No Rules = No Boundaries?

If you watched Channel 4’s documentary, Feral Families on Thursday 26th October, and have never come across the ideas of positive/unconditional parenting or unschooling before, you would be forgiven for thinking that “no-rules-families” (btw, this isn’t a “thing”, no one uses this term. I have no idea why the filmmakers went with it – oh, yeah, sensationalism) have no boundaries and no discipline.

The narrator said this several times.

But I saw boundaries in the programme and I would bet my right arm that each family featured uses some form of discipline at times – it just might look completely different to the kind you would see in an authoritarian household.

Discipline has come to be synonymous with punishment.

But I would like to point out that rules are not the same as boundaries, and discipline is perfectly possible without punishment.

**This post contains affiliate links. You never pay more for anything you buy after following a link, but I may make a small commission that helps me to continue to bring you top quality content**No rules parenting, or unschooling, does not mean no boundaries or no discipline

What Are Rules and Boundaries?

Let’s check the dictionary, shall we?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “rule” as:

One of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct or procedure within a particular area of activity.

With the synonyms: regulation, ruling, directive, order, court order, act, law, by-law, statute, edict, canon, ordinance, pronouncement, mandate, command, dictate, dictum, decree, fiat, proclamation, injunction, commandment, prescription, stipulation, requirement, precept, guideline, direction.

Boundary, on the other hand, is defined as:

1.1 often boundaries A limit of something abstract, especially a subject or sphere of activity.
‘a community without class or political boundaries’

With the synonyms: dividing line, divide, division, borderline, demarcation line, line of demarcation, cut-off point, threshold, limits, parameters, bounds, outer limits, confines, extremities, barriers, thresholds.

They’re quite different, aren’t they?

They have different dictionary definitions and different real-world use too, different connotations.

I am in no way attempting to speak for any family other than my own here. If you disagree, I welcome respectful debate in the comments section. But what follows is an examination of my beliefs and the way our family works.

Unconditional Parenting

So, we parent positively, unconditionally, gently, respectfully. Pick a term. They all apply. The husbeast and I are not authoritarian by nature, well, not much. We certainly don’t believe that as parents our primary role is to rule over our children like monarchs over subjects. We don’t believe that our children are our property, we don’t own them. We believe that our children are individual humans with rights.

A revolutionary concept to some people, yes, but to us, it is simply common sense.
I really wish Feral Families had actually explored this concept properly, as I did feel it left the viewer with little better grasp of this parental philosophy than at the start. So let me try to explain what it means to parent in this way:

Far less catchy, but it might be more apt to say that families like ours avoid arbitrary rules. We tend to steer clear of the word “rules” in general because of the connotations attached. As I suggested above, the words “rules” and “boundaries” have different connotations, they feel different. To me, rules are fixed, immovable, inflexible and rigid. They are prescriptive and unresponsive.

Boundaries can change to suit changing circumstances, such as a child growing up. Boundaries are guidelines to help everybody grasp where the edges are, and within the playing field, they are free to roam.

This is the heart of our style of parenting.

We value freedom and exploration. But most importantly, we value respect. If we want our children to respect us, then we, as the adults with more life experience, must model respect by respecting our children.

It’s Not Cricket – Except When It Is

I can’t help but picture a cricket pitch (hubby will be proud to read this). Ok, so in case you aren’t familiar (hi there, American readers! I see you!) the boundary of a cricket pitch is a very long rope. It lies around the field of play and if the ball goes over it, the batting side gets extra runs (points). But it’s a rope, not a painted line. Guess what it does from time to time… it moves. It can get knocked, nudged, lifted, shifted. Got juniors playing on the field? Bring the boundaries in a bit. It makes the game fairer. They can’t be expected to hit the ball as far as the best adults in the country. Can they?

The boundary rope in cricket is much like parenting boundaries!

Do you know what else they do in cricket? The fielding team moves around. They don’t have fixed positions that they stay in for the entire innings. The bowler is planning a few short balls? He lets his teammates know so they can adjust their positions based on where the batsman is likely to end up directing the ball. There is all this flexibility in a game of cricket.

Fifteen years ago I would never have believed you if you told me that. I saw cricket as a long, boring game with TOO MANY RULES.

Well, do you know what? That’s what I think of traditional parenting now.

Do this, do that, go to bed, eat this, do it my way or the highway.

Nope, not for my kids. Giving orders, expecting compliance without taking the time to reason with or explain anything to children is utterly disrespectful of their autonomy and personhood.

I choose to respect them. I choose to give them choices and freedom. Do you know what happens when you do that? They are a) happy, and b) don’t go batshit crazy with rebellion as soon as they can.

Call me nuts, but I’d quite like my boys to have an open and trusting relationship with me when they hit their teens. I know?! Crazy, right? I actually want them to feel they can come talk to me if they have a problem.

When you have flexible, adaptable boundaries and everyone in the family understands the values (in place of rules) that you share, then you have more harmony, fewer battles, fewer upsets.

What is “Well-Behaved” Anyway?!

I’ve been told several times this week that my kids are extremely well-behaved. It’s cropped up repeatedly in a few short days for some reason. Part of me is thinking ”yeah, right now, but you’re not with them all the time! They have their moments!” Of course they do, they are kids! They have upsets, they have disagreements and they are still learning – they are kids!

Do adults never get overwhelmed by their emotions? Do adults never fall out with one another? Of course they do. But does that make them “badly behaved?” Hardly. “Bad behaviour” in adults might include: breaking the law, public drunkenness, being rude.

I’ve been pondering what is meant by the people who choose to praise my kids in this way. I’ve been reflecting on what behaviour they have seen that leads them to say this, and what behaviour they might be comparing it to in order to reach the judgement that my kids are doing it “well”.

I hope it’s safe to say that my kids have never been drunk in public (or private – stop it!), nor have they broken any laws. But I’m not sure these well-meaning adults who have been describing my kids as “well behaved” lately would be referring to these behaviours. It’s pretty typical in our culture to have expectations that children should, in public at least, behave like “well-behaved” adults.

Children are not supposed to run or make noise; or show emotions such as frustration, anger, pain or upset. Happiness and joy are acceptable, as long as they don’t get too exuberant. These things would, I presume, be considered to be “bad behaviour”, rather than drunkenness or anything too extreme.

In general, I can say that my children tend to be kind, happy and responsive (well, not so much the Monkey. He’s going through that phase when many parents resort to getting their kid’s hearing checked because they never seem to bloody hear a word you say). Is this what people mean by “well-behaved”? I think it might be.

Does this mean that the behaviour they are used to from children is very different? Are their children or grandchildren far more prone to public drunkenness than mine? *joke*

Are the children they encounter more frequently sullen? Frustrated? Defiant? Are those children parented in a more mainstream way? Yeah, they probably are (law of averages).

Discipline – The Art of Learning

So we come back around to those rules and discipline again. Do lots of rules, and punishment for breaking them, result in “well-behaved” children?

There is actually quite a bit of evidence on this, which is far beyond the scope of this blog post. But the definitive answer is “no”. You might have seen this coming. This isn’t just my kids, or one or two other families that we know of. This is widespread and backed by studies.

People who grow up with lots of rules, rewards and punishments are prone to lack solid intrinsic motivation. This means, once they are free from that restrictive household, they aren’t able to live up to the standards set by those rules etc.

Alfie Kohn cites lots of research on this in his book, Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. I highly recommend ALL parents and parents-to-be read this book. They should give it out to expectant mums when they first register with the midwife!

So, I know what you’re thinking. “That’s all well and good, but what do I do when my kid won’t put his damn shoes away if I can’t stick him on the naughty step any more?”

First of all, is it truly important that your kid picks up their shoes? How old is the kid? What’s the worst that could happen if they leave their shoes in the middle of the hall/doorway/stairs?

I picked this example because this is something we are working on with the Monkey right now. Is it truly important? Well, not in a life-or-death way, no, actually. But it is a courtesy that I think matters. What’s the worst that could happen? Someone could trip on them. He could grow up to be the kind of guy who never picks up after himself and ends up either being nagged by his partner, or alone because a string of people leave him because of his filthy habits. So yeah, I do kind of want him to just pick up his shoes and put them on the damn shoe rack, that’s what it’s there for.

He’s five, going on six. He’s definitely capable of putting his shoes away. But does he really get why he should? Not so much. He’s not thinking about what life will be like when he’s thirty. He’s just come running in from going bonkers outside. He’s running to grab a drink or flop out on the sofa to catch his breath.

Is it appropriate to punish him for this? For perfectly normal, five-year-old behaviour with absolutely no malice behind it?

Punishment is to make someone deliberately suffer in retribution for their actions.

Is that ever appropriate in a parent-child relationship?

No, in my opinion, it isn’t.

My role, as a parent, is to guide my children, to help them learn. How can I effectively lead them to learn if I am consumed with forcing them to bend to my will? How will they learn if they are never allowed to make mistakes and then seek solutions for them? To me, discipline is not about punishing my child, i.e. making them suffer, it is about giving them the opportunity to learn.

So when the Monkey leaves his shoes in the hall, what am I to do? First of all, I let him know that he has done this by saying what I see: “I see shoes lying on the floor where they could be tripped over.” Often, this is enough to get him to come back and put them away. Sometimes it isn’t. So I go to him and get down to his level and tell him that I would like him to go and put his shoes away. I remind him that in our family, we value thoughtfulness and that someone could get hurt if he leaves his shoes where they are.

That will do it, 99.99% of the time.

There is no “need” for punishment. What good would yelling do? What would it teach him?

In her book, Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, Rebecca Eanes goes into great detail about positive discipline and about creating family values. It’s another must-read. Along with How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Faber & Mazlish. Both books are packed with practical, actionable steps to help you move away from punitive, authoritarian, “doing to” parenting, towards a more positive and “working with” style.

Feral Families?

To wrap this up, what I saw in Feral Families, were three families that focus on boundaries, rather than rules; working with, rather than doing to; and more positive and harmonious lives than many traditional families can boast.

One of the parents explained that it was important for her kids to be safe – that’s a boundary. As she said it, the baby in her arms reached for the knife she had just been using. The mother moved the knife out of reach, laughed and reiterated to the camera about safety. This clip seems to have caused a stir on the internet, but what I saw was in no way shocking, terrible or warranting social services being involved, something some ignorant buffoons with too much time on their hands have been braying for since the program aired. What is wrong with a mother moving a knife out of reach of her child?

Or perhaps viewers took issue with the toddler wandering around the picnic with a blunt pallet knife at the end of the program? This was not a knife for cutting. It was a tool with no sharp edges for serving cake. This is so far from dangerous I can’t even fathom any possible objection.

I could talk at length about allowing children autonomy and the chance to take risks, but I feel that may be another post. So I’ll leave it there for now.

Do please let me know in the comments what you thought of the programme, or of my thoughts on this subject.

Unschooling – Why We Don’t Need Holidays

We’re an unschooling family.

With the schools breaking up for the summer, it seemed like the right time to talk about the fact that we don’t take a “school” holiday. There a lot of myths around home education, one of which being that we have to follow school terms. We don’t!

home education homeschooling taking vacations, we don't need holidays

What Is Unschooling?

There are a lot of special terms, or jargon, around education. So let’s just get this one out of the way. I described us as an “unschooling family”. What on earth does that even mean?!

Unschooling is an educational philosophy or style based on the principle that children have an innate curiosity and desire to learn and that traditional schooling actually damages this. The idea is that when children are allowed to direct their own education, they will gladly learn anything they are interested in, and crucially, retain the information far better than they do if they are force fed information.

When children come willingly to a topic, they genuinely want to know all they can and they will absorb the information, or develop the skill, with no need to be “taught” by someone else. They can acquire the information through a variety of sources, and it is the parent’s role to provide access to those sources.

No limits are placed on education, or no arbitrary ones, at least. We don’t follow a schedule, or have a bell that tells us “that’s enough maths, time for geography”. If they want to spend four hours measuring things, they can do so. If they want to obsess about dinosaurs for eighteen months, they can do so. This actually happened. The four hours measuring never did, that was just an extreme example to illustrate the point.

Educational Value in Everything

Those eighteen months where all the Munchkin and the Bean were interested in was dinosaurs were AMAZING. The level of obsession was a bit intimidating, sure, but they came through it with encyclopaedic knowledge.

We read books, looked at pictures, watched videos, did volcano experiments. They learned so much about the history of the planet, geology, palaeontology, fossilisation, and reproduction! Not to mention special effects in filmmaking.

That knowledge has stuck with them. The Munchkin is now reading, totally self-taught, and can confidently read words like “Carnotaurus”, “Diplodocus” and “Tyrannosaurus”.

Children are learning all the time, so by not placing limits on their learning, we don’t ever prevent them from learning something. That would damage their relationship with education, put them off, or hold them back. Likewise, we don’t insist on them learning anything.

We appreciate that learning is lifelong, they do not have to cram everything they will ever need to know into a fixed time frame. If there is something they need to know, according to their needs, not some prescribed idea imposed on them, they will learn it.

As they go through life, they may decide they need to know how to run a business, or bake a cake, or fix a car, or design a web page. Once they decide, they will know how to find out. That is the central ethos behind unschooling: ensure they love learning and know how to learn. Then they’ll be set for life.

We have never forced numeracy or literacy. Both of them are particularly attuned with numbers. We talk about maths all the time, we explain principles, we illustrate with examples – when they ask questions. As a result, the Munchkin has a profound grasp of the theory of mathematics. So he can figure out the answer to any sum he needs. He understands the principles. If we had drilled him in his times tables and made him learn by rote, I don’t believe he would a) love maths the way he does, or b) understand it.

Likewise with reading. I’m a writer and hubby is an avid reader, so this is super important to us. I was adamant that our children would love stories. I never wanted to put them off reading or writing. So there is no pressure to do either. The Munchkin is 8 now (yikes!) and has been read to almost every day of his life. Our home is filled with books and he sees his parents and grandparents reading all the time. In his own time, in his own way, he has learned to read.

It really only clicked this year, but I wasn’t worried because I knew that this is really common. That when children are given the space to direct their own education, they typically learn to read when they are ready, sometime between 6 and 10 years old.

Our education system pushes reading at ever younger ages. It was bad enough that four-year-olds were having to do reading home work. I hear now that some preschools are forcing toddlers into phonics lessons at two or three years old (parents talking in Facebook groups, I wish I could cite a source as I find this really shocking). To me, this is madness and the only certain outcome is a generation of people who, at best, tolerate reading when they must, at worst, despise it!

Learning While Living

Unschooling families don’t divide up learning from living. Education isn’t something that happens Monday to Friday, from 9 am until 3 pm. Learning happens all the time. When a child isn’t squashed into a time table, they are open to learning from all sorts of activities, at any time they are awake! Their brain even goes on processing information while the child is asleep.

We don’t have a “school room” or “learning area”, because of this basic philosophy. We don’t need to sit at a desk to learn. Really, home education is a bit of a misnomer. A great deal of our education happens outside the home. It happens at the park, in the woods, at museums, at the cinema, at friends’ houses. It happens in the car on our way places, around the table in a cafe.

We don’t follow an educational schedule and we don’t have term times and holidays.

Because learning is not separate from life, and because education is not a negative thing; hard work and unenjoyable; our kids don’t take breaks from it. They don’t get exhausted from needing to focus for six hours a day. They don’t need down time to just watch cartoons – they can watch cartoons whenever they like! They often choose to do other things, but even cartoons can provide learning opportunities.

I was once asked by a well meaning relative if I gave the Munchkin time off for the summer. This was when he was 4. I was so stunned by the question that I don’t think I gave a very good answer.

So let me say now what I wish I had said then:

He’s four. He plays all day, every day, enjoying his childhood. We don’t do sit-down, formal work. So no, I don’t “give him time off”. Time off from what? Being a happy, engaged child? No, I don’t. He is free to be that all the time, all year round.

He may be eight now, but the same is basically true. The Bean is five, so yeah, the above is totally on point for him.

freedom

We enjoy an enormous amount of freedom and I want my children to truly appreciate that.

When I say we don’t take holidays, I don’t mean that we don’t go away anywhere. We travel! We love to travel. But do we go to top tourist destinations in August? Er… no. We don’t. We avoid doing that deliberately!

One huge advantage to home educating is that we are free to travel all year round, whenever we like. We can take advantage of off-peak travel deals, saving us a lot of money! We can also pick quieter times, and avoid big crowds. We don’t have a school to answer to (or fines to pay) if we go off to the USA for three weeks.

Taking a “holiday” or “vacation” is a chance to get away from home and do different things, but the kids don’t “need” to do this in order to relax or get away from school stress.

Also, really crucially, because of our belief that learning is always happening, we totally acknowledge that there is a lot to be learned from travelling. Contrary to what the schools seem to be saying – that if you are on holiday, your child will fall behind because they need to be at a desk being forced to learn during set hours!

Some of it is obvious; visits to Rome or Athens or Egypt are obviously going to be enormously educational. History, culture, geography, art, architecture, politics, archaeology, all without really trying. But then there are the more subtle things, like using another currency, speaking and reading another language, coping with a different climate, entertaining oneself on a plane. These are all important skills.

Being part of the wider world, grasping globalism, understanding cultural differences; being shut in a school room simply doesn’t allow this sort of education to happen.

educational freedom, creativity, outdoors, learning through living

I hope this post clears up any misconceptions you may have had. I hope you like what you’ve read and have a greater understanding of unschooling.

What are your thoughts? Is this something you would like for your family? Do you disagree with this approach? Polite debate is always welcome 😉