Lately, I’ve been busy reading various Unschooling blogs and links. Unschooling is more than just a way of learning, it’s a lifestyle and so it is heavily tied into parenting. I’ve found that many unschoolers seem to follow a style that is closely related to the Taking Children Seriously philosophy. I confess I have not studied TCS in any great detail. But I know a few TCS mamas from my parenting boards and have participated in numerous discussions about Gentle Discipline that included perspectives from TCS mamas, so I feel I have a fairly good grasp of the basics.
TCS is a bit too unstructured for me. Which is saying something because to most people my approach to parenting is pretty unstructured as it is. I’m all for giving children as many opportunities as possible to make choices and have control over their lives. But I also believe that in doing so we need to respect their limitations along with their capabilities. Children have wonderful imaginations and my kids often surprise me with their ability to engage in problem-solving situations with practical ideas that I, myself, was not able to come up with. But children are also lacking in life experience, maturity, and the concept of time (not to mention aging). I can still recall comments from adults when I would spontaneously perform a cartwheel (“oh my, you are so limber and flexible – enjoy it!”). I couldn’t understand what they were talking about, because I had yet to experience the achy stiffness that comes with aging. Youth is surely wasted on the young because they cannot comprehend life being any different than it is for them in the present. Us older folks have something to compare it to!
On one radical unschooling list there was talk about not forcing kids to brush teeth, giving them unfettered access to food (in other words, if they wanted to eat nothing but crackers all day you’d let them) and TV. I have objections to all three of these practices although I am quick to say that if it is working for a particular family then good on them. I have nothing but respect for those who follow TCS. But personally I feel that kids do need some boundaries. I don’t mean restrictions, but more that I believe they really want and need adults to make some decisions for them and just tell them “this is the way it is”. The world is a complicated place full of decisions – few things are black and white. I think it makes the world a safer and simpler place for very young children when they aren’t overwhelmed with the number of decisions they have to make, and aren’t faced with decisions that are beyond their coping skills.
For example, I have never forced my kids to have their teeth brushed, but I have always insisted that it must be done. At first it took some time to come up with creative ways to get my child to willingly submit to toothbrushings. This usually resulted in playing games, letting them brush my teeth while I brushed theirs, or patiently waiting for them to come to the bathroom so we could get past the toothbrushing and move on to story time. I suppose one could argue that this is merely a more subtle form of coercion than forcing them to do it, but when the “non-coercive parenting” discussion boils down to that POV my response is always that the most important consideration is whether the children see it as something forced upon them against their will, or them choosing to comply (without bribery or threat of punishment). Eventually toothbrushing and flossing just became one of those things we do, same as the sun rises each morning and sets each evening. My kids don’t need to think much about the implications of poor brushing habits, although certainly they have a basic understanding of why we brush. I consider it my responsibility right now to make sure the job gets done, and that is one less thing that they need to worry about. I would not leave it up to them because I don’t think they’re capable of really understanding what a future with unhealthy teeth and gums would be like.
The food issue is a bit more complex. In the absence of any processed foods and sugars I would say that giving children unfettered access to any foods in a healthy stocked pantry is fine. But processed foods and sugars are addictive and I don’t think young people should be put in a position where they need to battle addiction. For our family, the unfettered approach largely works, but there are some things I put restrictions on. Again, non-coercively, but gently insisting.
As for TV, we’re kind of there anyways. We don’t have cable and we only get one channel, with good commercial-free cartoons every weekday morning until noon. We also have a DVD player and through that I can control what movies they watch. They do have pretty much unfettered access to these things and I go back and forth with feeling guilty about how much TV they watch. But they also do a variety of fun and creative things, the shows often stimulate discussion and/or play, and they spend lots of time outside, too.
So I’m not an adherent of TCS, although I’d like to stress that I have great respect for it and the families who practice it. I think the philosophy of TCS has a lot to teach us and, if anything, it forces me to question myself about what is worth establishing as a boundary and what can be given to them to decide. What I found interesting about unschooling and TCS is how the former can be a natural extension of the latter. I didn’t come at it from that angle, but I got here nonetheless, which is also an example of how diverse each family’s path to parenting can be.