I Was Unschooled and I Didn’t Know It

The weird thing about unschooling is that the name is kind of terribly misrepresentative–unschooling isn’t about school at all. It’s about believing that learning happens naturally, all the time, and that if natural learning is fostered, then it continues unrepressed forever. So “unschooling” isn’t just a thing that children do in lieu of school. It’s a thing that all people of all ages and in all situations can engage in, always.

If circumstances require you to put your children into a school building during the day, you can still be to some degree an unschooler. Sure, you might encounter a greater amount of natural learning barriers, but you can still engage in and foster learning and exploration and educational autonomy in your lifestyle. It’s a perspective and a philosophy more than anything.

Take my parents: I had a realization one day. I suddenly knew at least one part of why both Amy and I wound up unschooling our children, even though we were raised going to school and never even heard of it until we had children of our own. Here’s why: our parents were unschoolers, and they didn’t even know it.

How, do you ask? Well, here are seven examples of how my parents unwittingly unschooled:

1. They encouraged explorative thought

I never felt uncomfortable asking challenging or weird questions growing up. Everything was on the table, from what made a vegetable a vegetable, to the nature of the universe. My parents always treated us as intelligent humans and engaged thoughtfully in discussions. One of my fondest memories of my youthhood is the dinner table family discussions, which began with scripture reading after everyone had eaten their fill, and often evolved into all sorts of random philosophical topics. My father is a bookish scholar, with an incredible memory for facts and quotes; my mother is more of an observational scholar, with a deep emotional intelligence and insights into human nature. Between the two of them, there was always another perspective to consider when I came up with a new challenge.

2. They believed in free play

I remember asking my mom about this a few years back. We weren’t very wealthy, so the fact is that likely we couldn’t have afforded to have all the [six] children in various organized activities. But my mother tells me that it was mostly a philosophical choice. She didn’t believe that overscheduling children was a good thing. She thought we were better off having time to ourselves to explore and play and be bored and create. I would agree. Unschoolers would agree.

3. They didn’t put pressure on grade scores

It’s not that they didn’t care. Probably Amy got somewhat more pressure than I did, because I liked school and aimed to please; Amy was morally opposed to homework. But not one single time do I remember ever being compared to any of my siblings in regard to grades. Nor was there ever any kind of incentive or punishment offered. Likely if I seemed proud of a grade they would congratulate me, but I honestly do not recall any significant degree of focus on those arbitrary numbers at all. I had friends in school that were simply beside themselves with anxiety over test scores. Not me–any desire I had to hit a certain number was self-motivated.

4. They allowed us to explore interests at our own leisure 

Probably the strongest example of how unschooly my parents were, is my progression with piano. So, my parents are both very musical. My dad has a doctorate of musical composition. For realz. If they were to force anything upon us, surely it would be music lessons. It could even have been done for free–we always had a piano, and my father obviously could teach. But he didn’t. Is it because he didn’t have the stamina to deal with rotten ingrates all evening after a long day’s work? Who’s to say, really. But the reality was, music (and everything else) was left up to us to pursue as desired. For me, I did show interest in piano. And as soon as I demonstrated that, my dad was all over it, ready to help. He did it in an interesting way, too: there were never formal lessons; never any schedule or accountability to an authority. There was just the music, and the knowledge to go with it. He would fish out a book of songs that suited my level, teach me any facts or techniques I needed to know to play them, maybe give me some advice on good practicing habits, and let me at it. I probably started when I was about seven, and I quit at least three or four times over the next few years. Nothing was ever said about it. And I can tell you why I quit so much in the beginning: early piano is boring. The songs are not engaging. But invariably, listening to my father play at his leisure (because if you want your kids to have a love of learning you have to example the love yourself), I would always be drawn back with the burning desire to be able to play like that. And he would always be ready and willing to help me along. Eventually–when my skill got to about a Royal Conservatory grade 6, where you start playing real music–I was hooked and I didn’t quit. I worked that way, with no formal lessons, until I was sixteen years old. My parents paid for six months (or maybe a little more…) of lessons with a friend of the family, who helped prepare me to take my grade 8 Royal Conservatory exam, which I passed. I recall the examiner was shocked and impressed that I hadn’t had formal lessons before. And I definitely have holes in my skill–I’m a rotten sight reader (can’t just play something that’s put in front of me; I need to review)–but I love piano. It brings me joy. And I play with passion and emotion. I wouldn’t trade my organic, unschooled learning for anything. And they treated everything like that. We were at our leisure to do as we pleased, and they would observe, and support as they could.

5. They read. A lot.

Not that you have to be a big reader to unschool. But having a love of learning is kind of essential, and pursuit of knowledge is often done through reading. Certainly in my family it was. I also think this is a fantastic way to ensure your children pick up reading–have it as the norm in their environment; they’ll want to do it too! There was no hierarchy of literature either. My mom always had a novel on the go; my dad was often in the middle of some incredibly boring history book. They read us books every night before bed–dramatic voices and all; we read King James style scriptures every day; we played boggle on the regular. Our world was encompassed about with reading and pursuit of knowledge.

6. They pursued their own interests

I’ve already mentioned a couple times how essential I think it is to unschooling that the parents live the life themselves. And something I really appreciate about my parents is the fact that, although they were devoted to their family, they did not give up their passions and interests. My dad wrote and produced all sorts of things, including a really great Christmas musical. My mom sang in groups as much as she could, and one time wrote an entire album of lullabies that my dad arranged and produced for her. They went out regularly with friends and took time for themselves. They were available as supports to us kids, but they were also busy living their own full lives.

7. They facilitated our interests to the best of their ability

I like the word “facilitate”, because it denotes a kind of back-seat, follow your kid’s lead kind of practice. Facilitating your kids’ pursuit of interests that they choose is about respecting their autonomy as separate humans. This is my goal, and I learned how to do this from my parents. If there was an extra curricular activity at school we wanted to try, they would figure out how to make it work. But there was never one ounce of pressure to do anything at all. In fact, that goes for school courses as well: in high school when we had the option to choose between things like photography and physics, they left it gloriously up to us. Christmas and birthdays often yielded things like art supplies and microscopes. It was all so expertly passive and yet fully supportive. I know my mom, when she reads this, will probably lament that she would have liked to have done so much more, if only they could have found a surprise gold mine in the back yard, but no one can do everything. And I don’t really think it’s as much about the specific activities and supplies themselves, as it is about the attitude of support and active interest in our passions. And I think we all grew up to be interesting people with a variety of skills and interests, so I’d say the tactic works.

I love that I made this connection from how I’m raising my kids to my own upbringing. It makes it all so much richer somehow. And I love how it shows that unschooling is so much more than keeping your kids out of school and letting them run wild. It really is a philosophy first, and the lifestyle follows–no matter your external circumstances. Trust your children–that’s what my parents taught me–and they will show you great things.


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