Read this before deciding whether or not unschooling is a good ‘fit’

One of the groups I belong to on Facebook created by master networker & Innovative Educator Lisa Nielsen is the “Homeschooling, Unschooling, Uncollege, Opt-Out, DIY Learning” page.  Not infrequently there is a question posted from someone wanting to know more about unschooling, or unschooling vs. homeschooling, etc.   Always in these cases the unschoolers come out in numbers to give helpful advice or information.   At least, I know the intent is for the information to be helpful, but in the case of a post written by Sue Wolfe Patterson titled “Should YOU Unschool”, which you can read here, I felt she missed the mark.

Let me just say that I don’t know Sue at all and I’m sure her intentions were good.  Unschooling is not for everyone.  In the past I’ve written about how unschooling is natural for kids, but more difficult for parents.  It’s a leap of faith to go against what we’ve all been taught, almost from birth.

Sue’s post begins by saying that although anyone could, in theory, be an unschooling parent, they would have to, “really live outside their comfort zones, learn and adopt completely new communication styles, change their world view, spend some time in therapy getting to the root of why they keep making the same mistakes.  Just to name a few.”   She says the odds of this happening are “slim to none”.  Then follows a chart with a list of traits that purport to help you determine whether or not you, as a parent, are a good fit for unschooling.

According to the list that Sue provided, I am probably unfit to be an unschooling parent and in fact am in need of therapy to figure out why I make so many mistakes.  For example, the first item on the side of “a good fit” reads:  “Parents who enjoy being around their children”, while the “NOT a good fit” item reads, “Parents who really prefer adult contact and look forward to their kids being happily playing…elsewhere.”    Or, along those same lines, under “a good fit”:  “Parents who see themselves as mentors and role models, allowing their child to “sit with the grown ups”, as opposed to “Not a good fit”:  “Parents who prefer that the kids hang out somewhere else while the adults talk, or they REALLY like the idea of The Kids Table at Thanksgiving.”

I am both of those parents.

I like spending time with my kids, but wow do I love alone time with other adults.  One of the happiest days of my life was when I realized that my kids were now old enough to SPEND TIME ON THEIR OWN!!!   Example?  Today a friend of mine who no longer lives in NY but who is visiting the city for a few days called and wanted to know if I could meet her for an early dinner.   Did I invite my kids?  No, I did not.  Why? Because I didn’t want to bring them, that’s why.  I wanted to enjoy my 90 minutes with my adult friend and talk about adult subjects.  I did not want to have to explain the ins and outs of a tax sale, or alcoholism, or any other subject to my kids who I love and with whom I enjoy doing a myriad of things.

We had a kids’ table at our last Passover meal.  (Don’t get too excited – we don’t read the Haggadah – we do a finger puppet version of the Exodus where the kids begin to laugh at the idea of a God who would punish anyone by killing babies…but that’s another story.)     We love the kids table.  And you know what?  So do the kids.  Not every day at every meal, but once a year?  It’s special to get to sit on their own with the other kids.   Just as the adults enjoy being able to talk about some things that are perhaps not appropriate to discuss when the kids are around.

The point is, Sue presents this picture as black and white, when in reality it is a massive field of gray.

Here’s another example:  Under the good fit column, Sue writes, “Parents who are ok with letting their kids play video games all day, because they know it will lead to something,”  as opposed to the not a good fit column, where she writes, “Parents who cannot stand it when their child TRIES to play videogames all day — what about the learning???”

This one really, really bothers me.   In my house, I don’t monitor screen time.  I’ve seen Maya develop great friendships online as well as teaching herself a myriad of skills through online tutorials.  Ditto for Ben.   In general, I think putting restrictions on something like TV and computer simply creates a never-fulfilled desire for it.  However, I also have dear friends whose son, when playing video games or going online, begins to exhibit distinct addictive behavior (which I’ve seen in person and which happens despite having the most giving, non-judgmental, supportive and loving parents you can imagine) which results in loss of attention or ability to relate to anyone in his family.

They restrict his computer time.

As do a number of my other friends who are unschooling parents.  They each have their own reasons and they each do it out of a belief that it works best for their family dynamic.   One of them has a son who taught himself to read at the age of 8, and who is still a beginning writer.  This is not someone who calls herself an unschooler but is secretly forcing her kid to “learn” academic subjects.

Even when I don’t always agree with their reasons for restricting certain things, I would never presume to tell them they are unfit to unschool because of it.

Here’s another one:  A good fit is “Parents who are cheerful overall” as opposed to a bad fit being “Parents who struggle with depression.”

There goes 1/2 the population.

Maybe someone who is depressed and isn’t getting help and has a spouse who is likewise depressed and not getting help would be a bad fit, but I know many people who struggle with depression who are AMAZING unschooling and homeschooling parents.   They work on their illness and they do their damnedest to beat it.    If you are struggling with depression but have a real desire to unschool your kids, you can do it.

The first time I read Sue’s post I thought that some of her points were valid, like saying that a good fit is “Parents who enjoy and see value in hearing children’s ideas and ways of approaching situations” as opposed to “Parents who believe children should be seen and not heard, speak only when spoken to.”    But although I am not in the camp of thinking children should only speak when spoken to, I also think that there are times when a child needs to respect that another person is speaking and not interrupt to give their own idea about the matter.  Which again falls in the gray area, and about which I could write another entire post.

If you read to the end of Sue’s post, you’ll find that she contradicts her opening statement by saying that in fact parents CAN be unschoolers even if they see a lot of the “not a good fit” traits in themselves.   That it is a growth process and that even with years of school training clogging your thinking you can change and open up.  Which is true, but which might have been better said at the beginning, because for a newbie the list is pretty overwhelming.  If I had read this 6 years ago I probably would have thrown up my hands & turned off the computer well before getting to the end.

You do not need to be an always patient, always understanding and supportive, perfect parent in order to unschool.  None of us would pass that test.   Here then, in case you still have doubts and are questioning whether you are fit to be an unschooling parent, is a list of my own.  It’s a short and very incomplete list of my own faux pas, transgressions and mistakes made over the years.

1.  When my kids were little, I spanked them on occasion.  One spank, hard on the butt, to get their attention.  (Ben would laugh when I did this.  Oh man did I think I was in trouble!)

2.   For over a year, I forced Maya to do Math worksheets every day.  We fought, I yelled, she cried (sometimes I cried too).

3.  I have in the past ordered my kids to clean their rooms, pick up their toys and BE QUIET!!

4.  I have ‘laid down the law’ and taken away their choice in many matters.

5.  I have chastised them for interrupting, only to realize that I also interrupt.  Constantly.

6.  I used to enforce a bedtime.  No questions asked.

7.  We “Ferberized” Maya.  I still think this was the right call for us at the time.  She was 17 months old.

8.  I have restricted Ben’s intake of sugar.

9.  I’ve completely lost my temper and screamed at my kids.

10. I’ve sent them to their rooms and told them they can’t come out until I say so.

Most, but not all, of these things happened when Maya and Ben were younger.  I am still far from the perfect unschooling parent.  I suspect I will never attain nirvana in that regard.   However, as my kids and I have grown, we have all improved, which is the only thing you can ask.

Unschooling is not black and white.  It is mostly gray.  Which is why anyone who has the desire can do it and make it a successful reality for their kids and their family.


6 comments on “Read this before deciding whether or not unschooling is a good ‘fit’

  1. dkkrrip says:

    Ohmygracious, THANK YOU! I loved this post.

    After homeschooling for ten years, sending my kids to “traditional school” for two, bringing my youngest (13yo)BACK home while fighting an uphill battle with my oldest (17yo) to make traditional school “work” for her (her choice, not mine!!)…. I am beginning to think unschooling might be what my youngest needs from here on out. I’m still exploring and researching… AND considering a move to NYC (coming to see apartments in June).

    Wondering if unschooling/ NYC could be a package deal.

    Thank you for this valuable piece of the puzzle. You may be hearing from me.

  2. Cindy says:

    Great post, Amy! I’ve done all those things on your list, too, and I’ve been doing the unschooling thing imperfectly for 20 years! It’s a journey and I feel blessed to have learned SO much from what I’ve done “right” and what I’ve done “wrong.” And right and wrong are relative based on each individual and family. Thanks for sharing hope with everyone who desires to try this awesome thing called unschooling!

  3. I think that was a good list of things for us (unschooling parents) to work on in ourselves in order to make unschooling even better…she clearly didn’t say or mean that people who are not a “perfect fit” should not unschool. It wasn’t like a list of prerequisites. Nobody is perfect and all of us long-time unschoolers know quite well what a process of personal growth (in us) it is. That was a list, from a long-time unschooler, of the kinds of things that can interfere with unschooling joyfully.

    For example, I have seen people adopt unschooling at an intellectual level, but not really enjoy spending very much time with their children. I’ve watched them brush off their children’s questions (I mean this quite literally – use their hand to brush the child away, physically). I’ve seen people who feel very quickly overwhelmed by spending much time at all with inquisitive, active, energetic kids…people who have their own very strong interests and hobbies or work who resent setting them aside at ALL for the sake of supporting the interests of the kids. It is really good advice for these people to realize that enjoying spending considerable amounts of time with children is really important in unschooling – they can decide they don’t want to do it (and they can homeschool by giving the kids schoolwork to do and then sending them out to play for the rest of the day – I’ve known homeschoolers like this) or they can find a school that they feel is acceptable. OR they can work toward finding the joy of spending a lot of time with their children.

    I think these points were intended as food for thought and I think they are really well worth thinking about. I wouldn’t take them as some sort of checklist on whether I should or shouldn’t homeschool – but as a very clear way of thinking about some of the characteristics that we might want to consider if we want to create the most awesome unschooling lives we can.

  4. Hi Amy,
    I guess we’ve kind of “met” now, huh? 😉

    It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t sit down and have a conversation about this. But you in NYC, and me in TX, that’s probably not going to happen. Pam’s right, this list was formed because of what I’ve seen work, and what gets in the way, of having the best unschooling experience possible. NOBODY falls 100% in either column. But you can get the gist of where you are (if you don’t know already), by looking at it.

    Here are my concerns about what you’ve written though. When you list your 10 things, I guess to make yourself seem more “relatable,” I kind of cringe. I think about the parents who consider this a green light for that kind of behavior repeatedly. I don’t really know if you regret the things you did on that list (probably some yes, some no). But I wouldn’t think you’d want to rally people behind THAT list. I’ve done some of the things on your list, but it wasn’t in alignment with my deeper philosophy of parenting – that much more coincides with the more radical side of unschooling. So I stopped. Or tried to catch myself. And, THAT is what you should be encouraging people to do, IMO. I’m missing that in your writing here.

    I’ve actually been to your website before and enjoyed what I read. But I do believe that *unschooling* IS kind of black and white. *People* are gray. *People* have shortcomings, bad days, etc. And they should be encouraged to try to rise above it. I’m not sure my list was that encouraging, but it was accurate. And looking at yourself truthfully, is a step in the right direction.

  5. Lori says:

    so nice to see a less black/white point of view!

    i would much rather see parents give themselves the same opportunity they want for their children – to learn at their own pace, for example.

  6. Cynthia says:


    Thank you for your balance. That is what I tend to find in your post and articles and what I think is necessary. Of course, I have always resisted black and white definitions of anything … but especially of the one thing that brought joy and freedom to my family.

    I would like to say that I am an unschooling parent who struggles with depression but I don’t believe this hinders our environment anymore than if I were struggling with a physical ailment or handicap. Are there limitations? Yes. Do I work to communicate well with my children about the depression? Yes. If anything at all, I believe that unschooling has been a positive addition to my life with depression. Given that the opposite attribute to depression was a cheerful attitude, I wonder if Sue might have done better to say parents with a positive outlook vs parents with a negative outlook.

    Like I said at the beginning of my comment, I struggle with narrowly defining anything and I get weary of all of the debates about what is or what isn’t unschooling. Just today, a facebook friend posted this quote from Jeff Sabo. I say a hearty Amen!

    “At the end of the day, I think we should all be less concerned with whether or not we are “unschooling” and less concerned with where we are on the unschooling spectrum, and far more concerned with whether or not we are being good parents and helping create an environment in which our kids are happy and joyful. Whether or not that leaves you with a label of “unschooler” or “radical unschooler” or “home schooler” or anything else should be of no concern. Be thoughtful, respectful, and purposeful in your relationship with yourself, your partner, and your children; strive for growth and joy and trust and peacefulness.” ~ Jeff Sabo

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