How do you talk about unschooling?

Sometimes, it seems like the dirty little secret of the homeschooling universe.

For a lot of different reasons, many of them entirely valid, there aren’t too many unschoolers who go beyond the proverbial whispers of “We don’t exactly use a curriculum…” and “Don’t TELL anyone, but we don’t take tests!” when asked about their style by friends and family members.

Those of us who blog here at CU are obviously pretty open – but we hear from readers and like-minded friends all the time, “I just can’t talk about this without there being problems.”

Now, I’m weird. I not only talk about unschooling to, oh, anyone who’ll listen, I’m also a columnist for my hometown newspaper – and I’ve shared about our philosophy in print and online there as well!

The thing is, there are certainly pitfalls. Do I worry sometimes that we’re being judged and found wanting? Absolutely.

In fact, sometimes I think my openness is the problem, not my unschooliness.

When Carma shared our short answers to the “socialization” question last week, it made me realize that sometimes I can be a little OVER-enthusiastic.

So where’s the balance? How do we talk about unschooling, and especially how do we respond to questions, in a constructive and positive way?

1. Be concise.

Says the woman who writes the longest blog posts in history. The thing is, when a friend asks you about your homeschooling approach, ESPECIALLY if they don’t homeschool, they don’t need a treatise on your views on all systems of education from preschool to grad school, your journey from Charlotte Mason and the boxes of curriculum you sold at a yard sale when you realized you wanted to be free of it all.

I’ve found that succinct but friendly answers will often open the door to future conversations – but long ones can turn listeners off.

2. Don’t be defensive.

Oh, wait, I’m guilty of this one too. Sometimes, people ARE asking questions because they want to find fault. That’s the sad truth. Sometimes, we think they want to find fault, but they really don’t!

Either way, the only part you can control is your response. A smile and a warm answer, even to someone who is purposely looking to be critical, can help defuse a tense situation. And in the case where the asker was legitimately just curious, you’ve avoided creating a “You Vs. Them” approach!

3. Speak for your family only.

On my blog, on Facebook, and in conversations with friends in real life, I have to be real careful not to paint unschooling with a broad brush.

Oh, unschooling is awesome! You don’t have to… is my former and uber-enthusiastic conversation piece. Then there’s “You really should try doing a more relaxed style for…”

I am no authority on much. I can speak for my family. I can’t speak for what would work well from my friends, their friends, my blog readers, or my cousin’s neighbor’s sister’s family. I can’t even speak for what works for other friends who call themselves unschoolers – except to spread the word about their blogs and let them tell their own stories.

My conversations got a ton better when I answered questions about what I’m doing with what I’M doing. Imagine that.

4. Stick to a few specific examples.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, right? I can talk all day about our approach and philosophy – or I can give one (again, succinct!) example of how a situation played out in our lives.

People connect with stories.

Here’s a great example of this: On Facebook, a large group I’m part of asked, “How do you fit in your lessons with holiday appointments? Before? After? Work on the weekends instead?”

My knee-jerk answer was to go on a long “thing” about how we learn the same at all times of the year, based on our interests, find the “learning” in the things we’re doing anyway, relax and let the season happen, blah blah blah. That’s probably not going to make me any friends, especially since the question was phrased in a way that showed me that most of the group members follow a more traditional school format.

Instead, I simply gave an example of how great it was today to have an impromptu conversation with my daughter, Sarah, about the chemistry and mathematics involved in making our Christmas gingerbread cookies. I also mentioned that we spend a lot of time reading together before bed, and the great thing is that we can do that even while traveling.

Honestly, I “said” the same thing. I got across the idea that we’re informal, and that we learn through our life activities, and that we don’t try to fit a defined schedule of coursework into our days. But I did it in a way that even people who might never unschool can relate to.

I’m still a work in progress. But I’m consciously trying to make my conversations about unschooling not only open, but constructive!

Do you have any tips? I’d love to hear them!

~ Yours in open unschooling,

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