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?


Rules and principles

I’ve been enjoying discussions on the Unschooling facebook page recently. Here’s my contribution to a recent conversation about rules and unschooling (with some minor editing for clarification):

“Rules are top-down. The adults set the rules (“don’t come into my bedroom without knocking”) and the children follow them or else. Principles are something everyone has internally, and the focus changes to getting everyone’s needs being met.

I assume that having your privacy is a priority for you, but probably not your absolute #1 priority in your life. You sound like a thoughtful and kind person, so I imagine that “raising happy and healthy kids” might be a higher priority for you. Your fiance may also prioritize things like “children have an equal role in setting family rules” higher than privacy. For me, changing my mindset from rules to principles meant I had to take a really close look at my own principles and figure out where my priorities really were. The question becomes “How do I get my needs met while still honoring both my larger principles and the principles of other people in my family?” You may be able to brainstorm a surprising number of ways to feel like you have private space without a specific rule about knocking on bedroom doors. At ages 6 and 8, kids can help with this brainstorming too, and may value the opportunity to define some of their own space as well.

But even if all together you decide to knock on each other’s bedroom doors and wait for an answer before entering, it doesn’t feel like a rule. There are exceptions to every rule (you don’t have to wait for an answer if there’s an emergency) but the exceptions become obvious and not worth quibbling over if it’s rooted in principles.”

Which all sounds very high-minded and black and white. But as is usual with me, one of the reasons I have opinions about this is that it’s something I struggle with in day to day life.

I have lots of rules for Busy Bee. Don’t go in the street without holding hands. Be gentle with people and objects. Don’t throw your food on the floor or else I will take it away from you. Don’t bite me while you’re nursing. Brush your teeth before bed. If your diaper is poopy I will change it immediately. You have to stay in your carseat while the car is moving. Most of these are rooted in principles like health or kindness (I like the idea that a principle can usually be expressed in a single word) and I like to think that I’m pretty good about being flexible with the surface rule to honor a deeper principle. For instance, skipping one night of tooth brushing isn’t going to seriously compromise health, so if tooth brushing seems like it’s going to seriously compromise Busy Bee’s sense of autonomy we can probably skip it for one night. If it seems to be an issue night after night I’d want to try some different ways to help her maintain her autonomy while still getting her teeth brushed. (The current favorite is for me to tell her what animals are in her mouth, and “chase” them around with the toothbrush while she makes the animal noises.)

But a lot of times I just say “no” because it’s easier for me. No, you can’t play with my phone unsupervised because sometimes you delete my apps. No, we can’t go outside at 7:30pm because I really want you to be in bed at 8pm so I can get some quiet time and it takes you like an hour to wind down once you’ve started playing outside. No, you can’t watch more videos because my mom and Dr. Google think that screen time is bad for developing brains and it makes me feel twitchy and like a bad mom to ignore that. All perfectly reasonable as far as rules go… if you start from a place of thinking of rules as something that adults set and children follow. I feel really grumpy when I think of giving up some of my rules. I love bedtime. I love knowing that at 8pm I can zone out or eat or do chores uninterrupted. It makes it easier at 6pm and 7pm to focus on Busy Bee when I know what time I’m going to be able to focus on me. The radical unschooling community challenges me to ask whether that’s really a good enough reason to have an 8pm bedtime rule. I hate that. It’s so annoying. I want my toddler to have an 8pm bedtime, it makes me happy, most nights my toddler is pretty ok with it, Dr. Google says it’s healthy, can’t I just stop thinking about it?

I like rules. I like schedules. I like externally imposed structure. I think Busy Bee likes those things too. Paranoid Husband does not. Maybe a future child of ours also will not, and we’ll have to totally reevaluate how we parent. Right now, having rules works pretty well. But when I think about principles instead of rules, I’m a happier parent. I feel more flexible. The superego voice in my head telling me I’m a bad mom is quieter. It’s easier to give Busy Bee my full attention without thinking about other things I want to be doing.

And really, perhaps my favorite thing about parenting is that you get nice long practice periods. Taking care of myself while pregnant was great practice for taking care of myself with a newborn. Learning my newborn’s cues was great practice for paying attention to my toddler’s cues. Working on basing my time with my toddler around principles rather than rules will probably be pretty good practice for shifting the balance more towards principles and less towards rules as she gets older.

Ask Dr. Google! Or don’t.

I got to have a learning experience this week.

On Tuesday we took R to the doctor for what turned out to be FTPS (First Time Parent Syndrome). R had a cold and a low fever and by Wednesday afternoon was basically back to normal.

Things I learned:

1) A puffy eye along with a fever could be periorbital cellulitis which could lead to orbital cellulitis which could lead to permanent neurological damage.
2) Or it could be a mildly irritated sinus.
3) Don’t google “puffy eye fever toddler”. Just don’t.
4) When Z thinks an illness isn’t a big deal, and rest and hydration is going to be healthier than letting the toddler touch everything in the doctor’s office, trust him.
5) Goat’s milk is low in folate.
6) Sometimes, the doctors at giant HMOs are actually pretty cool.

Somehow this wasn’t quite what came to mind every time I told someone that unschooling is about lifelong learning.

Lake Wobegon syndrome

I’m not boasting on Facebook, because who wants to be that parent? But this blog is semi-anonymous so I might as well boast here. Today’s achievement in toddler-land is that R can count up to five objects unprompted, and up to ten with prompts. She’s 17 months! She’s a genius!

Well, I don’t really know whether she’s a genius. She’s my first kid, I have no idea what’s normal. A quick query to Dr. Google makes it sound like there are plenty of children her age and younger who can count to ten. But I think she’s on the upper end of average? There are plenty of children her age and older who don’t say five words, period.

Plus, one of my favorite things I learned from unschooling is that everybody has strengths and weaknesses. My favorite example is that I learned to read early, while Z didn’t read for pleasure until age 12. But he has a talent for health care I’ll never come close to–he’s the guy who will give you a casual shoulder rub and somehow hit every trigger point to make you feel amazing afterwards, and let me tell you he is my #1 person to have around when gross bodily fluids are being spilled. (Uh. Not in that way. Ok, in that way too.)

Anyway… Right, I was talking about strengths and weaknesses. Everyone is good at some things and not good at others, and that’s just how the world works. Nobody’s smarter than anybody else, our society just values some skills above other skills and calls the people who have those skills smarter.

Lake Wobegon Days

Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s just that the things R is good at are things our society values. She has a vocabulary of several hundred words. She’s social with other adults and children, and gentle with animals and babies. She thinks cleaning up her toys is an awesome game, and if you ever need to distract her all you need to do is ask her to help you with something. She’s memorized a dozen of her favorite books. She started walking just before her first birthday and is now a confident and safe climber. She does a mean somersault. She talks to her favorite stuffed animals in the most adorable little voice I’ve ever heard. She is a tenacious problem-solver. Unless she’s tired or hungry or over-stimulated she stops when you ask her to stop. She doesn’t throw tantrums. (Seriously. No tantrums. She gets angry but is always easy to redirect. I don’t know what’s up with that.)

I know I’m biased, but I can’t really think of things she’s not good at. Oh! Wait, I know, the sleeping thing. The waking up every two hours for the entire first year of her life thing, and the still waking up at least once a night and usually twice thing. That definitely sucks. And she’s a picky eater? She hated her carseat for most of her first year, which was annoying, but actually requests car rides now. That’s about it, though.

So, okay, she’s awesome, she’s fabulous. (I haven’t even mentioned her sense of humor. I think she’s hilarious. The first joke she ever played on me was around 9 or 10 months, when she closed a baby gate in my face and crawled away as fast as she could, laughing hysterically. That’s my kind of humor.) So what? What does it mean if she’s someday labeled “gifted”? What do I care?

If she goes to school it could come in handy–she might end up with access to programs that are more challenging and/or more flexible than standard curricula. If she homeschools it’ll definitely come in handy–there are far fewer questions and raised eyebrows for a child who meets or exceeds standard school requirements. On a personal and kind of ugly level, it makes me feel better about myself–I can’t be a bad parent if I have such a smart/talented/easy child. It could encourage her self-esteem to have people telling her she’s smart all the time.

Or it could convince her that anything she doesn’t do well right away isn’t worth doing. (One of my big problems.) Or it could stress her out, trying to measure up to some external goalpost of academic skill. Or I could be really, really freaking annoying on Facebook and end up with my fellow parents cursing me out for making them cry into their cheerios about little Timmy only knowing 50 words, and leave my childfree friends muttering, “Who the fuck cares that a toddler can count to five, I can count to five and also I don’t poop my pants.”

I know I’m borrowing trouble. She’s not even a year and a half old. She poops in her pants daily. Most of this stuff will even out in the next few years, and the stuff that doesn’t will matter less. She’ll develop a wider range of talents and interests, which will automatically mean she’ll focus on some things and not on others. And in the big picture it really, really doesn’t matter. The Big Question of life is not “Is it easy for you to learn to read and count?” but “Are you happy? Have you made others happy? Do you leave people and places better than they were?” I mean, absolutely I think Busy Bee makes the world a better place by existing and being awesome, but counting to five has nothing to do with that.

So I don’t boast on Facebook about this stuff. I try to limit my stories to fun things we did together, or at least funny stories. I try to use language with Busy Bee that emphasizes what she does rather than what she is. And as always, I trust. I trust R to figure out her own path, and I trust myself to not screw her up.

It’s working out pretty well so far.

Unschooling FAQ

or: Can Unschoolers Function in the Real World?

What’s the difference between homeschooling and unschooling?

I use homeschooling to refer to the vast variety of ways to learn outside a school setting, and unschooling as a subset of homeschooling. My personal definition of an unschooler is someone who is in charge of what, when, and how they learn. By that definition an unschooler may play with legos six hours a day, or teach themselves guitar, or work their way through an algebra textbook, or go on a solo sailing trip, or enroll in community college, or enroll in public school. If it is their choice to do so, if they are in charge of their own education, and they choose to identify as an unschooler, I will gladly consider them one.

Will my child learn to read?

Yes. They might learn to read later than you expect them to. I have several friends who were uninterested in reading until age 12 or so, and then skipped straight to long, dense novels. Take it as a lesson for unschooling in general: 1) your unschooler will learn on their schedule, not yours, and 2) this is a good thing. People who choose when and what to learn, learn quicker and more in depth.

Will my child learn math?

Do you use math in your daily life? If yes, then your child will learn math. If no, why do you think they need to learn it? Let’s say, so that they can use it if they happen to need it. Then they’ll learn it when they need it. See above re: reading; your unschooling child will learn math on their schedule, not yours, and by doing so they will learn quicker and more thoroughly.

Will my child want to do anything other than watch TV?

Do you want to do anything other than watch TV? If yes, you are probably providing an environment for your child that contains things more interesting than screen time. If no… well, that might be a different issue. Do also keep in mind that screen time can have value, especially if shared with a caring adult. Before you stress out about their screen time, sit down next to them and participate and see what happens. Without judgment. (More on screen time later.)

Do unschoolers get into college?

I did. (More on whether or not unschoolers <em<should try to get into college later.)

Do unschoolers get good jobs?

I have. (More on resume-building and defining “good” jobs later.)

Will my quirky child interact well with others as an adult?

Probably. Many quirky children I’ve known interact more easily with adults than with their own age group. (I still can’t figure out how to get along with schooled teenagers, but once they’ve been out of school for a few years I get along with schooled adults great. It’s true that not getting along with schooled teenagers has narrowed my life options somewhat—I will never be a high school teacher—but since all 19 year olds eventually turn 20 I don’t see it as a huge issue.) Schooled teenagers tend to look at how people do things and ignore the results; adults tend to be more goal-focused. Adults are likely to see your child’s passion and skill, and either find their quirks interesting or look past them. I think the best indicator of how your quirky child will get along as an adult is looking at how your child gets along with adults now.

Will you unschool your own children?

I’ve answered this question a variety of ways, ranging from “Yes!” to “If they want to.” I think my current favorite answer, though, is that like most people, I just assume my children will be educated the same way I was. For most people, they send their kids to school because they went to school. My kids will unschool because their parents unschooled—that’s what we’re most familiar with, and that’s what we’re sure works.

What did you dislike about unschooling? What do you wish your parents did differently? What will you do differently than your parents?

The interesting thing about unschooling is that you’re in charge of your own education. It makes it really difficult to blame my parents for any pieces I disliked, either at the time or in retrospect. Sure, I felt lonely as a teenager. But in retrospect I can see all the ways I didn’t put time into developing my local friendships in favor of developing my long-distance friendships. In retrospect, I wouldn’t change a thing—fifteen years later I’m still very close with many of those people, including the man I married.

But I do think I will do one thing differently than my parents: I will be less scared. My parents were pioneers, experimenters. By unschooling, they were doing a thing they’d never seen anyone else do before. They were making it up as they went along, with all of society (and sometimes their own parents) telling them they were bound to fail, that they were screwing up their children irreparably. I don’t have that. My parents, my in-laws, my close friends, and, come to think of it, anyone who’s ever met me has proof that unschooling can lead to adults who are productive members of society. I’m not scared. I mean, okay, of course I’m scared I’ll screw up my kid irreparably. But not because of unschooling.

Use the “Ask me anything” form if you want me to answer other questions about unschooling!