Thoughts on Unschooling

September 3, 2017 at 9:09 pm

I spent several days this weekend listening to speakers and chatting with other moms at the Free to Be Unschooling Conference here in Phoenix at a really beautiful hotel.


I attended the conference because I got a discounted rate through being part of the Arizona Homeschool Theater Group and because I’ve been interested in learning more about unschooling ever since I started homeschooling a few years ago. My objective was to try to figure out if unschooling was something that would be a good fit for our family. I have loved reading a lot of John Holt’s writings, and he is the one who sort of started the unschooling movement. I attended with a friend and her sister, so we spent a lot of time talking and processing everything throughout the conference. Below you’ll find some of my thoughts about the conference and the things I learned about unschooling.


Things I Loved

Sandra Dodd

  • “Be your child’s partner, not his adversary.”
  • Learning happens everywhere, all the time.
  • When you get doubtful, irritated with kids, it could be a trigger from your own childhood trauma.

Roya Dedeaux

  • Don’t aim for balance every day. Extend the time frame to find balance over a week/month/decade.
  • Think of things more gamefully. See difficulties as challenges rather than threats. Challenges–> creativity, brainstorming, learning. Threats–> survival, desperation, not learning.
  • Benefits of PLAY: reduces stress, improves health, emotional well being, family cohesion, decreased conflict, less hostile, more creative, less vulnerable to disease, strengthens language development and self-esteem
  • Try not to interrupt your child’s play time, and play more yourself.

Jen Andersen

  • When in a frenzied moment with kids, ask yourself: “Who is parenting my child in this moment?”
    • irrationality? fear? anxiety?
    • Do I want to keep the privilege of parenting my kids? Or will I hand that privilege over to anger/resentment/fear?
  • Books to look into: The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown, and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Erika Davis-Pitre

  • Teach kids principles instead of rules.
  • You become an adult when you recognize the greatness of your mother. :-)
  • It’s OK to not know how it’s all going to turn out.
  • Make sure you do at least one thing every day that is joyful.

Caren Knox

  • Being present with your kids in this moment is yoga.
  • How can I make this moment beautiful? peaceful?
  • If you are something, you don’t have to prove you are that thing.
  • Do what brings light in each moment.
  • It’s a mindfulness practice, not a mindfulness diploma.

Carma Paden

  • In every interaction with your kids, you are either building a wall (power struggle) or a bridge (cooperation, compromise).

Q&A with Sylvia Woodman

  • When you don’t create emotional baggage about food, kids have an easier time eating healthy food.
  • Do what food marketers do– make healthy food appealing and convenient, small packages, available, colorful, talk it up.
  • When you use treats as rewards, it actually makes/teaches that treats have more value.
  • Invite rather than require.
  • Chores– perhaps ask, “What would you like to contribute?” “Would you mind helping me?”


Things I Didn’t Love

What exactly does unschooling mean?

The conference was definitely targeted more toward families who are already unschoolers and already embrace the principles of unschooling. Because of this, those of us who weren’t “unschoolers” felt a little bit confused and in the dark, and the classes didn’t really provide any kind of introduction/summary/overview of the “principles of unschooling.” I guess I just expected the basics to be outlined at the conference. We went to the first class of the day, titled “The Practicalities of Unschooling” and actually came away from it more confused about what unschooling would look like for our families.

You don’t belong here.

I definitely picked up a vibe throughout the conference that someone like me didn’t really belong. Many of the speakers made off-hand comments about so-called “Christian homeschoolers” or other more traditional homeschoolers that definitely made me feel judged and unwelcome as a Latter-day Saint Christian. The feeling I got was that everyone assumed that everyone else had a certain “approved” set of philosophies, so it was OK to talk negatively about those other people because those other people definitely wouldn’t be interested in learning about unschooling or attending an unschooling conference. The fact that I was there at all was evidence that their generalizations about Christian homeschoolers being closed-minded or afraid of alternative schooling methods were wrong. In one conversation with an unschooling mom, we asked lots of questions and discussed our feelings. She kept talking about radical unschooling as though she assumed we were there because we wanted to be radical unschoolers. I asked, “What if I don’t want to be a radical unschooler?” She replied, “Then you’re at the wrong conference.” Note taken.

Bedtime, Family Dinner, and Chores

What I gathered at the conference was that radical unschooling incorporates a non-coercive attitude toward bedtimes, mealtimes, and chores. Kids go to bed when they want, kids eat whatever they want and whenever they want to, and kids are not expected to do chores.

I’m definitely supportive of kindness, flexibility, and freedom. And I don’t want to be coercive with my children. But I believe (though I struggle to practice) that going to bed early and arising early are ideal and healthy and should be encouraged. I actually just read about a study last night showing that early bedtimes for children were best for mothers’ mental health. I also believe family dinner time is really important. Family researchers, Musick and Meier, noted that “the routine of family meals can generate feelings of closeness and comfort. Even when mealtimes feel hectic or disorganized, take comfort in the fact that the simple act of regular mealtimes may be providing your child with stability” (Source).

Lastly, I absolutely believe that children should do chores. In the circle chat Q&A with Sylvia Woodman, she talked about how she believes that her kids need to focus on learning, so doing chores would be a distraction from learning. I disagree. I don’t consider housework as separate from learning. Caring for a home is a really important life skill, and it’s just a fact that everyone learns best by doing. I heard many of the conference speakers describe a home where Mom did the majority of the housework because her relationship with her kids (avoiding a negative interaction) was more important than the battle to get them to clean up after themselves. One mom described how she came to peace with the mess instead of resenting her sons for playing video games while she cleaned up their dirty socks. I don’t think the learning happening playing video games should take precedence over the learning that happens doing cooperative housework and serving the family and taking ownership and stewardship over our individual “footprints” within the home.



Sure, resentment and negative interactions are lame. I prefer to avoid both. Finding creative ways to entice kids to help around the house can prevent some of those negative interactions.

Damaging the Relationship

On that note, I also disagree that conflicts have to “damage the relationship.” So many of the talks at the conference suggested that if you get upset or have a negative interaction with your kids, you will “damage the relationship.” If the majority of your interactions with your kids are negative, that would definitely damage the relationship. But learning how to resolve conflicts and compromise and work things out is also an important life skill. The Bible teaches: “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth. . . . Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Hebrews 12:6,11).  And my own faith also teaches that power and influence should only be maintained “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” Going further:

Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death (Source).

I definitely want to work on being more gentle in my interactions with my children. I really appreciated the reminders I received throughout the conference to be a partner with my children rather than an adversary. But the reality is that sometimes kids need to be gently chastened or reproved… always with love and forgiveness rather than shame, of course. All of this is coming from a home-birthing, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, co-sleeping, attachment parenting mama. My attachment and bond with my kids is really, really, really important to me!

Reality is Real

Several of the speakers talked about living in reality rather than living in your expectation of what your life or your children “should” be. That’s important. But I also got the impression that radical unschooling principles often seem to contradict reality. In real life, most people don’t go to sleep whenever they want and wake up whenever they want (unless they’re self-employed or unemployed, of course) and our bodies and minds just don’t function as well when our sleep only happens after 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. In real life, someone has to do the dishes, and it shouldn’t always be mom or dad. In real life, people who love you will sometimes get into conflict with you, and there is a lot of good learning that happens in those experiences.


My Takeaways

When I do a google search on the principles of unschooling, I nod my head and feel like I agree with 95% of what I see.



Despite my agreement with these general unschooling ideas, what I saw at the unschooling conference was definitely a very extreme and radical version of homeschooling and parenting that I just can’t get comfortable with. I like the basic principles of unschooling, and I want to incorporate more of the freedom and gentleness and passion-driven approach to our family’s homeschool experience. But I don’t feel like I can embrace the label, in part because it was clear that radical unschoolers are possessive of the label and not open to letting just anyone into the club. I don’t like labels anyway. I don’t like being tied-down. Ironic that my desire for freedom is preventing me from embracing what is supposed to be the most freedom-focused schooling philosophy. Ha.

So we’re not radical unschoolers. We’re spirit-centered, natural-oriented, freedom-focused, passion-led, figuring-it-out-as-we-go homeschoolers… or whatever. Who cares what we call ourselves? We’re us, and we’re trying, and I think we’re gonna turn out OK.