U is for Unschooling


500 Words on… Unschooling.

Yes, unschoolers have friends - of many ages!

You may or may not have heard of it. If you have, but only through mainstream news reporting, it is very likely you have a mistaken concept of this approach to learning, and, often, to life.

There seems to be a rampant distrust of children in modern American society. Children are being sent off to day care, often when they are only a few weeks old. I know more than one child who had been enrolled in a preschool program (referred to as “school” by their parents) before they reached their third birthdays.

Taking a seat - or not - on a Thursday afternoon.....

We seem to be a nation obsessed with milestones and measurements and readiness and bridge activities – many of the elementary schoolchildren I know bring home summer homework, these days, to “prevent” the “loss of learning” the summer break seems to riddle them with…

So maybe it’s understandable that I have been accused of abusing and neglecting my children, by depriving them of something vital to their existence, because neither of them have ever attended school, and because it haas been years since I sat anyone at the table to “teach” them.

Maybe it’s understandable that I have often been accused of laziness for not requiring Jeremiah and Annalise to do chores, to eat what I serve, or to go to bed at a prescribed time.

Meeting live wolves was a magical experience for Annalise and I.

Those accusations and misassumptions seem to be based on a view of children that is warped and skewed to see school as part of the natural evolution of children.

It isn’t. Human children, like all young mammals, are intended to learn through play. They are intended to grow in independence, and to emulate the behaviors of the adults around them.

Jeremiah, age 10, loves to cook.

They are intended to be passionately involved in the process of learning, and the learning they do is intended to be immediately relevant to the living of their lives – in other words, children are geared to learn what will help them RIGHT NOW.

No other species sends its young off to be “educated” behind walls, and by relative strangers assigned to the duty, and compensated with money. No other species thinks that what their young study needs to be decided by regulation or committtee.

Weighing in at the Children's Museum of Saratoga.

The schools that seem so intrinsic to life in America today did not exist here at the dawn of our nation. They are based on the Prussian factory schools, intended to create a standardized workforce that knows enough to work, but not enough to agitate any rebellion against the system.

Earlier generations of Americans fought strenuously against compulsory schooling laws, certain that it was a terrible idea to simply give their children over to the government to educate.

I think they were right.

Contemplating history - fire truck from the Twin Towers attacks, NYS Museum.

Here, Jeremiah and Annalise are involved in learning through all of their waking moments. Yes, that learning looks just like play. It looks almost effortless, when all is well – and yet, a great deal of energy and attention is needed to create the right sort of environment, one which can grow and change and accommodate evolving interests, abilities, and circumstances….it takes a good deal of my time and attention, and a willingness to set aside what I might rather be doing in favor of facilitating their learning.

Much in the same way that seeing her young safely to adulthood becomes the focus of any good wild mammal mother.

Just as nature intended.


  1. I am having trouble embracing the idea that humans are simply another species of mammal on this planet, especially since I believe in the Biblical view that we are distinct and separate, and have been given dominion over them. We are a thinking & reasoning species, unlike any other, and our behaviors are far beyond (or should be) what is simply instinctual. You state that “No other species thinks that what their young study needs to be decided by regulation or committee.” In truth, no other species thinks, period.

    I am not a proponent of daycare (I am a stay-at-home mom myself), nor did I enroll my kid in preschool. I do believe that kids need to be kids. However, I have a difficult time getting on board with a educational model (or life model) that seems counterproductive to maturing into responsible adults. Maybe I’m missing something, but the concept doesn’t seem to jive with what I personally understand of human nature and our purpose on this earth. My opinion…

    • LW –

      Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to your comment – lots going on here, and I wanted to take the time to make a considered (and considerate) response.

      Man is a mammal. Personally, I am very uncomfortable with the concept of dominion over animals, Biblical or otherwise – too many species have vanished altogether, and a great many more are in dire straits, and, nearly everywhere, habitats are being swallowed up by human greed.

      My view of God is more Zen than Christian, but I find it hard to believe that any version of God could be pleased with what is being done to His, Her, or It’s other living creations. Beyond that, when any living being is treated with a lack of compassion, that seems particularly NOT Christlike, to me….

      It’s not true, though, that humans are the only thinking, reasoning animals. My daughter’s first hero was Koko the Gorilla, who can sign over 1000 words, convey ideas, write, and use a computer. Her IQ has been tested at about 90 – at the lower end of average,for a human. Dolphins and orcas can adapt their hunting techniques to suit conditions. Dolphins and whales use language we humans cannot interpret. A rat or mouse in a maze will learn the route, given enough time. Herding dogs and guide dogs could not do their job without the ability to think independently, because the shepherd cannot see from the dog’s perspective.

      Humans are the only animals, though, who take far more from their surroundings than they need, and it is humans who are placing our own planet’s ability to sustain us in jeopardy. It is humans who war on each other, allow children to starve, and commit rampant unkindnesses to each other…another thing that seems distinctly unChristlike, to me.

      I do believe that you are missing something critical – actual experience with an assortment of unschooling families, with children of varying ages. We know dozens of families, with children from newborn to adult.

      Some of the most eye-opening conversations I have had have been with unschooled children.

      My son, who will be 11 in September, is actively planning for the day he will get his working papers, take his driving test, and what type of job to start out with. He cooks, budgets his money, does independent research on a variety of topics, and honors the committments he makes.

      I know an unschooled adult potter, a gifted blogger, several musicians, an organic farmer, an advocate for the disabled, and people involved in other occupations, as well.

      I don’t need you to embrace my way of life – it works beautifully for us, and will continue to. However, I would be interested in why you feel that unschooling “seems counterproductive to maturing into responsible adults”, if you would care to share.

      In my experience, children are able, from very young ages, to make considered decisions, IF they are given the information and support they need to do so.

      For us, obedience is not the goal. We want for our children to develop a sense of judgment that will guide them as they grow, an internal guidance system of their own.

      I can easily see, though, how allowing children such latitude would conflict with a view of man, woman, and child as sinners who must be forced into submission to God’s will. Unschooling requires, first and foremost, a trust in children, a belief that their intent is positive, that they are doing as well as they are able at their current state of development, and that the way to raise kind, respectful, compassionate adults is to BE kind, respectful, and compassionate to them…

      May your path lead to joy for your entire family, and thank you for your post. Peace!

  2. The most effective way to remove someone’s faith in God is to send him to university to study Theology. Kinda tells you something, Doesn’t it?
    Effective, obedient workforce sums it up very nicely.
    Beware of your television too though.
    Blessings, Geoff.

    • Geoffrey –

      When the people who live in this home learn (adults and children alike), there is deep engagement. Eyes sparkle, expansive gestures are made, voices get fast and excited…

      And, very often, a friendly television is in the midst of the learning (we only share our home with non-aggressive televisions!). Sure, there’s the obvious stuff, like how often PBS is the channel of choice – for kid=specific programming in the mornings and evenings, for independent films (that’s mostly me), and for documentaries we all enjoy – Annalise, not yet8, has a passion for the Cloud:Wild Stallion of the Rockiesseries, and last weekend watched Tigers of the Snow in rapt attention – nature and wildlife are passions for her.

      Then there are the other things. Jeremiah, soon to be 11, is getting a rather thorough grounding in human sexuality by asking questions about references to such things on TV. He knows he can ask either parent whatever question he has, and get an answer that makes sense to him an that he can count on to be true. Last year, when he liked some of the shows, but found those references gross, he knew he could count on both of his parents NOT to explain!

      From shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, he has learned a tremendous amount of history – and he has learned it, not as abstract facts in a textbook, but in a useful context.

      Because everyone here may turn a TV on or off as they choose, and watch as little or as much as they like, everyone here knows what they can handle, and has the freedom to leave or turn the TV off if something is too much – or too little – for them.

      The way television is used in families where the children are not limited, nor confined for hours in school before settling in to decompress (much the same as an adult might, after a long day at work), might be hugely different than what you are imagining.

      TV is just TV, here. Earlier, there was Netflix watching and online virtual hotel building – by one child. The other hasn’t watched anything, today.

      Right now, at 7:30pm on a cloudy, darkening Monday, evening, no TVs are on, and the children are whooping it up, together, in the yard. They’ve been out there for over an hour, and Annalise, who loves the outdoors more than she does television, has been outside most of the day.

      Some days, the TV is the main focus of the day. Others, it never gets turned on. Most days are somewhere in the middle.

      Television is not our enemy. =)

  3. So are you homeschooling in the ‘traditional’ sense? How do you keep from abiding by the state requirements for education? I love your idea, your concept and it’s one held by many. I wish I’d homeschooled my kids but finances wouldn’t allow it. I had to work.

    Keep developing those hungry minds. Who knows…your son may end up being the next Wolfgang Puck or Emeril. Your daughter looks like she might be a great chemist (or at the very least, the founder of a new banana coffee flavor. Yummm!) They’re both precious and you are blessed to have the time and ability to raise them this way, with a strong sense of self and purpose. Kudos.

    • Jenny –

      So sorry it took me so long to respond – I tend to get wrapped up in the writing and put the comments aside for “later”…and later can take a while to get here!

      To answer your question – yes, and no.

      There is nothing in our days that resembles the factory-school model of public education. Nor do we sit around the table, doing lessons as though we had just moved the school model home.

      There are a few textbooks kicking around here, yet no one is required to read those or anything else.

      As for keeping from abiding by state requirements – I don’t. New York has a complex and rigorous set of homeschooling laws – among the most convoluted in the nation. They seem to assume that anyone who homeschools is on the verge of child neglect or abuse, and must have a subversive agenda.

      I’ve been learning those laws since Jeremiah was 2..and I am pretty damned fierce about requiring the school district to abide by their end, just as I spend hours each quarter fulfilling the legal obligations that have nothing at all to do with our actual lives.

      What we do is fill our home and our lives with interesting things, conversations, experiences, and LOTS of love and interaction. Jeremiah and Annalise have a tremendous amount of freedom compared to the typical American child. They choose what to do with the vast majority of their time, and it’s my role to facilitate for them – taking them places, getting things they want, being ready with help when they want it, and stepping back and out of the way when they don’t; offering guidance in their quest to become fulfilled and productive adults…

      It takes a lot of translating to extract the dead reporting schools consider learning from the richness and spontaneity of our lives. Being a writer helps. I don’t think in achoolspeak, but I can translate into it, and our reports are generally full of far, far more than the same-age schooled peers cover.

      Here, everyone in the family is actively engaged in learning through every waking moment, Learning, living, laughing, and breathing are inextricably wound together.

      I have a strong feeling that Jeremiah will work with technology – inventing, developing, programming, or maybe something else having to do with animation.

      Annalise might very likely work with animals, perhaps wild ones – as an in-the-field researcher, conservationist, trainer, breeder, zookeeper, or in the medical field, maybe…

      Whatever they do, if it brings them joy, I will be thrilled!

      You can see a lot more of our unschooling lives at http://www.memismommy.blogspot.com, if you’re interested.

      I stopped working to focus on the kids’ learning the year Jeremiah was eligible for kindergarten. We live very simply on one very modest income – which takes LOTS of imagination. We adore thrift stores, yard sales, our little old house, and our slightly bedraggled transportation….and EBay is a treasure trove for us, because none of us mind owning the model that was popular two or three years ago.

      This way of living has become natural and is filled with discovery, wonder, and deep connection…it’s not the easiest or most-traveled of paths, but I am so glad that we chose this way, because it is perfect for us.

      They truly are amazing people, who grow more and more into themselves. They are confident, friendly, and very loving. They look at the world with eyes that still sparkle with the delight of discovery. They aren’t being plugged into any mold, and they aren’t waiting for anyone to tell them what to do or learn or be.

      And, at ages (Lise will be 8 in a few weeks, and Jeremiah is closing in on 11)when many parents are finding their children increasingly difficult, where power struggles and distance and rebellion seem to be the order of the day as kids get big and strong enough to resist parental authority, we are growing closer, and more cooperative, together, as a family.

      And it’s joyous and wonderful. It heals the little girl in me, and the little boy in Jim, who were raised very, very differently.

      Again, thanks for giving me a chance to articulate all that.

      Thanks for your interest, and

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