We all believe in freedom. That’s why we take our kids out of school. We take them out because we want the freedom to raise our kids the way we think is best.

Many of us also want our kids to have freedom to learn in a self-directed way. After all, the data is nearly universal that self-directed learning is the most effective way to educate kids. But of course that’s only feasible in a home environment, so the data never drives a discussion in a world that insists on sending kids to school.

Defining self-directed learning isn’t easy though, even for homeschoolers.

I told my older son he could quit gymnastics but only if he ran up the hill to our farm three times a week instead. “It’s good to be breathless sometimes,” I tell him. We compromise and now he takes a rest in the middle of his gymnastics lessons.

I wonder: Is this self-directed learning or making only slightly less bad choices?

I told my younger son he should get a website at 1&1.com because it’s free to start, and it has everything he needs. But he wanted money to put his site on an overly complicated portfolio type site.

I wonder: What is the line between freedom to learn and a bottomless bank account?

I made my older son go to a cello concert because kids who get along with siblings in adult life are happier people. I decide I will instill in him that you support your brother even if it feels like suffering.

I give him my iPhone to record the concert, but afterwards, instead of watching the next kid play, my son is reading about how to write new material on the SCP Foundation wiki, which is, as far as I can tell, a creative writing site where you write about a pretend problem that occurs in this video game.

Regardless of my inability to understand the site, the writing is detailed and careful (here’s formatting guidelines for footnotes). And the advice is great, like dangerous does not always equal interesting, and take feedback to heart, even if it’s blunt and direct. It’s advice I would have given to the writing class I taught at Boston University.

If I told my son to read a how-to-write-well book he would die of boredom. If I told him to sit at the concert with nothing to read, he would die of boredom.

So I give up the idea that I can control what he learns, and in fact, he knows a surprising number of cello concertos for a violinist who hates sitting in concerts. And he has a surprising grasp of what makes good writing for a kid who has never had a writing assignment in his life.

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30 replies
  1. Tiffany
    Tiffany says:

    Love it!
    But I like the term INSPIRATION. And maybe, sometimes, it takes a little coehersion to get inspired. Even I do that to myself, in my efforts to get in front of the paint brushes…..

    Enjoying your articles, quietly, until now.

  2. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    Walking the line between unschooling and unparenting is pretty tough. I think this is why I’ll never call myself an unschooler; it’s to hard to commit to 100% self-direction. Kids need help from parents to define and enact goals and values. Even the extremely disciplined and motivated kids need to be told to take a break sometimes.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Hmm, well I will have to disagree with you here. Unschooling is not unparenting. Those that try to make that claim do not appreciate or know what unschooling is truly about. Those who unparent and say they are unschoolers are not truly unschoolers, but are in fact lazy parents.

      Unschooling is freedom from dogma, indoctrination, and coercion. Parents act as facilitators, keeping a resource rich environment for kids to have access to materials for learning, setting up goals, classes, and activities to meet the child’s needs. Parents are also coaches and mentors especially at very young ages, encouraging their kids to try new things and exposing them to new ideas.

      As for instilling goals and values, my family highly values freethinking, autonomy, mindfulness, science, and intelligence. Values are modeled and shared through logical and reasoned discussions explaining appropriate behaviors, activities, and health.

      An unschooling parent’s job isn’t easier just because they don’t follow a traditional path. After 5 hours in a flow state my daughter needs some reminding to take a break, walk around etc until she does that naturally. Encouraging breaks from my highly autodidactic, self-directed child doesn’t mean I’m not an unschooler.

      • Hannah
        Hannah says:

        Absolutely! Unschooling and unparenting are not the same thing, and I definitely didn’t mean to insinuate that they are. I merely meant that by not calling myself an unschooler I think will actually give me the freedom to better enact child-led learning in a way that meshes with my values.

        I believe in many of the core values of unschooling that you mentioned, and my husband and I enact those values as a parent and in our “homeschool” life (with a toddler- so grain of salt here). That said, I don’t think I can as rigidly adhere to those standards as you might be able to which is why I can’t call myself an unschooler even though our home environments may end up looking very similar.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          I’m slightly confused at what you mean by rigidity in unschooling. There is no rigidity or dogma, unschooling is freedom in my experience. I choose to stay away from self-appointed gurus who are known to be bullies to those who don’t think like them or employ their own brand of unschooling. With that crowd you will certainly find some rigid dogma, but a lot of us are rejecting that and living in the freedom and success we have found that comes with an unschooling philosophy.

          I’m an unschooler, but what I do may look different from a different unschooler, and that unschooler may not look like other unschoolers either. We all should do what is right for our kids, freedom from coercion seems to be at the very least a good principle for most people. I know that I will outright reject something if I feel I am being coerced. I am proud to be an unschooler….if one couldn’t tell that already. :)

    • liz mom of 5 under 10
      liz mom of 5 under 10 says:

      I myself have used that term “unparenting”. I think that is very different than say unschooling. I sometimes am asked about unschooling by other home schoolers. This one mom in particular kept asking and pressing me for answers to questions about television watching in our home. To me that seemed more of a parenting issue not necessarily a unschooling issue. She kept asking questions about how much TV they watched and when I told her not much because they are doing other things she kept asking “but what if they wanted to watch x hours….. what if they wanted to watch x show…” At the time I wasn’t prepared to answer because it was a nonissue, but now I say sometimes parenting and unschooling meet together somewhere and the lines may be blurry, but to me parenting and say rules/boundries or what have you may be different. I have no issue calling myself an unschooler or child led learning or interest driven family or whatever the term du jour is. I am however my young children’s mother and yes they do have boundaries and rules and also are encouraged to do things or pick from things once in awhile.

  3. Pat Sommer
    Pat Sommer says:

    kids need practice functioning in a world of coercion, right? They need to find the balance between pleasing themselves and pleasing others; that’s home life.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I don’t subscribe to the BGUTI mentality. Kids can find that balance through proper modeling by their parents.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I wonder: What is the purpose of an education and how do you achieve it?

    I think you’ll get almost as many different answers to that question as people you ask. There will be similarities. However, there will be variations that can be cited. In this post, I think there are three different answers – you and each of your sons. You have the benefit of age and experience. Your sons have the benefit of knowing what excites and interests them. However, they may not know exactly why and how something will benefit them in the future. I think a crucial element to closing the gap and syncing up is keeping a wide open avenue of communication between you and them at all times. You want them to be able to come to you at any time to ask questions, ask for help, ask for advice, etc.

    • liz mom of 5 under 10
      liz mom of 5 under 10 says:

      YES. THIS! The part about the future. I look at my 9 almost 10 year old and his enthusiasm for starting a landscaping company. The business cards, the hanging out with the subdivisions lawn guy. The talking to others about the services he offers. At the same time i think it would be helpful if he learned how to do some basic percentages or count money faster…..I can suggest those things and give examples of why they will be useful in his business. I don’t see this as forcing anything on him, just suggesting to him maybe some of his energy could be put towards math at some point and not just recutting our lawn several times a wek and making fliers and business cards.

  5. h
    h says:

    Unfettered self-directed learning is a crock when it comes to about 100% of children. There is just no way that a child is going to magically prepare themselves sufficiently for the adult world without guidance or coercion. I know that’s a controversial statement around here, and I say it as someone who is wholly dedicated to the benefits of self-directed learning. But it’s unavoidable–you have to be aware of how you’re going to intervene if you want to be a self-directed learning educator.

    How familiar are you with how Reggio-inspired teachers teach? For those of us who value self-directed learning, it’s a thing of beauty when done well. Teachers set the stage with some big questions and/or “invitations” (materials in the environment that invite exploration). Kids then are expected to engage the questions or materials with their own curiosity, inventiveness, and desire to learn. The teacher then follows the students’ questions and actions, providing relevant materials and activities for ongoing learning. In a way, the teachers determine what students will be interested in by providing an inspiring hook. But that doesn’t take away from the “self-directedness” of the learning, because kids can get interested in just about anything, and can find their own path of interest in a good question or set of materials.

    I agree that what you’re talking about is parenting, not self-directed learning. No, you should not provide a bottomless bank account, you should require them to make decisions based on limited resources. That’s parenting.

  6. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    First off – I challenge this statement: We all believe in freedom.

    Many years ago I, along with my best friend, got into a debate on Georgia Unschoolers about this. I was surprised by how many Unschooling parents thought it was right for them to honor their child’s freedom but not mine, as an adult. If all Unschoolers actually valued freedom, they would be Libertarians politically, at the very least.

    Also, “freedom” to do what you want with your children is not the same as freedom FOR your children.

    I don’t think it is difficult defining, self-directed learning. It pretty much says it all in the phrase. A self completely chooses what it what’s to learn, in the manner it wants to learn, and when it wants to learn. I just don’t think most parents and many Unschoolers actually agree with this. I think Penelope agrees with this statement up to a point and with many qualifications (and perhaps, only about academics and hobbies).

    A couple of examples Penelope gave in this post are not self-directed learning. Penelope has goals that she wants her children to also have but they are not freely chosen goals on the part of her sons.

    Why are there conditions on whether or not her son can quit gymnastics? If it is a money thing or about driving him around thing, then why not address that? If it’s about health and fitness then show by example and make the case for it in a relevant and non-preachy way. I thought Penelope was in agreement with the “right” of kids being able to quit things. – per Peter Gray.

    Why does her older son have to go to the younger sons’ concert? That does not “instill” the value of the younger son for his older sibling. That instills in her older son that Penelope, at times, gets to substitute her values for her older son’s values. It will also cause the older son to eventually resent his younger brother – if she continues with this forced interaction among the brothers. I also don’t think it is surprising that her older son decided to do something else during the concert. In that small moment, with the phone, he was able to exercise his freedom.

    Why not have this approach with her boys: that sometimes we will all “have” to do stuff together because of scheduling and logistics issues. It could go very far with them if she would say: I will never force you all to interact with each other but I am hoping you all will find the same, if not similar, value that I find when I interact with you all.

    The website issue is not about coercion vs freedom. It’s about balancing Penelope’s values. Penelope wants her son to have the opportunity to pursue a goal but she is also aware of her limited budget. Why not let her boys know in advance what her total budget is for them in helping them pursue their values and accomplish their goals? This could be done on a monthly basis and could include just about everything: hobbies, sports, clothing, extra food, trips, etc. That leaves them free to figure out for themselves how to allocate their limited money for their values. You know, like we do as adults.

    I did like the title of her post – it reminded me of my admiration for some of my heroes, The Founding Fathers. I would encourage the unschoolers out there to err on the side of freedom instead of coercion.

  7. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    I am sincerely asking how children who are unschooled handle the necessary but tedious and boring tasks in life or simply put, drudgery. Life involves unavoidable drudgery. Work involves drudgery. There are more people now who refuse to handle drudgery. In our cooperative, we see that some families jump in and handle it while others dash out the door when the cleaning starts. I don’t enjoy cleaning, but I help as much as I can because that is what is necessary. I am not talking purely about cleaning. There are other tasks that are academic or personal that require pushing oneself to achieve the greater goal. Most jobs have boring and unpleasant tasks involved. How can self-discipline be learned without someone holding you accountable for an outcome? I am sincerely asking how this works out. I have never met or hired a person with this type of up-bringing so I am just wondering. I was raised with this mindset: do what it takes to get the job done. Look around and figure it out. Taking in that mindset took me far in life, and I, too, don’t like to be bossed around. In a sense, I take on more responsibility so that no one has to do it for me. I had the odd combination
    Of a strict up-bringing with enormous freedom (single parent household). I appreciate greatly the freedom discussed here. My question is about how you can instill a strong work ethic when children only do what they feel like doing. I am not challenging anyone on this. I am trying to learn.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      I think the contrast between unschooling and unparenting some prior posters have brought up helps to see how this could work.

      You can still parent your kids even if you unschool them. Even if you don’t make them study math or history, you can still make them wash the dishes and pull weeds in the garden. That’s parenting.

      I think there’s something to be said for demanding drudgery only in non-academic matters. Also, it’s more helpful (once they get past the point where their “work” just creates more work for you cleaning up after it).

      I remember one day when my son was six he said he was tired of studying math. I said sure, come on out and help me trim the hedge. Fifteen minutes later, math seemed like a great activity to him. I know there are folks here whose kids would rather trim hedges than study math, but my son learned that day he’s not one of them. Then we could talk productively about what exactly he was finding boring and find a way forward.

      These days my son can be a big help with taking care of his sister, with setting and clearing the table, washing dishes, doing laundry, and scheduling. He also makes a good martini and loves to cook breakfast for guests (not at the same time, what kind of establishment do you think we run?).

      But he still hates yard work.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      Did your parents work hard at what they deemed necessary? Kids learn a lot from that.
      Kids are not born lazy. They are inquisitive, curious, insatiable, etc. We either facilitate a good environment for growth or not. For example: If they sit being absolutely unmotivated by anything there is probably a bigger problem at play (such as medical). Also, if you play Dragon mom to kids, they end up with a whole host of other problems. Balance and conscious parenting is key.

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      I really don’t know the answer to “how.” It just happened. I would read the “Little House” books to my child and be envious that the children wanted to pitch in and contributed so much to the household. Mine never did and I didn’t coerce her. Then one year or month or day she just did. She has a grateful, pleasant attitude of keeping a home the way you want it. If you want it, you have to make it happen. You can’t know it will happen because child #2 doesn’t do this! But he cooks for me and brings me drinks when I’m working on the computer.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:


      I’m an unschooling parent and I think it is so important for our kids to see us struggle, to fail at something, to work through tough situations and make it out… or not. If we are modeling to our children that life has zero struggles, then we will be setting them up for failure.

      I’m trying to finish reading ten different non-fiction books I have going, showing the struggle to get through them all at a reasonable time, that is modeling. My husband is working out some math, showing his frustrations…maybe even swearing over it… but finishing it none the less, this shows perseverance to our kids.

      I can say that I have been making goals for myself as long as I can remember. My goals are always things that were positives for me in the end, had struggles to get there, but I was motivated to work through the struggles because *I* wanted to, not because anyone was coercing me.

      When we let kids know, and show them, that it is ok to try something and fail, or that struggle happens, this is setting them up for real life expectations. In real life, adult-life, one can quit at any moment they wish, with or without consequences, so why shouldn’t children start making some of those decisions as soon as possible? Why not let them struggle, or even fail? Why does every activity need to be a success? If we only expect them to be successful, this can set them up for failure and perfectionism can ensue preventing them from meeting whatever potential they had in life, paralyzing them, so that they only try things that they will be successful at.

      If you have a child that craves boundaries, give them some boundaries but also don’t keep checking on them all the time to see if they are meeting those requirements. Give them the freedom to set requirements, without the parent having to drill sergeant everything.

      I would say that non-traditional parenting is even more difficult than traditional parenting because you constantly have to hold back your fears and doubts and learn to trust your children.

      • Katarina
        Katarina says:

        The responses to my question have been interesting. Everyone has their own take on it, which is how it should be. I live my life struggling to learn knew things, as well as my husband, so that is all my kid knows! I had to chuckle when you wrote that. When I think about it, we actually don’t coerce our son. He isn’t “forced” or really coerced to do anything and he has never received a grade from me in his life. That will change by 8th grade only because he’ll need a transcript to take classes at the community college (which is what he very much wants to do, and he is not being forced to do that) so I understand your the general premise, but I wanted to see how people articulate it. Some people felt the point was more about parenting than academics, others felt it was both. The person who commented on personality playing a role hit the nail on the head. My son is an ENTJ. You can’t tell an ENTJ anything. He has high standards, and often unrealistic expectations of how easy/hard something should be. Despite being very talented in music and art, he doesn’t like to do them, and I don’t require it. I find other ways to satisfy those requirements because in our state, we don’t have carte blanche. He sees/hears us struggling to learn new things day and day out. He does the same. For his larger goals, he needs to understand that he has to challenge himself to meet the goals if he wants to get there. When we tell him that, we are telling him the truth, it isn’t coercion. I’ve taught many homeschooled kids whose parents are very, shall we say, relaxed, and they don’t necessarily have (as kids) any standards for themselves. I sometimes wonder if the kids are being shortchanged or if they are just being true to themselves and wouldn’t be any different even if they were told that it is in their best interests to kick it up a notch. I am not talking about 0 – 13 year olds, I am talking about 14 – 18 year olds. By that age, there is really nothing a parent can do, and if a person hasn’t developed a set of high standards for him or herself, it is not clear where they will come from. As an example, I also teach piano. Some teachers emphasize note recognition and getting timing correct. That is a low standard. There is so much more to playing an instrument than just getting the correct notes. I have new (to me) students who have played for years and I have to return to the basics with them so that they can turn a piece from something hinky-dinky into music. This is often times hard. The kids who come to me know that I am going to work with them this way. They choose to stick with me because they love the result of the music they are getting. This is true across the board. Thus, unschooling (which I do far more of than not, as my son wants our direction but only does what he wants to do at the end of the day) is a term that can lead people to think that kids figure everything out on their own. In fact, it is more accurate to say that kids buy into (or not) the idea of learning, pushing oneself and pursuing personal goals (at some level of quality) and the parents provide that context for what possibilities and standards exist. My son loves Civil Air Patrol. He will read/study/ get up and spend the day in the heat, etc. because he loves it. But he knows about self-discipline because he was directly taught, by my husband, by me and by others he hangs around with.
        People can decide to change their habits at any point in life. I saw that as an academic advisor at a state university. Many students who flunked out of college in their first few years came back six years later to become straight A students. That was not uncommon among male students. So maturity also plays a large role in how/whether people pursue goals. People can change their minds, change their course of action, change anything. However, without knowing what is “out there” and what the expectations of that profession/field are, kids can delude themselves into thinking that they are pretty hot stuff when they do not realize that there are many other people out there who are pursuing the same goal and working 10x as hard. This has no meaning for younger kids, as it comes into play more in high school, but the problem is, if most habits are not formed by high school, it is harder to develop them. And like I said before, it is still possible to change, but it is definitely harder. I’m done rambling.
        Thanks for all the input, everyone.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:


          Thanks for your response. So many great points were made. :) I have to ask, do you teach music AND something else, I wasn’t sure? Is this for your homeschool community or for your community in general?

          Oh ENTJ… my youngest is one as well. I understand, you really cannot tell them to do anything, but the good news is that eventually they do it all on their own and are extremely self-directed.

          Hey, I know someone whose son also does CAP! It takes a lot of self-discipline and self-direction to be able to participate. How old is your son? I will more than likely have to do grades if my kids truly want to go down the paths they keep mentioning, but I’m looking for any way for them to skip high school, I feel that it sets unrealistic expectations. I have a few options including CSULA early entry program, as well as jr. college instead of high school. There is more freedom at that level, and professors treat you with dignity. If my kids choose to not go an academic route, then I still think that unschooling will give them more opportunities to experience and participate in real life, be entrepreneurial etc. As for your more relaxed homeschooled students, I wonder how different they truly are from public schooled kids at that age?

          • Katarina
            Katarina says:

            About my teaching: I am nuts. I teach literature/history and German in the homeschool community (grades 6-8 and h.s. classes and German – a total of three) and I also teach piano to the community at large, although 95% of my students are homeschooled. I also teach various enrichment classes like music appreciation, etc. Lastly, I “coach” the robotics team (BEST robotics competition) in the marketing component of the competition. Our homeschool team won 2nd place out of 37 public schooled teams, and we also won second place for spirit and sportsmanship. We felt really proud of that…you don’t need to have a “school” behind you to be a team of kids with spirit. (They also won first place in robot for the regional competition but scored in the top 25% in the sectionals). They knocked themselves out helping the other teams and that effort won them the award. Just another plug for the beauty of homeschooling, but I digress…
            My son is 12. He is highly motivated about CAP. It gives him enormous joy and satisfaction. Ultimately, he is thinking Air Force Academy. Of course, that may change, but that is the goal at this point. He has a lot of overachiever cousins (and dad, aunts, and uncles for that matter) with engineering degrees of all kinds from prestigious universities, so being an ENTJ, he thinks he has to live up to the “credentials” of his much older cousins. I didn’t/don’t push that. That is his temperament at work. I just spent a few hours this week getting the facts straight about dual enrollment at the local community college when he hits high school. Very likely many, if not most of his classes will be taken there and either transfer (if he goes to some university) or just qualify him (potentially) for the AF Academy. So I am essentially “skipping” high school as much as possible. Even if he changes his mind, he is already making great efforts to educate himself, train, work hard, etc. For people who like a lot of discipline type activities and like clear cut goals for promotion, as well as real world training for emergency services and even possibly flight training, CAP is the way to go. They provide a lot of leadership training opportunities. My son likes how real world it is. He doesn’t like simulations or kid stuff. He wants to think that what he is learning is for the adult world and it is.
            I had a lot of practical experience growing up, and even though I was definitely academically oriented, it was my practical experience that gave me the skills for the best jobs I had (before I became a parent, which was a bit later than most people).
            Pondering the question of the more relaxed homeschooled students, I actually concluded that they would probably be the same in a public school setting. I taught for several years at a state university and the range of academic skills was shockingly wide. Some kids simply couldn’t remember to write their names on the papers, let alone complete the assignments. I sometimes put my students in pairs for work and I had one girl (who was coming from the sorority world) thank me for putting her with a young guy who was not from that world. She said that if I hadn’t done that, she would have never known how nice he was and he was helpful as a partner. That is another one of my stories for people who think public schools teach social skills. They do the opposite, from my observation.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:


            That all sounds wonderful!

            Your homeschool community is fortunate to have you be a part of it. :)

  8. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    Would your approach ever involve asking your son to challenge himself academically or does he move solely in the direction and pace he likes? Anyone with advanced knowledge in a field has to push through certain frustrations and boundaries. I have cried through academic challenges and needed someone to prod me on to get over some blocks. Is that coercion? Sometimes I really wanted to give up. There was a certain guy, 30 years ago, who used to really try to push me to keep going. I married him. I am thankful for him.

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      I think those who have raised 5 or 10 kids have a better grasp on this. It depends a lot on the child’s personality. ENTJ child has an internal drive to master herself and things that she can’t do until she can. Aspie type doesn’t like an educational challenge at all. He will challenge himself in areas that let him meet his own goals.

      • Katarina
        Katarina says:

        I would agree that people who have homeschooled many children or who have been homeschooled have a firm grasp on this. We can all have our theories, but we don’t know how things will play out until we have been through the journey. We can never know, because, I agree, it all depends on the personality of the child. Parents who are more comfortable unschooling are going to be natural at it. While my son has enormous freedom, he isn’t unschooled. When given the choice between our model and unschooling, he wouldn’t want to be unschooled, for his own various reasons. Having taught students from pre-school to graduate school, I am of the firm conviction that each person is his/her own story. I’m grateful that we homeschool not just because of the quality of education, but most of all because we get to be a family on a life adventure, instead of forcing ourselves into a machine and trying to accommodate someone else’s agenda. We get to be a family and enjoy the art of living and learning together. Can’t ask for anything more than that.

  9. jessica
    jessica says:

    I’m of the belief that a kids(and adults) freedom must be free from coercion. We don’t need to manipulate children into doing things. That shows an utter lack of respect. I know if they have good healthy familial relationships while they are younger they will most likely have good relationships with themselves and those around them when they are older. I think it’s more important to focus on if I’m placing myself in their shoes enough, today, and meeting their needs, today, because that brings tomorrow and so-forth.

    My son has chores, but the way I handled it is that i got on my hands and knees and guided him through the process day in and out until it was more of a habit for him and then let him take the reigns. He has no issue taking care of what he needs to take care of. If their is something he hates doing we figure it out pretty quickly and move on.

    I think this post is definitely more about parenting skills versus gains in education.

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