Unschooling does not mean unstructured

When I first started writing, I wrote stories about myself at work. I didn’t know anything about reporting, or research. I just wrote about the insane things my coworkers did. 

Then I had kids, and was at home, struggling with work, so I mined my personal history for stories. My editor told me to add some spice. “People like research,” he told me. He was a great editor, and I learned so much from him years later when I finally took all his advice.

The first time I went wild for research was when I discovered that relationships make you happier than your job. I was shocked that there was hard data to prove it. And I was shocked that you could tell how happy someone would be by their sex life: Three times per week with the same partner. Those people are the happiest.

You don’t need to have good sex. It was really just that people are happy if they can a) love their partner enough to stick with them, and b) prioritize the marriage enough to structure their life carefully to accommodate regular sex.

Then I realized you need to look behind the data to see what it reveals. I do that constantly now. It’s how I figured out that unlimited screen time is fine for kids – but looking behind the studies. And then it made sense to me that kids who play competitive video games do better as adults.

The reason for this is video games require kids to structure their days so they can practice a lot, and they have to be able to find something they love to do so they can devote tons of time to it.

I also found interesting research from a very long-term study of Harvard graduates. The study determined early-on that going to Harvard does not mean you’ll have a happy adult life. But the study did find two factors that correlate to happiness.

If you are friends with your siblings at age 40 you’ll be happier in the second half of your life. This is not because our siblings make our life good, per se. Rather, in order to be friends with siblings you have to love them enough to forgive them when they piss you off.

Harvard also discovered that poor kids who did chores are happier as adults. Rather than asking who qualifies as poor among Harvard graduates, I started having my kids do chores.

And I realized that chores are about predictable family life and routine. Once I understood the impact of chores I was much more willing to bug the kids to do something that I could have more peacefully done myself.

Then I read an article in the New York Times by psychologist Lisa Damour about how important it is to have family dinners. I already knew the dinnertime research, and I knew it wasn’t the great food or conversation that made the meals so important; takeout works fine, and teens are notoriously annoying to talk with at dinner.

Damour has insight:

Regular meals serve as an easily measured proxy for one of the longest-standing and sturdiest determinants of adolescent well-being: authoritative parenting.

In the early 1970s, the psychologist Diana Baumrind identified two essential components of parenting: structure and warmth. Authoritative parents bring both. They hold high standards for behavior while being lovingly engaged with their children. Decades of research have documented that teenagers raised by authoritative parents are the ones most likely to do well at school, enjoy abundant psychological health and stay out of trouble. In contrast, adolescents with authoritarian parents (high on structure, low on warmth), indulgent parents (low on structure, high on warmth) or neglectful parents (low on both) don’t fare nearly so well.

This makes sense to me because I have to exert authority to get the kids to stop what they are doing and eat a meal together. And I have to be caring and warm in order to talk with them about stuff they care about, in a way they want to talk about it. (Recent topics: r/leagueoflegends, and r/politicalhumor.)

Which is all to say that so much research about what works in life is actually about love and structure. All the data in this post is just different ways of showing us that love and structure are what make things good. And I think this is what makes me such a strong advocate for unschooling.

In my mind, unschooling means that I respect my kids enough that I don’t do forced curricula. I believe in their ability to follow their curiosity and always be learning. But I also know that we are happiest when we set goals for ourselves and meet them. So I let them set their own goals, but I create structure so they can meet those goals.

And I remind myself, over and over again, that my own goal is structure + warmth, and I need to let the other stuff go.



4 replies
  1. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    I liked this post because it reminds me of growing up, specifically in regards to my Mom. Every Saturday (after breakfast and some tv) I had chores to do before I was allowed to do anything. I always thought that the dusting, vacuuming and window cleaning was stupid (I would actually hum the Cinderella cleaning song but change the name to “Stephanie-rella” because I was a child and hated doing all those tasks….as if anyone enjoyed them). But I also remember growing up knowing that I wanted to be a stay at home Mom like her, at least for a good portion of my kids growing up. I recognized that the reason why I probably stayed out of trouble vs my peers is that there was always someone around. While Dad may have had to work late, Mom made sure we always had family dinner and she was almost always there when I got home to ask about my day. She never missed a baseball game or parent teacher interviews, and she was one of those really active parents in both elementary and jr high (Canada system). I have literally ironed hundreds of red sashes for our choir group, and helped her sew new covers/drapes for the handbells tables growing up. I may have not been homeschooled, but she was always around the school nonetheless. So the explanation of the different types of parenting (and mention of chores) really reminds me of her and how she helped to structure my life growing up, and taught me while I would have never considered her to be a “teacher”. Makes me really appreciate all she did and how I hope to raise my own kid(s). So thanks for this post and first thing tomorrow morning I think I’ll give her a ring to talk about what you wrote.

  2. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I call myself a “benevolent dictator” dad — if you live in our home in the ways I’ve set up for us, then things will go well for you, kid. When we run out of something, write it on the list. Clean your own damn toilet. And dinnertime is sacrosanct.

    Being a divorced dad I got the time I got and I figured out fast that dinnertime is when they had to sit there for at least 10 minutes and talk. They couldn’t duck me then. So they didn’t.

    My older boy has always been a gamer. I’m old enough to remember the dawn of the video game age, to have lived through all that, but games never caught on with me. So he rattles on about WoW or DDO or Monster Hunter and I’m lost. But when he was four he rattled on about Yu-Gi-Oh! and I was just as lost then, and in the intervening years thanks to him I’ve developed a whole host of skills in listening while not understanding and I think I might have the boy snowed at this point into thinking I’m tracking with him.

    My younger son never had anything really to say until I figured out that he’s ISTJ and I started asking him what he thinks about stuff. Holy cow did that open up the words from that boy. I learned that he pays close attention to everything and has an opinion about it all. We’ve had some fascinating conversations and over and over he’s shared with me facts I didn’t know on a whole range of subjects.

    The older boy sits there eyes glazed over through this. Poor kid, he’s INFP like his dad but is only at the very beginning of his journey of figuring himself out. That’s what the INFP’s life is. Anyway, being at the beginning of his journey he hasn’t learned yet how to listen to thinkers.

    But here’s the real point: the visitation years are over; they’re both in college. And they both seek to see their old dad now, and to talk to me all on their own. Thanks, I think, to dinner.

  3. Ann
    Ann says:

    As an ENFP (and enneagram 1 so I crave structure and have very high standards), I am struggling deeply with the demand to help my boys structure their days. Mostly bc it’s hard enough for me to structure my own time to meet my goals. Creating and managing an unschooling program depletes any energy I have.

    So not only am I forced to be logistical and mundane which is withering to an ENFP if there isn’t plenty of balance with exploratory activity. But my own goals are just shelved.

    Plus. Since my standards are so high, I feel constantly that I’m failing.

    And I’m not rich enough to afford to outsource more than I already am.

    It really feels impossible.

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