What’s a parent’s role in unschooling?

This is a guest post from Erin Wetzel. She is a painter and a poet who lives in Tacoma, WA with her husband and daughter. You can connect with her on instagram @ekwetzel.  Earlier in the year she wrote a guest post about generation Y.

My three-year-old found the vine of morning glories growing behind our house. She plucked three and ran to me. “Mama! Let’s make pixie dust!”

“Oh?” I replied. “How do we do that?”

She pursed her lips, paused, and said, “You grind up the flowers.”

“Should we get more flowers?” I ask, her imagination sparking my own, so we scoured the yard for buttercups, clover, and lavender.

“We need a bowl, Mama.” So I got her a bowl. “And we need flour.” So I fetched flour. “And baking powder. And salt.” I brought both. She measured out her ingredients and stirred everything together.

She fetched her fairy wings and we sprinkled pixie dust on our heads and flew around the yard.

1. Parents are natural teachers.
When we discuss unschooling, we focus a lot on how children are naturally inquisitive and on how they are natural learners.

What we don’t usually discuss is how parents are natural facilitators. Parents are teachers, mentors, counselors and encouragers. These roles come to the involved, homeschooling parent as naturally as breathing.

2. Have the guts to break the public-school cycle.
I am a survivor of a traditional education. It is easy for me to doubt my aptitude to raise my child in a homeschooling environment. My school education was apathetic to creativity and hostile to independent thought. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe in my ability to overcome that education but I am determined to break the cycle and make a difference for my daughter.

It’s easy to follow the patterns we learned in childhood, but your past is not your destiny. For example, there is a myth in our culture that victims of sexual assault in childhood grow up to take on the role of the abuser. While there is some evidence of a correlation between being a victim in childhood and becoming a perpetrator, the majority of sex offenders were not abused as children.

Do you know what is a proven pattern? Revictimisation, where someone who was a victim continues to be one through learned helplessness or seeking out abusive partners.

Just because you suffered through traditional doesn’t mean you have to inflict that same choice on your child. You are not helpless. You can direct your own learning and curiosity, and you can create a healthy learning environment for your child. You do not need to hand over the quality of your child’s daily happiness to a professional naysayer.

3. Don’t be a know-it-all. Let your kid lead.
How would a typical teacher have responded to my daughter’s pixie dust play? “Picking flowers is naughty.” “Don’t make a mess.” “Flour doesn’t go in your hair.” “Baking powder is for adults, not for kids.” “No. No. No.” These words echoed in my head while my daughter was inviting me to play. I have to remember to unlearn such responses, forgetting rules and structures that traditional school enforces. Who better to teach me creativity than my three-year-old?

Don’t be a victim. Don’t make excuses. Unschooling isn’t only about our kids choosing what they learn. It’s about adult choices too, choosing what is best for our children.


17 replies
  1. kristen
    kristen says:

    I appreciate what you’re saying but unschooling a 3 yr old is like calling a daycare for 3 yr olds “school”. It’s not. What you’re doing is childcare and it sounds like you’re having fun with your tot. However, it doesn’t really help me start to unschool my middle schooler.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      Yeah, while it’s great the mom is self aware enough to not repeat her childhood through her daughter, this post really lacks audience awareness.

      I found it not unlike most people’s general day of taking care of their kids- tongue biting and all.

    • Erin
      Erin says:


      Thank you for your comments. I don’t know what it’s like to switch to unschooling when you have a kid who has been though the school system, so I cannot speak to that. This is just my story of how unschooling is fruitful in my experience. And I truly believe I’m doing more than babysitting my kid. If nothing else, I’m allowing her to build independence and confidence to pursue the things that she’s interested in. Plus, I am showing her I will support her and help her in her endeavors. Yes. She’s three and obsessed with fairies, but she’s also exhibiting creativity, imagination and originality. And, besides, shouldn’t learning be fun? Passion for learning has to start sometime…why not now?


    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      Kristen, I’m sure the same thing strikes most of us homeschoolers now and then. I know the phenomenon of people with toddlers declaring they’re homeschooling because they don’t send them to daycare has struck me as odd too. If I am feeling grumpy, it can be difficult to be nice about it.

      Perhaps I could try to direct my distaste towards the status quo, in which the “need” for school has flowed as far down as three years old, leaving parents thinking they _need_ to put toddlers in daycare and preschool (I have had people ask me if they’re allowed not to send their kids to preschool, or where they should send the application). Nowadays, we see so few kids just staying home with their parents (as was the general rule when I was that age) that it seems like something special. Back in the day we just called being at home with a three year old “parenting.” What truly shocks me is four weeks of maternity leave and then a baby in a bucket goes into 11 hour days away from home, no break for the next 18 years.

      Erin, it’s great you’re so enthusiastic about the homeschooling movement. It’s excellent you’re preparing so well by talking and thinking about homeschooling and unschooling years in advance. I hope you’ll continue to be excited once your child is school age and I look forward to hearing about how it goes. Have you been able to find a social group for future homeschoolers in your area? Does your daughter know any kids who are still at home and not planning to go to school?

      I have a ten year old who has been homeschooling since first grade, who is turning into a wonderful young man before my eyes. I also have a 3.5 year old girl who stays home with me most days but also dearly loves to go to “preschool” part time, where she rules the roost.

      I hope my little extrovert chooses to stay home with us when the time comes, but if she chooses to go to kindergarten when she’s six I will support her choice. She seems to really love going to daycares, preschools, art classes, ski school, you name it, but I expect it to stop being fun once curriculum hits. We know dozens of area families who homeschool, including a growing posse of kids her age, who will welcome her.

  2. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    This is what is called “playing” with your kid. I still do it now with my school-age kid who attends school.

  3. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    It’s most interesting to me that because regular school is seen as a rule, people automatically deem being at home doing random pixie powder projects as “play.” Also, play is deemed lesser than education when really, playing is a form of educating oneself.

    Erin is indeed unschooling her kid because there’s a different approach to the way life is lived. There’s purpose and appreciation to this play. Maybe when the kid gets older the measuring cups and the mix density will take on another twist. Right now it’s just pixie dust. Tomorrow it’ll be about liquid density and other chemistry stuff.

    I’ve been studying a modern take on stoicism lately. I love it. It’s not about suppressing emotions. It’s about not letting emotions mess with the logical way to do things. It’s about practice and action not just arm chair philosophy.

    But first, to achieve a habit of looking at obstacles as the answer to the problem we require a complete change in mental paradigm. Without changing the way we think there’s nothing of the rest.

    For me, self-directed learning is not about semantics and naming one thing (like playing) by another name. It’s about really seeing the neurological activity that’s happening as development occurs and giving myself and my family free rein to pursue what’s to be learnt and at what time.

    Believe me, I have a pile of books I bought because they are interesting to me. But the demands of life and my mood change so I choose the book I’m reading at a given moment based on a myriad of factors, but none because I’m forced by a curriculum.

    My hope me is to give my family the same.

    But I wouldn’t be comfortable with this without a paradigm shift.

    This is very similar to nutrition. If I pack my house with great nutrition choices I don’t fret about what the kid, or I, will pick. Anything is going to be good. I keep an eye and try to be helpful with facilitating balanced food and making what others can’t make for themselves. But really, I don’t care if my kid doesn’t want to eat something I made. He’ll choose something else. But because I carefully picked the options in our pantry/fridge whatever he picks is going to be helpful to his well being. I don’t fret. I’m trying to do the same with education and instruction.

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      TO be clear, my comment was not meant to imply that play is lesser than school. In fact, my kid probably learns as much or more when she plays with me than at school. But the school part has its value, too.

  4. redrock
    redrock says:

    yes, one probably should not call this a post about “schooling” or “unschooling” but it is a post about the hope to continue to foster a kids curiosity and inventiveness. Why does this draw such a lot criticism? Is the story of throwing a glass of salsa a better piece of advice on unschooling? Why so vicious in the criticism of sharing this fun fairy dust story?

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      It’s a cute story- it’s just out of place. It’s like a daily diary entry. Nothing new here.

      And no, throwing salsa and screaming at children to intimidate them into pursuing their passion is definitely not unschooling or schooling. That’s just abuse.

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    This post is a starting point to accomplish what you talked about in your last post; getting Gen Y with young kids to start thinking about the alternatives to traditional schooling. Great job! (Probably us grouchy folk are from Gen X like myself, so forgive us…heh)

  6. Liz..mom of 4 under 9
    Liz..mom of 4 under 9 says:

    Hmmm…so at what age is the author allowed to call what she is doing with her daughter “unschooling/homeschooling?” Believe me, as a fellow homeschooler (and striving to become an unschooler) I also have been amused at times when people claim they are going to “homeschool” for Preschool, yet in the same breath talk about where they will attend K-12.
    I guess it interests me as my oldest will be 9 later this year, but my youngest is 2. I could make an argument we are “unschooling” our 3 year old. He is extremely bright. Surpasses any 3 year old I have seen in any thing he tries. Whether it be in athletics or his conversation skills/vocabulary or just his zest and curiosity for life, he far surpasses other 3 year olds we know.
    Our environment is rich and set up for him to thrive as well as for all of our children. He asks about specific math problems and if we use a word he doesn’t know he always asks for you to define it for him. Not the “why why why” typical of 3 yr olds. He genuinely wants to gain knowledge.
    Yes, I suppose one could make an argument that this is all “parenting”. Fun stuff. But isn’t this the type of thing where the lines are easily “blurred?” Where does parenting end and “unschooling” begin?

    When you are “unschooling” you are parenting at your best I think. I know many parents… and they are not putting the time, energy,attention or resources into their child like we do. So I guess I could make an argument that we homeschool/unschool all of our children as we have zero plans for them to ever attend school.
    I don’t think at 5/6 years of age my son will suddenly earn a label as an unschooled child.

    Today I watched as my 3 year old son gathered up various bungie cords in the yard..he then asked for his basketball net to be lowered..he then hooked the bungie cords together multiple ways until he had just the right combination to make them just the right length to hold his Camelback water bottle at a certain height. From there he was able to have it swing back and forth and was able to catapult things from it. Again, this could be argued as child’s play. However if we were to say “stop doing that…you almost just hit your brother..those bungie cords don’t belong to you….” I would consider that more parenting and less unschooling.

    If the author has no plans to enroll her child in school than I think she has every right to call it unschooling if that is the genre of homeschooling she plans to pursue. i do know however that “unschoolers” are a hard crowd to please:)

  7. jessica
    jessica says:

    Parenting and unschooling are a bit one and the same. I think it lies in the parent child relationship and maybe this post is interesting in that it shows the thought process behind a mom trying to parent better.

  8. mh
    mh says:

    Parenting? Unschooling? Playing? Bah. At three years old, there’s not much distinction for parents at home with their kids.

    This post shows a family laying the groundwork for shared experiences and valuing childhood.

    I’d say this is a family that will do well as homeschoolers. Best wishes.

  9. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    I respect the fact that you are venturing an answer as to the role that you should play in your kid’s development/education. I’m doing the same thing (only with a younger kid).

    I know that I don’t want to doom my son to some Lord of the Flies type upbringing; neither do I want to disrespect his unique perspective and personality.

    I think its important that you treat your daughter like her ideas matter. To you it comes naturally (per your point 1). Honestly, to me it will not. That’s why I read this blog and the comments.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Isn’t it crazy how people assume that self-directed learning equals chaos? Sometimes they can’t fathom that doing something different than the norm is just a different type of good, not the opposite side of the pendulum.

      As I am trying to honor my child’s needs and show him respect for his decisions (he’s pretty little) I also see the need for laying the base for authority as a parent. I want him to trust me and not feel stifled. I want to be able to say “NO!” if he’s running into danger and he will stop because we have an agreement that when mom yells NO! it’s because there’s danger.

      I am trying a more gentle approach to parenting than I experienced or I saw modeled before me. But it doesn’t mean free for all and free of discipline.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Oooh, I like this. I’m an advocate for gentle parenting. This doesn’t mean there is no structure in our lives. My oldest kid needs structure otherwise she experiences severe anxiety; having her take acting classes from an industry professional in Los Angeles has already helped her make certain strides in this area.

        I think you can still maintain your authority as a parent by being a guide, facilitator, and role model… vs being an authoritarian parent and having the house run like a dictatorship. This, of course, will have to be adjusted for each child as they are unique individuals, and some kids will need boundaries given, and others will have the ability to set their own boundaries by imitating their parents and modeling the behaviors they witness in adults and mentors.

  10. Primrose
    Primrose says:

    I love this article! It embodies everything beautiful about unschooling. I was consciously unschooling my (now 4 year old) boy/girl twins from birth; I certainly don’t think you have to wait until school age. After all, given that we are unschoolers, we shouldn’t be putting these labels on education! Side note: Erin seems an amazing mother, and I wish her all the best with her little fairy! :)

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