Once a week I have a moment of panic that unschooling is not working. But it’s not like I’m telling the kids, “I think you should go to school.” It’s more like I tell myself my kids will grow up to tell everyone how they wish their parents had emphasized math. Or schedules. Or socializing. Or I don’t know what. I just worry that I need to exert more control over something the kids are doing, but I’m not sure what.

So in these moments, I have a few people I reach out to. I have a cousin who is a musician and is always telling me not to worry about how much we practice. (“It’s the quality of the practice!”) I have a friend who is a teacher who sends me private links to groups of kids who quit high school. They are always so happy. (I never talk to the kids.) I have a friend who was unschooled – Melissa supplier of selfies– and it’s the thing she’s most grateful for. (Your kids will love you if you just trust them.)

I send emails to different people depending on what my self-doubt centers around. Today I reached out to Melissa:

Y is doing:
AP bio
Chemistry
Spanish
Writing/english
Violin

and I worry that it’s too many subjects for him. I hate doing a lot of things at once. Do you like doing a lot? Would this be a lot for you? I would rather sit in a chair for a month straight and do chemistry and then stand up and walk a round a little and then sit back down and not get up until i learned Spanish. One subject at a time, complete immersion or something. I hate switching topics.

So are you like me or different? I think Y learns like you, maybe.

Melissa wrote this back to me:
I am like you and I am like him. So, when I first started homeschooling I was in 6th grade, and I did all of middle school and high school English, plus some college English, in the first few months. But for subjects I didn’t care too much about, I liked being able to bounce around to keep me from getting bored.

So, I think I should just let him do whatever he wants to do, and don’t make him do anything he doesn’t want to do. And not on any schedule but the one he chooses.

This is not earth-shattering advice. But it’s what I needed to hear this week to feel confident that I’m doing the right thing for my kids. And it’s so comforting to hear the right thing at the right time. That’s why I decided to share it with you.

Maybe some of you have these little doubts as well, and if you take care of little doubts in little ways then nothing has the chance to get big and disruptive or destructive. And we can all leave our kids to their own devices. As we should.

40 replies
  1. Cáit
    Cáit says:

    I am not an unschooler, but sort of analogous I am an un-mom-corrector. I have noticed that most mothers are very good mothers, and are even when they seem weird are so similar to their children that everything works out. Just left to their own devices (-; honestly, the fact that most mothers are good mothers was a huge discovery for me. Because I would find many of these women stupid in a work environment I’m sure. It must special gift from above that most mothers are just what their children need. It’s a miracle I marvel at.
    Being a homeschooler you may be part of a community where you put aside a lot of doubts and judgements about other moms…
    I am a really structured homeschooler…is that making any reader judge and doubt me(-:

  2. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    So the tip is to brag on the internet about your son doing schoolwork above his grade level?

    Works for me.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      He is two grades behind in math and about five grades behind in reading. I write about this all the time.

      In case you’re interested, my other son is behind in all academic subjects.

      Penelope

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        AP Bio is usually offered in high school and is considered to be at the level of an introductory college course. I thought your oldest was around 13. I guess I was mistaken and he’s a junior, so it’s not above grade level. I’m a bad judge of age.

        In any case, it should give him some writing practice, as the test has eight essays, and some math practice too, and the score result is an opportunity to compare his accomplishments with those of other kids.

        So it sounds like a win all around.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          My son is thirteen. And actually I think my point is that I don’t know where he falls in the leveling system. I don’t know what sort of school kid he is the equivalent to. And it’s unnerving. Knowing how your kid lines up against other kids is a comfort to parents and unschoolers don’t have that — we only have discussions with other parents, I guess.

          Penelope

          • Bostonian
            Bostonian says:

            Well, if your 13 year old is taking a class designed to be above grade level for kids several years older, that’s nice isn’t it?

            Yes, it’s easy to lose touch and forget what other age peers are doing. Every once in a while I am surprised by that. I’m sure it’s worse if your kids are learning disabled, neuroatypical, or markedly asynchronous.

            A very lopsided skill set can also make moot my next suggestion, which is standardized tests. It’s a big sample size after all. My son recently took the first test in his life, and we were both cheered by the results.

            Math curricula are also necessarily sequential in a very standardized way. So you have a good idea of comparative level if your kids study math.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        How do you know that Yefet is behind five grades in reading? Wouldn’t that be the equivalent of reading picture books with one sentence on each page? Is he able to read and understand his AP bio class he is taking? That would put him well beyond grade level reading, and he would not be behind at all.

        Maybe he hasn’t found anything that has sparked an interest in reading what would be considered his grade level. Are you talking about fiction or non-fiction? I’m not a fan of the author, but has Yefet tried reading Ender’s Game? The book is really good for that age as well as adults. There were parts I skipped over but I really enjoyed it. Clearly his interest in reading science topics would at minimum put him right where other school kids are.

        With unschooling, I think what happens, is that we think our kids should be doing X, but instead they are doing Y and therefore we don’t know where Y will lead. So we keep trying to get them to do X, and since they aren’t interested in it, it only appears that they are behind. There is no academic baseline for unschoolers to compare since it is highly tailored for the individual.

        I don’t think we can avoid an outcome where our grown kids won’t be wishing for a little something different in childhood. As long as we are meeting their needs, and helping them reach their goals, what else can we do? No parent is perfect.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      We do a tutor for science and math. I tried letting him go on his own and he could do it but it’s really slow. So he has a math tutor who comes to the house — he’s a high school senior. And he has a science tutor he meets with over Skype — she’s a high school senior as well.

      I am teaching him Spanish. It’s a stretch. I know French and a little bit of German and a little bit of Hebrew. So I am good at learning a language even though I don’t know Spanish per se. We use Rosetta Stone for pronunciation. So it’s a combination of Rosetta Stone and me.

      I was going to teach him writing because I have already been a writing teacher. But I hated doing it, and anyway he needs to learn to write for colleges. So I hired someone to sort of teach to the test.

      I assign books that are at the high school level because otherwise he would read at a lower level and we’d have too much catch up to do for the SAT. I assigned books that I like. We have a deal that if he doesn’t like them after two chapters he can veto them.

      I should write posts about this stuff…. maybe later.

      Penelope

      • Melissa
        Melissa says:

        As a fairly new (1.5 years) homeschool family with 2 girls (15 and 12), I read your posts with interest. So this surprised me, all the subjects your son is studying and the tutors he has. That is not at all what I expected unschooling to be. It sounds like he’s on a college track, taking AP classes and learning to write essays. My worry is that I am pushing my girls too much, although they like being challenged. But it sounds like your kids are doing much the same, which is not at all what I would have expected, reading your other posts. I’m not saying it’s bad, but definitely different than I would have expected. It makes me rethink some of my expectations about unschooling.

        • Leonie
          Leonie says:

          I too often find the details of how other people homeschool to be the most interesting part. It’s all well good to have noble parenting/schooling philosophies, but at least for me, the day to day is the most difficult to conceptualize. Examples help.

          For me, homeschooling is about reclaiming childhood. I want to cultivate curiosity and learning, yes, but I also want to prepare my daughter for adult life. I imagine that as she gets older and her interests have matured, it will likely look increasingly mainstream – at least superficially. For example, I think the lab aspects of Bio or Chem are fundamental to understanding the discipline so those would be classes that I would encourage her to take at a community college or even pursue through an extension program at one of the many universities nearby. (We live in DC)

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        I just read an excellent article published today on teaching math. I got A’s throughout high school and college and still wish this concept of growth mindset was used when I took classes. I think I would have learned more, retained more and enjoyed the math classes even more. I recommend reading this article ( http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/11/30/not-a-math-person-how-to-remove-obstacles-to-learning-math/ ) (and the applicable links of interest) as I believe it’s a very good approach. The article is written with school as the learning environment. However, I think there are many good ideas which can be creatively utilized by a parent, tutor, and homeschooler or any combination thereof.

  3. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    We all become unschoolers at some point in our lives. Some of us went to school first. My point is learning is a life-long process. When we’re motivated to learn something well, we’ll become engaged and learn most efficiently in our own way. It seems to me learning is a very individualized process so it’s important to listen and respect the needs of the learner. Learners are attracted to good teachers and good mentors. What makes them good can be very subjective. However, I think trust is a key factor. If you’re a parent, teacher, role model, or mentor, the hardest thing to do sometimes is to watch and then give good advice at the correct time. Sometimes it requires letting them “fail”. Leave them with a lesson so they succeed the next time around. Ultimately, learning is a responsibility that the learner must assume for him or herself. It comes down to mastering the art of how to learn that works best for you.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think a lot about what is the direction of this blog. And I think you summarized it very well, Mark: “We all become unschoolers at some point in our lives. Some of us went to school first.”

      Thanks!
      Penelope

  4. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    That is how my oldest does things too. Topics that she cares about deeply are advanced through until it has been mastered. Topics that she is kinda-sorta interested in are buffet style. I never force things she doesn’t express interest in, but I do suggest things and talk about different topics. Grade levels have become meaningless to us.

    My issue is that she wants to go to college at 14 and my fears tell me that 14 is too young to really enjoy the undergrad college experience. But, I don’t want to tell her that she should forget her goals and come up with something else and that she should slow down. Who am I to say she is going too fast? She wants an advanced degree in the hard sciences before she turns 20. Does that 4 year age gap really make a difference in the long run? This isn’t bragging, this is genuinely asking for feedback. I don’t exactly have anyone to talk to about this, doesn’t it seem obnoxious? I don’t know.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I really like how you summarize why grade levels are meaningless. When I am confident I think that way. When I am worrying I think we will go through hell to get caught up enough to take a college entrance exam.

      Penelope

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      It doesn’t sound obnoxious to me, YMKAS. People do this. Maybe your daughter will. My wife and I both got our BAs at 19. A little faster and… But I guess you have to be more sure at a younger age. We both took time off to do other things before we went back for graduate degrees.

      The only advice I’d give is make sure she’s up on her people skills. Being younger than your peers counts against you, and you have to be ready to pick up some slack (and absorb some flak) with social ease and confidence.

      Being precocious is charming in a child. In an adult it’s yesterday’s news. Don’t forget to think about the adult your daughter will become after she’s done being a precocious child.

      That’s not saying she must slow down, or that prodigies are demented. Just that technical skills will never be enough except in the most precarious line jobs. At this point, finding an appropriate peer group might be a great help to her long term.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Bostonian,

        I really appreciate your response, and I like that I can usually count on you to give a logical solution. Once your son returns to school, do you think you will still come around this blog from time to time? If not, I would like to stay in touch somehow…email or something.

        You hit on something in your comment that is a proven struggle for her (me too). Peer groups. If by peer group you mean, a group of kids of similar abilities and interests, we have not had any luck with this. If you mean, the ability to make friends, this has mixed results which typically ends with her being targeted by bullies.

        I am not one to let MBTI guide my life nor let it define who I am (it can be helpful to those who live according to MBTI), but she is a textbook INTJ. So as you can imagine, finding lots of friends isn’t a priority for her. However, she does know how to make friends when she is interested, she has two very good friends that she really gets along well with, those two are not close by so the socializing in person doesn’t happen that often. She also participates on a swim team, theater, and music lessons throughout the year. But, she ends up bonding with the instructors more than the kids her own age. So now I’m a little anxious because I totally agree with you, but from what she has been telling me since she was 6 is that she wants to go into science/engineering/physics. :(

        The advice that I am usually given by other unschooling parents is to not expect for her to have any friends and to not worry about fitting in. That is difficult for me to accept, and I often reject that advice.

        • Bostonian
          Bostonian says:

          Yes, YMKAS, by peer group I mean a group of kids with similar abilities and interests. I understand this can be a tough bill to fill. And that your daughter might not even be terribly bothered by not having it. But I do believe in the long-term benefits. And I don’t think it has to be face to face every day.

          I hope nobody, even the newest reader, imagines I’m suggesting your daughter ought to go back to school. Finding a peer group at school might even be harder for her than finding it in her activities or among other homeschooled kids. Going back to school in order to find a peer group is something I have a hard time believing in, though at the moment I must.

          My son has this on his mind, and I am obligated to help him as best I can. My son has done very well finding a peer group among his homeschooled friends. The past five years have gone increasingly well in that regard. But then we have had attrition – the kids he likes the best dropping out of the group – and next year his best friend is going back to school for sure, and he sees loneliness on the horizon and thinks school might be the solution. Hence tests, essays, applications, visits… and oh so much disappointment at just how lame schools you have to pay 44,000.00 a year for can be. We’re visiting a place on Tuesday I have higher hopes for.

          My son is extroverted. He seemed like he might be introverted for a couple of years, but that was only traumatic shock from bullying at school. He got better. And now he’s entirely back to his normal personality and that is extroverted. Which means he really really needs a peer group.

          And he’s a bit odd. So his peer group has to be a bit unusual too. That gives two strategies: either a school that’s very particular in a way that gives a higher hit rate, or a school that’s so large every kid finds his tribe. I try to hate school less, just for his benefit. Because that’s where he wants to drive his education right now.

          I’m an introvert too. I get self-sufficiency, aloofness… I don’t need much socially (which makes homeschooling easier for me, I think). But here’s the deal: science isn’t something that happens alone. Striding off into the wilderness, burning the midnight oil all by yourself… that’s not the way it works. Collaboration, management, networking, schmoozing… these are skills the successful scientist needs, and she won’t learn them from a book.

          I love the science classes my son is taking now. That’s also a great place for him to find kids of similar interests and aptitudes. I’m happy his institute is forming a team for a competition (genes… in… spaaaaace…), because that’s the kind of thing he needs to do. Does your daughter have opportunities like that? Can you find some?

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            Thank you for responding, this conversation is so helpful! You have hit on some good issues, ones that I care about just as much.

            I agree that collaboration is essential in the sciences if one wants an advanced degree and to author papers or be on a research team. No, we haven’t had much luck finding peer groups, sadly. I hope that the science camps and classes get better once she ages into more advanced groups. For now, theater and acting classes offer the most opportunities for collaboration for her. Those are outside her wheelhouse, since she is shy, and yes, can seem to be aloof. But, at least she is getting the exposure to networking, the give and take involved in doing a scene together, etc… I feel can be extrapolated to other areas.

            Thank you for sharing more about you and your son, it all makes sense to me. Losing friends to attrition I’m sure is really tough for him. And, I can imagine the stress involved in finding a good school fit, because there really isn’t a *right* school out there that is perfect. But, there are some with good philosophies in place that caters to quirky kids, some even with a homeschool feel. Hopefully you can find one in Boston!

          • Bostonian
            Bostonian says:

            YMKAS, thanks for the good wishes. Yes, there is no right school. School is always and for everybody a compromise.

            I think that for a child like your daughter it is important to know that she does have peers. She’s not alone, not the only one like her. She’ll meet more of them at the university level, but all of them are kids somewhere. It might be interesting for her to participate at CTY or something similar. In this day and age, remaining in contact with far-flung peers is much easier.

            As for our search, all the progressive talk about finding your passion really appeals to me, it does. But as far as I can tell, the translation into praxis is “we won’t make your kid study difficult things, and we have great theatre classes.” A school for kids to find their passion when their passion is science is something we haven’t found yet. It would be crushing for him to go from polymerase chain reactions and plasmids to papier-mache models of watersheds.

            So, oddly enough, the school at the top of our list right now is very conservative. Like all boys, blazers and ties conservative. Because they think kids are capable of more, and a sartorial compromise will hurt less than an intellectual one.

        • mh
          mh says:

          YMKAS,

          I’m an INTJ too. I need one friend. I didn’t have a friend until sixth grade, and from then till now, at any time, I’ve had one friend. Different friends at different times, but always one friend. One total, deep, meaningful connection.

          17 months ago, my one friend died of cancer. Then we moved to a new city and state. This has been an unusual time for me. We’re about to move again, and I’m looking forward to meeting that one new friend.

          Peer groups come and peer groups go. Chances are good your INTJ doesn’t even notice them, except as obstacles not to be bumped into.

          True fact: I have bumped into so many people because I don’t realize people are nearby. I look past them. Sorry, everybody. Also I read books when I walk around. Teach your daughter to say, “oh, excuse me!” And grin like a sorority sister. This is a good skill for INTJs.

          Chances are, your daughter’s independence from her peer group will serve her well as she works toward her goals. Best to you.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            mh,

            I totally relate to all of this. Friends are draining, I have one or two that I consider myself very close to. Any more than that is overwhelming for me.

            But, I do consider myself very social and engaging when I am out and about, as long as there is limited small talk. Then, afterwards I need to hibernate for awhile.

            Good advice on the smiling, she is a pro at RBF. Fake smiling isn’t her thing, and she could use some practice.

            So sorry to hear about your friend. That totally sucks. I hate cancer. And… you guys are moving again so soon? Best wishes to your family!

        • Astrid
          Astrid says:

          I just wanted to mention, since you said your daughter is a textbook INTJ:

          I’ve known lot of INTJs, and what I’ve found is that you don’t really have to worry about them socially as long as they get some degree of social exposure (which it sounds like you’re doing very well at making sure she gets). None of the ones I know have many friends, but they’re VERY good at finding and befriending those people they become interested in. They seem to have a good sense for knowing exactly who they can and can’t get along with.

          And for people who are seen as so unsocial, they’re very good at maintaining the friendships they do make.

          That’s been my experience with them, anyway. I hope this helps, at least a little, in putting your mind at ease in this regard!

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      YMKAS, My eldest began college at 14 and set a goal for herself that I didn’t think she would meet, but I didn’t say so. She did meet it. She had a great experience at a community college with excellent teachers but it wasn’t the typical undergrad experience. It was really an extension of normal life with people of all ages and experiences. I wouldn’t have wanted to send her to a university campus at that age.

      She found a peer group as one of a group of tutors on campus. Surprisingly, several of them had been homeschoolers. Your daughter’s joining in on groups or projects, especially in the sciences, may give her a way to develop friendships.

      Age in that setting did not affect much. She did not tell people her age and seemed like she could have been 18. The “getting ahead” by finishing early doesn’t seem to have an impact in her life. It’s only impressive to people who haven’t heard of it, but so many homeschoolers do it that it’s normal. There’s so much to do, it doesn’t matter what age or “year” one is in.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Zellie,

        Thank you for sharing your daughter’s experience with me. It is very helpful. I’m glad to find others (so much easier online than in person) who can relate to my experience and provide some clarity.

        • ChemProf
          ChemProf says:

          One thing for your daughter to think about – if she wants an advanced degree (I’m assuming Ph.D.) before she’s 20, what does she want to do after that? I got my Ph.D. at 26, and wanted to be a professor. At 26, I was just plain too young to be competitive — I looked like the students I was supposed to be teaching — and I wound up spending five years in the postdoc circuit before getting a tenure-track job. Now the tenure track situation is even worse than it was, so graduating too young (unless she is an exceptionally brilliant mathematician, there are exceptions for that) may not help her get where she wants to go. It really isn’t a race.

  5. Leonie
    Leonie says:

    Penelope, I don’t understand how you believe that having your son study for AP bio, chemistry and Spanish and take violin lessons takes no self discipline… And that somehow, you’re not encouraging self discipline by guiding him through these activities. You are.

    All because he didn’t want to pick some vegetables?

    Sorry, to keep referring back to the last post but I’m having a hard time understanding the rationale.

    Or was this just a humble brag as someone else suggested?

    One day you post that your kid doesn’t need self-discipline. Teaching self-discipline is stupid. The next day, you post all the activities that he does that requires a lot of self-discipline – which you did not encourage or help with, of course, it just happened by magic.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I really think this is what it’s like to unschool. It’s constant questioning of yourself. Not seeing things the same way each day. Some days thinking things are great and some days thinking things are not.

      Bragging doesn’t work very well when you unschool: there is no standard for comparison. If you take your kids off the level system for grades and tests, then you take yourself off the grading system.

      For example, my son takes no science tests, so he’s taking AP bio but it’s not like he ever passed regular bio. Who knows how much bio he’s already learned? I think about that a lot.

      One thing that bugs me a lot is that I really want to know how my kids compare to other kids in school subjects but I really wish I didn’t want to know. So I let my mind wander there but I don’t let myself take action.

      Penelope

  6. Herb
    Herb says:

    Penelope,

    According to “How We Learn” by Benedict Carey, this interleaving of subjects may actually enhance learning.

    Herb

  7. malaika
    malaika says:

    oh I was like Yefet when I was in [regular] high school. it was always combinations of interesting topics, such as world history, kaballah, italian, and vegan cooking. what is the difference between a hobby and a course of study? If anything, this helped me identify very early on what I liked and didn’t like, enough to be fairly certain about my college major when I applied to colleges.

    I’ve met lots of people who use your metaphor – one thing at a time, deeply – with learning languages. maybe it works for them. for me, I’ve always studied multiple languages at a time, and it’s never confusing. just variety to keep things interesting.

  8. gt
    gt says:

    Sounds like we’re scared, wavering, at times untrusting of our kids, letting them go, then pulling back, then imposing classes, hiring tutors, to “catch up” to some ideal. Then worrying some more…
    So while I worry about the most appropriate way for my 8 year old to learn biology, he goes out, hunts an animal, dissects it perfectly, names all the organs and comes in to discuss recipes to make it for supper. Then I marvel at what he learned and I am happy that I was busy worrying and didn’t interfere with his process…

    • Jennifa
      Jennifa says:

      Rachel,
      I don’t know if anyone got back to you or not, but there is a book called, “The Teenage Liberation Handbook; How to Quit School and Get a Real life”. I believe if you google that, it will lead you to some blogs.

      Good Luck!

  9. Sarah Butland
    Sarah Butland says:

    Thanks for sharing your struggles and successes. I am just in my second year of home/un schooling and often struggle with like topics. Namely which is that I am doing more unschooling than schooling and never imagined myself doing so. My kid is smart, though it’s a biased opinion most people who met him recognize his intelligence first. So then I wonder if I’m putting too much on him or being too slack, not challenging him quite enough.

    The support group is what I need to establish and now, after reading this, I feel just visiting your site occasionally might be just what I need so thanks!

    Sarah Butland

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