A big part of my income comes from public speaking, and it’s speaking season. So I took my six-year-old on the road. With his cello and his skateboard. Last week we were in Illinois, Florida, and California. People often say they can’t homeschool because they have to work. Here’s a snapshot of what it looks like as a homeschooling family if you take one kid to work. On a plane. And leave the other at home with an adult who has a full-time job but works from home.

I woke up, went to the hotel gym while my son slept. Then I gave a speech at the Natural Products Expo while my son ate from an absurdly lavish breakfast buffet and watched Disney channel videos from iTunes. Afterward I took him to the floor of the trade show so he could see what it’s like. He ate tons of free samples. 

Then we came back to the room and he practiced cello. Then I gave him the choice of Disneyland or skateboarding. He picked skateboarding. He did that for seven hours at the Vans skatepark. I forced him to stop for lunch (Johnny Rockets). We came home and he watched an hour of Disney Channel, had dinner (room service) and practiced cello.

I drank expensive wine from room service and told myself I can’t do this next year. I have to change how I make a living.

My other son is home with my husband on our farm. My son wakes up and does chores. He feeds cats (we have ten). He feeds his goats (he has his own herd) and then he plays his DSi until breakfast.

My husband makes breakfast for them. They practice violin. My son does an hour of reading. He reads graphic novels almost exclusively. I can’t decide if this is okay. For now, since I’m out of town, I decide it’s okay.

The rest of the day he chooses what he does.

Today he chose LEGO. He’s building the Robie House right now.

My husband and son eat lunch together.

Then my husband works on the farm while my son makes videos for his YouTube channel. (He plays the Wii through the computer and narrates and uploads it to YouTube.)

Late in the afternoon my son went to an Alpaca farm with my husband. My son wants to use money he earned from showing pigs to buy an Alpaca. They go home and do the math to figure out if my son can afford the purchase.

They eat dinner, practice violin, read and go to bed.

I want to say this is not a typical day for us. But I can’t actually figure out what a typical day for us is. I imagined homeschooling would be me and my kids curled up on the sofa reading.

It reminds me of how I thought having kids would be sitting in a rocking chair holding a warm cuddly baby.

23 replies
  1. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    Right before I got the e-mail for this post (I subscribe) I got a post from fellow unschooler/blogger Leo Barbauta at zenhabits.net, titled “The Unpredictable Freedom and Sweetness of Chaos” and I thought of you, Penelope.

    Leo makes the case that we put so much stock in plans and productivity, todo lists and agendas and indicators, that we end up missing out on many of the opportunities that come our way.

    Your six year-old now knows what it is like to travel by airplane, attend a trade show, stay in a hotel, make an agenda in a new town–among other things! From the sounds of things, he had quite an adventure.

    And the chores your other son busied himself with are the work of doing something real, taking care of a business.

    I believe you’re still in your first year of homeschooling, and arguably the first few months of unschooling. Please every now and then, consider that fact and compare it to how many years of experience you have doing everything else you do.

    Years from now, when you look back on this year, you will find much to criticize, but the moments you relaxed a little, let go of judging, and enjoyed the time with your kids will be treasures of memory nothing can ever take from you.

  2. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I woke up around 4 AM, worrying.

    Am I letting my kids dissolve into bad habits by not limiting their screen time? (I loosened up A LOT after the Peter Gray article).

    Am I hampering their self-discipline by chucking the vocab workbook and signing us up to write postcards to people around the globe? Are they too media-dependent, looking up words on Free Dictionary Online rather than perusing a paper dictionary?

    See, I read this comes article in Family Fun magazine (March ’12) about having “no screens” during the week. Weekends were a free-for-all. The kids splurged at first, but then they only indulged Saturday mornings (apparently they don’t stream Netflix, where options are vast). They regulated themselves.

    My kids don’t seem to get enough so easily.

    I’m not unschooling entirely. I require us to do math, typing practice, an online Grammar thingie (Grammar 101 — takes just minutes), looking up words encountered in our current read-aloud chapter book, and they are listening to me read a YA version of The Odyssey.

    I fret about how often they default into playing DS or watching other people playing DS (look for another subscriber to crunchcrackers — I don’t get why, but my kids love that stuff).

    Every couple weeks, I do Thai bodywork in my living room. The computer and TV are in there. They can’t get online or on Netflix for a couple hours. This week, my daughter chose to make her stuffed animals a car (tissue box, chopsticks, wooden wheels, lots of electrical tape) while I needed quiet and occupation of the media room.

    I wish they’d do that stuff more often. It’s so cool.

    Then I read your blog and feel this space open up around my anxiety.

    • penelopetrunk
      penelopetrunk says:

      My mind works very similar to yours – I have ideas for what they should be doing, and I force it, and then I question if I should force anything, and then I question if I’m not forcing enough. I tell myself that if the kids were in school i’d have just as many worries about this stuff but less control over it because they’d be gone for so long.

      Anyway, I want to tell you that unlimited video games has been absolutely elucidating to me. I have noticed that my kids take their DS’s everywhere. In between anything — even going to the bathroom and waiting for lunch — they turn on their DS.

      But I realize now that it’s just to squelch boredom. If they have a wide span of time, they are likely to find something else to do besides the DS. And I think, well, that’s reasonable, because I hate being bored, too, and I probably reach for food as often as they reach for their DS. And I might be better off with a DS, too.


    • Mark K
      Mark K says:

      Jennifer, and Penelope, I see this struggle a lot in parents who are unschooling young kids. Maybe it’s universal.

      Unschooling is more than the negation of a wrong–more than the usual definition we all start with as simply “not schooling.”

      It is doing something right: creating a better alternative educational process. And you’re still figuring out exactly how–which is natural.

      There are things I have come to believe as an unschooling parent that I must do right to fulfill my responsibilities, and to achieve the goals that motivated me to unschool in the first place. This has helped me be confident in myself as an unschooler. Here are five suggestions:

      1. Support the natural learning process. Give your child room to discover the threads of interest and follow them to their passions. Create an environment of trust by being honest about the demands of life, as well as the joys. Treat your child as a human being, worthy of respect and dignity. Give them freedom to discover the world and understand themselves–in their own way.

      2. Be mindful of your child’s development, and be ready to offer guidance. Make yourself available as a resource your child can draw upon as needed for help measuring progress, setting goals, making realistic plans, managing themselves, and dealing with others. These are life-lessons that you’re uniquely qualified and positioned to help with.

      3. Provide materials and opportunities: Books, recordings, equipment, opportunities to see more of the world and meet people with shared interests from whom they can learn. Don’t just answer requests; offer! If it’s not immediately apparent to them why you’re offering, don’t be afraid to sell it a little. Your child’s job is to churn through what you give them along with what they find on their own. Your job is to make sure they always have new things to churn through.

      4. Be involved. Children crave parental recognition, encouragement, and approval. This does not mean spending every moment with the kids or smothering them. It means taking an interest in what they are learning because they are learning it. It also means sharing your interests with them. If you try, but cannot bring yourself to endure a subject your kids have passion for, you have a responsibility to find someone who can–or hire someone who will.

      5. Finally, don’t be an un-parent. As much as children need an education, they need parents more. This means cultivating a relationship where they return the trust you give them. As unschooled children, they enjoy immense freedom, but not unlimited. If you say that great literature is great, and it’s worth the learning curve, they should have long experience that you tend to be right about these things. If you say a certain amount of math will be needed in life, they will trust you as an authority on what life is all about, because of your obviously greater experience. Sometimes you have to work through the difficult part of learning to get to the more rewarding part. That is an important thing to learn. The best time for your child to discover he needed to know how to swim is not the first time he finds himself in way over his head.

      Unschooling is natural, but it properly has a certain rigor, like farming or birthing or breastfeeding. It takes time to build the skills and then to build your confidence in them, Give yourself that time.

      As far as I can tell the two of you are both on the right track!

      • Amy
        Amy says:

        This was very encouraging to me, Mark. I struggle with this issue as well. I’m new to homeschooling and unschooling and I’m definitely still finding my way. Fighting off the doubts has been the hardest part for me. My confidence is growing slowly.

  3. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This photo makes me wonder why your son is looking over the label and what he’s learning from it. Is it the graphics and their placement on the label, the ingredients, or both? Surely he doesn’t need to inspect it to determine the flavor. Maybe he’s learning some marketing techniques.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      In the beginning of this blog someone told P that red dye made matters worse with kids behavioral problems, if there were any. Since then I think they read labels. Well, maybe before that but I think P dind’t know that.

      I love this because it makes the kid responsible for what they put in his body.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        Good call. I forgot about the dye included with some drinks. I think the best option is plain water. However, many places don’t offer that drink as an option. Then, not too long ago, I read where bottled water may not be as good for kids as water from the tap because it may not contain fluoride. So I just went to the Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control and Prevention web site and read this note – “Bottled water may not have a sufficient amount of fluoride, which is important for preventing tooth decay and promoting oral health.” And, yes, I know the introduction of fluorides in the public water supply is controversial …

  4. Julianna
    Julianna says:

    I’ve been so suprised by all these game worries. I’ve been surprised so many home/unschoolers even HAVE DS in their homes. I’m so anti-games for kids who are small (under 10). Or TV for that matter. I don’t know why but I thought there would be more unschoolers who were purposely keeping their homes screen-free.

  5. Snakeman99
    Snakeman99 says:

    Let me put one concern to rest: graphic novels are most definitely ok. My childhood comic book habit gave way to a lifelong love of reading. The actual evolution went like this: super-heroes-> Asimov-> Heinlin -> Chandler-> Greene-> Hemingway-> Shakespeare . . . You get the idea. And ther are a million mes out the with similar stories.

    I know. I see them at Comic-Con every year.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      wow never thought of this!

      I have a hard time reading in English unless I’ve seen the movie first because I cannot picture the scenes really well. Watching the movie first helps me a bit to not get hanged up on imagining the scene but following the plot.

      I am talking about crazy fiction. Like Harry Potter and such. I would’ve have the hardest time getting through it without the movies first.

      Maybe comic con would be the trip of a lifetime for these kids!

  6. karelys
    karelys says:

    I saw the movie Real Steel just recently. I thought it was going to be a lot like Gamer (with Gerard Butler).

    I was dissapointed when I realized it was going to be a lot less science and a lot more feel good. But the husband was into it even though he refused at first.

    The whole movie reminded me of the posibilities when you homeschool a kid. The movie was suppose to take place during the summer, when there is no school. But I just couldn’t stop thinking about why we have to relegate that opportunity to summer? Why not everyday.

    In the movie (which is in the future) the kid fixes robots. I don’t know how he learned that but he’s 11. He probably doesn’t know much about everything and random facts, but his passions are boxing robots and he knows everything about it. Then he makes money off of it. Lots. BUt most importantly his life is meaningful because he makes it happen.

    It’s a movie. Yes.

    The most fictional part, though, is the fact that the kid goes everywhere with the dad and that he has the freedom to do something with his passion.

    But apparently homeschooled kids do that so….so much for fiction movies huh?

  7. Renae
    Renae says:

    I am a voracious reader, and my first reading memories involve The National Enquirer and Elizabeth Taylor’s love life. I was seven. I’m pretty sure graphic novels are fine,as long as you can also offer other interesting reading opportunities around his areas of interest.

  8. JML
    JML says:

    I’m a huge reader with a Master’s degree in literature. Two of my favourite books are Art Spiegelman’s Maus I & II. Graphic novels are definitely ok!

  9. patricia
    patricia says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I found you via the Innovative Educator. Woo hoo on deciding to homeschool!

    I’ve been at this homeschooling thing for a long time. My oldest is now a college sophomore. I have two boys as well, but mine are almost ten years apart (with a daughter in between.) My oldest really had to train me about the importance of things like video games and graphic novels in the lives of boys. I worried and gave ground slowly and gradually let him educate me.

    Ten years later, I really get it. If kids have something they’re passionate about, even if it’s superheroes or video game characters, go with it! It’s amazing how much learning can come from those passions, as I’m sure you’ve discovered. The video game narrating that your boys do is probably fantastic at helping them develop voices as writers, for example. I’m so fascinated with the high-level learning that comes from “low-brow” subject matter that it’s almost become a joke on my blog. It’s practically all I write about.

    Just today I contacted a visualization designer that I found via Brainpicker on Twitter. He did an amazing visualization based on The Iliad, so I shared a chart my 10-year-old made last year when he became obsessed with The Iliad (which he got into after playing Age of Mythology), and also a chart he made based on the Avengers. My kid’s stuff is really a simplified version of what this designer does. Of course the kid and the designer both admired the work of the other.

    Just one example of how my own boy’s love of video games and superheroes might be preparing him for a career of the future…

    Glad to hear your days aren’t typical. That’s what makes homeschooling fun!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for your comment, Patricia. Your enthusiasm for following the kid’s lead is really good for me to hear. It’s so hard for me to keep doing it. I have doubts every day.

      Every day I have this thought: Maybe we should do math workbooks today.

      Comments like yours give me confidence to keep going with graphic novels and video games. Thanks.


  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I watched a little bit of your son’s latest YouTube video. I’m not into video games but I did have this thought while watching which I’ll share here. You write blog posts and then review those posts at various times in the future. I wonder if your son will do the same thing with his videos. I think maybe he will.


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