How I put homeschooling on reality TV

This past week we had a film crew at the house getting footage for a reality TV show about our family. I’m excited. At first I was scared that the TV show would be bad for the kids. And the night before the crew got here, I went food shopping, (because I thought I definitley don’t want to drag a film crew through my tiny town supermarket—the people who live near me already think I’m nuts) and the cover article on one of the tabloids was that the Bachelorette is sacrificing her kid’s sanity for her own fame.

I worried that would be me. But having a film crew at our home was a great learning time for the kids. The crew was from Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto, and the kids relished their position as farm tour guides for city people. (Here’s my son showing the camera guy his show pigs.)

Each episode will have shots of us talking to the camera. Which meant that each of us had to do an interview. I was not there for the kids being interviewed. I question whether or not this is good parenting. We can debate that, I guess. But we cannot debate that the kids felt very important being asked a wide range of questions with a hoard of adults hanging on their every word.

When it came time for my interview, I sat in a chair for about an hour, answering a huge range of questions very patiently. When they asked me about homeschooling. They said, “Why don’t you explain why you homeschool?”

I said, “Why doesn’t everyone else explain why they don’t homeschool? Everyone knows public schools suck. Everyone knows that kids learn best when the curriculum is tailored to their interests. Parents just conveniently ignore this because they are scared to stay home with their kids all day.”

It felt good going on a homeschool tirade. A tirade always makes me feel good, actually, which is probably why I’m a good blogger.

Summer on a farm is made for reality TV. There are new chicks, new pigs, there’s the county fair, there’s the huge vegetable garden and harvesting the corn is like a nation-wide party because it all happens at the same time. But I worry about what we’ll do in the winter. Being snowed in does not make for great TV. Now I think, though, that winter episodes will show, finally, how easy it is to homeschool. It will show us, sitting around the house, doing what we like doing, whatever that might be. It will show us walking the narrow line between neglect and guidance.

Homeschooling is the delicate balance between neglect and guidance which is a much easier place to live than the much more complicated line to navigate between doing what the family needs and doing what the school needs. Traditional school requires me overseeing their schedule, a teacher’s needs and our own needs, making sure the classroom needs balance with my son’s needs, and participating in lots of stuff that doesn’t feel right—even school reading night felt stupid since we missed our family nighttime reading to attend.

I am convinced that most educated parents know that homeschooling would be a better way to educate their kids. But most parents are scared it would be too hard. I hope our reality TV show will be a way to let people know that homeschooling is not as difficult as it seems.

That said, I still second-guess myself all the time. But the reality show ramp-up time is months and months and months. So hopefully by the time the show actually gets on air a lot of my doubts will be gone.

51 replies
  1. karelys
    karelys says:

    The thing that makes me nervous (and I am not even in the show) is that the editors cut and paste and rearrange things to make you sound crazy or nice or mean or whatever they think will get people’s attention while trying to get their message out there. Which I don’t know what message they want to communicate.

    Anyway, I hope it works out for the best :)

  2. another Lisa
    another Lisa says:

    I am a little confused you have explained through numerous posts why you home school. Do they not read your blog or not agree with your reasons?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      In the world of reality TV nothing exists unless it’s on tape. So my reasons for homeschooling have to be on tape; I answered tons of questions that they crew already knew the answer to.


  3. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    When I am asked about homeschooling, I go all cerebral and apologetic, justifying of our choice, ticking off all the things we do to make it okay. It’s so friggin’ annoying to listen to myself stumble over some else’s doubts about OUR lives.

    I need a Penelope infusion. I need to rebound my dignity and put the question right back, the way you did.

    • Amy
      Amy says:

      I agree – I need an infusion also! Sending the question right back to people and asking “why don’t you homeschool?,” would completely change the situation. I think I would be comfortable with that. We don’t need to be defensive about our choices. We do need to be confident. :)

  4. Susan
    Susan says:

    I was a video editor for 10+ years on commercials and promos. Sure, she could be made to sound nuts. But unless she’s on Fox or whatever network this is sold to decides to make it a controversial reality show, it’s more likely they’ll create an interesting story. Rather than one that sounds crazy.

    Like on Little People, Big World. They’re not exactly twisting their words to sound crazy.

    Just because reality shows like fish out of water subjects doesn’t mean they’ll bend the truth to the breaking point. They’ll bend it, yes, but I doubt they’ll turn this into The Real World.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is such a smart comment! It’s exactly the advice I got from other reality TV people. That it’s all about what network picks up the show. Thank you for confirming what I thought – that I can figure out pretty much what the show will be like before it runs.


  5. Christina
    Christina says:

    I’m very, very interested in watching your show. Do you know when you can let us know when the show will air and where we can watch it? It will be refreshing to watch a show where learning outside school will be show as simply following your interests rather than doing school-at-home.

  6. Amy Scott
    Amy Scott says:


    I just love both of your blogs. I love ideas, and you are an idea machine. As a female ENTJ, I enjoy watching you because it helps me perceive how other people might see me. I have the truth-telling gene, but with the difference of having a HUGE social perception bent.

    As a lifelong homeschooler of six children and homeschooled graduate, here are my reasons for putting my children in a private school next year:

    1. My oldest is entering high school and I’m planning on them all getting PAID to go to college. My kids are motivated by competition by their peers, and we weren’t able to create that competition in a homeschool.

    So far, online/virtual classes have not filled that gap. My experience with them over the last four years is pretty varied. None would qualify as fantastic. But that’s a long discussion for another day.

    2. I have a high IQ but lacked higher math and sciences because I was un-homeschooled. This translated into a sucky ACT score. I had to BUST MY BUTT in college to pay for tuition, and while I’m not against kids working hard, you can’t pay for higher education anymore with a job cleaning houses. You’ve gotta have a free ride and ACT score = free ride.

    3. The best jobs of the future are going to be in healthcare. This requires hoop-jumping known as college and graduate school.

    4. I am not willing to smoke crack to get rid of the stress of homeschooling. I was destroying the great relationship I have with my oldest kids because I nagged all day long. My experience with unschooling is that no kid will ever sit down with an algebra book and work problems for fun. (My #5 kid is a genius, so maybe it’ll happen with him….)

    5. Let’s say my kids want to skip college and work a trade. Fine. But I want them to have that CHOICE to do it and not because that was their only option. I have one kid that might be a start-up personality, but the rest are not.

    6. My husband owns a consulting firm. He programs control systems for the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets. So even if my kids decide to skip college and jump on the family business, they still need logic, higher math, and advanced science skills. I can’t teach them this because I was homeschooled (DOH!!!) during the period in my life that I had time to devote to learning all of this, and my husband can’t teach them because he is flying around the country working so that half of America can leech off of our income.

    I still think homeschooling is best in most cases with parents who are resourceful. In small families, I think it’s manageable. But there are many reasons why homeschooling isn’t best for all families — poverty, abuse, addictions, and pathetic parents to name a few.

    Who knows? Maybe I’ll hate our school experience next year. But this is my thought process, for what it’s worth.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I really like these reasons. I think about this a lot: how will I get my kids a free ride in college.

      Sometimes, when I’m feeling confident, I think I have the combined farm and Latino card and that’ll be enough. And I have this fantasy that my kids will spend a year doing nothing but studying for the SAT so they can get a high score.

      Other times I think my kids will get older and I’ll be thinking just like you are thinking. It does seem possible to me that you verbalized where I’ll be in five years….


      • Claudia
        Claudia says:

        I’m not sure how pertinent this example is, but how did I get into and succeed in a graduate program where I would have to a) do well on the GRE to get in, and b) do Calculus, statistics and game theory once I was there, as an English major whose skill with math extended only to charting the meter of sonnets? I had never taken trigonometry or pre-Calc in high school, and took zero math in undergrad unless you count a course called The Philosophy of Logic (which fulfilled my math requirement). Here’s what I did: first, I was very motivated. Second, I got the book called Forgotten Algebra which walks you through everything. Third, I spent a summer re-learning math from the bottom up and filled a notebook with quizzes I administered to myself. My GRE score was fine, and once in grad school, I found the math geniuses (who were bad writers) and offered to edit their papers in exchange for help with the math. I guess my point is that if people are motivated and have the most basic ability that is probably established in early childhood, they can really build on that. (I can’t speak to how to get into college for free though!)

    • P Flooers
      P Flooers says:

      “I am not willing to smoke crack to get rid of the stress of homeschooling. I was destroying the great relationship I have with my oldest kids because I nagged all day long. My experience with unschooling is that no kid will ever sit down with an algebra book and work problems for fun. ”

      This statement gives a small window into why, possibly, homeschool didn’t work for Amy’s family. There is no room for nagging in unschool. There is no uncaring in unschool. The children only study what they care about. See? No nagging necessary! No crack smoking either.

      While neither of my bright young tweens have studied math formally. They certainly can–the moment they decide they want or need higher math. As could Amy, at any point in her life, including now. Its not uncommon to go all the way through a decent math program in 6 months to a year and find yourself up to college speed. Many have. Its also not uncommon for an unschooler to step into college classes for their first experience with formal education. The ones I’ve known have excelled on campus and achieved everything they wanted to achieve.

      Do unschooled kids have the potential for holes in their education? Yep. Just like every other kid in every other type of school. In fact, they will all have holes.

      Amen to a free ride though! I hear you on that point.

      • Amy Scott
        Amy Scott says:

        P Flooers,

        Anyone who thinks that kids will all of the sudden care about calculus when they are 14 does not have teenagers.

        I’m sure your tweens are just lovely. But that does not translate into high test scores. I have a 3-inch book sitting on my nightstand with the title “10 Practice ACT Tests”.

        So far, I haven’t seen one x-box problem yet. Nothing about horticulture either. (We live on a farm.) No music theory. (My second oldest plays the flute.) Nada. Just a few trig problems, which requires years of algebra 1 and algebra 2 to solve.

        This is the elephant in the room for unschoolers. I think it’s great as an elementary age concept, but it’s not so cute as a high school idea.

        The most successful people are not those with the most intelligence but with the most discipline.

        As far as my crack comment goes, I am 36, white, and I drive a minivan. I seriously doubt I could find someone to sell me some. That’s my only hesitation.

        • P Flooers
          P Flooers says:

          Amy, the moment a child wants to learn math–has a good reason to learn math–all is possible. Clearly, you had no interest in learning math and now, perhaps, you regret it? Its clear you want something different for your kids and I would never second guess your reasons.

          But don’t blame unschooling. Unschoolers are in college doing math as we sit here typing. It can happen. It has happened. It will continue to happen–for any person who WANTS it to happen. For my son (who, yes, is lovely) the need for math has coincided with his desire to continue programming video games. He needs Alg. 2 for C++. Voila–we have reason, we have will, we have the recipe for success.

          Stanford actively recruits homeschoolers for a quality they call “Academic Vitality.” I’m no expert, but I feel pretty sure nagging is not a route to academic vitality. As you found out, it is a broken method. My question for you is this? What is going to happen when its time for your kids to do their homework? Will you nag them through it?

          I’m not feeling contentious here. I’m simply pointing out that just because unschooling did not work for you (though, I’m not hearing anything to suggest you tried it) unschooling works very well for plenty of folks.

          • Amy Scott
            Amy Scott says:

            As an unschooler who went to college (hello!), I am telling you that my life would’ve gone better if I was afforded a basic high school education.

            Actually, I had a huge interest in learning math but I kept getting stuck and gave up. All I had was a textbook. I read it, tried to do the problems, but had nobody to ask when I got stumped.

            You’re right, I want something else for my kids. Not having a basic high school education has been a hassle in life. And it is now even more acutely felt since I can’t answer questions for my high schoolers. Google is awesome but not a panacea.

            I do not nag my kids to do their homework (on the occasions they’ve been in a classroom). They know that straight As are expected of them because that is what they are capable of. They are competitive and so the classroom is a good fit for their personalities. Isn’t the entire premise behind homeschooling to do what best fits the needs and gifts of your own child?

            Look, everyone is entitled to go down the path they choose. I was adding my two cents because I’m a lot further down the same road you guys are traveling. I’m pointing out the pitfalls you might want to consider, but you are welcome to ignore them.

            I wish I had a dollar for everyone who said that the reason homeschooling is not working for me (someone who has been in the homeschooling world since 1990) is because I’m “not doing it right” which is code for “doing it the same way I am”.

            What I’m doing is looking at my situation, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses and consequences, looking at my goals (free college), and making decisions based on how to best reach those goals.

            The irony kills me.

        • Zellie
          Zellie says:

          These people are out there Amy. I have one. With motivation and support a lot of math can be learned in a short time. As for getting high scores in 11th grade for scholarship money, that can be a problem if the child hasn’t planned in advance. These are separate issues- being prepared to learn and getting money.

          • liz
            liz says:

            Amy, if you wanted to learn math and needed more help than you got, that sucks, and maybe your parents should have noticed that and helped you more, who knows. But as a grown schooler who did well in all subjects in high school, I still don’t really know or recall any math….I really just would not blame home/un schooling for that. There are gaps and problems and regrets everywhere.

        • Cathy
          Cathy says:

          Amy, I am even farther down the road than you, as far as being a mom of unschoolers — I started unschooling my kids from my oldest child’s birth in 1982. All three of my daughters are grown now. They didn’t get free rides in college, but the two who attended 4-year universities got hefty merit scholarships plus grants for “need” (although they both had to borrow some money as well and are now paying off those loans). (My third daughter has taken classes at the community college since age 14, mostly dance classes, and is now a professional dancer. She may or may not ever go to a 4-year institution.)

          I DID have a “basic high school education,” and it SUCKED. Big time. Middle school might’ve been even worse, but my elementary school years were wonderful in comparison to high school. I would love to blame my lack of ability in math on high school, but I think I’m going to have to blame all of my formal education for that one! I finally learned all of the arithmetic that had been “taught” to me K-12 (but that I really, really didn’t get) during a one-semester college course about how to teach arithmetic to kids. After college I decided to try to get over my math phobia; I read several books about innumeracy and math phobia, plus I worked my way through an algebra book. I guess I was finally ready for that stuff! Now I am hired to tutor other people’s kids in algebra–and I assure you that my basic high school education hadn’t imparted ANY algebra other than fear of it…

          I make no judgments on your choices for your children or in your own life, but I just wanted to mention that lots of people come out of high school without a basic high school education. I agree with all the commenters that unschoolers can learn math if and when they need it–that’s what happened for my now-30 and 28 year old “kids.”


    • Bec Oakley
      Bec Oakley says:

      I don’t know about other people, but I find the unsuccessful homeschooling stories to be more helpful to me. So thanks Amy, this was very useful.

      I also find it interesting that so many homeschooling decisions seem to be based around college – it’s not that way for me, but then I don’t live in the US. Some of our universities already make provisions for homeschoolers via alternate entry pathways, and I suspect many more will by the time my kids are old enough to go. So it rarely factors into any of my decisions or concerns about whether we made the right decision.

    • Lisa P
      Lisa P says:

      “But there are many reasons why homeschooling isn’t best for all families — poverty, abuse, addictions, and pathetic parents to name a few.”
      I think there would be fewer negligent parents if public school didn’t exist, simply because they wouldn’t be able to slough off responsibility on the state. Obviously negligent parents will always exist, but I think public school creates an incentive for parents to care less.

  7. jbledsoejr
    jbledsoejr says:

    I think this could be good! I love your answer/question and the “tirade” that followed. It was 100% true! “Why doesn’t everyone else explain why they don’t homeschool?” I may start answering like that when I get asked to explain our choice to homeschool.

    Unfortunately our family won’t be watching it…as we don’t have cable TV! I am sure it will be great, and hopefully open the eyes of others about homeschooling.

  8. P Flooers
    P Flooers says:

    @Amy Scott,

    So, if one could get a grade in unschooling, would you say you got an F in math? That says something about you and the way you learn. It does not say anything about unschooling specifically. I’m sorry you had a hard time with math. But this tells us nothing about how other children learn. I had a hard time with math as well, and I was in one of the best high schools in the country. Still, this tells us nothing about how children learn.

    You’ve been unschooling unsuccessfully since 1990? That’s a long time dedicated to what doesn’t work. My children have been unschooling successfully since 1997 and I could not be more pleased with their progress and our life together.

    Good luck to you and your family. I truly hope you find a way to learn that works for you. Unschooling works for us.

    • Amy Scott
      Amy Scott says:

      @P Flooers

      Uh, no on the F in math. I’ve aced every math class I’ve ever taken. I’m good with pretty much every subject (not because I’m super brilliant but because I learn easily). I, as do most people, learn easier with a teacher (or help ready) for when I get stuck, and I also learn easier when I have fundamental concepts down before engaging in a subject that builds upon itself. This is basic educational pedagogy. Just because I can do it, doesn’t mean it didn’t require a ton of time, remediation, and frustration. You totally missed my point.

      And just to further laud my math skills, I’m going to point out that if your kids are tweens, it’s impossible that you’ve been homeschooling since 1997.

      Further, I did not say that I’ve been unschooling unsuccessfully since 1990. I said that I’ve been in the homeschool world since 1990, first as an unschooled student (which was horrible) and then as a classical homeschooling parent. It’s possible that my broad observations have merit (to some people, anyway).

      Finally, I don’t consider my 14 years of homeschooling my children and parenting to be unsuccessful or a failure just because I am switching courses for next year. Every one of my kids are in the 95-99% for academics and are respectful and polite. Because I’m switching courses since I’ve found a better path to meet my goal, it’s a failure? Really?

      I can’t tell you how many families I’ve seen crash and burn because they lack the ability to re-evaluate their choices when circumstances change. The reason I’m switching courses is because I base my decisions on what is wisest at a particular crossroad in life and not on an ideology.

      And as a personal aside, it’s a little bit frustrating to get talked down to on how to raise and educate teenagers by someone who doesn’t even have any.

      My sincerest best wishes on the rest of your journey.

      • P Flooers
        P Flooers says:

        Just because unschooling math didn’t work for you doesn’t mean unschooling doesn’t work.

        I can’t tell you how many families I’ve known who graduated happy self motivated kids who went on to do quite well in college. (All without any nagging or crack!) Sorry that didn’t work out so well for you.

        You’re correct though, I do have a teenager now. (I’ve never been great at math.)

        • P Flooers
          P Flooers says:

          I thought I was done with this thread. But, Amy, this comment deserves more consideration: “This is basic educational pedagogy.”

          Your understanding of basic pedagogy is a bit thin. There are no studies supporting your description of basic pedagogy. Furthermore, the studies that have been peer reviewed and published all suffer the same flaw. They have no control. Which is to say, studying how children learn in school is exactly like studying fish in a bowl. Its relevant to real life exactly not at all.

          This one point is at the very heart of the homeschooling movement, even if many parents (on both sides of the argument) are unaware. The timeline of elementary education (K-12) is arbitrary and unnecessary. It is not based on solid science and often not even on the best interests of the children. The best we can say for Standard American Curricula is that it works for some children sometimes–insofar as we can evaluate and given a limited rubric for such evaluation. Current neuroscience as well as current pedagogy are quickly catching up to the truth.

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          you could turn the argument around: because traditional schooling does not work for you does not mean it cannot work for others.

      • Meg
        Meg says:

        Amy, I assume you’ve checked it out Khan Academy ? If not, you may be amazed. Your kids can learn any maths they want or need to, self-paced, with excellent intruction and amazing ability to chart progress, for free.

        Not sure why you might be worried whether a 14-year-old would be interested in learning calculus, since a lack of interest at that age has no significance on whether or how well they might learn it later, and certainly, one doesn’t have to be doing calculus before age 18 or else suffer lifelong consequences and be barred from a scientific career.

        Learning when someone is ready, and enabling people to self-pace their learning, does seem to be key, but it’s the one thing that public schools really had no way to accommodate…until now, perhaps!

        Hope you’ll post back with what you think about this, as a potential solution for the fears some homeschooling parents have about how to access world-class math instruction for their kids without spending a fortune, either of private tutors, ridiculously-priced boxed curricula, or sending them to an exclusive private school. It really appears now, to be completely unnecessary, to do any of that, unless you just like the idea for other reasons.

  9. Laura
    Laura says:

    I am very entertained, and am learning a lot from these comments. My kids are tiny still, but everything I can learn about how to help them successfully unschool is beneficial.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about this TV show. I don’t have cable either, but maybe we’ll be able to watch it online? Keep us updated.

  10. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    I think we need to beware that we don’t do as schools do and think that unschooling is a 100% perfect solution or environment. Amy is entitled to her perspective as a person who was unschooled. Who are we to tell her that *she* failed unschooling and that unschooling didn’t fail her? I think we can’t be afraid to hear other perspectives and glean what we can from it. We don’t have to take it as an all or nothing declaration … if someone doesn’t think it’s worthy then it’s not worthy. I take away that she wanted to learn something and didn’t have all the supports she needed. I also agree with her that the way I educate my children isn’t by taking unschooling and applying it to my children, but observing the educational needs of my child and finding what will best support that development. Unschooling comes closest to the description of what I do. Yet, as my children approached their teen years, something shifted, and I shifted with them. I have since “translated” what I did and call it the collaborative learning process. Learning happens all kinds of ways! And different stages of growth and learning may require different environments or methods.

    • Heather
      Heather says:

      I like your perspective and reasonable response to the dialogue between Amy and P Flooers. I am new to homeschooling, having chosen a combination of following curricula and allowing plenty of free time to explore interests. After 2 weeks, it’s already not going smoothly; my daughter says I’m putting too much pressure on her, even though we do only 4 subjects, for a half-hour each, with a break between subjects.
      This is no easy gig! Any thoughts or suggestions would be welcome.
      Tx, Heather

    • liz
      liz says:

      I agree! I think it is great to hear Amy’s perspective as a grown unschooler, very useful for me as a homeschool mom with unschool leanings…. I also agree that flexibility is good and that kids needs may change as they get older, this seems obvious. I just don’t think that a basic hs education is all that either, there is a lot of luck involved in getting the help you need when you need it.

  11. Catherine Taylor
    Catherine Taylor says:

    Hi Penelope. I homeschool my child too and was wondering if you would allow a fellow homeschool mom and daughter to tour your farm. Although, my girl may not want to come home. She loves the idea of farming. I run a website for women who love NFL football and thought I would leave that in the website space. Just a thought from a fellow HS’er…


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Sure. Email me offline. I’m happy to have visitors. We’re really off the beaten path, so very few people visit.


  12. Renee
    Renee says:

    I am all for parents providing the best education for their kids. As a high school teacher, though, I can tell you that many people stop homeschooling for high school for many reasons: need to be highly qualified in many areas, teenage surliness, etc.

    It’s not that is is easier to teach young children, but I do think it is nicer that they appreciate it and are still relatively pliable.

    One thing: how do you unschool or homeschool since birth? I never get that. If going to a museum or working a grocery budget is “schooling” and my kids do that PLUS learn in public schools…does my ?? make sense…

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      For the unschooler, if a child is never enrolled in school there is no line of demarcation for when education begins. Age 3 blends into 4 into 5 and 6 and on as they learn about themselves and their world. There are observable differences in children after they have experienced school and families moving children from school to home will have different challenges than those who have never enrolled.

      Most of the homeschoolers I know who went to high school did so because they wanted to see if they could compete with school peers or they wanted a more standard entry into college education.

  13. P Flooers
    P Flooers says:

    Hey Renee,

    I can try to answer your question. But its difficult in such a small forum talking with people who might feel defensive about the topic of education. My answer reflects what I’ve seen in my family and in various wider homeschooling communities through the years. So, other mileage may vary.

    Your perceptions of high schoolers being surly as well as how children learn in general are probably highly colored by your experience in the system and in your own education. So, what you know about children is coming from a point of view different from mine. Which I mention because, I don’t think its possible to grasp unschooling until you can sort of wrap your mind around a radically different set of assumptions.

    Maybe listing common assumptions would help explain what I mean. Common assumptions in the unschooling community:
    -children are eager to learn and do so quite naturally
    -happy children do not become morose, defensive, or cantankerous due to puberty or just because they are teens
    -all ages of children can live and learn in an easy coexistence
    -bickering, fighting, and fidgeting are symptoms something is wrong, that is not normal daily behavior for children
    -a huge and unnatural stress load is bad for neurological development (given that normal stress with find every child inexorably, of course.)

    I am an elementary school teacher. Or I was, before I became an unschooler. I took one of my best friends, a woman who has logged many hours with me working in a traditional school, to a park day for our local homeschool group. For 4 hours we sat on a blanket and chatted and watched. She was mind-blown. There was no fighting, no crying, no adults shouting. There were all ages of people milling around–babies and toddlers nursing, middle school age kids drifting away from the circle of mothers–coming back in for snacks, teenagers out of sight and checking in occasionally. (Usually also for snacks.) The group was laid back, harmonious, easy. The children were happy, playing, relaxed. And this is our normal. This is how it is nearly every week for park day. The inevitable mishap easily soothed–most often a child who skins a knee or gets stung by a bee. Or needs help sorting hurt feelings.

    This is our daily life. The children are relaxed, happy, very well fed, and free to explore any topic they choose. Allow yourself to contemplate being born into such a life. These are kids who don’t relate to adults as adversaries. These are kids who spend most of their time around people who love them–in a personal real and direct way. There is no arbitrary or false authority in their lives.

    Can you imagine such a life? Consider the parents. Their job is consistency, love, healthy boundaries, supporting curiosity, HELPING KIDS WITH THEIR INTERESTS (unschooling is not the same as leaving kids to learn alone–that’s abandonment), and creating a generally rich environment including something we call strewing. Strewing is sort of like baiting children with interesting ideas, concepts, events, and tools. One parent famously describes it as “throwing books at children to see which ones stick.”

    Because reality is inner connected. (We can all agree on that one simple fact, yes?) Most subjects connect in a rich way to other subjects. So for instance, when you study butterflies at age 5 you’re led to the garden. The garden leads you to the compost. The compost leads you to the microscope—and on and on through years and years. Children follow their interest as they learn.

    I truly understand such learning is difficult to comprehend and trust. I’ve come to think of if like this. In the elementary years, the highest goal possible for your children is to help them become as moral, steady, kind, and smart in a neurologically complex way as they can be. Right? As opposed to being good at math, music, or reading, for instance. As opposed to making grades or racking up credits. And considering that given the time to truly indulge childhood curiosity in a rich and compelling way (including lots of time to allow boredom to work its magic) the most important thing children learn is how to learn. Because learning well is in their own self interest.

    Fast forward to their teen years. Generally most teen unschoolers catch a fire, decide to head in a specific direction, shore up any requirements they need, and are off like cannon balls. I’ve seen them walk onto college campus for their first traditional “learning” and do very well–make good grades, thrive. Routes into college are far more flexible and varied than is taught in school. Unschoolers go when they are ready to go–be that at age 14,16, 18, or 21–whenever. The timeline of institutional education is arbitrary and unnecessary.

    Does that answer how its possible to unschool from birth? Its very much a parental attitude, intention, and expectation from the beginning. There are many lovely benefits to such a way of life, including a love of life long learning, happy unstressed children who never learn to distrust adults, and close knit families mostly free of teen angst.

    I don’t mean this in a rainbows and fairy tales kind of way. I mean, for thousands of families and their lucky kids, this is how it goes down. The curriculum is endless, expansive, and contains the whole world. Are your kids unschooled? Of course they are. All kids are because, in general, the most important things they learn happen at home. Its just that kids who also go to school have to contend with institutionalism and unfortunate cultural expectations. Which I don’t mean as a stab. I mean it, simply, as self evident truth. There is no topic which must be drilled for 13 years to comprehend. The shocking thing about unschooling isn’t how hard it is to cover the basics. The shocking thing is how happy life can be, how fun it all is. When you see it afresh, it becomes truly weird to consider suggesting a child limit their goals to what is taught in school.

    • Renee
      Renee says:

      Wow! thanks for the thoughtful and non combative replies! I really feel like I understand more now.

      Like I said, I’m all for choice and child centered decisions. Pushing my luck, I’m going to through out here my other thought/concern:

      Part of school is learning the ropes/social cues/good-bad-indifferent teachers/conforming for the whole, etc. I AM NOT saying that is good or can’t be done at home, etc. BUT, it seems to me that life in not “person centered” and you are going to have good-bad-indifferent bosses, you are going to have to conform at times (mortgage will need to be paid, kids need braces, etc…). Isn’t it more of a shock to a student who is schooled at home (not a complete shock of course)?


      • Zellie
        Zellie says:

        I’ve asked my daughter about this as a potential downside of homeschooling. The social aspect hasn’t been a problem with other adults as she’s honed her skills in working with people of different ages. Her biggest social challenge has been same-age peers. She doesn’t behave like them, try to look like them or share the same concerns they have. To her this isn’t bad. To others it could be seen as a deficiency of peer relationships.

        Remember! Sit-com personalities and dramas are not “real” life. Most of the people we know are somewhat outside the expected even though we’ve gone to school. We just let our selves hang out a little more. In a strongly defined social community I can see that it would be stressful. But then I imagine the whole homeschool experience, taking place within that society, would include that as well. We do function within our communities, near and far.

        • P Flooers
          P Flooers says:

          Folks occasionally suggest homeschoolers are too sheltered, somehow not raised in the real world, and are unable to cope in competitive or complex social situations. I wish it were possible to shelter children, or myself for that matter, from pain and difficulty. We homeschoolers, try as we might, get no hall passes from reality and challenge.

          Neither life nor social reality are well reflected in the school system. Skills for negotiating life aren’t really taught there, are they? Real life and real work happen not at school, by their very definition. Homeschoolers are never not “in real life” if you see what I mean.

          I think there are two very different cultures of children emerging in our society these days: schooled and not schooled. Which could also be described as institutionalized and not institutionalized. Again, I truly do not mean any disrespect. How else to say it? Kids who grow up in the system are often and generally unpleasant in exactly the way we expect (and have taught) them to be. Homeschooled kids are not blind to this difference.

          Renee, I appreciate the sincerity of your questions and I’m trying to give you very honest answers. Some kids make it through school with their self esteem, intelligence, and social skills not only in tact but improved. But I think if we are all honest we have to admit that’s probably not generally true for most kids. Right? So the answer to your question is actually kind of self evident. Perhaps the single most difficult thing to grok about unschooling is the lack of adversarial attitude. Which is much more reflective of the real world.

          Its interesting to notice that school administrators track children as young as first grade. They can tell who will be successful academically, who will be average, and who will fail. They put the “smart” ones on one track and the others on other tracks. Few children transmute their track. Which is proof, if you ask me, that school doesn’t matter. Parenting matters. Successful parents raise (in general) successful children no matter where the school. The system is mostly futile.

          Which might cause you to ask what would happen to the poorly parented children without school. I am a democrat. I believe in public education. But the system as it now stands tends to hold the poorest down as much if not more than it boosts anyone. I wish this were not true. I want it fixed. I’m happy to pay taxes in support of excellent teachers doing important fine good work. And important excellent teaching, teaching that changes lives, does happen. Rarely. But the system is largely futile at the moment. Yes? I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t have those answers. I think if real life skills were learned in school we would see poor kids becoming successful kids at a much higher rate.

          Neither of my children have adhd nor any diagnoses. But I understand that its common for parents to pull their children out of the system because of such diagnoses. Which then magically disappear with no further treatment, when the kids are brought home to school. Which suggests to me, many children are not well served in the current system.

          Penelope, I hope all this thread drift is okay with you. Holler, if not.

  14. Andi-Roo (@theworld4realz)
    Andi-Roo (@theworld4realz) says:

    Moms are as shitty about the education of their children as they are about breastfeeding. Homeschoolers / un-schoolers know what’s best… blah blah blah… & then public schoolers know what’s best BACK at them… more blah blah blah… breastfeeding is healthy & it’s the only way… blah blah blah… bottle is great too… blah blah blah… Why can’t moms end these stupid wars & just be supportive of each other without being so god damned judgmental? What works for ONE family, or even for MOST families, does not mean it works for EVERY family. Jesus, people are so eager to beat other with a verbal stick.

    Everyone has a different reason for doing things. Assuming your way is best is arrogance of the highest order.

    WRT Penelope’s retort — maybe people ask why you’re homeschooling because it’s a new concept for them & they are really interested in your normally well-composed thought process. Maybe they aren’t wrinkling their noses in disgust. Maybe they were being sincere.

  15. Janet
    Janet says:

    I am sort of wondering why it isn’t possible to have the best of both worlds… My son is still tiny (just 3) but here in the UK he is already attending “school” every afternoon of the week, with a uniform, book bag and all the rest.

    He is a bright lad (I know we all say that, but really he is) and I don’t see the teachers adding anything to his education that we and his co-caring Grandparents (I work full time and so does hubby) are already giving him – My mum in particular is super dedicated and has him reading and counting everyday.

    I have a great mentor in this in that my mum was the same with me and my younger sibling, we both could read and write before we began school and all through out my education we had a blended approach, taking a year out each to visit my mums home country and attending school there, doing “projects” at home with my dad in the garage at weekends to expand on our school work and generally combining the two worlds as best as possible…

    I do see though that school gives my son great social confidence and he loves the routine of it all, it also gives us things to talk about that we might not have though of without a little external help! – We tend to throw away the stuff he has done which he doesn’t want to talk about and focus on the things that interest him and try to expand on them after school and at the weekends…

    So back to my point – why such a division between what we can have through Homeschooling and what we can still get from the school system? Sure it isn’t the best system, but there are still good schools out there, who provide a safe and happy environment, even if the curricula aren’t up to scratch.

    For us school does fill the gaps of knowledge that we as parents have, and so long as we keep the conversation open with our boy we can exploit these new areas to explore together.

    I also agree that whilst jumping through the hoops of the education system is tedious and not something I particularly enjoyed myself, it is still the only way to keep all the options open for him. And we are all about keeping as many of his options open as possible for as long as possible…

  16. JRMoreau
    JRMoreau says:

    I’m excited to see this air. It’s interesting how reality television can warp just about anything depending on the creative liberties taken by the production team. I hope they give you a fair shake, even if you do freak out a few times on camera ;-)

    I dislike how every time you see a family interviewed on the news that does “un-schooling” or whatever the buzz term is, they’re viewed as too left or right of center of what would work normally in society.

    And then they try to make the polygamist Mormon family look like the fucking Brady Bunch…

    Go get ’em Penelope. Good luck!

  17. Whitney Lowry
    Whitney Lowry says:

    While I definitely think homeschooling isn’t for everyone, I also don’t think those who had a bad experience should blame it on the style of schooling, but the people who educated them (or did not educate them). If my children feel they had an unsuccessful educational experience, that will be my fault, not homeschooling’s fault. Does that make sense? That’s the part of the argument I don’t understand on Amy’s post – the blaming the style of schooling rather than the people responsible for the poor education.

    As far as my family, we are a mixture of unschool/homeschool style schooling. Right now, since my oldest (stepson) is in public school, and MY oldest (twins boys) are Kindergarten, I’m not sure what we’ll end up as. Our math is structured worksheets that they don’t have a choice in (and they love doing math!), but everything else is pretty much unschool style. This week they chose to learn about bugs. My twelve year old even sat in on our book readings and helped out when the twins couldn’t remember the specifics I asked about. As for my other two, one is just learning her ABC’s, and the other is learning to talk. :)

    To each their own, I say. I think education in a home setting is what is best, because I feel the kids will get more one on one focused time with their ‘teacher’. If I’m not qualified to teach a specific subject, I will learn it myself first, or find someone to tutor the kids.

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