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?


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!