The first time I heard about unschooling, it was featured in a local newspaper. It sounded like an absolute farce. The children couldn’t possibly be learning anything, and I thought they would never become responsible adults. Of course, when I read this article, my children were both under the age of three, so I had homeschooling completely figured out!
When it was my turn to homeschool, I pretty much went with the “school at home” approach. Yes, I wanted my children to spend the day at home with me. Yes, I wanted to instill MY values in the curriculum. But I still most definitely wanted a curriculum! I thought we needed assignments, workbooks, worksheets, the whole school experience (just without the AT school experience). And it worked, to a point. You see, my daughter, much like me, can geek out and thrive on a steady diet of logically and sequentially presented academics. But my son, my wonderful, imaginative, entrepreneurial son, cannot get through five minutes of a lesson without a brilliant idea, a completely off-topic question, or a need to say something—anything—to try to get a laugh. I didn’t know homeschools had class clowns! This boy made me crazy. I felt like a failure. How does a public school teacher keep order with 20+ kids, but I can’t wrangle two!?
And then something happened. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon it again, but I rediscovered the concept of unschooling. I was intrigued, to say the least. Traditional school at home wasn’t working, so I needed a new idea. I read articles and books, anything I could find to help me understand the movement.
Unschooling is very student lead. Anything goes, and every unschool household looks completely different. Some unschooling families do no academics whatsoever, letting life be the teacher each day. Math and science happen at the grocery store and in the kitchen. Animal husbandry may provide biology lessons. It’s all on the table. Some unschooling families do limited academics, with the bulk of the day free for play, art, dance, music, sports, gardening, or volunteering. I’m serious, people, anything goes. In a weird way, it made sense to me. I had bought into the idea that homeschooling produced academically superior students all day, every day. But my two students were academically normal. They’re smart kiddos, don’t get me wrong, but we’re not bound for Harvard after wrapping up homeschool at age 15.
So what gives? If doing everything the “right” way (the school at home way) means I’m getting the same academic outcome they’d likely get at public school, what, if anything, should I be doing differently? I took a step back to evaluate what I wanted for my two children. What is the end goal of these homeschool years? Is it academic superiority? Or something else? I decided the most important goal I had for my children was that they would grow up to become responsible citizens who carry their faith into the world with them each day of their adult lives. Now how do I do that? Beat the Pythagorean theorem into their brains? Or show them grace as we travel through each year toward graduation?
I decided to try unschooling. If you read another article of mine, you know that my son thrived, and my daughter absolutely hated it. My son and I read books about cars. He watched videos about engines. He watched videos about home decorating. He rode his bike all around the neighborhood all day long. He started a car washing business. He started a pet watching business. He loved every unscheduled minute of the day. My daughter hated unschooling; she felt unmoored. We read together. She tried learning Russian. She made artwork. She danced in her room. But before long, she was looking for assignments and structure. Obvious statement alert: I have two VERY different children.
We unschooled for one year. My son really just needed a break. After one year of unschooling, he was able to hit the reset button and focus on “school at home.” (I use the word “focus” loosely. He is still the class clown.) My daughter is back to the books and has her sights set on college.
But I’m the one who’s really changed. I’m the one who learned that there is no “right” way to homeschool. I think unschooling is a beautiful way to homeschool. For the truly dedicated, unschooling is much more work than the “school at home” type of homeschooling. Unschooling is all the time, around the clock, weekends too! I admire unschooling families wholeheartedly. I also admire the parents whose children are bound for the Ivies before my children have driver’s licenses. I admire them. But I don’t need to be them. Our adventure in unschooling taught me that the best we can be is ourselves. My daughter and I enjoy structure. My son is going to spend his whole life with one unstoppable idea after the next. I can’t wait to see what they both make of themselves. I hope that when they look back at our homeschool years they feel supported and loved. There is no structure or curriculum that can take the place of a mother’s love. There is no academic degree that can confer the confidence we have when we carry our faith in Jesus into the world. Unschooling taught me to stop judging our homeschool by what everyone else is doing, and focus on what is best for our family, one child at a time.
Beth Bruer lives in beautiful Colorado Springs with her husband, two teens, and goldendoodle. She loves reading, (lifelong) learning, hiking, and yoga.