Thursday, May 9, 2013

No Rules

My son and I recently watched an episode of Wife Swap that featured a radical unschooling mom (Dayna Martin) and a military-discipline style mom. If there was a winner on this episode, it was clearly the unschooling mom, but not necessarily because she unschools but because she believes in loving and listening to kids rather than ruling them for their own good. I think that level of responsiveness is far more important than any ideology a person may be using.

The one idea that stuck with me (actually there were several) from this episode seems to be pretty common in the unschooling world (particularly in the radical unschooling world), and that was her one rule of "no rules."

Conceptually, I get it. Personally, in this house, the more rules we have shed, the better we have all felt and acted. Clearly, there are some social and cultural rules and laws that have to be followed at certain points, and these rules may differ from situation to situation i.e. Martin's kids were allowed to jump on the trampoline at 1 in the morning which my kids really want to do. However, that family seemed to live in the country, and we live in town where it's not appropriate to jump on the trampoline (because it's loud) after ten. (This article from the Guardian briefly touches on that idea as it pertains to cultures where the kids are more or less not ruled by their parents.)

There seems to be a pervasive idea in the unschooling/AP world that if you respect your kids enough or model good enough behavior or let them explore the natural consequences enough that they will magically not be dicks, but... These people don't have my kids, and my kids are freaking lunatics.

I've gotten a lot of parenting criticism for not saying no enough, but I feel like I'm saying no all the damn time.

No, don't shred carrots so that you can shove messy handfuls of them into your mouth while jumping up and down and playing video games with the neighbors and spraying carrots all over the floor.

No, don't jump on the mini indoor trampoline while eating a muffin, the crumbs of which you will grind into our already disgusting carpet when you start running around in circles which you will undoubtedly start doing at any moment.

No, don't drag the rotten old mattress, which is only in the garage waiting to go to the dumpster because you jumped on it so much that you broke it, through a mud puddle and into the yard, where it will kill the grass and the landlord will evict us because she's a grass lover, to make a landing pad so that you can jump off the shed.

No, don't swing on the clothesline and break the line (again) because the dryer has been broken for over two years, and the clothesline is the only option.

No, don't drag every blanket we own into the yard (again).

No, don't say nigger in the house or anywhere. (Note, this is not a word that I ever use, but their friend likes to walk in the door and shout, "What's up my niggers?" as a greeting so they've picked it up, and although I've gone over the cultural and historical background of this word and although it may eventually become more socially acceptable as slang continues to adapt, it's just not an appropriate word for little white boys to be saying).

No, don't use the entire bottle of cleaner that I just bought for my yearly shower cleaning to wash out a footprint of mud that you got in the bathtub.

I see the benefit of listening to my kids, to figuring out what they really need to do rather than what I think they need to do, and every move we've made further in that direction has been a positive one. I see how much they appreciate it when we respect them and their choices, but no rules....

Maybe it's just a case of letting them get older or helping them think of better options than dragging old mattresses into the yard (and if I had a couple acres and a dirt yard, they could put the frigging mattress right next to the broken down cars and the other yard rubbish and it would be swell).

At the moment, though, they say this, "All you see are messes, and we're just trying to have fun."

At the moment, though, when they approach me with their ideas, they preface them with hand gestures to calm me or admonitions of "Don't get mad, can we..." and then, maybe they continue with "dismantle the food processor to build a meat grinder."

I'm not sure how I can be any more permissive without losing my sanity, but maybe I had it above, maybe I just need to chill til they grow out of it or help them think of better things to do... but I'm not sure if there are better ideas than mattresses in the yard or dismantling working appliances to make new ones.


  1. me and C watched that as well. we both enjoyed it. WOW it amazes me that some families run their house cleaning and rules like a tight ship. C was pretty happy it is not like that here. We appreciated the heads up about it.

    as to the no rules, i think my husband would go absolutely insane if we didn't have any rules. he likes to have "food in the kitchen and meals at meal time" I am such a rule bender when M is not around, we eat out in the livingroom and just try to not make a mess and we dont really do meal times, we just eat when we are hungry. He constnatly is telling me that the kids just get to do whatever they want and i am not strict enough yet I am a hover mom at the same time? It seems to me in the time I have known you that your kiddos behavior has gotten better, and boys tend to be curious and energetic anyway. maybe you just need a little more time for yourself mixed in there and then all the rest wont bother you? Doesn't seem like you get much "you" time.

  2. We went to a corn maze last year that had a small "obstacle course" maze. One part of it included a mattress buried underground. First time through you didn't know it was there and you were surprised when you sunk down. But guess what, we went through a bunch of times to jump on that fricking buried mattress. It was awesome. You should have your boys do that. It would keep them busy for awhile digging the hole & burying it, and be super fun afterwards. Of course, grass-loving landlord would probably not approve. Too bad, 'cause it would be so cool.

  3. That's an idea. If the cost of the sod to cover it wasn't too high, it might end up being a good compromise. If I situated it near the spots they've burnt out by peeing too much, it could become a win-win situation. (Another rule: No, don't pee on the patio; go into the yard and vary the spot.)

  4. I didn't watch the Wife Swap, but I have a couple of thoughts...
    I believe that the unschooling ideal isn't so much "no rules" as "no arbitrary rules". Big difference. Unschooling doesn't mean a free for all- it doesn't give us some special pass to let us do whatever we want. It's still important to guide kids, to help them understand what is and isn't acceptable behavior. They still have to live in the world, where most people don't care a bit about unschooling.
    Not sure if this aligns at all with what Dayna Martin says, but she really just speaks for herself, not all unschoolers. There are plenty of other long-time unschoolers who have been writing about these topics for years and years, and I've never had the impression that it was necessary to let your kids do whatever they wanted to unschool properly.

    So things like bedimes, food rules, chores... from an unschooling perspective I see it as making decisions based around what is best for our kids, our families, respecting their preferences and needs too; rather than a bunch of rules because "that's what kids need". It's good to say yes, but you can still say no sometimes too.