Unsuccessful Unschoolers

I think one of the more common questions about unschooling is, bottom line, does it work? Are grown unschoolers functional members of society? Are they happier than everyone else? Are they successful? Was unschooling a help or a hindrance?

I know a bunch of grown unschoolers, enough that I’m going to go ahead and pretend I’m an expert. The oldest ones I know are about in their mid thirties, although I did meet this awesome family once who are probably in their 40s by now. (Courage, if you’re out there, thanks for the sailboat ride, I still remember it 10+ years later!) They have a wide variety of professions: major league baseball pitcher, doctor, stay at home parent, accountant, actor, entrepreneur, art therapist, baker, unemployed, programmer, preschool teacher, nurse, farmer. Some of them love their jobs, some of them hate their jobs. Some of them went to college, some of them didn’t. Some of them have gone to college for the last 10 years and counting. Some of them are following their passion, some of them are struggling to figure out how to follow their passion and still pay rent, some of them think the idea of a single passion is absurd.

But that’s not really what people are asking when they want to know whether unschoolers can be successful. Of course they can be–that’s obvious from a quick web search these days. The real question is whether unschoolers are more successful than they would have been if they’d gone to school.

Here’s the thing about all the unschoolers I know: all of them work primarily with people who were not unschooled.

Anything a grown unschooler is doing, you can bet other people got to the exact same spot by going to school. Most people who hate their jobs went to school. Most people who love their jobs went to school. Most people who don’t have a job went to school. Most of the time I don’t think unschooling actually makes that much of a difference in adulthood. Or, it does make a difference, but your personality and family and background make so much more of a difference that it all equals out by the time everyone else has been out of school for a few years too. Unschooling isn’t a guarantee of either success or failure, no matter how you define either.

I think the real question behind this is whether any particular individual does better unschooling than they would if they’d been in school. Of course it’s impossible to know, but my guess for those I know is that they wouldn’t. They would have had less time to develop passion and expertise. And I really can’t imagine anyone I know saying, “If only I’d learned geometry in middle school, I’d have a much better job now!” A lot of my unschooled friends have problems with the way they were unschooled–too little structure or too much, weren’t encouraged to learn a thing it turned out they needed, were too isolated or given too much responsibility for themselves too young. I’ve heard second and third hand of people who’s parents kept them out of school as part of a pattern of abuse or neglect, and it’s very possible those people could have met positive adult role models in school that could have changed their lives. Or, to be completely blunt, they could have been invisible among the hundreds or thousands of other abused and neglected children that go to school every day without any intervention. No disrespect to school employees, I’ve seen first hand how much most of them care and how hard most of them work, but I think most of them would agree that the system is not set up very well to allow them to help everyone who needs it.

Anyway, that’s a bit of a subject on its own. Point is, school can do a lot of great things for needy kids, but won’t necessarily do anything for a specific needy kid.

And isn’t that really the bottom line of unschooling? Unschooling is about finding what works for your kid, not your neighbor’s kid, not a statistically average kid, not what you would have wanted when you were a kid.

So what do you think? Will unschooling make your unique child successful?


7 thoughts on “Unsuccessful Unschoolers

  1. Very well-written. I think you asked a great question. Not rather unschoolers can be successful as adults(as adults most of us have the ability to change ourselves and right the wrongs that may have been done to us in childhood, even if it takes more work for some). I think the real question is rather unschooling creates a successful childhood for unschooled children. Sometimes I think the focus is too much on preparing a child for adulthood, as if their childhood doesn’t matter except in relation to how they are going to “turn out”. How about the now? I know that as a mom, my unschooled children are getting the best treatment for the growth and learning taking place right now, because we unschool.

    • That is a really good point! I wonder what the markers for successful childhood are? Our culture has some pretty clear mileposts for successful adults: money, long term relationships, property ownership, etc as well as happiness. It seems more vague to me when I think about successful childhood though. Obviously happiness would be part of it… positive adult role models? Friendships? Learning? Hmmm… I will be thinking more about this. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Kids Choice vs. Parent’s Choice | Nanny Naturale's Yogi Care

  3. I think we all need to do what works for our individual families. We have tried school, homeschool, unschool…and it turns out for us we found a pleasant place that allows our children to lead the way, but with structure that requires parent input as well. As far as success, I am not a fan of considering your salary as a success marker. I think doing what makes you happy and having a deep sense of peaceful happiness in your heart is the best marker of success. My hopes for my children as adults would be to have the self confidence and self esteem to live their lives in a way that makes them happy. I can’t recall who’s quote this is, nor do I recall exactly how it goes, but in a nutshell, in the average American life we spend 85% of it as an adult, why rush the very short 15% of childhood. It’s such a short time, if we teach our children to be self learners they will have their whole lives to continue learning. 🙂

    • Absolutely. I think happiness is a much better marker of success than money, there are certainly lots of people with relatively little money who are very happy and lots of people with relatively large amounts of money that are very unhappy and wouldn’t consider themselves successful.

      On the other hand, I do think that of the unschoolers I know who are not happy with their adult lives, almost all of them would say money or career is the reason. When I’ve asked adult unschoolers what they wish had been different about their upbringing, I’ve talked with a lot of people who feel betrayed, in a way, by the focus on their happiness in their childhood. They felt like as an adult they were not well served by following their passion and ignoring money, that they ended up in uncomfortable living situations or weren’t able to pursue their goals because of a lack of money.

      I think that’s more about parenting values than unschooling though. Neither my brother nor I really struggled with that, and I know our parents deliberately spent time with us focusing on goal setting, and the value of sometimes doing a task that we disliked because we wanted the end result. It’s definitely a difficult balance to set, for everyone, I think, not only unschoolers.

      • Interpretation of “unschooling” now that it’s making such an appearance in the spotlight makes it tricky. Unschooling isn’t a free willy nilly lazy man’s opportunity to release any and all responsibility people have as a parent. I refer to myself as a relax schooler, because we do follow some curriculums, like readingeggs.com and life of Fred math…but we do them because my kids really enjoy these. In our house college is expected. And we don’t allow quitting something they’ve asked for. IE: if they want to learn how to ride a horse, we will sign up for horse lessons, but they agree to a specific goal before we start and if they aren’t fond of horse lessons, they need to accomplish the set goal before we change to a new set of lessons. When it comes to money, they earn and buy a lot of their own things. We travel internationally and when on trips we give the kids a certain amount of money each day and they are responsible for their own purchases, each days amount is not enough, so they must save and budget during the trip. So as “relaxed” as we are, we are not total unschoolers in some people’s interpretation of unschooling. We are however a very child led family and I identify with unschoolers most of the time. And according to our more curriculum scheduled homeschooling friends we are seen as unschoolers haha…another interesting difference about our family, we are ok with our children living with us well past the age of 18. We are big fans of multiple families on the same property, so if they want to stay here with us and eventually bring their spouse and kids to our property we are good with that too. 🙂

  4. I just linked a post on unschooling (http://tashadepp.wordpress.com/) to your post “Unsuccessful Unschoolers”. I agree with the folks above who are questioning the definition of “success” . I liked the egalitatian approach of your article overall; it was wonderfully inconclusive…not striving to state that either school or unschool is better. I would point out that many of the “unschoolers” cannot really compare their personal unschooling experience to what it would have been like to go to school…so their dissatisfaction with something about their unschooling experience may be minor compared to what going to school would have been like for them. Who knows?! (I am still recovering from “going to school” many decades after the fact!)(And whether I am “successful” or not is not for me to say!)

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