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The Life Learning Mystery Tour:
How Unschoolers Live by Consent
by Jan Fortune-Wood

unschoolers living with consent
Photo © Shutterstock Images

Living by consent is not about giving in or self-sacrificing to demanding brats who are never satisfied. Nor is it about neglectfully abandoning children to their own devices without input. It is just what it says: a way of finding mutual solutions, which respect the autonomy of all concerned and which help to foster our growing resourcefulness, reasonableness and knowledge. What stands in our way, most of all, are false ideas, many of which are deeply entrenched and not fully articulated. But we are not enslaved to our ideas, even if challenging them is a lifetime’s project.

We can take control of our ideas to foster autonomy in ourselves and in our home educated children. We can question everything and by so doing begin to break old vicious cycles of compulsion and irrationality in favor of new ways of thinking and relating within families. This is a life’s work, but some ideas can assist us to foster new ways of relating.

“I might be wrong” is a very powerful idea when it comes to parenting. You may, of course, hold many ideas about which you are absolutely certain. And you might even be right. But the fact that “Truth” exists and that morality is not just a mess of relative, is not the same as saying that we can with ease or certainty know the Truth. Parents should most definitely share their opinions and especially their moral opinions, but our limitations and the fact that ultimately we are not the person making the decision prevent us from being final and authoritative arbiters.

Another key is not to decide on a pre-set outcome or tiny list of pre-approved outcomes to choose from. This doesn’t mean that you have to stock one million flavors of ice cream in your freezer just in case, but simply that you need to be open-minded about what a solution might look like.

A major impediment in finding mutual solutions can be the assumption that a “contract” exists between us and our children in which we provide food, warmth, shelter, and protection, whilst the children owe various levels of duty or obedience simply by virtue of being born. And then we assume that the child, who has never agreed to the terms in the first place, has no way out of the contract. This kind of contract is assumed every time a child is forced to do chores or to take part in some activity, which is deemed to be for the good of the family without any reference to the good of the individual child. Contracts are no way to conduct complex and close relationships. We are much more likely to find that children who know that they are not going to be compelled and do not have to compete against their parents are more than willing and happy to assist their parents in meeting their preferences, just as their parents do for them.

To reach consent, the participants can use reasonableness and resourcefulness to find mutual solutions that everyone prefers. Without artificial ways of relating, we are much less likely to fall into the trap of thinking that we are better placed to make decisions for our children. Whilst consent-based parents non-manipulatively offer their experience, they do not assume that they are right. Experience, just like our assumptions, is not infallible. There is an old saying that ‘experience is the name we give to our mistakes’ and whilst this may be over-stated, it contains an element of truth. People who have been there, done that and got the t-shirt aren’t necessarily the ones who we want to listen to or emulate; a lot of experience is of very dubious quality as a basis for decision making, even more so when it is being used as the basis for making a decision about another person’s life.

If we are not running our family as a contract or by a set of artificial mechanisms that short circuit any preference finding and if we do not assume that parents are best placed to make decisions about the children’s lives, then how are we operating? Consent-based parents operate from the principle that people of all ages are the ultimate best judges of their own best interests.

We have a lot of ideas that make us fearful of people acting out of their own interests for their own self-maximizing ends, but these fears rest on some very poor assumptions. We need to reject the ideas that self-interest and morality are logical and necessary opposites or that one person getting what they want must mean that others will lose out. When we question these notions, the fear evaporates.

People who become accustomed to living within a win-win ethos have no vested interest in seeing anyone else in their family lose. There is no longer an atmosphere of competition; rather helping others to meet their preferences is likely to benefit everyone involved.

Why is knowing what you want in life and working to achieve it wrong? Why should intrinsic motivation be opposed to altruism? Why is being satisfied, having preferences met or delighting in life perceived as being scary or even immoral? We should not confuse unhappy, desperately grasping children who are really not having their preferences met (or even identified) with children in consent-seeking families who are learning that everyone can win.

Acknowledging your child’s autonomy can seem like a very scary thing to do, not least because we tend to care enormously for our children and to want the best for them at all times. Unfortunately, this excellent motive can easily become an excuse for compulsion and for preventing children from getting the best by their own lights. Consent-based parents believe that love is not a good reason to compromise another’s autonomy. We either accept that self-interest is reasonable and optimal or we do not; we cannot nurture autonomy whilst simultaneously thwarting our children in the name of love or best interests or for their supposed own good.

That does not mean that you simply throw your hands in the air and let them “get on with it”. Parents have active, involved, moral roles...but not forceful ones. Love matters, our opinions are important, our analysis is a gift, our morality is crucial. But none of those are sufficient to over-ride another person’s autonomy and none of these are excuses for hampering someone else’s resourcefulness and reasonableness with compulsion.

It is quite common to hear conventional parents expressing the fear that without the imposition of boundaries and rules they will be run ragged or sucked dry. Self-surrender is unhelpful and best avoided, but we should not believe that unless we lay down the law, however minimally, we would end up being compelled by our children. Consent-based parents recognize that the balance of power rests with them and that they need to redress this imbalance. The aim is always to achieve mutual consent; not compulsion, not self surrender, but consent.

Achieving this is best done by creating a consent-supporting environment. It’s much harder to avoid compulsion about what a child is going to eat tonight if you have already cooked lasagne, have an empty cupboard and the shops are closed than if you involve children in shopping decisions, keep a range of easily prepared favorites, help children to learn how to prepare foods themselves and consult people before you use all your ingredients. Similarly it is much easier to avoid self-surrender if you talk to the rest of the family and get lots of brochures before you book the holiday and pay the deposit for a trip that no one else wants.

Sometimes, of course, we get ourselves into hard situations where self-surrender seems like the best we can hope to pull off. Creating an environment of consent goes much further. It involves thinking ahead and building on win-win situations in ways that maximize everyone’s autonomy and growth. It is not merely a negative, compulsion avoidance lifestyle, but a positive lifestyle that brings all our resourcefulness and reasonableness into play and which corrects the adult-centered imbalances of power present in conventional parenting practices.

So what has all of this to do with learning? Conventional parents assume that there are certain things that children just have to be taught. Consent-based parents assume that if certain things are important or essential for children to survive in modern society, then there is no reason why a reasoning, creative, autonomous child would not learn them without compulsion needing to be a factor. This is an area where our theories about human nature play a big part; if we think that children are born lazy or bad or self-destructive, as opposed to simply human and limited, but nonetheless essentially creative and reasoning, then we will behave accordingly and probably make sure that our observations of children become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Children who are routinely treated with dignity and accorded their own autonomy do learn. They learn whatever they need to maximize their intrinsic motivation and this is not something to either fear or suspect.

So where will it all end up? Unlike conventional parents, consent-based parents do not attempt to prescribe or predict outcomes for their children. Living by consent is about the process – a process that is the most creative, most reasoned, most moral and most enlightening that you will ever embark on. But you can’t describe its ends at the outset.

Many people find this rather daunting or even disappointing. But think more carefully about this: The idea that we can empirically test a parenting theory is always false. We are not dealing with a mathematical formula. We are not dealing with inert raw materials that can be input into a manufacturing process to ensure a specific product at the other end. We are dealing here with people, real, autonomous, limited people. We might be able to make some very general guesses and we might certainly be able to conjecture that children who are treated as autonomous, serious human beings will behave as reasoning, flexible, open-minded, truth seeking, innovative individuals, but what the detailed content of that might look like in any given individual is much more open-ended.

This is not something to fear; reasoning, self interested people should make the world a much better place, even if we can’t yet describe what that better place might look like.

Jan Fortune-Wood is a freelance writer, poet, and parenting adviser, who home educated her four children and lives in the UK. She is the author of four books on home education, autonomous education and non-coercive parenting, “Doing It Their Way”; “Without Boundaries”; “Bound To Be Free”; and “With Consent."

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