Becoming an Unschooler

Because people are accustomed to buying things or to joining clubs, churches, classes, it's shocking to come upon something like unschooling that must be understood gradually and developed slowly, and that others can't do FOR you, or that you can't call a help desk and say "It's been two weeks, and this isn't working, so I'd like to return it."

When a journalist posted about wanting people to speak with, I solicited information along another line.

Sandra Dodd:

Even when someone has children and wants to become an unschooler, it takes . . . A Long Time to really understand it.

I've been involved in discussions of this for 25 years, and no journalist has ever understood it well enough to keep us from cringing, even those who spent two or three days with a family.

So others here—how long did it take you to understand unshooling well enough to write about it?
. . . .

I went somewhat backwards at having the bedtime and food flexibility already in place before we decided not to sent Kirby to kindergarten, in 1991. 🙂 Then it took me a few years to see the wisdom in those who were saying chores should be the same way as the other things. So there were stages. The academic ideas were easy for me, for a slew of personal reasons.

Like layers of an onion though, someone can HAVE IT, and be calm, and then discover... Oh! I could extend these principles to my spouse.

So for an article for people with young children, it will be about just the surface of an onion. 🙂 Maybe that's the concreteness of it. "How can you recognize an onion when you see one?"

Erin Waterbury:
My oldest is six and I first started trying to understand unschooling when he was a baby. I thought I got it right away. Looking back, I think it was about a year ago that it really started to become something more than an idea that I liked. So I'd say it took me 4 or 5 years to really absorb it and I'm sure that in a few more years I'll be looking back at now and seeing the ways I still don't have it figured out.

Sandra Dodd:

Beautiful phrase: "it really started to become something more than an idea that I liked."

Jenny Cyphers:
I started reading about unschooling when my oldest was 5, she's 22 now. I read every day. I read books and the writings of other parents in real time. My youngest was born when my oldest was 7. That's when it really started connecting for me. That little baby wouldn't sleep unless they were in my arms, so I sat a lot and read. I started writing then, but not much.

I've been writing for 15 years and reading for 17. My understanding became better with more reading and writing and applying it at home. My understanding when my youngest was born, was new and not very deep. Two years of reading every day, and applying it in life gave me a basic understanding without much depth.

Karen Angstadt:
My oldest is 11, left school during pre-kindergarten and I can say confidently that we are unschoolers- confident that I can explain why we have made the choices we have made, rather than just how we do things. I have been reading about unschooling and attempting to live by radical unschooling principles for about 6 years. Even so, every few months, I see new ways I can apply peaceful principles to my life and interactions with my family and with others.

As my children grow and change, I see things I can do better; I see my thoughts challenged by others' writing (especially here in this group) and see more clearly some things that I can improve. I look back to when I first thought I "got it" - maybe 3 years ago - and see how much more there was to grasp, but feel happy for the progress. And I'm sure this will happen again and again.

Ironically, my first exposure to radical unschooling was watching a documentary called "Radical Parenting" which I watched because the family of an acquaintance was profiled (for gender neutral parenting.) I was appalled by unschooling as it was presented, and because my reaction was so vehement I knew I needed to explore the topic. (For me, any immediate strong negative reaction warrants investigation.) Luckily I found the yahoo groups, Always Unschooled and Always Learning, and then later came to this group. Lots of solid information, without the wishy-washy fluff, was very helpful while learning about unschooling.

Megan Valnes:
Oh my gosh, we've been actively unschooling for 2.5 years and I'm still nervous to write about it. I read almost daily, even if it's a little tidbit to help me think about something, and I listen to podcasts. Lately, I've felt off my game because we've moved and my regular routine has been massively disrupted. There is so much going on that I'm hardly on a computer or able to listen to the podcasts...Add Light and Stir and FB have been the quick fixes I need, but I look forward to getting back to my usual reading and listening! Radical unschooling requires constant thoughtfulness and mindfulness and it's easy to stray from the path and revert to old behaviors when I'm not actively working on myself.
Becoming, and being

Becoming the sort of person you hope your child will be, or that your child will respect, is more valuable than years of therapy. And it's cheaper.

photo by Rippy Dusseldorp

Jo Isaac:
I discovered unschooling when Kai was 3 - that is 7 years ago. There were various points where I thought 'I've got it!' and I really hadn't. Probably I really started to 'get it' when he was around 5 or 6, and we got over that 'compulsory school age' hump. But I had more deschooling to do around reading, after that, as he didn't read until he was nearly 9. He's 10, now. I might get wobbles around high school age - I think deschooling is a constant process in many ways, when you are surrounded by a schooly world.

So - long-winded, I think it took me around 3 or 4 years to really 'get it' in terms of radical unschooling principles.

Edited to add - how long before I was comfortable writing about it - I think my writing has only become clearer (and I hope it becomes clearer yet!) since Kai was maybe 8 - so it took me 5 years to 'get it' to that point.

Megan Valnes:
Pam Kerwin Sorooshian said in an interview that most adults will never fully deschool...I think there's a lot of truth in that statement!

Nicole Rod:
We have been deschooling/unschooling for a year and a half, and I am still constantly challenging and rethinking my thoughts and ideas. I learn something new in unschooling groups every day, and rarely do I feel as though I "get it" enough to contribute. Occasionally I've recently experienced something in my own home that is worth sharing on a related thread here or there.

Karen James:
It took me three to five years of unshooling our son before I felt I understood what we were doing well enough to write or talk about it with any clarity or confidence. Real learning is subtle...like a breath. Ethan said something kind of funny to my husband recently. He exclaimed "Now you are breathing consciously!" We all became aware of our breathing in that moment. Learning can become as effortless as unconscious breathing when we it happens without prejudice or too much attention to its presence. It's so big it permeates through everything we do, yet so intangible at times we can only guess at its influence and significance.

Cass Nilep Kotrba:
I remember thinking when we started "I may never fully understand unschooling but some of it makes so much sense to me that I'm going to start walking down this path and see what happens." A year later I understood more and felt less nervous and confused. Life at home was much happier and more calm than prior to starting but we were still a long way from the ideal that existed in my mind.

Two years in, I understood so much more and life seemed much smoother and richer. We are four years in now and things just keep getting progressively better. I continuously read, think, write, push and apply myself to gain a deeper and more complete understanding and I reap the rewards. The thought and effort I put into it is what moves me continuously down my path. Without that I would just be standing around, looking at the scenery.

So you can see why it is hard to put a number or a definitive on unschooling. A common answer to many questions posed to unschoolers is "it depends", because it does. I consider myself a radical unschooler and for me, unschooling is so much more than a way of educating my children. For each of us, it is what we make of it. The ideas are deep and universal and can be applied to all of life, not just the education of a child.

Joanne Lopers:
For me it is a process that slowly reveals itself with different situations and circumstances that arise in life but probably about 4 years into it I realized that I pretty much had shifted my focus and came at life from an unschooling perspective. (Oldest is now 14. I started to read about unschooling when he was 6. Doing school at home had not turned out to be very joyous for us and I had experimented with a variety of approaches before finding unschooling.) Evidence of our kids continuing to learn without classes and teachers helped build confidence in me over the years.

Pam Clark:
I first started reading about unschooling when my oldest was 15. We did not come to fully understand and trust in it though until she and the next two had already graduated. Our youngest two got the benefit of it 4-5 years later. We had already been very relaxed homeschoolers by then, but there is such a difference even then, with that and unschooling. We also started shifting from traditional parenting to gentle parenting during that same time frame. When our younger kids reached compulsory years we were ready for, and following the principles of, radical unschooling.


In weaving, one thread touches all the others. At first, learning is in one place, play is in another, and work is in a third. Unschoolers can gradually become people whose lives are made of learning and togetherness. When play has value, and parents see learning in everything, the fiber and substance of the family's life change.

What is woven into your life is part of your being.

photo by Nancy Machaj

Clare Kirkpatrick, in response to "I've been trying so hard to do the *right* thing, but it seems like I keep getting it *wrong*."
This means that you're trying to find rules to live by and hoping that sticking to them will make you an unschooling parent and solve all your problems. But unschooling doesn't work that way. Stop reading for a bit and try being more present in each moment. Try looking at every moment and considering which response will be the better one to make. Not the best one, not the right one, but the better one.

I'm noticing I'm feeling tempted to give you ideas to manage a situation like you cited, but I feel as though you may take it word-for-word.

If you're feeling like you're put upon and stuck in what is feeling like an endless loop of housework, sometimes the better option would be to say 'not now, sorry' with love than to do the thing feeling pissed off and miserable. In the meantime, rather than reading everything you can get your hands on, read the most relevant things to what you're stuck on right now - what is getting in the way of you making better unschooling choices. For instance, in this situation, I'd suggest working through Sandra's page on 'service'...slowly. As you said, changes in thinking patterns takes time.


Incidentally, now that I do stuff for my kids with joy and a genuine desire to help them carry on with their busyness, and now that I'm lovingly clear and honest when I can't (like when clearing up baby poo is the current priority) or don't want to just yet (like if I just want to finish my complicated row of knitting first, but when I keep those times to a minimum), my children actually help out a lot. If I can't help, I offer to tell them how they can do it themselves so they can get it sooner than they would if they waited, or I ask a nearby sibling if they can help (of course it's cool if they say no—on the whole they say yes, I find). So I don't really recognise this picture of a family where mum does absolutely everything alone.

But it takes time and trust-building and not doing things for your kids with resentment and an authentic desire to do things for your children to help them do more of what is joyful (ie. What they're learning from). And it takes letting go of the idea of a co-operative family where children help out a lot being your goal. Your goals should be your children having enough time to do the things they love and changing your own thinking so that helping them get that is a joyful thing for you as their mum. These are principles which you can use in each moment to help you make a better unschooling response.

In a discussion about topics for a rotation of discussions (which didn't end up happening) there are several lists, including a parody of The 12-Steps, but my favorite set was this, by Tara Joe Farrell. I've used it at Just Add Light before.
Tara Joe Farrell:

I think everything for me comes back to:
  1. Deschool
  2. Peaceful Nest
  3. Principles
  4. Sparkle
I think I'd be challenged to find an unschooling question that can't be traced back to one of those four.
Reading through people's proposed lists there is inspiring.