Radical Unschooling: the Negative Post

Years ago, I wrote a blog post called Intro to Radical Unschooling. In it, I described some of the things I like about radical unschooling. I said I’d write another blog post addressing negative things I don’t like about it. Finally, this is that post.

Why Now?

I heard of radical unschooling in 2007 at a large unschooling conference and was honestly somewhat skeptical. But the idea of total freedom for children was interesting, and I was excited by what a large and vocal following it had across the country.  So, I kept an open mind.

Over time, I noticed more and more things that bothered me about the philosophy, or at least how I saw it being implemented. My inspiration for writing about it now came from an unexpected source.

Recently, I was walking along and noticed a girl from my sixth grade class standing on the front steps of a house just a block down from me. I’ve lived in my apartment for exactly a year and never realized she lived so close. We’d only been in the same class for a year, but we still had plenty to reminisce about and catch up on. For example, I told her our classmate Josh just had a baby. Her jaw dropped and she said, “Wow! Must be a good looking baby!” (Oh, sixth grade and the crushes we had.)

Then she told me why she had gone to a different high school. Her parents had seen the track she was headed down and knew a change needed to take place.  Apparently, she had been hanging out with “the wrong crowd.” She was even taken home in a cop car a couple times when they all went out looking for trouble and found it. She said it was hard to fit in and that was one way she tried.

When she got to this art centered high school everyone seemed to be really focused on working toward their own goals. She said it had a good effect on her. In fact, she looked off down the street, took a breath and said, “It’s actually one of the best things to happen to me.” It made me think about the way some things can truly alter our lives and who we become.

Exceptions to Radical Unschooling 

Then it made me think about radical unschooling. This was a case where parents made their child do something, something major, without their child’s consent, and the child grew up to be very thankful for it. Definitely not an approach the radical unschooling community would endorse — but in this case, it worked.

This is also a good example of how we can be affected by our environment. When unschoolers, radical or otherwise, talk about people’s natural motivation to learn and do what’s ultimately best for themselves, they often don’t acknowledge the power of our environment. What I’m motivated  to do is affected by what’s available, what’s needed, what others are doing, what’s considered “cool”, etc.

My awareness of the significance of environment on a person’s life is part of what motivated me to come up with the term “worldschooling.” When we put ourselves in certain environments it can motivate or even force us to learn things, for better or for worse.

Maybe some radical unschoolers would acknowledge this case of parents sending their child to a school of their choosing as an exception where the radical unschooling approach was not the best thing. Of course, they might insist the parents should have taken her out of school altogether (and I might disagree because maybe she’d still run with the same crowd in town).

I did speak at an unschooling conference (with mostly radical unschoolers) and tried to make the point that sometimes it is best for parents to push their child to do things. One mother insisted she’d never force her son to do anything. I said, “What if you knew he was doing something that might get him killed?”

She replied serenely, “Well, maybe that’s his destiny.”

Now, I think she underestimates the power of her instinct to preserve her own child’s survival: she would try to stop him if she thought his life was in danger (regardless of her philosophy). There are no radical unschoolers in a foxhole.

But her words do show how far some radical unschooling parents go in insisting that not forcing their children to do anything is the ideal. Personally, I think the ideal is truly happy, healthy people who know themselves, and do their best to share their gifts with the world.

And I think there are times when that requires a parent or caretaker to override what the child says he/she wants. Usually, things are not as major as the story above. And definitely, it’s not always clear how best to act or whether to just let a child learn from her/his own mistakes.

Among radical unschoolers you do often hear the example, “If my child ran into the street when a car was coming, of course I would grab him/her.” But most situations are not as clear, and each parent does ultimately have to decide if and how to intervene in a child’s life. Again, I think most radical unschoolers would acknowledge that as well.

Then what is distinctive about radical unschooling?

If all parents have to decide for themselves when and how to intervene in their children’s lives, then what makes radical unschoolers different?

The Distinction of Radical Unschooling

I think that’s why radical unschoolers talk about video games, TV, food, and bedtimes so much: it’s something on which they all agree. Radical unschoolers think the best thing for children is if they are given unrestricted access to all these things and allowed to sleep whenever they want. They may have a lot of junk food, play lots of video games, watch lots of TV, and stay up really late during certain periods. But, according to the philosophy of radical unschooling, they will eventually develop their own healthy, balanced way of living if given enough time and trust.

Almost all parents who are not radical unschoolers think this approach to TV, bedtimes, junk food, and video games is ridiculous. By concentrating on these things radical unschoolers can differentiate themselves from other parents. Every group needs their own way of identifying themselves.

Personally, I think this approach doesn’t take into account the power of addiction and seduction. Sometimes we get hooked on something and then come back to a healthy equilibrium or stop completely. Sometimes we don’t. For example, I’ve heard young children have the ability to regulate their intake of proper nutrition given access to healthy foods. They might have “too much” salt or fat in a particular meal but measured over the course of a week it actually evens out perfectly. Then there’s sugar. Sugar is addictive, and given open access to sugar many children will continue eating an unhealthy amount.

Truthfully, I think what’s distinctive about radical unschoolers is their concentration on not forcing their children to do anything or impose any rules. They point out, I think rightly so, that when you trust your child you tend to need less rules anyway. But what about when rules are necessary? They avoid concentrating on or dealing with those instances by saying that following the radical unschooling philosophy guarantees the issue won’t arise.

Which brings me to one of my main issues with radical unschooling. The radical unschoolers I’ve met seem to think conflict between a parent and child is the most important thing to avoid, and that it causes irreparable damage to the relationship. As many stories show, including the one above, that’s just not always the case. Sometimes a parent will have to make a decision the child really doesn’t like and the child may be angry at her/him for a long time. That doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do or that the child won’t eventually be thankful.

Pendulum Swing

The root issue here may be where radical unschooling parents are coming from. Many radical unschooling parents come from an experience of very strict, controlling, untrusting, or harsh parenting (or “traditional parenting” as many of them call it)Either their parents were like that to them or they themselves were very strict with their children before they discovered radical unschooling. Upon discovering this other way of parenting it may have been very challenging to let go and trust in a consistent way. But once they were able to really trust their child to find their own way, they found it much better than the stricter way of parenting they knew.

They seem to think these two extremes are the only ways of parenting. Maybe there’s a fear that if they don’t do radical unschooling parenting they will automatically go to the other extreme of harsh, untrusting parenting. Maybe they’re right. But that doesn’t mean their extreme is the only option or the ideal for all parents.

Unfortunately, I’ve met radical unschooling parents that seem to think they’re better than other parents. In fact, some seem to think that if you’re not parenting their way then you’re abusing your child. To be fair, many do not promote this way of thinking. In fact, Dayna Martin, author of Radical Unschooling: A Revolution Has Begun, gave a speech all about trying to reach out to other people even if they don’t have the same views on parenting. I don’t necessarily agree with Dayna on everything, including the title of her book, but I really appreciated that message.

Still, there are enough radical unschoolers conveying a message of intolerance that it becomes offputting, especially to people who are interested in unschooling/homeschooling. What’s sad to me is that many people could really benefit from leaving school and homeschooling with a curriculum or not (a.k.a. unschooling). But I’ve heard stories of people almost scared away from the whole idea of homeschooling because they had negative experiences with radical unschoolers. And I’ve also met radical unschoolers who insist that the only real unschooler is a radical unschooler, and that you shouldn’t bother to homeschool unless you’re going to unschool.

(Sectarian Tangent – Taking a step back, it seems so historical: like Protestants and Catholics, Sunnis and Shiites, or Orthodox Jews and Reform. “You’re not really Christian/Muslim/Jewish unless you’re our kind of Christian/Muslim/Jew.” Same in Buddhism only even more complex perhaps. Radical unschoolers will even insist they are the ones who properly interpret the words of the founder of unschooling: John Holt.)

In the past, I’ve definitely looked down on people who don’t choose unschooling. I feel sorry about that now. More and more I see that homeschooling while using some curriculum works well for some people. It doesn’t seem to cause severe damage for sure. And some people even seem to do really well in certain schools.

I still think homeschooling is something from which a lot more people could benefit. I think many people have no idea what young people (or they themselves) are capable of learning if given the freedom to (re)develop motivation. And I think radical unschoolers are right: many adults don’t give children enough freedom, trust, or respect. Sometimes people do unhealthy things simply as a rebellion against rules imposed upon them. But there are billions of other reasons why people do things that might be unhealthy.


That’s ultimately my disappointment with radical unschooling: it doesn’t give you any other tools or even acknowledge that you may need other tools, to deal with the complex challenge of being responsible for a child. Their only tool seems to be trusting and being supportive. They have some great, creative ways to use that tool. They insist if you use that tool properly you won’t have any other problems. That does not seem to be the case to me. When that tool doesn’t solve every problem radical unschooling doesn’t have anything else to offer.

I’m sure every individual parent or caretaker does in fact develop their own skills for how to deal with different problems where just trusting and supporting aren’t the answer. But again, radical unschoolers seem to avoid getting in those situations, facing them, or even talking about them in my experience.

Radical unschoolers talk about going off and having a revolution, but ultimately, many seem to really want to create their own world and find the outside, mainstream society to be inhospitable to their way of life. They say that’s why they go to conferences: to be surrounded by people who are like minded. I can understand that. They talk about the “unschooling bubble” often in very positive terms.

I guess that’s where they lose me. I’m not big on bubbles.

I’ve noticed there can be tolerance within the “unschooling bubble” for behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated outside of the community. In the name of freedom, respect, and trust the behavior isn’t addressed. But you’re doing a great disservice to someone if you allow them to develop behavior and habits that are going to close doors to them, regardless of your stated motives.


I left school and started unschooling when I was 15 years old with high hopes for what unschooling could do for the world. I wrote, organized information nights, and gave speeches (once in front of an audience even). Then I traveled the world and didn’t concentrate on unschooling for years. In 2007, I was introduced to the national unschooling scene and radical unschooling. It was very exciting even though the direction they seemed to be going was somewhat in contrast to some of the valuable lessons I learned while traveling. I had high hopes again for unschooling.

I still do. But I realize things are a lot more complex than I thought as a teenager. (What a surprise, right? God bless teens: keep doing what you’re doing. But yes, things are often more complex than you think. It’s great.) And I don’t think radical unschooling as it’s conceived is the answer.

Actually, I think we need to look deeper to discover who we really are and what the real challenges are around us. I think it’s hard to overstate how difficult it can be to truly do that:

People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul. Carl Jung

Or even more apt for unschooling:

Men are not free when they are doing just what they like…. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes, and there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving. –D.H. Lawrence

We need to go to the root of ourselves and the problems around us if we want to create real change. That’s actually what “radical” means: “to the root”. But I think radical unschooling is in some ways superficial: “Look! My child is truly free because I let him/her play video games!” So radical unschooling needs to figure out what it really is about if it wants to live up to some of its grand hopes.

At the very least, radical unschoolers could work on being more welcoming to everyone, regardless of their views, if they want to encourage people to try the wonderful world of learning and living without school. That’d be totally radical.

50 Responses to “Radical Unschooling: the Negative Post”

  1. You’ve written a brave piece here Eli – potentially like poking a hornet’s nest w/ a stick and I thank you for adding your views and voice to this discussion.

  2. Glenn says:

    There is a confusion between unschooling and what I would call “unparenting.” What I hear from the “radical unschoolers” leans towards what I would call “unparenting.” When you “unparent” you are throwing your kids to the wolves to a large degree, at least in this particular society where there are a lot of people who just love the fact that you have released your kids to their influence. And those other people often times don’t care a bit about the well-being of your child. From my viewpoint, radical unschoolers (unparenters) have a lot in common with many people who send their kids to school, have nannies, etc., they are giving the raising of their kids up to others, only not to teachers or nannies, but to the folks who make those commercials and TV shows, produce those video games, etc., or whatever other forces happen to get in the path of their kids. All of our kids are getting input from the world beyond the family, and I have no problem in filtering which directions that comes from for my kids. That is something we all do as parents whether they are schoolers or radical unschoolers. Everybody, schoolers and unschoolers, lives by some sort of social and homelife standards, so I have no problem with defining the standards (with my wife) for my household. In my view, parenting is an organic process of nurturing, guiding and letting go of your children which requires a lot of love, instinct, intelligence and discipline. Whether you are a schooler, homeschooler, radical unschooler, you are making decisions for your child, so this idea that radical unschoolers give their kids freedom is silly, they are making the decisions for their kids of how they are being raised, where they live, what opportunities are set before them, just like any other parent. No rules or expectations for the behavior of your kids is still rules and expectations- the unparenting rules and expectations. The kids just find their rules elsewhere- at school, on TV, in video games, from their grandparents or nannies. Just to be clear, sending your kid to school or having a nanny does not mean you are unparenting, many great parents send their kids to school or are in the care of nannies but the parent is really in control and the rule and expectation setter, but some aren’t. Likewise, some folks who self identify as radical unschoolers really lay down the law and expectations with an unspoken force of personality and also control the environment of their kids.

    • Jo says:

      @Glenn–you said it perfectly. For a while I toyed with the idea of radical unschooling, as some aspects appeal to me. But since I started to gently impose limits in our household, everyone has felt so much more at ease, including the kids. For example, with my first I never imposed a set bedtime, and because of his relaxed personality, he didn’t need it. With the second one, I ran the same show for a couple of years after babyhood and it was a mess. Guiding my children has meant using a gentle firmness, to which they respond wonderfully. When I thought nagging or using force was the only way to make something happen, all that was missing was for me was to be centered, calm and focused while directing our flow. When I now put my high energy 4-year-old to bed, I simply round off whatever activity is going on, get up and say it’s time to go upstairs. As long as I *feel* 100% ok with it, he does too. If I let him go on and on and decide his own bedtime, he’s lost and cranky and stays up several hours past the point of getting tired. And this is when I hadn’t imposed any bedtime for his first three years of life.
      And yes, allowing a child unlimited access to all sorts of modern technology is definitely throwing them to the wolves. Does anyone realize how malleable children are? And how habits in childhood form future expectations? Another example, I grew up abroad and wasn’t raised on American junk food. We had our own junk for sure, but it was a bit more wholesome, less chemical laden. When I came to America as a young adult, I thought fast food, candy and junk food here tasted like crap, so while back home I would have kept eating a junk based diet, I completely changed my habits simply because I didn’t have access to what I had become habituated to. By limiting what my kids eat now, I know that they won’t develop a taste for foods that really are quite nasty in every way. I think people underestimate what powerful influence hormones have on our preferences. The idea that people can self-regulate in a society where abundance is in the form of what makes people sick, not well, is strange to me.

      The reason I’m not buying video games for my kids is that I don’t want to limit their perception of *real* life. Have some game designer decide what reality children should be exposed to. Real life doesn’t look like that, it’s not predicted. Sure there can be different outcomes in a game, but the game plan is artificial. Real life comes with a infinite number of variables. Anything is possible. I also object to many of the values that are extolled in modern media.

      • Megan says:

        Wow. Jo, this is so perfectly and exactly how I feel. I unschool my son. But I also guide him and care for him. I care what he puts in his body and his brain because there is so much poison around disguised as treats and fun. Mothers to baby animals protect their children from temping poisons, why, as humans, shouldn’t we?
        I intend to copy your comment and stick it in my “things to read over and over” file. Thanks for putting words to what I am constantly thinking.

      • Reggie says:

        Love it, Jo! I am new to unschooling but haven’t quite been able to ‘get on board’ with the whole ‘radical’ aspect. Perhaps because I’m a Christian, not sure, but something just felt very ‘off’ with that way of thinking. I 100% support what I like to call ‘relaxed, interest-led learning’. But a child is still just that…a child. The environment a child is raised in is what they will come to expect of the world as a whole. As a very sheltered child, this world shocked me considerably for a couple years. I can only imagine what a radically unschooled child will come to expect of it.

  3. Eli Gerzon says:

    @Kate Thank you very much Kate. I appreciate you acknowledging that.

    @Glenn Wow! You addressed a lot of the core issues I think. There are a couple points you made that I’ve been meaning to make myself:

    1. If you’re not trying to control and influence your children then others will! 2. Some radical unschoolers can themselves be very controlling “with an unspoken force of personality and also control the environment of their kids”.

    I don’t think all radical unschoolers are unparenting. Or I guess I’m not sure. They certainly rail against that idea.

  4. This is an excellent post. I think you are right on that there is a middle ground of gentle, respectful parenting that allows for parents to be the leaders–and for children to understand and appreciate that fact without feeling dominated.

    I think the pendulum swing concept is very true. The radical unschooling philosophy has a lot of truth in it. Children deserve trust and respect, we should definitely listen to them and allow them to feel heard and understood, and problems are often a result of the child just needing more autonomy.

    But at the same time, parents have a lot more wisdom, life experience, and, truthfully, responsibility over their children, and it’s important that they learn how to effectively lead and influence and even sometimes push or prohibit their children in ways that their children will accept.

    I don’t know where I fit on the homeschooling continuum– unschoolers would say I’m not an unschooler because we use some curriculum, but most homeschoolers would look at how we do our “lessons” and how I use the curriculum I have and say I’m totally an unschooler. 🙂

    Thanks for the very thoughtful post!

  5. Kelly says:

    This post is confusing. We could be defined as a “radical unschooling” family. But your criticisms in your article and the comments by Glenn don’t reflect our family life in any way. Does that mean we aren’t radical unschoolers? Or does that mean some critics are letting their own prejudice/fears/confusion paint an entire philosophy and group of people with a broad brush? Has exposure to some people colored your concepts of radical unschooling?

    You wrote:

    “I think radical unschooling is in some ways superficial: ‘Look! My child is truly free because I let him/her play video games!” […]

    “At the very least, radical unschoolers could work on being more welcoming to everyone, regardless of their views, if they want to encourage people to try the wonderful world of learning and living without school. That’d be totally radical.”

    Sentences like this make me wonder where you get your intense prejudice, whether it’s entirely founded or in your own mind. At any rate none of it seems to describe my family.

    I like what you have to say about reactionary parenting, ie parenting out of fears and anger from one’s own childhood. To that extend, RUs don’t have a corner on the market.

    I live in a small town and haven’t met any “out” unschoolers at all. My exposure to RUing and even plain ol’ U/Sing has been online and I see all sorts of expressions of RUing (like Idzie’s version #3: I’ve been defined as a RU and tag some of my posts such, for ease of my readers.

    This comment was way too long! Apologies.

    I wish I had a nickle royalty for every “unschooling = unparenting” sentence I hear! At first it was annoying, now it’s just funny. Thanks!

  6. Colleen says:

    The one thing I don’t hear too many people talking about is all the hours and hours and hours of talking Radical Unschooling parents do with their kids, all of the conversations we have time for.

    With all of the hours we spend with our kids as homeschoolers (because they are not away in a cement box for soo many hours per day), I don’t understand how that can be called *unparenting*. It seems to me that parents that send their kids away for hours and hours per day are the ones doing the *unparenting*. A bunch of strangers are raising their kids. How can someone be a good and true parent when they only spend, what, a couple of hours per day and some only a couple of hours per week with their kids?

    To me, the BEST thing about Radical Unschooling is the true and honest relationship I have with my kids. We completely trust each other. There is no way we could have the wonderful relationships we have if we didn’t have the time to spend together, and that has come with homeschooling, then unschooling and then Radical Unschooling. It was a process for us all, and still is, a wonderful process. Our process to true FREEDOM.

  7. Eli, I admire your honesty. However, generalizations are often unjust, and sometimes judgmental.

    I think it’s safe to say that labels and rules are two of the things many families are trying to move beyond by living as if school doesn’t exist. Putting names to things makes it easier to talk about them, and to find one’s tribe. But holding people to rigid definitions of those labels is not productive. While some of what you’ve written is valid, there is no norm, given the many differences in how families interpret and implement autonomous living and learning.

    Families move at their own speed along the path towards trust and respect for children and young people (and for themselves, for that matter). And it’s not an easy journey, given the mainstream attitudes about children’s place in society. Each homeschooling/unschooling family is at the spot where they’re comfortable at any given time.

    There are details in your post with which I could take issue, but I’ll stop there. I just hope that most folks will continue to help each other on the journey and find common ground, rather than fragment what is already a small, brave – and yes, messy – movement. It is changing the way the world views children and their place in it, and with that, it may change the world.

  8. Eli Gerzon says:

    @Kateslittleblog Thank you! And I think you make some great points well said: radical unschooling has a lot of truth in it but parents generally have more wisdom, experience, and responsibility. And I think a lot of people don’t quite fit clearly into the unschooling or “non-unschooling” categories!

    Again, I think what’s distinctive about radical unschooling is what they concentrate on: the instances when a parent’s experiences are misleading and they do NOT have more wisdom than the child. This definitely happens and is a wise thing of which to be aware. But of course many times that’s not the case and those instances seem to be a subject radical unschoolers avoid (though they’ll admit it when it’s brought up).

    @Kelly Thank you for commenting and sharing your views. And I don’t mind long comments at all!

    I’ve actually spent a lot of time around radical unschoolers online, as you have, and in real life as well. So I wouldn’t call my views “prejudices” and they certainly weren’t snap judgements: as I said I’ve waited awhile to post this. Still, I haven’t met your family so of course I don’t know if what I wrote describes you.

    Idzie is someone who I’ve really enjoyed interacting with in person and online. She’s a great writer. I actually like what she says as her #2 definition of unschooling on that post, re: unschooling is about viewing all sorts of things as learning experiences not separating the world into experience “that can be learned from, and a series that can’t.”

    But I guess I’m not sure what your point is in pointing out that #3 definition (“life and learning are not two separate things”)?

    What I’d like to say regarding you haven’t read a lot about unschooling but not spent much time around them in person: unschooling is wonderful but I think there a lot of exceptions to the things unschoolers, radical or otherwise, talk about and claim.

    @Colleen You make a good point that sending your child to school for so much time could be considered “unparenting” more than r.u. But just because you spend lots of hours with your children doesn’t mean you’re providing guidance and taking responsibility for the child a.k.a. “parenting”. And it doesn’t automatically mean you have a true and honest relationship either.

    Also, a friend of mine (actually the father of one my sister’s best friends) just came out with a book that’s all about the value of children actually having time away from their parents facing challenges on their own. The book is Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow by Michael Thompson. There was a great piece about it on Radio Boston yesterday:

    (Not saying r.u.s don’t send their children to camp or to travel but just addressing your point about how more time with a parent isn’t always better for a child.)

  9. Milva says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with radical unschooling, Eli. Kelly, I don’t think Eli was trying to describe anyone’s specific family, and he did say that he thought the philosophy of radical unschooling could work great for many people. I thought he was pointing out some of the issues he’s encountered when meeting and talking with some radical unschoolers. I’ve encountered the same (just reference Eli’s original radical unschooling post where I was given a “lesson” in how my family’s choices about television would harmfully affect my relationships with my children — by someone who has never met either me or my children and knows nothing about us). My hope would be that radical unschoolers would take this post and these comments as feedback. As Eli said, the concepts and philosophies behind the idea have a lot to offer, so it would be great if the presentation of those ideas could help inspire and illuminate rather than insult and intimidate. Of course I know that not all radical unschoolers do this — but I’ve experienced it myself and heard from others who’ve experienced it enough times that I think it is a real issue.

  10. Cindy says:

    Yay, Eli, for your follow up post on radical unschooling! I greatly admire your willingness to be candid based on your own experiences and interactions with radical unschooling. I have had similar experiences.

    You said: “The radical unschoolers I’ve met seem to think conflict between a parent and child is the most important thing to avoid, and that it causes irreparable damage to the relationship.”

    I’ve seen this same type of explanation on lists before. There are several points I believe in regarding this statement. First, there’s no such thing as “perfect parenting.” There seems to be the illusion from RUs that if you do it “right,” then everything is perfect. In reality, this life is all about learning from imperfection! I see too often that the “perfect parent syndrome” parent is busy paving their child’s path with gold bricks. You don’t get to make life perfect for your child for you rob them from learning.

    I believe in collaborative learning, collaborative parenting … collaboration. This means we are all learning beings co-existing together, learning from one another, helping each other along. I’m human. I get impatient, I am loving, I lose my cool, I’m kind, I have melt downs, I’m patient, I say mean things, I apologize. My children have a complete model … haha! I afford them that as well, and we talk about what’s working in the relationship and what isn’t, what’s working in the family, and what isn’t, what each of us needs to do, or not. We work it out. They see me be human and change. Of course I try to be more “on” then “off,” but being human won’t ruin my children. I’m not a believer in acting like I have the right to be wrong simply because I’m an adult, but I also have lived long enough and seen enough types of families to know the human spirit can overcome or learn from a lot … good and bad.

    So collaborating with my children takes a lot of talking, a lot of explaining, a lot of helping them ask the tough questions about how what they do impacts others around them. For instance, it takes time for young children to develop emotional regulation control to work through some of the feelings created from playing tough video games. The ages of 8-10 seem to be the toughest ages. They are old enough to play some complex games, but not old enough to have the emotional regulation part down well. I’m not going to live around a person who is nasty, yelling, or having meltdowns constantly because of a choice they are making to play video games without the ability to be in control. So, we talk about it. I don’t outlaw it, but I ask a lot of questions, we talk about self-limiting until he develops better emotional regulation, we talk about what he can do when he starts feeling this or that, we talk about how long he can go before he starts to lose it and choosing to give himself breaks around that time period. Lots of choices as they work through it besides having him continue to play and be difficult to live with.

    I remember being on an RU list when the video game question came up, as you mention is typical. I heard the typical response of let them be, they’ll work it out, trust them, etc. So, I asked, but what about explaining about all the talking we do to help the situation so everyone can live well as they learn? And the actual response I got from a well-known “leader” RU was, well, if we tell them that, they may not understand because of the background most of these parents come from, so it’s better to give them the pendulum swing answer because they might not do it right. WHAT? So, you have all the trust in the world for children, but not adults.

    I think there are too many pat answers from the RU world and not enough individualized answers. Personal examples with all the details. The reality of the beauty of collaboration is lost without the details. And I know it’s hard to do that.

    Okay, this is getting long, but I want to say more … maybe I should write a post! Haha!

  11. Rachel says:

    “One mother insisted she’d never force her son to do anything. I said, “What if you knew he was doing something that might get him killed?”

    She replied serenely, “Well, maybe that’s his destiny.””

    This excerpt is interesting. You use it as an example to support your assertion that radical unschoolers are, in your view, following a philosophy that is harmful, or at the very least neglectful to their children. It’s a lovely anecdote, but it communicates exactly nothing about radical unschooling as a philosophy.

    “Something that might kill you” includes many things. Driving or riding in a car is one particularly mundane example of a risk taking activity that people choose to engage in every day. I had a friend die at age 17 in a single car accident. She was a passenger. Her parents (not unschoolers by any means) allowed her to ride in a car with a friend, and that decision got her killed. There were 37,000+ motor vehicle deaths in the US in 2008. Yet, because driving is a common activity, it’s perceived as being low risk. Parents of all philosophies permit their children to drive or ride in cars every day. Even though it might get them killed.

    Perhaps you meant something more dramatic in your question to the RU mother? Or perhaps she heard something more like my example above. The anecdote doesn’t really communicate anything about that particular mother’s actual parenting, does it? All it tells us is that, in response to a vague question, she gave a vague response.

    Another example. Let’s make it more dramatic. 😉 If my child wanted to go skydiving, I would support him. One could certainly argue that this could get him killed. It could. I might even say “maybe that’s his destiny” in response to a person challenging my decision to support his skydiving. But, why should I not support him? A radical unschooler wouldn’t just say “sure, have at it”, she’d likely want to find out why the child wanted to skydive, help him learn a lot about the experience, maybe find a simulation or amusement park ride that approximated the experience more safely to see if that satisfied the desire, help him contact pilots and divers to talk to, watch videos, hang out at drop zones, you get my drift. Then if he still wanted to do it, and was old enough to meet the dive site’s legal requirements, I would absolutely take him to dive, and I would support him every step of the way, even knowing it might kill him. If I tried to force him not to dive, he’d likely find a way to do it anyway.

    Do you think this choice to support a child in doing something that might get him killed is neglectful, or “unparenting”, or an example of how radical unschooling fails?

  12. Milva says:

    Getting into a lot of semantics probably isn’t useful here. I think Glenn raised a really interesting point with this: “Whether you are a schooler, homeschooler, radical unschooler, you are making decisions for your child, so this idea that radical unschoolers give their kids freedom is silly, they are making the decisions for their kids of how they are being raised, where they live, what opportunities are set before them, just like any other parent.” I think that echoes Eli’s question: “If all parents have to decide for themselves when and how to intervene in their children’s lives, then what makes radical unschoolers different?” I find this to be a very interesting question. The answer can’t be about respecting and trusting children, because I’m not a radical unschooler (at least by the definitions I’ve seen bandied about), but I certainly respect and trust my children. I think most parents do. To me, when I read about radical unschooling, it’s most positive and powerful when parents are talking about their own experiences with their own children, and focusing on how their philosophy and choices enhance their relationships with their children and the peacefulness of their households. This is very, very different from the ridiculousness of telling someone they’re going to harm their relationships with their kids if they restrict sugar or television, or that they’re abusing their children if they don’t allow them to play video games, or that they’re not unschoolers if their kids are taking a formal class. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen at unschooling conferences and on unschooling lists over and over again. I think any backlash that comes back at radical unschooling comes from that, not prejudice or judgment. I agree with Wendy that within the community of people who choose to educate their children outside of schools, mutual support is important. I think that’s just what Eli’s post is getting at. This feeling of alienation among homeschoolers/unschoolers/radical unschoolers is not something Eli invented. It’s very real. Hopefully, beginning a conversation within the homeschooling community can lead to some mending of that.

    • CG says:

      I wish this had a “like” button. Our family has always (first child born 1992) unschoolers. Before RU I tended to call us “lunatic fringe unschoolers”. We’re certainly not what I myself have called unparenters — people who won’t even insist their kids brush their teeth! And that’s an anecdote but it is such a telling, revealing anecdote. Homeschoolers of all stripes should support each other and RUers simply don’t. I’ve experienced the exclusionary practices in person (where my children were even shunned) and on line (and even on my own blog ( I appreciate Eli’s post.

  13. almazmom says:

    I cannot speak to the exact definition of “unschooling” as I have heard that word used to define wildly different ideas. “Radical Unschooling” is a bit easier to define, in large part because those who ascribe the the philosophy are super keen to make sure you know just what they are doing/not doing with their children.

    One thing that RU’s seem to be big on is the notion that you should be your child’s friend, not “in charge” of them. Kids aren’t born knowing how to survive. Who guides them? We do! I will be my kids friends when they are adults. Right now, I can sit around and watch cartoons, joke around, etc. with them, but I also have to make sure that they understand why it’s rude to scream at others, why it’s wrong to belittle people, how to keep themselves safe and respect their own bodies. I have a sacred duty to be my kids’ guide in this world, not to go along for the ride.

    I don’t use labels, unless forced to. Based on the reading I’ve done on the subject, a lot about our life fits the unschooling model. I could never get that recognition from the RU’s I know. In our local group, you are banned from even discussing learning methods. If you dare mention discipline, your personal info gets sent to fellow RU’s across the country so that they can bash your parenting style. If you mention an unschooling book the leader hasn’t read, she assumes it’s wrong.

    I love and respect my children. More than that, I respect all children. I’ve worked as a teacher, and I do part-time work now with at-risk families for the county. I’ve seen great “traditional” parents and horrible RU ones and the opposites. In my personal experience, Radical Unschoolers are often hard to distinguish from Christian Fundementalist homeschoolers, in their zeal and exclusionary attitudes towards anyone who doesn’t ascribe to their exact belief system. It’s hard enough to be a secular homeschooler; do we really need to splinter into ever smaller groups?

    (I hope it goes without saying that I don’t think all RU’s are the same. I can only speak from my experience and cannot speak for anyone but myself.)

  14. Candice says:

    I think there are some generalizations here. I think a lot of parents struggle with the “look at my kid” thing, but that usually comes in the form of coercion. Radical unschooling is unique in that it attempts a wholistic approach to life for everyone. It has been a challenging and amazing jpurney for our family.
    i take issue with these generalizations. Every radical unschooler I know is working on balance and getting their groove established. Any parenting philosophy has flaws. I have so many days where we are experimenting on what works for everyone re: bedtimes, food, etc. It requires way more thought and focus, and is absolutely NOT me throwing up my hands and saying “anything goes”, but trying to really meet my kids where they are, as i would you, were you to visit my home.
    “The radical unschoolers I’ve met seem to think conflict between a parent and child is the most important thing to avoid, and that it causes irreparable damage to the relationship.”
    Conflict is inevitable…when it arises, I try to make sure to handle it in a respectful way. There is not a conflict free way to do family…but the more respect everyone gets, the easier it goes. at least for my little tribe.
    I appreciate your thoughts!

  15. Ricardo says:

    I like a lot of your points, Eli. You seem to see very deeply, and care deeply, into the issues that unschooling, radical or not, brings up.

    It would help me to have examples of the behavior of intolerance at these conferences, rather than generalizations. I haven’t been to any of the conferences, so your stories would be well received.

    In my opinion, unschooling seems to be a pendulum swing sort of development, rather than a concrete educational philosophy, no matter how parents or advocates try to spin it. It seems like it is a reaction to the over scheduled modern American education system, rather than a true, tested and fleshed out model. My questions would be: Is Unschooling something other countries are doing or is it primarily in the U.S.? Many other countries have a fairly good educational system, so it would be interesting to see if, in the case of a country like Norway or Sweden, with a strong, culturally supported system, they are finding that unschooling works for them.

    In the long run, education is about developing the skills needed for a well developed and healthy, fulfilling life, that includes work, play, relationships, problem solving, communication, perspective and context and emotional intelligence. (I do realize that I am not talking about the American Education system as it generally works here! Sorry, but it is just not there.)

    I think it is important to understand how to think critically, and how to appreciate beauty and to recognize truth and find your purpose or path.

    I appreciate your thoughts on education and unschooling in the greater context of these topics, which is very valuable in today’s world, as our culture explores what kind of a world and community we want to live in, and raise our children and families. Keep writing and thinking and sharing!

    • Jo says:

      Ricardo–I’m not sure exactly what you mean by Sweden having a strong culturally supported school system. I grew up in Sweden and for the past two years I’ve been sending my now ten year-old to public school. Before that we lived and unschooled in the US.
      Homeschooling became illegal in most cases last year. There is a very small but growing group of homeschoolers here, and from what I understand, they all seem to lean towards unschooling, or at least very relaxed homeschooling. And they’re choosing it for the same reason that American unschoolers do. I think the American system may be a bit more rigid and controlled, but overall, I had a similar experience here in my youth, as is my son having currently. All school systems in the western world (and elsewhere I think) are rooted in the same philosophical ideas (emerging in northern Europe, 1800s). Of course, it has had to be adapted to each different culture, but in essence, it’s a system that prepares citizens for the sort of economy that the Elite wants. As long as that’s the case, I hope there will always be un/homeschoolers:)

  16. Eli Gerzon says:

    @Wendy Thank you for your comment and for acknowledging my honesty. I was speaking in general terms mostly: I tried not to be judgemental or unjust. I agree that we all are on our own paths in life and specifically for parenting and education. And I agree that’s it’s good for everyone who believes in freedom in education to work together and that can in fact change the world. As Milva said, that was really a big part my motivation for writing this: I’ve found many radical unschoolers are not welcoming to people with different views.

    @Cindy I really appreciate you sharing your own experiences. i.e. Your story about being on an RU list and the well known RU leader saying a parent won’t be to understand the extra details of how things actually work. That does show a lack of trust of the parent. RU says it’s based on trust, respect, and freedom for parents but does often not give those things to parents (sometimes dads even less than moms). And I liked this: “I think there are too many pat answers from the RU world and not enough individualized answers. Personal examples with all the details. The reality of the beauty of collaboration is lost without the details. And I know it’s hard to do that.”

    @Rachel I appreciate your specific quote and hypothetical. You’re right that we don’t know what that mother imagined when I asked, “What if you knew he was doing something that might get him killed?” Personally, I don’t really have a desire to try skydiving, partially because I’m worried about the danger! But truthfully, it’s not that dangerous and no, I wouldn’t think less of a parent for letting their child do it. I was thinking something more dangerous. My point was to try to make the parent imagine a situation where she would feel the need to make her child do something. One way to interpret her answer: “I can’t imagine that situation.” Personally, I think there are many situations like that, of course usually less dramatic. Or maybe an even more accurate interpretation of her answer: “I choose not to acknowledge those situations.” That’s definitely something I’ve noticed.

    @Milva I think that’s a really good point about the value of sharing specific experiences in parenting. As Cindy said: the details are so important. And what you say next is helpful to read:

    “This is very, very different from the ridiculousness of telling someone they’re going to harm their relationships with their kids if they restrict sugar or television, or that they’re abusing their children if they don’t allow them to play video games, or that they’re not unschoolers if their kids are taking a formal class. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen at unschooling conferences and on unschooling lists over and over again.”

    @Candice I appreciate your thoughts too! It sounds like you are on a great journey with your family, parenting, and education. I think you’re right that radical unschooling is not usually about just throwing up your hands and saying anything goes. But I do think many RU parents put a lot of effort into trying to avoid any conflict between parent and child. I sounds like you have a healthy acceptance of conflict and understand the need for respect when it arises. I did make generalizations but they were based on my own experiences and those of others. But again, I know they don’t all apply to every RU fam.

    @Ricardo It’s great to hear from someone who isn’t as active in the unschooling scene! I hoped I wrote it in a way that anyone could appreciate but it is kind of meant for the RU audience. Clearly, I need to be more specific especially for those who haven’t been to unschooling conference. That part of Milva’s comment I just quoted give some good examples of the intolerance one can find for parents who choose to restrict their child’s sugar, TV, etc.

    I think unschooling in general is a reaction to something, a pendulum swing even. I think unschoolers have been trying to move away from that from the start: to just live rather than live counter to school. But I think it often still is a reaction to some extent.

    As far as other countries, there are some schools that are better than the U.S. But I think they can often be just as bad and certainly worse. I’ve heard great things about Iceland: I haven’t done enough research to understand what exactly is better but I’m curious. Anyway, unschooling is small but spreading in some countries. But some countries make it very difficult or impossible to homeschool legally, i.e. Japan and Germany. There was a great Spanish language YouTube video (w/ English subtitles) I found recently talking about unschooling idea: questioning the difference btw education and school, saying learning isn’t about memorizing and following rules, etc. I’ll try to post it when I refind it.

    I really like what you said about education:

    “I think it is important to understand how to think critically, and how to appreciate beauty and to recognize truth and find your purpose or path.”

    Writing about education seems to be part of my purpose at least for now so I appreciate the encouragement to keep going!

  17. Eli Gerzon says:

    Here’s that link to an article in English about that Spanish language video from Argentina re: unschooling ideas:

  18. Cindy says:

    I’ve been pondering this for some days now. Since you fleshed out my pendulum swing idea, I’m thinking many of my conclusions rest there. My theory is that RUs are counter-culturists … new-age hippies to some degree. This theory hits a couple of my main points that I’m most uncomfortable with in the RU expression.

    First, the bubble to which you refer. Many RUs tend to like to gather with “like minds,” as you said. Further, you also said, and I agree, that it’s almost like how they live can’t coexist with how other’s live, or they don’t WANT to co-exist with how others live. This coincides with the judgment often meted out. For instance, one of my best friends is a spanker. An RU often says they couldn’t tolerate such a relationship. Although I have my strong opinions and lifestyle, I don’t limit myself to knowing and understanding all sorts of people. That’s not to say my friend and I haven’t had our issues due to our parenting style differences, but I don’t reject her for hers and she tries equally hard not to reject me for mine. I give her respect, so she gives it back to me. This is supposed to be the premise of RU, yet, they only respect and hang around those who are “like minded.”

    From my personal experience in this area, my children didn’t even know they were “unschoolers,” because we just lived our lives and didn’t separate ourselves from the world and those in it. Most of their friends were public schooled. They had all sorts of friends with all sorts of different parenting styles and schooling choices. It wasn’t until they were adults they learned our style of doing things had a name and it was considered “different.” I think they figured we were different all on our own without the help of unschooling … haha!

    Second, along the counter-culture/new-age hippie idea, I notice a large majority of RU teens particularly express themselves outwardly in a way that draws attention to themselves. The classic 60s hippies did the same thing for the same reason … rebellion against the system, not being afraid to be “different” and showing it outwardly. I see a lot of black, a lot of colored hair, a lot of loud clothing, a lot of piercings, etc. How come this is so common in RU teens? After the 11 to 13 year brain shift, we are all more aware of our place in the world. RUs raise their children as “counter-culture-ists” and so they reflect that in their looks/dress.

    And this brings me to MY personal biggest problem being able to “hang out” with RUs exclusively. With this counter-culture pendulum swing mentality, there can come the subconscious attitude of not having to abide by the “rules.” I think this is where the “unparenting” part can come into play.

    Since some aren’t liking generalizations, I’ll give a few specifics, without names. I’ve been to two more exclusive RU functions/groups. Both times, property damage occurred, being repeated on numerous different gatherings. A conference venue suffered damage with elevators and/or open rooms. A game room ended up off limits in one instance that my children enjoyed a lot. I was one of the few parents going with my children to ensure it didn’t happen. So, with too little parental involvement, it did.

    There seems to be so much trust, that no mentoring often occurs in these situations. Again, when a good sized group of young children between the ages of 5-12 got together, I was one of the only parents trying to be around. Bullying and exclusion occurred constantly. Yes, there can be trust, but children need mentors. I personally feel that’s one of the big problems with public school. No social and emotional mentoring. I feel that’s one of my biggest roles for my 5-11 year olds: mentoring emotional intelligence. It’s not about trust, it’s about development.

    Yep, I think that encapsulates my “issues” with RUs and why I ended up not surrounding myself with them as a group (individually is often just fine). It’s a pendulum swing against our culture without any mindful thought about how that can look in a healthy way. I think the John Holt unschoolers have worked toward the healthy balance more than RUs.

    My thoughts and experiences anyway …

  19. I LOVE this and it is THE most honest thing I have read about unschooling!! We’ve been “world schooling” our child for the last 6 years around the world ( 44 countries on 5 continents, in 3 languages, with 2 instruments) and use an eclectic mix. I love MANY aspects of unschooling which we do, but also believe in attachment parenting, sustainable living, not fostering addiction ( media or otherwise) in my child, teaching her about good food and inner discipline.

    I am the queen of freedom but also know that discipline is part of freedom.

    You are soo right that sadly, waay too many radical unschoolers are off putting and very negative to anyone who doesn’t do it THEIR way. I’ve gotten my most nasty comments on OUR soultravelers3 facebook group from radical unschoolers…turning EVERY one off to unschooling and homeschooling. Ugh. These are people I don’t know, never met, no one from our group had ever talked to them, before they marched in with their heavy self righteous blather. Sigh.

    “I’ve noticed there can be tolerance within the “unschooling bubble” for behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated outside of the community.”

    So true and brave of you to talk about all of this. Good on you!! Things will only get better when people are willing to look at the negatives as well as the positives.

    • Anna says:

      I know it’s a year later, but I’m wondering if you have a blog about your “worldschooling” with your 5 continents, 3 languages and 2 instruments. That sounds like my kind of living!

      • Eli Gerzon says:

        Not sure Jeanne will get a notification of your comment so I thought I’d answer your question: yes! She has an amazing blog and Facebook page chronicling their travel adventures. Lots of beautiful photos:

        I’m humbled and happy that so many people are still reading this blog post a year later!

  20. Debbie says:

    I disagree with your comment:
    “…radical unschooling: it doesn’t give you any other tools or even acknowledge that you may need other tools, to deal with the complex challenge of being responsible for a child. Their only tool seems to be trusting and being supportive. They have some great, creative ways to use that tool. They insist if you use that tool properly you won’t have any other problems. That does not seem to be the case to me. When that tool doesn’t solve every problem radical unschooling doesn’t have anything else to offer.”
    Trust and support really are all you need, because they are not just two things. Trust is so all encompassing I can’t possibly say all that is involved, but part of it is that you trust yourself to be doing what is best for your child; you respect your child as a person with their own ideas and passions; you trust that your children will learn and grow and be happy.
    You support them. That doesn’t mean you say yes to everything they want to do, it means you talk to them about what they want to do, why, what makes them happy, etc., then you help them to be able to do what is important to them. That can include eating junk food (and do you really think that children who are forbidden junk food don’t eat any or never have too much?); playing video/computer games for hours on end (studies are now showing how much can be learned from these games, but I think that children should play them if they want to because they are fun); and watching TV. None of these things are done in a void. Children who are trusted and respected generally talk to their parents and you can have great conversations about food, games and TV.
    Really, trust, support and respect are all you need. You just can’t look at them as three simple words, because they are so much more.

  21. MotherLodeBeth says:

    The key word in your piece is ‘radical’. We are a third generation homeshooling family (for secular reasons) who incorporated unschooling into our lifestyle.

    It worked in large part because we are a well traveled, multilingual, educated clan of people which makes unschooling work well. And because we adults are self disciplined because of professions etc, the children pick up on that. Thus adult role models play a huge role in a child being curious and wanting to learn.

    ‘Radical’ unschooling as someone else has noted sounds like un parenting. Which is akin to wanting to be your child’s friend not their parent. Or not really wanting to be a parent at all.

    Is a college professor there to teach or be a friend? As unpopular as it may sound children appreciate guidance and direction. It’s why homeschoolers I have known over the last fifty years, seek out mentors and information.

    Here in my state we have had parents whose children were running around outside and half naked and hungry who when the sheriff stopped by, the parents insisted they were ‘ radical unschooling’. Home schooling of any kind does NOT include neglect.

    Like it or not even as adults we may not like being told we have to get the bread made, but we make it or we don’t eat. If I don’t clean the home the place would attract rodents and who knows what else. If I don’t get needed sleep at night I get sick.

    So like it or not ‘radical’ unschoolers who allow their children to eat what and when they want, sleep when they want are getting close to un parenting, and should be asked why did you have kids to begin with?

  22. […] read Radical Unschooling: the Negative Post. I found the criticism to be extremely general, presumptuous, and tinged with personal biases, as […]

  23. […] the author discusses radical unschooling, and all the faults he sees in it. You can go read it over here before continuing, if you want. Done reading (or not)? Okay, let me continue.   I want […]

  24. […] liked the following, which is a comment made by a lady called Wendy Priesnitz on a very interesting post  with an equally interesting rebuttal. Wendy is not keen on homeschooling group or tribe labels […]

  25. Peter G says:

    This is an interesting topic, post, and discussion about un-radical-non-schooling or whatever name people give to the various ways they raise their children and level of commitment to such-and-such a philosophy. As an (now older) adult who did not attend any public or private school up until college, and one who is currently employed in the belly of the Standards-based education movement, I have to report that all roads are generally leading to the same point and that every system seems to work for some and not for others. For many, State (or other) Standards and metric-based tests are the singular way to achievement. Parents are then expected to conform their lives in order to create children who can achieve in this system, and many will thrive. Some will opt out, others drop out. I think perhaps the same with various degrees of “radical unschooling” or other philosophies that are enacted as life-styles. I enjoyed your article because you raised many good observation-based questions, and did so thoughtfully. I have not had too many good experiences at the few homeschool events I have attended (I was publicly disrespected at the last one I went to…. not that I care, since I am also very disrespectful) and the more radical elements of this (and any) community make me want to puke. I have seen the limits of rules, as well as how some youth (I worked with at risk youth who had a lot of issues with addiction, etc) crave rules because they make life safer, take the questions from things and give a simpler world to live in. I have also seen the limits of… un-rules, where youth or children are like walking IDs, little desire machines which often strikes me as sociopathic as any financial CEO or serial rapist. Balance is key, is a simple thing to toss out, but difficult to maintain in the face of a world where so many groups want you to conform to their way of being. I mean, the core of the word culture is…. Cult. A blended learning process is a good ideal, and while I would not recommend Standards and Textbooks, but I would not recommend radical unschooling for exactly the same reason. Adherence to a dogma is adherence to a dogma. And makes for boring company.

  26. […] and Idzie are both grown unschoolers.   Earlier this month, Eli wrote a blog post titled “Radical Unschooling: The Negative Post”.    In it – and I really hope you won’t just settle for my brief synopsis but go read […]

  27. Penny says:

    I have continued to think about this issue, originally brought up by Elie; Where do my kids and I belong, which homeschooling tribe? Does it matter? What do I do to allow us to belong? Is this OK? I would love your feedback, Elie and any of your readers. I am really finding this a tricky problem! I wonder if Wendy Priesnitz is still reading your comments? I’d love to have her take since I quoted her in my last post on this subject! Very best wishes, Penny

  28. Arp says:

    It really sounds like you are talking about unparenting – I’ve met a number of people who seem to interpret ‘unschooling’ as a means to shirk parental responsibility. There’s a difference between trust and inattentiveness.

  29. Rachel says:


    Thanks for writing this, especially as a former unschooled kid. I loved every word of this post. I will just come out and say that over the years in various forums, like yahoo groups, Facebook, etc…I have had some run ins with the queen of radical unschooling herself, Sandra Dodd. She is not nice to those who disagree with her, or who don’t necessarily do RU her way, and she will call them out and be really unnecessarily hostile. And what is worse is that she has a band of followers that make Zionist zealots look tame. Also, the irony is not lost on me how Sandra is like the queen bee surrounded by her wannabes, and the online forums end up feeling like high school…a place I wasn’t a fan of. So why would I subject myself to that crap again? No thanks! Those people are what have made me NOT define myself as a radical unschooler.

    I refer to myself as an unschooler and it doesn’t need it to be any more tightly defined as that. Tho, interestingly, my understanding of unschooling (which is meant to be natural, or self directed non-coerced learning) comes right out of the pages of the old GWS magazine, and it was there that the first unschoolers talked about it. It was all about opening up the world to your kids, exposing them to all sorts of stuff and letting them choose how they wanted to learn anything. It is constantly being involved with and thinking about your kids, finding out things they might like to do, see, go etc…not letting them do whatever they want. Mine do do a lot of whatever they want, but I am always on the lookout for new experiences. My youngest 2 kids (12, 15) are really resistant to trying new things, so I could just say, ok, you don’t want to do it, fine. But, because I know that once they try things they often enjoy them, sometimes I have to nudge a little.

    Also, doing everything or not, so that there is always peace in the family is bullsh*t. Life is filled with situations where people may not be happy or always get to do what they want. People will let you down, the world will not always be there to catch you when you fall. Hopefully, your family will. But, if my 15 year old gets a job and after a week hates it, then quits or gets fired…after going thru something like that several times, I ‘should’ say, “Hey, work isn’t always wonderful, but if you want to make a living, you are going to have to suck it up.” A little suffering goes a long way. Just like kids who spend their entire lives in school are shocked by how the real world actually works, well the extreme to school (radical unschooling) is going to turn out folks who are just as shocked…that many people are going to give frak about whether they are happy or not in their work etc..

    My oldest, now 22, chose public high school in the 9th grade, prior to that he had been unschooled. He wanted the high school experience (God knows why?) and I trusted that he would be ok because it was what he wanted. We never rode him about his grades or anything. He knew he could quit anytime and come home (secretly I really was hoping he would) but he stuck it out. He admitted that some of it was complete BS but that he was getting a lot of good out of it too so wanted to stay. He graduated in 2008. He chose it. I had Sandra Dodd and her followers tell me I was not an unschooling mom because my kid chose school, and that he was not an unschooler because after years of being unschooled, he chose school. Not that the other 2 kids who are unschooling count or anything…so I guess I was demoted by them to a homeschooler. Whatever. OMG, I mean, REALLY???

    That is when I saw what you alluded to above, the cultish religiosity of many radical unschoolers. The insistence that only ‘they’ know what John Holt meant when he wrote about unschooling. Just a week ago I heard a very illuminating talk by John Holt’s good friend and business associate (he went on to edit GWS) Pat Farenga. Pat discussed John’s evolution as a teacher to an unschooling advocate, and what John thought an unschooler was. Simply put it was children who didn’t go to school and school wasn’t duplicated at home. John also wasn’t against schools per se, but compulsory schooling. If a kid chose to go, great. If she chose to leave, great. Their choice. Pat expressed his distressed at the divisiveness that radical unschoolers are causing within the unschooling movement. He, himself, has been told he didn’t unschool his kids by some of them. What?? Seriously?? Ughh….

    Thank you again, so very much, for writing this. As an unschooling mom, I have friends who think I am unparenting, because of the very way radical unschoolers have conveyed their message to the world. They see these radical unschoolers show up on talk shows or morning shows and assumed that is our family. Reading this may help them to see where I am not like that. I am sharing this post on my fb page and on the fb group which I just started, which is, of all things, for Catholic Unschoolers. There are a lot of us out there. Surprising, eh?

    Thanks again, and I am going to start following you. Love your writing.


  30. Elisabeth says:

    I’m a year late to the party! Thank you for writing this. I created the group “Unschooling Spectrum” on Facebook in large part in response to your post and other similar ones I’ve read recently. I’m interested in creating a different kind of culture that is open to lots of different approaches to the models of unschooling, radical unschooling, and anything in between or sideways of that.

  31. Marie says:

    Thanks for this! I am confused as to why video games and sugar are not considered addictive by radical unschoolers. I am certain these same parents would not allow their children to smoke crack or have unfettered access to their credit cards. These are things that are proven to be addictive and expecting all children to self regulate seems like nonsense to me. There are no long term studies on the neuroscience behind intense gaming. Actually they are adding a disorder to the list of mental illnesses this year. There are extreme cases too, like Sandy Hook, where parent intervention was absolutely needed. It would have been better if he had been upstairs with a crack pipe instead if his gaming system. I am not suggesting that RAs are raising killers, I am saying that video games are addictive. A common thread I see is that these parents were never gamers themselves, I have a propensity toward video game addiction, I know what happens to your brain when you play too long. Thereis also “video game brain.” Ask your kids if they ever see targets around people’s faces or what they dream about at night. Evolution has not caught up with screens and easily accessed sugar so I unschool and I limit both. Perhaps I have inflated self confidence though but I simply do not care what other parents think about my choices, I found this blog researching if there are unschoolers with an opposite take on the subject. I look forward to hearing how these children of RA who played excessive games feel about it in their twenties. I hope I’m wrong but I cannot let my kids be the guinea pigs for this new technological world.

  32. Shauna says:

    Thank you for your post. I have not been part of any unschooling groups, so I cannot attest to that discussion. I love the idea of unschooling and child-led learning, but my religious beliefs are that we do not have “good” natures inherently (no one teaches a child to lie), so some directions and boundaries are required. And my husband totally hates a “slacker” approach! With no expected rising time and wants to regulate game/screen time etc.

    I just think it is nice to see various points of view, and at you are calling the so-called “tolerant” and “open-minded” ones on their actions, if they belie the truth.

  33. Amanda says:

    Unschooling is not a slacker approach. You should really read John Holts books as well as his magazine growing without schooling.

  34. Desiree says:

    Hi Eli, I don’t know how in the world I did not read your blog before tonight. All I can say over and over again is YES, YES, YES. I am so relieved that there are other souls out there finally speaking up and just being honest with their views and concerns. I think if the tides are not turning… perhaps the threads of the experiment are coming undone a little. I wrote a piece a few months back knowing full well I was opening myself up to an avalanche of attacks and I was shocked, happily shocked at the amount of support and thank yous I received. It was like I opened the floodgates of parents desperately trying to find a voice that spoke for them and their frustrations. The piece I wrote is called “Time to ‘Rethink’ Radical Unschooling. If it’s okay with you I’ll like to share it with you because I am curious as to your feedback.

    Thank you so much for your very powerful post.

    • Eli Gerzon says:

      Hi Desiree,
      I just noticed I never replied to this post: thank you for your kind words and it was great to read your post. I like how you highlight the fact that providing direction for your children isn’t “imposing your agenda”. I’ve often thought about how some radical unschooling parents act like “Yes Men” to their children, as if their children were their bosses. Radical unschoolers often talk about respecting their child. But if you always say “yes” to someone it doesn’t mean you respect them it means you fear them. As you note, fear is a big part of the issue.

      I also recommend Brenna McBroom’s blog post about “Things That Hold Unschooling Back”: And I think it was Wendy Priesnitz who wrote another great blog also questioning unschooling that I can’t find at the moment.

      That’s great to hear your impression is that things might be improving. I’d love to hear if you still think that. My life used to revolve around unschooling: I really thought it was how I could help change the world. Now I do much more direct action to change the world with climate change organizing. But unschooling was such an important part of my personal growth and understanding of the world. I’m very thankful for all my experiences and all I learned.

      And I’m thankful people are still unschooling AND trying to stay balanced with wonderful freedom and care!


  35. Amanda says:

    I think radical unschoolers need to tread carefully in assuming their family dynamic or they will have an unschoolers version on homeschoolers anonymous on their hands. And this will not bode well for anyone in the home education world whatever the spectrum

  36. J.L.K. says:

    Seriously. What is y’all’s motivation behind spending so much time defining, discussing and defending how you raise or educate your children? Just go do it in the best way you know how. I’m always curious as to where and what ‘the children’ are doing or being left to do while y’all are on here getting gung ho with the debating.

  37. […] Gerzon reposted an old blog on some issues with the radical unschooling crowd today about the unexpected lack of attention on broad societal change and improvements which one […]

  38. Amanda says:


    I realize this post is quite old, but I thought I’d try commenting anyway, because I loved it so much!

    I was raised unschooled back when it was barely a term, because my mother read John Holt. Now I am raising my own three kids this way.

    And I have been SO shocked and mortified to read the kinds of advice being handed out under the RU label. Sandra Dodd and her crowd has taken a term and created a dogma around it–a very dangerous dogma, in my opinion, given the things I read on forum after forum about the way children are living under the guise of “freedom”. It seems more like “freedom fascism”. As a proud lifelong Unschooler, it makes me sad.

    You’re brace to talk about it publicly Eli! Thankyou for your respectful and well-thought-put piece.

  39. […] Eli Gerzon’s Worldschooler Blog » Radical Unschooling: … […]

  40. Becky says:

    I love to learn – I feel like I have stopped living if I stop learning. I grew up exposed to many cultures, diverse views, and interesting people. I engaged in many activities, and loved to read (still do!:)
    Why do I love learning so much? My mother. My mother was a public school teacher for 35 years – and one of the best. She could teach you to love anything through guidance, encouragement and empowerment.
    I have a roommate who was unschooled, and the words I would use to describe her? self-absorbed, entitled, inconsiderate and selfish. Everything is about what she wants. And if she doesn’t get it, she has no coping skill. It’s as if the world exists only for her.
    I don’t think the question is ‘either or’ – there are plenty of fullfilled, happy, successful adults such as myself who grew up in schools and home environments that were supportive and encouraged self-development and creativity.
    I think it’s a sad statement that people think you have to be one or the other: a rigid, bureacratic, harsh disciplinarian who torments their child with endless rules OR a free-wheeling, no rules, no guidance, no intervention, “do whatever you want” type.
    Why can’t there be a happy medium? Certainly some structure is beneficial to children – they need guidance. They don’t have the life experience you have, or the knowledge. I find that children, and animals thrive when they have good leadership. Can we focus on that? GOOD LEADERSHIP (i.e. parenting) is something that makes people feel safe, and cared for. Letting your kid do whatever he/she wants, and stay up til 2 am playing video games doesn’t convey love – it conveys indifference.

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