Why We Unschool

I guess this probably should have been my first post. How we got here.

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We didn’t join this parenting game with any defined way of how we were going to do it. We didn’t know any other unschoolers, and other than my sister in law, we didn’t really know any other parents. My baby was really the first baby I had held. I didn’t read any books. I didn’t know that people did that. All I knew was that our hearts were full of love and anticipation.

I didn’t hold my baby for the first time confident in my commitment to a certain style of parenting. And over the years that followed we tried a lot of different parenting shirts on trying to find the one that felt right.

The other day, as I was unpacking one of the final boxes, I found my eldest son’s baby book. I was pretty rubbish at it to be honest. Babes two and three don’t have a book and I only managed to keep up with the first few weeks of his. But something really struck me. On one of the first pages, there were three questions which I had answered. When does your baby eat? When he is hungry. When does your baby sleep? When he is tired. When does your baby cry? When I am not cuddling him while he is sleeping.

Our son slept in our bed because it made sense. He was close to us, he could feed when he wanted and we all got more sleep. I held him all the time because newborns are deliciously cuddley and it felt so right to have this little pouch of baby attached to me. I fed him when he cried because it seemed he needed comforting or feeding or needed to sleep and my breasts answered all of those questions without me trying to figure out which it was.

I would learn later, after we had forayed into trying to schedule naps and bedtimes that didn’t work for anyone, that this is attachment parenting. And we worked our way back there because it felt natural and right for our family.

Unschooling happened in much the same way for us.

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As my son approached school age, it was very clear to us that he was not ready for school. We hadn’t teased out the answers at that point, but our son is neurodiverse and required a lot of support from us when he was four. He also needed a lot of support in social situations. We didn’t know anyone who homeschooled their children and it just didn’t seem like an option. We didn’t even consider it. What we did instead was cross our fingers and send him on his way. It is something we deeply regret. In fact, reliving it right now feels very hard. My son stayed in school for eighteen months. Eighteen anxiety riddled, traumatic, soul destroying months for this little boy. The rhythm of school was a quiet pitter patter that scowled at his beating drum. He was chastised for taking his shoes off sending him the message that his discomfort was irrelevant. He was thrown into a swarming sea of five year olds at recess when his strung out mind needed space. He was told to sit still when his body wanted to move. He was told he couldn’t go to the bathroom that regularly, a safe haven for his anxiety. His class was asked to draw a picture of themselves on their first day. A wall of smiling stick figures was broken up by the entire page angrily coloured black by our son. He sent us a message from the first day. A message no one listened to.

But his fear, his lack of confidence, his label of ‘bad’ couldn’t be hidden. The disquiet grew in him and it began to grow in us. My intensely inquisitive boy, the one who held my hand and wanted to be close to me was being lost. School just didn’t make sense.

In the months preceding us taking him out of school, I started to look at homeschooling. It was going to be difficult as both my husband and I were working and our second son had started school by this point and was going along quite happily. I was scared of the judgment of those around us. We were talking about setting down a path untraveled in our circles. Then one day, my son said to me after a particularly difficult week ‘I am so sick of getting in trouble at school, I think it would be better for everyone if I never existed.’ He was six years old. He never set foot in the school again.

And so began a new path. We thought we would ‘homeschool’ our eldest while our others would go to school. The change in our son was almost immediate. He was so happy. I stepped back. I realise now that this was me starting to ‘deschool’. Every time I tried to do formal work there would be resistance and it was unhealthy for both of us. I was transplanting the problems from school to home.

So instead I began to journal. I started noting everything we did in a day, for me, not for anyone else. I was blown away by how much ‘learning’ was happening with no direction from me. Once we began socialising with people my son wanted to spend time with, his ‘social issues’ evaporated. More than that, he feels everything with so much intensity. At school he was like a caged bird. We have given him back the wild and he has soared.

As I watched him flourish, I started to look at his brother. His emotional outbursts after school at home. His reluctance to go to school some days, and I started to ask questions, I started to listen. I heard a lot of no. No, you cannot run in the classroom. No, you cannot move. No, you cannot play with toys that way. This wasn’t directed at my son. He is a very easy going, happy go lucky little kid. This was directed at one of his friends. A gorgeous boy with that spark or greatness. It was being stamped out.

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And, I saw my son’s interests being thrown in the ‘not good enough bin.’ He and his friends loved paper planes. They would spend a lot of time perfecting their designs, testing them against each other, seeing how far they flew in steps. Suddenly planes were banned from the classroom. Next up were pokemon cards. They would battle, adding power, subtracting damage. They would trade cards making intense comparisons. Pokemon cards were no longer allowed. And then they came for the…. You get the drift. School is a place for ‘real learning’. Well, we suddenly had the confidence to call bullshit. He was so happy to stay home and we haven’t looked back. Our daughter hasn’t started school and she won’t.

We often get the question ‘when are we going to send our kids back to school.’ We fall into the category of ‘radical unschoolers’. Our children are defining their journey of learning. If there is a time where one or all of our children feel like we are unable to meet their needs at home and they want to experiment with learning in other places including school, this is a path that will always be open to them. Just as the door will never be shut behind them if they decide it isn’t for them.

So that is where we are. It all happened quite organically, but it also feels so right. Whenever my confidence waivers, and it does, after all, it is hard to walk away from the well trodden path, I pull back out that journal and I start documenting. I only ever last a couple of days. It is enough for me to see that we are enough, that what we are doing is enough, and remind me of the amazing minds of these small people I spend my days with.

11 thoughts on “Why We Unschool

  1. Your unschooling experience is fascinating to me and inspires me to resist the standard educational with the kids I want to have some day. If you don’t mind a question, how do you and your husband afford to stay at home with the kids if you both have jobs?

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    • Sorry, I should have been more clear on that. When we took our eldest out of school, I resigned from my job. I did work contractually from time to time up until our recent move. It obviously involves sacrifice, but we are fortunate to be able to make it work on one income and at the time my husband was earning more than me so we chose his income. I do know a lot of unschooling families where both parents work, but usually one will work part time or have a flexible arrangement where they can work from home. This is true of a lot of schooling families as well. I loved the area I worked in and I am exploring how to fit this passion back into my life and our family life in our new location.

      I will say, that given the norm for the vast majority of children is to be in school from 9-3 five days a week, we are conditioned to feel like this is the only time that learning can happen. But there are seven days a week and many hours every day, and learning is happening all the time. My second son is six and a complete night owl. Often as we are heading to bed late in the evening, he decides that he wants to read me an entire chapter book after not touching a book during the day. His learning is happening on a schedule that works for him and our family, but it looks very different to a child who is in school with a fixed bedtime for example. Once you are open to this flexibility, you can see that even if you are committed to a job outside of the home during some of the more traditional schooling hours, this life is still possible.

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  2. Hi Courtney …may your elequently written journey be read by others who don’t yet have the courage to call .’bullshit’ out loud on behalf of their beautiful curious children who don’t thrive in a one fit for all schooling. I love your intuition guiding you for your family’s best outcomes. Congratulation on your tenacious spirit to offer your children heart felt experiences. The rest of learning becomes osmosis when the environment is right and their confidence to challenge themselves is developed. Brilliant parenting along the road less traveled. I wish you every joy in your role as mentor and mum. Susie Burns

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  3. Beautifully written article. So glad you heard your son. No child should ever think or feel that they shouldn’t exist. So heartbreaking.

    We ended up unschooling out of necessity. Living as expats we couldn’t get into the local school system and international schools were just excessive in cost. We started with the emulating school version which our daughter also resisted. Within a year and lots of reading I deschooled myself and we launched into our unschooling journey. Three years later we are very happy and have a wonderful and close family relationship. Her learning knows no bounds and a lot of it was self-driven with guidance from me where needed. Through her curiosity I learnt about Ancient Egypt, palaeontology and a variety of ocean animals. I always say I’m getting my second education but it is so much more valuable because this time I’m engaged and interested.

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    • Thank you Silvia. I am so happy you are enjoying the learning experience with your daughter. It is so, so beautiful to watch.

      I also have many friends with stories similar to yours. Reformed homeschoolers! I think once children are home and feel safe to speak their mind, they show us exactly how they want to learn.

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  4. I love this. I see so much of my own in this. . .but I have so many questions. . .what does the day to day look like?
    I personally struggle with keeping a schedule, I would imagine that may be important.
    What about the highschool years?
    College/University? How would they be prepared if that is something they want to do?
    Thank you for any information you could share

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    • Hi Nancy.

      We don’t keep a schedule except for around organised activities that we are a part of. To answer your question, I have kept a ‘diary’ of what we did today which I will post later tonight. I am going to try and do it regularly so that people who are interested can see how learning happens when it is self directed.

      This is able to be carried on right through high school, although I am not the best to answer what this looks like day to day as my children are not high school age. Judy Arnall writes a lot about this. https://unschoolingtouniversity.com/ I haven’t read this book yet, but I am sure it will answer a few of your questions.

      Thank you for following along!

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  5. Hi,
    Your experience with your son mirrors my own. We pulled our son 18 months into school life. He is also six. Best thing I ever did. He wasn’t fitting in with their agenda or expectations of where he should be. His few interests at school were also squelched. Finding rocks as treasures on the playground and showing them to the class was very frowned upon. Lol. Needless to say when he expressed his feelings and told me he didn’t want to go anymore, I really listened. I am so glad I did. For all our sakes. We are just in the midst of deschooling, it has only been just over a month since we made the switch but we are all much happier! Good for you for walking your own path!

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  6. We have had similar unschooling experience with our two kids. My dtr didn’t have as many “bad” experiences at school, but it was totally stamping out her creativity, and she hated going. The things she liked about school were the toys and the candy 🙄
    I often have times where I doubt myself, but once we figure out a way to reconnect, I am always reassured that this is the path we were meant to take.

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