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Radical Unschooling? Only if it’s radically aligned with science

I’ve been seeing an increased number of posts and commentary coming out of the unschooling and positive, free-parenting movement. And although this blog is not a parenting blog, I ascribe to peaceful parenting principles, and raise my child with very “free” range style of parenting. That is, I provide him with as much freedom and choice as possible, without violating his autonomy, while meeting his emotional, cognitive, and physical needs, in ways that are appropriate for his human development. 

I bold that last part because it seems to be a missing caveat in the rhetoric I see coming out of the circles of free and radical unschooling crowd.

This isn’t a post where I’m bashing the unschooling core philosophy. I agree with it. However, the unschooling community tends to be largely a privileged class, and some of the blanket statements coming out of the rhetoric of the unschooling “gurus” isn’t taking into account intersectionality.

Not everyone is coming to unschooling, or the concept, with a background in human development. So when certain things are said like, ‘children should have free-range to food, no bedtimes, and unlimited screen time’ without caveats as to when this is age-appropriate, I am compelled to speak up with some critical thinking.

We can give our children freedom and choice, but it has to be in alignment with what they can handle, developmentally. This paradigm of unquestioned free-choice operates on a premise that isn’t consistent with what we know about human development. For example, two year-olds can’t understand cause & effect. They don’t have the cognitive capacity. Toddlers & young children don’t understand time in the same way adults do, so they have limited ability to manage time, or plan ahead. Toddlers can’t self-regulate. That is a developmental skill; it’s a milestone just like ability to use pedals on a trike and tie a knot. Part of parenting is guidance and direction. Reasonable boundaries with explanations as to why such boundaries exist.

I want to focus and critique specifically, the premises and rhetoric that children should always have free-access to whatever food they choose, should never have enforced bedtimes, and unlimited screen time is harmless, since these are the points I have the hardest time with, and the place where everything in my well-educated brain about nutrition, human evolution, and child development pulls out the red-flags and demands some critical thinking. So, step out of our GroupThink box with me, and let’s discuss why free-access to food, no bedtimes, and unlimited screen time may not be in the best interest of our children.

It’s one thing to choose your food battles, and not make things like cookies, sweets, etc. a ‘forbidden fruit’ where it’s so off-limits that it becomes a problem. BUT there has to be limits on sweets, salts, and fatty foods because of the way our bodies respond to those things. This belief that allowing children to make their own food choices, and allowing free-access to food (something I support with contingents) means understanding how the human body reacts to fats, salts & sweets. Simply saying that by giving a child many options, and believing their bodies will tell them when they need to eat their carrots and kale, isn’t necessarily congruent with our biology.

If our current food choices were as they were in hunter/gatherer societies, free-access to food wouldn’t be problematic because snacks would be raw food, mostly. Unfortunately that is not our current food systems, and socioeconomics, access and availability of healthy, raw food choices, and knowledge about our food sources, are major inhibitors to all families having access to the same food choices. Most food available in supermarkets is processed, high in sodium, likely comprised of GMOs and lacking in nutritional quality. Further, most of our food is packed full of what our bodies crave: fats, salt, sugar, because evolution didn’t take into account processed foods.

We evolved to crave fat, salt, and sugar because those things are not plentiful in nature. The bodies of our children are going to respond and crave these unhealthy options as well, and to give them unlimited access and ‘free choice’ to salty, fatty, sweet snacks, counting on their bodies to crave healthy snacks, is inconsistent with biology and evolution.

Further, it is privileged to assume everyone has the same access to healthy food options, the same knowledge about our food systems, and the same means to provide children with unlimited access to all food.

Another thing that is missing from the equation is the notion of community or familial needs. For example, my child has several food allergies. If it was up to him, he’d eat wheat and dairy and feel like shit all the time, and everyone would be miserable, and we’d all suffer from the ramifications of that “free choice.”  We also live on a food budget, like nearly every family I know, and sometimes scrambled eggs aren’t an available option for dinner because I need those last few eggs for breakfast for the family in the morning. And our collective well-being is something to be balanced in the equation of “free choice.” That isn’t robbing my son of his autonomy, it’s teaching him that his needs are met within the context of the family’s needs.

And this is how we teach our children awareness of others. Our choices are never truly ‘free’ and our choices have implications for other people in our family, community, and world. We are interconnected, and we should want our children to understand this concept. Even within their own family. Otherwise, aren’t we just raising coddled, privileged, people who don’t understand their connection with humanity?

Bedtimes aren’t necessarily squelching the light of our children, either, if they are centered around natural circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are our natural sleep/wake cycles, hardwired into our biology. Although specific circadian rhythms vary from person to person, there are ranges of normal sleep/wake times, and natural times our bodies are tired as we progress in human development.  We all know babies need and do sleep much more than toddlers, who sleep more than adolescents, so these rhythms of when our bodies are naturally tired, obviously change with development.

As parents, we are developmentally capable of identifying when our children are naturally ready for a nap or bedtime, and ignoring those because children should *choose* their bedtimes, again, rests on false premises about child development. When a toddler is showing signs of fatigue, providing quiet and routine places to sleep, at these biologically designated times, that occur at roughly the same time every day, is not imposing parental wills on children. And I’m not suggesting sleep training or CIO is acceptable. But laying down with my 2 year old around the same time every afternoon so he can take a nap, is not denying him free-sleep-choice.

Further, when we teach our children to listen to their own circadian rhythms, we are empowering them to develop life-long healthy sleep habits. Evidence shows that when we ignore circadian rhythms and developing bodies are not sleeping at the right times, it inhibits both development and optimal functioning.

Limiting screen time isn’t also denying choice or infringing on autonomy either. I understand the premise of unschooling that says when we give our children diverse choices, they demonstrate they are capable of exceeding our expectations. I see this in my own child. He gets his share of screen time, and he has apps he knows how to access on the ipad, and there is a lot of freedom. But I still vet the media I allow him to be exposed to because not all media is created equally. Too much “junk media” is just as bad as too much junk food, and we should still be acutely aware of the impact media can have on our children. It’s also only one way of learning. When a child assembles a puzzle on a tablet she is not developing and using the same skills as when she assembles a puzzle with her own hands.  Our children need to be exposed and immersed in diverse ways of learning. (Duh, that’s what unschooling IS).

Further, this element about content should be balanced with family dynamic. While mature video games and content may be appropriate for an adolescent who can cognitively handle the incoming stimuli of such media, isn’t the developmental capacity of the four-year old in the home also to be considered, since she can’t ‘freely choose’ to remove herself from a home where digital violence is being streamed. Even if violent video games are the ‘free-choice’ that children make, those choices don’t exist in a vacuum. And what happens when violent video games are the only choice a child is making, and there isn’t diverse stimulation? At what point do we abandon the well-being of our children in exchange for ideology? And I’m not suggesting this hypothetical situation exists, but with these conversations about unlimited screen time, shouldn’t we also be discussing the content at hand?

Because there is evidence to show exposure to violence, even digital violence, alters the brain in not so great ways. And there are a lot of cultural messages being sent in every piece of media out there, and most of these messages are misogynist, misandrist, racist, classist, ableist, sexualised, and bullshit.

I think most unschooling parents already know this. But isn’t it also privileged to assume everyone coming to unschooling does? Especially if unschooling is going to revolutionise education? Shouldn’t we be considering how these messages about unlimited and unrestricted access to food, sleep, and media may be interpreted and applied?

If we aren’t placing caveats at the end of our statements about autonomy and free choice, and what’s age appropriate, then we’re doing a disservice to both unschooling as a really needed philosophy about learning, and our children and their developing brains a bodies.




  1. Mani Sheriar on said:

    YES!! Very well said. Thank you. :)

  2. Yes, THANK YOU. I was ranting about this exact same thing a few days ago. I could have written exactly what you have said so eloquently above. My bug bear was sleep – choosing our natural sleep patterns works in a time before electricity, literature, TV and stimulant foods distract us from what our body naturally needs. Children who stay up until 1am are not exercising free choice, they are under assault by modern mayhem. Our natural circadian rhythms tell us that this is unhealthy in the long term – it also impacts the family. Having a bedtime is not authoritarian or abusive. It’s simply a way of formalising a natural family and individual ritual.

    • Shaunalynn on said:

      Children who stay up until 1:00 am are under assault by modern mayhem? Um – no. Some people – even children – simply have a natural sleep cycle that causes them to be *night owls* instead of *morning mice*.

      I happen to function much better in the middle of the night instead of waking up early. I have a child that has my same natural sleep rhythm… and one that inherited her father’s tendency to wake up at the crack of dawn.

      • Monika on said:

        I think that’s a sign that your body is out of balance. I am much the same way but am much healthier when I follow the natural rhythms of the earth. We are all interconnected and separating ourselves from the earth’s natural cycles do cause imbalance and eventually poor health.

        • Jasmine on said:

          Rationalizing someone else’s natural sleep pattern as ‘unbalanced’ and ‘out of tune with Earth’s natural cycles’ sounds both self-righteous and cultish. Good to know that it’s not only the Big Bad Outside World that’s capable of such garbage.

  3. Unschooler on said:

    Yes you are absolutely right. I recently joined and then left a radical unschooling group, I joined to learn more as I’m still on a journey and still have a wee bit of a control problem but I left after being told I shouldn’t restrict my 4 year olds intake of fruit (he would eat 6+ apples a day if let to his own devices) even though he’s had cavaties and instead I should let him learn from the long term effect of getting more cavaties. Which to me is insane, he knows the first two were caused by excessive fruit intake but he still on a daily basis wants to eat them regardless of me reminding him he could get more cavaties, he just doesn’t get it cos the effect isn’t immediate and allowing a child to get cavaties when I can do something to stop it to me seems neglectful and not something to aspire to.

    • I just left a radical unschooling FB group the Martins run after Joe Martin implied a mom who asked about limiting candy after trick or treating was lame and was taking all the fun out of the holiday so she should just stay home. So many advocating to let the child gorge on candy after the mother stated the child (age 3) had strong negative reactions (meltdowns) to sugar. I joined the group and then realized these were the same people on Dr. Phil several years back. I think Dr. Phil was right about them. We fall more along semi-structured unschooling way of educating and definitely don’t allow children to have free reign from the get go. Guidance and boundaries are ok and don’t totally take away freedom of the child.

  4. This makes me even gladder than ever that I stopped reading parenting blogs, and became a far happier parent in the process. Excellent post

  5. I had no idea that this was even a thing! It’s the most insane thing I’ve ever heard. Even as an adult, I’d live off of cupcakes, gelato & Starbucks if I didn’t know better. My body certainly doesn’t say no to those things, even if it pays the price afterwards.

    I want to do radical unschooling with my son when he’s a teenager, or adolescent. Children need boundaries and rules to feel secure. Especially toddlers. That’s why they test you. They want you to (gently) draw lines for them. It’s their only way of making sense of the world. Given too much freedom, they become confused, and tantrums become frequent. The children people call “spoiled” are actually just overwhelmed & miserable.

    Our son will definitely be eating with us as a family. That’s why we’re starting to eat healthier now. His “choices” will be to eat each thing on his plate or not. To have what we’re having or be hungry. The book Bringing Up Bebe talks about how the French have perfected this. They don’t even give their toddlers snacks, so they’re actually hungry by the time the adults are sitting down to have a meal.

  6. This is a wonderful, rational approach to radical unschooling. I love the idea behind unschooling, but I can’t quite stomach it in its most radical sense. I always knew children need guidance and help, but this was the perfect way to put it. Love the title.

  7. RU isn’t about giving our children whatever they want, whenever they want it. We don’t change the real world to fit our child’s current wants; that’s not how it works.

    For example with food; obviously we can’t afford to go out and buy unlimited amounts of whatever it is our kids decide they want to eat. RU families work with their kids, explaining the budget and keeping EVERYONE’s needs in mind. If the child wants cookies, sure; IF we can afford cookies. If the child wants scrambled eggs, like in your example, but the parent had planned on making eggs for breakfast the next morning, the parent would simply explain to the child that she needed the eggs for breakfast. Radical unschooling doesn’t mean following your child’s every whim without regard for the rest of the family’s needs. It’s about finding win-win situations and respecting everyone’s needs equally.

    Another point about food freedom – there is this underlying assumption that children who are allowed to eat whatever they want, whenever they want it will only choose sugary or salty or otherwise unhealthy options. This is simply not the case. Yes, sometimes they will choose unhealthy things, but they will just as often choose healthy foods. Children have the ability to realize what foods make them feel good and what makes them feel icky. One day, my two year old ate nothing but cookies and chips all day long. That night, she told me she had a tummy ache. I gently explained to her that it was probably from eating nothing but cookies and chips all day. She hasn’t done that since. She still could, if she wanted to, but she doesn’t. When she asks for cookies, I usually set the whole box on her little table. She usually doesn’t eat more than 3 or 4 cookies, even though she could eat the entire box if she chose.

    Kids DO have the ability to make good choices. We need only trust them.

    The same thing is true for sleep. You mentioned laying down with your child when you can tell they are ready for a nap; unschoolers do that, too. We don’t deny our children sleep when they clearly need it! Sometimes, especially with young children and babies, they need a parent to lay with them, rock them, or nurse them to sleep. That’s okay! As long as the parent isn’t trying to force them to sleep. So yes, you are absolutely right. Laying down with your tired child is not taking away his free-sleep-choice; it’s encouraging it. :)

    Finally, screen time. There seems to be this misconception that children who have the freedom to choose how they spend their time will spend all day everyday in front of the TV or computer. They don’t. In my experience, children with true freedom to choose might spend some time watching TV (my two year old does every morning), but they also spend time coloring, finger painting, playing outdoors, dancing, playing with dolls – you get the idea. When TV is just another option they have to choose from, it doesn’t consume their time any more than any other option might. Yes, doing puzzles on the Kindle is different from doing puzzles in real life. My kids can do both! It’s not one or the other. It’s not choosing screens over other things. It’s about balance, and trusting kids to figure that balance out for themselves (which they do surprisingly well).

    Imagine a child is banned from reading books. The child wants to read books, but the parent deems it harmful and announces that the child cannot read any books at all – or that they can only read for one hour a day. Instead, the parent encourages the child to sit in front of the TV. How do you think that child will feel about books? What will happen if the limits are suddenly lifted and the child can read as much as she wants? It would not be surprising to see her reading all day, every day, for quite some time. The same is true for children who have had their screen time restricted.

    Forgive me, but I think your understanding of what radical unschooling truly is, is a little incomplete. We’re not throwing our own needs by the wayside in order to make sure our children never feel disappointment or learn boundaries. Boundaries are a part of life; budgets are a part of life; learning to respect everyone’s needs is a part of life. That is what radical unschoolers show their children by giving them freedom. :)

    • I understand the concept and core principles of RU, but I will not jump on the bandwagon of science denialism that ignores science and human development in favour of ‘free choice.’ Science tells us our bodies are hardwired to crave sugar, salt and fat. Allowing unfettered access to those snacks based on the false and unscientifically validated premise that their bodies will *know* when to make good choices is not healthy for children, and it isn’t teaching them about nutrition or how to make healthy choices. It’s bordering on permissive parenting to permit unrestricted access to unhealthy options, whether it’s unlimited screen time, unlimited unhealthy snacks, or unhealthy sleep habits. Circadian rhythms tell our bodies when they are naturally tired. These rhythms change with age and development. We provide space for our babies and toddlers, young children, and older children to get healthy sleep, when their bodies naturally want to be sleeping, rather than stressing their systems, waiting for them to make that choice, so they eventually pass out from exhaustion, or their adrenaline spikes because that’s the evolutionary response to fatigue. Unhealthy sleep has negative implications for healthy development and optimal functioning. Radical does not mean reckless, and as parents we need to be sure we aren’t slipping down that slope of recklessness, in favour of ideology that isn’t based on science.

      • Marie on said:

        “Allowing unfettered access to those snacks based on the false and unscientifically validated premise that their bodies will *know* when to make good choices is not healthy for children”

        THANK YOU!!! I am sick and tired of this nonsense!. As if the body doesn’t become toxic and addicted based on the food we eat. These parents are so busy trying to be Radical Unschooling parents that they just repeat and regurgitate whatever the Radical Unschool guru says and if you god forbid challenge it, they quickly dismiss you by trying to accuse you of being “afraid”. Please. I am not afraid, I am just not irresponsible enough to poison my kid so I can look cool to the Radical Unschool group.

        I can’t stand the lack of critical thinking and honestly, intelligence that serves as the backbone of Radical Unschooling.

        • Shaunalynn on said:

          I make all sorts of foods available to my children. Nine times out of ten, my daughter chooses to drink water instead of soda – even when we go out to eat. I have one child that consistently chooses fruit over cookies. Because there are no forbidden foods, those foods are not craved and desired to the point of excess.

          Honestly – the biggest thing about being an unschooler, radical or not – is that we really don’t care what other people think. We don’t do these things to be *cool* or to *fit in* with the current trend.

    • “Imagine a child is banned from reading books. The child wants to read books, but the parent deems it harmful and announces that the child cannot read any books at all – or that they can only read for one hour a day. ”

      Please don’t equate reading and all that goes into it, with eating or watching TV. It’s illogical and nonsensical. And also, why use the word “ban”? Who is advocating for the banning of anything? Radical Unschoolers love to exaggerate in order to make their arguments appear as the only reasonable option.

      Frankly, I don’t know why some parents try so hard to be unnatural with their children. There is nothing Natural about Radical Unschooling. It’s a trend that Sandra Dodd invented only a few decades ago and then Dayna Martin plagiarized. Parenting and connecting with our children existed waaaay before that. Personally, I don’t get how anybody accepts a philosophy whose response to any substantive question is, “you are just experiencing*fear*” and my other favorite, “that would not happen if you live according to Radical Unschool principles.” How a thinking adult accepts that as an acceptable answer is beyond me.

      Radical Unschooling is the antithesis both Natural Parenting and of Critical Thought.

      • Wow.

        Just because something doesn’t work for you or doesn’t fit your parenting model doesn’t mean you should call it the anti-thesis of rational thought.

        We are unrestricted on food in my house and its very simple. I buy the groceries. I don’t buy things I wouldn’t want my children to have. End of story.

        If you don’t want your kids to eat pop-tarts then don’t buy them. Why is this complicated?

        As to the topic of screen time: Yes, I am unrestricted with that as well. My kids have full access to the internet and netflix. They CHOOSE to play PBS Kids games and watch cyber-chase and documentary type shows 3/4 of the time. It works for us.

        If you don’t want to live your life this way, if something else is working for you that is A-OK, but why the criticism of people doing what works for them?

      • Sherri on said:

        I totally agree with Megan Sandlin’s comments. We started unschooling four years ago, and radical unschooling about three years ago. I found out about unschooling while researching about homeschooling. Unschooling and radical unschooling have been the best things to happen to our family. We used to have so much stress, power struggles, drama, non-trust issues, control issues, and more before we started unschooling. I used to parent based on how I was parented and how society said that I should parent. I did what I thought was best because that was the way it was always done. After we started unschooling, all of those issues ceased to exist. My children and I get along much better. We have mutual respect for one another. I am not their superior.

        The best thing to happen to our family was when I came across both Sandra Dodd’s and Dayna Martin’s writings/blogs about radical unschooling. I don’t know how anyone can say that Dayna Martin plagiarized Sandra Dodd. Sandra Dodd and Dayna Martin both have very different beliefs regarding radical unschooling. I don’t agree with every single thing that they each believe in or follow. But I do agree with a lot of things that they each agree with and follow. Each family is different. There is no cookie cutter family. I take ideas, suggestions, advice, etc. from both Sandra Dodd and Dayna Martin. Both Sandra Dodd and Dayna Martin were very instrumental in our family’s decision to radically unschool. I think that radical unschooling is very natural. It’s not the “easy way”. The “easy way” is to go along with what society thinks that you should do. It’s very hard to go against what society says is the “norm”. But it is very natural. My children are flourishing. Thanks to Sandra Dodd and Dayna Martin, we found a better way to live and learn. Life is so good now.

      • Shaunalynn on said:

        Actually, the concept of *unschooling* comes from neither Sandra Dodd nor Dayna Martin. The person considered to be the founder of this practice is John Holt.

        The concepts of unschooling are a very natural process in our house. My daughter is the one who taught me exactly how unschooling would work when she developed a need to learn about fire when she was four years old. We spent an entire year immersed in anything and everything that I could find on that topic. After that experience, I came to realize that children have an innate desire to learn and, when given the freedom to direct their own learning, they WILL learn far more than they would ever learn from forced teaching.

        • Actually that is incorrect and rather, the first time I have seen that mistake made. John Holt was the first to introduce the concept of “Unschooling”, which means a life without school. Unschooling is about realizing learning is not confined by the school classroom and is in fact, detrimental to children.

          Radical Unschooling, which is what this post is about, was NOT introduced by John Holt. Radical Unschooling was a term coined by Sandra Dodd and it just means expanding the idea of Unschooling into all other areas of our lives.

          • KL2642 on said:

            RU is simply living life without others terms being forced upon how to live or learn. Last I checked, living life has been around for…. ever.

          • Monika on said:

            I agree, John Holt’s explanation of unschooling is far, far different from the views of Sandra Dodd.

          • Have you read Holt’s book Escape from Childhood? It’s pretty darn radical…

            Holt started out as a school teacher in the system, and his books got progressively more radical. Some of earlier books, he went back to years later and re-published them, adding stuff like, “As I reflect on what I did, I disagree with how I handled that…” For example, in How Children Learn, he talks about how he wouldn’t let a young child swim he had been helping in a swimming pool in the deep water because he didn’t think he was ready, and when he reflected on it years later, he wrote, (paraphrased), “Why didn’t I just let him swim in the deep water? I could have easily helped him if he had trouble”.

      • Sharon on said:

        Out is not a “trend” started by Sandra Dodd. Have you read any John Holt books? He coined the term “unschooling” in the 1970′s.
        RU is how life was before our education system began.

        • Again, John Holt’s Unschooling is not RU. I have tremendous respect for John Holt and just recently had the pleasure of listening to one of the best discussions on the topic featuring Pat Farenga ( who worked with John.) No one here wrote that Mrs. Dodd whom I respect very much even if I don’t agree with everything, started Unschooling. Please let me know where you read that.

          Also, a life without school absolutely existed before the industrialization era and compulsory education, but RU and all the principles and rules within it simply did not.

    • Both my niece and nephew ate themselves fat. My nephew loved fatty steaks and my niece loved sweets. And they both overate. How do you think fat children get fat, by not being given a choice?

    • Chelsea McDonald on said:

      We are an unschooling family. I find it almost abusive to not guide children to help them to make good choices, rather than letting them harm themselves like getting a stomach ache eating nothing but chips and cookies…all in the name of them having freedom. That is no different than allowing your daughter to touch a hot stove in order to learn that it’s too hot to touch. She’ll never touch a hot stove again, but surely it wasn’t necessary for her to burn her hand to learn that lesson.

      As a child I’d feel so awful if my mother smiled at me and didn’t mind if I ate a whole box of cookies and a bag of candy and then I vomited it all up and my stomach hurt for hours and she calmly smiled at me and said “See, if you eat that much junk food, you’ll feel sick. Maybe you won’t want to do that again.” Or something along those lines. That’s downright cruel. I’m a child, and I don’t know any better and I should be guided to make good choices that keep my healthy, happy and safe from harm until I was ready and felt secure in making those choices on my own.

  8. Amanda on said:

    Radical unschooling may have only been around for a few decades, yes. Public schools haven’t been around that much longer in the grand scheme of life either.
    We’ve been unschooling for over a decade now, & have found our children to be well rounded, pretty well balanced as far as food, media, outdoor time, physical activity, etc. Everything tends to round out over time… They may be very into a new computer game for a few month, then come summer, really into the beach & camping, things come & go in cycles.
    Radical unschoolers including Sandra Dodd & the Martin Family are not advocating un parenting, but rather, supporting your children & facilitating their learning through many avenues: setting up internships, supplying books, supplies, games, activities, experiences, travel, etc.
    Our children don’t eat only junk food or only sit in front of the TV for years. They do eat some junk food & many other much healthier foods, probably many more healthy foods than the majority of mainstream families. We watch TV when we’re in the mood for it, but provide lots of other interesting things for our children to do too, so that they aren’t only interested in sitting & watching TV. There are lots of great learning opportunities to be had from watching TV though too.
    My teen spends lots of time on the computer, so does my husband for his job, I don’t see a problem with it. He does do other things… Biking, hiking, historical re enacting, reading, park days & play dates.
    I’ve met Dayna Martin & her family. They are wonderful, caring people who spend lots of time & energy helping other families figure out ways to live more happily, learn together, & get along. The unschooling conferences we’ve been to have been full of parents who are actively involved in their children’s lives & children who are happy, learning, & full of energy and play.
    I’d like to think that all homeschoolers can agree that we are all doing what we think is best for our children & our families, no matter what our homeschooling or parenting style is.

    • “Martin Family are not advocating un parenting, but rather, supporting your children & facilitating their learning through many avenues” On the TV, WifeSwap show the girl could not read simple words. What kind of support is that? That is no support! Unparenting looks a lot different when your parents support your natural curiosity by supplying you with a wealth of options and encouragement. Reading to children and helping them write is how they become verbal! Some unschoolers are depriving their children in the name of some inadequate ideology. Children can only choose what they want to learn if their are choices available to them! I have seen a quote that Dayna Martin made where she confused literary writers with historians while saying history is not her thing and not everybody needs to learn the same thing. But what if history IS her child’s thing? How can that child know it if she never becomes exposed to it. I have been reading the writings of some of these well-known unschool authors and speakers like Dayna and I am shocked that they can barely write their own language properly! To offer children choices and allow them to select you have to have those choices available and be capable of offering them!

      • Jac Guillory on said:

        It’s funny that you see fit to judge a child’s reading skills AND other adult’s writing when you yourself confuse “their” with “there”. I would never even point that out, out of simple respect and the fact that it doesn’t matter, as long as a person is effectively communicating their point. I guess nobody read to you, or helped you to write. Just like you know Dayna Martin never read to her daughter. Judgmental nonsense…

  9. The ‘plagiarized’ comment didn’t make sense to me: Dayna Martin’s approach to radical unschooling is similar but not the same as Sandra Dodd’s. Although both draw on John Holt’s emphasis of trusting children’s natural ability to learn throughout life, Dayna’s approach to radical unschooling builds on Law of Attraction principles. I also think that the comment demonstrates the author’s ignorance of the growth and development of unschooling. Sandra Dodd didn’t invent this trend: learning without school is natural, humans have done it for millennia. John Holt coined the word ‘unschooling’ and popularised the idea through his books and magazine Growing Without School.

  10. Julie on said:

    I would love to see a scientific study on RU kids, looking at food, bed times and media. But do such studies exist? Not that I’m aware of, please tell me if you know of any? Science is a powerful tool and I am grateful for it but there are often many ways that results can be interpreted and its important to me that the information we are considering is contextually relevant. I do not deny we have evolved to crave fat, but we have also evolved to feel sick if we eat too much at once! The context of the home is important to consider, how the parents eat and shop, children can be encouraged to eat healthily without being forced to. I think every family is different and should proceed as feels right for them in every moment. Why adhere to dogma of any kind over what feels right to you in your unique family in that unique moment? We can trust ourselves to make good choices for our kids, to learn and grow into the best parents we can be in our individual circumstances. Personally while I am aware of and interested in the science, I am primarily concerned with the evidence provided by our individual children in their individual context. My children thrive and live healthy lives in the partnership paradigm of RU. They enjoy a little unhealthy food and lots of healthy food, and of course there are budget limits. My kids have free choice about when they go to bed and are naturally early to bed, early to rise. They love screen time and they love physically active pursuits. We don’t place limits on them, but we do work together as a family to find solutions that work for everyone, parents and children included. Best wishes to everyone on their unique individual parenting journey.

    • Sharon on said:

      Peter Gray, PhD did a study of RU’s a couple of years ago. I don’t have a link right now, but you can probably find it by doing a search under Psychology Today.

  11. Matt on said:

    On Desiree’s comment:
    Sandra Dodd didn’t “invent” unschooling, nor did Dayna Martin plagiarize it. If you’re going to comment on unschooling “history”, you might want to read up on John Holt’s work, research Summerhill, find some old copies of Growing without Schooling.
    It’s a parenting & homeschooling style.. One can’t plagiarize it…neither claim to have invented it. But different people including Sandra & Dayna have helped families understand it & find ways to bring it to their families.
    We met Dayna & her husband Joe at the Life Rocks conference and they & their kids seem Awesome. The conference both years we were there was tons of fun, the kids had a blast, & the workshops were very helpful.
    My wife has been able to read quite a bit of Dayna’s writing in her book & online and is really impressed with her dedication to helping families.
    Unschooling is going great for our family, & with over 8 years of unschooling our children so far… I’m not concerned about it not working.

    • Hi Matt, I appreciate discussions but please read what I wrote. I never wrote Sandra Dodd invented Unschooling, but RADICAL UNSCHOOLING. When it comes to certain topics like unfettered access to media, things like food control, etc.. Mrs. Dodd was the first to speak on it and advocate for it. Basically, expanding the trust in children that John Holt wrote about, to include every area of life. So yes I have read John Holt :) Actually one of the best voices on the topic and on John Holt’s work is Pat Farenga. http://www.johnholtgws.com/ Really terrific person who still works very hard to promote John Holt’s work. Thanks! :)

  12. If it’s possible, I agree with what Megan S said above, and what Barrel of Oranges writes.
    Both points of view can be true, depending on the family dynamic, the personalities, physiologies, psychologies and interrelationships of the family members. One family allowing full freedom may have the experience that the children really do learn their own self limits, while another family may find unhappy spun out children when they allow full freedom of media and screen time.

    The key is connection with your children. REAL respectful relationships, based on love, connection, respect and trust. Sometimes in some cases this involves having some limits with your children, and other times, for some families, it looks like full freedom.

    My guess is that the end of the day, the people who have done parenting to most successfully with happy connected kids are the ones who focus on the connection rather than the “rules” (in either direction).

    And I KNOW that both Sandra Dodd and Dayna Martin and other leasers in the movement have helped countless families enjoy more freedom and peaceful relationships with their children. And that is nothing to speak down upon.

  13. Rosy H. on said:

    I am a mother of 5 and we are Radical Unschoolers. For me Radical Unschooling is living in partnership with my children as I do with my husband or with anyother person I love and want to have a good and healthy relationship with. This life is not for the lazy parent nor for anyone who wants the easy path to raising children so I do admit that I do not believe everyone can or should do it.

    I spend a lot of time educating myself in child development and education, speaking to professional educators, nutrition and child health and based on what I have learned I have chosen Radical Unschooling as a lifestyle for my family. Doing so does not absolve me from my parental responsabilities! On the contrary, thanks to Radical Unschooling I am much more involved with my children in making decitions that are best for them and for our family as a whole. Of course the younger they are the more I make certain decitions for them. But since I am very in tune with them as they grow I can see cues from them as to when they are ready to make their own choices and I give them freedom when they express their readiness. We spemd a lot of time talking about options and choices and the consequences. I also lead by example and guide them. Then I give them the freedom to chose.

    So far none of my children have made any of these exagerated devestating choices that the Radical Unschooling opponents say children like mine will make because of our lifestyle. On the contrary, my children have become very wise and often they make better choices than children who are raised in an authoritarian manner.

    My children are also very in tune with their bodies and know very well how to listen to their body signals for sleep and food. They are very healthy well rested children who have never had bed times yet all but my 12yo are in bed by 9pm (their choice, not mine), and my 12yo sleeps by 1am and still wakes up when it’s natural for her and is always full of energy and well rested.

    My kids love veggies and fruts and eat raw foods daily and through out the day. My 12yo announced recently that for health reasons she is becoming a vegetarian! And yes, if they want junk food they are free to eat those but never do they feel the need to gorge since they do not feel deprived.

    Well, I can go on and on with examples on how the Radical Unschool life has been a blessing for my family but I have already written plenty I think to make my point.

    Now I want to say this to Desiree, Sandra Dodd did not come up with Unschooling, do more research please before you make such comments. Also, Dayna Martin is someone I have been following for several years and her work has been an inspiration to me and many who chose this life. I recomend her book to all my friends with children, even if they don’t plan on Unschooling because it is full of gold on how to better connect and build trust with their children. Thank you for taking the time to read my reply! Blessings.

    • Monika on said:

      I agree, John Holt’s explanation of unschooling is far, far different from the views of Sandra Dodd.

      • Monika on said:

        Also, it is unfair to assume that just because your kids are good at self-regulating that ALL kids are, and that this is somehow a sign of a parental flaw or a result of kids going to daycare or school. My kids never went to day care or school but they do get addicted to suger (which has had horrible health impacts on both my kids) if I do not help them self-regulate. Kids on the spectrum especially have a very difficult time regulating screens. I have known many families who do not help their kids regulate who have never been to school and the parents admit to me that their kids go on binges of 14 hr screen days for several weeks or even months.

  14. Brit Stephensen on said:

    I feel really strongly, as a supporter of RU, and as a family whose lifestyle would best be described by the RU philosophy, about how RU is presented in this article. For my life, and for many other unschoolers lives that I know, we do not live without any recognition of the life’s ‘real’ limits or without reading and understanding dysfunctionalities and healthy rhythms within ourselves and our children.

    In fact, it is quite the opposite, because compared to ‘normal’ family lifestyles, the RU lifestyle encourages us, and our children, to become extremely conscious and aware about ourselves and our children, thereby being able to better self-regulate, rather than relying on external rules and guidelines in order to function in life.

    For example, when it comes to food, my children (aged 4 and 8) do choose amazingly healthy food for themselves. They actually choose not to eat ‘junk’ food, and they have experimented with it, because they are fully aware, very consciously, of how it makes them feel (they report headaches and irritability from sugar laden processed foods). But, in order for my children to be able to feel for themselves what is best for them, we as parents have had to address our own anxieties and process our own emotions regarding their choices, because when we have a lot of emotional tension our kids feel the stress of our anxieties, and cannot tune into themselves.

    I’ve had similar experiences with sleep and screen times.

    I just want to conclude that I don’t think it is accurate for anyone to think that RU means being completely irresponsible and unconscious and yielding to any request that our children make, just because there is some idea that they should get everything they want when they want it, and disregarding our own life’s experience in doing so. I certainly do like to support, whenever possible, my children to be able to experience life as they choose, but that doesn’t mean I should negate my own needs completely and become a really stressed out mother, which can happen when the needs of the children ‘outweigh’ the needs of the parents or the family as a whole. Nor does it mean that I should completely ‘forget’ my own life experiences, but be conscious that my own life experiences may have happened because of my own earlier conditionings, fears, etc, and moderate the way in which I share my own experiences, such that my children can use my experiences as part of their understanding of the world they are in, rather than a definite set of rules for which they would choose to live their own lives.

    Additionally, I think that one of the key essences of RU is that we are all of equal importance, parents and children and the whole family unit, and the real ‘art’ of living a RU unschooling lifestyle is maintaining this balance. In my experience, whenever this balance is ‘out’ then disharmony results.

    • I have some unschooling friends. They have no TV and they are vegetarians. When they have potlucks and their kids want to eat the crappy, preservative-laden cake that a guest brought, they discuss it. They read the label with the child. The parent explains how what is in the crappy cake has a zillion syllables whereas dad’s cake has 6 simple ingredients. They don’t put sausages next to the rice and beans and just let their kids go at it. Yet when they watch a questionable movie containing things likely inappropriate–they claim their kids self-select.

      My feeling about all this is kids do not have unlimited choices generally. Even in unschool households they have limited choices. That’s a good thing. But it doesn’t wash when it’s claimed they make all decisions all by themselves. They don’t. Even if parents are fooling themselves.

      I am an anarchist so I have a great respect for self-direction. I think that raising children to think for themselves is the best way! But to act like this is some magical formula whereby kids can just self-select from what pornography and violent games, sausages and cotton candy? This suggests children are experienced enough to make appropriate decisions when they are not even yet informed!!! A.S. Neill–YES! John Holt–YES! The bulk of (even “leaders”) in the unschool movement??? No way! No!!! They have good intentions–but they just don’t expose their children to physics! Sorry, but basket-weaving, and swimming, and new-agey thinking are not what I see as the best things for children.

      Helping children to become self-directed, beings who embrace the learning that is their natural birthright is essential. But that requires access to scientists, language immersion, musical talent, mathematicians, cooks, gardeners, and people with more bookcases than Heinz has pickles. No violent games. No TV. And parents who have comprehended critical thinking in ways that, say, a Critical Pedagogy like Paulo Freire’s or the Philosophy for Children program, or, or, or…any of a number of knowledgeable or skilled backgrounds.

      But when I see a little girl who looks to be 10 and she cannot read the words on the dishwasher, someone has failed to value her. There is another unschooler who has one child who went for a doctorate and another who is a social worker and the third is 19 and practically illiterate. Why? The 19 year old said they just avoided reading, didn’t like it. Another one said he couldn’t really read well til he was in his 20s. So, how is i possible we have the rather remarkable occurrence in the same family of two people who can’t read until they are adults. (hint: their parents didn’t make that available in a way that the children needed).

  15. maryanne on said:

    No scientific studies have been done on my family & no one knows our bodies better than ourselves.scientists say we need to eat…although…many live without :-)

  16. Nicki on said:

    For the record and the sake of FULL DISCLOSURE, all the recent comments that are really just about defending RU is because Dayna Martin asked members of her FB group to come here and express her support for her. For a while they accused the author of this blog of being a “mean girl”, because their comments were not appearing fast enough. Of course Dayna also moderates her blog comments and never once allows anything remotely critical.

    Dayna Martin in the same thread also spread rumors about the author of this blog, all with the goal of discrediting her. ALL this just a couple of days after Joe Martin, Dayna’s husband, attacked, disrespected and slandered Unschooler, mother and author, Laurie A. Couture in the same group.

    And THAT is what RU has dissolved to.

  17. This article does not sit well with me. I think it is because it’s full of extremes. It talks about privilege and then takes an air of superiority. It also has a presumption that radical unschoolers act as a group and follow a guru or hold to a dogmatic belief. From what I’ve seen in particpating on groups over the last few years, there is no one way to RU and it in practice it looks very different across families.

    Some of the things mentioned here seem to go more towards unparenting than RU, which is a small subset of people. The core tennet of RU is partnering with your child. It’s the idea that you know your child best, and can help them learn to listen to their body and find out what works for them. It’s not leaving them to the wolves to figure it out for themselves.

    As commenter Brit says, this does force you to challenge commonly held beliefs and to find out which are just assumptions and are not backed in truth. Rethink everything. Always look at Why. Not everything is backed in science. Additionally, not all scientists agree and the truth is ever changing as new studies are undertaken and new evidence is unearthed.

    I take issue with your presumption that RUers do not help their kids to get the sleep their bodies need. Most RUers I know would not tell you that all kids should be left alone to fall asleep whenever they feel like it. There is nothing wrong with setting your kid up for success by helping them wind down when they’re showing signs of tiredness. Some days that might be early if they’ve got in more physical activity than normal, or later when they’re just not tired yet. That’s showing them how to follow their own cues and doing your best to help them. Much different than saying bedtime is at 8pm no matter what OR letting them stay up as long as they like and then ignoring their obvious signs of tiredness. The RUers I know absolutely do help kids follow their circadian rhythms, in part by realizing that it’s not one size fits all. How much sleep is needed is highly individual. Additionally, RUers try to help the entire family to get to sleep, which does mean working within the schedules and confines presented by living together.

    My feeling is if you want to attack something, let it be a problem, not the community. I don’t think the community, or any particular person, is causing harm in the way you are suggesting.

  18. Albanian Rifle on said:

    You know I like this article. I always felt uneasy reading about the radical unschooling ideals. I am a voluntaryist, I treat children with respect and literally as equals. However I understand them and their limitations. Note that they are capable of incredible amounts of more freedom than most afford them in our current society, still like you said there are limits.

    I really like your food example and I think it is your strongest point. We have evolved to crave fats, sweets, etc. They are so abundant now that we have to actively control ourselves. With that being said, if I buy cookies for the house I am not going to restrict my kids. If I don’t want them eating sweets I won’t buy any. My point here being that certain Radical Unschoolers claim they let their kids eat whatever they want but they only have healthy food in the house anyway! This is deceptive (not intentionally). Overall on your food point I agree. Emulate good eating habits and provide mainly healthy foods and your kids will be healthy. Don’t put to much unhealthy stuff in your house.

    Your bedtime example is true too. I have seen many kids (and adults!) run around, but like zombies. They are obviously tired but keep going because of some outside stimulus. I’ve found snuggles and cuddles and some reading will knock a kid (and myself if I didn’t have tinnitus!) right out. No need to just let them run around when it isn’t hard to convince them to settle and let the tiredness set in.

    Your media example is my least favorite one out of the three. I do agree there is a lot of garbage on TV. I have no plans of having cable in the house. The internet and Netflix are quite enough. The problem I have with cable is that it takes no effort to just turn the TV on and go into zombie mode. Anyway as for the content of the media. Those brain changes usually result from constant exposure. Most young children will have no interest in scary violent media, they may be intrigued by sexual media, and of course they will love their happy bright media. Still the main problem is when the child is forced to watch media they do not want or all they do is watch tv and play video games. Remember these studies are done mainly on schooled kids who often have parents who use some form of media as a babysitter and don’t explain things and discuss them with their kids.

    Overall good post. I feel radical unschooling is naive.

  19. Hey there, I so wish I could endorse your post because, in theory, it’s well written. Unfortunately, SO VERY MUCH is misunderstood. This post is spreading misinformation and presenting a gross lack of understanding and awareness.

    I won’t get into a debate, but if you’re inclined (author and/or any of the commentors in agreement) to seek the awareness and obtain an accurate representation and understanding of the concepts of partnership parenting, instead of simply spreading this misinformation, I would welcome your conversation.

    To those who might read this, I live the life that this author is criticizing. I know the truths I know from first hand experience, as well as being a part of a much larger community, and being a person of support for those coming to it and seeking understanding.

    The naivete of radical unschooling, as BTK comments, is only that we as those who live this, have this idea that others would extend the same freedom and lack of ridicule that many of us are focused on providing. There are many who haven’t gotten there yet, I agree, but those who really understand it, do not have the battles and struggles that others have, and we do not have the frustrated and angry children either. Take it for what it is – but clarity is really a beautiful thing, especially when accompanied by compassion.

  20. Yes to all of it. I love RU but it needs to be practiced with wisdom and age appropriate considerations. Thank you very much for your post. I’ve shared in an unschooling group I’m in on FB and I’m interested to see what the community thinks about the specific points you’ve laid out here. Great post. :)

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