Thursday, July 29, 2010

Conspicuous Consumption

Edit: It has occurred to me, upon rereading this post, that it potentially warrants a trigger warning for people with compulsive hoarding tendencies. As far as I *know*, no one I know has this problem, but people keep their issues to themselves, and blogs get around. So if this applies to you, consider this your trigger warning.

It seems that one of the more recent concerns that is driving people away from whole-life unschooling is the notion that unschoolers are wasteful, privileged, the Ur example of Western overconsumption. That we just buy, buy, buy, we waste gas, our kids are greedy and obsessed with stuff. That we are the people ruining the Earth.

With all due respect, this is a load of hot bullshit. I'll resist the urge to respond by snorting and saying "Have you met any unschoolers?" I will also (mostly) spare you my rant on how I believe the Earth is being destroyed by broad institutional and societal problems that will continue to destroy the Earth until they are changed, and that it is not fair to hold children responsible for society's fuck-ups. Instead, I'm going to try to clarify some things about how your average unschooling family lives.

First, let's talk gas. Consider that in the average American household, both parents work full-time outside the home, with an average total daily commute of 45 minutes. At 60 miles per hour, that's 45 miles a day = 1.8 gallons of gas in an average 25mpg car = $5.40 at 3.00/gal. x 5 days a week = 225 miles, 9 gallons of gas, $27 per week per working parent. These are conservative estimates; some people have less fuel-efficient cars, a much longer or slower commute, etc.

Your average unschooling family, if there can be such a thing, has one parent or caregiver working outside the home while the other is either a stay-at-home parent (or grandparent, or what have you), works from home, or works only a couple days a week outside the home. Supposing the mostly-home parent does not commute at all, that is a savings of 225 miles of driving per week over the average American family. Even when the "home" parent drives kids to activities, they have the flexibility to plan those activities so they don't require 225 miles of driving a week.

Does that put the occasional, few-times-a-year road trip into perspective?

But of course, having only a one- or one-and-a-half-income household comes with a price. How can unschoolers afford to give their kids all the things they want without going into huge debt or going broke? Two answers:

1) Unschoolers don't give their kids everything they want. Even higher-income unschoolers can't do that. I wanted to go over the rainbow, I wanted to live in the Mushroom Kingdom, I wanted to time-travel back to the 80s so I could be a teenager then instead of the 90s. Couldn't happen. I'm not trying to be difficult, but really, unschooling doesn't mean you can rope the moon or bend space-time, and kids understand that. If you explain money to them, they will understand that too.

2) When unschoolers do give their kids what they want, they are really creative about it. I've never seen any group of people that makes better use of thrift stores, yard sales, flea markets, Freecycle, Craigslist, eBay, bartering, etc. than unschoolers. With all the perfectly good used kids' stuff floating around in the world, telling your kids they cannot have something because you are anti-consumerist is a poor excuse. Getting stuff secondhand is saving it from the landfill. I know it goes against every "pay for every moment of joy with three times as much guilt" moral we are taught in this culture, but really, you can get stuff and help the Earth at the same time. Unschoolers keep a LOT of stuff out of the landfills, and their kids grow up knowing there is more than enough stuff in the world for everybody - and that there are better things to do when you don't want something anymore than toss it in the garbage.

"But kids in Africa don't have Barbies..."

First off, Africa is an entire continent made up of dozens of countries, each with its own economy and culture, and yes some of those economies and cultures do include Barbies. I think Africans as a whole are probably tired of being used as every white Westerner's example of the saddest most destitute people on Earth. Second, the kids you are talking about, the ones you see in Christian Children's Fund commercials with flies crawling on their eyes, also do not have medical care. They do not have reliable shelter, good food, good shoes, access to information, and plenty of other things any parent is going to make damn sure their kids have if they can. "Not everyone has this" is not a good enough reason to withhold something from a child. Third, I firmly believe the best way to make a child truly appreciate what they have is to foster a mindset of abundance in that child. The greediest people in the world are those who have been taught that there is not enough wealth to go around. These are the people who have billions of dollars, yet feel threatened by mothers getting $100 in food stamps to feed their children. Teaching kids that there is plenty for everybody will make them much more likely to feel a sense of injustice when they see people who have nothing.

I don't have any sort of hard concrete poll numbers to back this up, but I can say from experience that unschoolers in general are much more Earth-friendly than your average mainstream family, and that includes unschooling families who do not consciously practice "green living". There are lots and lots of unschoolers who grow their own organic gardens, raise their own chickens, have compost heaps, ride bikes, run their own businesses rather than working for megacorporations, buy local, buy used, handmake stuff, cook from scratch, and so on. I know lots of unschoolers and lots of not-unschoolers, and I personally see much, much higher rates of these activities among unschoolers. In addition, I don't know one single unschooler - and by this I mean the parents *and* the kids and teens! - who is not socially conscious in some way. Some are moreso than others, but in general the unschoolers I have met are very awake and interested in what is going on in the world. They have strong opinions and values and beliefs. They don't all agree on those opinions, but they've all thought carefully about what they believe. They're not greedy, they're not selfish, they do not blindly follow what society tells them to do. I can't prove any of this stuff with statistics. All I can do is invite you to really spend some time around lots of unschoolers and get to know us before you judge the way we live. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.


Sandra Dodd said...

It's not "driving" anyone away. It's yet another justification for people to continue to control and limit their own children, and to try to shame us in the process.

Nice post.

Sandra Dodd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frank said...

Well said.

My opinion on the original pushback is that it focuses on an inappropriate aspect of the discussion. It is an argumentum ad lazarum with a strawman, and a little ad hominem, thrown in for good measure.

The core takeaway is not about how we spend any of our resources, including money, time, etc. but how we relate to each other. Do I respect my kids and their wishes as much as I respect (indulge) my own needs and desires. Your references about "need" were excellent, too. "Man does not live by bread alone."

In my opinion, and in our house, once the essential "needs" of food, clothing, shelter, or whatever are met, then wants ARE as important as needs and will be addressed as fully as possible, given our particular circumstances. Can we afford to send MJ to Europe for a year to live in a Paris pied a terre? No; but we can talk about it and try to find a way to make it happen, if that's her heart's desire. We damned sure will do what we can for both of our girls. And for ourselves, too. This is also not an exercise in self-sacrifice to ridiculous levels.

I knew a shrink once who defined a "healthy family" as one in which most of the people get most of what they want most of the time. I think that's a pretty good rule of thumb.

Ronnie said...

I didn't want to get into the whole who-consumes-more argument. Thanks for stating my side so brilliantly!

Tara W. said...

Perfectly stated. And the comments too. :)

黃子軒 said...


Flo said...

Brilliantly said. I particularly loved your No Barbies in Africa point. And I like what Frank said about relationships. It's the reasons behind what we do that need to be examined.

p.s. bohemian said...

yep - just yep - nodding head and agreeing in whole

Michael said...

Lots of nodding here too, particularly at Frank's comment as well as the post itself. You write such awesome posts, Bonnie. :)