We’ve been discussing unschooling around here since the blog began three years ago. At that time it was largely theoretical (since my oldest was not yet 2), but now we’re into it. She’s nearly 5 and we’re doing “kindergarten,” as it were, this year. I’ve blogged about what that looks like in our home, as well as our “lesson plans.”
Still, myths about unschooling abound, and nearly every time I post on it, I hear some of them. To be honest, a few of them really irritate me (sorry, I’m human). I know the majority are born out of simple naivety — I didn’t know what unschooling was much more than three years ago, either. Most people have never heard of it and so don’t really understand what it means. I’m hoping I can clear up a few myths about unschooling. It’s really so hard sometimes for those on the “outside” (i.e. not doing it, not right for their family) to really understand because it is so individual by family. Still, there are some core, very basic/broad truths about unschooling. Let’s dive in.
10 Myths About Unschooling
Myth #1: Unschooling is “just living life”
Truth: No. Well, sort of. Most people who say this mean that unschoolers never engage in any formal study, they just ‘learn by living’ through normal activities (eating, shopping, cooking) and so therefore, they will be unprepared and not knowledgeable about academic subjects.
However, although this is probably true for young students (preschool to early elementary), it does not ‘stay’ true. Plus, unschooling isn’t just about “whatever happens” in everyday life. Unschooling parents very carefully bring their children different books, materials, videos, field trips, and so on. They plan and as their children get older, help their children plan. They visit libraries and museums and read a lot.
They “study” life in myriad ways, not just “live” it. They work hard to learn deliberately…just in a very different way than traditionally-schooled children do.
Myth #2: Unschooled kids never learn to separate from their parents
Truth: All children learn to separate when they are ready to do so, and the age at which that occurs varies.
In our society, we like to push them towards independence, just as fast and as soon as we can. We put them in their own rooms from birth, pass them off to babysitters (even if only for the occasional night out) from a few months old, we let them cry themselves to sleep, we force them into preschool even if they cry. We do these things not for *our* occasional sanity (who doesn’t need a night off sometimes?) but because we believe it is ‘good’ for the child.
There is no child who has a range of options, activities, and relationships who will grow up and be afraid to leave his/her parents, if they are loved and cared for. And even if the child remains very close to his/her parents throughout life, isn’t that a benefit? It would certainly make the teen years easier….
We just need to change the way we think about ‘independence,’ when it should come, and to what extent it is really necessary. (But the image of an older child or teen who is too frightened to go to a friend’s house and hides behind his/her parents is just false.)
Myth #3: Unschooled kids aren’t properly “socialized”
Truth: This one always makes me laugh now.
“Socialized” — what does it mean? Really, it means getting along with others. Unschooled children are frequently on the go. They participate in art classes, sports teams, homeschooling groups, church groups, scouting, and so on. They go to museums, the grocery store, the library, etc. They’re constantly out in public. They’re constantly meeting people of all ages, races, genders, ethnic backgrounds, and so on. They have to learn to get along with all of these different people.
They have to learn how to ask for help finding a book in a library, or chat with the cashier at the grocery store. They have to learn to deal with teammates and friends in classes and groups. Believe me — they’re well socialized! (They just don’t spend 7 hours a day in a homogenous classroom with the same 30 kids, and some people dislike that.)
Myth #4: Unschooled kids aren’t prepared for and won’t succeed in college
Truth: As unschoolers get older, they choose their own paths in life. They can begin apprenticeships, internships, or even college courses at age 14 – 16. Once they find areas of strong interest (for some kids, this happens around ages 7 – 10, once they are capable of abstract/higher order thinking), they can begin to study those intensely. This prepares them for college, should they choose to go. (And studies show homeschoolers in general are highly successful in higher education.)
But remember, kids don’t *have* to go to college to be successful. And with unschooling, a child who knows that college isn’t for him/her can pursue other educational or training opportunities at a younger age and be starting a job/career by age 18, instead of just starting to search.
Myth #5: Unschooled kids never use any sort of books or curriculum
Truth: Of course unschooled kids use books! They are an excellent tool. They just choose whichever ones work best for them. 🙂
And as for curriculum, it’s true that most younger kids do not use one, and certainly do not rely on it. While other types of homeschoolers generally plan around a curriculum they’ve carefully selected (using some additional materials), unschoolers do not follow a curriculum or any form of plan laid out by someone else. Instead they make use of a bunch of different materials that work for them.
However, as unschoolers get older and show a strong interest in a particular field of study, they may choose their own curriculum materials — including an actual, formal curriculum if it makes sense to them. Some families also choose to unschool for most subjects, but use a curriculum for math or reading. Some kids, even at a young age, ask for workbooks! It’s all dependent on what works for the individual child and family. We can’t say, though, that unschooled kids “never” use curriculum because that isn’t true.
Myth #6: Unschooled kids will never learn to stand in line or follow group directions
Truth: This is also pretty silly. 🙂
First, it’s not exactly a major educational goal of mine for my children to learn to stand in line or think as part of a group. I’d really rather they didn’t spend a whole lot time learning those things, actually, especially at a younger age. It’s more important, in my opinion, for children to learn to think and behave independently before becoming part of a group, so that they are (hopefully) less vulnerable to peer pressure.
But, unschooled children still do learn to stand in line, wait their turn, and follow other “group rules.” Remember, they participate in scouting, sports teams, music lessons, and so on. There are group rules in each of these settings, which the children must follow. They will grow up knowing they can choose or not choose to participate in any particular group, but that if they choose to do it, they are bound by the rules of that group.
Also, anyone who’s ever been to a bank or a grocery store or the DMV knows you have to stand in line and wait your turn sometimes. Or even at a play date! There are so many real-life ways for children to learn these skills; they do not need to go to formal schooling for it.
Myth #7: Unschooled kids are missing some major childhood experience
Truth: “Major childhood experiences” are in the eye of the beholder.
Some would argue the ritual of public schooling is critical. Others would argue that eating at McDonald’s or consuming Kool-aid in the summer is important. Really, these things are important parts of their memories, and so they believe everyone should feel the same. But of course, that isn’t true. Children can make memories in whatever they do. All children really “require” is parents who love them and are present with them through their life.
Whether their memories are of catching fireflies in the summer or sledding with Dad in the winter or Saturday used-bookstore excursions (or even going to the salon for beauty treatments with mom), what does it matter? Everyone’s experiences are different and there’s nothing wrong with that. Children who do not have loving parents, who are abused or neglected — those children are missing out. Children whose loving parents provide them with an eclectic and non-traditional upbringing are not. They simply have different memories to cherish.
Myth #8: Unschooled kids never really learn anything, and their parents decided to unschool because they are lazy
Truth: This is so silly. Of course they do.
They count and sort objects when they’re helping mom at age 3, and ask a million questions at age 4, visit all those museums and read all those books…. Unschoolers are constantly doing something! (I never, ever, ever hear “I’m bored.”)
And the parents? They choose to unschool because they believe it’s best for their family. Good unschooling parents are constantly looking for new books, new movies, new activities, new crafts, new ideas, etc. to expose their children to. They’re constantly trying to hunt up items or experts to help their children learn. Unschooling parents have to be very involved in order to be successful!
Myth #9: Unschooled kids might just play video games all day and nothing else
Truth: There may be brief periods of time in which this is true. Sometimes kids go through an “I-hate-school” phase, and with unschooling, it’s a bit easier to just take a break for a couple of weeks and then start fresh, rather than pushing the issue and making it a bigger problem. But if this happens, it’s very temporary. It isn’t a lifestyle.
If a child is struggling to find his/her interests and talents, then the parent needs to seek out new experiences and help the child figure out where to start and what to do. They don’t just ignore the child and allow them to mess around all day long!
(Besides, this “I hate learning” thing is often unique to kids in the public schools, where they have to try to fit into a one-size-fits-all mold that they don’t fit into. They eventually decide the problem is learning in general and just stop trying. Kids who have always been unschooled often do not have this problem, because their education has always been tailored to their pace and needs.)
Myth #10: Unschooling just isn’t compatible with “real life”
Truth: What is “real life,” anyway? If we believe it is going to public school, going to college, fitting in and being the same as everyone else…no, unschooling isn’t compatible with that. But “real life” is so dependent on what each individual person wants to do!
Unschooling can easily prepare children for whatever life they want to have. Besides, unschooling occurs in a real-world setting — kids are out and about among all different people and situations. They’re having to be self-motivated in order to learn, because they don’t get grades and gold stars like public school children do. As adults they won’t get gold stars. They will get raises or promotions in their jobs, but they’ll also get fired for a lack of motivation or poor work! Learning early on to simply be self-motivated is a huge plus in the “real world.”
Unschooling isn’t quite like most people think. And of course it isn’t for every family. For those it’s right for, it’s awesome, and definitely a valid approach to education.
Thanks for explaining all this…I was homeschooled for 10 years of my life and my mom did use definite curriculum for us (ABeka for me mostly). I have to admit that my perception of unschooling has not been particularly favorable but only because the one family we knew growing up who labeled themselves as “unschoolers” genuinely were lazy slobs and the kids could barely read. But we shouldn’t ever define a group of people based on the exceptions or the people who don’t do it well, so I appreciate the reminder to not do that.
I remember being a young mom, deciding whether we were going to unschool our son. The only example we had at that time (20 yrs ago) seemed like a BAD one to us. The children struggled mightily with reading, math and spelling. Being young and inexperienced and not knowing all the facts of that families situation, we wanted NOTHING to do with it. Fast forward a few years, and we came to learn that this particular families children all have severe learning disabilities due to the fact that their father had been exposed to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War and it adversely affected the childrens developements. With this new knowledge, I came to DEEPLY respect that family and what those parents were undertaking by giving those kids the very best education possible!! We began homeschooling/unschooling a few years later and (with the exception of my oldest son who went to public school for 1 yr) not a one of my kids have seen the inside of a public school. Three have”graduated” and one more to go and are all doing things they love! I’m proud of them all! I’m so happy you came to that wonderful conclusion of not putting ALL unschoolers into the same category because of one seemingly bad example 🙂
Thank you so much for this post. I started homeschooling my 5 year in September and felt so much pressure to do it right. However, I kept running into major conflict with him as I tried to order our days/lessons as he would experience in a classroom. I’ve found myself daily making choices that mean we are becoming more and more unschoolers. This article really solidified it for me and has encouraged me to go with my gut and break away from a formal model. We sure have had a ton of fun pursuing interests, going on farm tours, learning through life, & crafting. It is certainly my own issue as I break away from the model that is obviously deeply ingrained in me as to what learning looks like.
When we first began homeschooling (10 years ago), I knew a family that “unschooled.” Due to changes in their circumstances, the children later had to be enrolled in public school. All 5 children were behind their public school peers, some quite significantly. In this case, “unschooling” meant just living life and letting the kids do whatever they want. I formed a very negative opinion of “unschooling” as a result.
After reading your post, as well as others, I have changed my opinion. When a parent knows where they are going with education, and has a plan (no matter how loose and flexible), this can work. It isn’t the best choice for our family, but it obviously works for some. One of the things I appreciate most about homeschooling is the flexibility parents have to make the best decision for our children, regardless of what others do!
I’m so excited you wrote about this! There are so many misconceptions surrounding this educational method, so I’m always glad to see well-written posts like yours that debunk the myths.
I have been interested in unschooling ever since my cousin started unschooling her two young children and I saw the impressive results. I don’t usually link to my own posts in comments, but I am too excited about this topic to limit my response to a small comment section, so in essence, here’s what I think: http://thepocketchronicles.blogspot.com/2011/12/unschooling.html
My baby is only three months old, but he’s already being “unschooled” in a sense. To live is to learn, and it happens at every age, as long as we are curious and exploratory!
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Thanks for writing this. Love it! Made me tear up on myth 7. I recently decided to do distant learning, like homeschooling but still part of the school system, with my gr 8 child. I have heard lots of these myths and they mess with your head at times and I also wondered if I was depriving him of the jr high experience. So I really needed to hear myth 7.
Love your blog! 🙂
Thank you for this from an unschooling family! Well, we unschooled one while the other requires more structure. But isn’t that what makes home schooling so amazing? We can fine tune our children’s education!
The only thing I might add is that it is far more important to teach a child HOW to learn rather than WHAT to learn. Human beings are naturally curious, always wondering what, how and why. Yet when it’s forced down our throats, it can take all of the fun and interest out of it!
I found your blog through pinterest and as someone who was homeschooled myself, I am very interested in the idea of unschooling my future children. I had a question for you though. At the end of your post, you said that as adults we are punished for lack of motivation or poor work in the workplace by being fired, but how do you instill this idea in your children while unschooling? If they are going through an “I hate school” phase and you allow them to take some weeks off, how do you teach them good work ethic and keep them from being spoiled, in a sense? I guess I’m just not understanding how a child learns to be self-motivated if they are never really pushed formally. I really enjoyed this post and thanks in advance for your feedback! 🙂
I think that rather than pushing the child, she reminds him why its important, and what is good and interesting about it, so that the child comes out of the phase on their own and learns for themselves what they need to do without needing pushed, AKA teaching initiative. This is just my perspective, I am in no way speaking for the author!
I just had a question.. I’m new to all this and I was just wondering if any of the kids have to take state standardized tests and because of the uniqueness of each child’s learning situation, if they had trouble being at the level the state said they should be.. thanks!
They don’t have to, at least where I am. They can, but parents can opt out. (Also true if your kids are in public school — they really don’t “have” to take the tests. But the schools can lose funding if they don’t, so they don’t usually tell you this.) I don’t worry about the standardized tests because I don’t think they are a good measure of a child’s abilities.
It depends on what state you live in. Here in Colorado, the homeschooling law says we need to test/have our child tested in odd school years starting at the end of 3rd grade through the 11th grade. I feel bad because the tests can make some of our kids very happy or depressed, depending on how they do in a particular subject (or subjects). I try to tell them that not everyone is good at everything, but they still see the low test results as an indicator of their self-worth. 🙁 Also, we also knew one family who “unschooled” (the mom truly was lazy), but after their divorce they public schooled their children. The older children were 3 years behind in academics, and the younger ones couldn’t read yet. They thrived in public school, unfortunately. But we have another friend who decided to unschool last year, and she is the kind of parent like you, who loves to give her children experiences as a part of their learning.
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There can be problems no mater which type of schooling parents choose. It really comes down to a lot of dedication from the parents, but I will say that I do know parents that have chosen “un-schooling” and it was a disaster in regards to spelling, math and reading. Why? Because when child didn’t “want” to do those they didn’t have to. Which turned into children deficit in the most basic of important skills. So no matter which type of program parents choose it is a lot of work, and yes children do not always know what is best for them and if falls to the parents to be sure the children are getting the education needed. I think this can be done no matter what type of schooling is chosen. The best parents keep “OPTIONS” open towards different ways of schooling and use what is needed for each child. Remember one is not an expert on what works until the job is finished.
I love this article and description. Reading John Holt’s books many years ago, and comparing different methods, I liked the idea of Susan Wise Bauer’s classical education but knew we would pick, choose, and modify everything to fit us. Now my eldest is graduating and he has done just fine in testing and on the SAT. He chooses not to attend college at this time but he can always take classes to further his career. He has had career training in several areas and is adored by his employers because he knows how to think, has a great work ethic, and a wide range of skills.
The next teenagers are in line to do just as well. I would say they socialized less than some families, but they have always been in public, interacting with adults and people of every age, race, and creed. They converse well, pitch in and work, and hold their own in all situations. They can build things, and have a great variety of skills.
Regarding curriculum, my motto is to find out what they would be required to do. I buy a variety of books, DVDs and kits they can avail at will. They have computer privaleges focused mainly on their subjects of interest, and they choose the curriculum as they get older. They pick and choose from books too. Remember, public school classes rarely do a book cover to cover, and we don’t have to, either. Many books just have a segment that is particularly compelling. That isn’t a waste, it is a valuable resource.
You know your child best. Find out what interests the child, and feed the creative and inquisitive drive with enriching experiences and products. The child will grab the bull by the horns when they realize it is in their best interest. If they are truly reluctant I do intervene with a minimum requirement. Children hate to be bored, and most learning is fun. Get the monotonous stuff done first and then they can do what they like.
Just my philosophy, and it seems to work. -Bee
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Thanks for breaking the 10 Myths on unschooling. I noticed a lot of these slanderous myths are also levied at home schooling. It’s a full time job answering all the myths.
One to add is that unschoolers have no rules. This is a myth because we do have our own rules, but the difference is we decide what they should be.
The rules and expectations in our house are constantly changing as we try new things out and learn and grow from them.
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