Unschooling Life Podcast by Amy Childs — August 6th, 2014
an episode featuring Sandra Dodd
On this podcast, so far, I’ve been focusing on natural learning. That’s what happens with
unschooling and also happens in some alternative school environments. But natural learning is
not the only benefit of unschooling.
What do families gain from an unschooling lifestyle that goes beyond just the natural learning
environment? That’s the question for today’s episode of the Unschooling Life Podcast.
I asked Sandra Dodd, my favorite advocate of radical unschooling, if she could talk more about
the differences between unschooling and other educational alternatives.
I didn’t know, when I first started, what the differences were, but over the years
I’ve seen diverging paths. Because in the 1970s—late 60s, early 70s—when John Holt and
some others were thinking, "We can reform schools," there was research—there was serious
university research about how people learn, and that’s what unschooling ends up based on.
Some of the alternative schools, and democratic schools, they based themselves on that too,
but the thing is they never left the harbor. They didn’t know that there was a whole world
beyond that, so they're still making a different kind of school.
If the parents are paying someone else to keep their children some number of hours and
expecting a report of how the children did, at least to make it worth their money, they have all the
disadvantages of school. Well not all of the disadvantages of the worst school you can imagine,
but disadvantages of school that unschooling at home never touches, like dividing the world artificially into school years and semesters, with days that are "learning days" and days that aren’t "learning days".
I mean, it’s sad to say, but the schools that are boarding schools based on that, seem to
purposely separate the parents from the children. And all schools need to do that, so the kids aren’t crying and wishing they were home.
It... For a school to want the children to pay attention to the teachers, and to care what
they say, the only good way to do that is to break the bonds between children and their parents,
to some extent.
When people are dealing with the school schedule, they see the children from 6 years old to 18,
more or less. And they say “We have only this many years to do what we are going to do.”
That affects their view of their child's progress, whereas the child at home might reach those goals, those sort of checkpoints at 14 or 22, and that’s ok, because at home they're counting all the other things that their children did too as legitimate, in a radical unschooling family that really does unmoor themselves from schoolishness.
Another thing that happens with radical unschooling is that the relationship between the parents and
the children is so close, and so warm, and direct, that it affects not just their day-to-day peace,
and their learning, but their lives after the children are grown.
That’s another thing that I could not have known, when I first started, that I see now. Whereas with
schools, ideally if a children develops a really strong bond with one teacher or two, and just loves those
people and the very sight of them inspires them to think great thoughts, once that teacher's off
duty, it’s over. It probably will not be a lifelong relationship.
For a child whose home life isn’t better than school, school is the bomb.
It is still school.
So I think for a child whose parents can’t provide a better environment than they can buy them
in a school, school might be great. And sometimes there are long-term relationships between
students and teachers, but that’s not the goal of school. And if that relationship, if that bonding,
can be with the parents, instead of paid strangers, I don’t see any disadvantage to that.
So when people say, “My school, or my charter school, or my this-or-that, online school... is
unschooling," I think it’s going to compromise the family’s understanding of what the potential of
I am trying to think of what emotion this is. It’s not resentment, jealousy… It’s something—
It's indignation, I suppose? When people who are running a school, charging money for people to
send their kids there, where they will keep them there every day, like the law says, and they're
reporting to the state, like the law says, to then equate themselves with what radical
unschoolers are doing, it’s cheatery. They are cheating, They are trying to suggest that they can
do in 180 days—whatever 6 times 180 is in hours—that they can take the state requirement of
hours and create, in that time, what a radical unschooling family can
create in 364 days of learning.
My audio wasn’t being recorded properly at this point, but here I said something sort of
snarky, like “You mean 363 days, because of 'Learn Nothing Day',” because apparently I don’t know
how many days there are in a year, and Sandra said:
I took out the one already, it would have been 365.
And we had a pretty good laugh about that. But eventually we got back to talking about
the other benefits of unschooling—things that people don’t necessarily think of as "education."
It’s easy to see, if you are going to nurse your baby, the bond, the nursing
relationship, and the awareness, the sort of visceral communication that happens between an
infant and a mom is going to be lost if that baby is put into full-time daycare. And the mom
mourns for a while, and then just bucks up and picks the baby up when she gets off work. But I
don’t think it can be as close. I don’t think the child will ever trust that mother as much as he
We don’t... it’s painful to think about it, it’s painful to look at the effects of that. And
co-sleeping helps with bonding, when parents can do it. And by "bonding" I think I mean intimate
knowledge, each one of the other. The baby can read the mom’s moods, the mom can read the
baby's needs, moods, awakeness, wakefullness, fear, calm, in ways that you lose if the baby's in a
different room, in a different bed.
Those are just not the things that we speak of in this culture because it has to do with human
When I was a kid we were told in school that humans don’t have instincts—that we have
to learn everything we learn from books. That we don’t know how to build a shelter, we don’t know
what food to eat, we don’t know anything except through our culture and what we learn in
books. I think that's probably true, especially if you set up a religion that says:
Anything you 'kind
of think is right,' that’s a message from the devil. You need to not do that.
And how long
has that been going on on this culture? Way over 1500 years. And so, if we were—we, millions and
millions of people—were shamed about giving in to their "baser instincts." There are whole phrases
that go with that, whole shaming phrases. Like: "You need to ignore your 'urges'.” And they say
'urges’, like it… it sounds nasty, you know—stuff is coming out of you.
If you didn’t read it in
the Bible, then it’s the devil tempting you not to do what you are supposed to do.
For instincts to have been literally demonized
by our culture, by our largely religious culture, it keeps people from knowing how to be. And if
people feel like they have to buy a book and read what’s in the book, and there are so many
different books, then the culture that was supposed to help us know what to do is totally
scattered and lost.
We are so afraid of instinct.
So with radical unschooling it is possible for a
family, even who skipped that part—even who didn’t have infant bonding—to, as much as
possible, restore a relationship between the parents and the children, where the parents really
do care about what the children think and want, more then they look in the book and see what a
six-year-old should think or want.
One thing that John Holt, when he was writing about Teach Your Own, he, too, had a curriculum in
mind. He, too, was thinking, not "teach a curriculum," but "Do this, instead of school, until school is
out, and then you will be done, and it will be cool, you will have dodged the bullet, you will have
missed out on the damage of school." That’s worthy all by itself.
But John Holt didn’t have any children. He didn’t actually do what he was writing about people
doing. I respect him, I love his books, I am glad he did what he did. But then people come along,
after that, and they do it. And then they shared that with each other, and then people did it better
than they saw their families do it. Other families say, “Well, I wish I hadn’t done this; it was all
right, but oh, I wish we had done this." And so entire lives of young people have been lived
now since John Holt died, who didn’t go to school. And what those families discovered, that
John Holt could not have known, is that if you live your life receptive to the learning around you,
accepting of input, appreciative of the other people around you who know things, and of the
resources around you, and trying not to be prejudiced against inputs like television and
videogame and comic book, then what happens is, the parents' learning kicks back in. The
parents, who probably had sort of calcified because of school, they soften back up, and they
start to want to learn. And so they are learning along with their children, or in a parallel-play kind
of way. They might all be in the same place all learning different things, sharing the good parts.
The richness of that environment of learning, where the parents and the children are exploring
what they want to explore and sharing little bits along the way, sliding in and out of each others'
hobbies, it is so big, it's so rich, and when the children are old enough to get jobs—mine all got jobs
as teens, but in some countries that’s not as legal as it is where I am—and when they decide to
move out, it’s so smooth, it’s so normal. It already seems not unusual that a child would move
out, would find a cool opportunity and move out, and that the parents would help them willingly,
And I’ve seen that now dozens of times, and I assume I will see that hundreds of times
before I'm through, and most people have not seen that one time. They can’t imagine it; they
don’t believe it. What they see is: when the child turns 18, everything changes.
I’ve talked to kids
who said they were so scared and stressed when they were 17, because they knew when they
turned 18, their parents were going to start charging them rent, or throw them out, or if they didn’t go to
the university, they should go to the military—all this huge pressure to get... to get out. You are done now; we're
So people hadn’t considered that they could totally avoid that, that that would be a
natural offshoot of radical unschooling.
Keith and I did think, early on, we said what we are doing is inoculating our kids against the trait
of some, or the fact of some kids leaving with the first person who says “Hey baby, you wanna
live with me?” or “Oh, let’s go get a house”, or, you know, that sort of energy of young people
luring other young people out and away, to other states, to other places, to dangerous
neighborhoods. We said "It’s going to have to be a pretty good offer to beat what they have at
And so that becomes a safety factor too. If the children know that they can stay at home,
then someone who comes and says, "Hey do you want come do something with me? Do you
want to come live with me?"—it better be a good offer.
A few days after recording this conversation with Sandra, she found a few notes, she’d
written a while back about the topic and sent them to me. She wrote:
When unschooling is equated with alternative school, it can blind people to the possibilities of
full-on radical unschooling. No matter how extremely great or different a school is from a
traditional school, or the default standard, it is still a school.
Parents who are unschooling as a
whole way of life, can discover what no school can find, and the core aspect of it is the family as
a base for learning—for learning about family, for learning about relationships, and resources,
money, food and sleep, and learning about laughter.
The Unschooling Life Podcast is brought to you by Amy Child and unschoolingsupport.com
END OF TRANSCRIPT
Originally there was back-and-forth, and sometimes you can hear the fade-in where Amy had cut her parts out, because the audio wasn't good. The parts by Amy here were added later. So I didn't go on at length as it seems here on the day of the interview. She was prompting me and asking god questions, but this format makes me sound (a little) more articulate.
Amy Childs retired in 2019, and let the unschooling support webpage go. The podcasts are available in a couple of places, but I like to have them with the introductions that were on the website. I'll never finish them all, but here's one more.
(links to more on infants, toddlers)
Being your Child's Partner
In the recording above, from 5:12 to about 8:07, I'm talking about Instinct, and I have a page about that.