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My advice to a mom considering unschooling

I got an e-mail from a mom considering unschooling but feeling uncertain with doubts. I wrote her back with encouragement, reasons to unschool, and advice on how to get started unschooling.

I asked if I could share our e-mails on my blog and she said: “I would love for you to share our dialogue with other readers. Anything to help a potential homeschooler with a hard decision.”

When I left school at 15 to start homeschooling following the unschooling philosophy it was hardly a choice: I knew right away it was for me! But for some I understand it is a very difficult decision. I hope my response is helpful to those considering unschooling and those having doubts along the way!

Here is the e-mail Shannon wrote me, followed by my response:

Hi Eli,

I really enjoyed reading your blog and have marked it as a favorite. I am an artist and mom who is interested in unschooling my children who are 4 and 6. My son is in public school and has been tagged to be “behind” in the classroom. His teacher says he needs more direction and may have some attention difficulties. She believes that pulling him out to homeschool would make him socially struggle through life. I don’t believe her and wanted to see what you have to say about your experience and whether standing in line and getting a notebook out when the teacher says is an important and vital part of becoming a productive citizen. I see he may need more encouragement but positively believe he is amazingly smart in so many different ways that don’t have to do with regurgitating information. I know in my heart what to do but, am trying to support my decision through reaching out to people like you! Thank you for your time and most of all for your cool blog!

Cheers, Shannon

And here is my reply:

Hi Shannon,

Thanks for your e-mail and I just want to say: you are totally doing the right thing for your child considering unschooling! I remember when I started at 15 and an unschooling mom said something like: “I just wanted to say you’ve made a good choice doing this.” It was really helpful and encouraging to hear that.

Like you said it sounds like you know in your heart what to do but it is difficult to take that first step. It can feel and be very new. Reaching out to people is a great idea.

Where are you located? I’d definitely recommend reaching out to local unschooling or homeschooling groups in your area. They will provide support and also you’ll just be able to see tons of homeschoolers older than your son who have developed perfectly fine without school!

My only tip for that is to make sure to really reach out to the group. In school the teachers come after us and make us participate. In homeschooling you have to get involved yourself. Attend homeschool events and approach people. Even better organize your own events, outings, even regular classes based on your child’s interests or an expertise you have.

And there are plenty of ways for your kids to socialize with kids who don’t homeschool. Probably most of my socializing while unschooling high school was with my cross country and track team at my local high school Some schools allow homeschoolers to do sports with them some don’t.

Anyway, there are clubs sports, art classes, theatre is awesome, etc.

The other thing is unschooling conferences. Many people say the best part of them is being able to meet cool teen and grown unschoolers. But you’ll also meet a bunch of other parents who have gone through the same struggle with this decision as you have.

As far as the teacher saying he’ll struggle socially: most teachers are simply uninformed about homeschooling. So they have plenty of misconceptions.

But yeah, your children are precious. They deserve better than sitting in a rows, doing worksheets that really have no positive purpose, and being told what to do by an adult who CAN’T really care about them. There’s just too many other kids in a classroom. Teachers are often quite clear about the first priority in the classroom being control or “classroom management”.

I heard one person say that a principal advised a teacher by saying, “Classroom management is 90%. It’s your job to make that other 10% count.” When you have your kids at home you pretty much don’t have to worry about that 90%. Homeschooling is more efficient at the very least.

But yeah, more importantly you’re giving your kids a chance to shine. I have no doubt your son is really smart in many ways like you said. I think everyone is. People are amazing.

It’ll be an adventure if you choose to unschool and I think your whole family will love it.

I mentioned your e-mail to my mom. She expressed regret at not taking us out of school. (I chose to leave myself in high school and so did one of my siblings and my mom did let us.)  She said, “Now I just think: if you’re child doesn’t like school get him the hell outta there.”

I love my mom. LOL Anyway, I hope this was helpful. Hope I didn’t overwhelm you with too much!

Actually, part way through I realized this might be helpful stuff for other people to read: would you mind if I posted it on my blog? I could just not include the e-mail you wrote but it’d be cool too: I think many others could relate to it. And I wouldn’t have to include your full name or name at all.

Let me know what you think! I’m really flattered you wrote me and I’m so glad to hear your enjoy reading my blog! Means a lot to know people like you are getting something out of it and hopefully being encouraged to give your child freedom.

All the best,
Eli

One thing I’ll add that I didn’t say in the e-mail: do whatever works.

In regards to the post I made about radical unschooling and the lively discussion going on in the comments section: there are many ways to unschool. I encourage you to trust your children and give them as much freedom as possible while still sharing your guidance as respectfully as possible. There are many ways to give your child freedom, expose them to the wonders of the world, and share your guidance, gifts, and wisdom (we all have some!).

Some would say there are different “types of unschooling”. I say the main thing is taking your child out of school. As long as you give them SOME freedom they are most likely going to be much better off than they would be in school.

And it’s possible they will be miraculously better off unschooling than if they went to school.

Still, everyone has to do what they have to do. It’s possible unschooling would be too big of a change for some people right now while they’re busy working on other important things, maybe even healing work.

Or I’m sure there are a host of reasons to not unschool. I just can’t think of many. 🙂

Anyway, good luck to all who are considering unschooling/homeschooling and may you make the best choice for your family.

16 Responses to “My advice to a mom considering unschooling”

  1. A. Malys says:

    Eli is correct on all accounts and has a well rounded flexible take on the Unschooling concept. I have but this to add. Unschooling is only a label. It is neither this or that. The words definition is your experience with it. it is guided by your child for your child. Do not get caught up in whether your a homeschooler, unschooler, world schooler, not back to schooler, the point is that your child is happy, enriched, informed, empowered and excited. Frankly if school is the antithesis of what we are doing, the word should not even be part of the terminology that we use to define ourselves. Glean all of the insights that you can from others, couple it with what you feel comfortable with and start there. It will evolve as both your child and yourself will.

    Our 11 year old requested to be pulled out of City Honors the most highly rated public school in our area, and we did. We have seen more growth in the last year than in the last 5 years. She is stronger, more outgoing, vivacious and full of wisdom. She is also happy and excited everyday.

    The best thing that you can do is to realize this sooner than later.

    Good Luck with your decision.

    Caio,
    Aaron

    • Eli Gerzon says:

      Wow, thank you so much for sharing this Aaron. It’s true it’s not worth getting too caught up in labels. And I really like what you said here:

      “Glean all of the insights that you can from others, couple it with what you feel comfortable with and start there. It will evolve as both your child and yourself will.”

      It’s always so cool and inspiring to here real stories from people: again thanks for sharing your family’s.

  2. Cheryl says:

    Shannon,

    First, I’d say watch this video: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

    Second, what is happening to your son happened to my daughter. She was declared “behind,” and then she was diagnosed with ADHD because she couldn’t pay attention — in 1st grade. This is a kid who can spend hours drawing, but she wasn’t interested in worksheets and drills. She has an imagination that she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) turn off for school. I took her out after 1st grade and she’s now 13. She still has a distaste for anything that seems like “school work” and prefers to learn in other ways. But she’s a wonderful and talented artist who just needed a place where her imagination could be free and her talents could be used and appreciated.

    She also has more friends than she knows what to do with at times. We are involved in a few homeschool groups and we often have too much to do. Your son will not suffer socially, except that he may have to choose between social activities because there is so much out there.

    Do what you think will be best for your child. I always wanted to homeschool, but I didn’t have the guts until my child had a bad school experience. I’ve never regretted taking her out.

  3. Thanks Eli for sharing and everyone who took the time to comment! I feel the love! Sometimes when faced with a decision…..all you need is a warm hug of encouragement to set you free.

  4. Eli Gerzon says:

    Cheryl, thanks so much sharing your story and that TED piece about creativity. It’s a wonderful talk and I love the story of the dancer with the line: “There’s nothing wrong with your daughter: she’s just a dancer.”

    Imagine if everyone had someone who recognized who they are the gifts they have?

    Shannon, I’m so glad you wrote me and let me share the e-mail! Let us know if you have any more questions. Homeschoolers definitely like to give support as you can see!

    Also I just discovered this list of homeschooling/unschooling groups for every state: http://unschoolers.com/supportgroups.html

    Many are Christian groups but many welcome everyone regardless of religion or use of curriculum.

  5. jessiev says:

    bravo, eli! as you know, we’re unschooling lillie and it can be frightening as a parent to LET GO. but it is SOOO, so worth it. lillie’s so full of joy and creativity and love and learning that our lives are such a pleasure. glad you wrote this – and your site. we love it!

  6. Maria Combe says:

    Hi, I have just pulled my daughter out of school for the SECOND time in her life. The first time was in second grade, where she felt very pressured to write, and write quickly, and tell about herself (she is shy and introverted), and do lots of busy paperwork that she understood and remembered the first time she encountered and now was bored out of her mind. We didn’t do that much while she was “homeschooled” – she would just pull out math workbooks and do a math cd-rom program on the computer, read a little, play with dolls as much as possible, draw, and watch tv whenever I let her. Sometimes we would play board games, especially any I thought had educational content.

    At this point I have to confess that I am not a well-organized person, not good at motivating children – or myself, feel rather pressured and frantic myself most of the time, am not an imaginative teacher except in certain spurts, not good with housework or social obligations, and I really feel like the creative things I would like to do with my life have been put on hold, perhaps forever! Moreover, for me, having both my kids in school gives me the freedom to think about what I want and perhaps work my way into some authentic work of my own.

    On the other hand, I am compassionate, intuitive about people’s needs, love languages and literature and art and music and science and the beauty of nature, and I want my children to have the leisure to explore these things themselves at their own rate. I am also very angry at the way the public school system acts as though the children were theirs, not yours, and they know what’s best for them, and it is their way, the way of rewards and punishments, including taking away the only recess they have for not finishing your busywork on time, and coercing people into doing mandatory tasks in approved order or else.

    Well, the next year, third grade, I was afraid to continue unschooling because I felt Naomi would never become an educated person if left to her own devices and my defective homeschooling. Where, for example, would she learn to be efficient and effective? Certainly not from me. Plus, I really wanted my time back, my freedom to figure myself out at last and live a creative life. So I brought her back to school and they were happy to take her back, if only as confirmation that school is the best and the only normal way. After a little practice at home she took the placement test, and much to my surprise, was ready for third grade work, though she was still a VERY slow worker and the principal suggested she might be happier at home because of the pace required at school. Well, I said, “Let’s just see how well she does and go from there!” – almost gasping with relief that she didn’t have to back to 2nd grade. And, lo and behold, she attended school and made straight As all year long. When the teacher tried to keep her in from recess because of unfinished work, I convinced her not to to that, on the grounds that it was demoralizing. So Naomi did all right that year, joined the 3rd & 4th grade choir, etc.

    This year, fourth grade, in a new school in Alaska (the military moved us), the teacher is a stickler for finished work – everything in this school, classwork and homework alike, gets a letter grade – and still feels that making kids finish their homework at recess is the only recourse she has, and that I shouldn’t “give in” to Naomi by taking her out ot school, because Naomi is only “trying to get out of work”: she dawdles and “daydreams” in class instead of working (Naomi is thinking about what to write, she tells me)…. etc.

    So I took her out. Alaska’s homeschooling laws are extremely permissive unless you are getting a homeschooling allotment, which is a very good deal that you pay for by lots of intrusive reporting, fine for an organized traditional homeschooling family with a preplanned curriculum unlike us. As it is, with no government financial support, once you unenroll from school, that’s it. They would have to prove you were not giving the child any education at all to get you in trouble, so you’re free to do it however you choose.

    The trouble is, I can’t find a curriculum I can imagine Naomi following all the way through, and one I could also stand. The things that move my intellectual curiosity are not the same ones that inspire her. I know that trying to get her interested in something is one of the best ways to get her to run the other way, no matter how indirect I am. If there were an elementary Montessori school or a Waldorf school nearby that we could afford (neither of those options, affordable or otherwise, exist around here), then she might very well be happy going to school. I would like to – and still hope to – prepare some kind of similar ambiance at home, but we are still not even fully unpacked for living purposes, let alone an attractive learning environment.

    So here’s my plan – because the hit or miss curriculum we’ve been doing isn’t working out too well right now: Get her some independent, self-paced software for math and writing (I think I saw something on Amazon that might work), do the best I can to make the house pretty and user-friendly, spend some time reading and talking and snuggling with her every day, provide materials for artwork and opportunities for field trips, and, instead of focusing so much on what Naomi is or isn’t doing, work on something that inspires me, so I can be an inspiration to her and my other daughter.

    We are not very good with time, but I guess I should also try to make some time to get together with unschooling families, if I there are any up here in the hinterlands, though she says she doesn’t want to join a homeschool group. (My other daughter, by the way, thrives in the structure and social life of school, and loves her teacher, so I won’t pull her out.. We already did that for her in 1st grade because her school was a concentration camp, and after a year of detoxing, she was ready for 2nd grade.)

    Sorry this is so long. Don’t have anyone to talk to about this. If you have any words of wisdom, I would love to hear them!

    Maria C.

  7. Cynthia says:

    Aaron,

    “The words definition is your experience with it”

    Great, GREAT words! Labels can be so limiting and can also place so much pressure to perform a certain way.

    Thanks!

  8. Eli Gerzon says:

    Maria,
    Thanks so much for writing here about this. First of all, I think your plan to provide your child with a good home, be there, and just be a role model by following your own passions sounds perfect. I really do.

    It sounds like your daughter really needs to have her own space and not push her at all.

    Right now she just needs to be allowed to just be.

    I wouldn’t even worry about whether she is into the math or writing software or ANYTHING academic right now.

    I didn’t do anything resembling school or academics for about a year when I started unschooling at 15. Then I took some classes on subjects that really interested me at a community college and it was a wonderful addition to my overall unschooling education.

    I don’t really think you have to do any workbooks or classes if you don’t want to.

    But if you really want her to do academic stuff you can rest assured that when she’s ready she could finish an entire high school education in less than a year with homeschooling. It’s just not that difficult when someone is motivated.

    When someone is resisting it’s terrible which is the case so often in school!

    Anyway, there are definitely lots of places you can look for advice and support. Even if your daughter doesn’t want to connect with any homeschooling or unschooling groups now it’ll be helpful to you.

    And when she’s ready I bet she’ll warm to the idea of connecting with more homeschoolers/unschoolers.

    I know Helen Hegener is in Alaska also. She publishes the Home Education Magazine and moderates the magazine’s Yahoo e-mail list: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/HEM-Networking/

    Anyway, Yahoo lists are a good place to look for support. Helen will probably have more ideas for Alaska and unschooling.

    Mainly trust your daughter. I think you have a sensitive, independent, and probably very creative person on your hands. It’s a real blessing: the world needs people like her.

    I want to read what she has to write about someday!

    It’s just school doesn’t value sensitivity and independence: it actually gets in the way for them.

    You’ll probably worry, it’s natural to have doubts along the way, but I’ll just say you don’t have to. It sounds like you haven’t taken what her teacher said too seriously, but I just want to say it’s complete bullshit.

    When your daughter is daydreaming she is creating. That is the most blessed work there is. She’s not trying to get out of work, she’s trying to do real work that has meaning and joy to her.

    I recommend watching this vid “School Kills Creativity”: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

    Sir Ken Robinson tells a story of girl who is having trouble in school. Eventually a wonderful person realizes: “There’s nothing wrong with your daughter. She’s just a dancer.”

    And that woman did go on to be a famous dancer and choreographer.

    So: There’s nothing wrong with your daughter. She’s just a writer. That doesn’t mean she’ll stick with writing always or become famous even if she does. But that’s just the kind of person she is now and that is wonderful.

    It may feel difficult now, but I think you have a lot to be thankful for with the way your child is.

    Def reach out to more unschooling families. That’ll help. And I hope this was helpful. I hope to hear how things go!

    -Eli

  9. Maria Combe says:

    Eli, thank you for the wonderful and nurturing reply.

    My older daughter, Miriam, and I were marveling that you called Naomi a writer. She loves math, actually (in part, I’m guessing, because the evaluation is objective and no one is judging your inner being by way of your math homework) and she hates writing! And I looked at my post again and saw that I said she was thinking about what to write, and I meant for her class assignment over which she was “dawdling” because she hates writing.

    In school she would “draw” her letters perfectly (up until last year, when she finally caught on she had to go faster, and now her handwriting is messy!) and she would never complete a writing assignment. Well, let’s see. Mandatory writing a at an early age, to be completed within a limited timeframe, strict subject parameters and rigid adherence to a formal structure, taught by a grumpy teacher – the official writing teacher for a whole elementary school – under threat of recess deprivation …why wouldn’t she love that?

    But when she was small she would “write” stories in pictures that were complicated and symbolic, and her favorite play is pretending, with dolls or friends or both, and the stories she has actually completed are hilarious, with an edge. I told her once I thought she might be a writer when she grows up and she looked at me like I was crazy.

    She wants to be a chef, a fashion designer, a rock star, a dancer, a gymnast. She wants to take things apart and put them back together. When she was three or four, she kept wanting me to take the toilet tank cover off so she could watch what happened when she flushed it over and over. She loves board games and guessing games and computer games. I don’t know what she’ll end up doing when she grows up, but I hope she will do it for love, and I think she may have a better chance of that as an unschooler.

    Homeschooling always seemed like a wonderful thing I would never be good at. Unschooling is just shocking – you can see people’s hands instinctively reaching for the nearest phone when they hear about someone doing it! I would hear about people unschooling who always had, and I figured I had already (almost) ruined my children by sending them to school and they would never recover the unfettered intellectual curiosity and creativity that those unschoolers seemed to have.

    Miriam, my extroverted 12-year-old-going-on-sixteen, was impressed by your reply and thought the whole idea was exciting, but tells me she feels like she is already being homeschooled by her teacher, a hilariously expressive and motherly African-American woman, who engages the children in running conversation and banter throughout the day, makes the required drudge work fun, keeps the homework to a minimum and doesn’t interfere with precious recess. Miriam expressed worry about next year, when she won’t have her school “mom,” and I told her she could always come home.

    Thank you for your support and validation.

  10. Maria Combe says:

    One question, though, what do I do about TV? Pull the plug, ditch the cable box, block Disney and Nick, keep the set locked away for special occasions…or just hope that TV was an escape from drudgery that will lose its glamor once the detox stage is over? It’s addictive, and I fear Naomi will just get sucked in without some kind of work she has to complete first or some kind of time restriction, but there’s that forbidden fruit effect we already experience, since I already try to limit viewing. The girls both sneak down to the basement where I keep it so it won’t take over the house, but at least Miriam has already been to school when she starts watching. Any ideas?

  11. Eli Gerzon says:

    Cynthia,
    Sounds like I misunderstood what you were saying about your daughter daydreaming about writing in your first post. But now reading more of what you wrote it sounds like she really might be a great writer, even if she doesn’t think so right now!

    As far as the TV, I really wouldn’t worry. I’d let her watch as much as she wants right now. There’s something that unschoolers call “decompression”: when someone leaves school for unschooling they often appear to “do nothing” for a long time at first.

    But soon they get bored with just sitting around and gain their own self-motivation and confidence back. It may appear that they’re “doing nothing” but I think some important healing work is going on below the surface.

    And I’d just really advise against thinking of school as “good” and TV as a “bad” “guilty pleasure” you can have after you’ve done school. When you frame it like that it’s natural that kids are going to gravitate towards the “forbidden fruit” like you said.

    I’d just let TV be what it is: you can actually learn a lot from it and it’s okay some it is dumb. It’s true it can get addictive for some people. But again I just wouldn’t worry about that now. Give her time: trust both your girls.

    You trust them, they’ll trust themselves, and they’ll be trustworthy.

    I think every child loves learning (just not always what adults want them to learn) and pretty much anyone can get that love of learning back.

    But I certainly think that’s the case with Naomi: from the things you mentioned it sounds like her mind is really working hard on all sorts of creative and analytical things.

    Using pictures to tell a story and telling stories that are hilarious with an edge at her age: she clearly has some gifts.

    And as far Miriam, that’s really cool that she’s enjoying her time with her teacher now: there definitely are some extraordinary teachers out there. My fourth grade teacher had a really good effect on me too.

    She’d let me read even when I was supposed to be writing, was caring and kind, and just clearly really enjoyed what she was teaching.

    And if Miriam knows about unschooling, knows it’s there when she wants it, that’s wonderful. Sounds like she’d make good use of school right away too.

    Anyway, I’d love to hear how things develop and I do hope you try to reach out to some other homeschooling and unschooling groups and families.

    Take care,
    Eli

  12. Kids Music says:

    It is a very nice and good post. Keep up the good work.

  13. […] morning I spent some time reading through a few of Eli’s posts and discovered this comment. It was so good that I want to pull the first paragraph out to repost […]

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