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The Challenges of Unschooling: Report III from the Survey

The biggest challenge to unschoolers: standing up to social norms.

This past fall, I conducted a survey of 232 “unschooling” families who have children older than 5 years.  This is the last in a series of three reports on that survey. In the first report, I described the survey method, gave some demographic information about the families that responded, and summarized their responses to questions about the definition and benefits of unschooling as applied to their family. In the second report, I described the various paths that led these families to unschooling, including their previous experiences with conventional schooling and homeschooling, their observations of their children’s natural ways of learning, and the influence of authors who had written about natural forms of education.  Now, in this final report, I examine the challenges of unschooling as experienced by the families in the survey.

Briefly, for those who are new to the topic and have not yet read the previous reports, families who identify themselves as unschoolers are those that do not send their children to school and do not do at home the kinds of things that are done at school. More specifically, they do not establish a curriculum for their children, do not require their children to do particular assignments for the purpose of education, and do not test their children to measure progress. Instead, they allow their children freedom to pursue their own interests and to learn, in their own ways, what they need to know to follow those interests. They also, in various ways, provide an environmental context and support for their children’s learning.  To learn more about the various ways by which unschoolers operationalize these ideas, and the many benefits that these families see in unschooling, both for the child and for the family as a whole, look back at Report I.

The present report is based on a qualitative analysis that my colleague Gina Riley and I conducted of the responses to Question 7 on the survey form, which reads as follows: "What, for your family, have been the biggest challenges or hurdles to surmount in unschooling?"

As a first step in the analysis, we coded the challenges that people described into several relatively distinct categories. The most frequently cited of these categories is the one that we labeled "Social Pressure." It includes negative judgments and criticism from other people, from relatives, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, and unschoolers’ perceived needs to justify their choice repeatedly to people who don’t approve or don’t understand.  A total of 106 families (46 percent of the 232) included this category of challenge in their answer to Question 7.  In fact, for 57 of these families, Social Pressure was the only category of challenge listed.

The second most frequently cited category of challenge is the one that we labeled Deschooling the Parent’s Mind." This category has to do with parents’ difficulties in overcoming their own, culturally ingrained “schoolish” ways of thinking about education. Included here are all descriptions of conflicts between the parent’s unschooling philosophy and that same parent’s automatic ways of thinking and responding that could undermine that philosophy. A total of 95 families (41 percent of the 232) included this category in their answer to Question 7. This category will become much clearer, below, where I present a sample of quotations exemplifying it. Many respondents cited challenges in both this category and the Social Pressure category, and some pointed to a link between the two. Others' criticisms would sometimes reawaken old, socially normative ways of thinking and raise again the fears that unschooling parents thought they had overcome, even when they could see full well that unschooling was working beautifully for their children. These fears could lead the parent to begin trying to direct and control their children’s learning, which, if unchecked, would defeat the unschooling practice.

Both of these two most often mentioned categories of challenge have to do with the power of social norms.  We are social creatures, and it is very difficult for us to behave in ways that run counter to what others perceive as normal.  In the history of cultures, harmful normative practices or rituals may persist for centuries at least partly because of the stigma, or perceived stigma, associated with violating the norms. These have included such practices as foot binding in the upper classes in China and genital mutilation in many other cultures. Even people who knew that such practices were harmful did them, because failure to do so would mark the family as “different” and therefore aberrant. School is the most predominant cultural ritual of our time. It is a practice ingrained as normal, even necessary, in the minds of the great majority of people. To counter it, one must overcome not just others’ negative judgments, but also the judgments that rise up from one’s own school-indoctrinated mind.

Other categories of challenge lagged well behind these first two in frequency.  These remaining categories include: "Time/Career/Income" (problems deriving from a parent’s inability to pursue a career, or earn more money, or have sufficient time for herself or himself while attending to the children at home), cited by 45 families; "Finding Friends" (problems of finding friends for their children to play with, or finding others who shared their philosophy), cited by 18 families; and "Legal Issues" (problems deriving from laws or regulations that make unschooling illegal or difficult to practice), cited by 15 families.  Although "Legal Issues" was cited by only 5 percent families in North America, they were cited by 33 percent (5 out of 15) who resided in Europe and by 75 percent (3 out of 4) who resided in France.

The remainder of this post is devoted to selected quotations from the questionnaires, which illustrate each category of challenge. Since some of you might not read through the whole list of quotes, I'll note here (rather than at the end) that I welcome your comments and questions. If you are a member of an unschooling family, how have you dealt with the kinds of challenges described by the respondents to this survey, or what other challenges have you faced? If you are not a member of an unschooling family, what other questions do you have about unschooling that are not addressed by this series of reports? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your views and knowledge are valued and taken seriously, by me and by other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your comments 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. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

But now, read on. These quotations are eloquent statements of the hurdles that unschooling families have had to surmount.

Quotations illustrating the social pressure category of challenge

• “By far the greatest challenge is with other people.  It is such a radical concept, I think it feels so easy for people (especially family members) to criticize it.  I get tired of feeling like I need to wait until my children are adults so I can finally say, ‘See, it’s all right!’”

• “The biggest challenge has been overcoming fears about going against the norm and dealing with extended family members who are critical or unsupportive of our choices.”

• “We still have not told my husband's family that we are unschooling.  We fear that they would panic and feel the need to step in.  We don't want that tension for ourselves or our children.”

• “Answering the questions of other people who do not understand, including [those of] homeschoolers.  Things like, what grade are you in, what curriculum do you use, how does an only child get any socialization, etc.”

• “I would say the only real challenge we have is dealing with others’ (mostly strangers') prejudices and misunderstandings. When we say we homeschool (because ‘unschooling’ is met with blank stares most of the time) they assume I have little desks set up in my living room. They assume we have no social life. It just gets really, really tiring hearing those comments all the time (from people we meet out in public). Then a program comes on mainstream TV about unschooling and people think that is our life (these programs are usually sensationalized and edited in such a way as to portray us as neglectful, ignorant parents who don’t care about their kids). I’m sick of answering questions like ‘Well, that’s fine for art and music, but what about math?’ or ‘How will your kids function in the Real World.’ I don’t always want to be an ambassador for unschooling, especially when I’m just trying to buy groceries! But it seems I often find myself in that situation and sometimes it is tiring.”

• “I think for us, being Christians, it is the stigma of being lazy parents. Unschooling is viewed as a hands-off approach to child rearing and is especially viewed as wrong or sinful in the Christian community. God loves order--or so it goes in their minds. The funny thing is that Jesus was probably unschooled.”

• “Our extended family was our biggest challenge. They were negative about homeschooling, and outraged by unschooling. We had to pull away from them for a little over a year. Now they see that [our daughter] is ‘OK’.”

• “My biggest hurdle has been gracefully handling interactions with friends and others who are invested in public school. I have a number of friends who are teachers or connected somehow with schools, and they saw (still sometimes see) what we do as thumbing our noses at them and their efforts.”

• “The skepticism and open disapproval of most of my friends and family was incredibly hard on me and isolated our family from our previous social group. I learned not to mention unschooling, because most of my old friends were already completely unsupportive of my decision to homeschool and the few people I told about unschooling completely freaked out.”

• “My daughter’s father and stepmother were so opposed to it that they literally kicked her out of their house because they felt she was setting a bad example for their younger children.”

• “My MIL stopped asking about her grandchildren, unwilling to try to understand what we were doing or why…so they essentially lost a grandparent.”

• “When we first discovered unschooling, and really were exploring the philosophy, I was so excited to talk about it with family/friends. I learned very quickly that most people can’t (won’t?) understand, and some are downright disapproving. I have learned to talk about our unschooling in very schooly terms so that other people are more comfortable with us, and feel that we can relate on some level.”

• “Dealing with ignorant or defensive comments from those who don’t know anything about unschooling is tiring.”

• “’Others’, be they friends of friends, family members, or just people we have to interact with at public events or activities...Questioning our children, interrogating us, having our motives challenged and scrutinized. Being accused of being selfish or of child neglect by not having them in a traditional school learning state standards. Occasionally, it breaks through and fills us with doubts and fears.”

• “The biggest hurdle has been other people. It is difficult to find others who are encouraging, especially people who live nearby. Our support has been conferences and online communities.  . . . Others don’t understand and look down on what we’re doing. Most people are stuck in the school paradigm and feel like it really is necessary for kids to go to school in order to be successful adults.  They see things like bullying and doing work that has no meaning for you as necessary rights of passage to the ‘real world,’ which they see as boring, scary, and uninviting in general.”

• “We gave up discussing anything with family...Acquaintances and strangers used to bother us, but now that I have the proof that it works …. [But some] still try to think of something wrong, like how she missed the prom or doesn't act like a ‘teenage girl’. It seemed to be somehow unusual in a bad way to have a mid-teen act like a graduate student, like maybe we had somehow been responsible for her being so ‘different.’”

• “My son hates explaining what we do or don’t do at length to people who disapprove.”

• “Whenever you do something so outside the norm you have to practically become a spokesman for it. I’m not really interested in being the poster child for unschooling or putting my kids in that role, but it seems to be expected nonetheless.”

Quotations illustrating parents’ needs to “deschool” their own minds in order to practice unschooling effectively

“My son instinctually knows how to do this, but we [my husband and I] have had to unlearn a lot!”

• “Something in us rebels at the thought of kids ‘getting away’ with not having to do math and spelling drills, homework, or having something forced upon them ‘because they’ll need it.’ It’s hard to see them spending so much time doing unstructured learning and having to fight the feeling that they’re not learning effectively even when we can see that they are. In a way, we’re actually jealous that they don’t have to put up with the monotony, confusion, frustration, and ‘socialization’ (i.e. negative peer influence) that we had to deal with and can really focus on the joy of learning.”

• “The primary [challenge] is getting over my own worries that they aren’t learning enough. I have to deschool myself constantly. There are so many messages in the media, and through family members (cousins, grandma, aunts) that my kids should know certain things on the school schedule. I have to remind myself constantly that they are always learning things, and that they have such a wonderful love of learning, and that they do not need to be on some else’s schedule.”

• “Oh, keeping the status quo from invading my brain: ‘TV is bad!’  ‘Computers are bad!’  ‘Children should be reading by age 5!’  ‘Video games make children violent!’ It can be challenging to hear all this over and over and over again and not worry about it even though you can see perfectly well that none of these things are happening in real life.”

• “Coming from academia, probably the biggest hurdle was my own schooling or more accurately, deschooling myself and letting go of the belief that a ‘good mom’ provides endless ‘educational’ opportunities, without which a child is doomed to mediocrity. Learning to see learning everywhere, and understanding that learning has no connection to teaching.”

• “Refraining from pushing and coercing kids into things that I think are good for them. It never works out well and undermines the trust inherent in unschooling. At its root is worry that I’ve made a terrible mistake and they won’t get what they need. Patently ridiculous, but the worry had a way of creeping in frequently in the early years. Not so much anymore as the benefits have become so clear as the girls have matured and proven very competent and eager learners.”

• “My own deschooling has been the biggest hurdle. Even though I have always wanted to focus on my kids’ interests, I had a hard time letting go of the need to see hard proof (written work, projects, etc…) that they were learning.”

• “I still encounter little boxed up sections of my brain with old fears and assumptions. Right now [my son] is 6, and his friends are reading. I’ve found myself feeling anxious and unsure and then disgusted with myself for having those feelings. Now I’m learning to surf them—let them come up, remember that they’re just outworn, fear-based reactions, let them subside, and watch how creatively [my son] navigates his world.”

• “I keep having to remind myself and get my husband to remind me that this is actually working.  I was a teacher myself and this is just so not how I was taught at university to teach kids!”

• “For me personally, getting over the feeling that I am not doing enough—those panicky moments when I jump in and try to force a bit of learning. I soon have regretted them, and now, day-by-day, I am amazed by what the children are learning -- what they know.”

• “I have found that the biggest hurdles so far all self inflicted...Sometimes it feels too easy and that there must be a catch. Am I just being lazy? For the love of God, what about the workbooks! Given our schooled background it is easy to believe that if it's ‘educational’, it can't be fun, and if it's fun (and easy), it can't be educational!  I generally question the path we have chosen only because I do not know anyone who has homeschooled, let alone unschooled.”

• “I am definitely the biggest challenge! I have to get out of my way, a lot. Whether it is questioning whether their video game play is excessive to ‘what about college?,’ sometimes just finding trust is hard! But I always eventually reason that a conversation with any of my children would allay the fears of even the most hardened skeptic; they are articulate, compassionate, engaged people, and I wouldn’t change a thing about them or the path we’ve chosen (except maybe not having had to do the school thing first!).”

• “Our own conditioning is the biggest challenge. The disapproval and criticism from family and friends is easier to deal with than the old tapes playing in our own heads.”

Quotations illustrating the time/career/income challenge

• “Money money money money money. I have always had to work and sometimes more than others. Most of my at-home years were spent freelancing (I’m a writer) to close the gap and then when my husband was laid off I went full-time freelance with some on-site work. For one terrible, terrible year I worked full-time for a nonprofit – three days from home and two days on-site. It was very difficult and although my kids did ok, I about ran myself into the ground. …Plus my kids’ social life depends on mine so much – it’s one thing to drive them to events but being in the loop takes parental effort – and when I’ve been working I haven’t been able to do that, which has meant they have missed out on some.”

• “The biggest challenge has been financial—so much to do and see and explore, not enough resources to do it all. But, that too is part and parcel of living life and seeking options and alternatives to meet needs and desires and curiosities within the parameters of a single income household and the time away from home required for the working parent.”

• “Time—trying to balance work and ‘parent alone time’.”

• “Having time alone for me (mom) since my children are with me 24/7.”

• “Our biggest hurdle has just been fitting everything in, with so many children and different interests, allowing for each individual to follow his own path.”

Quotations illustrating the challenge of finding friends

• “For us the main issues are the travel required for socializing –- this can be tiring. We have to travel further to find girls my eldest daughter’s age.”

• “Because our son is an only child, and the other children who live in our neighborhood attend school and then after-school care, we have had to make sure to provide plenty of opportunity for him to get together and play with other children, as he really enjoys being with other kids.  Until we found a couple local(ish) unschooling/homeschooling networks with which we connected, it was challenging to find him children to play with as often as he wanted to get out and socialize...Also because my husband and I both work from home, it can be challenging during busy work weeks to balance everyone’s schedules and needs to make sure everyone and everything is getting attention and support.”

 • We live rurally, and it has been very challenging for the children to develop friendships with local people.”

Quotations illustrating legal challenges to unschooling

• [From Finland, where even non-schooled kids must take tests.] “Especially when the official tests day at the local public school is approaching, we get more worried. Then we typically decline into the ‘teacher-centered’ mode and do our best to drill some test-taking-skills to him.”

• [From the UK]  “The problems we have had are with the council and trying to make them realize it is a genuine educational philosophy. Also I always panic every now and then in case they turn up and want ‘evidence’.”

• [From France] “The fear of the inspection. In France, we're controlled each year, and it's a harsh time to defend the right we still have to educate according to a different pedagogy/philosophy from school.”

• [From France] “Education authorities, because we are controlled here by people who do not believe in homescholling (so you could imagine what unschooling is for them). We are obliged to hide (so being outlaws) or to [compromise our unschooling principles]. … In the French law all 16-year-old children must have certain knowledge for each subject. So if you are doing totally unschooling it’s impossible to be sure your child will attain this aim at sixteen.”

• [From North Carolina] “Currently, in our state, I have to give my child a standardized test once a year starting at age 7.  I worry about this affecting my commitment to unschooling, since the state will be watching me.”

• [From New Hampshire] “Our biggest hurdles to unschooling have been our state's homeschool requirements. Although the NH requirements are easy and reasonable to comply with, there is still that burden hanging over us during the year that we ‘should find a way to get some of this or that in the portfolio’. In fact, a couple of years ago my son and I rallied at the NH State House three times to prevent the passing of legislation that would have required all homeschoolers to take a standardized test in addition to the portfolio option! My son, who, on his own at age 14 began to write like crazy and subsequently wrote an entire book manuscript, wrote a letter to the newspaper recently stating how state requirements infringe upon his right to learn freely in the way that he wants to learn, because he is aware that he must cover certain ‘subjects’ whether he wants to or not.”

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Despite the challenges, none of the respondents expressed regret about their unschooling decision.  For the many reasons for their lack of regret, look back at Report I and  Report II, for their descriptions of the benefits of unschooling and the experiences that led them to it..

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Are You a Non-Conformist?