Someone sent me a question about discipline and radical Unschooling, and I told her I’d work on a blog post to answer her question. If you have a question about radical Unschooling for me, I’d love to hear it and maybe even make a blog post about it (without mentioning you by name of course!) I can be reached at email@example.com.
Here’s the question:
In unschooling, what consequences are there for certain behaviors? What is the best way to handle discipline for things that many families would use timeout, loss of privilege, etc?
My answer: We don’t do “consequences”, if by consequences you mean punishment. Our relationship goal with our children is one of partnership, not authoritarianism.
My goal isn’t to manipulate their external behavior, either by punishments or rewards, but to help them develop their own internal code that they base their behavior on.
Since I don’t give my kids arbitrary rules, and obedience isn’t my goal, there is no punishment for disobedience. Actually, when there are no arbitrary rules and obedience isn’t expected, such a thing as disobedience doesn’t exist.
Children naturally want the adults in their lives to keep them safe. It is my job to make sure they don’t hurt themselves, other people, or other people’s property. There are certain places and situations where they’re expected to follow certain rules, and I help them do that (or I help them avoid those places until they’re able and willing to do that). But I do it respectfully, without yelling, punishment, or rewards.
There are so many variations of, “How do I handle it if my child does x,y, or z?” So instead of covering every potential situation, I’ll share a few principles that can be applied to every situation if you desire to give your child the freedom that comes along with radical unschooling.
1. Put them where they shine, don’t put them where they don’t shine.
That was the most helpful parenting advice I ever received, and one of the sentences I repeat over and over again when I’m asked for parenting advice.
Every child will shine or not shine in different situations and places differently.
You know your child. You know *that thing* that your child tends to do that can sometimes become a problem. *That thing* is different for every kid and in different places and situations even for the same kid. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you know that a certain type of situation often triggers an undesirable behavior, don’t put the child in that situation.
In other words, prevention is the best medicine.
There was a time when every time I took my kids to the grocery store, they fought. No matter how many strategies I tried–bringing snacks, making sure they were well-rested, bringing toys, turning grocery shopping into a treasure hunt– it didn’t work well. So I stopped taking them to the grocery store. I shopped at a 24-hour Walmart after they fell asleep. I didn’t stop shopping with them forever, and it wasn’t a punishment. I just stopped putting them where they didn’t shine.
Once, my daughter had the opportunity to go to a conference, but knew that it would be long for her kids and they’d likely be bored and miserable. Punishing, threatening, and bribing to get them to behave the way they’d be expected to behave there wasn’t an option. We brainstormed and tried to come up with a way she could attend but still meet her kids’ needs. Even with me helping, we knew the situation wouldn’t be ideal. Maybe in a few years it will be fine, but not this year. She didn’t go. One bittersweet day, they’ll be older and busy doing their own thing and won’t need her. In the meantime, there are plenty of situations moms can choose where both they and their children will shine.
Does your child sometimes throw fits if he loses games? Avoid situations that are likely to trigger him. Find cooperative games where there are no losers. I’m not talking about taking away his favorite video game and telling him it’s because he gets mad when he loses: far from it. If he has a hard time with something that’s already a favorite, then you have the opportunity to help him through it. I’m talking about not suggesting or introducing something that you know might not end well. Don’t ask him to play checkers if you know he’s been having a hard time throwing game pieces when he loses. See if you can get him interested in other things at the fair if you know there’s a good chance he’ll throw a tantrum if he doesn’t win a stuffed animal at the balloon dart game.
Does he have a hard time sitting still at a restaurant? Don’t go to a restaurant where he’s expected to stay still.
Does he give you a hard time about doing schoolwork or homework? Why are you forcing him to do schoolwork or homework? Be an unschooler? 😉
Does he shine when you hand him a paint brush,a video game controller, or a ball? Give him those things as often as you can.
Does he shine when there are two adults along to help so he can be taken aside for occasional quiet breaks? Arrange your outings so another supportive adult can be with you.
Does he cry when you leave him with a babysitter? Don’t leave him with a babysitter. One day, he won’t cry when you leave him. In the meantime, make friends with people who share your values that it’s possible to enjoy the company of others while your children are present, taking breaks from your adult conversations to meet the children’s needs as necessary.
Does he shine more at home? Stay home more. Does he shine most when he gets out to be with friends? Get him out more.
Does he have a hard time sitting still for quiet programs or classes? Take him to a playground instead.
Is he having a hard time not pushing in line? Stand in line with him. Or find an activity he loves that doesn’t require standing in line.
Does he get in a fight with the neighbor kids every time he goes outside? Even if you think he should be old enough to not need you, he obviously does. Stay with him so he doesn’t get in a fight. He’s not shining by himself. Or find him other activities and friends that don’t require him to hang out with the neighborhood kids.
Put him where he shines, don’t put him where he doesn’t shine.
2. Rethink what is and isn’t bad behavior.
Is jumping in a puddle bad behavior? I don’t think so. There isn’t anything morally or ethically wrong with jumping in a puddle.
What if you, or another adult, tell him not to jump in the puddle? I still don’t think it’s bad behavior, because I don’t think a child should be expected to blindly obey an adult.
What if they get their clothes wet? Then the natural consequence would be that he has wet clothes until you’re able to change him. If you as the parent had the wisdom and foresight to bring extra clothes along, that’s a good thing for the child. if not, get him to some comfortable clothes as soon as you can. Don’t say, “I told you so” or “that’s what you get”. Just let the natural learning experience speak for itself, and let him also learn the lesson from you what it means to have someone be kind and patient and take care of you unconditionally.
What if he, either purposefully, or because he doesn’t realize what he’s doing, splashes another person who doesn’t want to be wet? That’s unacceptable and I would step in at that point and, if necessary, physically remove him from the situation and keep him from splashing another person. Even when you need to step in and be firm, you don’t need to shame or punish.
Is throwing a rock bad behavior? Rock throwing, like any action, is neither always good or always bad. If he’s throwing it at another person or animal or at an object that could be damaged or hurt by the rock, yes. If he’s not being mindful of where the rock is going, then he shouldn’t throw it. But if he’s mindfully playing a game with the rock, or throwing it into a puddle, or at a target, then there’s nothing wrong with it morally or ethically.
Is not paying attention to the teacher bad behavior? Not unless he’s disrupting the class and making it hard for other kids to hear. If he’s chosen to sign up for a program with a class-like situation but doesn’t like or care about what the teacher is saying or doing, make sure you’re nearby so he can respectfully and quietly leave the room so the people who do want to be there can participate. If you’ve operated under the principle of “put them where they shine” and give him the freedom to put himself where he shines, things will go much more smoothly.
“Stop jumping in that puddle right this minute!” can change to “I see you’re enjoying puddle jumping, but you splashed your sister and she doesn’t want to get wet. Can you go to that puddle over there and jump? It’s a bigger puddle anyway. I bet it would be more fun. And when you’re done, if you want to change into dry clothes, let me know!”
“Stop throwing rocks, or you’re going to sit in time out” can change to “I’m concerned that throwing a rock at that could dent it. But here, why don’t you throw a rock at this instead. Can I take a turn? We can see who can get it to hit the target first.”
“Sit down, and listen to your teacher” can change to, “Do you want to go to another room to play while she reads this story? You don’t seem very interested. That way the kids who choose to stay in the room can listen without distraction.”
3. Let them make their own decisions.
You can’t develop self-control if you’re not allowed to control yourself. Otherwise, you’re simply yielding to (or resisting) another person’s control.
Kids can make very good decisions. Let them, even when it takes you out of your comfort zone. It’s not about you, it’s about your child and honoring his autonomy. Follow your child’s lead. Don’t force him to eat his veggies. He’ll learn what is good for his body, and he’ll learn self-control (rather than learning to yield to your control) if he’s given food freedom. I’m not talking about asking if they want carrots or corn. I’m talking about real let-em-eat-cake-for-dinner freedom.
Don’t force him to go to bed at a certain time. Wait until he’s tired.
Let him make his own decisions about what he wears. It’s ok if it doesn’t match. And really, if he enjoys wearing fancy new shoes in the sandbox, what does it hurt?
It’s only hair. It grows back. Whether it’s blue or pink, all shaved off, dreadlocked, or in a mohawk, it’s just hair.
Let him make his own decisions about TV, cell phone use, and video games.
Replace the struggle with choices. Real choices. Not “choose what you want to do between these two activities I find acceptable and am willing to let you do”, but “Dream big. Whatever you want to do, I’ll try to find a way to say yes” kind of freedom. Not “I think you’ve been on the computer too much, so choose between going outside, making a craft, or helping me with dinner”. That’s not a real choice at all.
4. Use logic. Talk through the situation with respect.
Once, one of my grandsons had an accident and needed a clean outfit that we had forgotten to pack in the car. The other grandson was at the playground, and I knew he was going to be upset about leaving, but we really needed to get somewhere to buy some clothes. Instead of going up to him in the playground and announcing it is time to leave, get in the car, too bad if you don’t like it, I called him over to me. I whispered the situation to him, and made him part of the team. WE need to get somewhere to get your brother a new shirt. He was only four, but he was able to see that we had a real problem and was interested in helping us solve it. Logic won’t work every time with small children, but sometimes it will, and as they get older, it will work more often.
I’m not talking about lecturing a child. I’m not talking about “giving him a talking to”. I’m not talking about backing him into a corner and not letting him go until he sees things your way. I’m talking about having a relationship with a child that allows you to, when he is up for it, have a healthy, consensual, give-and-take conversation.
When a family is part of a team, with parents giving kids the opportunity to come up with solutions together, things can go much more smoothly.
If you’re at a restaurant and a child dumps salt over the table, do you yank the salt shaker and tell him, “No, don’t do that” and put it up where he can’t reach? Or do you explain that the salt costs the restaurant money, and they wouldn’t like him wasting their salt or making a big mess for them to clean up?
When you must ask your kids not to do something, explain why. Calmly and rationally. Every time they do something they shouldn’t, welcome it as a learning opportunity for them. If helping them read a new word is a learning opportunity, so is helping them learn appropriate behavior in social situations.
Let them use logic right back at you, of course. Maybe they are thinking of an angle you hadn’t. Be willing to change your mind if their logic makes sense.
Be willing to discuss and work together to find a solution that works for everyone.
Will logic always “work”? Of course not. And it will work more for some kids than others, and for older kids more than younger ones.
But discussing things logically with kids is good for them and respectful of them.
5. Be involved. Very involved.
Don’t pay so much attention to your conversations with adult friends that you don’t even realize what your child is doing, or that you’re not able to redirect a behavior before it turns into anything big. Don’t be more concerned with your agenda or impressing others that you don’t put your child and his needs first, every time.
Stay attached to your kids as long as they need you to be, as much as they need you to be. A tired or not-presently-emotionally-able-to-deal-with-this child who is snuggled on a lap won’t be punching his brother. Well, hopefully not, anyway. 😉 Sometimes, kids are punished for misbehaving when all they need is to know it’s ok to choose a quiet place off to the side of the action with Mom. I’m not talking about the mainstream idea of time out at all. I’m talking about a child who has such a fantastic relationship with his parents that he looks at being in their presence as a comforting, inviting thing that he sometimes chooses on his own when he’s overwhelmed and cranky. Allowing kids to go off and participate on their own is completely different than forcing them to.
When they go off and play on their own, let them do so without hovering. They’ll choose that more and more as they get older. But make having a great relationship with your child a priority, so they openly come to share things with you.
Regularly seek him out to do things you both enjoy together. Live a lifestyle where you’re partners who genuinely enjoy each other’s company rather than a parent as authority over a child who must obey. Do interesting projects together, peacefully and cooperatively. If your relationship is strong, you’ll be enjoying life together, not standing from afar yelling at him to be good.
Being attached keeps you intune with them, which helps you know what is behind any behavior you might need to deal with. Getting to the heart of any problem is what it’s all about.
6. Your child isn’t giving you a hard time, your child is having a hard time.
Sometimes, no matter how much work you’ve put into putting him where he shines and not putting him where he doesn’t shine, and no matter how much you’ve worked with him to help him find an acceptable version of what he wants to do, he might have big feelings and have tantrums and melt downs. It happens. And it’s okay.
Let him know that you understand how he feels, and that he has a right to those big feelings. “That must have really hurt your feelings when he said that.” “You seem really disappointed And angry.” “I’m really sorry that you’re sad.” I never, ever shame a child for whining. It’s even ok for him to cry, scream, or yell. It’s ok for you to plop yourself down on the floor right beside him, even in a public place (okay, if you’re in a movie theater, carry him out where you’re not interrupting others watching the movie), to let him know you’re there to support him and hear his frustrations. But you might want to reconsider having an adult-version of a tantrum right back at him (Screaming or spanking or trying to bully him into complying by threatening him with the removal of his personal property or some other punishment). Or worse yet, threatening abandonment (If you don’t get up off the floor right now, I’m leaving you in this store. Bye!”
If a tantrum turns violent where he might hurt himself or others, you might have to hold him in a bear hug, carry him away, or physically stop the dangerous behavior. Still, you can remain calm and let him know, as much as he’s able to hear it in that moment, that you hear where he’s coming from and recognize his right to his feelings.
Be his rock. Let him learn by your example that even in the midst of difficult emotions and difficult behaviors, it’s possible to remain strong, empathetic, and understanding of another person. Let him know what it’s like to be in a relationship where someone is unconditionally there for him…not letting him disrespect personal boundaries, but also being patient when he’s having a hard time.
7. Sometimes the parent is also having a hard time.
And that’s ok. You’re human, and parenting isn’t always easy.
Learn to love yourself and not beat yourself up for feeling normal emotions and exhaustion. Find a way to take care of your own needs too. Find a support person (spouse, grandparent, friend, sister) who can let you take a bubble bath or go for a walk alone or whatever it is that would be helpful to you.
But teach yourself not to yell at your child no matter what. It’s ok to have a hard time, it’s not ok to throw peaceful parenting out the window because you’re having a hard time.
After all, haven’t you ever told a child, “even though you’re (tired, hungry, angry, frustrated, upset, bored, etc.), you don’t have the right to (hit your brother, break that thing, etc)?
Model the peaceful behavior you would love to see your kids have.
And when you mess up, as we all do from time to time, apologize to your child.
Does the “radical Unschooling way” of punishment-free and coercive-free parenting always work?
It depends on what you mean by “work”. What is your goal? Does it always result in kids who act like little robots that strangers and acquaintances compliment you on? No. Sometimes, maybe even often, they will, because even with the most active kids, sensitive kids, or “different” kids who constantly challenge their parents, if they are being respected, given real choices, and not forced to be where they don’t shine, they will be more happy children and people will notice. But if you don’t force them to fit into society’s mold about how kids “should act”, there will always be people who don’t approve.
If impressing people with your kids is your goal, then punishing, threatening, shaming, belittling, and bribing might help you create better robots (shudder). Or kids who know how to make a good appearance when they need to avoid punishment but sneak every chance they can. You can turn kids into very good sneaky, manipulative liars that way. You can turn your kids into people-pleasers that way. You can turn kids into people who don’t think for themselves or take a stand for what matters to them that way. But their outward appearance might impress more people.
Of course, kids who are respected usually act respectfully, but it doesn’t guarantee that your kids won’t ever melt down because they didn’t get the toy they want or because they’re tired or hungry. It doesn’t guarantee that siblings won’t fight, that they won’t get into things you’ve asked them not to. It doesn’t guarantee that they won’t make very unwise decisions and mess up. Then mess up again. And again.
The only thing you can guarantee is your response. You can guarantee that you always treat your kids respectfully. You can guarantee that you are always present for them. You can guarantee that you model good behavior for them. You can guarantee that you learn patience and self-control. You can guarantee that you’re the kind of parent who is always there for your child and always shows unconditional love.
That’s not always easy, especially for those of us who weren’t raised by peaceful parents. But acting with compassion, respect, and empathy is the right thing to do.
And it greatly increases the odds of one day having an adult child who also acts with compassion, respect, and empathy. Not because someone is forcing him to, but because he’s internalized the values you’ve modeled for him over and over and over through the years, even when it was hard.