Unschooling and Happiness

In November 2015, Tori Cotta addressed this to the Always Learning discussion:

There is such beauty and hope in the stories here—even in the ones that describe current struggle, because the decision to write, to ask for help, suggests a way forward. Thank you to everyone who writes, and to those generous mothers who take the time to thoughtfully respond. And especially thank you to you, Sandra, for launching this ship and keeping it afloat.

I know that my life is indescribably better for the time I spend reading here. When I began reading 8 years ago I hoped that my kids would be happier because of my efforts, but I never imagined that my relationship with my husband would also flourish. I have a real partner because I'm more able to be his partner.

I've also come to treasure things like the pile of dirty socks that I might have complained about. Instead my husband has time to rebuild a little sailboat with our kids and to introduce them to his joy in being on the water. He's also got time to build a milking stanchion for my cow and to enclose our patio to keep my chickens (and their poop) in the yard. I love our very messy kitchen because that's where my son confidently made smoothies for the first time for himself and his sister. It's where preparing food is an act of love whether its a homegrown dinner or snacks from the nearest gas station. I keep meaning to photograph the soles of our bare feet--as likely to be covered in glitter as dog hair. Our lives are rich with room for all the projects, animals, and adventures that each one of us takes on. There's a feeling of abundance that I think our friends feel too when they spend time in our home.

I've learned, over time, that intellectual understanding isn't comparable to what we learn through experience--it's a bit like trying to learn to swim by reading the manual. What makes our happiness as a family is not what we get from each other, but what we generously give.

Many thanks to everyone here for giving so generously!

Colleen Prieto (the mother of Robbie, at right) wrote this to me in private one day, and has consented to have it shared in perpetuity.

Some people are raised by people who are not very nice, and they turn into not very nice people too. But others choose not to go that route, and instead try our best to be nice and to raise the “undamaged children” that you’ve said you and your husband talked about (I love that — undamaged children!).

I do my best to make sure my son is undamaged. I was told when I was a child “you haven’t earned happy yet – talk to me when you’re my age – when you’re my age we’ll talk.”

I don’t think kids should have to earn happy when there’s the opportunity to let them live every day, out in the world (not in a classroom), making their own choices without guilt and shame, enjoying today instead of spending every today preparing for tomorrow as if today’s not good enough and tomorrow’s the only thing that counts.

I wish more people could see that (to me anyway) that’s what unschooling does. It lets kids live. And play. And explore. And enjoy. It lets them live like they don’t need to earn happy.

Well, in my house anyway that’s what unschooling does smiley face


Sandra Dodd:
Keith said he wanted them to grow up undamaged, and this might be part of what "undamaged" looks like. They're realistic and not needy. ...

Part of the integrity of some of the young adult and teen unschoolers I know comes from their having grown up relatively undamaged. They have a wholeness ...

"We wanted our children to become thoughtful, intelligent, undamaged adults."
— Keith Dodd

Karen James, March 2014:

I was thinking about something I'm reading in an unschooling discussion. My son was sitting beside me. He asked me what I was thinking. I asked him "What keeps you from being mean spirited toward people?" He said "Well...My heart just isn't that way. And...the potential for friends is nice."

Ethan isn't mean-spirited at all. He can get angry of course. He has strong opinions about what he would like to do with his time, and where he would like to focus his energy. Sometimes he thinks he's right when he's wrong. Sometimes he's feeling a bit under the weather and is more emotionally stirred up. But he's already pretty clear about how he wants to be in the world. At eleven, I think that's pretty cool. I was in my thirties before I started to figure that out for myself.

If parents wonder whether they should be more generous with their children, I would say yes. The more the better. Not in a give-them-everything-they-want kind of way. More in a give-them-as-much-of-yourself-as-you-can kind of way. Be open. Be generous. Be understanding. Be trusting and trustworthy. Be present. Be loving. Be compassionate. Be patient. Be helpful. Be kind.

You will be amazed at what you see.

It's not about being great or reaching lofty goals. If that happens—awesome! To me though, a life well lived is one where our motivation for doing what we do is clear in our own minds and hearts.

Currently, at eleven, my son says he might like to be a waiter when he gets older. He says he thinks it would be fun because he would get to bring people food and talk with people. Some might think he's not dreaming big enough. I think he's right on track. I am not invested in what Ethan chooses to do when he grows up. I'm invested in helping him know why he makes the choices he makes today, so that he can continue to make the right choices for himself tomorrow.

Someone wrote:

***My son is Bi-Polar. He cannot handle stress. In fifth grade, my bright child...***
Jenny Cyphers responded:
Lots of kids can't handle stress. This is about school and fitting into school.

I'm sorry you carried that over into unschooling. Labels very often do more harm than good. Bi-polar is another form of "I'm depressed sometimes and happy other times". There are some people for whom those feelings are extreme. One of the very important aspects of unschooling that is solely on the parents, is to create a happy learning environment. Kids don't learn nearly as well when they aren't happy. It doesn't mean that every person needs to be happy at every moment of every day, it means that things that create happy momentum should be paramount from day to day.

If going to concerts with friends is something that creates happiness, do more of that. If staying at home without friends creates unhappiness, do less of that. If you want to unschool well, make your lives as happy as possible, make home a happy place, make food and grocery shopping and everything in between something that is happy.

A Facebook note from 2009, rescued in 2022. Someone had suggested that my comments on happiness lacked objective legitimacy, or some such, so it was a slight rant. 🙂

Quantifying happiness

-=-As for happiness -- if you can quantify that and define it and explain how we can all achieve it, you could make millions.-=-
This was to me in comments on someone else's page, so I don't want to respond at length there, but I do want to roll the idea around a bit.

If I know how to help other people be happier, I won't hold out for money. I've been helping people be happier for free for a long time.

SandraDodd.com/joy Rejecting a Pre-Packaged Life

That's a good starting place, but SandraDodd.com/parentingpeacefully might also be good.



From teaching Jr. High and then speaking at 35 conferences (always hanging out before and after, never just scooting in, speaking and bailing, as some speakers do) I have LOTS of families and kids' happiness to compare.

It's easy to say if there's not an objective measure of happiness that it's not worth talking about, but each person knows when she's happier and when she wishes things were a little better. If small changes of attitude can make more happy moments than before, that benefits everyone involved.

No one can have perfect happiness, but *more* happiness is easy to come by. It doesn't cost any more than less happiness, but it's much healthier and better for the whole family and the neighbors and relatives.

Two responses from when it was new:
Sylvia W: I LOVE this! Simple! Achievable! Inspirational!

Carol B:I have been reading your discussion boards and website for years. Thank you! Happy mother of 4 happy healthy unschooled children 22, 19, 16, 14, two now in college.

I spoke at more conferences after 2009; my total might've ended up near 60, but I'm not traveling anymore.
more on happiness Ideas for Unschooling Parents

Peace for Unschoolers Integrity

Original, of that last section, while facebook still saves things