Respectful Parent, parenting children respectfully

10 Reasons I Want to Unschool my Son

10 Reasons I Want to Unschool my Son

My son is 3. Soon we will need to decide about kindergarten. As time goes by, the prospect of sending our little man to school gets more abhorrent.

Please don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of respect for school teachers. I taught public high school for four years. I know so many teachers in public schools who work very hard and do a great job with the tools they have. They care about their students, and they develop and teach solid curricula.

However…

1. Unschooling Is the Best Education.

A few of my fears have to do with how teachers interact with students, but most of my concerns lie with how schools and school systems work as a whole. After earning my teaching credential and master’s in education, after teaching for a total of almost 10 years, I’ve been looking at what seems to work best for kids. Really work best for all kids.

I think it’s unschooling.

Unschooling is a concept and method that rejects the typical school experience, in favor of natural life experience, as the primary environment for learning. When I first heard of it, I was appalled, misinterpreting that to mean that the kids just goof off and never learn any critical thinking or vocational skills. It differs from homeschooling in that homeschooling uses the same curriculum as the public schools, while unschooling typically does not.

In an unschooling family, the learning begins child-first. The child decides what is of interest to him or her, and the learning revolves around that. It provides the most freedom and flexibility for providing a rich educational experience within the meandering path of a child’s changing focus.

So take for example a passion for dinosaurs this year. Parents can easily feed that curiosity with a mix of experiences, projects, and creative endeavors.

A child can then:

  • Read books and articles about dinos.
  • Visit paleontological or natural history museums and write a journal.
  • Interview experts on the subject.
  • Create environments for, or artworks about dinosaurs.
  • Go on an imaginary archeological dig in nature.
  • Calculate carbon dates.
  • Form hypothesis about behavior, diet, and reproduction from fossils.

Essentially, unschooling trusts in a child’s instinctive love of learning, instead of feeding information in a top-down approach. The child decides what she or he wants to learn, sets goals, and seeks answers.

It’s a beautiful experience I hope that I can afford to provide for my son when he is of school age. Ultimately, I believe it is the most respectful way to raise my son, honoring his drive to learn what he wishes.

2. I Want to Avoid Standardized Testing.

I once thought standardized testing was a necessary way to ensure that schools meet a certain level of academic performance. Then I started teaching. In reality, standardized tests are only for some of the subjects taught in school, and the health of a school then relies on good average scores on those tests. Subjects that aren’t tested are marginalized. Some subjects simply go away, while teachers of surviving subject often find themselves having to carve out part of their curriculum to fit in drill time for the core subjects.

Another big flaw is that teachers are overtly directed to “teach to the test.” That is, they are given sample questions and asked to have students commit very specific bits of information to memory. This is hardly the holistic learning that a child will need to develop to thrive as an adult.

Goodbye arts, goodbye child-directed learning, and goodbye recess. Goodbye to most things that are not tested, such as creativity.

3. Learning Is Limited in the Classroom.

In an environment where a teacher passes down wisdom, a student can come to the conclusion that the classroom is the only place where learning takes place. The learning is packaged for a class of 30 or so students, which is furthermore limiting.

In reality, learning happens all day long in every environment. An unschooled child will love learning all day long, because learning is life. An schooled child might not embrace that attitude, and instead create artificial mental walls between learning and life.

4. Zero Tolerance Could Mean a Child’s Life Ruined.

I’ve read too many news stories of average children being suspended, arrested, and jailed for the dumbest reasons. This is the result of schools taking a zero-tolerance approach to anything remotely resembling violence, even fashioning one’s own hand or a sandwich into the shape of a gun. Instead of reasoning humans deciding what is reasonable on a case-by-case basic, this lazy by-the-book approach has been adopted and it often hurts children in the process.

5. I Want to Learn Too!

Whatever my son is up to in his explorations, there’s plenty for me to enjoy as well. I have plenty of subjects I geek out over, and I would love to soak up whatever he’s discovering too. This is not so immersive when a child it simply bringing home worksheets his teacher handed him.

6. Schools Are Drugging Our Kids.

My nephew is a bright and friendly 8 year old. Last year he was identified by his school as having ADHD, and he was then issued a prescription for the powerful psychostimulant Adderall to “increase his attention”. This was essentially because he didn’t like to sit still for tests. This does not sound like an issue in desperate need for drugs which could do permanent damage to his brain. Fortunately, my brother refused to allow his ex-wife to give the boy any more than the single pill she already had.

My son is very active. He has a great attention span for things he’s interested in (like pretty much 100% of kids). However, he may not always be ready to sit and absorb lessons when he is expected to in the future. One report estimated that 19% of boys are being diagnosed with ADHD by the time they graduate high school. It seems like most of these figures come from the fact that the typical school teacher has to deal with a large number of children, some of whom are going to be more active and disruptive than others. The nail that sticks out most gets hammered down, so to speak.

“There’s a tremendous push where if the kid’s behavior is thought to be quote-unquote abnormal — if they’re not sitting quietly at their desk — that’s pathological, instead of just childhood,” said Dr. Jerome Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the author of “How Doctors Think.”

I don’t ever want a school or teacher to give my son the message that he’s broken and needs to be fixed.

7. Schools Are Not Designed for Boys

With the requirement that students sit still at a desk for the majority of the school day, traditional schools are simply not a good fit for an active child. On average, boys are more kinetic than girls and need more physical activity. Lacking that, bored, unfocused boys get into trouble or worse (see item 6). With the modern reductions in recess time (item 2) the problem has worsened.

In an unschooling situation, I can help accommodate my son’s need for movement and physical activities. In fact, I’d embrace these opportunities for his further development.

T Jumps to Daddy in the pool

T jumps to Daddy in the pool.

8. Schools Rarely Get Kids Out into Nature

With the exception of dwindling recess blocks and the rare field trip to somewhere outdoors, most schoolchildren are never taught outside. Yet being in nature is absolutely vital to their well-being. Author Richard Louv has made a great argument for this assertion in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.

– Richard Louv

If I unschool my son, I can take him out into nature every day, rain or shine. It may be a simple walk two blocks over to the reservoir, or a drive to the Sierra Nevada mountain range to to the Pacific Coast. It might even be an bug and worm hunt in the backyard. These fully sensory experiences—involving smell, sound, and touch as well as the sense of one’s body within an environment—make more lasting impressions, and open the mind fully to learning opportunities, than a static classroom.

9. Unschooling Builds Character and Creativity

Child-led learning inspires curiosity. Curiosity begets brainstorming and investigation. Finding answers requires problem solving. Problem solving practices the vital skill of creative thinking. Judging by the multitudes of articles written by parents who unschool their children, their kids are getting something regular schools have a hard time providing.

Choosing what you want to learn increases motivation to learn. It inspires confidence in the learner that he or she can take on new activities to simply to try them out, to experiment. It helps them see that failure is simply part of the process of getting to success, and not something to be avoided at all costs. It teaches them how to learn, so that they are empowered to do it at every opportunity should they desire to. They learn how to learn, and then to crave more learning.

I went to a combination of private and public schools, and I ended up with these characteristics to one degree or another. I love to learn. I a not afraid of taking risks. I have a strong entrepreneurial drive. Some of this is due to my own natural temperament, some is from the parenting I had and other influences outside of school. However, my values and beliefs about how the world works were also developed in school, aided or discouraged by various teachers and administrators to some degree.

School in the United States has measurably worsened since I started kindergarten some 40 years ago. I’d want to give my son the very best opportunity to succeed in a country where the school system is now in very bad shape, and likely will remain so for some time.

10. Unschooling Means More Time to Play

Unstructured play is absolutely essential to a child’s learning, particularly prior to adolescence. This is how kids learn best. During playtime, they develop all the skills that make later academic endeavors more successful.

For whatever reason, schools are pushing language and math skills sooner and sooner in the curriculum. My own kindergarten days consisted of playtime, drawing, story time, naps, and maybe learning our letters and numbers. Now children are expected to become Baby Einsteins rather than develop at a natural pace. My son is only in daycare now, and already he is being taught the alphabet and counting. This practice of academic acceleration is disrespectful to the natural development of children in general, and to the individual development of any given child.

It turns about that the recent move to push academics earlier, in the name of raising academic standards, is backfiring. What is lost in the process is all the time they were supposed to be playing, to be building those foundations they need for physical, emotional, social, and intellectual maturity.


Is there anything that will keep me from unschooling my son? Perhaps. We are currently a two-income household. We could not pay the bills if I were to quit now to keep my son at home, rather than have him in daycare for most of the day.

I have been working very hard over the past 18 months to change that, to build a business I can conduct at home or away while my son learns. I will keep plugging along until I can manage that, and hope that it happens in the next two years.

About Dawn Pedersen, M.Ed.
Dawn Pedersen is a mother to a 4-year-old-son, as well as a wife and teacher. She has an MA in education and a BA in fine art. She has taught ages 6 through adult in art, web design, graphic design, drama, and biology, since 2004. She lives with her family in Northern California, United States.

38 Comments On This Topic
  1. Anonymous
    on Aug 10th at 5:32 pm

    Thank you so much for this well written piece, Tiki Mama. I can’t wait to show my husband as I start to sway him over to my desire to un school our son when he’s older!

    Reply
  2. Donna Turner
    on Aug 10th at 6:02 pm

    I agree with most everything that you have said in this article and I am a pre-service teacher. It sounds like your son would have a enriched childhood and a natural education. I have a question, though, what happens when he is 16, 17 or 18 and needs to get a college degree to get a job so that he can take care of himself in the competitive, modern economy? Lack of an academic record, or a curriculum that translates to a classroom could handicap your son’s economic future. He will have valuable skills, but without a paper degree, it will be near impossible for him to get his foot in the door in any field.

    Reply
    • Patty
      on Aug 11th at 1:36 pm

      Parents of unchooled kids provide a diploma as if they were traditionally homeschooled. My daughter who is unschooled is ready to start college in September and she just turned 15 in June. Most colleges/universities do not require a diploma but rather an transcript. The transcripts of unschoolers are so much more interesting/diverse/in-depth than traditional school. One of the best thins I have ever heard was that the military doesn’t try to recruit unschoolers because they are “free-thinkers” and do not share the collective consciousness of schooled kids. It really is a lot of fun to do. I know a mom who unschooled all 5 kids. 4 are currently in college or have graduated and one is 16. Last time I was in the hospital my physican was unschooled.

      Reply
      • Polly
        on Aug 12th at 8:33 am

        wow!

        Reply
    • Anonymous
      on Aug 11th at 1:40 pm

      My completely unschooled 17 year old just got accepted to the honors program at the local technical college. If she chooses to go on to a four year university, she can simply apply to transfer.

      Reply
    • Lisa
      on Aug 11th at 2:55 pm

      I have two unschooled sons, 12 and 16. My 16 year old is beginning community college this fall in economics – his choice. I will be delighted if he finds that this is his passion, and I will never consider him “handicapped” if he chooses not to finish college. College is a great path for some people, but there are so many other paths our children can take. Not to mention that many colleges welcome with open arms the kids who can think independently, instead of just fill in the right bubbles on the Scantron. There is a lot of rhetoric and there are a lot of assumptions to let go of when you choose your own path as a family, and allow your child to choose his own path. If I had it to do all over again, not only would I unschool, I would go into it without fear, because I am thrilled to see the critical thinking, independent men my sons are becoming!

      Reply
    • Lisa Miller
      on Aug 11th at 4:07 pm

      I don’t unschool but I would strongly prefer that my son didn’t rely on someone else to give him a job. My hope is that he is self employed and/or starts his own business.

      Reply
    • Francisco Moncaleano
      on Aug 11th at 7:19 pm

      I was unschooled from fourth grade on. Nobody checks if you have a highschool diploma or not because it has become mostly meaningless. I recently started going to college. Because Highschool is so bad, there are bunches of basic math and english classes. I am having no problems “fitting in” and learning what I want. If the professor isn’t very good I look it up online. I actually feel that I am on somewhat of a level playing field with my professors. I am skilled at things they are not. I used to work as a Sr Computer Analyst until the jobs got outsourced overseas. Now I am going to school to get a degree in psychology. College professors LOVE homeschooler/unschoolers. Fo instance my english teacher was shocked that I like red marks on my papers. To me it showed what could be changed and how I can improve. I also have four younger sisters who are very successful. One runs an ISP, the other has her nursing degree, one is a vet and the last one is a writer. All unschooled (mostly).

      Reply
    • Kelly
      on Aug 24th at 2:37 pm

      Not true.
      First of all, colleges and their admissions policies will be VERY different 15-16 years from now. They change yearly as it is. In a decade and a half? As more and more unschoolers apply to and succeed in college, they colleges will alter requirements to include them.
      College professors love unschoolers because they aren’t jaded: they’re still *eager* to learn and are attentive and participatory in class and even challenge their professors.
      Unschoolers tend to submit *portfolios* instead of a school-like curriculum/report card. We suggest that they include letters of recommendation from businesses/people they’ve worked for/volunteered with.
      Also, many unschoolers find entrepreneurship to be right up their alleys. No need to “get a foot in a door” that you open yourself.

      Reply
    • Anonymous
      on Aug 26th at 1:12 pm

      I have two degrees and can’t get a job, college doesn’t get you work.

      Reply
  3. Lua Wells
    on Aug 10th at 6:09 pm

    Unschooling is great! My kids are grown unschoolers, and had no trouble getting into college. In fact, my daughter was accepted at every college she applied to, so don’t let others’ fears hold you back. My kids figured out exactly what they loved most in the world, and now work in those fields. To see more about how this worked, take a look at my recent TEDx talk called Skipping School – you can google it. And best wishes to you!!

    Reply
  4. Cher-Ami
    on Aug 10th at 6:11 pm

    I am so grateful to have had this most awesome experience ‘with’ my daughter. We cook together, eat our meals at the table together, learn together and play in nature…everyday.
    Have a wonderful life TOGETHER!

    Reply
    • Polly
      on Aug 12th at 8:35 am

      <3

      Reply
  5. Tiki Mama
    on Aug 10th at 6:37 pm

    Thanks for all the kind comments! Donna, I have read that many colleges love to bring in homeschoolers/unschoolers. These children can start taking college classes even younger than 16. One local boy has been taking community college classes at age 9.

    College life begins at 7: Tanishq Abraham at TEDxSacramento

    Reply
  6. Tiki Mama
    on Aug 10th at 6:41 pm

    Lua, thanks so much for directing me to your TedX talk! It is so inspirational!

    Skipping School: Lua Martin Wells at TEDxCharleston

    Reply
    • Lua Wells
      on Aug 11th at 2:26 pm

      Thanks for watching! And I loved the link to the TEDxSacramento talk, too – thanks for sharing that. I just read a really great book called The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius, about a kid who is similar, and started college at age 8. Also a really inspirational story, with lots of great lessons, inspiring even for those of us who have non-genius kids!

      Reply
  7. Jennifer
    on Aug 10th at 7:36 pm

    Love this!!! Thank you so much for voicing this out!

    Reply
  8. Amy K
    on Aug 10th at 9:29 pm

    I would love to know what my options are if I cannot be the one to “unschool” my child. Are there co-ops or places you can send your child for an unschooled education? I’m a mom of 3 boys and it’s not an option for me to do this, but it sounds exactly like what they need! I’m in Tennessee, by the way. Thank you for the article & info!

    Reply
    • Trisha
      on Aug 11th at 1:45 pm

      Look into Sudbury schools. They provide an education that is similar to unschooling, in a group environment.

      Reply
  9. A Real Educator
    on Aug 11th at 7:52 am

    This is the biggest crock of s%it I have read in a long time. Schools drugging kids? We have parents begging for kids to be drugged and the funny thing is the kids never see the pills because the parents are busy crushing and snorting them! Oh yeah, good luck reading about those dinosaurs without reading instruction

    Reply
    • Trisha
      on Aug 11th at 1:50 pm

      Yes, reading is essential! Fortunately, kids can learn exactly the same way they learned to talk, invisibly and organically. My nine-year-old son reads at a HS level. When I asked him how he learned, he couldn’t remember. He’s always been around reading. We read to him, he tried to read himself, and one day it just all made sense. My 7-year-old reads more and more words every day. It does sound absolutely crazy — it’s exactly the opposite of what we’ve always thought — but they do learn it, and they learn it well.

      Reply
    • Lisa
      on Aug 11th at 2:58 pm

      I pulled my son out of public school when his second grade teacher said he needed ADHD medicine in order to stay in the classroom. He was never diagnosed with ADHD. Not sure what you think isn’t true about that concept.

      Reply
    • UnschoolingMom
      on Aug 11th at 8:19 pm

      Wow, guess you better tell all 4 of my kids, who taught themselves, that they don’t know how to read. My oldest was 4 when he taught himself, the next two, also boys, learned before age 5. Again, on their own. Daughter took a bit longer, she was about 6.5 before more than random words clicked for her.

      I guarantee that my youngest son would be given an ADHD label by schools. He cannot sit still to do school work (we learned when we tried to do severely structured homeschool). But just the other night he was talking to my husband about a game he was playing and explaining about “gates” (digital logic operator). My husband then said that this is stuff he learned in college. My son is 10.

      My children read voraciously and regularly watch National Geographic type documentaries and educational type shows. As well as looking up information they want to know in books or on the computer. My children will know how to think for themselves and find answers for themselves. They won’t become mindless cogs in the wheel.

      Reply
  10. Amanda
    on Aug 11th at 10:45 am

    I’m years away from ‘school age’ here, too. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  11. Neely
    on Aug 11th at 11:34 am

    I have unschooled from the beginning. My daughter is going to be 11 soon. My children are turning out great and they are bright. They read. They learn. We have decided to do a bit more scheduling this year. I just wanted to point out that just because you homeschool instead of unschool, this does not mean that you are following the curriculum they use at the schools. There are so many different ways to homeschool. There are also so much curriculum to choose from. Good luck with everything. Homeschooling is definitely an adventure!

    Reply
  12. Bryan Morton
    on Aug 11th at 5:15 pm

    You must be careful home schooling or unschooling, or you may get results like these:
    http://youtu.be/DXdXcNgwNtc
    http://youtu.be/mw6FVk589T4

    Reply
  13. inspire
    on Aug 11th at 5:46 pm

    This is wonderful. I wish it were more mainstream. Thank you for writing it and keep up the great work!

    I am curious, however, about number #7. “Schools are not designed for children” and not only boys. I understand that there have been studies done about boys needing more physical activity and understand the world more kinetically, but these results have not been the most consistent either. It is important for us to challenge the ideological underpinning of this argument: biology.

    When a female child “acts out” in school (i.e. probably is having a healthy reaction to an unhealthy situation) she is treated horribly – and some studies show that the reaction of staff is even worse than with her male classmates. This shows how we have rigidly culturally constructed categories of gender by assuming they are biological. This is scary territory.

    Reply
  14. Angela Morse
    on Aug 11th at 9:31 pm

    I have just recently started homeschooling/unschooling my son. I have found that many parents are very interested in taking this path with their own children but just don’t know where to start. I have created an open Facebook group page called “A Beautiful Education” to give other parents an idea of how inspiring an education could potentially be. Check it out if you’re interested or join the group, the more the merrier! :)https://www.facebook.com/groups/464801230278909/

    Reply
  15. Mary
    on Aug 12th at 7:47 am

    Sounds great wish we could afford not to work.

    Reply
    • Cashflow
      on Aug 13th at 1:28 am

      Hey,
      I have found it is good to cut the budget super hard and have more fun. No car No cell phone no cable. Make all food at home. It can be tough but now we don’t feel it so much. We make Coffee at home. Add up the numbers and you begin to see how the corporations are screwing us. Both parents working full time? Whats the point in having a family? You can change it up!

      Reply
      • Cash-no
        on Aug 19th at 10:01 am

        Oh wow what a revelation – you are SOOOO right! I’m sure the cardboard box we would live in would be just as comfortable as our home. Or we could just live under a bridge together – at least we’d be together. I could say we are camping. Oh what an adventure that would be! Why didn’t this occur to me before? I am so selfish!

        And we don’t REALLY need to eat every single day – some kids go days at a time. I could work this into our talks about other less-fortunate countries (don’t worry I won’t actually make them LEARN anything about the countries or their people, I will just make some random comments and hope some of it absorbs!)

        Maybe I could save all the hair from our pets and my haircuts to weave our clothing. This would also count as “art” for the children as well. Or is that too structured? Creativity & concern for our families and planet earth is all you need.

        Reply
    • Workinsmylife
      on Aug 19th at 10:10 am

      Why would you ever wish a thing like that?

      I had my baby at work so I wouldn’t miss out on any money I could make and then sent her home one the bus so I could finish up my day. I really think it has fostered her independence. Plus it was super important to me that I had the money to get that flat screen for my walk in closet.

      “when moms say they WISH they could be a SAHM but they can’t afford it” -sometimes we moms who work outside the home are just saying that to you to make you feel better about your life

      Reply
  16. Feralbee
    on Aug 12th at 9:15 am

    In response to “A Real Educator”, I did not beg for my kid to get drugged, yet conceded to allow it due to a pediatrician’s ADD diagnosis. I assure you we did not steal his medication, however, it did result in a suicidal thoughts by my 10 year old child. I’m sorry that you have become so jaded and unmotivated to see other ways of educating.

    Reply
  17. Julia
    on Aug 13th at 11:07 am

    I love this, great job! It shows that you truly think about your son and his well being. My husband and I just started with an opportunity so that we can both be home to teach out daughter, it has been wonderful, so far! Thanks for the wonderful insight!

    Reply
  18. Earth Mama
    on Aug 13th at 10:26 pm

    Really enjoyed this article – thank you for sharing! I too have a 3 year old son. He is about to enter a marvelous play-based, child-led learning environment preschool. I’ve been so blessed to have this opportunity to be almost full time with him for the first years of his life and it has been a magical journey to allow his interests and excitement to guide our activity and experiences. I am longing to keep this way of moving in the world alive for him, so that he will continue to cultivate a sense of passion and curiosity in the world. I want him to flourish and am so aware that our school system isn’t necessarily the best place for him. I am exploring different options as we move forward, and this is a marvelous overview of what is possible in the unschooling world. Thank you.

    Reply
  19. Sharon
    on Sep 6th at 6:43 am

    I agree with every thing you said. I have 5 & 3 year olds (girl, boy). We were a 2-income family and now are a one-income family as I gave up my job to homeschool. I even out-earned my husband…..You can do it. We had to work toward it just as you are now doing. I congratulate you and it will be wonderful!

    Reply
  20. Carole
    on Sep 6th at 7:35 pm

    Mom to a now-23 year old daughter who was unschooled from 2nd grade on – the worst mistake we made was waiting till the end of 2nd grade to pull her out. Held a paying job at a science museum teaching summer camp from age 16-age 21 – has completed her associates degree and is now on track to her 4 year degree and on track for grad school. She had no problem with college applications (we just submitted a transcript -if anything the admissions officers were fascinated by “unschooling”. Go fo it – it’ll be the best decision you’ll ever make. And a wonderful lifestyle.

    Reply

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