What it IS

One of the topics I try to touch on when I write is the relationship between the structure of work and the significantly less rigid (hopefully) world of unschooling at home. When we first started unschooling, I was pretty focused on making the “transition” between what I had to do and be during the day, and what I wanted to be on evenings and weekends. Over the years, I have gradually (and sometimes seismically) shifted that outlook until I’ve reached where I am today. Now, I continually look for ways to make my work day more unschool-ish, when possible. It doesn’t always work, obviously; we just completed a huge acquisition of another company that has led to a ton of work for me - planning meetings, hitting deadlines, analyzing data, making plans, etc. But things have cooled off a wee bit, so lately I’ve been a bit more open about sharing my “real life” with people at work.

Of course, that has lead to the “land of a thousand questions”; for many people, the difference between the SASS (Sad American School System) and unschooling is so foreign and inaccessible that they have a difficult time getting it. While this is frustrating for some unschoolers, I don’t mind it at all. I clearly remember taking three steps forward and then two steps back throughout our unschooling journey, and of course I still occasionally falter as I try to reconcile my own paradigms of the Modern Success Story with the innate and complete trust that I have in unschooling. So as the folks at work have expressed an interest in learning more, I have tried to be patient and understanding of their journey, as well as open to a continual rethinking of my own viewpoints and ideas about what it is we’re doing here.

A recurring theme of late in these discussions is a pretty simple question: “Why did you decide to unschool?”
My usual response to this query is something like “Why do you think we decided to do it?”, which, while frustrating, makes the other person think quite a bit. Their answers usually come in one of these forms:

Because you did not like the quality of education in public schools.
Because public schools are unsafe.
Because public schools are underfunded.
Because public schools cater to the lowest common denominator.
Because you could not afford private schools.
Because your wife doesn’t have to work, and you must be rich.
Because you like/need to be different, to rebel a little bit

While all of these are true to a degree (not the rich part!), they are not the reasons we unschool; not in the least. But more on that in a minute.

After we get through that part of the conversation, their questions then inevitably focus on the differences between the SASS and unschooling, many of which I have blogged about before:

In school, they socialize with other children. Aren’t you worried about socialization?
People need to learn math and science.
How can they learn discipline if they aren’t in a structured setting?
What do you mean they don’t have to earn their allowance? How will they learn that you have to work for money?
If they don’t do chores, they won’t learn to be responsible.
Kids are not capable of making intelligent choices about TV and food; what if they sit around eating candy and watching South Park all day?
No bedtimes? What the hell is the matter with you?

Hey, let’s be frank – we’ve all heard these questions before, in one form or another. We could easily get agitated, angry, defensive, quiet, or something else, and if that works for you then go for it. But lately I’ve taken a very different tack that I wanted to share with you. I take off my glasses, look them in the eye, smile, and say:

“It seems to me like you are focusing on everything that you believe unschooling is not; I prefer to focus on what it actually is, which can put some of your questions in better perspective. Would you like to hear about what it is?”

If the answer is yes, then we’re off to the races. No one has said “no” yet.

The lesson here is, to me, quite obvious. When we focus on what something is not, we restrict our thinking to view things as opposites – good or bad, happy or sad, effective or ineffective. That has its place (especially at work, most days) but it doesn’t focus on solutions or understandings. As such, it forces us to take sides and we become interested in ensuring that our views are heard and understood, without giving equal weight to the validity of a different viewpoint, eventually reducing our ability to evaluate that viewpoint to see if it might work for us. However, when we focus on what something is, we affirm it: we recognize that it exists and that it works for some people, and we are then able to evaluate whether or not the good parts of it will work in our own lives.

In our family, I believe that we unschool because of what unschooling is, not because of what any other educational choice is not. Unschooling is amazing, freeing, flexible, provocative, enabling, interactive, solitary, expansive, focused, connective, learning, being, living, touching, easy, hard, scary, peaceful, loud, messy, and neat. As I continue to answer questions about this amazing life we have chosen, I will continue to focus on what unschooling is, and let what it is not be someone else’s worry.


  1. so true, so true! thanks for putting it out there. i am working on myself big time with the focus on what it is. and the 3 steps forward to 2 steps back, we are there. luckily 1 little person will have NONE of it, they are such gifts ;)

  2. Ha! I had never seen "SASS." I've just recently gone and named a symposium SUSS (Sandra's Unschooling Symposium in Santa Fe). I figured the idea of sussing something out was right up the unschooling alley! I'm excited that we should have Cyrus Sorooshian, Carl Fetteroll and Keith Dodd facilitating a dads' session, without competition. If you have the urge to see Santa Fe in the winter, this could be a good thing.


  3. I.Love.You. ♥
    I like to separate the reasons I homeschool and the reasons I unschool :)
    SASS may be why they're home in the first place; Unschooling is why we love it!