unschooling: does freedom include the freedom to self-destruct?
Back in 2003, when I first discovered unschooling, it seemed too good to be true - until someone brought up the dark side.
This question was posed on a message board, and the ensuing discussion really made me think about all the ‘what ifs’…
“Should unschooling really mean full freedom, no caveats? What if that much freedom leads to our kids becoming involved in ‘bad’, dangerous, or destructive choices? Does that mean freedom is only good and safe up to a certain point, and then we’ll need to go back to control?”
To be clear, they were talking about self-harm, drug abuse, and other high-risk behaviors that teens may get involved in - and how to handle it from an unschooling perspective.
The general consensus then, on the unschooling dot com BBS forums (because that was what online community looked like, back in ‘03), was, YES, unschooling must include even the freedom to self-destruct, because otherwise it’s not truly free.
At the time, this idea made me a bit fearful - because I wasn’t skilled at looking for the nuances yet.
However - over a few decades of parenting, I’ve realized that restricting freedom (online or off) is not really the best way to keep kids safe.
Freedom doesn’t exist in a vacuum without the potential for chaos - because none of us are truly separate from each other. Your freedom starts to have natural limits wherever it bumps up against mine, and vice versa.
So, to “give freedom” without also encouraging our kids to have a sense of awareness and empathy about The Other, is to (maybe…possibly…) turn loose disconnected and entitled individuals onto society - and nobody wants that.
Therefore, I think blaming destructive behavior on “too much freedom” is misleading and false. It’s not as if desiring self-harm or chaos is a natural part of growing up - so what’s actually going on when our kids are drawn to danger?
And - how can we keep them safe in a dynamic, increasingly digital world?
» I think the prime question to focus on is not how to prevent kids from engaging in self-destructive behaviors…but to find out HOW and WHY their innate, wholesome drive of curiosity is being co-opted into something destructive.
The “desire to self destruct” has so many layers to it...
First, is it objectively true that something is destructive, or are we judging their curiosity and interest through our own (subjective) filters of life-experience?
Second, so many things have consequences of “maybe” or “not right now” … meaning, trying it once probably won’t hurt, but making a habit of it will. (Vape pens, alcohol, sugar, ramen, religion!)
Third—can we suspend our worry long enough to have a thoughtful conversation about why they’re interested in X? Without shame or blame, without shutting down their curiosity, without making them want to just do X in secret…
Through open, shame-free discourse, might we uncover a deeper need or want in our child that can be met another way?
Ideally, unschooling is a way to expand our kids’ experience of the world.
This is directly opposite of traditional homeschooling, which often sought to shelter kids from the dangers of outside influence. (That’s where the “weird, unsocialized homeschoolers” trope originates from, by the way.)
Yes, there’s a lot of unsavory, disturbing, alarming things in this beautiful world of ours. The metaverse is looming, and even very young children are depressed, anxious, supremely lonely and adrift in a digital, disconnected society —
The world has changed dramatically in the last 18 years, and now it seems that dangers are never more than a few clicks away, even for our youngest children.
However, if we protect our kids too vigilantly, their own spidey-sense will never get any exercise.
We need less bubble-wrap; more scaffolding. Less arbitrary restrictions, and more collaborative curiosity…
Some parents imagine that they can keep kids safe by injecting fear into them … in hopes that even when they’re not looking, fear will act as their child’s jailer and prevent them from making “bad” choices.
This is a recipe for psychic injury - and this kind of injury primes us for self-destructive behavior.
Children (regardless of schooling or lack thereof) who are kept too rigidly on any path with fear and shame as their boundaries won’t learn to trust their own judgment, because they’ll be so used to relying on someone else’s.
This makes them susceptible to the narcissists and manipulators of the world, who seek out prey that only feels safe navigating via external guidance.
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls this being “instinct-injured”, in her paradigm-shattering book Women Who Run With the Wolves. (If you haven’t read it multiple times, what are you even doing with your life?)
I feel like this is also true of children who have not yet been schooled to discount their own wild instincts, in favor of what adults tell them they’re “supposed to” think and feel.
We must be willing to look at the shadow side of life with our kids, but ideally - the rich, connected rhythm and flow of unschooling will lend some insulation and perspective, so they won’t get entangled in darkness.
Unschooling is at its core, about connection and co-creation. If your child is temporarily enthralled by unsavory, worrisome things - but their instincts have been allowed to develop unhindered by shame, guilt, or “shoulds”, they’re more well-equipped to cope with these realities, because they have a clear(er) head and sovereign, self-directed heart.
As I write this, however, I cannot help but think of the precious young people who are lost to suicide, who - even in spite of amazing families and so much support - have lost hope, lost clear sight, lost the ability to trust and believe that things will get better … that the future is worth striving toward.
Adults like to say, “kids are resilient” - but of course, resilience at any age has its limits.
Resilience is not there for us to rely on, to use as a handy excuse as we ignore their mental health like millions of tiny red flags, bleeding like paper cuts of the psyche of our so-called resilient children and teens…
Resilience is most strong and present in community, in the co-creative discourse and exchange of ideas and conversational flow that makes up a rich, curious, multifaceted lifestyle - where our kids have the freedom to explore within the scaffolding of our loving, non-judgmental guidance.
Unschooling is all about nuance - and I believe there’s two things we need to agree with for unschooling to make sense at a foundational level:
that children are born “good”; that is to say, human beings are not innately predisposed to destruction
that we do not “own” our children, and therefore must interact with them as conscious beings, with their free will intact
Conscious parents understand that we are never nearly as “in control” of our kids as we imagine — regardless of whether we unschool or send them to school.
It requires much more nuance than simply restricting our kids’ freedom by saying, no! We can’t allow this!
We are not the foolproof gatekeepers of our children’s worldly experiences that we think and imagine ourselves to be.
It’s a hard parenting truth that we do not own our children - espcially into the teen years.
They are either gonna do what they are compelled to do - with or without our partnership, support, or permission … OR … they’re going to internalize our limitations and fears, and miss out on developing their own sense of intuitive awareness of what’s right, best, and healthy for them.
“Your children are not your children. They are sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.” ~ Khalil Gibran
In memory of Miguel, Mila, and Bryson.
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