Family life

Radical unschooling is a little too free for this free-range parent

"As much as I embrace my free-range parenting lifestyle, radical unschooling is just a little too freestyle for me."

radical unschooling is the newest parenting trend

Isaac and Gillian on a family hike. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

As we head into the final week of summer vacation, the one thing I keep thinking about is how much I’m looking forward to getting back into a routine. My kids, eight-year-old Isaac and five-year-old Gillian, had a great summer that was jam-packed with sleepovers, camping trips and lazy beach days, but it was also a totally unstructured summer. My rules on strict bedtimes weren’t just bent; they were smashed. On more than one occasion, we had ice cream for supper. We also pushed our summer hygiene regimen a little too far—there may have been a week-long stretch where they didn’t wash their hair with shampoo.

Yes, it was a gloriously unstructured summer. But, like all good things, it must come to an end. Because lack of structure often leads to behaviour problems in our house, and if the increase in my kids’ tantrums are any indication, it’s a good thing that school starts next week. For this reason alone, I’d make a terrible “unschooler,” let alone a “radical unschooler,” which is reportedly a growing trend in parenting.

I hadn’t heard of radical unschooling (RU) until yesterday, when I read Kate Graham’s article in Britain’s The Telegraph, in which mom-of-four Kim Constable shares how she abandoned traditional parenting in favour of this new trend. Tired of bribing her kids to go to school and extracurriculars—and inspired by US parenting guru Dayna Martin, who helped popularize the RU movement—Constable pulled her kids from class and let them direct their own learning. As Martin told The Telegraph, the movement is based on parents trusting their kids’ instincts. “It’s extending that trust to every single area of that child’s life,” she says. “We never live by rules; we live by principles.”

Unschooling itself isn’t a new concept: It dates back to the late 1960s, when American educator John Holt referred to school as “a nutty notion” that leaves kids “cut off from the rest of life.” But it differs from radical unschooling, where kids call all the shots, from when they go to bed to what they learn. Constable says her kids have taught themselves to read and, through games like Minecraft, learned complex math equations. But she admits there was a stretch when one of her kids only ate Nutella and tortilla chips for two months straight.

Proponents of radical unschooling insist their kids learn just as much as those enrolled in formal schooling yet have the added benefit of making their own life choices. In fact, many radical unschoolers prefer the term “whole-life unschoolers.” They object when people state that their methods don’t adequately prepare kids for adulthood, which is filled with rules and routines.

Radical unschooling is perfectly legal in the UK, but it gets a little murkier here in Canada. The Government of Canada states that parents can choose to send their kids to public schools or private schools or have them home-schooled. It states that, by law, kids must attend school between the ages of five and 18, depending on your province or territory. According to a National Post article, unschoolers are currently classified as home-schoolers by the government, so kids are still considered legally educated.

As a free-range parent, I notice a lot of similarities between radical unschooling and the way I raise my own kids. Free-range parenting requires a leap of faith that your kids will make safe choices. However, I still set boundaries. Eating vegetables, going to bed early and getting on the bus every day to go to school may not be radical parenting choices, but as much as I embrace my free-range parenting lifestyle, radical unschooling is just a little too freestyle for me.

Besides, the only one in my house who has permission to eat Nutella every day is me.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences of giving up her big-city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

Read more:
Learning to read: What age is the “right” age?>
Confessions of a free-range parent>