What’s the line between unschooling and neglect?

When I was growing up, my brother and I suffered from lots of different forms of abuse, but probably the biggest one was neglect. When I was in second grade and he was in kindergarten, we started waking ourselves up to go to school and we put ourselves to bed at night. There were days we didn’t see our parents. I still have burn marks on my leg from our babysitter, which is why we told our parents we just wanted to be alone. And they said okay.

We were late to school. We had open charge accounts at all the local stores, and the local cab company. There was money in the drawer in the dining room and we specifically were not supposed to call our parents at work to ask if we could buy something. “Just buy it!” they said.

It’s hard to think of what to buy if you’re in second grade. We knew everyone had a TV and we didn’t. We didn’t realize we could just buy one.

The same is true of haircuts. It didn’t matter that much for me. My hair was straight, brown, down to my waist. But my brother’s was thick and stiff and a big fat mess.

When we each got old enough to realize something was wrong, one of the easiest ways to tell was that my brother looked homeless in all his school pictures.

I’ve been in therapy since I was five. The first ten years of therapy was to help me survive mentally while growing up with my parents. The next ten years was to deal with post traumatic stress. Then therapy turned to childrearing, because family trauma usually passes from generation to generation, and I needed to learn how to not repeat the same family trauma with my own kids.

So you can understand why it’s scary to me to homeschool: I’m so scared of being neglectful.

And, to add to the fear, I am unschooling. For a normal person—someone raised by loving parents—unschooling is not so high risk. Normal parents love their kids too much to be neglectful. But unschooling terrifies me because the line between letting kids lead and neglecting them feels so dangerous.

My son’s hair has been wild and unruly for most of his life.  Then I realized how much he looked my brother when he was my son’s age, and I got scared. I cut off his hair. Crewcut. I hated it, but I told myself I hate it because I’m not used to a little boy being taken care of.

Then people said, “Where’s his hair? I love this hair! His hair was so cute! What happened?”

So his hair is long again. I like it. I like that he looks fun to me. But also, I like that it requires no taking care of.

Homeschooling requires the parents to unlearn so much:  what is reading, what is math, what is socialization. But we also have the freedom to make up our own rules for parenting. And the truth is, I am scared. I am certain that my kids will learn enough. But I feel so uncertain that they will feel loved enough along the way.

I will never be completely comfortable with my kids being easy, independent free spirits, because I wanted someone hovering over me so badly. But I like when I hear other parents talking that way about their kids. To allow that in your children is really a loving self-confidence.

33 replies
  1. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    As long as you are having lots of meaningful conversations with them about questions they are thinking about, you’re fine.

    • Daniel Baskin
      Daniel Baskin says:

      Or, if they’re not that kind of personality type (to feel loved by having deep conversations), do activities they like to do with them. That’s how you build relationship with anyone (philos love).

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “But unschooling terrifies me because the line between letting kids lead and neglecting them feels so dangerous.”

    I think a good leader has the self-confidence and trust to let other people lead and to follow them at certain times and for some distances, resume the role of leader again at the right time, and then repeat the roles of leader and follower. Knowing when and how to lead and follow is the trick imo.
    And I really like these sentences – “Homeschooling requires the parents to unlearn so much: what is reading, what is math, what is socialization. But we also have the freedom to make up our own rules for parenting.” – because it reminds me of the saying – “with great power there must also come great responsibility”.

  3. CJ
    CJ says:

    Unless those are fake pictures and ALL your HS posts are made up, we can all see those boys and their gorgeous, happy, well nourished lovely faces! (and adorable hair)

    I wish I could hug your fears away for good. You sharing all these thoughts with us over time is absolute evidence of your love, respect and constant care for them. Which, my lady, is the exact definition of the opposite of neglect!

    Letting our children be who they are while giving them the freedom to select their direction and supplying the tools to get there in such intimate and individualized ways is ultimate nurturing. And, at least for me, it feels like such an honor and privilege to get this opportunity. Also, I think one amazing advantage to unschooling, albeit a selfish reason, is that our children teach us everyday. They are really the teachers. Even parents locked onto institutions remark how they should listen to their kids and their needs more and teachers always say, “I wish I had more time with EACH child.”

    Neglect? NO WAY!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is really comforting, thanks. Maybe the truth is that I have a homeschool blog just so I can make sure that there are a bunch of people checking up on me.


      • CJ
        CJ says:

        Oh my goodness Penelope. I think I should read your professional blog more often. My husband asked if I saw your most recent with a little bit of a sadness, sort of warning me, “don’t do it babe,” but at the same time knowing I would be pissed if he didnt share that he had read that piece. So I am balling my eyes out, I am mind hugging you and comforting myself. I did not read any of the 172 comments. I did read the whole post several times. You know something? I am freaked out by this world of Internet (yah I know I sound like my 92 yr old grandma bitching about dialing a cordless phone), and the blog world and the intimacy that happens here even though we are strangers. We wouldn’t know each other if you fell into my lap on a train. But, you are so raw. So FRICKEN talented. So injured. NOT DAMAGED! But, injured. I want you to run to a place where you feel ok to just be who you are. But, I also understand your boys love of the Farmer and your desire to give them the ultimate stability. Anyway, Penelope, you are amazing. Inside and out. Holy shit, tell yourself this everyday!!! Yah, I don’t know you and I am yelling at you. It is a love yell. A visceral hug yell. A supportive chear yell. I really don’t want/mean to throw a bunch of judgement your way. Every person has to make their own choices and live their own path. You do know you deserve to be loved? To be happy? To feel safe? Right????? You and your boys deserve to feel secure. Now, I am having some of my daily wine, I am going to stop crying and wait for you to tell us you are ok tonight, OK? So it’s weird to hear it from me, but you have my love and best wishes for whatever that is worth! All my heart, CJ

        • CJ
          CJ says:

          Combed through to find your replies…Just read your oct 19th, 7:35 pm response. That is very therapeutic. So I am understanding you are physically safe…still so affected by your raw, honest, word talent…

          Thank you

  4. Alice Bachini-Smith
    Alice Bachini-Smith says:

    I homeschooled for 9 years, in the city and the country, and I travelled a lot to homeschooling camps and to stay with other homeschooling families. Out of all the people I met, there was only one family where the unschooled kids were obviously neglected. It’s very rare, because neglectful parents don’t choose to have their kids around all day!

    What I learned from meeting all these families, though, was that if you’re anxious about something, you probably don’t need to be, or it’s a minor issue you can easily tweak a bit. Because people who really are getting something wrong nearly always think they’re doing just fine. A lot of parents doing something unconventional understandably get anxious. But the anxiety is the problem, not the homeschooling!

    I hope you get more comfortable as you go with it, and congratulate yourself on all the great stuff you and they achieve :)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Alice, I saw your comment right when you posted it. Then I thought all day about that one family – the one that you said had neglectful parents. I keep wondering: what did they look like? What does neglect look like to other people? How do parents show neglect?

      It’s a weird thing that if you are a kid growing up with something abnormal it’s hard to see it as abnormal in the world because kids work so hard to normalize the parents they are given.


      • Jennifer
        Jennifer says:

        “… kids work so hard to normalize the parents they are given.”

        This really resonated with me. My parents showed me almost no affection when I was growing up. Emotions, aside from anger, were considered weak. I had no idea how messed up that was until I had my first child and I literally did not know how to be affectionate toward him. My husband and friends always joking that I was a robot suddenly made sense.

        I worked really hard to become an affectionate mom. I still worry that I’m not good enough at it or that I don’t give them enough. I’m always asking them, “Do you feel loved?” They almost always say “Yes,” so hopefully I’m on the right track.

        • Niecie
          Niecie says:

          Awwwww Jennifer…this was sad AND beautiful at the same time. That fact that it is a concern to you is a step in the right direction. I’m sure you are a wonderful, PRESENT mom.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        Professionals define four types of neglect – physical, educational, emotional and medical. This page ( http://www.americanhumane.org/children/stop-child-abuse/fact-sheets/child-neglect.html ) and other pages on this web site have good information on child abuse and neglect. Also included from this organization is information on animals and human-animal interaction. It’s your reading assignment … and this is not school … it’s learning beyond school! :)

  5. Jill
    Jill says:

    I always laugh when parents (including myself) think they know what their kids need. I send my daughter to school because I DON’T KNOW what she needs. Then she comes home and tells me. It’s usually love and someone to listen…and a snack.

  6. toastedtofu
    toastedtofu says:

    Teeth are important, you need to make sure they are brushing AND flossing every day because good dental hygiene is incredibly important. Hair? Doesn’t matter. It will matter when they are trying to get a job, but not at their age.

    Nothing disastrous will happen if their hair is a mess.

  7. Elizabeth Kane
    Elizabeth Kane says:

    I see what you mean, but I think the difference in between the two is being intentional. You’re intentionally asking questions and you intentionally let go. And from the way you write about homeschooling, I can tell that all of it’s done with an immense amount of love.

  8. Anon
    Anon says:

    The day the ambulance came to our home, life just turned upside down. A paralyzed parent, another one trying to shutter b/w hospitals, bills and 6 kids. My class teacher was the same as the grade earlier- im amazed that she did not notice that my grades dropped all of a sudden, i was quieter, and every now & then the nuns who ran the admin would ask me out of the class to talk to me. The class teacher & other subject teachers could have just paused for a moment and asked.
    I forgave my parents, one of whom never recovered from the stroke. The teachers I still think could have done something- like notice me.

    • Niecie
      Niecie says:

      I HATE THAT !!!! That no one noticed. How pitiful and sad. Bless you for making it through. Kids are SOOOOOOO freaking resilient ….THANK GOD !!!!!!!!

  9. JML
    JML says:

    I think neglect looks like uncommitted. You really don’t care what happens at home, you don’t see your children as people but as extensions of yourself and you assume the State will take care of them for you at school.

    You reflect extensively (obsessively) about what’s best or not. You care tremendously about their individual personalities. I really admire your approach to parenting. It feels authentic. You never deny challenges or play down your joys. I think your kids are lucky to have such a committed mom.

  10. MoniqueWS
    MoniqueWS says:

    Benign neglect is a good thing. Persistent neglect is a bad thing. Like many things there is a spectrum for it. I suspect if you can not think of anyone but yourself and events as only how they will effect you you may want to get a check on the neglect.

  11. Meg
    Meg says:

    If you’re not calling neglect unschooling (as in, being so devout in a belief that a child will tend to her own needs, that you abnegate adult responsibility when it comes to what they actually need parents for, like basic hygeine and health) then I see no problem. I don’t agree with those who argue that kids can basically be fine parent-free, with no brushing of teeth, no washing, no eating of vegetables ever…that, I would call neglect, not unschooling. As many have stated, unparenting and unschooling are not the same thing. At least, they ought not to be.

  12. Zellie
    Zellie says:

    I had no skills for parenting a child beyond toddlerhood. Compared to other mothers, I ought to have spent more time interacting, playing, talking, but I didn’t and don’t know how. The important factor was that my child came to me when she wanted company, to talk, etc. and I did not neglect these times. She kept coming to me and never stopped talking to me even though I didn’t always know what to say. I feel I was inadequate, but my child feels I was a good mother because it was good enough.

  13. Stef
    Stef says:

    Wow, does that ever look like your younger son! Only the 70’s-style shirt gives it away. I always thought your son’s hair was cute, too.

    • Niecie
      Niecie says:

      OMG…I didn’t even notice year/style of the shirt. I thought that WAS her son. That resemblance is CRAZY!!!!!!!!

  14. gordana dragicevic
    gordana dragicevic says:

    Parents who let their children develop according to their needs are available, and at the same time non-intrusive. Mine, for example, were very intrusive, but never available when i needed them – that’s neglect and disrespect.
    From what you write, Penelope, it is clear that you don’t intrude on the kids when they’re at something they love, and at the same time, you are very available for them. It is hard to recognise those things if you’ve grown up with neglectful and abusive parents, but don’t worry, what you are doing is definitely not neglect.

    • CJ
      CJ says:

      What a really amazing way to put that. I have said a billion times, “my parents were never around, but when they were it was ugly, angry, threatening, etc.” I still feel that way about their judgemental intrusions that only happen when and if they are so inclined to pay attention and I can never rely on them.

      I am really grateful for the way you articulated this…Intrusive, yet neglectful…sooooo true! Thank you!

  15. Lee
    Lee says:

    I don’t understand why a therapist of a 5 YEAR OLD CHILD would not intervene when the parents are so blatantly neglectful of her and her 3 YEAR OLD brother.

    What about the therapist of a 7 YEAR OLD child with a 5 YEAR OLD brother getting themselves ready for school & bed and does not intervene?

    Burn marks on a 7 YEAR OLD and YOU had to tell your parents to stop using a babysitter. What the heck was the therapist doing all this time?

    • gordana dragicevic
      gordana dragicevic says:

      The therapist was being paid by the parents, not by the child – sadly, that is possibly the reason.
      I’d like to be wrong about this, but i also assume she was not in therapy because she needed it (and yes, she did..), but because the parents wanted the therapist to “fix” her. Neglectful parents do not send the child to therapy to help the child, but to help themselves. They usually believe the child is the problem.

      • Lee
        Lee says:

        Yes. I’ve been reading Penelope’s blog for a long time. The parents were rich. The dad had mob connections. So maybe that’s why the therapist was afraid to call them out. She had to do it herself at 14 (?) when a high school teacher forced her to.

        I must have an falsely high opinion of child therapists that they should put the interests of the child first. That when a therapist sees mental & physical abuse of a child they don’t just say “Your hour is up. Thanks for the check. See you next week.” There were other options. There was a grandmother who was normal enough to take Penelope in as a teenager.

        Water under the bridge.

        I just hope that the therapist who treated 5 year old Penelope is no longer practicing because he/she is not qualified to treat children.

  16. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    This is a constant fear for me, too. My parents really had no clue what they were doing. To define neglect, I would come home from school and my parents were glued to the TV. Yes, on the surface, I was well taken care of but my parents had really abandoned all responsibility of my education. I still cringe when my kids ask to watch a video and I don’t have cable, nor do I personally watch TV myself.

    It’s so hard when you’re trying to not repeat the mistakes of your parents. I am terrified of unschooling, although I know it’s the best option.

    The key is to focus on those self-learning moments when kids get something after you’ve stepped back. Like when they get frustrated with learning how to cut a circle and then 5 minutes later the circle is cut or when they’ve read a whole book when you don’t remember teaching them all those words.

Comments are closed.