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.