How do unschoolers turn out?

When you look at this headline, the important thing appears to be unschoolers. But in fact, the important thing is “turn out.” That is, what does it mean to “turn out well?”

We can safely say that the place you go to college is not the answer to how you turn out. Because people skip college and do fine. Bill Gates, for one. And you can go to Harvard and have child services remove your kids from your home. My dad, for example.

Which is why I am particularly interested in the question of what it means to turn out well. So many people thought my dad would be fine. “He went to Harvard!”

Even before I had kids I knew IQ would not be my gauge of how well my kids are doing. But now, as an unschooler, I constantly look around for another gauge.

After coaching a wide range of people for ten years, and launching two companies that help people manage adult life, I have come up with three factors to measure unschooling:

1. Does the transition from childhood to adult life go smoothly?
We are in an age of crisis for twentysomethings. The gap between what school teaches and what adult life demands is so wide that the most common age for depression is one’s twenties. We have new terminology: the quarterlife crisis. And a new drug addiction: Adderall. Because while other generations spent their 20s finding themselves, we do not have the economic prosperity or cultural fluidity that allows people to dance at Woodstock and live in communes for their first decade of adult life.

But, good news for unschoolers: A study by Peter Gray finds that one of the most commonly cited benefits of unschooling is the relatively seamless transition from childhood to adulthood because of the intellectually and emotionally aligned tools of the two stages of life.

2. Does the family remain a cohesive unit?
My mom has four kids and while we each celebrate Passover, none of us does it with her. My dad just had a heart attack scare, and the day after he emailed us about it, none of the four children had responded to see how he’s doing.

You can say we are selfish, or unsocialized, or Asperery, but the truth is we just don’t feel close to our parents. They cared very little for us growing up, so we care very little for them now. My therapist tells me this is an extreme example, but in my mind it seems like a huge achievement for parents to do such a good job with their kids that their kids adore them as adults.

That adoration looks, for the most part, like family cohesion. Members are supportive and caring of each other even though they have lives of their own.

Gray’s poll where parents reported their biggest reason for unschooling, most said improved family life. And in studies where kids complain about not going to school, there are those who resented limited science or limited playmates, but none complains of neglect or lack of family unity.

3. Does the child have solid self-esteem as an adult?
So much of self-esteem is nature, not nurture. It comes from inherent optimism, which  is 70% genetics according to psychologist Sonia Lyubirmirsky. And Bryan Caplan reports that twin studies also show that optimistic views of the world are largely inherited.

I see this is my youngest son who is the fun sunny optimistic one in any room (definitely not from my nurturing!) Also there are kids who need intervention because they are clinically depressed. And there are kids whose esteem is unnaturally repressed by letting them loose on a playground full of heathens.

We have solid research to show that jobs don’t make us happy, but jobs can destroy our ability to make ourselves happy. The same must be true of education. A solid education does not lead to “turning out well” but a terrible education can take a child who is just fine and undermine her ability to turn out well.

If we look at what a job provides that is sufficient for us being our naturally happy selves, we can gain insight into sufficient schooling as well: A child needs clear goals that are challenging but possible. NYC public schools administrator Lisa Nielsen points out that this is the baseline for effective education as well. She says if you can’t get it from your school, take your child out of school. Why? Because it’s so easy to give it to your child outside of school.

The bottom line is that having an unschooler turn out well is not all that difficult. It’s so easy to have a kid turn out well from unschooling that there is not a clear measure of who is doing well. And that might be one of the most difficult parts of unschooling: parents want a grading system to know how they are doing. The hardest grading system in the world is the one where we have to measure ourselves against our own standards.

12 replies
  1. Satya
    Satya says:

    The overwhelming question I’m left with is to wonder, if we unschool, whether I as their mom will turn out OK.

  2. redrock
    redrock says:

    turn out well = be a kind person, be true to yourself, have confidence and don’t let people walk all over you, use your abilities and talents to their fullest. I always think that this is better then an arbitrary definition of having attended Harvard, which really does say nothing about you as a person.

  3. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    I think that your first point is incredibly important.

    As a child, I spent about half my time living by the rules of an institution. Not being one to rebel, when the confines of the institution were suddenly lifted as adult, I didn’t even realize it right away, so I sat and waited for life to happen to me.

    I think about half of my peers were sitters like me, and we’ve ever so gradually come to realize how open the world is for us. It’s not an emotionally easy transition to take charge of your life. You think it would be empowering, but it’s hard to taste that power for the first time as an adult.

    On the other hand, you’ve got the kids who were banging on the walls of the school, and when they were suddenly released they fell hard off the cliff of adulthood (having never really learned responsibility).

  4. karelys
    karelys says:

    I also think that in the turning out well, you can hit some points and not others. I, for one, have terrible self esteem in some aspects, but great esteem in others. However, we adore our parents. Even though I have many memories of interactions with them making me feel awful and like I wanted to cry but I had pretend to be tough.

    My two brothers, myself, and even my half-sister, always end up taking care of my mother and dad (in whichever way it is needed at the time), and my parents still take care of us, even if tiny ways. My mom will grab my kids so I can take a nap, and she’ll pack lunch for my brothers even though they are full grown adults with jobs that can easily afford to buy a delicious lunch. But they’ll make a 20 minute drive just to come have coffee, lunch, talk to her and ask how she’s doing.

    In that sense I think their efforts as parents have been successful.

    And I think I inherited my unhappiness from my dad. And I think my brothers inherited their perpetual chilled out attitude and overly optimistic worldview from my mom.

    I was trying to have a conversation with Chris, my husband, about this just this last Sunday night. I kept asking if he thought he turned out fine even though his mom wasn’t around much. But I didn’t have the words.

    I love this post for putting my thoughts into questions and giving it a frame of words to actually advance the discussion in my family.

  5. Gena
    Gena says:

    I think majority of people who are unschoolers have a very different definition of success and their standards incomparable to the school crowd. While for a certain a private school parent measure of success may be “went to Harvard” or “became a lawyer”, for an unschooler it’s likely “follows his passion” and able to feed his family.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:


    “… parents want a grading system to know how they are doing.”
    and yet isn’t it those same unschooling parents that don’t want or like the “grading” system for their children in the public schools because the assessment is not fair or is inaccurate? It seems like learning metrics are difficult to shake and hard to live without regardless of the vantage point from which they’re measured. Maybe the best metrics come from unbiased sources which are trusted for known reasons that are important such as grit, kindness, etc. in various circumstances.

  7. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    That is such a great photo! Is that one of Melissa’s?

    I’ll be very interested to see how unschoolers turn out in the next decade since not only has homeschooling grown in the past few years, but also the number of unschoolers has increased and so many different people are unschooling now.

    #2 really hits home for me. I hope that we remain a “together” family after they are off living their adult lives. I, too, am not very close with my parents, and I actually had a decent childhood comparatively speaking. Maybe just moving around all the time after I moved out and not living close by… I couldn’t wait to leave my parents house, looking back it wasn’t that bad and my millennial brother and sister (I am gen x) keep moving back in with them. Why did I want to get the hell out of there so badly? Meh.

  8. DMom
    DMom says:

    As a homeschooling mom who began our homeschooling journey with the aim of proving to the world (i.e., my mother) that our decision to homeschool was a good one and that my kids were highly intelligent, I began in earnest recreating “school” at home, complete with desks, workbooks, Montessori manipulatives, worksheets, aggisgnments, and homework. I was determined that my kids would be math geniuses or else some other kind of prodigy, given that they were clearly capable of doing advanced academic work, and I, a highly intelligent person with advanced degrees, should produce nothing less, right? I mean, they should smoke the public/private school kids in every subject, not to mention test scores, and it’s my job as a parent to push them, especially in those areas in which they show promise, right? Right?

    After many days of arguing with my (often crying) kids about the importance of doing their work and doing everything correctly, etc., I realized that I was making them miserable and pushing them away from me “for their own good.” I also realized that I was unfairly burdening and pressuring them to perform in order to validate our decision to homeschool in the first place – not to mention saddling them with baggage from my own crazy childhood.

    I also put myself in my kids’ shoes: If I were 8 and forced to sit alone at my kitchen table all day doing worksheets while my mother yelled at me, I’d beg to go to school.

    And so began our journey into unschooling.

    I can’t say that I have never looked back, though, because letting go of and rethinking practically everything I have been taught and have believed to be true — about success, achievement, status, intelligence, one’s concept of what someone needs to know or be able to do in order to succeed — ain’t easy.

    But I realized that this was my struggle, not theirs, and when I lifted this burden from their little shoulders and just Let Go, beautiful things began to happen. The unnecessary stress disappeared from the house, my kids and I quickly grew close again, and I started to become the loving, supportive mother that I had always wanted to be — and, to be honest, the one that I wish I had.

    But from this struggle, it became clear what my “goals” for my kids are, and what my husband and I hope the kids gain from their homeschooling experience. These are very similar to yours, Penelope:

    – I want my kids to know that their parents love them, and I want them to carry this love with them throughout their lives as a source of inner strength and peace.

    – I want my kids to know themselves, and to have the confidence and wherewithal to pursue their talents and abilities in order to create a meaningful, full life for themselves, and to have the courage and confidence to define success and happiness on their own terms.

    – I want to have a close relationship with them, and be involved in their lives as a reliable, constant source of support, encouragement, and love.

    (Basically, I want for them everything that I didn’t get either from school or from my parents.) Because of our decision to unschool, our family is on track to achieve these “goals.”

    Thanks for another great post, Penelope. I am grateful for your blog; your wit, wisdom, insight and brutal honesty inspire me, encourage me, validate my decisions, reassure me, challenge me, and just plain make me laugh.

  9. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    I love this post so much I read it in Feedly, tweeted it, and then came here to read it again and comment.

    First, the photo. It made me laugh. I like to laugh–need to laugh. All the time. Perfect image.

    Next, I’m in the midst of watching a child transition. It isn’t smooth exactly – rather, it is exciting and terrifying for both of us. And when she drives by for a few minutes after work on the way to her apartment just to hug me and talk? It’s amazing. It’s like winning over and over.

    And then, this –> “The hardest grading system in the world is the one where we have to measure ourselves against our own standards.” Ouch. I have to chew on that one a bit. Reigning in expectations for others is a weakness I work on DAILY. *sigh*

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