Obstacles to Unschooling


In last week’s podcast, I asked the question: What’s stopping you from unschooling? And then I pondered some of the obstacles that might be holding people back from giving unschooling a go.

After the podcast was published, a friend asked if I’d transcribe it into some blog posts. So that’s what I’m doing.

Maybe there are some people who have investigated unschooling. They like the idea BUT… What is holding them back? A couple of things held me back when we first started homeschooling, so I’m going to tell you, very briefly, our unschooling story.

This is our 24th year of homeschooling, so we’ve been homeschooling a long time. We started as unschoolers. I knew somebody who was unschooling, and I heard this phrase: love of learning. I wanted my children to love learning too. This sounded the perfect way of homeschooling. I only knew one other way of homeschooling at that time, and that was school at home, and that didn’t sound very exciting. I didn’t see how that would inspire a love of learning in my children.

So we began homeschooling as unschoolers. The only problem was I didn’t really understand the process very well. I thought that a parent had to stand back from a child. She had to give him complete freedom to learn on his own. I thought that a parent couldn’t have a part in her child’s education. She couldn’t offer any suggestions. She had to stay hands off.

I probably cheated a lot in the early days. I slipped in a few books I liked and told my kids about things that I wanted them to know. But one day, I owned up to the fact that I was doing this. And I do remember a day when I thought about Shakespeare. Now I like Shakespeare, and I was thinking: How are my children ever going to stumble across Shakespeare all on their own if I don’t tell them about it? This might be something they’ll really enjoy, and they’ll never hear about it unless I offer them the opportunity to learn about it. If I tell them what Shakespeare is about and share a play, then they might like Shakespeare just like I do.

So one day I decided we wouldn’t be unschoolers any more because this was more important to me than anything else: I didn’t want to unschool if I couldn’t share with my children.

Of course, I got it all wrong. Unschooling is about sharing with our children. What I was doing was strewing, and that is totally acceptable. It’s what we should be doing. Learning ourselves, and enriching our children’s lives with resources. Saying to them, “Hey, would you like to watch a Shakespeare play with me?” That’s all very, very acceptable. But I didn’t realise this at the time. I thought I was cheating so I couldn’t call myself an unschooler.

So we went off down other tracks. I heard about Charlotte Mason, the classical way of doing things, and unit studies. I tried all these methods out on my children, one by one, and sometimes we went round in a circle, and we tried them a second time. Sometimes I enjoyed doing this. It was more about me, I think, than my children. For example: Would I enjoy teaching my children the Charlotte Mason way? I forgot to listen along the way.

We got to the stage where our relationships were suffering. I was making my children do things I thought they should do or things that other people told me they should do. And my children were protesting. They didn’t want to do them, and so we would battle. It got to the point where, one day, I thought: Is it worth it? I could see that we weren’t happy with each other anymore. And so gradually, I threw things out, one by one. I dropped things that were making us particularly unhappy. I stopped doing any particular method of homeschooling. And gradually over time, we found a way of homeschooling that suited all of us.

When anyone else asked us, “What sort of homeschooling do you do? What method do you follow?” I would just say, “We do our own thing.” I’d add, “A bit of this, a bit of that, lots of reading.” That’s all I would say. What I didn’t realise was that our ‘own thing’ was actually unschooling. We’d gone the full circle. We’d come back to unschooling, but this time, I understood the process, I just didn’t know that it was called unschooling,

So that’s a little bit about how we left unschooling and returned to unschooling.

My obstacle to unschooling, what was stopping me from unschooling, was a lack of knowledge. I didn’t understand the process very well. Some things sounded good to me, and some things didn’t. But they didn’t sound good because I didn’t understand completely what unschooling is about.

So I wonder if there are things about unschooling that bother you, It can be a useful exercise to think about what it is that’s stopping you from unschooling. Write it down. It might be that those things which you don’t like about unschooling aren’t really unschooling at all. With a little bit of information, some research, you might discover that they’re not obstacles at all.

Where should we look for information about unschooling? What sources can we trust? In Part 2, I will share some thoughts about this.

This transcription comes from Episode 57 of my podcast: What’s Stopping You From Unschooling?

(Of course, being a transcription of a conversation, this post isn’t as well constructed as it could be.)


The other evening, after dinner, I took a walk with my daughter Sophie. We headed down to the bush with our cameras (and the dog). And along a side trail, under a tree, we discovered an old abandoned car. At first glance, it looked like a huge piece of junk. On closer examination, we discovered it was a wonderful photo opportunity.

Sometimes things aren’t what they first appear to be. We need to look more carefully. If we do this, we might discover an unexpected treasure.

Maybe it’s the same with unschooling. It might not be what we think it is at first glance. If you’re unsure about unschooling, could it be worth taking a closer look?

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  1. Reply

    Thank you Sue for this transcription ! True that grasping what is unschooling is a huge thing, and that we, parents, have to get rid of our beliefs about learning, what is learning, what is not. I'm still working at that !!! For me, and I'm sure it's not a surprise to you, television is something that I can't fully let in free access, even though lots of unschooling families do. I have become much more flexible than I was before, and the limitation is less and less present, but I can't help thinking that screens are somehow harmfull for the brain, and very addictive, especialyy for young people. And I don't see how a young person, being let completely free with something so seductive and tempting, wouldn't dive into it. But I think that TV has effects that we, humans, don't master 100%. That's one of the things I don't let go as much as others do.
    On the other hand, I'm trying to step back and give my son space so he can feel and express his desires and enthousiasm about things. I realised I was doing too much, because I was scared of him not learning, especially any typical schoolish subject such a writing, science…This is the most difficult part for me, but I feel that if I'm doing too much, he simply closes himself and escapes, from me but from learning too !! Feeling the right amount of emptyness and the right amount of presence/strewing is tricky.

    1. Reply


      I'm sorry I haven't answered your comment yet. I will! Looking forward to chatting with you very soon.

    2. Reply


      Maybe it's okay to let go gradually, one thing at a time. It sounds like that's what you're trying to do.

      I haven't done any research into computers and addictions. For my own kids, they have free access to screens but I wouldn't say they are addicted. They know when they have had enough and need to get up and so something else. Also, they have lots of interests they'd miss out on if they sat at their computers all day.

      We watch DVDs and Youtube videos, but we rarely watch TV. It's all screens, I know, but at least when we watch DVDs it's on our own timetable and ad-free!

      Of course, I've been talking about my family and not yours. We know our own kids best and should do what we feel is right regardless of what other people tell us.

      "Feeling the right amount of emptyness and the right amount of presence/strewing is tricky." It sounds like you are listening to your son. You'll get there!

      I transcribed another section of this podcast. I'll post it soon!

    • Anna Vaschina
    • March 16, 2017

    I’m scared of failing. I can see the wisdom in your words and I want to find peace by letting go of the fear. As you know stress is most likely keeping me bound up.
    Why does letting go feel so irresponsible? Can those like me be set free and fine peace in the unschooling lifestyle?

    1. Reply


      Are you scared of your kids failing academically? Perhaps you’re worried they won’t get into university or get jobs? Will they really learn all they need to know? Or is there something else? It can be good to examine our fears closely. Maybe we can read and research and think about how unschooling works in an attempt to alleviate our fears.

      I do believe that kids will learn all they need to know. But they’ll do this on their own timetable and not necessarily ours. If they love learning, they’ll be curious people and they’ll learn what they’re interested in and also, what they feel they need to know. I guess we have to give away our own ideas about the most valuable things to know. Do our kids really need to know all those things in a typical school syllabus? Thinking about our own school experience can help provide answers. I know I wasn’t interested in a lot of the things I had to study at school. I only learnt them in order to pass exams. When the exams were over, I let the knowledge slip from my memory.

      What if our kids need to know certain things so they can apply for a uni course, for example? If a child wants to do the course then she will be motivated to learn the required subject. (Imogen learnt advanced maths and did well with this subject when she was thinking about applying to do a medical degree.) And it’s never too late to learn things. Kids don’t have to learn things ahead of time, ‘just in case’.

      Perhaps we look at our kids and wonder if they are really learning anything because we’re used to seeing learning as a school subject. Unschooling might look more like play or even wasting time or maybe a self-indulgent use of time as they concentrate on their interests. But when we make notes about our kids’ activities and turn what they’re doing into the right educational language, then it is obvious they are learning. So maybe keeping some detailed records would help. Finding the right words to describe an activity can be tricky at first, but it gets easier with practice. Sharing ideas with other unschoolers can help here.

      Observing other unschooling families, reading books and blog posts, chatting with schoolers… might reassure you that unschoolers do learn and they do go on to have successful careers. When kids are encouraged to develop and use their talents, they can do amazing things. I guess, in a way, we can look at it like this: Should we encourage our kids to become who they are meant to be? Or is that too risky? Perhaps we should direct them to a pathway that we feel is more secure and safe. We are more experienced than our kids. Shouldn’t we know better than them? My daughter Sophie would say that no one knows her like she knows herself. She knows what she likes and what she’s good at. She knows what things are important to her and where she wants to go. I can only see things from the outside. Again, I think of my own experiences. I didn’t enjoy the science uni course I did or the job I had afterwards. I went into science because I was told that was the best option for me. I’d have much preferred to have studied English and have become a writer. That’s who I am.

      Unschooling can involve a lot of trust but it gets easier with time. When we see our children learning and growing and thriving, we can relax and enjoy unschooling. Sometimes the hardest part of doing something unconventional is making the decision to begin. And although that might feel scary, perhaps it can also be exciting. Who knows what adventures you will end up having!

      1. Reply

        “Observing other unschooling families, reading books and blog posts, chatting with SCHOOLERS” My spell checker preferred the word schooler to unschooler and changed what I said!

    • Anna
    • March 19, 2017

    Thanks for holding my hand (cyber-ly). 🙂
    Thank you for your response, it’s has been so helpful.

    1. Reply


      You’re welcome! I’m glad to hold your hand whenever you need a friend!

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