When I was young, I never thought I would even consider homeschooling my children. I knew a family of homeschooled kids around my age, and they seemed like what I expected: a bit different, but super geniuses. I figured homeschooling was a trade, better more advanced academics, but less social experience. As for me, I’ve always considered social to be the more important of the two skills. In fact, it’s been proven that the biggest deciding factor of happiness in our lives is our relationships, not our careers or money. (Taken from the book Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina.) So why have I changed my mind about homeschooling? It’s been a long road, but hopefully I’m able to summarise here the main points that have gotten me to where I stand: a mother who not only wants to homeschool, but wants to unschool my children.
Where it all Started
Back when I joined the local breastfeeding group when when I first became a mom, I started meeting more and more like-minded mothers. These women breastfed, wore their babies in slings, used cloth nappies, and focused on empathy, warmth and respect when communicating with their children. After a while, I learned that these women were attachment parents, and I was one of them. Curiously, I also learned that a high percentage of them also homeschooled or planned to homeschool. ‘Why?’ I asked a lady named Lynsey (link) one day about her choice. ‘It just fits in with our philosophies,’ she said. Her philosophies seemed to match up with mine, so was there something I was missing?
I did some research and found that parents homeschool their children for different reasons. Some to give their children more of a religious background, some to help children with special needs. Attachment parents, however, like the idea of continuing with attachment parenting. Typical schooling means handing children over to strangers who most likely do not follow the attachment parenting principles. Students must also go to school regardless of if they’re ready for it. If they are little and want their mother with them, or night owls and would learn better at night, or even if they’ve just been overstimulated and need a break, it doesn’t matter. Homeschooling means giving parents back the ability to adjust to their children’s needs, learning styles, and interests throughout the day.
Is that influence worth it though in light of trading in what would be deemed a “normal” childhood? To take a quote from Home School Legal Defense Association’s (HSLDA) website: “According to Dr. Brian Ray, in a summary of his research entitled Homeschooling Grows Up, homeschool graduates are just as or more likely to go on to college as the general population, more satisfied in their work, happier with their lives overall, and more involved in civic affairs.” If this holds up, it sounds like quite a big “Yes”.
An Unschooling Approach
Once you have the children at home, the question remains, how do you best teach them? There are two main categories here. The first is a traditional school at home approach; the second is the learn through life method also known as unschooling.
Traditional schooling styles are a comfortable route to take. It’s not as far a leap from normal school, and you might feel more in control of what your child is learning. Children schooled in this way are also shown to be the best scorers on standardised tests (link). However, when it comes to long term learning, unschooling has the lead advantage.
With unschooling, children learn about different things as they come up in everyday life. The backdrop to a video game could turn into a thirst to learn more about that time period. (True story.) Going shopping turns into a need to learn math. The beauty of unschooling, is that it feeds a child’s natural inclination to ask questions and explore. Adult unschoolers tend to be independent free thinkers, with an ever growing thirst for knowledge.
Scary Notion, Anyone?
This is where a lot of people would probably freak out and think, ‘OMG, if I unschool my children they are going to be social shut-ins who sit on the sofa and watch TV all day. How will they ever learn enough? When will they see people?’ Don’t worry. I experienced my own flavour of this and it’s not what it seems.
Let’s explore the experiences of an unschooling graduate, Candra Kennedy. When it comes to watching TV, Candra says “[watching TV all day] is kinda boring. There are a lot of other things to be doing.” On average, she says her brother and her chose to watch about an hour a day.
How about Candra and her brother’s education? Well, showing what passion can do for a subject, Candra claims that her brother who was into math “would do an entire semester’s worth of a math textbook in a day”. Candra also speaks about her adjustment to university:
“I thought it was going to be crazy! Even though my community college class had been ridiculously easy, I thought for sure that an honors program at a real college would be difficult. I’d written probably two essays in my life at that point! I worked like a beast until fall break and actually had most of my work for the entire semester done at that point because I was so nervous. That’s when I stepped back and realized that it wasn’t really hard. School was actually very easy for me.”
What about Candra’s social life? Apparently there was no issue there either:
“This is the silliest thing lobbed at unschoolers that I hear. […] Yes, I had friends growing up. Yes, I have friends now. In fact, my friends growing up were an amazing, diverse bunch. I had friends of all ages – [met in all different ways] Just. How. I. Make. Friends. Now. Just how you make friends now. Like a normal person. Through your interests, work, and sometimes just when you’re out and about.”
More from Candra Kennedy can be read here.
It may be a surprise to those new to the concept, but the more research I’ve done, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that Candra’s story is pretty typical for unschoolers. Children are born with a thirst for knowledge and a love of people. Just like taking steps and learning to talk, children learn all they need to know with simple guidance from carers. No lesson plan needed.
What Freedom Does to a Person
Homeschooling, and particularly unschooling, don’t just teach kids an arrangement of skills and self discipline. It liberates the way they think. School, as a byproduct of the need to educate many individuals at once, has taken on many traits that hinder free thinking.
Even in the basic enrollment structure, kids are taught age-ism by being sifted into classes containing only children of the same age. Homeschooled children by comparison, are often cited having friends of all ages, including adults, a concept that feels quite alien to many school kids.
But it’s more than that. Diane Flynn Keith, Author of Carschooling and mother of adult unschoolers, reflects on the freedoms bestowed upon homeschoolers:
“They aren’t subjected to judgment, grading, and the bestowment of rewards and punishments without the ability to object or appeal. They haven’t been conditioned to be passive and compliant or dependent on others to tell them what to do or how to spend their time. They are not powerless. They have the choice to remove themselves from bad situations or people and change the curriculum when it’s not relevant, interesting, useful, or meaningful.
My own sons (now adults in their twenties) are keenly aware of the fact that their experience set them apart from their schooled peers. They think differently. They don’t see the world through the same filters. They are perfectly capable of “fitting in” to any social setting when necessary, but conventional notions and limitations on behavior or thought are not within their liberated comfort zone.”
(Source. This is one of my favourite unschooling articles.)
Peter Gray did a survey of unschoolers and received a similar perspective on how these adults see the world. When asked about their university experiences “The most frequent complaints,” Gray noted, “were about the lack of motivation and intellectual curiosity among their college classmates, the constricted social life of college, and, in a few cases, constraints imposed by the curriculum or grading system.” One student noted, “I discovered that people wanted the teacher to tell them what to think. … It had never, ever occurred to me to ask someone else to tell me what to think when I read something.”
So, to affirm, do unschoolers with all their freedoms, get a decent education? I found a great article talking about this from a mother named Kate, who also happens to have an education degree. Kate had three mains points that she addressed in her blog article.
First, was to have us keep in mind that all education, public, private, or independent, have different curriculums and areas they cover. I.e. there are always going to be things left out.
Second, it’s hard not to get a balanced education with unschooling when everything you do in real life is cross curriculum. Real life does not separate things by subject. Cooking, for instance, can cover reading, writing, math, and science all in the same breath.
And third, for those worried that parents aren’t cut out to be teachers especially in the higher levels, she reminds us that homeschooled children and teens learn by all different means (not just relying on their parents as the experts). They learn via self study, online courses, tutors, classes, group work, etc.
But what about university? As stated previously in the study by Dr. Brian Ray, many homeschoolers go onto further education, but do unschoolers in particular have a hard time of it? In Peter Gray’s survey mentioned above, he noted a few additional themes:
“Getting into college was generally not particularly difficult for these unschoolers”; “the academic adjustment to college was generally quite smooth for them”; and “most felt advantaged because of their high self-motivation and capacity for self-direction”. Most individuals from the survey who pursued higher education, got entrance via first getting credits in their local community college during their teen years.
I’ve also read of unschoolers getting into university by way of a self assembled portfolio. As suggested in Gray’s study, and affirmed by my own research, resources across the board seem to show that unschoolers have no trouble getting into university or succeeding when they get there. They attend a wide range of schools reaching up to the very prestigious.
Successful Social Life?
Now comes the big question in terms of life happiness. Do homeschoolers in general have a balanced and thriving social life compared with their schooled peers?
They are certainly busy. As quoted from the article “Homeschooling: The Dreaded ‘S’ Word, Socialisation” on the Daily Kos news site:
“Homeschool kids are busy and actively engaged with the society around them. They are attending play groups, support groups, learning co-ops, classes at the local community center, and sometimes even the occasional class at their local public school. They are joining Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, sports teams, theatre groups, Civil Air Patrol, book clubs, and more. They participate in Science Fairs, History Fairs, Spelling Bees, Poetry and Literature contests, and just about any other academic competition you can think of. They do all of this and still have time at home to think, to ponder, to wonder, to actually be bored. Homeschool kids play outside and build forts and they can spend hours constructing a unique futuristic air ship from their legos. They have time with other children and apart from other children, which is exactly what homeschool parents want for their kids.”
After conducting a review of 24 studies on the socialization of homeschoolers, Susan McDowell, a PhD in Educational Leadership, confirmed the social issue is a non-issue. “All the research shows children are doing well.” She says. In an attempt to find sources proving the opposite, she claimed that no one in the academic field had supported the idea that homeschoolers are less socialised by research. An interesting finding, given the common myth that homeschoolers are unsocialised.
In fact, homeschooled children are shown to be better socialised then their schooled peers. To again quote directly from Daily Kos, Dr. Larry Shyers, who holds a Ph.D. in counseling, found in his studies that “homeschooled children are not disadvantaged when it comes to socialization. He said that those taught at home were more likely to invite others to play with them, they were not as competitive but more cooperative, and they kept their noise levels lower. Homeschooled children also played with peers of both genders rather than with those of the same gender, he added.”
Also quoted in the article were the findings of a graduate student, Thomas Smedley, from Radford University in Virginia who wrote his master’s thesis about “The Socialization of Homeschool Children.” Smedley “used the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales to assess the personal and social skills of matched groups of homeschooled and publicly schooled students. His results showed that homeschooled children had greater social skills and maturity than students attending public school. The differences were rather dramatic, with the homeschooled students ranking in the 84th percentile, while the public school students scored only in the 27th percentile. Smedley noted that public school students are socialized ‘horizontally’ into conformity by their same-age peers, while homeschooled students are socialized ‘vertically’ toward responsibility and adulthood by their parents.”
So, having addressed the fictional disadvantages of homeschooling/unschooling, what are the actual disadvantages?
Well, one of the bigger issues is having to deal with the concerns your community and family might have with homeschooling. I follow a couple of homeschooling Facebook groups here in the UK, and two of the big repeat issues discussed there are ‘X authority figure is suggesting I’m a bad parent for homeschooling my children; what are my rights?’ and ‘X family member thinks we’re insane. How do I deal with this?’
There are various government bodies and legislature that can help if you run into problems within your community. I’d suggest posting on one of the homeschooling Facebook groups, as they’re great at advising the best moves forward. In Scotland, the law states that if a child has never been to school, then there is no need to report them anywhere and homeschooling can be carried out freely. If the child has been to school and you want to remove them, you must ask for permission from the school board who cannot refuse without a substantial reason.
Another notable concern with homeschooling is financials. Homeschooling means that both parents can’t be employed full-time. On top of that, there are likely to be additional costs for the various activities, classes, and supplies that your children might want to partake in. There are a lot of free resources out there too though, so costs will depend on what you choose to make use of.
Homeschooling is by no means an easy route to take. Yes, you might not have those early morning school runs, but in contrast you might be spending a lot more time out and about then you would be otherwise. Keeping children’s minds busy means lots of doing, whether it be trips to the local homeschooling groups, or setting up art projects at home. Being responsible for your children’s education involves a lot of dedication. You won’t get the same quiet time a parent who sends their kids off to school will get, either.
Something else to be ready for, especially if you’re unschooling, is the fear that comes with forging your own path. It’s easy to feel like either you or your children are not doing enough. And, as an unschooling parent, it takes bravery to be your children’s nudge in the right direction, rather than their dictator.
But to me, the rewards of unschooling seem to outweigh the disadvantages ten fold. There are even some bonuses that I haven’t mentioned, such as is mentioned on the FAQ page of homeschool.com:
“For many homeschoolers, one of the greatest benefits of homeschooling is the strengthening of family bonds. Homeschooling families spend lots of time learning and playing together and this naturally creates close ties between brothers and sisters and between children and parents.”
So, how could I not choose to take this journey with my family? I want to be in the trenches with my kids: building forts, exploring museums, and doing science experiments. I want to watch them learn, and learn right along with them. I want to see them become happy self motivated adults who know how to follow their passions, and I never want them to think childhood is something to “get through” before real life begins. Childhood is so precious for deciding who we are, and I want to give my kids all the space in the world to grow.