Handling "Discipline" as an Unschooler

Do you think children that unschool have no rules?  Do you think they are wild children with no discipline at all?  If you are like a lot of my family, friends, and readers then I am about to blow apart what you think you know about us unschoolers!

As an unschooler I am well aware that our lifestyle goes against the grain of the majority. We believe very much in peaceful parenting and child led activities, especially in regards to their education. We also do not believe in time outs, spanking, or coercing and/or shaming children into being obedient. Children need love and support but I also feel that they need some structure and, at times, guidance as to what is good for them.

Unschoolers are all different in the way that they approach things with their children, especially in the area of discipline. If you asked 100 unschoolers what they do about it you would get slightly different answers from everyone. Some say the difference is in the terms or labels; radical vs "regular" unschoolers, worldschoolers vs. radicals, and so on.  But in my opinion, these terms typically only serve the purpose of confusing the public and pitting unschoolers against one another!

So let's not do that. I am going to speak here just for me, about what works for us, followed by some testimonials from other unschoolers so that you can get an idea of the different ways in which unschoolers handle discipline...and most of us do in some form.  Sometimes we just don't like using that word:)

So what do we do about discipline?

Personal care  Personal care things, like showering, brushing teeth, and cutting nails are all things that need to be done for obvious reasons. When we say that the kids have freedom in this regard, it does NOT mean that they don't do them.  In our house it means they are given a great deal of freedom about how and when they do these things.

Choice sometimes leads to interesting bathing locations!
I am sure you've heard the old adage, "choose your battles", well this is really the same idea. While we expect them to groom themselves, we do not force the issue. We explain why those things are important, why we insist on them, and show them how to do it properly. That is pretty much the end of it. Not much arguing really but I need to say that when they do argue the issue of showering or tooth brushing, we listen to them and why they would rather wait or put it off.  Typically we know that missing one tooth brushing isn't going to mean the end of days so we keep it relaxed and remind them why it is important.

Respect  Respect is one of the most important things in our home. When you are traveling constantly and together all the time, life would be pretty miserable without it. Since they were born, it has been a priority that we model for them what we expect. We respect them the same as the way we expect them to respect us.  Please and Thank You are suggested and almost always used. Saying sorry is not something we force but we encourage it along with many good manners by explaining to them why it matters to the other person. Empathy is a focus!

It is expected because it was not an option when they were small. They know that if they give respect, they get respect!  If they cross a line and show disrespect to anyone, which only happens still with our 5-year-old, we speak to them about it, explaining why it is important and that we are unhappy with that behavior. That is usually enough.

Chores  Some chores, or work, in our home is just expected.  The boys all know they are members of this family and that we all need to do things in the house and for each other for the good of everyone. They know if I ask them to get something or clean something up that I expect they will do it. Likewise they know if they need my help with something that either my husband or I will do it for them.  Of course there are times when they do not want to, and although we take it into account and don't force the issue if they have a good reason, at times it is necessary.  It doesn't happen often, but when it does they will lose their electronics for a predetermined amount of time.

They also ask us for extra chores in order to make some money. They are too young for jobs outside the home and we like that they are wanting to make money of their own, so we have set up some extra jobs that they get paid for. For these there is no discipline needed, they know they will not receive the money if they do not do the job.  It is up to them entirely, but usually they do it :)

Education  Although we are unschoolers to the core, there are some things, especially as our sons get older, that we do require they do. My oldest sons read nearly everyday. Sometimes they get to a point of not wanting to read, typically in between books, but they know it is that or we take the electronics.

We rarely have to force them to read (and now blogging for our oldest) as they are the few things that we firmly encourage  Usually we speak to them about our expectations first so they have an understanding of why it is important. They also know that if they have a legitimate reason for skipping it we understand and respect that sometimes you just need a break. We also let them choose the book and/or topic and give them free reign to start and stop a book if they just aren't interested. I do that all the time!  When I read a book I am not interested in, it just doesn't sink in and discourages me from reading, these are certainly not things I want for my sons.

We have had to deal with some other issues at times, some fibbing, and personal issues.  They happen as kids are always learning, but we have only had to discuss the issues with them and the behavior ceased.

Below are how other unschoolers handle and regard discipline in their homes!

Lainie from  www.raisingmiro.com

"I think the mainstream perceives 'discipline' in the family as the act of ridged rules being imposed from the parents and enforced either through corporal punishment or the stripping of privileges. However, this is not how discipline looks in my family.

From an early age, I treated my role as the parent as the nurturer, a person who guides and facilitates my son, not an authoritarian. I looked upon the role of being my son's parent as a distinct honor. The need for punishment or discipline comes from the child challenging or reacting to a set of circumstances. I never saw this as being an inconvenience, rather I see it as being a part of life.

When my son was a toddler and had a reaction to something and either got angry or upset, I was there, present with him and those emotions.  My first reaction was always to affirm what he was feeling was real,
that the way he perceived the situation was valid and most importantly, he was allowed to feel what he was feeling. I would sit with him while he scrunched up his little face and felt anger or frustration. I would just be there for him while he was experiencing that. In situations where he was really upset, I told him to feel what
that felt like, gave him permission to be as angry as he needed to be, but when he was done, I'd be there waiting to talk about it. No rush, and total permission to be in ok with the emotions he was feeling. And he always proceed though them on his own, as we always spoke about it after the anger had passed. And I feel the secret to raising a emotionally healthy child is to honor the feelings when they come up, allowing space to feel them and talk about the feelings without judgement.

Where does discipline come in then? It's about defining boundaries that work for the family, talking about them and when those boundaries are challenged, dealing with them with respect. I know this sounds ideal, but it's what works for us.

Have we ever had serious discipline problems? No. Are we prepared for them? Yes. Do I think serious acts of rebellion will ever come up? Not really, because we have established an open line of communication, and
it is seeded with respect and trust. But if it does, we can handle it.

We developed respect and space for emotions over the 13 years of my son's life and continue each and every day. It takes adjustments on both sides and sometimes we both make mistakes, but we have the tools
to talk about it and understand the boundaries that works for us. That is our agreed upon 'discipline'."

Talon from 1dad1kid.com

"I disagree with some “radical unschoolers” who believe children should have no rules. I’m sorry, but society has rules, so will my child. One of my jobs as a parent is to prepare him for life. Children like and need boundaries. Even though we may not like to admit it, adults typically do better when our boundaries are clear as well. I would be doing him a disservice by raising him in a world with no rules when outside the door he’ll be faced with plenty of them.

Discipline and punishment are two different things, though. Rules are discussed. He understands why there are certain expectations. We discuss issues. How else is he to learn if I simply just say “Because I said so!” and leave it at that?

Since he isn’t treated like he’s an inferior person or a “subject” in our home, he does not feel a need to battle me for control. We function more like a team.  He learns respect because it is modeled for him. I don’t need   to demand it. I treat him with respect and therefore am respected in return."

Shannon from Shannonentin.com

Shannon and her kids

"Most unschooling parents agree that discipline is not about parental control over a child's behavior, but about helping children develop self-discipline, although some unschoolers prefer to avoid the word "discipline" altogether to avoid connotations of self-imposed punishment or unfair parental expectations of a child's developmental abilities."
"I think that discipline is just like any other aspect of parenting - you do what works best for your children and your family. As an unschooler (mostly), I give my kids a good amount of leeway in controlling what they spend their time on. When they find something they love, they might spend 10 hours a day on it and I certainly don't pull them away to force them to sit at a table and do something they couldn't care less about. But that doesn't mean they never do anything they don't want to. There are certainly things I require them to do - some chores, picking up after themselves, personal hygiene, and yes, even some school work that they might not be thrilled about. We also have a system set up where our kids can earn money - just like in the real world! They don't get an "allowance." I keep a chart on the refrigerator with a list of things they can do to help around the house and if they want spending money each month, they work for it."

Sara McGrath   Unschoolinglifestyle.com 

"In this sense, self-discipline, as one unschooling mother suggested, is perhaps more about self-awareness than about self-regulation or behavior expectations. The unschooling parent's concern is not for enforcing social behavioral expectations, but for helping children navigate their own and others' needs and feelings."

So there you have it.  We do have some rules, and we do discipline when we need to but we choose to practice open communication and mutual respect first and foremost!  We all do it a bit differently yet try to focus on these tenements to keep it all in line with how we want our children treated.  I promise you our kids have fun and have loads of freedom but wild children with no manners.....NO WAY!

So were you surprised by any of our responses??

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  1. Thank you Mary! I appreciate your efforts to clarify.

    What I'm struck about most is that, from what you wrote, you seem to be more strict about discipline than I am! And yet I would never call myself a hard-core unschooler.

    ==It doesn't happen often, but when it does they will lose their electronics for a predetermined amount of time.== Our boys are expected to do the dishes without being asked. If one of them doesn't do it when it's his turn, HIS BROTHER deals with it so we don't have to. They've worked it out and have their own set of expectations. All my husband and I expect is that the dishes are washed. What would we do if they weren't? Honestly, I don't know.

    ==My oldest sons read nearly everyday. Sometimes they get to a point of not wanting to read, typically in between books, but they know it is that or we take the electronics. == I would never dream of taking away my sons' electronics for not reading. Both my sons are avid readers and read voraciously. That said, they will sometimes (rarely, but it's happened) go weeks between books. I don't say a word as I know they will soon pick up another book.

    Although I don't call myself an unschooler, I think many people would call me one. Our sons are 14 and we've given them complete total control over their academic program. They have both chosen to attend school half time (advanced math and science classes) and be part of a robotics club. They are also in Boy Scouts and they've each chosen a sport they would like to pursue.

    I never, ever - never, never, never - have to remind my sons to do their homework or whatever. They know the choices they've made and they do it gladly. In fact, if I pull them away for some reason they are the ones chomping at the bit to get home so they can get their homework done!!

    When my sons were younger, one of them was your dream child. He did everything we asked and never challenged authority at all. His brother, however, was a kicker/hitter/spitter/pincher/hair-puller/anything-he-could-use-to-inflict-bodily-harm-upon-another-er. We tried everything from time out in the corner to reasoning with him to (once) hitting him back.

    If I had only had my one son (the easy one) I could very easily sit here and say, "All you need to do is...." Because for that one son, that's all I needed to do.

    I have the experience of having a very difficult son and know that's not the way it is with all children. Discipline (by whatever name you want to use today) is something that will need to happen with EVERY child. For some, it comes more easily than for others, but every single child will need discipline of some sort.

    Unschoolers who make it sound like they don't discipline simply aren't being truthful. Yes, we need to respect our children, but sometimes - putting a child in the corner can be the greatest respect you can show. As Talon pointed out, kids WILL deal with rules in society whether they deal with them at home or not. And I would MUCH rather have my children learn appropriate behavior at home than in a jail cell.

    1. How wonderful that your sons enjoy reading and schoolwork. My boys do sometimes as well. I rarely have to use any threats or withdrawl of electronics at all. I guess I should have clarified that it does not happen often. More a process when they were a bit younger so they understood that we had some expectations and that there were consequences.

    2. Yep :) If you set the parameters when they are young, then when they're older you have a free ride like us! When our children were young we definitely had rules and abided by them so the kids would know what to expect. I think that's the key - you need to be consistent and predictable. While we never (and yes, I mean never) have to discipline our children now, the reason we are at that place is because we DID discipline them when they were younger. We weren't mean, but our kids knew we had certain expectations and, if they didn't live up to them, they would face the consequences.

  2. Great blog! We are eclectic homeschoolers, sometimes working in our books, sometime unschooling for weeks at a time (really, if you just open your eyes you are always learning something new.

    I love your multi-family discipline spot. We are big on discipline in that our kids are expected to respect themselves, each other, us as parents, and everyone around them. In return they recieve much respect, and many comments on what happy, well-behaved kids they are.

    Cheers, and Happy Trails, the Gypsy Love Circus

    1. Thanks so much! I think an eclectic approach really is best. Our children are all different and the way we approach them on everything from discipline to learning needs to suit the individual. having an eclectic mind set will help to keep an open mind. Staying put with a particular label is to me one of the worst things we can do as parents!

  3. Interesting. I'm an unschooler (of sorts) but also quite hot on discipline. Which, in our family, means manners/consideration for others, helping out when asked, and, yes, some compulsory learning (which he sits down to well because he's invested in it). not, actually, that different to how most parents do it, i'd say.

    Which is good. :-)

    1. I agree, respect and manners are just important no matter what lifestyle you follow. I suppose it is in the way we get the point across to our children that can be different at times.

  4. I happened upon your wonderful blog and it makes me glad. I'm not very good at reading in English, but I have read a lot of posts from you. We are from Russia, and are also in a long journey (me, my wife Anna and our two sons - 6 and 9 years old) - the last time we were in Russia 1.5 years ago. You have a good definition, which we can apply to our lifestyle too: "exit rat race". Our children are unschoolers too, although it is not encouraged in Russia.

    PS We are staying in Penang now, renting a house in Balik Pulau. If you wish, we could meet together with you.

    1. Thank you so much. It is a wonderful lifestyle. How long are you in Penang? Message me through the blog or facebook and maybe we can meet up!

  5. As a mother I can see a great value of this article. The points you have mentions is so effective. Discipline is something really important to every one’s life. Without a discipline I don’t think we can call that person as a human. I expect a great discipline from my kinds more than the education.

  6. As busy mum I must say there some certain things will affect a lot in the practical life, so this information is pretty helpful.

    1. As a very busy mum I too would say here these information are very useful to consider.

  7. Thanks for the post and it really gives more awareness about an unschooler.

  8. This information is really important. I’m a mom of 3 kids, so I know the value of this article. Thanks for sharing.