Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why is Unschooling so Fringe?

Being both slightly bored and having an urge to write, I asked people on Tumblr and Twitter to ask me questions, and Kelly kindly obliged with this one!  My answer is what follows.

Why do you think unschooling/life learning is so fringe? That is, only about 2.5% of American kids are out of school, and of that percentage, many are traditionally-homeschooled (with curriculum, schedules, etc.). In your opinion, what accounts for so few parents raising their children this way?

I think there are several reasons why unschooling is very much on the fringes.  Also feel free to share your own opinions in the comments, as I think this is a really interesting question to think about and discuss!  Now onto some possible reasons:
  1. Though not the most influential reason, I think that simply because it's so little known unschooling remains on the fringes.  School is such an huge part of our culture that most people don't even realize that there are options other than school: for most, it's never even a question.  You have kids, you send them to school.  End of story.
  2. People seem to believe somehow that, not so much that this is as good as it gets, but that this is as good as people can do at this point in time.  I feel like there's this pervasive idea in our society that this civilization is the pinnacle of human existence: that things have progressed neatly from horrible to steadily better throughout human existence, and thus wherever we are now in every aspect of this culture must be the best thing we've ever seen.  Thus, any other alternatives touted as more natural, more authentic, or imitating a way of living that has been successful in the far past is seen as going backwards: the opposite of "progress," which our culture so highly values.    
  3. It's scary.  I think that's absolutely the biggest reason.  People are positively terrified of being thought strange, of not fitting in, of being an outsider.  To do anything radical is scary as hell, and most people simply aren't willing or able to overcome that fear.  'Cause the thing is, doing anything radical or fringe does make you an outsider to at least some extent (to what extent depends a lot on a multitude of factors).  And the only way something becomes not-fringe is if enough people are brave enough to be on the fringes in the first place...  It's a vicious circle!  
There are many other reasons, I'm sure, but I think I'll leave it there for now...  I'm curious, why do you think unschooling is on the fringes?


  1. I was reading a discussion on a secular homeschooling forum where someone asked about unschooling and it was sad to see some of their reactions. Some people brought up the most extreme, or negative, examples of unschooling as reasons not to do it. For instance, "I would be worrying if my child wasn't reading by the age of 12" when (I think) this is actually quite rare among homeschoolers or describing radical unschooling families that they know where the children seem to be out of hand and the parents seem to be quite uninvolved in their children as the norm for unschooling. So not only is unschooling on the fringe, but the most fringe elements of unschooling are set up as being what it is all about, which plays into people's fears.

  2. @Scatty: It's true, people definitely seem to always pick the least conforming-to-what-society-expects/most "extreme" (I hate that term) example they can find when they want to discredit a whole group of people they disapprove of... Sadly, that tactic often does seem to be pretty successful! Thanks for your input. :-)

  3. I have another one! Kind of an "it's scary" part two. This one is not so much a fear of not fitting in, but a fear of not raising one's child to have whatever skills and benefits supposedly only come from school. The diploma, the teacher recommendations, that one awesome inspirational high-school English teacher, the buckle-down-and-do-it work ethic, the thumbnail overview of What the Renaissance Was and Why It Was Important, the cutthroat playground negotiating abilities, the marching band. The ability to earn money and make friends and reflect on shared experiences and be independent of one's parents and be happy.

    I'm a mom unschooling my child, and as much as I think it's the most marvelous thing that people have no idea they're missing out on, I also question far too often whether I'm going to *completely miss* showing my child something VERY VERY important that he would certainly have learned in school, but, whoops!, I'll have missed introducing it, and now he'll NEVER EVER have another chance to learn it again! Ever!

    (Being a little ridiculous about it helps me to calm my fears. Thank you.)

    But anyway. Fear about preparing a child adequately for life. Which everybody else seems to need school to do, and they can't ALL be wrong, can they? So am I the wrong one? Can both ways be right? Am I ruining my child? Ack!

  4. Love the topic. I've homeschooled my sons for the past ten years and I would have to agree that unschooling really is just plain scary. This is the first year that we have let the boys do more of their own learning and follow their interests, however, I live in Pennsylvania, and there is a lot that the state demands from the parents at the end of the year. I do let our kids follow their interests- within those parameters given by the state, and I really feel that because our children have had choices in their own education, they are as happy, creative, and well adjusted as they are. And with people like you, writing your thoughts and feelings about this subject, more parents will be brave enough to follow their instincts in raising and educating their children.
    Thank you!

  5. @cmbg: YES, thank you very much for sharing this, I definitely think that what you describe is another big reason why unschooling is fringe. I think maybe I'd classify it under lack of unschooling support/community/research/"proof." All the things that would make unschooling much easier for people to gain the confidence to do it themselves!

    @The Lady: Thank you for your input! I imagine it can be very difficult in the tougher states (my province has sucky laws, but my family was always "under the radar," so avoided dealing with the government on that issue altogether). Also, thank you very much for your kind words! I'm so glad you find the stuff I write helpful. :-)

  6. It's just all exactly what I think.

    But why are people scared? Why is school the first choice? Why are people thinking like that?
    So...how did we end up there?

    Cause actually all that way to think and do things is just bizarre. The whole world is anormal. :-/

  7. It's risky for anyone who hasn't done it. If things turn out badly, then the fault lies with the parents for doing something so "stupid".

    On the other hand, educating your children using "conventional" education method means if it turns out badly, it's the conventional method's fault and not the parents.

    That mindset is very strong in our society. I personally believe that the institution which created it was schools.

  8. Idzie - I wholeheartedly agree w/ both you and the earlier comments. Fear holds all of us in a vise grip - some much less than most if ya know what I mean.

  9. My 12 and 14 year old kids have never been to school. We have always unschooled. What I have seen, even in the unschooling world, is that parents don't really "trust" their children. They are often all for following the lead of their children, as long as their children follow the appropriate, known path. I agree that it is scary. It is scary because so much of it is unknown. But, when we trust our kids to follow a path that feels 100% them, we can never go wrong. It is when we start requiring them to follow a path that feels uncomfortable and "safe" that we lose them, IMO.

  10. I agree with all of the reasons so far, and I would add that a lot of us (schooled people) were raised not to trust ourselves. I hear a lot of parents say things like "I could never homeschool my kids, I wouldn't know how to teach them." It's hard to trust your children (like Cathy said) when you don't trust yourself. Most parents want to do what they think is best for their kids, and we have been told for a long time that school is best.

    Another reason might be that it's a lot easier for some people to shift the responsibility for their children onto someone else. That way if something goes wrong for their kids, it's the school's fault, and not the parents'. Even for homeschoolers using a curriculum, if they are following someone else's plan, they have shifted responsibility a little bit.

    What I find interesting is that when I was a child, I can remember having conversations like "I hate school, I'm not going to make my kids go to school." And having lots of kids agree with me. I don't know what it is that makes some of us forget that feeling. I even forgot it for a little while, but thankfully got back to it when my oldest daughter was two.

    Thanks for writing!

  11. @Ron, Oops I just realized part of what I said you had already said. Sorry! So true though.

    One more thing to add about "proof..." Most people don't know anyone who was unschooled. I certainly didn't before I got into it for my own kids. So for example, when my sister in law found out what my plan was for unschooling, she expressed concern based on a person she went to school with who "had no motivation" and "ended up playing video games in his parents' basement." Obviously, this example holds no weight because the person was not unschooled, but lots of people use examples like that to "prove" that unschooling "won't work." It makes no sense at all, but a lot of people do that.

  12. In addition to all the personal things mentioned here, everything in mainstream society works against life learning. Many families - single or double parent - can't or don't believe they can afford to have one parent at home. Many dads don't involve themselves much in their families' lives, including childcare and chore sharing. Many parents don't like their kids enough to be with them all day. Workplaces are not kid-friendly. Communities are not kid-friendly. Etc. There are lots of big picture changes to be made before life learning becomes common. Of course, life learning families are helping to make these changes, but they don't happen over night.

  13. Hello, this is Kelly who submitted the question. I love what Idzie's written and I adored reading the comments. Particularly Cathy's points on when parents "trust" children and when they don't... and Wendy's comments about the larger picture (a subject I've been very interested in lately).

    I'm happy to say our family, and my writings and my husband's ardent Facebooking (*grin*), have influenced many parents and kids to consider some of the philosophies behind life learning. A few have either pulled kids out of school or tell me they're considering not sending their kids to school. Whatever these parents decide and whether they go back to compulsory schooling or no, I do know they'd not yet been exposed until I started writing and living so openly and passionately. This is why I so appreciate those here and elswhere who write and provide a framework or a blueprint - addressing Idzie's #1 cited response in her post.

    Thanks, everyone!

  14. People often tell me I'm brave so I guess that must imply that what I do scares them!

    Taking responsibility is frightening! If it goes wrong you have no one else to blame!!

    I wanted to comment on your art article but I can't find it.

    I wrote about it on my blog


    This is a great blog. My smalls are v young and it is fantastic to read about young adults who were unschooled.

  15. Wendy is spot on with the cost thing. Living on one wage in a world set up for two wage earners is really tough but totally worth it.

    Are you guys following TED


  16. Many parents admit that they would go crazy being around their kids so much. They need more 'me' or 'down' time and kids need too much of your attention.

  17. It is "fringe" because most people are conditioned to accept the status quo. It is a screaming success of the public schooling system's ability to indoctrinate (not educate) when most parents continue to pump their kids into failing public schools. As more people move to homeschooling, more will move to unschooling. Parents love their kids, and parents are slowly coming to realize that to homeschool/unschool is to love.

  18. This doesn't account for everyone but unschooling or young children as a single parent would be insanly difficult unless you had a really good/unique system of finance and income in place. There are a lot of single parents these days (I'm not saying that's a bad thing or they're in any way unfit parents) but that makes doing something like unschooling much more challenging.

    Another reason that resonates with me personally (I am a parent considering unschooling my daughter when she gets to school age) is that I have a lot of very fond memories of school... not the educational aspect as much as all the fun and crazy shenanigans we partook in between/around/sometimes during classes and extracurricular activities that wouldn't be available to homeschoolers or unschoolers. One of my biggest hessitations in keeping my daughter home is that she wouldn't get the chance to do some of the things that I loved so much.

  19. My daughter is unschooled. She is six, and I do agress with previous posters with how scary it can be. I sometimes feel like I'm making a big mistake. Other times, I look at her and know we've made the right decision; I say "we" because it was also her decision. And I too wonder if she's missing out on a the wonderful things I learned at school. I don't know if she has "too much" freedom, if I'm neglecting her when she's off playing or reading a book. It really is a scary experience, but it helps that this blog is out there so that I can see the benefits of unschooling, and know that my child will be all right!

  20. This is a really interesting post, and also very comforting to me. My son, age 5, is unschooled. I'm often terrified that we might be doing the wrong thing by him, and then we have wonderful days when I know that we're not. Unschooling is scary.

    I laugh now, when people ask me, with such serious looks on their faces, "Is that even allowed?" and they seem to think that we're abusing him in some way. Not everyone, but some people. Their disapproval angers me but I try to hide it now.

    There is so much I could say, in response to the wonderful points you've made, but it would just be repetition, and you've said it so well. I just wish there were more of us, to have our voices heard. Our society is most certainly not at the pinnacle of what it can be and achieve, and I hope that people like us, the Unschoolers, will be able to add something different to what our society can become.

  21. I normally tell people I'm homeschooled, to avoid the inevitable explanation and patronizing, disbelieving looks if I refer to unschooling. I have found that 90% of parents say "Oh, I always wished I could do that with my kids..." and 95% of kids will have always wanted to homeschooled (or at least do now, now that they've heard of it). Encountering people who actually *have* done it outside of specific homeschool-friendly environments happens maybe once every year or so. They say they don't have enough money, or they don't have enough time, or they're worried about socialization, or whatever the heck. But the fact is that there is a ridiculous divide between the numbers of people who 'want' to homeschool/unschool and those who actually take the plunge and step into the unknown.

    I think there is one significant reason not listed in the post: the cycle of abuse.
    Abused children grow up to be abusive parents in enormously disproportionate numbers. The same is true of school.
    Parents who have gone to school, who have suffered and been stifled, subject their children to the same in turn. It may be a sort of revenge. I think most likely, though, they're trying to justify their own pain: they are better able to cope with what they went through themselves if they can consider it necessary, the right way of doing things. If they treated their children differently, they would find that their own suffering was all for nothing.

  22. Homeschooling is much necessary for better training and learning of kids those are growing in 21st century. Thanks for choosing this topic and sharing the useful information. science fellowships for graduate students