Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

What Do Grown Unschoolers Think of Unschooling? IV in Series

Most were very happy to have been unschooled, but a few were not. Why?

This is the last in a series of four posts concerning a survey, conducted recently by Gina Riley and me, of 75 adults (age 18 to 49, median age 24) who were “unschooled” during much or all of what would otherwise have been their K-12 school years.  “Unschoolers” do not go to school and, unlike traditional homeschoolers, are not required by their parents or others to do school-like activities at home.  They are not presented with a curriculum, or required lessons, or a system of academic evaluation.  Their parents and others may help in various ways, but unschooled children are in charge of their own educations.

Another term for unschooling, favored by some, is “life learning.”  Unschooled children live their lives, and in the process they learn.  To unschoolers, what we normally think of as the “school years” are not different educationally from other years; people learn all the time.  They learn incidentally as they play, work, and converse.  They also learn deliberately, to solve real-life problems and to prepare for future steps in life; but, for unschoolers, such deliberate learning is always their own choice, at their own initiative.

In the first post in this series, I described the methods of the survey, presented a breakdown of the respondents based on the last grade of school or homeschool they had completed before unschooling (24 of them had always been unschooled), and presented a statistical summary of the results.  In the second post I elaborate on their experiences with higher education, after unschooling; and in the third post I described the careers they have pursued.  In brief, the findings presented in those posts indicate that the grown unschoolers who responded to our survey had no particular difficulty pursuing higher education and careers, that they have veered toward careers in the arts and careers that fall into the National Science Foundation’s definition of STEM careers, and that many have started their own businesses.  Now, in this post, I elaborate on the respondents’ subjective evaluations of their unschooling experience.

Most of the participants expect to unschool their own children, if they have children.

Perhaps the best indicator of their feelings about unschooling came in their responses to the 9th and final question in our survey:  If you choose to have children, do you think you will choose to unschool them? Why or why not? 

One respondent omitted this question.  Of the other 74, 50 (67%) responded in a way that we interpreted as a clear “yes,” indicating that they would definitely unschool their own child, or would unless the child expressed a clear preference for something else or circumstances prevented it.  This number includes eight respondents who already had children of school age and were unschooling them.  The reasons they gave for preferring to unschool their children are quite similar to the answers they gave (below) to our question about the advantages they experienced in their own unschooling.

Another nineteen (25%) responded in a way that we interpreted as “maybe,” meaning that they would consider unchooling, but would weigh it against other possibilities, such as a progressive or democratic alternative school.  Only five (7%) responded in a way that we interpreted as a definite or likely “no.”  Of these, two were very unhappy about their own unschooling (described later); another felt that unschooling worked well for her but poorly for her younger brother, so she was against unschooling except for highly self-motivated individuals; another preferred democratic schooling (such as a Sudbury school) over unschooling, for the greater sense of community it offered; and a fifth, who was in the military, favored a semi-structured school environment, such as a Montessori school, so the child would learn to follow rules set by others, including ones that seemed arbitrary.

Most were happy with their social lives as unschoolers and valued the age-diversity of their friends.

A common question that homeschoolers and unschoolers endure is about their social lives.  An assumption, and a stereotype, is that children who do not attend a school would not make friends, would not learn how to get along with peers, and would grow up socially awkward.  At the risk of generating some eye rolling, we, too, asked about socialization.  The sixth question of the survey was:  What was your social life like growing up?  How did you meet other kids your age? How was your social experience as an unschooler similar to or different from the types of social experiences you have now?

Our coding of responses to this question indicated that 52 (69%) of the 75 were clearly happy about their social lives as unschoolers.  Of the remaining 23, eight described what we coded as a “poor” social life, and the other 15 expressed mixed feelings.  Those with a poor social life talked mostly about social isolation—a point to which I’ll return later.  Those with mixed feelings typically wrote of difficulties finding compatible friends—difficulties that might or might not be attributable to unschooling.  (Not everyone in school has an easy time finding compatible friends.)

Most of the respondents appeared to have had no particular difficulty meeting other children and making friends.  Forty-one (55%) of the 75 wrote that their local homeschooling group was a major source of friendships.  Thirty-two (43%) stated that organized afterschool activities—such as dance, theatre, sports, and art classes—provided opportunities to meet others and make friends.  Many also mentioned church or religious organizations, community or volunteer associations, and such youth organizations as Boys and Girls Clubs, 4H, and Scouting.  Teenagers who took part-time jobs met others through their work.  Eight participants made special mention of Not Back to School Camp as a place where they made lasting friendships with other unschoolers, which were maintained through the Internet when camp wasn’t in session.  Some also stated that their families were very social and involved in the community, so friends were made through family connections.

Even though we didn’t ask about age mixing, 51 (68%) of the respondents mentioned that an advantage of not going to school was that they interacted with and made friends with people of all ages.  Many wrote about the special value of friendships with older and younger people.  Some pointed out that in the real world, outside of school, people must know how to get along with others of all ages, so, in that sense at least, the social lives of unschoolers (and homeschoolers in general) are more normal than are the age-segregated social lives of children in school.

One 19-year-old woman, who apparently enjoyed (and still enjoys) an especially rich social life, wrote:  “I made friends at church or in the neighborhood or through sports or random classes I would take. I made friends at the store, at the post office or at the park. I made friends with people of all walks of life, all ages, all social and economic backgrounds. Our house was and still is a meeting place for many different types of people. We have always had the house where hungry kids came for a meal, where any of my mother's friends or brothers would come for a place to crash when things went awry or a place for just hiding out for a weekend from all that was bothering you. Some nights we cook for 20 people, others only for our family, so it is never dull. It is a great way to learn about people when you see them in all different situations and all different lights. I have learned what true friends are and have the ability to discern true friendship from passing friendship in most cases. My best friends are a 15-year-old girl who loves to dance and who is crafty, a young man my age who is slowly going blind but who is very driven, and an older woman who is enjoying retirement. It gives me perspectives I don't think I could gain from a group of people only my own age.”

An example of a response that we coded as a poor social life was this one, written by a Canadian woman, who was quite happy with other aspects of her unschooling experience: “My social life was not very good, mainly because of our location. It was a very small town with very typical middle-of-nowhere problems. Drinking, drugs, poverty and the like. I realise in retrospect that most of the children who were my neighbours had grown up in a bad situation and didn't know any better, but I didn't understand that at the time and I was miserable. By the time I was a teenager and we had moved to a new province, I found that I just couldn't break into the social groups of the local homeschooling community and, in the end, I wasn't really interested in doing so. My family did things differently, even from an unschooling standpoint, and social experiences usually have an element of culture shock for both parties.

The respondents valued most the freedom unschooling gave them and the sense of personal responsibility that came with that freedom.

Question 7 of the survey read, “What, for you, were the main advantages of unschooling? Please answer both in terms of how you felt as a child growing up and how you feel now, looking back at your experiences. In your view, how did unschooling help you in your transition toward adulthood?” 

The great majority of the respondents wrote enthusiastically about the advantages of unschooling.  Almost all of them, in various ways, commented on the freedom that unschooling gave them to find and pursue their own interests and learn in their own ways.  Roughly 70% also said, in one way or another, that unschooling enabled them to develop as highly self-motivated, self-directed, responsible individuals, who take charge of their own lives.  A similar percentage wrote about learning opportunities they had as unschoolers that would not have been available if they had been in school.

Many also wrote about a seamless transition to adult life.  Unschooling is much more like adult life than school is.  In this context, a fair number also talked about getting a head start on their careers (discussed in the previous post).  They were able to focus and become expert in ways that would not have been possible had they been in school.

Some also described how unschooling allowed them to get to know themselves, discover their own passions, and find out how to make their personality work in the world.  In this context, several wrote explicitly about learning to value the ways in which they are different from other people and to overcome any fears of being different, or (if always unschooled) about growing up without such fears.

It’s interesting to compare these responses to those that parents (mostly mothers) in unschooling families gave to a similar question about the advantages of unschooling that we asked in a previous survey (here).  In that survey, the two most frequent categories of advantages mentioned were (a) leaning advantages for the child and (b) family closeness.  In that study, 57% of the parents reported that unschooling, in one way or another, resulted in improved learning for their child or children; and the same percentage said, in one way or another, that unschooling allowed family members to spend more time with one another and live more harmoniously with one another (because of lack of arguments and tension about following a school schedule or a homeschool curriculum).

In contrast to the parents in the previous survey, only eighteen (24%) of the participants in the present survey mentioned increased time, closeness or harmony with their family as an advantage of unschooling.  This is quite consistent with the view, which I have expressed elsewhere (e.g. here), that children—no matter how much they need and love their parents—are in many ways more oriented toward moving on, toward adulthood, beyond their family of origin.  I think that is one reason why the age-mixed nature of friendships outside of the family was spontaneously mentioned by so many of the respondents to the present survey, and also why they focused so heavily on developing their sense of independence and responsibility.  The biological destiny of children, which parents sometimes forget, is to move beyond their family of origin; that family is just the starting point in their life course.  It is interesting, in this regard, that a major complaint of the three who disliked unschooling was that their parents isolated them and prevented them from exploring outside of the family or outside of the insular group with which the family was tied.

To provide a taste of the ways our respondents described the advantages of unchooling, here are two of the responses to Question 7, somewhat randomly chosen:

• A 37-year-old woman who left school after first grade wrote:  “The advantages of unschooling for me growing up I felt were (in priority order): 1) being able to sleep when and as long as I needed, 2) having time to do all the things I wanted to do (reading books, building tree forts, knitting, making up plays, riding my bike, playing games, exploring trails in the woods, swimming, baking, making things etc. etc.), 3) being able to work and make money without school hours getting in the way.  Looking back now, I feel all those same things were definitely advantages, more than I knew at the time even!  Though also I feel unschooling nurtured my one true talent--completing things.  I get stuff done.  Unschooling ensured my ability to "think outside the box" as they say, and leaves me now with the ability to make a plan and do it, relishing in negotiating any obstacle and loving having the power to make good things happen.  How did unschooling help me in my transition to adulthood?  Well, in many ways I started as an adult, responsible for my own thinking and doing, so there was no sudden transition at all.”

• A 28-year-old woman with no schooling but some curriculum-based homeschooling before unschooling wrote: “As a kid, I felt happy to have so much time out of my day to play and have fun. I could spend more time doing the fun stuff rather than being forced into things I didn’t enjoy. As an adult now, I feel I’ve had the time to explore my own interests and not have activities, knowledge and ideas forced on me, so instead I grew to enjoy them. For example, I’ve independently read a lot of classic books since I was young, which I don’t think I would have wanted to do if they had been forced on me. …. I’ve been able to take ideas out of classics that haven’t been explained to me (with bias) in some class. In terms of transitioning to adulthood, I’ve learned to be direct and independent. I never had gender roles forced on me, and don’t have a lot of the insecurities and limitations that other girls my age have. Because of my knowledge of computer programming, and nerdy interests like Star Trek, I’m very logical and direct. I’m unafraid to say what I mean (although I’ve learned more tact over the years), and I’m fiercely independent. I don’t believe that we’re as limited in life as we think.” 

The most frequently mentioned disadvantage of unschooling was dealing with others’ opinions about it.

Question 8 of the survey read, “What, for you, were the main disadvantages of unschooling? Again, please answer both in terms of how you felt as a child growing up and how you feel now.  In your view, did unschooling hinder you at all in your transition toward adulthood?

Twenty-eight of the 75 respondents didn’t indicate any disadvantage at all, and most of the rest made it clear that, to them, the disadvantages were minor compared to the advantages. 

By our coding, the most frequent category of disadvantage was dealing with other people’s opinions—mentioned by 21 (28%) of the participants.  It’s interesting to note that this was also the most frequently mentioned disadvantage in our previous study of unschooling parents, where it was mentioned by 46% of the respondents (see here).  Dealing with others’ opinions seemed to be more distressing to the parents, in the previous study, than to the unschooled children, in the present study. This seems not surprising, as criticisms and doubts would more often be directed toward parents than toward children, and parents feel responsible for the unschooling decision.  A typical comment in this category, in the present study, is the following: “As a kid, I found it endlessly annoying that I had to constantly explain my family’s choice to unschool.  It wasn’t the norm, which was equally exciting and inconvenient”

The next most common disadvantage, mentioned by sixteen (21%) of the participants, was some degree of social isolation, which came most commonly from the lack of other unschoolers nearby and difficulties of socializing with school children because of their busy schedules and different orientation toward life. For example one wrote:  “The main disadvantage of unschooling for me was that I wasn’t in close proximity to other unschoolers after the age of 13….My closest friends during my teen years...were people I met through NBTSC [Not Back to School Camp] and lived far away.” Also included in this category were two or three who complained about lack of dating opportunities.

Only eight (11%) mentioned any sort of learning deficit as a disadvantage.  Only three of these described this as a major disadvantage, and those were the three (described below) who were most negative about their unschooling experience.  The other five generally indicated that the learning deficit was a minor problem, solved by making up the deficit when they needed to.  The most frequently mentioned subject in which they felt deficient, not surprisingly, was math.  (As a college professor who taught statistics to social science majors for a number of years, I can attest that many, many people who studied math for 12 years prior to starting college also complain about, and demonstrate, a deficiency in that subject!)

Three respondents were very unhappy about their unschooling experience and complained of negligent parenting.

Of the 75 respondents, only three indicated that the disadvantages, for them, outweighed the advantages.  It is instructive to look closely at them, to understand the conditions in which unschooling is not a good idea.  In all three cases the mothers were described as in poor mental health and the fathers as uninvolved.  In all three cases, the respondents felt socially isolated, ignorant, stigmatized, and “weird” because of their unschooling and their family environment.  Two of these respondents attributed the isolation partly to the fundamentalist Christian beliefs of their parents. Here is a brief summary of each case.

One respondent, a 26-year-old woman who grew up in the UK, wrote: “I actively disagree with unschooling because I believe that it is a very easy way for unwell parents to bring their children up without those parents needing to actively participate/integrate into society…. Because of my mother's poor mental health she found it difficult making friends and generally disliked attending social events, etc. I think this was the main reason she decided to unschool us.”  This person went on to say that she felt incredibly isolated socially and didn’t study anything during her unschooling years.  She went on to higher education in fine arts, and a job as an art teacher, not because she was interested in art or enjoys teaching, but because she didn’t feel qualified for anything else.  In response to our question about the disadvantages of unschooling, for her, she wrote: “My experience of unschooling was negative in every way. I have been bullied as an adult for being 'weird' and for working in low status, low paid jobs. I have also had difficulty finding long-term boyfriends, as although I'm an attractive and intelligent person, there aren't many people who actively want to date people who have huge chips on their shoulders about the way they were brought up (without formal education).

The second respondent, a 35-year-old woman, was Christian homeschooled through third grade and then was unschooled, not because of a deliberate decision, but because of her mother’s psychological and physical disabilities and consequent inability to manage homeschooling.  This person also wrote that her mother kept her out of school “to be able to control the kinds of information we were exposed to, including sex education, science, or health, as well as control the kinds of people we interacted with.”  She, like the other three, was never presented with a choice about her schooling.  She felt deprived of school, not privileged to avoid it.  As an adult she has worked mostly at temporary jobs such as cleaning or house painting, but, at the time of the survey, was enrolled in a bachelor’s program in industrial design. In response to our question about the disadvantages of unschooling, she wrote: “Disadvantages would be not having the groundwork of basic knowledge and social skills! I am also uncomfortable with most people and prefer to be alone, which may be from my experience growing up alone and unsupervised, but also might just be my nature, I don't know. As a kid the main thing was knowing that I was not fitting in anywhere, always being the "weirdos" in the neighborhood, always missing rites of passage and being alone too often. It was a very lonely and isolated life, rather oppressive given the strict religious upbringing. I also feel now that I learned more about religion than I did things that would be of any use to me later in life.

The third respondent, a 29-year-old Ph.D. candidate studying archaeology, wrote that her mother wanted her to have a Christian education, but pulled her out of a Baptist academy in fourth grade because of the mother’s conflicts with the staff.  The mother intended to homeschool her, using a Christian curriculum, but failed to follow through because of her own psychological depression.  In this respondent’s words, “Her personal struggles with depression, which led to her inability to function in running a house and supervising my homeschooling activities, was the reason for the switch to unschooling.”  She wrote further: “In my opinion, I was ‘unschooled’ simply because my mother could not tolerate the anxiety of having me in public or private school -- where other non-Christian people could ‘negatively influence’ me. She needed me at home to do chores and take care of her, because she was a non-functional depressed person. She preferred me to have a socially isolated existence from age 9 to 18 than risk a secular education. My father clearly did not want me homeschooled or unschooled, but he never did anything about it and let my mother do as she pleased.”  Concerning her social life, she wrote: “My ‘social’ experiences as an unschooler were restricted to interactions with my parents, my brother, occasionally more distant family members, and going to the grocery store or doctor when I was sick.”

This person was not entirely negative about her unschooling.  In response to our question about advantages, she wrote:  “As an adult looking back, I think being in school while dealing with my dysfunctional and abusive parents at home probably would have led me to make some poor social decisions that could have had long-lasting impacts. So, as painful and traumatic as being kept at home in an isolated manner was, I feel it was preferable to the other options. I had a lot of time to myself to think about things. I developed my own secret meditation practice. These habits of self-sufficiency and self-reflectiveness helped me transition toward adulthood, particularly in cutting loose from my mother's controlling grasp.”  She also wrote, in response to an earlier question, “I was also a self-driven learner as an unschooler, and much of my employment now requires self-driven education—whether for my dissertation research or for the development of my teaching pedagogy.”

In response to our question about disadvantages of unschooling, she wrote, in part: “As an adult looking back, the main disadvantage was that the social isolation allowed my parents to get away with more abuse and neglect than they otherwise would have. I suffered severe abuse and neglect during the time I was unschooled. Lacking a formal education did chip away at my self-confidence as I transitioned toward adulthood. I carried a nagging sense of unworthiness for quite a while; I still feel permanently damaged in some way, like I am a freak who was kept in a cage and not educated formally. As I prepared to begin formal college education, my unschooling experience hindered me by having failed to provide standard levels of math and science knowledge. I had to tutor myself to pass the GED. I had to tutor myself remedial math and science skills to keep up in introductory-level college courses.

It is worth adding that the only other respondent, in the whole sample, who commented on the role of religion in her upbringing was also very negative about the fundamentalist influence. Her parents became extreme Christian fundamentalists when she was 15.  She wrote, “At that time, my role shifted to full-time caretaker for my younger siblings. I was expected to get married and have lots of children rather than having any type of career, so further education was viewed as superfluous in that subculture. … After my parents became involved with the fundamentalists, we were cut off almost completely from interaction with others outside the tight-knit religious setting. Interactions were mostly centered around child-care, chores and religious meetings with no free time to simply socialize.”  This person, nevertheless, went on to become a very successful writer and noted that she will unschool her own daughter.  She is not against unschooling, but strongly against the social and intellectual isolation that occurred in her home when her parents converted.

A Final Thought

Although the sample is relatively small, the findings of our survey suggest that unschooling can work beautifully if the whole family, including the children, buy into it, if the parents are psychologically healthy and happy, and if the parents are socially connected to the broader world and facilitate their children’s involvement with that world. It can even work well when some of these criteria are not fully met.  Children growing up unschooled in such environments take control of their own lives and have the support of their families to find and follow their own paths to happiness.  But when the dominant parent is truly dysfunctional, or when the family practices a philosophy of isolation from the broader culture rather than integration with it, or when the unschooled child would prefer to go to school, then unschooling can lead to resentment and, quite justifiably, to feelings of abuse and neglect.

Finally, TO THE PARTICIPANTS IN THE SURVEY, Gina and I say, THANK YOU!  This was a lengthy questionnaire to fill out, and many of you wrote long and beautiful essays in response to each question.  We have learned much as a result of your willingness to share your experiences.

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This concludes the set of reports, for this blog, on our survey of grown unschoolers. What further questions or comments do you have about our findings?  What questions about unschooling do you wish we had addressed, which we did not?  If you are a grown unschooler, or an unschooling parent, how do these findings square with your experiences? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your stories, comments, and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your thoughts and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions, if I feel I have something useful to add to what others have said. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

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For much more about the human nature of self-determined education, see Free to Learn.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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