Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Unschooling Isn't More Risky, It's Just Less Conventional

"Part of me would like to unschool, but it just seems so risky."

"I can't believe parents would do that! Why are they risking their children's education like that??"

"These kids will just end up working at McDonalds."

People seem convinced that unschooling is a risky choice. A risky lifestyle. Who know if kids will succeed if they're unschooled!

This puzzles me more than a little, because it seems to assume that schooling is a guarantee. That if a child goes to school, they'll become emotionally well-adjusted, learn all they need to function in life, get a job, and become successful.

If you ask any person if going to school is a guarantee of success, they'll say of course not. The majority of the people working in low-paying jobs went to school. There are people who went to school who suffer from addiction and mental illness, face unemployment and homelessness, and otherwise struggle in life.

All going to school means is that you've gone to school. It doesn't come with any guarantees.

Neither does unschooling. Unschoolers, too, can struggle with addiction, struggle to find a job, struggle in life.

It's almost as if we live in a world where it's not easy to "succeed," whether you go to school or are unschooled. Almost as if, in everyone's life, shit happens. See what I'm getting at?

Yes, for some people unschooling is riskier than others. People may be less likely to respect an unschooling education from people who face discrimination already, for whom anything can be pulled out as an excuse to continue that discrimination. But at the same time, the people for whom unschooling may be a "riskier" choice, often find that school is ALSO riskier: marginalized communities often have access only to  poorer schools, which have a lot less resources, face higher rates of bullying and violence in school, and higher drop-out rates. Marginalized people face more difficulty and discrimination no matter what.

On the other hand, unschooling can also make things less risky: removing children from a space they face violence is removing them from risk (in reverse, for children who face violence at home, school can be the less risky environment: that's why I'm not against schools entirely, just schools as they currently exist and function). Outside of school, children and teens can have the opportunity to learn a whole bunch of things not learned in school, tailored to their own personal interests, skills, situation, and community. For unschoolers with a good home life and supportive parents, they can have more of a chance to grow in ways that feel emotionally healthy, in a safe environment, at their own pace. Thus perhaps making it easier for them to deal with the shit life inevitably throws at them.

What's more or less risky will depend entirely on the individual, the family, and their unique circumstances. Only they'll be able to make the choices that they feel are best for themselves.

But sometimes, when people talk about wanting to unschool but fearing doing so because of the potential riskiness, I wonder if it's less about risk and more about fear. Fear that, because of actively making a choice against conventional wisdom, if things don't work out it will be your fault, more than if school had just done a bad job. Furthermore, that you'll be blamed, by society at large (if unschoolers struggle with literally anything, there will likely be a whole bunch of people ready to say it's all your fault for unschooling), and even worse, perhaps by your kids. I believe the fear of being the one responsible for your child's education is a very present thing, and something that makes unschooling feel more risky, even if it isn't actually.

Parents generally want desperately to give their children the best they can in life: they want their children to do well and be happy. Not being a parent, I can't imagine how terrifying the responsibility of making choices for your children, big choices like whether to send them to school, or homeschool, or unschool, can be. As unschooling gains in popularity, I just hope that more and more parents (and more and more teenagers looking to leave school) can find the support networks needed to feel confident enough to make the choices that really feel best to them, instead of basing their decisions on fear of choosing a lifestyle that's just less conventional.


  1. I think you have written quite succinctly on this issue. I am so grateful for the mentors I had who went before me because they helped me with MANY unschooling fears. I know my children are free to make choices today - and that, should I have grandchildren, their parents will have more freedom still.

    Is school really "less risky" for kids who have violent homes, I wonder? In my experience, if compulsory schooling were any kind of real ameliorating force against sadism, abuse, neglect, & fear in the home, then 90 - 95% of kids (all the schooled ones) would not be growing up with childhood traumas. I think school just perpetuates the "kids are property" ethos of our culture at large and doesn't protect children much.

    However I do know from reading about child ause that children need a reliable adult "witness" in their life. For kids with chaotic, scary, or tense homes, that role can be fulfilled by any adult: teacher or adult or relative. But as long as schools as institutions are stressful for teachers and undercut teachers' autonomy, teachers aren't likely to fulfill those roles any time soon, in any statistically meaningful way.

  2. Well said. Every decision made as a parent can be viewed as a risk. But life is simply about choices. I chose unschooling for my children, and at some point they chose to continue unschooling (or a hodge podge of whatever it is they are doing) for themselves. I think the reality that unschooling parents may reach a bit earlier is that the power a parent has to live and create their children's successes and failures is pretty much nil. We can't predict every circumstance and mold the environment to suit every personality. What we can do is guide them through making choices and support them and honor the directions they decide to go... even if that is work at McDonalds!

  3. As an unschooling parent I found your article very well rounded and thought provoking.

  4. Is it such a bad thing working at McDonalds? It seems to have a rep but you can work your way up to management and higher, I don't see what's bad about that!

    1. Funny you said that. I have a friend who owns several McDonald's restaurants. He posted a picture on Facebook just today of the store in NC where he started as crew member many years ago.