Rules, Responsible Parenting and Radical Unschooling

Some of my wild unschoolers

If you do a Google search on unschooling it won’t take you very long to find someone criticising unschoolers. The most judged unschoolers are those who have adopted a radical way of life: those who do not force a set of rules and regulations upon their children, in the area of parenting, as well as education. The critics are quick to point out that without parental control and rules, children will go off and do whatever they want without regard to anyone else. They will run wild and be inconsiderate, lazy and selfish. They won’t learn right from wrong.

What about my own unschooling children? Are they wild and undisciplined? Maybe not, but you’re not radical unschoolers, you might say. You limit your unschooling to educational matters, and are sure to impose limits and rules upon your children to ensure they are well brought up. You are parenting responsibly. At one point in time, I might have agreed.

When my first daughter was young we had lots of rules and regulations. I wanted to train my children well. I considered it my duty. It wasn’t long before I discovered something very interesting about rules: they result in children and parents fighting for power. It was such hard work staying in control. The end result wasn’t a well-disciplined child who accepted my rules because she saw they were in her best interests. Instead she longed to rebel but couldn’t because I was the parent and she was the child, and if she did decide to ignore my rules, she knew she’d be punished.

But somewhere along the way, our parenting changed. Like our homeschooling, we knew things weren’t right and gradually, and naturally, rules and power struggles fell by the wayside. The end result? Wild selfish children? No, we have hard working, well-balanced, considerate children who know right from wrong, and who love their Faith.

And I wonder how this happened.

We have no rules about such things as TV, computer use, bedtimes, dress codes and attending Mass. We do have a roster for chores but somewhere along the way, it was taken over by my children, and it no longer has anything to do with me.

Despite not having clearly set out rules, our children don’t watch TV. They enjoy a DVD here and there. They each have a computer which they use every day, but they don’t spend excessive time in front of the screen. They play computer games whenever they feel like it which isn’t that often. They dress appropriately and I’ve never had even one battle about what they want to wear.* They all choose to go to bed at a reasonable time they have decided is appropriate for their needs. Without fail and without complaining, they contribute to the upkeep of our home. They always come to Mass with us, and turn up for morning prayers. Even the issue of appropriate books and movies doesn’t seem to be a problem.

I ask my children a few questions:

“Would you ever consider not doing your jobs?”

“No. The house would soon become a mess. I wouldn’t want to live like that.”

“You might think it’s my job to do all the work as I’m the mother.”

“The mess belongs to all of us.”

“But no one’s forcing you to work.”

“It wouldn’t feel right not to work. We all have to do things we don’t particularly enjoy doing.”

“You are choosing to do your chores?”


I think that choosing to do what is right is much better than being forced into doing it. Motivation comes from within and so will remain even when parents aren’t physically present with the threat of punishment.

So it seems to me that children can learn to be considerate, and know right from wrong without imposing rules and punishments. Could it have to do with modelling the values, beliefs and practices we want to pass onto our children? Could it involve showing respect to all, about regarding everyone as valued members of the family team, about listening, about acknowledging everyone’s needs and responding to them with love and not punishment? Might it be about building up children’s inner sense of ‘right’ feeling? Is it about parenting gently; is it about attachment parenting? I don’t really know. These are just random thoughts.

But back to radical unschooling…

I used to hear the word ‘radical’ and recoil. Radical unschoolers seem to lead lives so different to ours. I listened to such words as ‘neglectful’, ‘lazy’, ‘allowed to do whatever they want’ and ‘wild’ and I didn’t want to know. These days I am trying to look past the obvious life-style differences, in an attempt to understand. I am pondering new ideas.

From what I have been reading, I see that contrary to popular belief, radical unschoolers do not practise hands-off parenting at all. I have actually come across the words ‘attachment parenting’ in association with ‘unschooling’ quite a few times. Could it be that radical unschoolers have well-adjusted and well-parented children after all? Could the critics be wrong?

I still have lots to think about and work out…

Could radical unschooling be an extension of attachment parenting? Can Catholics radically unschool? And could unschooling already have affected more than just the educational part of my family’s lives? Could we have moved towards ‘radical’ unschooling?

That is quite a radical thought.

*(Okay, I admit I once had a grumble or two about my son Callum not ironing his Mass shirt, which was rather silly because the fact he always chooses to come with us to Mass is much more important than what he was wearing.)


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  1. Reply

    Sue, I have really been enjoying these "unschooling" articles.

    I used to do the chore chart, etc and then this year I decided to stop bothering with it and "let the children" help when they desired to. Granted they do not do as much as they were doing before, well not as often, but they do help now and then and I am less stressed about it and so are they are. So I am going to continue this way. I do ask them sometimes to give me a hand when I am busy and they seem much more inclined to do that these days.

    I decided I didn't want to spend my next 10 years nagging them over something so trivial as emptying the dishwasher, etc. I now just smile and get on with myself (although I may not want to do it either… lol)

    1. Reply


      Thank you for reading my latest posts. I'm enjoying the pondering and writing!

      I like it when children help cheerfully. I hate nagging too. It's just not worth it. I have found that when I do things I don't want to do cheerfully, my kids notice and try and follow my example. I bet your girls are noticing your smiles.

      Thank you for sharing your experience. I love hearing how other families deal with such things as chores. Sounds like you've got things worked out in a way that suits your family!

  2. Reply

    It's interesting that radical unschoolers are so attached to their children, isn't it? They really are the opposite of neglectful.

    A while ago, I took over the chores after thinking about the radical way of not forcing chores on the children. It really helped me to see my role as a nurturing one. I enjoyed looking after everyone but, gradually, we all started to share the chores, again. There became things that I needed help with but the children usually want to help me, now. Maybe, the time of nurturing was a useful learning experience.

    Another interesting post, Sue!

    God bless:-)

    1. Reply


      I've read a few comments written by radical unschoolers who were indignant about being accused of neglecting their children. I can understand how frustrated they get. I think that parenting in an unschooling way actually involves a lot more effort than trying to deal with children's behaviour in more traditional ways.

      I can see how you would enjoy nurturing your family. I have found that because I am willing to look after our children, they in their turn enjoy looking after me. Maybe it's important to model what we'd like our children to do, and do it cheerfully.

      God bless!

  3. Reply

    Wow, this blows my mind. You do indeed sound like "radical" unschoolers! So on the practical side, I am thinking of a Montessori-like approach to doing lessons, praying the Rosary together, etc., which would be to invite the child to do it, but she has the right to decline. What do you think? But what if my daughter wants to check out a Protestant church? She just started taking Holy Communion, and I certainly don't want to go to a non-Catholic church. Ugh! But radical unschooling is about meeting everyone's needs, not just the children's, and the parents still have the authority and obligation to bring children up in the Faith. I am also wondering how the idea fits in with the biblical admonition to "teach children in the way they should go…" My mom always did all the housekeeping, and when I grew up I had bad habits of not picking up after myself. I still struggle with keeping a clean home! But I was not homeschooled and was always so worn out from school and extracurricular activities. Dayna Martin began by practicing attachment parenting and ended up a radical unschooler. I also practiced attachment parenting, which I do think contributed to wanting to homeschool, and Dayna's book about radical unschooling really spoke to me. It is encouraging that it could possibly also be done by Catholics!! Thanks for this post!

    1. Reply


      I think it's very important we teach the Faith to our children, not necessarily by giving lessons but by living and sharing it. It's part of who we are. I've been thinking about your comment all day and wondering if I should actually explore my thoughts on freedom and children in a post, rather than a long comment. Perhaps tomorrow! I hope you will add your own thoughts once it's written.

      Thank you so much for joining this conversation. I appreciate your comments!

    • Anonymous
    • May 28, 2013

    Sue, have you let your boys have total access to computers/video games/TV? I am wondering if it would be different with boys. Right now I have a one hour average time limit on media for my sons. However, my teenager sneaks media time all the time. My husband is suggesting that maybe we let this particular rule go for our oldest. There are so many other issues we need to deal with that seem more important. However, I remember one Christmas we let the boys play their new video games all day and there was quite an emotional meltdown from all of them at the end of the day. But maybe once my oldest gets it all out of his system, he will use the media more moderately? What are your thoughts? -Gina

    1. Reply


      My boys didn't really have much access to a computer until they were teenagers. We only had one (slow) computer which had to be shared by everyone so computer time had to be limited. Later, the computer situation changed. At one time Callum used to play games a lot. But he found out there were other things he wanted to do with his time. He had a period where he was passionate about his mountain bike. He prefers fixing his car these days!

      I think I'd prefer my children using the computer whenever they wanted rather than have them attempt to use it in secret. Yes, a child may use the computer excessively at first. But when they see the computer isn't going anywhere, they might calm down and pace themselves better. Adjusting to a new situation and new freedom… maybe it takes time. Does that sound likely? People always seem to cling to things that might be taken away.

      The girls have been using the website Gamestar Mechanic to make their own computer games, but Sophie has conquered most of the skills that site teaches a child. Today I went searching for something else for her and discovered the website Scratch. I've heard that other homeschoolers let their kids use this. Using this software, children are able to make animations and games. I signed the girls up. They are also using the Kahn Academy computer science lessons. There's another site and program called Alice which I downloaded. It allows the user to make 3D animations. To me it looks very complicated, but I'm only a mother! Kids are so much more capable than parents. I think my older girls would enjoy Alice, and Sophie could use it once she masters Scratch. It is more adult orientated.

      I used to think playing computer games wasn't that valuable. I've changed my mind. It encourages them to think and create in their own turn. There's a TED talk on the Scratch home page I want to watch.

      Some parents have said their children seem to be adversely affected by long periods at the computer, so they can't risk the option of free access, and I respect that. I haven't found any problems with my own children but I guess it would be wrong to give an opinion for ALL children! Perhaps you could just relax the rules with your boys and see what happens. They might realise they don't feel so great after too much time on the computer and might actually choose to take breaks and go off and do something else. I'd be interested to hear how everything turns out!

    2. Reply


      I made a mistake. The TED talk is on the parents' page of the Scratch website, not the home page. I'm off to watch it!

  4. Reply

    Sue, I think your post came just at the right time for me. Yesterday I did not bug my teen to get off his computer. He did stay on it for many hours, but he seemed more willing to start cutting the grass (he needs to finish today) and he was more helpful with his baby sister. The day before yesterday he suddenly was filled with so much anger and rebellion. I didn't know what to do. All I could think of was how awful the next four years were going to be. I also gave him a "homeschool contract" yesterday with just some minimum things I want from him – like a daily math lesson and to get out of the house more and exercise a few times per week, etc. He seemed very agreeable to it. Thanks! – Gina

    1. Reply


      It's hard to live with battles and rebellion. Usually there's a way around them though. Sounds like you're working things out to suit everyone!

      Have you thought more about creating a blog? I'd love to visit and share your homeschooling experiences. Please let me know if you go ahead and start a homeschooling blog!

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