What’s in a name?

The prefix “un” means:  “not, contrary to, the opposite of” according to Dictionary.com.

The word “school”, from the freedictionary.com means:  “An institution for the instruction of children or people under college age.”   (Children OR people?)   The word “schooling”, also from the freedictionary.com,  means: “to educate in or as if in a school.”

Notice that nowhere in the definition of school or schooling is the word “parent” mentioned.

It stands to reason then, deducing from the definitions given above, that “unschooling” would mean “the opposite of educating in or as if in a school”.

If this is the case, why do so many people think that “unschooling” denotes some sort of parental abdication?   Just today I had someone say to me (and they meant to be supportive) “I’ve been telling everyone about the non-parenting thing you do!”

Well, they got half of it right.  “Un” and “Non” are synonyms that both mean “not”.

But why the jump from “schooling” to “parenting”?

Maybe it is because when people think of homeschooling families they see the parent in the role of teacher – but even so, why would not acting as a teacher mean not acting as a parent?

In my opinion this person unwittingly revealed what a lot of people believe, whether consciously or not.    Schooling has come to be synonymous with parenting; “school” with “parent”.   After all, in most families it is the school as parent and not the actual parent who holds ultimate authority.   The school dictates when the child gets up, when he eats and goes to the bathroom and what he does with his free time.  All family activities – such as travel – revolve around a schedule set by the school.

To many people, then,  a lack of sitting in a school or at a table to learn lessons dictated by another on a set timetable MUST mean a lack of parenting.   “Non-parenting”.   Even when the thought is unconscious.

Here’s the real deal.   No parents are more aware of and involved with their kids than unschooling parents.  Not in a creepy helicopter parent, controlling kind of way, but in a partnership of love and trust.   No school, however structured or unstructured it might be, is more attuned to the learning styles and aspirations of any kid than is the parent of an unschooler.

Unschooling is simply learning without school and in the course of daily life.  Parents encourage, help (when asked), lead, support and suggest on an ongoing basis.   They do not abdicate their role as parent by not schooling their child.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

14 comments on “What’s in a name?

  1. marisa says:


  2. Well said! My 15-year-old daughter is home “unschooling,” and my 17-year-old son is graduating from high school. Unschooling is definitely not an abdication of overseeing and coaching and mentoring.

  3. Michele says:

    Well said! I’m adding a link to this post to my unschooling page on my blog. http://michelepixels.com/unschooling/ Thanks!

  4. Karen Lee says:

    Well said! I love the analytical way you approach the issue of how ridiculous it is to assume that unschooling = unparenting. If unschooling is unparenting, then schooling must be parenting, and I really don’t think, if people consider it deeply, they would choose a school to be their child’s parent. 😉

    • Dawn Platte says:

      WELL SAID! I have been “homeschooling”/”unschooling” for 25 years, with another 8-ish to go. I have always hated calling ourselves “homeschoolers” and more recently the in vogue term “unschoolers” and simply say, “our kids don’t go to school.” Why in the world do “unschoolers” define themselves as families that don’t “do school” in the traditional sense (no set curriculums, no set schedules, etc.) then turn around and use the word “school” in describing themselves? A friend and I were just discussing this issue last night and decided a new term is needed to describe ourselves. We’re “life livers” (nay, sounds to much like an organ no body wants to see on their plate!), “life learners” (too hokey) ….. I don’t know, any ideas?

      • Amy says:

        Dawn, I actually like the term “life learning” (which Wendy Priesnitz gets the credit for) but have found that in my day to day interactions, it requires even more explanation (!) than does unschooling. When Jeremy Stuart was in New York doing interviews for his film “Class Dismissed”, we agreed that there is no perfect term to describe what we do – no neat little way to package and promote. Which is why I believe it is so important that we keep talking, explaining, and correcting those who get it wrong – even with the best of intentions.

  5. Milva McDonald says:

    In answer to the question of why so many people think unschooling is unparenting, I think there are couple of things at play. One may be that unschooling families have gone on major media outlets and talked about letting their kids eat everything they want, not go to bed if they choose, do nothing but watch TV all day, etc. We all know there is a lot more than that in the lives of these families and their unschooling, but the media predictably wants to sensationalize, and they have done so with unschooling, and it’s left people with a particular impression. Even within the unschooling community, I have noticed that there often seems to be focus on things like letting kids eat junk food, watch TV, play video games, etc. My unschooled kids and the unschooled kids I know spend so little time on these things. I’ve often scratched my head over the push to focus on stuff like that rather than the fact that unschoolers are actively starting businesses, inventing things, pursuing passions, volunteering for causes they care about, etc. etc. I like the term “life livers,” except that just this week on an unschooling discussion forum someone took exception to someone else describing unschooling as “just living life,” because it gave the impression that there was no work involved in unschooling and might lead new unschooling parents to think they didn’t have to be involved in their kids’ lives!

  6. Tiffany says:

    Dawn, just a thought but perhaps the reason people use the term “unschooling” is because so many who have chosen that route have seen the wasted time, frustration and even destructive impact of traditional schooling and want to explicitly reject that in their self-description.

    I’ve never found the need to put a label on how we learn in my house, but I can see why others might want to make a clear statement about their beliefs and educational values.

    On the main topic, I have to say that I’m very surprised to learn that so many seem to have experienced others reading “non-parenting” into unschooling. I’ve never heard that suggested nor has the issue ever crossed my mind. Until I read the comments, I thought that Amy must be reacting to an isolated situation that most of us would never encounter.

  7. I was intrigued with “unschooling,” but after reading several books and websites by unschoolers, am staying clear of the term! I’m all for nontraditional learning methods, but it seems proponents were advocating that you should never direct your child on anything; e.g. brushing his teeth: You attempt to *manipulate* him into choosing to brush his teeth on his own and inform him of the consequences, but let him be if he chooses not to – and then let him deal with the consequences. I was reading all sorts of advice on how to get desired behavior without giving direct orders or parent-administered consequences.

    Sorry, but I can’t take it that far with my 6yo…

    I’m all for “delight-directed” or “child-influenced” learning etc. but no “unschooling” for us unless/until it is redefined in the homeschool circles I’ve frequented.

    • Amy says:

      I’m curious as to which books/websites you were looking at. I’d suggest Pam Sorooshian as a great resource. This is one of her posts that I particularly love: I would also encourage reading Wendy Priesnitz’ books & magazines (Life Learning Magazine, Natural Life Magazine, Challenging Assumptions in Education, etc). This is a link to an article titled “Understanding Unschooling” which you may enjoy: I would question anyone who advocates manipulating your child – that is not what unschooling is about at least in my experience.

  8. I read several of John Holt’s books, which I was *mostly* in agreement with, but had issues when researching practical applications of unschooling. The Unschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith raised some red flags with me. What really scared me was this site: http://joyfullyrejoycing.com/

    Perhaps “manipulate” is too strong a word, but if I google “how to get your unschooled child to brush his teeth”, most of the resulting advice looks like manipulation to me.

    • Amy says:


      I think maybe you’re getting caught up in the details. If you feel strongly about teeth-brushing, for instance, then simply tell your daughter why you do and explain that’s why you want her to brush her teeth. I’m the same, by the way. I have a real phobia about cavities because I had a lot of them as a kid. I explained that to my kids and after that would simply say ‘brush your teeth before bed, please’ and they did. It wasn’t a power struggle or a source of anxiety. The bottom line in unschooling is that you have to do what works for you and your kids.

      Even on Joyce’s website that you referenced above, she says as much. This is on her homepage: “One of the biggest mistakes made is after reading how conventional rule-based parenting feels and looks to kids and then declare: there are no more rules: eat whatever you want, stay up as late as you want … The result is kids feel tossed into the middle of a storm tossed ocean without support and chaos ensues. While it works great to declare vacation from school and just plunge into unschooling, it works better to ease into applying the unschooling principles to parenting.”

      There is no one way to unschool. Part of the problem we have is that parents want a sort of checklist they can follow to make sure they are “doing it right”. But each parent, child and family is different. I have a good friend who is a total unschooler as far as the academic side of things, but lays down pretty strict guidelines as far as computer games, etc. She has her reasons, it works for her family and I would never consider that they are not unschoolers because of that.

      You should follow your gut. You know yourself and your child best. None of us are gurus or experts in this realm. We share our own experiences and opinions and hope that they ring true with someone or help someone.

      All the best,

  9. gina hernandez says:

    Bravo! well said and a great discussion. No one knows more than an involved parent what and when a child is learning.

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