A new book is out on unschooling dads and my contribution is in it! Check it out and buy a copy.
I’ll be posting my submission as a blog here some point soon as well as some of the new material in a book I’m writing.
Twenty-two Testimonials on Their Unconventional Approach to Education
Edited by Skyler J. Collins
Here’s Skylar’s site:
Here’s my entry:
Dads: First Examine Yourself When Considering Education Options
Please don’t make the same heinous mistake I made. I sent my kids to public school without even thinking about it for five minutes. Upon our children reaching kindergarten age, my wife made the few arrangements to enroll my children in the public school nearest to our house. We took them to the bus stop, the bus showed up, the kids got on, off went the bus, and that was it.
We unschool now, which is really a way of saying we don’t send them to school anymore. Unschooling isn’t really a form of schooling, in my vernacular it’s a word that means freedom for children. We let our kids be free and they choose, like free people, what to do with their time and resources. Those are the activities that make them happy, interested, and engaged.
The decision to stop schooling came after an intensive period research and analysis. I read a half dozen books on education, listened to a lot of education and libertarian podcasts, and did a ton of my own thinking about my children, my wife, myself and our current school. It probably took me close to a year to get a complete view of what I wanted for my children. I’ll explain my whole experience a little later.
I believe you owe it to yourself and your children to do some really serious research, thinking and exploration before you decide to send your child to school (public or private) or recreate a school-like curriculum at home. The commitment to schooling is a 15,000 hour endeavor, spread over 13 years. And if it is a public school, it is administered by the government, where key decisions about your child are largely determined by a group of strangers to you who also don’t know about the specific needs of your child. 15,000 hours is the equivalent time you would work at your job for seven and a half years. It’s a huge decision, and even if the final analysis points to schooling your children, you’ll feel better about making it if you did your due diligence. Plus, you’ll be able to explain to your children in detail why you chose to put them in school or not. And you’ll be equipped to explain to your wife your decision wherever you land.
So first, go out and read a bunch of books and media[i]. If you are already on the side of schooling, you might skip materials that advocates for it. Or read books that are both critical and supportive of schooling if you feel it will give you a complete view. Also, learn what unschooling is, learn how it represents freedom and get comfortable with the concepts. Just do the research. It’s fascinating stuff anyways.
Next, do some analysis and reflection. You are going to think about what is best for your children, or you may think about what’s best for any child or your neighbors, but I’m going to suggest something different as a first step: think about yourself.
If you can’t imagine yourself being free as a child, it’s likely going to be impossible to think that your own children can be free. If the idea of yourself being free as a child is irresistible, than you can’t deny it to your children.
I’m assuming you were sent to school, probably a public school, and have safely managed to become a functioning adult capable of supporting a household and understand how to raise and interact with children.
First, reflect on how you acquired knowledge that you either found useful (e.g., like the skills you use for work) or enjoyable (e.g., the stuff you like to learn, for me its economics, playing music and NFL football.) How much of this did you learn in school? Beyond basic reading and some simple math, I bet it will be not much. And, almost none of the essential skills of living (e.g., driving a car, cooking a meal, applying for a loan) are taught in school. That’s because they are too important to learn.
What you did learn were complicated math problems, detailed science fields you may or may not of liked, sentence diagraming, memorizing the spelling of words, political histories, state capitals, 18th century literature and an entire portfolio of stuff you likely found mostly useless or unenjoyable.
And you forgot most of it anyways.
Now imagine picking your own topics and having all of that glorious time to explore those that either provided real value or real enjoyment. By age 12 you may have been an expert in several exotic topics. You may have built something valuable. Maybe even generated income and gained real world experience. Imagine the opportunity to have those 15,000 hours back to accomplish what you desired to do. Think of the head start you would’ve had in life. Imagine getting 15,000 hours back when you were the most curious, the most energetic, the most optimistic, and the most risk-resilient person you ever were.
If you would have flourished with that time back, even just slightly more than you did at school, then imagine it for your kids.
Now think about your own happiness when you were schooled. Did you like it? Or was most of it kind of boring and yet stressful? Did you like your evenings being filled up with homework? Did you like getting a report card? Did you like taking tests? Did you enjoy filling out endless worksheets? Did you like riding the bus? Did you care for how your teachers and many of the children treated you?
How often did you yearn for summer vacation?
School isn’t enjoyable or happy. It sucks. Given the choice, would you retroactively inflict this massive quantity of unhappiness on yourself? Think about this one long and hard, because it was when I developed this sense of empathy for my children’s happiness did I reach the tipping point.
You can do this self-analysis on a wide variety of points. Some of them include thinking about[ii]:
- How school creates conformity, obedience and apathy
- How school limits subjects and ignores some really good ones
- How testing and grades stink
- How school separates families for most of the waking day
- How it screws up vacations and free time
- How it doesn’t prepare for a career very well
- How it made you tired and robbed you of rest/sleep
In hearing about unschooling, you may be barraged with all of the practical, beneficial reasons why unschooling makes sense such as it fosters better learning or it lets children discover themselves in better ways (it’s true.) Or you may hear about how the public school system was designed by nineteenth century Prussians to make obedient soldiers and then turned them into the Nazis (also true.)
But I think a father can only be convinced of unschooling’s merits if the father himself can imagine themselves succeeding if they had been free as a child.
It’s tough analysis to be sure. The biggest blockade is that you were probably broken by your own schooling. It robbed you the sense that a child can be free and flourish. It taught you that hardship and meaningless, droning tasks are our state of nature. In order to unschool your children, you need, to some extent, to deschool yourself. You need to reverse the indoctrination you suffered. You need to first free yourself of the concept and then you can free your children.
My path to unschooling my children
I’ve long heard the intellectual arguments against schooling and the arguments for home schooling. I knew, intellectually, that compulsory school was a bad thing, but it wasn’t something I thought about much, even after my children were born.
When my oldest daughter was school-aged, my wife and I put her on the bus to the nearest public school like all of our neighbors did, like my parents did with me, and like my wife’s parents had done to her. When my son reached that age, we did the same thing.
I hated putting them on that bus. It made me feel kind of lousy every morning. Then the house would be kind of dead and lifeless for most of the day with them gone (I work at home and my wife is a full time mom.) Things felt better again when they came home. But then there was homework, which they didn’t like. My wife would get frustrated and tell me to help them, but I didn’t want to. It was boring for both my children and me and it ate into our precious Nintendo Wii time together. Plus, I had never bothered doing homework myself as a child and never really saw the point. The evenings were too short to do much. Between homework, a meal, and having to go to bed super early to make tomorrow’s bus, there was very little family time.
As time went on, I started to examine aspects of my life that I found unpleasant and thinking about ways to get rid of them. Some of the things I would do included shortening my workweek drastically and putting our New England house on the market to move to a warmer climate (freedom from snow!).
I caught John Taylor Gatto’s “The Ultimate History Lesson” on YouTube[iii] and found it fascinating. In the five hour video, he explains the origination and true purpose of school. I really started to think about how schooling was another unhappy, deleterious thing I could get rid of.
Still, I wasn’t ready to do it and every part of me resisted the idea. I thought nobody homeschooled except crazies who quilt and think Adam walked around with dinosaurs six thousand years ago. Plus, I had gone to public school. Everybody has to. It’s a state of nature. It’s automatic. It’s undeniable.
But, I was still fascinated by the subject so I started feasting on books, starting with two by John Taylor Gatto, then Grace Llewellyn and later John Holt. I also visited home schooling blogs and online discussion boards. I was also listening to FreeDomain Radio podcast daily, which was often critical of schooling.
My wife obviously saw my night table reading stack and was getting either nervous or curious. I asked her to read Gatto’s “Dumbing Us Down” and she did. She agreed with everything in the book, but like me, wasn’t ready to take the kids out of school.
As my analysis grew, I started looking into home schooling curriculum and tools. There’s a tremendous market for home schooling text books and even wholly packaged school-at-home programs available. One piece we got was a detailed catalog of the Calvert curriculum, which comes with every thing you need to replicate school at home short of the apple for the teacher’s desk. I was getting familiar with unschooling concepts, but the idea that we could simply buy a home school program was comforting in some ways. It made my wife and me feel less helpless and alone, even if replicating school at home wasn’t the right thing to do.
I also researched the state’s homeschooling laws. I figured they would be intimidating and I was confounded at the start, presuming I’d find it frustrating. But it wasn’t, and the more I learned about the legal aspects, the more comfortable I became.
All of this reading and researching was absolutely necessary to understand what was available. The more I learned, the more I was able to create a rigorous intellectual case for home schooling.
The full intellectual case wasn’t enough though. I still couldn’t imagine doing it.
Over the course of late 2012 and most of 2013 my mother was being ravaged by cancer. I talked to her on the phone every day to hear her complain and stressfully explain her fear and frustration. She just got worse and worse. I visited her at the hospital for the last few days she could still speak and was conscious. She would die on October 28 of 2013.
On the same day of her death, we got our first offer on our house. The house had been on the market for over two years without an offer, postponing our move to South Carolina.
I had to negotiate the selling of the house over the two days of my mother’s wake and funeral. It was an awful offer and between that and the death I was an emotional and stressful wreck. Plus the trip included visiting my sickly father and seeing a hundred weeping relatives and family friends I hadn’t seen in decades. Plus I was going to be moving in six weeks, now had a house to pack, a new house to find across country and everything else that goes with moving far away. I was a hot mess emotionally.
On the morning of my mother’s funeral, I was driving to the funeral parlor and was just absolutely weeping as hard as I ever had in my life. Life was vicious and short at that moment. In this emotional state my senses of risk, decision-making and view of reality was completely unguarded.
I suddenly realized that we had to homeschool because there was no way I would send myself to school understanding what I knew about school. If faced with the choice, I wouldn’t make myself unhappy, I wouldn’t waste my time, I wouldn’t put myself through the torture of school. With any empathy, how dare I send my children? How dare I treat them in a way that I wouldn’t treat myself?
I called my wife and let her know that I really wanted to do it. She agreed tentatively. A couple weeks later she would visit our new South Carolina town to scout a house. She visited the elementary school and there were dozens of trailers behind the school in rows surrounded by high wire fences. These were make-shift classrooms because of the school being overcrowded. It looked like a prison. This helped cement her decision to homeschool.
By mid-December, we sold our home, sent the moving van off and started driving to South Carolina. Shortly after we moved in we met several other home schooling families and became friends. They largely unschooled. While we had bought a load of academic books and courses, we decided to not actively use them. School-like books would be available to my children, but not actively forced upon them. We tried an online education program but the kids found it to be bore. After a few weeks of not going to school and not having school at home, we began to get comfortable in the unschool life.
It was working and everyone was happier.
A Day In the Unschool Life or A Day In the Life of a Free Family
We’ve been at it for about 18 months now. My children are ages 10, 7 and 4 at the writing of this story. The results aren’t in on how effective unschooling is as an educative process (which isn’t really the point) and who knows what we’ll do in the future, but we really like it. The kids can’t even imagine going back to school, even though they never once questioned why they originally had to go in the first place.
We don’t do much at all. Everyone gets up in the morning sometime after 8:30 (compare to the school kids here who have to get up at 5:30 to make the bus.) We have breakfast together as a family. I then go check work email and the kids go to their computers or toys to play. I like to go to the swimming pool to do laps in the morning and the family usually meets me there. We have lunch together. The afternoons vary with meeting up with other home school friends, going to horseback riding, flag football, dance class and Tae Kwon Doe lessons. Or sometimes they just play inside or outside. Or we’ll go to the beach. Or the movies. Or my daughter will read a book. Maybe they’ll paint for a bit. My oldest daughter likes to bake and do some of her own grocery shopping. Whatever they feel like doing. Sometimes they watch television, but not as much as you’d think.
I work in my home office during the weekday afternoons. They often come in if they need help and I’ll come down frequently to see how everybody is doing. Sometimes I show them what I’m working on. Sometimes I skip work for a beach trip or to nap with the four year old.
In the evening they try to play with school friends back from the grind. This is hit or miss because the school kids have to do homework and be in bed early to catch the next day’s bus. Many of them go to latchkey type programs, so their nights are very short.
After dinner I usually play football or basketball with my son. Than around 8:30 the whole family lounges into our king size bed and we watch a movie together. It’s not uncommon for the kids to stay up till 10:30 or so. It doesn’t matter though, because we do whatever we want.
They have a few chores. My oldest daughter does her own laundry, helps with shopping and sometimes prepares lunch for her siblings. She bakes and cooks. My son cleans up dog poop. They have to pick their rooms now and again.
There’s not really anything in terms of discipline. We don’t do timeouts or withhold things they like, and we certainly don’t spank. If they do something that displeases us, we let them know and work towards a resolution.
The legal stuff for homeschooling is easy. It takes about 10 minutes per year of clicking on two electronic forms to get that done.
One thing that hasn’t happened are the wonder stories that unschoolers sometimes tell such as a child launching his own business or building a working particle collider. My kids are still young, so they mostly play.
I also wish more, if not all, families would unschool. We’re able to hook up with other families, do some classes, and find school kids to play with on the weekends, but it would be better if there were more kids around. At this time, 97% of children are locked up in school for the majority of the week. Even if the number of home schoolers jumped from three percent to say ten percent, we’d have a lot more opportunities for playtime. This isn’t to say that school does a better job at providing playmates, because it doesn’t (kids at school are told to sit and be quiet most of the day,) it’s just that the population of home school kids is pretty anemic right now.
The final personal argument from experimentation and low risk
The final case for unschooling is the easiest to justify: try it. There’s almost no risk. Take a few months or maybe a year and try it out. Don’t like it? You can always go back to public school. The administrators will welcome your child back with open arms and gladly tell your children to get back in line and shut their mouths. The public school won’t disappear this year or next.
Experiment and see what happens. See if your children and yourself are happier. See if you enjoy more family time and the convenience unschooling provides. See if engagement and curiosity reemerge.
After all, you would probably let yourself try it had you been given the chance.
Thanks for reading and peace!
[i] There’s lots of books and resources out there, but some of my favorites include: John Taylor Gatto (Dumbing Us Down, Weapons of Mass Instruction, The Ultimate History Lesson, The Underground History of Compulsory Education), Brett Veinotte (The School Sucks Project), John Holt (Teach Your Own), Grace Llewellyn (The Teenage Liberation Handbook), Stefan Molyneux (FreeDomain Radio), Peter Gray (Free To Learn), Isaac Morehouse (Better Off Free, Praxis, Isaacmorehouse.com), Penelope Trunk Homeschooling, and many others.
[ii] Check out my “Complete Case for Home Education” which explores 54 arguments for home education vs. compulsory school – http://www.fivehundredyears.org