opinions or preferences. I see it more like setting boundaries, and enforcing them, and as he gets older, allowing him more and more freedoms.

  10. I'm definitely unschool inspired. I do definitely direct my kids toward what I think is best -- like bedtimes, for instance, and healthy food rather than junk. But I don't really force. I keep them away from junk by just not having it in the house, and we do bedtime by doing peaceful things and music in the evening or just nursing the baby to sleep. Time will tell when we get to the homeschooling stage. If they aren't interested in reading by seven or so, I'd probably encourage it, but I honestly feel that most of what kids learn before ten, they forget. It's great and fun and everything, but they can catch up later. So I'll introduce reading, math, etc., but let them work it out on their own for quite awhile before I intervene.


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