The Role of Parental Instruction

It seems to me that there is a distinction that must be made for unschooling parents and for people criticizing them. When we talk about principles versus rules and allowing our kids to follow their passions, there may be a tendency to believe that means letting kids do whatever they want. In reality, there are restrictions and there are definite roles that parents need to fill in order to raise functioning, considerate, involved adults.

Before I go on, let me give a caveat. I am about to step on ground that is somewhat debatable and on which I am not an expert. In the realm of education, my credentials and experience indicate expertise. In the realm of parenting, however, I am a newcomer.  But, as with most things, I still have a strong opinion.

And so, what are the roles of parents in “instructing” or raising our children?

First, we must keep them safe. I touched on this idea in my post about falling. We want them to explore, to wander, but we also have the responsibility to make sure they reach adulthood with their limbs intact and limited brain damage. So, when they are infants, we do some childproofing.  As they grow, we keep them from jumping off the roof. And along the way, we show them why something is dangerous and how to avoid getting hurt. We don’t sit back and wait for them to learn this on their own.

Second, we must teach them to be considerate of others and to respect them. Many parents even start before the child has verbal language by teaching them the signs for “Please” and “Thank you.”  Children must learn the principle of respect and also how that is shown to others (i.e. look them in the eye when you talk to them, greet somebody when they come to your house, etc.). This also refers to those unschoolers whose families are criticized because the parents allow the kids to play video games constantly. My view is that playing video games is fine, but when there are guests or it’s time to hang out with the family, the child should be taught that it is rude to play video games (or read, or watch tv) to the exclusion of others. This takes the onus off of the “evil” game and puts it on the child to be considerate. Again, these aren’t things that are necessarily unschooled, because manners, respect and consideration are part of being a functioning and enjoyable adult.

Third, and this may seem obvious or trivial, but we must teach them about taking care of themselves. In particular, this means showing them how and why to make good food choices. If unschooling meant letting kids do whatever they want, we’d probably have a lot of fat unschoolers. Most kids want to only eat candy, hamburgers, and potato chips. And, there may be something to be said about letting them go crazy every once in a while just so they can get a stomach ache. But, I think talking about what refined foods do to your body, providing healthy, whole meals, and exploring nutrition as a family is essential to raising healthy kids.

 (I also wanted to stick in here that we need to teach proper personal hygiene. In particular, pre-teen boys aren’t very aware of body odor and must learn how it can affect relationships and what to do about it. Please, don’t wait to be asked about this. Teach your kids that brushing teeth, showering, etc. are done not only for themselves, but also out of consideration of those around them. This is something that many grown men still aren’t aware of.)

And, finally, as parents we need to impart values. This goes along with the principles I’ve already touched on, but it deserves its own separate paragraph.  Hopefully, you do this automatically. This is more than instruction, it is exhibition. You show your kids that family is important to you by spending time together. You show them that giving to the less fortunate is important by handing five dollars to the homeless man on the off-ramp. You show them that being an active citizen is important by taking them to the polling place with you while you vote. You don’t wait for them to ask about it and you don’t give them lectures, but you do teach them by your own actions.

So, my reason for writing this post is to say that unschoolers are not and should not be kids who run wild while their parents say, “We let them do whatever they want.” The education part of it is child-led, but the raising part is parent-led. Let’s not forget that our ultimate goal is to produce passionate, involved, discerning, and respectful citizens of the world.

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9 Comments on "The Role of Parental Instruction"

  1. Debs
    08/11/2009 at 2:57 am Permalink

    Really uncomfortable with “we must teach them” and indeed the concept of “teaching” at all. It implies something being done to the child that they may not necessarily want. All of the things you mention in your post can be achieved simply by modelling the behaviour you wish to see in your child, and chatting with them about principles.

    I agree that these are things that are good to see in children, and that unschoolers need to distance themselves from the “unparenting” label which is often put on them.

    I do not consciously “teach” or “impart” anything to my son – we simply live together, doing things together, and chatting about stuff. “We learn something by doing it, there is no other way.” (John Holt, I think)

  2. Idzie
    08/11/2009 at 2:41 pm Permalink

    I second Debs on this one… And I want to specifically address several points you made.

    1. As Debs said, modeling. You do not need to “teach” respect, manners, etc., you need to BE respectful, and your children will learn from you. Yes, you explain why things are considered “rude”, and why some things just aren’t appropriate to do to other people, when it’s not obvious to the child. If your kid is trying to hit another kid over the head with a stick, you physically stop them/remove them from the situation, and make sure they know that’s not acceptable behavior… But is that “teaching”? I don’t think so. I’d say it’s just part of helping your kid to navigate through the world! Those things can “be unschooled”. EVERYTHING can be unschooled! It’s just a part of learning from the world, by living in the world.

    2. Okay, the food thing is something that is very often brought up. Radical unschoolers allow their children to make their own food choices. No, there are not tons of fat radical unschoolers around. I’d suggest you read this section of Sandra Dodd’s website,, that deals specifically with food issues, but in the meantime I’ll give my opinion on the whole thing. As with everything else, there’s this misconception that people need to be forced to do things, or they won’t do them at all. Children need to be forced to learn, or they never will. As unschoolers, we know this to be untrue. So why do so many people think that children must be FORCED to “eat healthy”, or they never will? I’d agree completely that it’s a parents job to provide lots of healthy food for their children, to model healthy eating by having a healthy diet themselves, but my biggest problem with “forcing” a kid to eat healthy, and limiting their food choices, is that when something is limited, made “special” by not always being allowed, it becomes more desirable. It’s as simple as that. When food is unlimited, children learn what makes them feel good when they eat it, and what makes them feel bad, and according to most radical unschoolers, their kids end up having a very healthy diet, with little junk (and from what I’ve seen of older unschooler’s eating habits they’re generally VERY healthy!). If allowed to, people learn to listen to their own body. To eat when and what will make them feel healthy. Even from my own experience, I see that limiting food is bad. We were not radical unschoolers when I was young. We had limited sweets and all that jazz. And it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve realized I really don’t like most cookies, or iceream, at all. I’d always just eaten both without really thinking about it. This is dessert. It’s “special”. I can’t eat it all the time. So it took me a while to realize that, well, I didn’t even like it, and didn’t really want to eat it anyway!

    3.Values, as you recognize, come from living with values. I don’t really think you need to do anything *special*! My parents never did, and I definitely have very strong ethics. Not the ethics my parents hold, but my own, that I have developed by growing up and learning in the world…

    Anyway, just my feelings on things. 🙂


  3. Cassi
    08/11/2009 at 5:45 pm Permalink

    Debs & Idzie—

    Thank you so much for your comments. As I mentioned, I am new at the parenting thing, so these are somewhat unformed thoughts. The discussion about them is really what I’m looking for.

    While I agree that using the term “teach” can be detrimental in some cases, I think we’re a little loath to use it, even when it really is appropriate. If someone learns something, by necessity, someone or something is teaching it to them. Whether “life” is teaching it or the parent, sometimes “teach” is appropriate. I mean, isn’t chatting about stuff part of teaching? My point of this post is, you don’t always sit back and wait for the child to ask you about ethics or want to learn about being polite. These are things that, as the parent, we teach – via modeling, chatting, etc.

    Idzie– Thanks for the point about food. This is something that I’m sort of on the fence about, really. I know that my parents were pretty strict about what food we had, and as soon as I moved out I gained 15 pounds from going a bit crazy. Maybe if I had had some freedom at home, I wouldn’t have felt that way. But, at the same time, I now choose to not eat refined or processed foods, and I really don’t want to have those things in my house as options. I’ll have to read Sandra’s page about that. I’m guessing the idea is not to try to control your kids’ food choices outside of the home? I know that you have come to a very specific viewpoint about food for your own life. Did you see that modeled in your parents, or did you come to it completely on your own?

    I think, really, that we’re saying similar things. I may just be using the terms “teach” and “impart” for the ideas of modeling and chatting about. I’m saying that, as Debs put it, we are unschoolers, not unparenters. We still have kids to raise who start out pretty selfish and self-centered. That’s why we teach toddlers to share and not to hit (via the principle of respecting others). That’s not done just by modeling it ourselves. That’s done in the context of life, but it is teaching. At least it’s my definition of teaching.


  4. Idzie
    09/11/2009 at 10:34 pm Permalink

    Modeled by my parents? Do you mean do/did they have a healthy diet? Well, my dad has never really had all that healthy a diet, though it’s not particularly *bad* either. He’s pretty much a meat and potatoes man. 😛 My mom has always been pretty into healthy eating, though *how* healthy we ate while I was growing up depended on the time period (i.e. how busy we were… The busier times tended to include more frozen meals!). My family are all meat-eaters, but at age 6 I decided I was going to become vegetarian, and with the support of my mom I steadily cut down on meat consumption until I was entirely veg by the age of 8… And I haven’t eaten meat since. So I guess I did a fair bit of the healthy eating type stuff just because *I* wanted to! Also, recently, as in the last couple of years, I’ve gotten much morw health conscious, and really made my diet healthier, and tried to poke the rest of my family into doing the same… *Grins*

  5. Idzie
    09/11/2009 at 10:35 pm Permalink

    Oh, and I’m writing a post specifically about why I think it’s important to differentiate between “teaching” and “learning”, which should be out tomorrow…

  6. Cassi
    10/11/2009 at 12:34 am Permalink

    Good, I look forward to reading it.


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