what are the long term ramifications of unschooling for our kids? an editorial discussion between HEM’s editor and publisher


   images-9Barb: I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life wondering whether unschooling my kids would really make a difference in how they feel about themselves, their connection to others and society, their understanding of the human condition and what makes the world go ’round. My kids are now all grown up and I am still wondering, observing, and thinking about this.

I hold a fundamental belief that life should be simple, and yet dissecting such a question is complex indeed. It’s a beautiful truth that their childhoods, our family life, was rich, fun, exciting and spontaneous with many, many steep, fast-paced learning curves. We lived a magical existence and, for the most part, felt on top of the world: my children were empowered with the knowledge that not only were they never expected to do anything they did not want to do, but that their parents would support their wide and varied forms of emotional, psychological, spiritual, artistic and academic expression. We trusted each of our children’s natural learning processes, engaged in lots of discussion, listened to each other, applied consensual decision-making.

Despite all the freedom and fun in childhood, all three of my grown children, once adults, have experienced an uncomfortable sort of wake-up call in the “real world” as they moved from home and become fully sustainable on their own. Their levels of discomfort have at times been nearly overwhelming as almost everyone they met was, in their words, in need of therapy: real-world people lacked inner motivation, holding jobs or attending college because others expected them to; they’re in abusive relationships they can’t break out of; they are bent on all the ways our world is not working; they’re just plain unhappy or relieving stress with addictive or self destructive behaviors; they don’t know how to be honest. Even though my kids were always an active part of the real, outside world, they engaged in it on their own terms, in much more limited doses, and they always had the protection and support of home. One of the bottom lines for my grown kids is they feel different from everyone else, at least those who spent their formative years in traditional homes, schools and churches. Let’s face it––that’s almost everyone.


Mark:  For me the simplest, and most complete answer is yes, the benefits of unschooling are real. But since life is anything but simple, nor the future yet complete I can only offer snapshots of lives that have grown more full because of an unschooling approach.

There are stories of kids with nearly unlimited free time and a home-built submarine, late readers, made-up games, catapults, bouncing trees, squabbles, fights and nurturing each other. There are stories of endless days of epic Lego and Playmobile adventures.

While those kids were still young teens they recognized they were different. They knew that other kids their age were trained better academically but weren’t able to use that training in real life situations.

Those now-grown kids know they grew up differently, have created their own lives, and by-in-large have created their own livelihoods.


Barb: It’s so right and natural for grown children, no matter what their backgrounds, to want to step back, look at their childhoods, their parents, themselves. It’s common for grown unschoolers to see themselves as “odd ducks” because, well, they are. They ask themselves, how did I wind up with parents who questioned everything? With parents who chose to keep me out of school when every other parent out there finds nothing wrong with the confining classroom? Should I have been forced to do or learn things? How would I be different if I had been raised just like everyone else?

In our culture, the maturation process, just like the formative growth years, is largely conditioned. In most homes, children are expected, at age 18 or thereabouts, to either attend college, get a full time job, join the military, live alone or away from home. The momentum that takes over at this stage is much like the momentum of traditional parenting: go to school, do your homework, watch some TV, go to bed, go to Sunday school, get summers off to go to camp or swim or play. Life proceeds on a very scheduled and predictable timeline for most humans, which is radically different from life for most unschoolers.


Mark: We are social creatures. It is normal and natural to want to fit in. Why school has been assigned such a significant role in that effort is misguided and just floors me. Something different is going on entirely.

But to your point about kids questioning their parents on their choices about schooling, we were, I suppose, lucky in that our oldest succumbed to pressure from family members to not be that odd duck and tried school for what ended up to be about six weeks. His comments coming out of that experience were along the lines of, ‘they tell you what they want you to know, they tell you what’s going to be on the test, they go over it in class and still kids have trouble passing a test.’ He just didn’t get the point.

And, as I said, I don’t either. Kids are normal humans who do want to fit in. But we have the whole picture framed incorrectly when we even talk about schools and raising kids, or the term you are using here, the maturation process, in any equivalent manner. But they are integrally intertwined in our society.


Barb: Yes, it really is all about this thing we call fitting in. I wonder: does anyone, anywhere, feel like they fit in? Ever? All the time? Isn’t the drive to adapt to fads in clothing, style, expression, for example, all just attempts to fit in?

Of course. What I have seen in my grown children is a very healthy skepticism about not only fad behaviors but with regard to advice and information in general. I see them very capable of questioning everything, giving deep thought to what troubles them, making careful decisions for themselves, regardless of who agrees with them. Because my kids have grown up with the responsibility of thinking for themselves, they are so accustomed to it that they don’t realize that many others have no or little skill at this––in fact, thinking for oneself has been thoroughly and successfully conditioned out of them: from being told when to sleep and eat; to what to study and when; to behaving obediently and not questioning their parent or elder; to what to believe spiritually and morally. The list is long and comprehensive. If one of the unhappy side effects of this outcome, this approach to parenting, is having your child feel like an odd duck, then I’d have to conclude that the alternative is much worse: having a child who is always wanting to be someone, in some way, other than themselves, whether it be in dress, thought, behavior, food choices, or huge things like the choice of a life partner, career or spiritual beliefs.


Mark: What I see in my kids is an understanding of what matters about how they grew up, and why it was critically different. My kids went through a period when that group think handicap of other kids (and most of us grew up with) was referred to as “they’re just school kids.” As their identities grew and they became more independent, the feeling of being an odd duck became a non-issue.

Stepping back a bit, our kids have only known a society that has been pushed by an ‘us vs. them’ drumbeat. The institution of schooling pushes for uniformity and conformity (us), political forces have taken, and are taking today, absolute ideological positions (us) and those who do not conform (them) or support policies not sanctioned by the ideology (them) are made to pay a price. So, I come around to an ‘us vs. them’ drumbeat which feeds the desire to fit in and the worry that we maybe the odd duck.

As unschoolers and homeschoolers we have a chance to affect this ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy. One thing we need to do is honestly address your question “Does anyone, anywhere, feel like they fit in? Ever? All the time?” The quick answer is no. But I would add, in our own creation of our perfect world, why would we want to?

Unschooling gives us the freedom to celebrate our differences, supporting our kids to be responsible for their own choices, achieve confidence as they find their own ways in who they are and are becoming. This powerful process of self ownership almost guarantees they are not going to be threatened by the differences in others.

What do you all think?


Barb Lundgren, editor

Mark Hegener, publisher

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8 Responses to what are the long term ramifications of unschooling for our kids? an editorial discussion between HEM’s editor and publisher

  1. Archana on February 12, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Yes, I have been pondering everytime someone pounds on ideologies (it used to be me not so long ago). They are our current bases for raising ‘successful, well-adjusted, functioning’ young citizens. We are not born to breed any ideology. But we end up choosing one that appeals to us so we can fit in and in the process abandon our natural growth process. And then as full grown adults with young of our own, we wonder why after all the attempts to fit in and doing everything ‘right’, we are still unfulfilled.

    • Barb on February 12, 2013 at 2:40 pm

      Nice summary of what happens, indeed. Being unschoolers doesn’t necessarily make us immune to this, does it?

  2. Megan on February 20, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Barb, your first part struck me the most…we spend all this time raising our kids the best we can, and then send them out into the world where most people are drones of the system. But what else can you do? I can’t raise them wrong on purpose, knowing what I know now…seeing what I see now! When I started reading what you wrote I thought you were going to talk about the negative ramifications of being raised as an unschooler…then when I got through it I saw that the only negative was that these kids could see clearly that their way is better. So if clarity is the result…I’m still sold on it. I would rather my kids know the difference between an authentic life and one sold to them by our modern society. From there it’s theirs to choose what they want.

  3. laura on February 25, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    What I really want to know is how you have been able to have the freedom to unschool. It seems the State thinks the children belong to them and try to dictate such things as education and health. How did you escape?

    • Barb on February 25, 2013 at 12:53 pm

      Easy! It’s legal in all 50 states and in many countries around the world. Knowing your rights is critical.

  4. Tara on April 16, 2013 at 8:32 am

    How can an adult, now raising young people, having been raised in the institution of the states ideology, have the clarity or even differentiation skills to recognize what is the right path for their family, when they themselves (obviously me here,) still cannot quite break free from group think? I often feel horribly bad for the 4 beautiful balls of light (my kids) I’ve been gifted because they are stuck with me, and I still don’t know who “me” wants to be, so how will I ever be able to catch that fish of happiness while trying to teach my kids to fish and still trying to teach myself? We homeschool right now, well I’m more producing a school environment at home, but we are all miserable. Debating if jumping off the cliff into in UNschooling will be a gift or detriment to their education. What if they can’t go to high school or college because they haven’t been interested in learning algebra? Then flip side, “maybe that’s a good thing?” But maybe it’s not. Sometimes…often, I just wonder why I can’t be one of those moms whose happy to send the kids off on the big yellow bus every morning and be content with 4 honor roll kids..not that we ever did that well in traditional school, quite the opposite. Just frustrated we don’t seem to succeed at any attempt. Wondering if its time to shift my ideology…and so frustrated I’m finding clarity and confidence, if that makes any sense…
    -from, fishing in deep waters

    • Barb on April 17, 2013 at 7:10 am

      You describe the situation 99.9% of parents find themselves in as they consciously raise their precious children, the next generation. Your battle with the conditioned messages that keep cropping up in your mind are holding you back. I have come to believe that our children come into our lives to teach us how to live. Try an experiment for two weeks: let go of all the things you think are or should be true about your kids and what a good mother is supposed to do… and sit back and observe and listen to your kids: for two weeks, create an environment that nurtures their freedom of expression in all ways. Allow them to choose when and what they want to eat, when and how long to sleep, what activities they wish to spend their time on, who they want to spend time with. Engage with them when they want you to, help them resource when they ask for help, step in when they come to you in a quandary. Trust their intelligent natural ability to know what feels right to them, trust that they are learning what they need to know about the world on their own unique timetables. Let us know in two weeks what the results are, will you?

  5. nicole on August 25, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Unschooling is such a fascinating concept to me. I grew up in Germany which has a strict school system but educates students on a much more detailed and global level than in the US, though homeschooling is illegal there. To top that, my mom is a teacher there and always had high expectation for me growing up when it came to grades and studying habits. Having four kids of my own now and living in the US, I can certainly compare and draw conclusions from what I personally like and don’t like about both systems. Our oldest son is 11 now and we knew from the very beginning that public school was less than ideal for him but so far we didn’t have much of a choice to do anything differently. Each school year we grew more and more concerned with the lack of true education that our kids were receiving. So this year, with our oldest being in 6th grade, our second son in 3rd grade and our third son is pre-k, we decided to so to speak test the waters. After a lot of research, endless debates and knowing that the traditional public school was not serving our kids needs, we decided to try virtual public school. I know it’s not true homeschooling yet and still the opposite of unschooling but I honestly was overwhelmed by the idea of teaching four children of different ages without some sort of guideline (or even being able to give enough attention to guide their unique interests). It’s been a week so far and while the same problems of continuous and standardized testing still remain using virtual public school, we can already see a difference in not only our kids but our own perspective on their talents and interests. More importantly though, we can see how naive we were about the value of public school education. It was a shock to us that despite being straight A students and being able to hold good conversations even with adults, our 11year old is unable to write a good paragraph or know how to use a dictionary or atlas or think for himself in reagrd to learning. That revelation alone in just one week made it clear that we as the parents have to write our own definition of what true basic educational needs are to raise a happy, productive and well-adjusted adult. I don’t know where we’ll go from here or how long we can go along with even virtual public school and when we’ll make the true jump to homeschooling. All I know is that we feel our family’s needs have yet to be met to our expectations and we have to find our own way. In the mean time, I have to figure out how to accommodate four children ages 11, 8, 4, and 2 especially given the fact that our 11 and 8 year old were publically trained not to think for themselves anymore and also given the fact that the 2 year old has his own medical challenges which require most of my attention. I want to do what’s best for all of them and I know keeping them out of traditional public school is a big step in the right direction but it all seems very overwhelming at times.