Some thoughts on "Success"

Sandra Dodd
January 2, 2011

Holly (19) took a picture of a reflection of me. I don't think I would have seen this, but Holly has an artist's eye. My face is on the hills, between the lake and the sky.

Marty (21) can pack a car in a most efficient way, and remember all sorts of emergency or "just-in-case" equipment and provisions. He is helpful, funny, musical, and sweet.

Kirby (24) has lived away from home for over three years now. He has a job with benefits, extra overtime, and nice, new gym. He has lots of friends at work. As he can wear whatever he wants to work, his desire to dress up was unfulfilled, so he bought a nice suit to wear to parties. He recently purchased a very nice car, without any parental assistance on financing. (We offered, but he wanted to establish credit.) He paid $5,000 down on that car, to the chagrin of the finance desk at the dealership. He has no student-loan debt whatsoever.

Is any of that "success"?

Marty and Kirby both made A's in the first math classes they ever took. Is that success?

Holly has a fulltime job that could potentially last her ten years. Is that "success"?

Look at me, all artsy on that hill. I have a college degree, but am not "employed." Is that failure?

The idea of "success" as good grades leading to big money is an odd measure from an unschooling point of view. "A successful unschooler"? A successful student? A successful adult?

The opposite of "a success" is "a failure." But there must be visions, directions, goals to achieve (or to fail to achieve) to measure this idea of "success." And probably all of us know or know of people who "were successes" who lost their status, wealth, or freedom.

When people ask about unschooling "success stories," perhaps we should ask them to define "success" rather than simply name unschoolers who have gone to college or who have impressive (or just sturdy and steady) jobs. Treating that as a simple, sensible question channels attention away from the broader, deeper benefits of unschooling and of living a life of mindful enrichment.

"Success" might be as ghostly and insubstantial as that image of me in the photo above. It can look nice, but how permanent is it? How warm? How strong?

Look at the immediate benefits of your decisions. Look for the good parts of today. Look for the value in this moment. If someone cannot find joy and goodness now, how can he feel his life is successful?

Someone else's example:

Our babysitter who has been coming every Friday for about 2 years (I think, maybe 3...?) told me yesterday how much of a positive change she has seen in Will, my oldest. When she first started, Will would rarely leave his room and when he did come downstairs, he would torment his little brothers and sisters and someone would always end up crying. She said she used to be afraid around him because his behavior was so unpredictable. Now, she said, he is so fun, coming down to play with everyone and just hang out with the fam.

The other day, the boys were going out into the trampoline and I came around the corner to the most precious scene: Will on one bended knee zipping up Eric's jacket for him. This may seem simple, but for Will and Eric it was huge! Will used to say he hated Eric—hated all of us. And now, his heart is full of love! He plays with his brother and sisters and enjoys it very much. He feels valued and a mother, you know how much this grows my heart.

This stuff works. If a family can really come into radical unschooling, it works. We started this journey to help Will and we've ended up helping and improving every member of this family's life. Unschooling has provided the solutions I spent so many years in therapy looking for. The Always Learning group is truly invaluable.

Names changed, from an e-mail I received in December 2015, so it's all true except for the names.

Unschooling and Success

some thoughts and pointers

"I am very encouraged by her success and hope that my children will feel free like she did to follow their dreams regardless of what those dreams may be. Success to me is measured by my happiness and satisfaction with my life and the relationships within it as well. I hope my children will feel the same." Dana at

When someone asked on the Always Learning list about the chance of success in starting later. Joyce Fetteroll responded. (

"If we measure success by how close we are to the American Dream, we need a lot of money and stuff to be happy. If we measure success by how happy we are, we need a lot less money and stuff! We just need to do what we love and love what we do. :-) And to do that we don't need a "great education". We need access to what we love and the freedom to pursue it." —Joyce Fetteroll (

" I want their lives to be adventures without a map, where there are innumerable destinations, and unlimited opportunities for “success.” I want their definition of success to include things they can see all around them..." (

Many parents have a general definition of "success" in their own heads, and what they want is for their children to achieve their version of success. Many want their children to offer living proof that they were good parents..." —Pam Sorooshian (I LIVE THEREFORE I LEARN: Living an Unschooling Life)

"The idea that one can make a sacrifice to assure future success is ancient among humans, isn't it?" (Toy Guns)

How a commercial or formal curriculum can harm your unschooling success:

"The peace and joy with which they live attests to the success of our attachment parenting and unschooling."

—Sandra Dodd (

"What is the marker of success or failure in unschooling?"

Someone asked that in a discussion. Read Robyn Coburn's response here.

"I cannot make my children's lives good. I can't ensure their success. I cannot make a tree grow...." Huge Gambles (or small gambles)

This page began as a Just Add Light and Stir post.

Is Unschooling Too Big a Gamble?

Peace for Unschoolers

Raising respectful, respected and empowered children