For a period of time after beginning to home educate I settled on consent-based education as a description of what I was aiming for and what I believed education and parenting should ideally be, for us.
Since then, and sliding closer and closer to unschooling (the slipperiest slope of all!), I’ve had more thoughts about this. I still believe that consent-based as a general principle is an absolute necessity in all education settings, and all settings for that matter (children AND adults!).
Consent is important because every one of us, children included, is a person with the right to be heard and respected; the right to make independent decisions; the right to bodily autonomy, the right to emotional and mental freedom from manipulation. It is important because if it’s wrong for a boss to manipulate their staff into doing things they’re not otherwise willing to do (random analogy!), or for a husband to use his power over a wife, or for a white person to use their power over a person from an oppressed group, then it’s wrong for an adult to use coercion, manipulation and control to get a child to do what they’ve decided should be done. It’s about power, as it often it.
But I also see limitations to consent-based, for that same reason: it’s about power.
Because of the power imbalances in relationship, and the fact that children are always bottom of the hierarchy, some (maybe most?) children, to different extents, won’t feel like they can say no.
We’ve probably all met children who have no issues telling us exactly what they think, why they think it, what they want to do and what they most certainly will not be doing. I have one of these children. They can be challenging but they also have the gift of being open books: you know that when they embark on something, they truly want to do it for its own sake, or some other entirely self-chosen or self-imposed purpose. You know that when they say no, they definitely mean no. Children like this may thrive in consent-based spaces because when they give consent you know they mean it, and when they say no you also know they mean it.
I’m talking about the other sort of child (I know there are more than two types of children, but for the purposes of this point, there aren’t). This kind of child has maybe had a few years of pretty conventional schooling, or been parented in a way where their wishes were not always heard and respected, or maybe that is just the way they are – more sensitive, more aware of hierarchies, more concerned with other people’s reactions and needs.
I was this sort of child, and I also live with one. This child can be easily persuaded to do things through mild insistence (which may actually feel like guilt-tripping to them), and an internal sense of duty; they may also do things because they hope they will be praised for it by the adults around them, or they don’t wish to disappoint those adults (they can sense disappointment no matter how well you hide it), or because they are people-pleasers who shy away from confrontation.
Maybe they are afraid to say no, because they don’t trust that there will be no repercussions, or they fear what other’s (teachers, parents) opinions of them will be, or they might feel, deep down, that they are less lovable and less worthy for not wanting to do/learn/be something. They might do things more out of peer pressure (if in a school-type setting) than out of personal interest or drive.
They may not always be conscious of the reasons behind their consenting or not, and it may not be easy for the adults around them to truly know whether they are doing something because they truly wish to, or for some other, more complex reason.
Why does this matter? It matters because if you are aiming for a consent-based environment, then all children and adults involved need to fully be on board with what this means, for it to truly work.
Here’s an example from our own deschooling journey. We started off doing semi-structured learning with a bit of curriculum. Initially one of my children seemed very into following a curriculum for one of the subjects they enjoyed, doing the worksheets and crafts involved. As time went on, they seemed more and more reluctant to do this. Fifteen or so conversations later, it emerged that actually they really didn’t want to be doing it but were doing it for a variety of reasons: to please me (even though I’d asked whether they wanted to do it, and kept emphasizing how we weren’t going to do anything they didn’t want to do, learning-wise), to feel like they were “doing it right”, because at times it wasn’t such a big deal so why not do it, and various other small, subtle reasons that I pried out during our series of chats about this.
See what I mean? And I am their mother. With another adult, such as a teacher or tutor, do you think this child would have opened up enough to get to the bottom of this? I highly doubt it.
This is my extremely personal example, but I’m willing to bet there are many children out there like this, in fact I’ll bet there are many adults out there a bit like this; adults who say yes to things they don’t really want to do but feel like they should do, adults who can’t quite get clear about what their true interests and passions are, who are constantly second-guessing themselves, who care about what others think and who would find a consent-based environment hard to navigate because behind the moment of saying No or Yes to something, there is so much more.
And that brings me to the crux of the whole consent-based thing: if the power is not being shared, if there isn’t at least a serious effort being made to bring down the oppressive hierarchy where adults have most of the power, and use it in big and small ways to elicit compliance, then consent-based is virtually meaningless.
No matter how much you emphasize that your home or learning space is consent-based, if the children involved don’t feel like they are on an equal footing with you, that they can trust the adults and truly be themselves around them, dissent without repercussions of any kind, then you are not really doing consent-based.
So, I’ve now landed on unschooling or self-directed as a description of what we do. Both of these concepts take things a step further than consent-based; the focus is much more on an environment that actively breaks down the conventional adult-led model of education, and puts everything (life, education, learning) into the hands of the child, who exists in a supportive, respectful community of other children and adults.
It’s not so much about the adult offering things and the child consenting or not (although there is still some of that), but more about the child setting their own agenda and the adult facilitating and supporting them.
Not only have I found that this has empowered my children, but it has empowered me too. Because if my children can be self-directed, then why on earth can’t I? I am just as worthy as them of healing, liberation and belonging.
I suppose the line between consent-based and self-directed is a fine one, and for some it may not matter much. For some, with maybe the more strong-willed, outspoken variety of child, consent-based may work just fine. Others may have really compelling reasons why consent-based, or anything else, is what their family needs and wants. I get that. There is no better or best.
For us, this distinction does matter – purely consent-based doesn’t work when some of us are still actively working on figuring out our interests and motivations, and leaning into finding inherent joy in things rather than doing things to please others, gain something or project a certain image.
And also, I like the shift from adult-led consent-based, to every one of us owning our own learning, growth and life choices. It’s liberating. It’s what I feel we could all do with as humans. It works for us.