Why unschooling parents are great “teachers”

I put the word “teachers” in quotation marks because most unschooling parents do not consider themselves their child’s teacher.   Which perhaps should be number one on the list of what makes them great.   However, they do a lot to encourage, facilitate and inspire learning, so for the purpose of this post, I will call them teachers.

1.  Respect

Unschooling parents respect their kids.    They acknowledge and respect that children are fully human, just not fully grown.  They respect that not all children will like the same things and that they are not mini versions of their parents.  (god forbid!)  Unschooling parents respect that their children’s interests often differ from their own and may change over time, whether that time is a few weeks, months, or years.

2.  Trust

Adults as a whole do not trust children.  They don’t trust them to take care of themselves, to be responsible or to learn.   Unschooling parents are radical in the amount of trust they place in their children.  They do their best to be good role models and lead by example, rather than by laying out random and punitive rules that only erode trust.   They also trust that kids know what they need to learn at any given time, and with encouragement and support will succeed far beyond any adult’s expectations.

3.  Leadership

The best leaders do not demand to be followed (that’s not leadership but dictatorship).   Unschooling parents lead by example, by being fully present and interested in their own lives, as well as their kids lives.   They do not feign excitement over subjects they find uninteresting – kids see through that from about a mile away – but display their honest enthusiasm over things which interest them.   Understanding, of course, that their kids’ interests may differ completely.  Which is fine.  The point is not to sway the kids to your own way of thinking, but to model joy and interest in things, in life.     That is what defines true leaders – they convey their passion and encourage others to do the same.

4.  Observation

Unschooling parents are great observers.   They do not offer unwanted “help”, but observe the things that spark their kids’ interests, and then find ways to facilitate those interests, or at least provide opportunities that the kids may follow, if they so choose.   They also know what things or situations cause their kids’ eyes to glaze over with disinterest.   Unschooling parents know that these things will be different for each and every child.

5.  Guidance

Unschooling parents are like the ultimate tour guides.  They present information, or make it available, or plan outings in alignment with their kids’ interests…and they do it all without being invested in the outcome.   Plan a trip to the museum and the only thing of interest is the cafe?  Oh well.   Walk down the street and find your kids fascinated by the guy doing sidewalk art?  Cool!  The post office (or wherever you were headed) can wait a few minutes.   Sometimes things are planned, sometimes they happen by accident.   A good guide can ad lib and go with the flow.

6.  There is no box

Rather than thinking outside the box, unschooling parents have done away with the box completely.  There simply is no box.    Unschoolers say the world is their classroom, and this is true; the world and everything in it.   Books, magazines, youtube, TV, radio, travel, computers, woods, neighbors, store owners, bus drivers, a kitchen, food, farms, cars…. literally EVERYTHING and ANYONE can facilitate learning.   Life is a constant state of learning, and true learning cannot be divided into specific subjects that are kept separate from each other.

7. Happiness, not status

Unschooling parents know that happiness in life is not found by getting into the best schools, getting the highest degree or making the most money.  Happiness is found by doing what you love, whether that is starting your own bakery or becoming a doctor.  Therefore if an unschooled child has no interest in Shakespeare but loves gardening the parent encourages that and doesn’t tell them they “need to” read Shakespeare.  No one needs to read Shakespeare if they don’t want to.   The same goes for things like Calculus &  Chemistry.

8.  Imperfect/Failure

Unschooling parents are wildly imperfect!  (At least I am.)  We know that perfection is not necessary or even desirable.  A perfect human makes a terrible role model; no one can possibly live up to them.   Failure is part of unschooling, even for the parents.  Days when we lose our temper over stupid things, or panic because “What about MATH!?”   Failure is part of life and nothing to fear.  For kids failure is a crucial part of learning (and nothing to fear).  Unschooled kids don’t see failure as something to be avoided or think that they are lesser people for it.  Only through failure do we learn and grow.

Of course, these eight things can be part of any learning environment, but usually aren’t.  The push for grades and high test scores undermines almost every single one of the eight items on this list.   Only through unschooling, or in democratic  or free schools or perhaps the soon to come but not yet realized open learning centers that would replace the current compulsory system are these eight things the norm.

If all teachers could model unschooling parents, we’d be well on our way to a better world.


This post is for all those amazing unschooling parents who have been my teachers as well.  Thank you for your infinite patience and guidance and wisdom.  My world is definitely a better place with you in it!


20 comments on “Why unschooling parents are great “teachers”

  1. roger dennis says:

    you are kicking ass with these blog posts, amy! again, right on point!

    (if that’s too x-rated just let me know)

  2. preeta says:

    beautiful! totally loved it.

  3. Pattycake says:

    Wow, yet another diatribe against public school teachers, insinuating we are disrespectful, untrusting and un-trustworthy, tyrannical, unobservant, robots who care nothing for the children we teach. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you want to “unschool”, go ahead, but don’t criticize people about whom you know nothing. Shame on you.

  4. Kelly says:

    I read this from a completely different perspective than Patty. When I read this I felt Amy was describing the characteristics of a great teacher/guide/mentor, whether they be classroom teachers or parents.

    These are the characteristics I would hope to see in anyone who works/ lives with children. These are the characteristics I would hope to see embraced by schools as a whole, a greater focus on children and youth as individuals. These are characteristics embraced by unschooling families, but also by great teachers. But as evidenced by the many growing school reform movements and groups these are not embraced by the current school/education system as a whole.

    Of course there are teachers out there doing all these things, but the system does not support it. I would love to see these ideas embraced across the board, it just isn’t happening now and many teachers and families are looking for change. If these 8 things were embraced by public schools parents, teachers and most importantly young people would benefit tremendously.

  5. sarah says:

    I am a public school teacher and I totally get what you’re saying. I don’t take offense. We are dictators in the classroom…we have to be otherwise 25 kids would be going in 25 different directions.
    I would love to unschool my son but I don’t fully trust him or myself. I envy those who can do this.

  6. Gina says:

    I looked back at the article after I read the comments and saw that the post does not criticize professional teachers at all. It is about the positive qualities of unschooling parents. And lI agree with another commenter that all teachers – home or public/private – can embrace these qualities if they desire.

  7. roger dennis says:

    wow, my first thought, pattycake, was how did you come up with all that from what amy wrote?!

    then i (retired teacher) thought, you’ve probably felt consistently bombarded from all directions.

    then i saw what kelly wrote, and i fully agree with her. whether officially called teachers or not, whether in schools or not, our young people need to have in their lives more and more people with the qualities amy described.

    for their sake, and for the sake of society at large.

    to help them learn how to make their individual lives happier and more fulfilling, and to help all of us make the world a better place!

  8. Pattycake says:

    I appreciate everyone’s perspective. Comments such as below, however, offended me as a teacher.

    “Adults as a whole do not trust children.”

    “Of course, these eight things can be part of any learning environment, but usually aren’t.

    Only through unschooling,…are these the norm.”

    “If all teachers could model unschooling parents, we’d be well on our way to a better world.”

    They’re not true in my world.

  9. Pattycake says:

    I agree that the eight characteristics are part of great educational situations. I see them every day in my public school.

  10. Kelly says:

    Patty, you are so fortunate to work in a school that fosters these things and makes them a part of everyday life for young people. Unfortunately, many teachers do not work in such places.

    The elementary school I taught in embraced some of these ideals. Then NCLB came to town and many of these ideals went out the door, not because the teachers or even the administration were uncaring, but the dominant school culture became one of testing and accountability and rigid standards rather than of developmentally appropriate, child-centered, responsive practice. It didn’t mean that teacher’s suddenly didn’t care. Mostly it meant teachers became frustrated trying to juggle their beliefs about what was appropriate and best for children with the new testing and teaching requirements which were clearly not what was best for children. If your school is embracing these things, you are in a great position to share what you are doing with other schools that are not.

    • Amy says:

      Thanks for the comment, Kelly! This is what I meant when I said that the traits do not exist in many places. Pressure to perform on tests and the high stakes simply do not coincide with the traits outlined in my post. At least in my experience.


  11. Trish says:

    To Patty-
    “If you want to “unschool”, go ahead, but don’t criticize people about whom you know nothing. Shame on you.”
    Defensive take, snide quotation marks, and humiliating words. You may think you’re defending public school teachers across the board with your comment but you are only highlighting her position. Instead of reflecting a perceived personal attack with an actual personal attack, why didn’t you simply tell us why you disagree with the author’s view?

  12. Pattycake says:

    Thanks, all, for your input, (especially Dennis and Kelly!) especially those who understand what public school teachers live with. I in no way live in a perfect world – we deal with the same issues across the board: little support, ridiculous testing requirements, few resources, etc. The part of which I am so thankful and proud is that we love our students and do the best we can in spite of the problems.

    After re-reading the original blog post several times, I still feel that public teachers are being disrespected, even if in a backhanded way. But, that is absolutely the blogger’s right to feel and communicate as she sees fit. After all, it is her blog and it’s a free country. In the same way, I stand by my comments.

    • Amy says:

      Hi Patty,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I did not write the post as a diatribe to disrespect public teachers. In fact, I wrote it more to clarify what unschooling parents do, as the majority of the population thinks we do nothing, and I wanted to thank those people who I consider my own unschooling “mentors”. What I said was that these traits are often not found in schools – not because of the teachers – but because of the push for good grades and high stakes testing, which is what the BAT’s are fighting against. I also used the word “could”, not “should”. If teachers could implement those things – they often can’t because of the system.

      I think that Roger is correct that your initial response may be a reaction from years of feeling bombarded with negative comments and press. Which is one of the major issues I find when talking to teachers in the public school system. Any critique of the system is taken personally, even when it is not meant as such. How do we get past this? How do we get to the point where I can say “If all teachers could do this, it would be great,” and not immediately be reprimanded for criticizing teachers?

      Thanks again for your comments. I appreciate you taking the time to write.

  13. Jen says:

    Great article! I thoroughly enjoyed it =)

  14. Pattycake says:

    Thank you, Amy! I appreciate your understanding and your comments. I know where you’re coming from.

  15. Shara says:

    Rock On Girl! Great post!

  16. Kelly says:

    Great question, Amy. “How do we get past this?” I think conversations like this where people can talk about things honestly and connect with others who are perhaps doing things a little bit differently with an open mind and willingness to hear the point of view of others. I think this is how big change happens … one person at a time. :)

    I was at a forum for education change about a month ago. A small group of people (youth, parents, teachers with various backgrounds and opinions) sat together talking about what is working for them, what is not working for them and what might possibly be done to change the things that in their views need to be changed. Not everyone agreed on everything, but we were able to maintain a respectful dialogue throughout the day.

    One of the things we did during our time was watch a short film about a high school program that is really working well in one community. After the film we were sharing insights and one of the participants talked about a particular statement made by a student in the film and how she had interpreted his statement. Everyone nodded remembering that particular comment. What was interesting though was in talking about that one statement we discovered that in just our small group there were 5 or 6 different interpretations of what the student meant by that comment.

    That one conversation alone made the day a success for me. It was a great reminder for me that personal life experiences, how we are feeling at any particular moment and our perceptions about the person speaking greatly influence our interpretations of what has been said. Add to that a conversation occurring via the computer rather than in person and there is great potential for misunderstanding.

    I remember feeling what Patty describes when I was teaching, though I left teaching just as NCLB was being implemented and things became even more difficult for teachers trying to make a difference. It is easy to feel attacked by everyone when it seems everyone is attacking you and can feel especially hurtful when you are doing your best to make a bad situation better and working hard doing what you love to do.

    When I read “If all teachers could do this, it would be great!” I read it to mean, “If all teachers worked in environments and were supported by a system that made it possible to do all these things each and every day, it would be great.” But it could also be read it as, “If all teachers were doing this (because they are not right now), it would be great.” And it could probably be interpreted many other ways.

    Patty when you said, “I know where you are coming from.” I think that is one of the keys to Amy’s question. Trying to understand where the other person is coming from in any conversation.

    So thanks to the both of you for this entirely refreshing conversation, such a welcome departure from what often happens in the comment section. :)


  17. […] them a few good descriptions of unschooling (Earl Stevens, John Holt, Wikipedia), as well as some tenets Deb and I will try to strive for, and a third article espousing what Vie often does, which is that […]

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