Why Words Matter


In the last few days I have had several conversations about words, definitions and how they are used. It seems to me that some people feel a need to redefine the content of words to make them fit what they want them to mean.

I am of the exact opposite – I think words are important. I think definitions are important. If I do permaculture I don’t use tarp or a propane burner to kill weeds, I try to find another solution to my problems. If I unschool I don’t expect my children to learn certain things. If I Radical Unschool I don’t set limits to screen time or sugar intake.

Why is this important? It is important because we use words to communicate and tell the world what we think and feel, and when we change the meaning of the words we make communication far more difficult.

In my time in the attachment parenting community I have heard so many many people bend many many words and it has always frustrated me. I have heard of schools that use “natural learning” and “positive discipline” – while requiring the kids to be inside and “work” 4 hours a day and not let them outside and play at all for those for hours, these same schools used a “silent chair” where the children could “meditate on their actions”, while claiming to be “respectful” and “non-punitive”… I have heard people being “peaceful parents” while using “cry-it-out”, people using “baby lead weaning” while spoon feeding from 4 months. And I have even heard people say that they “unschool in the summer holidays” What is that anyway? Like you allow your kids to play in the summer without expectations about learning? Or does it mean that you put a whole lot of “learning” into the summer holiday so that your kids don’t even have that time to rest and play? When you point out to people that this isn’t actually what the words mean, then you are usually met with a comment about how judgemental you are. I also hear teachers talk about “offering children opportunities to read”, while the fact that the children don’t have a choice in reading is brushed over.

This is not about being judgemental, it is about communication. It is also very much about taking responsibility for your choices, and the consequences it has. Eg. I used to call myself a Radical Unschooler – but recently I have chosen to limit my children’s access to sugar and gluten, because I can see that we all thrive on a diet without sugar and gluten. I don’t say “we are Radical Unschoolers except for food”, because that isn’t completely honest. Honestly I don’t feel that I can be responsible as a parent if I let my children eat what-ever they want. This might have something to do with my connection with them (which has a lot to do with how I used to eat and how I felt when I ate that way), but it doesn’t change the fact that I have a fear that they will not get the nutrients they need or that their teeth will rot, and I simply would not be able to forgive myself if that happened. That – right now – is more important than their freedom, and much much more important than whether I can belong to a group that I think is super cool.

Fact is that the genuine Radical Unschoolers I know, are some of the coolest people I know, and their relationship to their kids is the relationship I would most love to emulate with my kids. So I am greately inspired by Radical Unschooling – and most parts of our life is Radical Unschooling. But I cannot right now take the step to be there, and feel OK, so I choose not to use the label, because that is not who I am.

I can’t help but wonder if someone feels limited by definitions, why it is that they feel the need to use the words that limit them. Is it not more liberating to just say “that’s not me, so that isn’t what I do”, instead of saying saying “I am an unschooler – but”? I don’t understand it actually.

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4 thoughts on “Why Words Matter

  1. Ever since doing my degree (in translation and interpreting) the question of labels has been discussed many, many times. If something is conceptually straightforward (e.g. ‘bed’ or ‘honeymoon’) labels make communication easier… but Radical Unschooler, Christian, Communist (no intention to connect these three) are too complex to be definitive.

    Anyway, my daughter does eat as much sugar as she wants, so nice to know I could claim to be on the Radical Unschooling continuum.

    What’s wrong with gluten? I thought food with gluten in it was supposed to be nutritious and an important component in a healthy diet.

    1. I agree that labels might not always be straight forward – but if you are a Christian, you at the very least believe in Christ, and if you are a communist you believe in the common ownership (in one way or another) of the goods. In Radical Unschooling you believe that children are capable of choosing that which is good for themselves. Well I don’t believe that my children are capable of that – and it affects their health. The reason I can see that they aren’t is that eg. my daughter will go straight for the gluten-rich foods every time she has access to it, even if it gives her tummy-aches. If it were just tummy-aches, I could say that eventually she will learn to choose the things that doesn’t give her that – but it stunts her growth. My son will choose candy and carbs if it is there – and not eat fruits and veggies (just like his mom) – that stunts his growth too. After we stopped eating gluten they have both grown immensely – and they are both very very small for their age, so it is important. I would hate for them to grow up and be as small as I am (156cm), or smaller, because it is a handicap (eg. I am so small that it is a real issue when we drive a car, normal tables etc. are too tall for me etc.). I’m not sure that these rules extend to all children – I am certainly not convinced that gluten is bad for everybody – but my children were born via cesarean, to a mother with extremely poor gut health… it affects them and their health. My son has severe allergies and eczema – and leaky gut is a contributing factor. He reacts to MSG and other high histamine foods, gluten affects his gut mucous and contributes to higher histamine levels in his body. But the bad bacteria in the gut lives on carbs – and they change our pallet, to an extent so much that I notice that if I eat gluten for just one week – many many veggies taste wrong or bad to me… So I don’t trust my children to make good choices in the presence of gluten and sugar – and thus I don’t call myself a Radical Unschooler.

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