I teach at a university and I unschool my kids

August 1, 2016

I’ve been in school almost my entire life. I started preschool shortly before turning 3. I started elementary school at age 6. I followed the standard path through middle school and high school and then went directly to college. After college I earned two Master’s degrees and then a PhD. Even after that I didn’t want to leave. I now teach at a university.

As you may have guessed by now, I love school. I’m good at school. I’ve learned a lot through school. So it comes as a surprise to some people that I have chosen not to send my kids to school. Instead, we’ve embraced the philosophy of unschooling. Unschooling is a form of homeschooling that rejects the idea of replicating the school environment at home in favor of self-directed learning through living and engaging fully with the world. Below are eight of the biggest reasons why we’ve chosen unschooling for our kids.

 1. I want them to learn how to learn. In traditional schooling, there is a heavy emphasis on following directions. It starts in kindergarten and often continues on through high school. Even in most college courses, the recipe for success is laid out for students. Do the assignments as directed and get an A. Congratulations. You’ve succeeded! I can follow directions like a boss, which is one reason I did well in school. Give me an assignment and I will follow instructions to a T. Unfortunately, I’ve found that this skill is next to useless in the real world (aside from tax filing). It also becomes less and less useful as you progress in school. In fact, the further along I got in school, the more schooling began to resemble unschooling. Once I started working on my dissertation, there were no more assignments to complete according to instructions. It was suddenly up to me to ask questions and then answer them. This was a big shift for me and I spent a couple of years floundering with lack of direction before figuring out how to handle self-directed learning. An unschooled person will have a huge advantage in this regard.


 2. I want to raise leaders, thinkers, innovators, and entrepreneurs. Anyone can raise a future employee who shows up on time and does what they are told. It’s a much bigger challenge to raise a future employer — the one with the vision and drive to make things happen in the world. Of course, my kids may not grow up to be business owners. That isn’t the goal. The goal is to raise motivated thinkers who find a place they can put their passion to work, not just execute steps according to someone else’s plan.


 3. I’ve seen the power of being passionate about your work. Academia is full of people who are passionate about their work. Really passionate. Not “I enjoy my job, but look forward to kicking back on the weekend” passionate. I know many people for whom their job is not only their job, but also their hobby and their life. These people are wildly successful, not just by traditional standards of having prestige and money, but also by the more important standard of loving what you do and looking forward to doing it every day.


 4. I don’t want them to be afraid of math. Unschooling parents are often asked, how will you teach your children math? The fact that this question pops up so frequently shows that many people believe math to be arcane form of knowledge that can’t be obtained the same way that reading, writing, music, or biology is learned. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think the only thing that sets math apart is that people are afraid of it. As a math major in college, I quickly got used to seeing pained looks on people’s faces when I told them what I studied. Once I was doing my homework on an airplane when a flight attendant glanced over said, “is that math? I hate math.” The school system is clearly doing a rather poor job at instilling a love of math in its students. Given the extremely strong correlation between loving a subject and learning it, I want to keep the love of math alive and well in our household.


 5. It will prepare them better for college. Some unschooling families don’t view college as a goal for their children. Some unschoolers start lucrative business, do apprenticeships, embark on their careers, or continue to educate themselves outside of institutions between the ages of 18-22 when many of their schooled peers are off to college. I believe these are worthwhile ways to spend your time, but I also believe that college is a very valuable experience due to the wealth of opportunities it places at your fingertips. The key is to be prepared to make the most of those opportunities. In my experience, homeschooled students clearly understand that they are in charge of their own education and professors are merely there to act as facilitators. That’s what it takes to be successful in college.


 6. It will prepare them better for the workforce. When you were a kid, you were probably asked at some point what you wanted to be when you grew up. What did you answer? Social media coordinator? Canine and equine massage therapist? Birth photographer? Mobile app developer? I suspect the answer was none of these, because some of these jobs didn’t exist when we were kids. Others may have existed but were hidden from most of us. We have no idea what the world will look like in 20 years or even in 10 years. Traditional schooling prepares kids for today’s jobs. Unschooling prepares them for future jobs.


 7. They will know that preparing for college or the workforce isn’t the point. Becoming a knowledgable and productive adult citizen is important, but there is more to life that that. As someone who grew up as a “good student,” I admittedly sometimes forgot to seek out fun and adventure and even put building meaningful human relationships on the back burner. I’ve been slowly unlearning that since becoming a parent. The greatest beauty of unschooling lies in the time we have together as a family enjoying each other’s company. We don’t have homework battles. We have adventures together. We don’t set an alarm clock. We sleep until we’re not tired anymore. We don’t leave early because it’s a school night. We stay out late with friends. We don’t just prepare for life. We live it now.


8. I know that no one has all the answers. Being in the company of some very smart people on a regular basis quickly shows you how little you actually know. After a while, you realize this applies to everyone. No one knows everything. My kids ask me questions I don’t know the answer to every single day. There is no shame in not knowing something. In fact, there is great value in realizing that you don’t know something and then going to find out. Like anyone else, unschooling parents don’t have all of the answers. But we ask a lot of questions and we dig deep, past common assumptions and social norms. I can’t think of a better example of a true education than that.

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  • Reply Maree August 25, 2016 at 9:24 pm

    Thank you so much for this article (which I really needed to read today )
    I have just asked my children if they’re feeling as if they need some social opportunities, as we tend to be home bodies, and also if they feel like they would be interested in some ‘formal learning’ opportunities- their reply: ‘Nah…’ Hmmmm so it seems that it’s just me, thinking, worrying and doubting myself…doubting them…
    Lack of trust in our kids and ourselves is such a powerful thing, and in our second year of unschooling, after 5 years in the system plus our own school issues, it does creep in occasionally. I am so very grateful for your posts and your wise words of encouragement for all of us.
    I wouldn’t trade the sleep ins and late breakfasts, the quiet beach days, the time to decide what feels right, the ability to read or craft or play for as long as they want. But most of all the confidence they’ve gained since removing them from the compartmentalised and comparative assessment based environment that was bleaching away their inner beauty.

  • Reply Sarah Ellzey August 17, 2016 at 8:01 am

    I agree with most of this, but I will say, from a former homeschooler/unschooler, I’ve had a hard time transitioning to the real world at times. I learned how to be self-directed and motivated to learn, but I really struggle with sticking to a system. Sticking to any kind of schedule is extremely stressful for me. I have yet to find a job that lets me make all of my own rules, hours, etc. (Even running my own business requires being able to work with clients, bookkeeping, etc.) I wish that I’d had some more structure and a little more outside motivation in my younger years, so that the transition would have been easier. I think that homeschooling/unschooling are excellent options, and we may do it with our own children, but I do want to make sure that my kids learn to function in a structured environment. It’s one of my personal struggles with the concept of bringing my kids home, I can’t handle structure well, so I know I can’t provide that for them. Still, I do feel that they need it. Some of us are lucky enough to find careers that don’t require a lot of structure, but most careers to call for it. Then again, maybe it’s just my personality and I would have really struggled going to school. I don’t know. I have done fine post, high school, though. I’m currently working on two master’s degrees, so my educational background must have done something for me! I know I’m rambling, but this is something I’ve been trying to work through now that my kids are reaching school age.

  • Reply nora August 14, 2016 at 1:51 pm

    I agree with your points made and it all makes so much sense. I struggle with the “paperwork” aspect of
    the unschooling when it comes time to submit to colleges. Do you do transcripts and course description paperwork? IF not, how do you get around that when it comes time to register for college etc.?

  • Reply Jamie August 13, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    My family is also an unschooling one. Because honestly it is a lifestyle for us parents too! My kids are 6, 9, 12, and 14. We have been homeschooling since my oldest was in 2nd grade so it’s all the younger 3 of known. Our 2nd year we became unschoolers so we are in our 6th year but even that first year we were very relaxed and child led. My oldest is at her insistence, is using formal math curriculum for algebra this year because she thinks it will be fun. I still consider this unschooling because it is her choice to study math in this manner. Of course this is the same child who got in trouble for extending her number lines and skip counting them in public school. Besides math, she enjoys World Geography, pouring over atlases and travel guides and reading every adventure story she can get her hands on. My 12 year old is my most artistic child. She loves to draw and paint, has recently started to learn how to sew, and just performed in her first musical! She is also gaining an interest in writing plays and song lyrics. She is very excited to get to be in a community chorus this year. My 9 year old daughter has spina bifda and is in a wheelchair. That doesn’t stop her from doing anything though! She plays wheelchair basketball (this will be her second season) and is excited to take drum lessons this year. She will devour any book and loves to write stories. My 6 year old’s current interests include dinosaurs, gymnastics (she gets to take lessons for the first time this year), learning to read, and telling time. She is my most energetic child and is always trying to be like her big sisters.

  • Reply Daniel Fuller August 9, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    I’ve seemingly come across this phrase “I unschool my (child/daughter/son/kids)” before. So is “unschooling” just another thing done *to* young people, rather than a process by which young people free themselves, with adult help, from the repressive and arbitrary confinement of traditional education? This post has a good deal in it of what the author wants for her children. What about what the children want for themselves? Young people’s capacity to contribute meaningfully to community life, including the decisions that affect them, is usually ignored in our society. But childhood is not just a time of preparation for the future (as if anyone can rightly claim to know what children’s future world will require of them). Childhood is a time to live, now. But adults have to be willing to *let* children live, and learn, as only they can.

    • Reply The Mamas August 9, 2016 at 9:23 pm

      Great points! As I was thinking about how to title this article, I almost nixed the phrasing, “I unschool my kids,” because as you point out, it’s largely a process of the kids doing things while I get out of the way. In the end I decided to use the phrase because I think it’s a shorthand way to refer to the type of educational experience that we are providing for our kids.

      As for childhood not simply being a time of preparation for the future — I agree completely! That is the idea I was trying to communicate in point #7. 🙂

      • Reply Daniel Fuller August 10, 2016 at 9:17 am

        Thanks for your reply.

  • Reply AmyC August 9, 2016 at 10:40 am

    Please elaborate about the positive way to perceive and present math! It’d be interesting to hear how your perspective flows over to your college courses, too.

  • Reply Rose August 6, 2016 at 10:45 am

    Yes, Yes and Yes! The last of my 3 unschooled children is now 19 and leaving home to attend a music conservatory to pursue a career in music performance. None of my children have ever attended school and when we began there was little support and information available. But I read Gatto, Moore and Holt… and gradually developed and settled into the relaxed, unschooling life. I read, they read, we played math games and I followed their lead and interests. Each child developing their own unique passions. Now looking back it was a wondrous journey and amazing to see them grow. Some of their accomplishments and passions included equestrian jumping, dog training for agility and obedience, all three became chief scouts, Duke of Edinburgh bronze and silver awards, two bronze medals in the Canada summer games, Backpacking, 7 day canoe trips, International Canadian Youth Representative in New Zealand, Sprint Kayak racing, 20 km fun runs, All 3 were active scouts and St John Ambulance cadets. They worked during their teen years as lifeguards, kayak coaches, preschool assistants, taught music, tutored elementary school children struggling in school, worked in the film industry and performed for weddings. These were all paid positions and does not included the countless volunteer positions they held over the years. A snapshot of their lives at this moment…my eldest is in her third year of university in Science with a minor in English and works as a Manager in a supermarket while living with a senior and helping her with shopping and cooking etc, in exchange for rent. My second child who has a vision impairment lives with room mates, works night at MacDonalds, and streams his own show on the internet and is attending school part time for film editing. My youngest will be attending a music conservatory, plays in a quartet for events, is a special ability extra in the film industry and models. So what did I do in all this? I just supported what they wanted to do to the best of my ability ( and for the record I do not play a musical instrument, race kayaks, back pack, train dogs, ride horses,I don’t even like first aid LOL). What did I NOT do? Force them to stay at home to do “schoolwork.”

    • Reply The Mamas August 6, 2016 at 4:15 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing! I just love love love hearing what grown unschoolers are up to!

    • Reply Eve Sam August 11, 2016 at 8:09 pm

      Dear Rose,
      thank you so much for sharing this, and of course thank you Nina for this article. Rose, your sharing has ease my mind that unschooling will do good for our kids. we are starting our unschooling journey since 2 years ago but I didn’t realise it is unschooling. We just live the life as it is. Now that i want to do it intentionally i feel nervous and very insecure. When you share what your children has achieved, wow…. so much they can do and achieved outside the school. Their life is so exciting! Your story are so inspiring ! THANK YOU !!

      Nina, thank you for such far sighted sharing and it does help a lot in our choice of unschooling.

      • Reply Rose August 15, 2016 at 9:57 am

        Helping a young family is the reason I was moved to shared our “story” journey. I remembered sometimes I too would begin to doubt and worry, especially when friends or relatives questioned our choices, which was often. We had our difficulties too. My son struggled with reading, my youngest daughter couldn’t/wouldn’t sit still, my eldest hated to write anything, ever. These sort of struggles fuels our doubt. But don’t pay attention to what they can’t or won’t do (that is school thinking) but what they can and love to do. And trust that they will learn what they need to know. And yes they are all adults now, AND my son learned to read, my youngest daughter learned to sit still and my eldest is doing a minor in English!

  • Reply Brigid August 6, 2016 at 3:00 am

    I’m homeschooling my kids with a heavy emphasis on unschooling. But I was taught maths badly in school and ended up with a huge fear of it. I don’t seem to have any sort of mathematical mind. Maybe that’s the schooling talking or maybe it’s just how I am. In any case it’s an area I’m struggling with in teaching my children. They are struggling even with basic addition (my eldest is 7). PLEASE advise me on how to incorporate numeracy in our day and build on that knowledge, and how to recognise the maths in everyday live - because I seem to have a sort of math-blindness.
    Any ideas or links would be greatly appreciated. I feel like I’m failing my children! And I want them to love maths and feel completely comfortable with it, not end up terrified of it like me.

    • Reply The Mamas August 6, 2016 at 4:14 pm

      I think that kind of math scarring is so common! I would say that, first, 7 is still very young. You may find that in everyday situations, your child knows how to add and subtract. For example, suppose they have a set of 6 teacups, or trains, or some other toy. If there are currently 4 of them sitting around, they probably know that two are missing. That’s subtraction right there! Whether they can answer the question, “what is 6 minus 4?” is another story entirely. So, I would urge you to take a very broad view of learning and numeracy. I would also trust that they WILL learn what they need to know without anyone explicitly teaching them. Once humans have a use for knowledge, they pick it up very quickly! Of course, tablet and smartphone apps and games like Minecraft also teach a lot of mathematical concepts. Not necessary, but sometimes fun! You might also check out this page by Sandra Dodd on unschooling and maths/math: http://sandradodd.com/math/

  • Reply Bec Waterhouse August 4, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    Thank you for posting this! I’ve been trying to explain why we unschool for the longest time but have never found the words.

    • Reply The Mamas August 6, 2016 at 4:04 pm

      Thank you! It’s always hard to explain in a casual conversation to someone who isn’t truly invested in learning (which, ironically enough, is one of the reasons traditional education often doesn’t work). 🙂

  • Reply Kay August 4, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    Loved your post! I’m just about to begin homeschooling my teen because of conflicts resulting from Asperger’s, ADHD, etc. I’m an academic librarian. I also taught English in community colleges for 25 years. My question about unschooling: When I was a kid, I balked at doing the mundane, boring things of everyday life. Learning to manage and perform these necessary tasks wasn’t easy or pleasant, and I’m still extremely slack. I was this way about the aspects of school that didn’t appeal to me, too. Always choosing what I liked and ignoring what I didn’t like has kept me from achieving , IMO. For instance, I was good at math in elementary school, but after a few bad teachers in middle school, I gave up. I wonder if an unschooler would also grow up choosing to do only what they like, and letting the rest fall by the wayside? What do you think? Do unschoolers learn to tolerate and accept doing the boring, necessary parts that allow them to achieve their goals?

    • Reply The Mamas August 6, 2016 at 4:01 pm

      Great question! I must start by saying that if you successfully became an academic librarian and had a 25 year college teaching career, you couldn’t have been *too* slack! Perhaps you simply focused on what mattered and let the other things go.

      Your question also reminds me of some recent research showing the dangers of praising kids for their achievements. In one study two groups of kids were given a puzzle task. After completing it, the kids in the first group were told they did great and that they are really good at puzzles. The kids in the second group were told that they worked hard on the puzzle. Both groups were then asked whether they wanted to try a new, more difficult puzzle. The kids in the first group largely declined, whereas the kids in the second group wanted to try it. I think this type of thing happens commonly to “good students.” They don’t want to take on new challenges because they are afraid of failure and being “found out” as not smart after all. Unschoolers won’t face that kind of pressure because they are doing projects for their own interest and sense of accomplishment, not for praise.

      I think unschoolers will have a lot of experience doing the boring and necessary. Unschoolers have the freedom and time to dive deep into projects from a young age instead of skimming the surface and moving on. Even if you only operate a lemonade stand, you learn quickly that there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that isn’t always so glamorous before you have success.

  • Reply Tricia Baum August 4, 2016 at 4:33 am

    Well written! I needed to hear all of this. New to homeschooling and question the decision often. We have been told there is a disservice in doing so with our children and they will fall behind. My son has never enjoyed or thrived in the traditional school environment where there are all of these unnecessary rules. He is adjusting and learning and growing in our homeschool setting. Thank you for this article!!

    • Reply The Mamas August 6, 2016 at 3:33 pm

      Sounds like a brave decision to do the right thing for your son even in the face of criticism. It’s such a gift to let our children pursue their passions in a stress-free environment. I don’t think my daughter would thrive in the traditional school environment either. She would survive, but that isn’t the same as thriving.

  • Reply Gina Grothoff August 2, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    I love this post and completely agree. I am not a professor but a health care professional who also did well in school because I am good at following instructions. My kids have been unschooled and my oldest is 18 now and we are seeing the benefits of him being brought up in this alternative way of living and education. He has a part time job he really enjoys- selling electronics and attends community college. He is an Eagle Scout and just completed adult leader training. And just this summer he decided to embark upon a journey to visit every state park in the state where we live. He is planning and coordinating this all on his own and blogging about it. I am continuously amazed at all he takes in and achieves. He is the reason I decided to homeschool because I did not want him to loose his innate love of learning.

    • Reply The Mamas August 2, 2016 at 6:45 pm

      It’s always great hearing from parents of grown unschoolers. What an amazing project your son is undertaking! I’d love to check out his blog sometime.

  • Reply Lana Nassen August 2, 2016 at 12:08 am

    Another unschooling professor! Makes me wonder if perhaps there aren’t quite a bunch of us out here….

    • Reply The Mamas August 2, 2016 at 6:51 pm

      Thank you for commenting! I think there are many of us out there indeed. It’s rather telling about the current state of the education system.

  • Reply Eve Sam August 1, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    One of the best article about unschooling which have a great influence in our decision to unschool. Thank you for this !!

    • Reply The Mamas August 2, 2016 at 6:51 pm

      Thank you! xo

  • Reply Emma August 1, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    I am the same! I teach at university and Unschool my own children. I have many of the same ideals and long term hopes for my children - I wrote about it here

    • Reply The Mamas August 2, 2016 at 6:53 pm

      Yes! Another great case for homeschooling/unschooling. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply Angela Affonso August 1, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Love this! Well said.

    • Reply The Mamas August 2, 2016 at 6:53 pm

      Thank you!!

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