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.

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!

Hello, world.

I’m still figuring out how WordPress works, but there’s nothing that complex about writing a blog post. I have a long history with journaling–I’m familiar with the deadliness of the blank page/screen. At some point there’s nothing to do but just go for it.

So why a blog? What am I doing here? What makes me special? What do I have to say?

Mostly, I think my life is awesome and interesting and I want to write about it. I unschooled as a child and teenager and have things to say about that. I now am married to another grown unschooler and we have young kids, and I want to talk about unschooling and relationships and parenting. After my daughter was born, I went back to work as the family breadwinner while my husband quit his job to stay at home with our daughter, which completely changed how I think about work and my career. I want to talk about feminism, too, and feminism in my career and in parenting and in unschooling. It all ties together, I promise.

For me, it really all comes down to this quote:

“Bread makes itself, by your kindness, with your help, with imagination running through you.” –The Tassajara Bread Book

I love making bread. It feels magical every time to take this unlikely set of ingredients and somehow turn it into something delicious. It’s a balance between control and letting go. I pick the ingredients, I knead it, I put it in the oven, but the humidity of the air and the age of the yeast and who even knows what else means each loaf of bread is entirely unique.

That’s how I want to live my life. That feeling of control over what I put in, and joy in never knowing exactly how it’ll turn out. That’s how I want to parent, how I want to work, how I want to unschool, how I want to blog.

Even if I don’t get to eat fresh warm bread when I’m done.