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Could 'Unschooling' Improve Your Toddler’s Behaviour?

If you’re struggling to tame your toddler’s tantrums, it might be time to relax the rules and try ‘unschooling’: the new parenting trend helping kids learn about life

Since he’s turned two and a half, my son William has gone from being an angelic child whose temperament matches his looks – all smiles and big blue eyes – to a monster. It’s scary.

He’s become a scowling little thing, covered in blackmail-begotten chocolate while clutching random items stolen from my handbag. I love my son, but he rules our (toy-strewn) home like a mini emperor, yelling for biscuits and turning into a immovable plank when it’s time for bed.

And I can’t be the only mother struggling to enforce rules and often tempted to give up completely.

Relax the rules

My friend Francis, from Los Angeles, who’s mum to Ethan, four – told me about unschooling, the latest parenting trend to hit Stateside. With links to attachment parenting, in which you let your baby lead your routine, this approach promises peace and mutual respect – two things missing from my relationship with William.

The main principle is allowing your toddler to show you how he wants to learn and grow. Instead of obsessing about parent-led ideas, such as table manners and playing with toys you think are beneficial, it’s about indulging your toddler in his passions and intervening as little as possible in his relationships with other children. So, if he’s obsessed with fire engines, go with that and visit a station together. And let him dress in his fireman pyjamas (yep, day and night).

Let him set his own boundaries

So far, so normal – you’re probably doing some of this already. But you also let him set his own boundaries. Say he doesn’t want to go to bed at 7pm because he’s engrossed in a game or his favourite cartoon, you consider these things educational tools and allow him to continue until he’s happy to stop.

'Giving your toddler more freedom than you might normally will nurture his curiosity and creativity'

Part of a backlash against the super-strict Tiger Mum style – which sees parents putting value on high standards – unschooling allies itself more with the latest wave of anti-parenting books, such as  Jill Smokler’s Motherhood Comes Naturally (And Other Vicious Lies) (£9, Gallery Books). These suggest we stop trying to follow every piece of advice and do what works for us, making family life easier.

Giving your toddler more freedom than you might normally will certainly nurture his curiosity and creativity, says family therapist Katherine Lloyd. ‘By letting him play hide and seek in the park, even though you’d rather rush back home for lunch, you’re giving him a chance to develop his interests. You’re also showing that you’re acknowledging and responding to them.’

Teach him to make decisions

Sounds great, but learning how to parent in a new, more democratic way takes a certain amount of skill and restraint. ‘The aim should be to provide a safe space for your children to push limits and develop their passions,’ says Katherine. ‘Rather than dictating, offer him choices. For instance, “Do you want to wear your wellies today or your trainers?”

You may even have a little discussion about what you are going to be doing and which shoes might be best for the activity. If he chooses to go with the ones you feel are less suitable, just live with it, then use it as a learning opportunity later.’

When it comes to TV, the choice might be between another Chuggington or an extra story at bedtime. ‘Your child gets a certain amount of control and experiences the consequences of his choices,’ says Katherine. ‘This will help his understanding of cause and effect, and he’ll learn to modify his behaviour.’

Putting it to the test

Nevertheless, inspired by the theory, I decided to try unschooling for myself. I would let him choose his games and activities, plus what parts of his meals he ate, when he went to bed and how long his screen time would be. 

Toddler stand off with dad

In practical terms, it meant agreeing to spend an hour admiring diggers on a building site one day, and clearing up more mess than usual the next (‘Yes, darling, let’s pour the pasta shells into a big saucepan and crunch them up with the potato masher.’) But, while I did get frustrated at the loss of control, the house was calmer because, in theory, he wasn’t doing anything wrong, so I found myself more accepting of his toddler-typical irrational nature.

Before long, though, I began to feel that I was being taken advantage of, as William chose not to eat any vegetables – ever. I also sensed I wasn’t doing him any favours. When he didn’t want to share his toys in the park and it would have been un-unschooly of me to intervene, I just thought what a terrible husband he’d make one day if I allowed this to continue.

Back to structure

I also noticed this parenting style was encouraging me to be lazy. For a week, William wanted to watch Jake And The Neverland Pirates on repeat. The new rules meant he could sit – unbathed, munching on dry cereal – for four hours straight. I could work, trawl the internet and drink coffee… But I felt too guilty to enjoy it.

Taking my cynicism a step further, psychologist Brian Beckham believes unschooling could be detrimental in the long run. ‘Children crave some structure and boundaries – they need something or someone to rebel against,’ he says. ‘It’s the parents’ job to temper freedom with common sense, so their child grows into a well-adjusted adult who can respect authority.’

After a month, I reclaimed the remote control and reinstated the 7pm bedtime. His freedom was exhausting us more than his rebellion. I liked the idea of getting into William’s passing obsessions, as well as encouraging him to take more responsibility for his decisions.

Ultimately, though, I don’t want to be the playground mum with the spoilt child allowed to misbehave in the name of self-expression. And, one day, William’s wife will thank me for it.  

What strategies have you used to deal with your troublesome toddler? And what works? Let us know in the comments box below.

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